One conversation involved one person telling another that they had 75,000 air points, and that they could use these to “escape from here for a while.” The other person made some suggestions of locations to escape to.
The second conversation was around a dinner table in which one person began a new turn in the conversation with a statement something like, ‘this place has very little art or culture. You have to go to Sydney to get good experiences.’ A couple of those around the table took up this refrain, agreeing with the first person.
When I thought about these two conversations, I found some sadness within me. In each case, those speaking were expressing a dissatisfaction with where they are. They wanted to escape here and obtain a good experience somewhere else.
Surely, such thinking displays a malaise with life.
Why should this be? What is it about our everyday life, or where abouts on this planet we are, that induces this malaise?
Over the centuries, philosophers, psychologists, spiritual teachers, and others have attempted to answer these, and similar, questions. Meantime, others have attempted to exploit and promote this malaise.
In 1967 the French philosopher, filmmaker, and founding member of the Situationists International, Guy Debord published his classic treatise The Society of the Spectacle.1 The article is a series of 221 short aphorisms critiquing the spectacle that modern life had become.
Debord’s first aphorism summed up the basic reason for modern life’s malaise. ‘In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.’
Simply put, Debord’s argument is that instead of being active participants in life, humans were becoming mere observers. Debord contends that this process by which we become less participants (and more spectators) leads to inauthenticity, so much so that our ability to think critically is impaired. Thus, we become incapable of even recognising this de-humanisation of life.
It is little wonder that Debord made this claim, when during the forty years prior to Debord’s article, a number of thinkers were actively promoting this shift towards humans as simply spectators, observers, and consumers.
One of the leading proponents was Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and known as the father of public relations. In the early part of the 20th century, Bernays and his cohorts utilised the ideas of his uncle (Freud) and set out to turn Americans into consumers. One of Bernays’ business partners, Paul Mazur, insisted that, ‘People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality. Man’s (sic) desires must overshadow his needs.’2
Bernays went on to become a leading light of this propaganda,3 first coming to prominence by manipulating women to take up smoking.
As Guy Debord so well articulated, Bernays and others of the new public relations ilk, managed to severely undercut the sense of participation in life and replace it with a spectatorship.
Almost a hundred years after Bernays, and more than fifty years after Debord, conversations seeking escape and a desire for good experiences are commonplace.
The malaise of modern life has set in, has become commonplace, and we hardly even question it.
But, this malaise, or dissatisfaction is not new. Bernays, in using the ideas of his uncle, only manipulated it and encouraged it.
Two thousand five hundred years ago the Buddha recognised malaise. In fact, the existence of malaise is the core of the first of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. In English, the First Noble Truth is often translated as ‘There is suffering.’
Suffering however, is an insufficient, and obscuring, term. The Pali language (the language of early Buddhism) uses the term dukkha which more completely suggests not only suffering, but also unease, discontent, unsatisfactoriness, discomfort, unpleasant, or pain. With respect to the title of this blog it could be translated as malaise.
It is worth unpacking the concept of dukkha a little further. Imagine you are eating something that you really really like (e.g., ice cream, chocolate, or whatever is your food of choice.) Now imagine eating more of it, then even more. In fact, keep on eating it. No matter how much you enjoy that food, there will come a time when you feel uncomfortable, and you don’t want to eat anymore. You may even feel sick just looking at the ice cream, chocolate, or whatever. This is dukkha at work.
And that too is dukkha in our modern life.
We are dissatisfied and uncomfortable with where we are and what we are doing. We want to escape. We want to experience something else, somewhere else.
Buddha, however, did not just identify dukkha, he also went on to explain (2nd Nobel Truth) its causes: aversion and craving. We hear both of these in the conversations. We hear the aversion in wanting to escape. We hear craving in the desire for good experiences.
Furthermore, in the 3rd Noble Truth, Buddha noted that it was possible to overcome dukkha and to let go of aversion and craving. His 4th Noble Truth outlined the path towards letting go, via what is known as the Noble Eightfold Path.
This blog will not describe the eight aspects of this path (there are many ways to find out about them), except to note that each of them are related towards one’s inner journey, rather than focussed outwards.
Hence, the malaise of modern life begins with our aversion for the here and now and our inner experience, and with our craving for experiences elsewhere and outside of ourselves.
We need not succumb to being cast as simple spectators, observers, or consumers.
1. French edition published by Buchet-Castel in 1967. The English edition was published in 1970 by Black & Red.
2. Cited in Jeremy Lent, The Patterning Instict, Prometheus Books, Lanham, Maryland, 2017.
3. The word propaganda was transformed by Bernays into public relations. He wrote: ‘When I came back to the United States, I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace. And "propaganda" got to be a bad word because of the Germans using it, so what I did was to try and find some other words, so we found the word "counsellor of public relations".’