0143 – question your assumptions about how life should be lived

This post was written in May 2014.

Lost Illusions

I find myself questioning many of my assumptions about how life should be lived. Lofty principles and ideologies. Aspirations for status, wealth, even legacy. Death is the only certainty, and the heat death of the universe will claim every last remnant of everything we know.

There seem to be no ends that persist enough to justify means that are unpalatable. More simply, all we have is this moment, and if we don’t like the way we’re spending it, there is no redemption or recourse. There is no guarantee of a better tomorrow. Reality is the most incredible gift, but it is completely, cruelly fleeting and arbitrary. We are entitled to nothing. And we should be grateful for this, if only for the fact that a life (or moment) of gratitude is more pleasurable and fulfilling than a life (or moment) of frustration, anxiety, resignation. “I’ll worry about the fleetingness of existence tomorrow” is an appalling cop-out. Each day that I live without ruminating on the end is a day that I lose to indifferent forces that decide my experience for me.

What withstands scrutiny?

Joy, companionship, curiosity. And even those pursuits have to be carefully managed, because there are things in the world that will give you hollow versions of those- cheap highs, disengaged company, unnecessary details. What do I think is best for me? What is the ideal portfolio of lived experiences, of pursuits?

I fall back on familiar truths. Art, music, conversations, food, writing. I’m experiencing discontent because I haven’t been writing for myself for too long. When I don’t prioritize the nourishment of my “soul” (which I’ll define as my collection of beliefs, experiences, the foundational framework that I use to make sense of reality), I get edgy, cranky and I don’t like who I am. That is a problem that I have to address early and head on. Life is too short and precious to live without liking who you are.

So I have to write. Not because I want to achieve something, even though I do. Not to impress others, though that would be nice. I have to do it because it calms me, it soothes that which is restless within me. I have to do it as therapy. It allows me to get on with the business of living, of listening. I understand the importance of being present for your life. To really see and to really listen with all of your mind. Yet I struggle to do that. I never really learnt how to. Nobody taught me, or if they did, I didn’t quite get the message, and I don’t practice it. I have to find a way that works for me. Once I’ve written, I can be calm. I can listen more fully, because I have said my part.

Revisiting healthy headspace

Is this something that I have been made aware of before? It’s surely not the first time I’ve felt this way; I bet I could find entries in my livejournal from my teenage days where I’ve written things that could be interpreted in this light. But no matter. Coming back to this headspace feels healthy. Each time I come here I feel slightly rejuvenated. I feel a little more skilled, a little more aware. Is this the most important thing I have to say with my life? Maybe, maybe not. It’s the most important thing I have to say at this moment, and that is enough for me.

Goals as escapism

I have all these goals that I keep in my life because they helped me give a semblance of structure to my identity. I’m a guy who wants to write a million words, a guy who wants to read a thousand books and watch a hundred good movies. It’s a form of escapism- the goals don’t exist to be fulfilled, they exist to fill a vacuum. I wouldn’t know what to do if I actually caught what I say I’m chasing. I almost don’t want to find out. I’ll say that I do, but my actions say something else about what my priorities are.

My real priorities are comfort, safety and pleasure. I do what is easy, comfortable and pleasurable because I want life to be easy, comfortable and pleasurable. It doesn’t take a genius to see that that’s faulty logic. An easy life is hard work. Safety requires busting your ass. Pleasure follows exertion. So the end result is suboptimal. Life gets you down if you pursue what is immediate.

So now I come to a contradiction. I shouldn’t use grand schemes and plans to “guide” my life, because they end up becoming wall decorations, bullshit storytelling devices. Ideally, with mindfulness, questioning and focus they become more useful than that- the story gets lived rather than fantasized about. (Though you do have to ask if there’s anything wrong with enjoying a bullshit-fantasy-story. We all have our illusions.)

But for this moment let’s assume the grand schemes hurt more than help, at least in the sense that they don’t seem to guide behaviour as much as I’d like.

Committing to the random walk

On the flipside of grand scheming is “living in the moment”. The problem with that for me is that I’m very boring in the moment. I check Facebook and Reddit in the moment. Be yourself… unless you’re an Internet slob? I found myself agreeing with Nassim Taleb when he argued that the best writing is rarely planned. What you should do is decide on advance that you’re not going to plan to achieve anything in a given day. Just take a random walk of sorts. And if something comes to mind then you just act on that. When I reflect on the stuff I’ve done that in proud of, a lot of it follows that pattern. The trick is to commit to the random walk. That’s the hard part, largely because we’ve been so conditioned to be wary of such “deep idleness”. So we make up busywork and little menial tasks and whatever else we occupy ourselves with.

Still… I haven’t quite found a perfect or near-perfect rhythm that works for me for more than a few days, weeks, months. I like the idea of building a good habit that lasts decades. The only things that have stuck with me are heavy internet usage (Facebook, Reddit, Quora, Twitter) and smoking. I haven’t been able to sustain a fitness habit or a reading habit or a writing habit and I want to. I think/know that I have to start with something small, and do it because I love it rather than because I feel like I need to commit to it (hence the earlier bit about writing for pleasure, joy and presence). And I need to reward myself to make the habit stick.

Dark Playground / “Just for doin’ life!”

The problem is that I reward myself for no good reason- “just for doing life” (see also waitbutwhy.com’s Dark Playground; I’ve spent most of my life in the Dark Playground and in Mixed Feelings Park when I ought to be in Flow). So it becomes harder to establish new habit/reward patterns. I suppose I just need to remind myself of how good it feels, and how much better it is than being in the Dark Playground. Or maybe I should remind myself of how shitty it would be to grow old and regret whatever it is I’m messing up now. Or maybe I should systematically try a different action/reward system every two weeks and track how I feel, and what my output is. Who knows. I probably shouldn’t overcomplicate this- I’m writing this now primarily to keep a record as a reminder of how I have a tendency to unnecessarily overcomplicate things.

Focus / away from mindlessness

I know I have to pick one thing and do it well. If nothing else that is what I know, after the initial overcomplication I know that I have to pick one thing and let everything else sorta take second priority. I’m guessing it should probably be meditation. And/or early sleep. Or I just need to write for myself more regularly. Somehow the last one appeals to me the most even though it has the least clear benefit. I feel like if I get the shit out of my head, things would move more smoothly. If I clarify where I am with my life’s work as a writer, I should be able to breathe easier and focus better on my work.

But is that true or am I bullshitting myself so I can do sexy work instead of more important shlep work? Hard to say. That said, I indulge in mindless nonsense all the time. Surely some sexy work as a stepping stone away from mindless indulgence is a tolerable step. And anyway fuck the world, I don’t owe it anything. As long as I stay on top of my work responsibilities (pays the bills) and keep my health and marriage in order, I should be able to survive some minor experimentation.

So okay, writing. What do I need to do? First thing is to get back on track with the vomit summaries- I was at 70 or something. I need to summarize the rest of that shit and keep moving forward. I also need to demarcate the early and current ages of my blog. Ranty teenager days- when I was bitching about government and everything else, calling people names from the safety of my keyboard. Clarify my beliefs and desires.


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