The Triumph of Tranquility

NYC

New York City.  A symbol of human achievement.  Countless busy souls have spent their lives here, crafting.  Building the engines that make the world work

If I were to ask you what your idea of bliss is, what would you say?

I asked a few people, and the answers tended to fall into a few categories:  financial windfall, tropical relocation, and sex with an ideal partner.  They all make a kind of sense we can understand.  Who wouldn’t like to have these?  But for the most part, when asked what bliss meant to them, folks presented a version of inactivity.  Being someplace special or having some kind of amenity at their disposal was wrapped up in it, but they mostly just want to relax.  To sit in place in the sun on the beach as the tide rolls out.  To recline in an old chair by the fire and read a good book.  To leave work so they can travel overseas and just see things.  No labor, no projects, no purpose except to enjoy.

But for me, pursuit of a purpose and enjoyment are inextricable.  My idea of bliss is to choose a thing that I want to work on and accomplish, and to be able to do it, unfettered by responsibilities that interrupt and steal time.  The idea of total inactivity does not appeal to me, except after a long day of work.  Doing nothing, experience has told me, is actually awful.

Nest

This empty bird’s nest at my camp in the Adirondacks is also a labor, but one to create a space for peaceful safety.  A toil to escape toil.

I have been wrapped up in the race of purpose my whole life.  Every day, finding the motivation to pursue, pursue, pursue.  Imagine the great things I can do, then fall in love with the work of doing them.  Then, exult in the accomplishment by imagining the next thing.  I have disconnected with the part of me that slows down and finds solace of any kind in relaxation for the sake of relaxation.  Relaxation that is not just a relief from some labor of some kind, but is an intentional act.  An occupation of itself.

And I have chosen this.  But I did not know how deeply this disconnect was affecting me until recently in my life.  Until I forced myself to experience the other side of the coin.  As it turned out, doing this was extraordinarily difficult.  But the rewards are many.  I am still trying to grasp the triumph of tranquility, the purpose-that-is-unpurpose.  And it is not bliss, at least not to me.   But it is valuable, for a different reason.  It is a widening of one’s cumulative intellect:  There are whole worlds of perception and understanding within lengthy, peaceful repose that are invisible to the eternally goal-driven mind.

If you’d like to read about how I came to this understanding, and see some pictures of the setting for the experience, click here.

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Grok Death to Grasp Life, Part 5

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Well, here it is, the last segment on this topic.

Thanks for visiting today and for reading the prior parts under this title, if you have.  Here’s some handy links to the prior segments:  1, 2, 3, 4

Now, let’s go back to the subject of your own death to sum up all this discussion and make a final claim.

Your final end is the end of your goals. They are contained within your existence, and their effect outside of your existence is the province of other living valuers now as it was when you initiated it. All your plans, dreams, and history are not only finished but also suddenly meaningless to you. All things are meaningless to you after your death, assuming you do not adhere to the idea of an afterlife that somehow predicates off of what you have done during your life (though that perspective also is applicable to the premise posited here). Your values, as they were, are done. They were going to be that way when you died, always. There was never a moment when your machinations were slated to extend in significance beyond the end of your life.  This is the claim I’ve made in the prior segments under this title.

Does this mean that you should hole up your values and only think about yourself? Absolutely not. Does it mean that the work you have done to “improve the world” is pointless? No, not at all. It means that all the meaning and significance in those goals was always wholly contained in yourself. Yes, other people may value it after you’re gone. Yes, that meant a lot to you while you were alive. But no, you weren’t being a part of something bigger than yourself. No, you weren’t extending the reach of your moral evaluation and influence beyond yourself (and what an arrogant thing to attempt). You did what you thought was right, and you felt satisfaction at the way it improved (in your estimation) life for others. Take the credit. You succeeded. You did not serve a greater good. You served a good that was in you. YOU were the good. And you were so great that others felt it too.

Here’s where we take what’s been covered and find a way to apply it to your life. And I could try to explain what this means to me, how I’ve tried to cope with it. The way I try to look at everything I ever experience in the context of myself only, and stop trying to attach to it significance that resides elsewhere. But instead, I will give you the remarkably effective method that I presented at the beginning of this topic: imagine your death. Sit alone (this is important), close your eyes, and imagine it with as much clarity as you can. Let the event happen, and watch the people in your life react. Then watch your belongings. And finally, visit each of the things that are important in your life and see what effect your passing has.

Here’s the test: if it feels good to think about where a particular thing goes after your death, the scope of your goal is appropriate. If it feels bad, you are trying to attach significance to it from outside yourself. This bad feeling is your mind telling you that you have a responsibility to that thing that is more important than the definition of important allows. It cannot be more important to you than your existence, because none of us are capable of valuing anything more than our own existence. This is like buying a better pair of tennis shoes so you can walk to Mars. It is a waste of resources.

A note here on valuing beyond your life: You are fully capable of valuing something so much that you’d rather die than let it be undone. But this is a subtly (and quite significantly) different thing. It is erroneous to say, “Your life is more important than mine,” because this is not a value judgement that a human being is capable of. “You are so important to me that I would die before seeing you killed,” is on the other hand, an entirely possible (and actually commonplace) sentiment.

If it feels bad when you imagine some aspect of your life going on after you have expired, consider the context and re-evaluate. If you take anything from me here, remember that when you do this, you are actually increasing its value rather than decreasing. This is not a devaluation. If you feel that it is, there are deeper re-contextualizations to undertake as well. It may be particularly difficult to grapple with this exercise and come out of it better.

Consider for example the parent who knows their child would suffer after losing them. Yet, that concern, that pain, that anxiety are actually expressions of love for the child. The whole package, pain and love included, are completely contained within you and your life, whether or not you acknowledge it. The point is to try to acknowledge it, and live with the deeper connection to who you are, what your heart feels, and what your position in an objective reality devoid of intrinsic value actually is. The process will emphasize and contrast the facets of you that make you who you are. It will extricate the portions of you that you bury under a pile of dodged responsibility in the form of relevance to external things, and make them stand out in the context of yourself, and give your love, your goals, and your values new meaning and force.

This is what I mean by grok death to grasp life.  Understand the finite timeframe of your existence and use that information to set the scope of your goals.  After all this talk it may seem a simple concept, but like a proverb, the application is broader than it seems.  For most of us, especially first-worlders like myself, it is life-changing.

That’s all I have to say on this topic, and thank you so much for reading it. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Next time, a new topic. I promise!

Grok Death to Grasp Life, Part 4

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Hey thanks for coming back. If you’re just seeing this blog title for the first time, welcome. You may want to check out the last few posts where this topic is introduced: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Today we’re on Part 4, and it’s almost done! What will you do when there’s no more? I know what I’ll do: find another topic to rile folks up about.

Continuing on from last week . . .

So there are no intrinsic values, and there is no “bigger picture” as it relates to a person’s goals. What I am advocating for here is personal responsibility, and this is something that folks shy away from much harder than they know. It can be very difficult to face your own decisions and accept that every little thing about them is yours to deal with. You may even find valid evidence that you arrived at your decisions due to outside influence and not your own reasoning. There is, after all, plenty of that. But again, the responsibility of that decision is yours. Just as the bear who ate the poison berries will suffer the consequence regardless of how they smelled and looked and tasted, you must do the same for what you do.

Ever notice that when you point out that someone made a poor choice, they immediately point to a factor outside themselves and blame it on that? Skirting guilt, instead of realizing the nature of a mistake. This is how social structure, a primary mover in human psychology, drives us away from reason.

Back to topic. You are dead. You have been dead for a couple weeks, and your body has been disposed of in a funeral or a scattering of ashes, or maybe you were eaten by a shark or something (bitchin’ death, eh?). Anyway, the world has moved on. There are some grievers, but your things are shifting along a short path to new ownership. Your favorite waitress will soon realize you haven’t come in to eat in a while. The seat of your recliner is cold and will be until it is incinerated in a couple weeks. Your cat is getting used to a new home, and starting to feel comfortable with its new owners. It is already sleeping in their laps.

1. You crashed your car two years before. Every time someone asked, “What happened?” Your response was, “The other guy flew around the corner, I couldn’t have avoided it!”
—Does it really matter now? Did it then? Could you not have said, “Yeah, sucks. Hope I don’t get stuck with the insurance bill.” Why did you have to throw off the responsibility?

2. During your career you spearheaded an initiative to get a retirement bonus moved to pre-tax automatic withdrawal from the company’s employees’ paychecks. Though others worked on it, this was kind of your baby and in the end, it was pushed through and became a reality. You made a lot of other people’s day with that one, and now that you’re gone the policy will continue for present and future staff.
—Yes, this still matters to someone. But not you. It does not matter to you at all. You are dead. As it pertains to your goal, it doesn’t matter in the slightest anymore. It did matter while you were alive. It mattered a good deal to you, and you were able to enjoy the credit for doing something good for yourself and others. But now, the life cycle of that goal is over. Others will take its stewardship forward, or not, according to their own goals. During your life, could you not have recognized this? Could you not have understood that your objective is entirely contained within the span of your existence (and comprehension)?

3. You were writing a screenplay. It is unfinished. There is some real gold in there though, had a lot of potential. After your death it was packed into a box labeled ‘personal files’ and incinerated. No one ever read it except your aunt who said it was wonderful, though she’d never read a screenplay before, and your ex who offered encouragement but no real praise or criticism.
—You don’t care anymore. No one else does either. They never even knew about the screenplay, or cared if they did. Does it really matter anymore? Nope. Does it matter that you didn’t finish it? Nope. It’s not tragic because no one is able to recognize the tragedy. When did it matter? I’ll tell you when. When you were alive. It mattered to you.

Can you see where I’m going with this? I’m trying to take all the things we are, all the things we do, care about, create, hang hopes on, love, destroy, disparage, or feel nothing but indifference to, and expose the hinge that attaches them to us. Not the collective us, but the individual us. You. All the things that you do are about you, including everything you ever do for anyone else. Every positive feeling you have for anything you do, is yours. It was your goal. Raised a strong, successful, intelligent child, who’s gonna proudly live a full life long after you’re gone? Congrats and good job. You accomplished your goal. Thanks to you, they can go out and do the same for themselves.

And here’s the kicker: it’s OK to see it that way. It is in fact better. More powerful, more meaningful. Don’t let social pressure to de-value the self cause you to dodge the idea. Don’t let self-hate force you to attribute the things you do to outside influence so you don’t have to face who you are. You alone are responsible for your choices, your actions, and the consequences of them, whether any of these be positive, negative, or neutral. That responsibility confers upon you the ultimate privilege in your life, to take for yours everything you can grasp. To “make your mark” as you alone see fit and to watch your influence resonate outward from you and inward within you and thereby witness yourself more completely. Witness your existence.

That’s it for this week. Lots to think about here. Next week I will post the final segment of Grok Death to Grasp Life, and make a final claim for you to scrutinize.
In the meantime, what ideas came up when you read this? Did your critical thinking alarms go off? I bet you know someone who would vehemently disagree with this stuff. Maybe share it with them and channel their spitfire into a comment?

In any case, I’ll be back next week to put a cap on this bottle and set it aside. I’ll give you my take on the practical implications of this claim I’ve made, that all values are subjective and all responsibility belongs to the individual.

See you then!

Grok Death to Grasp Life, Part 3

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Thanks for coming back to what is essentially me engaging you in provocative diatribe about the selfish nature of humans.  I promise there’s a point to all this, and I will get to it at the end of the last segment of Grok Death to Grasp Life.

If you haven’t read the prior segments, here are links to Part 1 and Part 2.

Last week I concluded by claiming that all values are entirely subjective, and never intrinsic.  I may have pissed a few of you off.  Back for more?  Here we go.

ABOUT THE SCOPE OF YOUR GOALS:

So what then, is an appropriate value?  If they are all selfish, why do we adhere to them?  The simple answer is that we are unable to not have them.  We gather perceptions, build them into concepts, and form them into values (or let others inform you of values and accept those instead).  It is how our minds work; we do not possess the ability to stop.  Further, we do not possess the ability to survive without it.  Judgement is what stops an ape from lying down in a fire, and it stops you from drinking drain cleaner.  We are built to judge and create values, and live our lives by them.  S’okay.  Go with it.

It’s amazing the difference between saying, “I do X because I believe it is right,” and “I do X because it is right.”

The fallacy is in believing that the goal you seek to accomplish will in fact achieve something “bigger than yourself”.  You may achieve something that affects other people or other lives, but you can never, ever achieve anything that has a significance bigger than you are able to appreciate – because your appreciation is exactly the largest parameter that can be used to judge its value.  And your appreciation is entirely subjective, and thus, internal.

Here is an example.  If you make a pizza that is big enough for you to eat and fill up on, you have just accomplished your goal of feeding yourself.  If you make a pizza that feeds your whole family, you have just accomplished your goal of feeding the whole family.  If you make a pizza that feeds the entire planet’s population for a month, you have just accomplished your goal of feeding the world for a month.  All three of these goals are your goals.  They are not anyone else’s.

But feeding the planet for a month is no mean feat, that is a big deal and would be an incredible help to the entire world.  The fact that this was your goal, your personal, internal goal, does not diminish it.  It is a testament to the significance of the individual, as are all acts.  Claiming that you are doing something “bigger than yourself” is a strawman tactic for evading the responsibility of setting your goal, laboring to achieve it, accepting your success or failure, and weathering the praise or criticism (by others or by yourself) for the outcome.  Those who fear failure, those who hate themselves, those who fear success, they can use this as a means to prostrate and subjugate themselves, their will, and their responsibility to “a cause”, which is nothing more than a goal that has been abandoned by individual owners.

Some will ask, what about goals you accomplish in a team?  Or in a large group?  Or as a society?  And this is another matter about which I have much to say.  But for now, consider that a society is a collection of individuals.  It is not a being.   It is a group of beings.  Each one has its own rights, its own goals, its own values.  That you share some of these does not make you all into a single, comprehensive being.  Your goal, your assumption of its responsibility, is not diminished or augmented by the presence of the rest of the team.  You cannot escape the responsibility of failure of your goal any more than you can accept credit for the success of others’.

Yep, I’m calling you out on your responsibility to your choices.  Sorry if I triggered an existential crisis.  If I did, you’ll want to return next week when the discussion turns back to talk about you, dying.  Yay, more fun!

I suppose it would be too late to warn you that in the absence of differing opinions, I will just get preachier and preachier.  Tell me I’m wrong and I may argue with you, but who knows, you might just change my mind.  Evidence is always king.

Come back for next week’s installment, Part 4!

Grok Death to Grasp Life, Part 2

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If you haven’t read Part 1 of this series, check it out here.

And on we go with Part 2 of Grok Death to Grasp Life…

ABOUT THE “BIGGER PICTURE”:

We seek to leave a mark on the world during our lives.

This mark we hope to leave, it is usually on human society. We hope to change something that is within the purview of all of humanity, but is bigger than ourselves. That’s the goal. The heroes we hear about all have this in common. They did something that made the world better. But what is the world? In this case, it is the human world. They did something to the people or to the people’s environment for their own betterment. They saved human lives. They made a piece of art that humans enjoy. They represented a belief that they think humans ought to believe. Mt. Rushmore was not made to improve the mountain. The Mona Lisa could be a thing of beauty or an ugly smear on an otherwise beautiful canvas, depending on who the valuer is. Whose perspective is the originator of the value? Maybe they think naturalism was more meaningful before Thoreau. Maybe they think architecture would be more advanced if there had never been a Frank Lloyd Wright. Maybe they think the moon was more inspiring before we set foot on it in 1969.

These examples contain values: meaningful, advanced, inspiring. They, too, imply a valuer. There are no values without a valuer. Thus, all values are inherently and entirely subjective. This may make you uncomfortable to think about, but what this means is that everything you do to improve the world is profoundly arrogant.

If someone lifts a finger to save a life, and someone else paints Town Hall blue because they like it better than white, these two acts are similarly self-centered. You save a life because you believe that saving a life is a good thing to do. Not because it necessarily is. You acted on your value. Others may agree and back you up. They may not, just as those who don’t like Town Hall blue will not. Values are entirely subjective. There are no intrinsic values. Anyone who tells you there are, is defending their beliefs by pretending that those beliefs are congruent with objective reality. And if you sense anger behind the defense, you are seeing the fear that comes from understanding (on some level) that they have no basis for their actions except personal preference.

The concept of the “bigger picture” is an adjunct to this pretense. It is a lie. When someone says they are trying to accomplish something because they’ve got their eyes on the bigger picture, what they are saying is: I am privy to the understanding of what is better for everyone, and if you agree with me, you are too.

Feeling a bit challenged by any of this? Chime in. Hate mail is fun. Part 3 next week.

Grok Death to Grasp Life, Part 1

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How often do you think about your death?

Like, really think about it.

I would venture a guess that most of us don’t really think about it at all. Or if we do, it’s rare. Something to approach carefully, because those thoughts are heavy and could carry emotional consequences. Some others obsess over their grim, eventual end. The manner of it, likely. Something to fear. To avoid. That’s the general consensus on death, right? Avoid it best you can. As long as you can.

But survival is a war of attrition. You will lose it eventually. You will die.

Around twenty years ago I was reading about different styles of meditation, beginning to flirt with transcendental thinking. A writer stated that she had learned a lot by meditating on her own death. Imagining it occurring, what would happen in the moment, and afterward. The minutes, then hours, then years after her death. What happens to the world? What happens to the others in the world? Your loved ones? Your belongings? Your remains? Your memory?

It is a surprisingly difficult meditation to perform if you haven’t done it before, or at least I found it so. But revealing as well. Expanding. It throws into sharp contrast the way that we hang all our cares on the events in our lifetimes, even while basing our values on events that occur across time and an imaginary infinite future.

So this is gonna be a somewhat preachy, philosophical topic for me. You might read some ideas that irk you, but take it as a goad to think critically about them. Disagree! Perhaps lemme know your disagreement? Take em with a quarter grain of salt, as I’m really just putting forward ideas, not trying to tell you how it be, dudes and dudettes.

The point I am attempting to make is in regard to the choices we make regarding the goals we set for our lives. I argue that setting the right goals is, well, rare. And invaluable. I believe that an awareness of one’s own death is the key to setting realistic, manageable goals, and to stopping oneself from creating excuses from attaining them.

ABOUT THE MARK WE LEAVE:
It is ironic that we, these deep-thinking yet short-lived beings, avoid thinking about the world’s existence without ourselves in it, even while being engrossed in the long view of what the world is and will be. It’s a contradiction to blank out the ephemeral nature of your influence on this world while simultaneously basing your plans on what it will be like after you’re gone.  A poster-child example would be someone who worries about the Sun eventually destroying the Earth billions of years from now. In a time when all memory of them, and all trace, is far, far forgotten.  That particular example isn’t all that poignant, but ask yourself:  where does that worry come from?

Is it as though we take our miniscule tenancy on this planet as a conveyance of authority and ownership in perpetuity? We think about leaving our mark, about changing the world for the better, as though it weren’t about to be a completely different world in only a short time. As though our bones would not be rotted and gone and our graves decayed to soil in only a few generations. You spend your life fighting to make your home more comfortable or to keep the church you attend from being taken down or to convince your friends of a political candidate’s fitness for appointment. And then you die, and everything you have worked for is not only over, but you do not care about it, either.

The actual scope of our hope is nothing more than our life, and it is terribly small compared to the scope of influence we hope to have.

Give this one a think-over, eh? Lemme know what you think.

And stay tuned next week for Part 2!