If you Awaken from this illusion. and you understand that Black implies White, Self implies Other, Life implies Death, or shall I say, Death implies Life. You can feel Yourself Not as a Stranger in the World. Not as something here on Probation. Not as something that has arrived here by Fluke. But you can feel your own Existence as absolutely Fundamental.
A spiritual monologue delivered by the late British writer and philosopher, Alan Watts, with seemingly no connection to the title of this article.
I leave it to you to interpret the connection once you have finished contemplating the subtext of the reading that follows, as it is deeply interwoven into the message.
If you don't mind, let me start briefly with my background.
Source: Qualia Foundation; Village of Can Tho, a city in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.
I spent the first six years of my life on a rice farm not far from where the above fishing village of Can Tho stands in Vietnam's Mekong Delta region, about a 4-hour drive southwest from Vietnam's capital of Ho Chi Ming City (formerly Saigon).
When I turned seven, my family immigrated to America and settled in the Southern California community of Little Saigon. We only had the opportunity to immigrate because my Dad was a former fighter pilot for the American forces during the Vietnam War. I am extremely grateful to this very day that an American veteran, a friend of my Dad, graciously sponsored my family for immigration.
Source: Ben Pfeifer; Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. My Dad passed away when I was a senior in high school — it was devastating for my younger brother — but as the older brother, I remained resilient and was able to secure a full scholarship to attend Berkeley (the only school I could afford with my family's income).
Getting on and off the Hedonic Treadmill
It was after university that I got stuck on the trap of climbing the corporate ladder–one of many Hedonic Treadmills, which I believe is the fundamental, root cause of why many people lack happiness and never reach their full potential or self-actualization.
The rationale behind the Hedonic Treadmill is simple.
We humans are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable; after working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest in the object of our desire. Rather than feeling satisfied, we feel a bit bored, and in response to this boredom, we go on to form new, even grander desires.
Most people get stuck on a trap of chasing after ever-increasing improvements in their careers and social status (getting on the treadmill). This is not a bad thing in itself (it actually can be quite good for society if these individuals give back), but the problem arises when these individuals are unable to get off the Hedonic Treadmill.
Source: Qualia Foundation; The Hedonic Treadmill Trap to Achieving and Happiness.
Each new promotion, every additional million in their bank accounts, another lavish vacation in Europe, these "successful" individuals do experience a temporary joy but always come back to their neutral state between misery and happiness.
The source of their unhappiness is clear for an outside observer, yet for these individuals, they are clearly on "top of their game" and everyone else is "jealous of their successes".
A comfortable life running constantly at 15 miles an hour, trapped on this Hedonic Treadmill, until the utility company turns off the power (death).
Stoicism as a Life Philosophy
But I will not focus on something that is out of our control and life circumstances, but something that is completely within our control, which leads us to Stoicism. Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy originating in Greece with Zeno of Citium in early 3rd century BC and reaching its heights in popularity with the Romans through Marcus Aurelius in the early 1st century AD. According to Stoic teachings, as social beings, the path to eudaimonia (Greek for happiness) for humans is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain, by using one's mind to understand the world and to do one's part in nature's plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly.
Source: Qualia Foundation; Marcus Aurelius is considered the most influential Stoic.
Without a coherent philosophy of life, there is a real danger that you will mislive—that despite all your activity, despite all the pleasant diversions you might have enjoyed while alive, despite all the wealth, power and fame you may have accumulated during life, you will end up living an unfruitful life that has not made a difference for society.
So why is it so hard for modern-day humans, with all our technological advances and achievements, to be so unhappy, on average, especially with our work-life balance?
The Limbic System
I believe the answer is biological in nature, and it stems from our limbic system.
The limbic brain, also known as our “old brain” or paleomammalian cortex, is a common brain structure across mammals, arguably the most intelligent class of creatures on earth. The limbic brain is a really old piece of human hardware that was developed early in our evolution, well before our "prefrontal cortex" - which is responsible for complex cognitive functions including language.
Within the limbic brain, there are interesting structures like the hippocampus (responsible for memory) and the pineal gland - which René Descartes famously referred to us as the "Source of the Soul."
However, to understand what's causing our modern-day unhappiness, we must instead dive into the workings of the Amygdala, one of two innocuously almond-shaped glands located deep within our brains.
What is relevant is that the amygdala is the primary structure of the brain responsible for our "fight or flight" response. Anxiety and panic attacks can occur when the amygdala senses environmental stressors that stimulate fight or flight response.
Source: Qualia Foundation; The Amygdala is responsible for our "Fight or Flight" response.
Noting that the amygdala was developed during our evolution as "hunters and gatherers", it's usefulness in modern-day society is arguably counterproductive. Let me explain.
One can think of the Amygdala as the source of the Human Ego, which I believe is the Enemy we must overcome in order to achieve Happiness and Success in Life, with the definition of "success" being a separate discussion in itself.
Ego is the Enemy — Overcoming Yourself
I refer to the Ego here not in the Freudian sense of the Ego (along with the Id and Super-Ego), but in the popular sense of the Ego.
That is Ego in the sense of being over-confident when one lacks knowledge (arrogance) and the sole pursuit of gratification from vanity (narcissism). Conversely, being overly harsh on yourself in failures, which often leads to depressive states, is the Ego acting in disguise.
Thus, our Ego is the Enemy.
Ego is the Enemy to your ability to get out of your comfort zone, to take calculated risks to get to your next level within your career, business ventures, and relationships.
Ego is the Enemy to your ability to recover quickly from failures and depression to realize that Life is Beautiful and however grand you believe your current problems are, they are minuscule in the grand scheme of the Universe.
How does one overcome this Enemy that is a core part of who we are as Humans?
We can't completely.
But you can control it through the practice of Meditation.
Source: Qualia Foundation; Meditation is the Key to Happiness and Success in Life.
As a Transcendental Meditation teacher, which I learned after leaving my corporate life of a decade on Wall Street, I believe Meditation is the Key to Happiness and Success in Life.
The simple practice of sitting still, not asleep but completely alert and attuned to oneself — where time often ceases to exist (at the deepest levels of transcendental meditation) —provides such a refresh of one's life that it changes your outlook on what really matters.
Practiced consistently, meditation allows anyone to suppress the counterproductive urges of the Ego, to accept our circumstances and deal with them in the most effective manner.
Be Humble in your Aspirations, Gracious in your Successes, and Resilient in your Failures.
These simple three lines capture my Philosophy of Life, which has been gleaned through a combination of my background, life experience, Stoicism, and transcendental meditation.
I hope you can start on your journey to Happiness and Self-Actualization today.
All it takes is simply sitting down and closing your eyes.
By Andrew Vo
Director of Qualia Foundation
About Qualia Foundation
Founded in New York in 2020 at the heights of the Covid-19 pandemic to address the rapidly growing, mental health problem, we believe in living a life full of joy, gratitude, and free of judgment.
These feelings inform and guide our core teachings and practices at the Qualia Foundation, as we focus on helping our Members better connect to themselves and their surroundings. We offer a variety of educational seminars, remote workshops, retreats, and more to help all of our Members achieve healthier bodies and minds.
The mission of the Qualia Foundation is to empower every human being with the knowledge to realize their ultimate potential from within.