Do you have a minute?

Busy (Johns Hopkins Health Review)
Source: John Hopkins Health Review

Probably not, uh?

Shocking, isn’t it? For all our time-saving devices, we just don’t have time.

The fact is, we do. It’s just crammed with new distractions created by the engine of commerce.

What’s ironic is that we work longer and longer hours to make more money to hand over to swindlers to come up with new distractions to stave our boredom. It is a mad chase for jolts of dopamine, and, like any addiction, the doses must be increasingly potent.

The whole American economy would collapse if we all recovered from our addictions. — Erica Jong

We would not be bored had we lived prior the Industrial Revolution. That’s because the word was only first used in 1853 by Charles Dickens, in ‘Bleak House,’ to describe the chronic malady of modern life.

The rapid expansion of factories spewing ‘time-saving’ contraptions inaugurated the concept of “leisure time” quickly crowded by new distractions — circuses, theatrical extravaganzas, tourism, Disneyland, Netflix, Facebook, Instagram… the Smartphones right next to you and me.

German philosopher Theodor Adorno called Walt Disney the most dangerous man in America. He wasn’t against leisure time; simply questioning what we choose to do with it. It’s not enough to be busy, said Henry David Thoreau, so are ants. The question is: what are we busy about?

Adorno realized that our longings are craftily repackaged by capitalist industry, so that we end up forgetting what we truly need and settle instead for desires manufactured by corporations with no interest in our wellbeing.

We must shift America from a ‘needs’ to a ‘desires-culture,’ said Paul Mazur, a leading Wall Street Banker during the Great Depression. “People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.

Though we think we live in a world of plenty, Adorno said, what we really require to thrive — tenderness, belonging, calm, insight, friendship, love — is in painfully short supply and utterly disconnected from the economy. Capitalism’s tools of mass manipulation exploit our genuine longings to sell us items which leave us poorer and psychologically depleted.

Pay close attention to most advertisements and you’ll discover the ruse.

Checking-out is no easy matter. The hook is deeply wedged in our brains. Rehab is the enemy of the great persuaders; our modern-day snake oil peddlers. They can’t afford us escaping the insane asylum and checking ourselves into a quiet space to restore our sanity; to alleviate our dis-ease. If we did, not only would we discover how enslaved we are but realize that the shackles were forged by our own hands.

A prison break is no easy matter; you must first know all about your prison. — Henry Miller

Bill Levitt, father of American suburbia, perversely said no man who owns his own home and lot can be a Communist, he has too much to do. Keep the herd busy, docile, and entertained to prevent it from discovering the fraud.

A man’s constant escapism into busyness is the greatest source of his unhappiness, suggested Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, a sentiment echoed by Blaise Pascal who said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to sit quietly in his room.

We no longer know what to do in quietude. We fidget, look around for our cell phone, check the clock, fidget and fret some more. Simple things no longer deliver enough dopamine to stimulate our nerve cells. If we take a walk out in nature, our overstimulated brains are no longer reactive to a placid landscape but require more intense colors, harsher sounds, perhaps a flame-throwing squirrel torching aspens to ash. Not nature-as-it-is, but nature as we see on screens. We wish to edit the natural world as we edit our photos to the point where we no longer distinguish reality from fantasy and fantasy ends up being more stimulating because it’s chock-full of dopamine.

You might be familiar with the famous experiment conducted in the 1950s by psychologists James Olds and Peter Milner in which they connected electrodes to the brains of rats enabling them to create sensations of excitement (dopamine) simply by pressing a pedal. This was a pleasure center, a reward circuit, the activation of which was much more powerful than any natural stimulus. A series of subsequent experiments revealed that rats preferred pleasure stimulation to food (even when they were hungry) and water (even when they were thirsty). Self-stimulating male rats would ignore a female in heat and would repeatedly scurry across shock-delivering floor grids to reach the lever. Female rats would abandon their nursing pups to continually press the lever. Some rats would do this as often as 2000 times per hour for 24 hours, to the exclusion of all other activities. They had to be unhooked from the apparatus to prevent death by self-starvation. Pressing that lever became their entire world.

rate race.jpg
Image credit: stevecutts.com

Many use busyness and distractions to escape their reality, to remove themselves from their suffering, and, simultaneously, from the suffering of the world. Thus unattended, the wounds never heal.

Only that life is worth living which develops the strength and the integrity to withstand the unavoidable sufferings and misfortunes of existence without flying into an imaginary world. — Friedrich Nietzsche

Is reality all that bad, or have we been made to believe it is?

Confucius found it rather sour. He believed that the present was out of step with the past, and that the only way to achieve harmony was through strict adherence to ancient rituals and ceremonies.

Buddha found it bitter and preached the doctrine of detachment as the path to bliss.

Lao Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, rejected labels altogether. When abstract and arbitrary rules were imposed on existence, he said, struggle was inevitable. Only then did life seem “sour” or “bitter”.

Writer Henry Miller said the word reality should not have a sinister and fatalistic ring. The man who is truly awake and completely alive, he said, is a man for whom reality will always be close to ecstasy.

But ecstasy, at root, means “standing outside oneself” which would put us back in an imaginary world. Perhaps Miller was referring to a feeling of joyful excitement, rooted in the reality of our ordinary world.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell said he didn’t think humans were necessarily seeking a meaning for life as much as an experience of being alive, so that our experiences on the physical plane (the world as it is) resonate with our innermost being and reality making us actually feel the rapture of being alive.

Both Miller and Campbell are pointing at feelings of intense joy.

Campbell went a step further and added “innermost being,” meaning eudaimonia: the process of living in accord with our essence and realizing our unique potential. Work done in accord with our essence and in service to a higher purpose will never feel like work.

We all would love to describe our careers like filmmaker William Herzog:

“A holiday is a necessity for someone whose work is an unchanged daily routine, but for me, everything is constantly fresh and always new. I love what I do, and my life feels like one long vacation.”

The slogans of the travel industry — escape, unwind, recharge — have no effect on a man like Herzog.

“It is a melancholy commentary upon the nature of our modern industrial system,” wrote John Cowper Powys, “that in any consideration of happiness we are compelled to leave what is called ‘work’ entirely out of our thoughts. There are few occupations left worthy of the self-respect of the human race. Happiness, [for most], whether manual slaves or mental slaves of the monstrous profit system, must be something snatched at in contemptuous independence of what they call ‘our life’s work.’”

Perhaps, this is why so many eagerly swallow the quack medicine peddled by the great persuaders. To alleviate the tedium and lack of higher purpose of most jobs which burns them out without ever having been on fire. They chase ‘spirits’ in the guise of alcohol, drugs, extreme sports, pornography, consumerism, and non-stop distractions to assuage the pain and ennui of a spiritless life. Or because they feel unworthy, seek specious validation from a crowd of virtual judges through their social media posts.

Dopamine, instead of eudaimonia.

Until you make peace with who you are, you’ll never be content with what you have. — Doris Mortman

The difference between who you are and what you have was thoroughly explored by social psychologist Erich Fromm in his book ‘The Art of Being.’

“The full humanization of man,“ he said, “requires the breakthrough from the possession-centered to the activity-centered orientation; from selfishness and egotism, to solidarity and altruism.”

Fromm was not advocating asceticism. Orientation toward “being” is not identical with “not-having.” He was, I suppose, simply echoing what Gandhi said decades before: “You do not have to renounce any of your possessions; you have to renounce the possessor.”

Three years ago, I did precisely that. Actually, went a step further and renounced most of my possessions and checked myself into spiritual rehab agreeing fully with Krishnamurti who said it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.

The symptoms of withdrawal, I discovered, were more acutely felt by society than by me. Strange, how little man belongs to himself, said Henry Miller, how much he is yet the community’s property. If one follows one’s own conscience, everybody objects.

The objections are the terrified squeals of the infernal machine that insists that if the gears stop spinning, the world will come to an end. That’s the whole purpose behind its manufactured distractions — to keep us from thinking for ourselves and follow our own drumbeat. It can’t afford to give us a minute to sit in quietude lest we begin to pick the lock of the illusory doors of our prison.

(If you’re still with me and have not once checked your phone, social media, or email, it means I am succeeding in slowly lifting the veil to reveal the fraud perpetrated by the Great Wizards).

Walking away is not the point. A new world is not made by trying to forget the old, said Miller. A new world is made with a new spirit, with new values.

The first step I took was examine the script I had been playing. I then edited-out the parts which did not resonate with my innermost being which kept me from feeling the rapture of being alive. I gave myself permission to be myself, so to speak.

Next, I thought hard on what exactly filled me with delight. In this domain, children have it licked, because, as modern-day philosopher Alain the Botton said, they don’t know what they are supposed to like and they don’t understand money, so price is never a guide of value to them. They have to rely instead on their own delight in the intrinsic merits of the things they’re presented with. It is easy to comprehend why Jesus said that theirs was the Kingdom of Heaven — the Kingdom, mind you, of the here and now.

Having once possessed the wealth many covet, I realized simpler pleasures yielded greater delight. I also discovered that while the quick-pulse intensity of a passionate life sounds alluring, it is short-lived and produces the same burnout than the one I felt working 14-hour days.

So I scratched-off the words “happiness” and “passion” from my script and replaced them with euthymia and ataraxia, Greek words for serenity and to describe a state where we abstain from unnecessary desires and achieve an inner tranquility by being content with simple things. I traded dopamine for serotonin, if you will; a glass of bubbly champagne for a cup of warm milk.

I have not lost wealth but distractions. The body’s needs are few: it wants to be free from cold, to banish hunger and thirst with nourishment; if we long for anything more we are exerting ourselves to serve our vices, not our needs. — Seneca

Once done writing my own code of values, I worked on placing my life in an eudaimonic state; the state of living in accord with my essence to actualize my unique potential. I knew I could write well and felt called to use that talent for a greater purpose than entertainment. I did not want to escape high-up to a mountain and, there, cut-off from society, indulge in navel-gazing, endless self-improvement, or self-righteous pontifications of what it is to live the ‘good life’. I wanted to share the saga of my trials and tribulations to recover the ancient purpose of entertainment, which, in Greek tragicomedy, held the audience together in shared suffering, or joy, or both, leading to catharsis.

I then looked around the world to find a need that could use my talents; something which made me shudder and lit a fire in my belly. That’s when I began writing The Hero in You.

Here’s the thing, though…

I’m either speaking an unintelligible language, or the world doesn’t want to listen to those coming between the distracted and the distractions. The infernal machine appears hell-bent in ostracizing those who rock the boat and will ensure that those who rebel quickly find themselves unable to survive.

Most days, I feel like a baker who has unearthed an ancient recipe for wholesome, nutritious bread, only to find the marketplace crowded with people gorging on Wonder Bread and Twinkies laced with listicles promising instant wellbeing, power, esteem, love, wealth, and approbation. While ancient grains are harder to digest, I promise they are better for you.

Bake Twinkies! many urge, and people will flock to your bread stand.

I admit I’ve been tempted, just like Christ was in the desert; Buddha under the Bodhi Tree.

(If I still have your attention, it means the rebellion stands a chance!)

In every prototypical hero’s journey, this is the moment when the hero faces the greatest test.

To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight. — E.E. Cummings

Because I am writing a book for boys meant to guide them towards a life of authenticity and purpose, I have no choice but to press on, come what may. I’ll keep stealing a minute of everyone’s time to find our way out of the madhouse.


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Now that the Buffalo are Gone

It’s time for a new story

Once,

They covered the grasslands

Like the shadows of clouds,

And now the river gives up

Just one skull, a hive of bone

Like a fallen wasp’s nest,

Heavy, empty, and

Full of the whine of the wind

And old thunder. – From ‘A Buffalo Skull’ by Ted Kooser

At one point their population numbered in the tens of millions.

Hunted to near extinction by American market hunters, the once massive bison population was reduced to a mere 1,000 by the turn of the century.

Sanctioned by the United States government, the widespread slaughter was proposed to effectively weaken the Native Indians of the West whose livelihood was tied to the bison – central to their culture and heritage.

“Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone,” said Columbus Delano, the Secretary of the Interior in the early 1870’s. “The rapid disappearance of game from the former hunting-grounds [will] favor our efforts to confine the Indians to smaller areas and compel them to abandon their nomadic customs.”

The American settlers realized Native Americans could perhaps be eliminated if the bison were exterminated. Thus, the American government set out to destroy the plentiful buffalo population while enforcing a reservation system to confine the Indians to a tiny fragment of their ancestral lands.

Crippled by the scarcity of bison, the culture of the Plains Indians and other neighboring tribes unraveled.

“When the buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground,” records Crow Chief Plenty in his personal biography. “After this, nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere.”

There is little singing in America today because it, too, has lost its Buffalo: a common mythology and shared identity; the story, ideals, and illusions which once bound the country together. And an era can be considered over once its basic illusions have been exhausted, playwright Arthur Miller said.

Shut away as we are becoming in impenetrable fortresses of tribalism, nationality, identity politics, gender, class, race, ethnicity, and rigid ideologies, the glue is coming undone and the center cannot hold as poet John Keats warned in ‘The Second Coming,’ adding, prophetically, that mere anarchy is loosed upon the world and everywhere the best [men] lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

There was plenty of passionate intensity after 9-11, but a nation glued together by hatred does not hold together regardless of how righteous.

In a recent opinion piece, conservative columnist David Brooks wrote that the western civilization narrative, at least in Europe and North America, used for most of the past few centuries to explain their place in the world, came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated. It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like. It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and, most important, provided a set of common goals. Now, Brooks adds, the basic fabric of civic self-government seems to be eroding.

A similar phenomenon is occurring with men’s old notions of masculinity which are rapidly eroding under a rising tide of the rightful demands from women to once again be co-authors in the human story. Yet, absent a new definition of what it means to be a man in this evolving narrative, many men are bewildered. This might explain why middle-aged men are committing suicide in greater numbers, and why many young men, as described by Stephen Marche in the Guardian, are mostly feral boys wandering the digital ruins of exploded masculinity, howling their misery, concocting vast nonsense about women, and craving the tiniest crumb of self-confidence and fellow-feeling.

The demise of timeworn ideas is, in my mind, not a bad thing. Who misses the Roman Empire, for example, or cries over the demise of monarchical rule in Europe which ushered in the age of liberty and democracy?

The danger is failing to write a new and better story out of the vacuum left behind by the demise of old ideas, ideas that seem to be running their course under the rapid changes our world is experiencing.

But as it happens, across the world today, we are handing the pen over to “strong men,” allowing them to author the new story, and we, unwitting characters, are cheering them on with tribal glee. Higher, more impenetrable walls are being built, deeper moats are being dug around our fortresses, and a new arms race is under way as the scorched-earth assault on our planet ramps up.

In a recent conference, author Chetan Bhatt dared his audience to refuse their identity myths.

What if we reject every single primordial origin myth and develop a deeper sense of personhood, Bhatt questioned. One responsible to humanity as a whole rather than to a particular tribe, a radically different idea of humanity that exposes how origin myths mystify, disguise global power, rapacious exploitation, poverty, the oppression of women and girls, and of course, accelerating inequalities?

Do we really need identity myths to feel safe?

What if the plains Indians would have diversified their diet? Or been less dogmatic about their choice of totemic animal?

What about you, now, listening to this? Bhatt challenged further. What about you and your identity? One stitched together with your experiences and your thoughts into a continuous person moving forward in time. This person you are when you say, “I,” “am,” or “me,” doesn’t this also include all of your hopes and dreams, all of the you’s that could have been, and includes all the other people and the things that are in the biography of who you are? Your authentic self, if such a thing exists, is a complex, messy and uncertain self, and that is a very good thing. Why not value those impurities and uncertainties? Maybe clinging to pure identities is a sign of immaturity, and ethnic, nationalist and religious traditions are bad for you. Why not be skeptical about every primordial origin claim made on your behalf? Why not reject the identity myths that call on you to belong? If we don’t need origin stories and fixed identities, we can challenge ourselves to think creatively about each other and our future.

For the past eighteen months, I have been playing Jenga with my Self.

Jenga is a game where players take turns to remove a block from a tower and balance it on top, creating a taller and increasingly unstable structure as the game progresses. But rather than placing back the old blocks, I have examined, removed and discarded all my old prejudices, misconceptions, illusions, self-delusions, fears, insecurities, vanities, and identity myths to which I unwittingly subscribed, all which were impeding a more authentic self to emerge. It’s been an unsettling but liberating experience, one which has cleared the way for me to replace those old blocks with new values – my unique values – and write my own script.

As for the world, what if we started by replacing our cherished Buffalos with ‘Earthrise,’ the most famous photograph ever taken?

Earthrise

That was Earth, our irreplaceable planetary home, which it is now wholly in our remit to destroy, wrote philosopher Alain de Botton when contemplating that iconic photograph taken on Christmas Eve 1968.

“Suddenly humankind was able to view its habitat with a gaze hitherto reserved for the entity we have termed God, and it’s only us now who are responsible for ourselves and our fragile home. We may have to adopt in and for ourselves some of the attitudes we once projected onto divinities.”

I say it is time to snatch the pen out of the callous hands of “strong men” and write a better story for humanity and our planet.


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