â€œThe greatest and most important problems of life are all in a certain sense insoluble. They can never be solved, but only outgrown.â€? Carl Jung
Frustration, Friction and the Quest for Ease (a synopsis of audio talk from July 1, 2018) by Dr. Susan Nettleton
Human problems and difficulties of all sorts lead people to seek the spiritual life. Even when we have come to some clarity and peace about what we believe spiritually, and manage to integrate our understanding comfortably into daily life, if/when that comfortable, stable life gets derailed, our spiritual life reaches a turning point. Spirituality can be forgotten in a flood of emotions and activity that may include feelings of anger and betrayal by God. In time, we may feel inwardly pushed to come into some new, deepening understanding, bringing with it another level of commitment to our spiritual life. In general, there is a relationship between human difficulty and spirituality when the spiritual becomes the solution. One the other hand, there are situations when ideas and expectations about the spiritual life and religion are not the solution, but rather are themselves a source of human difficulty. This morning I am spotlighting frustration and friction as an aspect of the human condition. I am using the terms in a certain context where they go together, because they both point to the experience of resistance to movement. Frustration is the response we have to being blocked in a goal, when someone or something (including an inner something) is resistant, opposing our will, our intent, in a way that hinders what we want to achieve or experience. Frustration is a state of tension, the push to move toward the goal or experience, while something or someone else pushes back or stands in the way, refusing to cooperate. Friction is a physics term describing the force of resistance in the relative motion of surfaces as they slide or roll against each other. This can refer to solid surfaces, fluid layers, and elements sliding against each other, even at the atomic level. The resistance to the movement is actually believed to be an attracting force, the electromagnetic or sometimes chemical forces of particles on the surfaces that are pulled together (toward adherence) even as the movement is sliding/pushing/pulling the surfaces apart. We also use the word friction to describe a certain kind of conflict between people when their interactions are marked by competing ideas, or values. Both frustration and friction are natural processes in the world that have beneficial as well as detrimental effects. And even though these are not terms that are commonly used in spiritual matters, they are in fact driving forces in life where some spiritual perspective is useful. In nature, ultimately there is no environment completely free of friction because the tiniest particles of matter, believed to be present even in deep space, hold potential for interaction. Looking at this from the theory that friction is a result of the attracting
tendencies of particles, friction can be seen, at least metaphorically, as one of the means of manifestation (i.e., part of the way the world comes to be). It is certainly an aspect of physical life that mankind has made use of for centuries. We discovered that rubbing two sticks together creates kinetic energy that is dissipated as heat that can spark a fire. We discovered the value of friction as traction—necessary for movement on land. Traction makes walking possible, as well as a wheel to roll and brakes to stop the rolling. From the usefulness of friction, humanity developed carts, trains, cars, gears and other machinery. On the other hand, friction is wearing, it is a force that over-time causes damage and breakdown. Tires breakdown; roads breakdown, all mechanical moving parts breakdown eventually from the very force that makes them useful, producing what I call “an orange barrel world”—a world of obstacles, delays, disruption and unexpected detours, which provoke frustration. To keep life going on an even keel-I am not talking progress, just maintenance of the status quo--we must continually invest time, money, knowledge, and energy into repair and upkeep. Energy is inevitably lost to dissipation and friction.* The physical world does decay—humans included, as our bones, our teeth and joints and more are subject to the wear and tear force of friction. This basic principle of life and its consequences are sources of frustration that can trigger aggression and anger. Acute frustration is a stress reaction that releases adrenaline and other neurochemicals, triggering impulsive and aggressive behavior in some people. We see that clearly in road rage with traffic, amplified by construction and stalled cars. Mechanical breakdown that disrupts the conveniences of modern life are frustrating events. I can testify; my kitchen faucet just broke. While I was rinsing something in the sink, I hit the spray function on the top of the spigot and the whole spray head broke off spewing water everywhere, across the kitchen, dousing everything on the counter, the floor, onto the walls of the dining area. Being a die-hard do-ityourself maintenance person, I made a superficial attempt at repair. But other plumbing failures have given me some awareness of the limits of my skills and my DIY frustration, as well as experience of the frustration of having no functional kitchen sink, so I gave in and called a plumber. When the plumber came I told him, “Just tell me it was old and was ready to break, that it wasn’t that I hit it that hard.” He just laughed and reassured me. But I realize now that over time I was pressing that consistently annoying part in a way that put stress on the arm, not paying attention to the mechanics. Now I am more conscious. Automation has brought a convenience that we have come to rely on, but there needs to be room in your psyche for the reality that such reliance means we will inevitably be inconvenienced at times. There are various techniques for defusing the immediate tension of frustration. Most of you here (at the church) know the basic steps for managing stress reactions: Muscle relaxation. Focus on task, not feelings. Watch your breathing. Find that inner place that is your centering when you meditate. Watch your thought processes; let them move to self-calming, self-reassurance: “It’s not the worst that could happen; we all encounter obstacles.” We lose energy in this process of movement and friction; don’t make it more than necessary. We can learn to calm ourselves in times of inconvenience, but there are more factors involved here, including
our deeper expectations. The British tale of King Canuut from the 12th Century portrays the King as the deeply religious ruler of Denmark, England, Norway and Scotland. One day he had his chair set out on the edge of the shore as the tide began to rise. He announced to the sea that it was part of his dominion and commanded it to not rise up on his land. The waves continued without any recognition of the King, soaking his feet and legs, rising higher and higher up the shore. The King eventually moved away, humbly decreeing that all should realize the power of kings is vain and trivial. Only God who commanded the heaven, earth and sea to obey natural laws was worthy to be called King. Much of our frustration in life arises from our demand, consciously or otherwise, to force the waves of life to be other than what they are; to control and fight, rather than adjust and adapt, by learning to work with life as it is. The psychological understanding of frustration and aggression is summed up in the Frustration-Aggression Displacement theory, proposed and revised over the years by various psychologists in mid 20th century. The basic tenants are that frustration produces a response that may or may not be aggressive, but all aggression includes the element of frustration, along with other factors. While frustration arises when a goal/response is blocked, aggression is an act whose goal/response is to cause injury. When the source of the frustration cannot be challenged (because it is too threatening in one way or another) aggression is displaced onto an innocent target. If your day accumulates more and more frustration at work, but to act out your aggression causes the greater threat of losing your job, then aggression is suppressed until there is a seemingly safer target—you go home and take it out on a wall, or a pet, or your family. Neurologically, frustration and aggression stimulate the same area of the brain that is believed to be our “threat response” system. Not all frustration calls for an aggressive response; the brain sorts through various factors, but the degree of perceived danger is the trigger. The need then to “control the waves”, is actually a disguised self-protection instinct that can erupt even when there is little actual threat. Some people are more susceptible, neurologically, to more intense responses to threat. Some do not respond aggressively to frustration and that is correlated with personal, moral and educational background. We can look at the phenomenal figures of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. as examples who not only mastered their aggression but were able to inspire and train others in non-violence. Frustration, like friction, is an aspect of life and its adaptive usefulness extends beyond self-protective aggression to our process of evaluating choices and alternatives. If in the quest for food, an animal encounters a threat, things are quickly sized up to determine whether or not to leave and search elsewhere. We can give up if we see that we are not going to get what we want. We can let go, move on to something more attainable that meets our needs, another watering hole, another feeding ground, another relationship, another goal. If the price is too high, it’s taking too long, there are too many obstacles, we weigh our choices and try another route. With my broken faucet, my resistance to the aggravation of fixing it myself was far greater than the resistance to reaching out to a plumber and paying his fee. I chose the plumber. Yet another response to frustration is to keep the goal, but look for new ways to achieve it. You change the game plan. This is the point where you experiment, explore, discover.
Keep the goal, throw out the obstacle along with the plan by taking what Jung called, “The detour.” An obstacle on the ground is no longer an obstacle if you fly over it, or wander a circuitous path far away from it, arriving eventually where you intended all along. Creative and adventurous, it can be the most rewarding part of frustration. There’s an interesting study that was published in 2015, looking at behavior in late childhood as a predictor of success.** Researchers followed 700 children between ages 8-12 for 40 years. Children were initially evaluated on personality traits including entitlement and academic conscientiousness, then examined for the same traits 40 years later. The researchers compared which personality traits were most common in the children who grew up to be the most successful, defined as highest educational achievement and earned income: Children who frequently broke the rules, defied their parents and were responsible students. They showed childhood states of stubbornness, while at the same time did not abandon the necessary requirements for school. They stayed with problems longer than the others (thus finding answers!), stuck with what they knew to be true (less likely to give into peer pressure) and were more likely to advocate for themselves. One personality trait of successful business women and men is the ability to stay stubborn (strong-willed) in the face of apparent defeat. So it is a kind of stick-to-it-ness rather than “being stuck.” Measuring success in terms of income and achievement, obviously speaks to material values, rather than spiritual values. Still, persistence can pay off, but not when stubbornness means a refusal to change selffrustrating ways of doing things. These kids stuck with their goals, including school, while being defiant rule-breakers. The creative abandonment of familiar techniques, while keeping the focus on the goal, gives you both the grounding of intent and the freedom of what I call transcendence—you go beyond your own limited ideas of how to get there. Frustration drives us to that point. There are some that say this is really the way of Divine creativity, of bring new forms into being by instilling in the human makeup this tense tenaciousness to fulfill a goal. With a building energy of frustration, we gain the courage and momentum to throw out our limited thinking and the reassurance of familiar ways of doing things—not just ways—but people, places, comforts—to seek solutions in unchartered territory. And so the world itself is grown. Some spiritual traditions have made use of this in practice. Siddhartha, in his spiritual journey, practiced a specific form of meditation focusing on the ultimate nature of all phenomena in a place near Bodh Gaya in India. After six years, feeling he was close to a breakthrough, he walked to Bodh Gaya, sat under the Bodhi Tree and vowed not to rise from meditation until he had attained perfect enlightenment. The Chief Mara or demon arrived to disturb the meditation with all sorts of visions, some terrifying, some seductive. But such obstacles can actually intensify concentration if you have that element of stubbornness and defiance, which is what happened. Mara vanished, the meditation continued until the final veil of ignorance dissolved. This is not unlike the story of Christ in the desert after 40 days and nights of fasting. Chances are, when Satan appeared with his taunting temptations urging Jesus to use his powers to save himself, Jesus was pretty frustrated. He stubbornly refused to back down from the intent of self-abandonment and total surrender to the will of God. Following that ordeal, he entered a whole new phase of ministry. So in a sense, these experiences of spiritual
obstacles are both preparation and turning-points. Confronting obstacles, coping with life’s friction and the energy of frustration give us the opportunity to back down, and redirect ourselves, or re-affirm our intent and find a creative way to it. If we fail to do that we can do injury, if not to others, then to ourselves. I’ve largely talked about external obstacles, but everything I have said applies to the internal obstacles as well, in other words, the battle we have with ourselves over what we would do, but don’t. Who we could be, but won’t. The changes we intend, but never make. Acute frustration can be a fleeting thing, but if we hang on to it, without any resolution, then it begins to feed the internal story of our life with negativity and gnawing dissatisfaction. Life becomes a story of one disappointment after another, layered on top of the old unfulfilled need or unresolved problem which we confront in many different ways over and over again. Frustration is related to anger but it is also related to depression and anxiety. Its intensity is related to how essential we feel the goal or need is to us. So this sad, resentful, disappointing life, built of layers of reinforcing experience, hardens. This is the bitter heart that can no longer find its way to giving; so how can it receive the fulfillment it is seeking? In not giving, we withhold our smile, support, encouragement, recognition and our forgiveness. In such a hardened state, although it doesn’t seem like it at all, we have become our own obstacle. “The biggest problem in the world could have been solved when it was small.” Lao Tzu One way to prevent such a state of hardened frustration is to follow the adage to take care of the small problem before it becomes big. In City Management there is a theory known as the "Broken Window Theory.” A property with one unrepaired broken window over time, begins to give the building and its surroundings the air of abandonment. No one seems to care about it, so another window gets broken. Then people begin to litter, why bother cleaning up? Then other trespasses begin, graffiti, more serious damage, to a point where it’s too expensive or hopeless to fix it, clean it all up, and it truly becomes an abandoned building as the seed of an abandoned neighborhood. Maintenance and upkeep are part of the burden of ownership, and the burden of relationship and health, including mental and spiritual health. Paying attention to what frustrates you and how you handle it can prevent a bitter heart. It’s easier to adjust your perspective and let things go, before your frustration dries to concrete. Managing frustrating experiences includes the acceptance of the full parameters of life, its inevitable uncertainty and obstacles, and competing demands for our attention and efforts which run counter to the expectation that life should be, is supposed to be, problem free--the myth of Easy Street: a situation with no worries, defined by wealth and ease. *** We live in a natural tension between our human capacity and visionary drive for improvement of tomorrow and the necessary acceptance of the limitations of today. Frustration is part of the natural solution that motivates us to move from today to something—I’ll avoid the word “better”—something more life enhancing, more satisfying. But we compound this natural frustration with the overlay of promises of Easy Street and when it is not forthcoming, we feel cheated. In our highly complex
society, convenience has become a very high value. Offers to sell us easy and convenient solutions abound, including in the spiritual marketplace, that often “overpromise and under-deliver.” Cultivating the spiritual life does not mean instant ease and fulfillment, but a change of perspective, often gradual, that lightens the burdens of life, offers new resiliency and adaptability, and gives daily life fresh meaning. But these require new skills that are never instantaneous. In the world of Mental Health, we have accumulated knowledge of neurohormones/transmitters, that have evolved as part of our adaptive mechanisms. We have isolated hormones such as dopamine, serotonin and more, which serve critical functions to facilitate our drive for fulfillment and reward as well as caring relationship and survival from injury and pain, primarily by elevating mood. These are exquisitely balanced, interactive systems that are activated when needed and shut off when not. Yet culturally, we are sold the myth that is possible and desirable to have our feelings of excitement and pleasure continuously and avoid frustration, boredom, disappointment, discomfort and the pain of loss. When used judiciously, the pharmacological ability to regulate these neurosystems in those people with mental illness, acute pain and trauma is healing and even life-saving. But the tendency to expand and market such intervention to “everyday life”, ignoring the disruption of the natural processes of the body, plays a critical role in addiction and makes us culturally that much more susceptible to the false promises of an easy way to the life of ease, overlaying natural frustration with a harmful intensity. Legally or illegally, we can mask frustration with the things that stimulate the high’s and never follow through with the healthier tasks of facing obstacles and dissatisfaction, and doing what needs to be done to move forward. “Easy is right. Begin right And you are easy. Continue easy and you are right. The right way to go easy Is to forget the right way And forget that the going is easy.” Chuang Tzu From Taoism, we have the idea of easy being linked with right: “Easy is right.” To find an easy way, Chuang Tzu directs us to begin right. Here he is referring to being in accord with the movement of life, i.e., an alignment, in agreement with the Tao, a naturalness that doesn’t add a conflicted attitude to the friction inherent in movement. Such naturalness in the oneness of the Tao, is inclusive. Rightness, then, is not just technique but is working with the grain of things, not against the grain. It always brings to my mind an Hasidic story, of Rabbi Moshe**** and the tailor who was tasked with making an expensive dress for a high ranking officer. When the dress turns out too tight, he is thrown out of the house in disgrace. He is very afraid that he will lose all his high class, wealthy customers once word gets around, so he begs for advice from Rabbi Moshe. The Rabbi tells him to go back to the woman and offer to remake the dress. Then go home, rip out the seams, and re-sow the pieces together again, just as they had been. This is a very confusing plan, but in faith he does it, now quite humbled and
at the same time intensely focused. He is now aware of the implications, not just for himself, but for his customers. And the dress fits perfectly. Beginning right includes attitude and attentiveness. But Chuang Tzu also tells us “the right way to go easy is to forget the right way, and forget the going is easy.” At this point, he is speaking of how to not get locked in to rigid technique and self-consciousness. We are now in the living process of doing, absorbed in action, not outside it judging it, not reflecting on its outcome—positive or negative. In another context, when a member of his congregation complained that his terrible circumstances were constant obstacles to his spiritual practice of study and prayer, Rabbi Moshe commented, “In this day and age, the greatest devotion, greater than learning and praying, consists in accepting the world exactly as it happens to be.” In acceptance as devotion, not as resignation, we take in a totality of what the world includes that encompasses our smaller world. Life has inherent friction and frustration as part of its totality, not as a personal affront to you. This is the beginning of alignment with life, with the spiritual, with God, with the Tao, however you name it. This is not you trying to fix your life from outside it through personal force, but the opening to fullness from within that will express in a new way. To me, Rabbi Moshe is giving the same advice that he gave to the tailor, and the same that we have from Chuang Tzu: Begin right. _____________________________________________________________________ Notes: *The measure of this inevitable loss of energy (entropy) is defined in the second law of thermodynamics: Entropy increases as matter and energy in the universe “degrade to an ultimate state of inert uniformity”. Entropy is often loosely associated with the degree of decay of order, which metaphorically, can extend beyond the mechanical world to include social and cultural institutions. **Toward a Unifying Perspective on Personality Pathology Across the Life Span Jennifer L. Tackett, Kathrin Herzhoff, Steve Balsis, Luke Cooper,Developmental Psychopathology First published: 10 February 2016 ***Easy Street is an American phrase probably coined in the late 1800’s, and appeared in a 1902 novel called, "It's Up to You” where a prosperous character in the book is described as “easily walking up and down Easy Street.” ****Rabbi Moshe stories are from “Tales of the Hasidim, Vol. 2: The Later Masters by Martin Buber (Author), Olga Marx (Translator), 1987.