So. To recap.
In September 2017, I wrote a blog post in which I presented a little analysis of anxiety and depression, and then offered up an account of my personal experience over the previous two years as an example. It provided a decent enough summary of my life up until that point.
And then, besides an abortive attempt to write a ten-volume review of a Star Wars film, I went silent.
I am now, finally, ready to continue where I left off.
I am deeply embarrassed by it already, before I’ve even started. It may get a little weird along the way. I beg your pardon if it bothers you. But I simply must get it off my chest if I want to get on with my life, and this is the only way that I know how.
Given the rather racy content, I am extremely tempted to suck all the emotion out of it, eliminate any traces of rhetoric, and present it to you as coolly and neutrally as possible. But I think that’s mostly just my anxiety talking, and listening to it will make me super depressed. Also, writing in that tone would significantly misrepresent the nature of the experience I’m about to describe; this, I believe, is one of the main weaknesses of the Pali Canon, and one of the many reasons Buddhism can be a little grim sometimes. Write about things in a grim and boring way, you get slightly more grim and boring people than you would have otherwise.
So them’s the excuses out of the way. Here goes nothing.
|0. Preface||1. Awakening||2. Aftermath||3. Concluding Thoughts|
The story starts one morning in mid-September, 2017 — a few days before I published the hedgehog post.
But I am going to re-wind slightly to the night before, in order to provide a bit of context.
I was in bed, watching an arthouse film from South Korea. Its opening was very slow, and I found my mind wandering.
Finding my mind wandering, I got self-conscious.
“Ah, shoot, I just missed the last few seconds. Should I rewind? Oh no! In wondering if I should rewind, I missed another few seconds. Ah! Again! Another few seconds gone. Oh no. How do I get out of this? Now that I’m in this, will it go on forever? I know I’ve gotten out of it every one of the last million times this has happened… but what if this is the one I’ve been fearing all along? What if this is the time I finally go insane? Will my pained whimpers grow loud enough that my flatmates rush in to discover me curled up in a fetal ball, caught up in an endless anxious thought-loop? How will I ever recover from the embarrassment? Etc.”
And then something happened in the film that grabbed my attention, and that was that.
So, you know. The usual.
It did not last very long, but it is an important set-up for what comes later.
I finished watching the film (it was very good, by the way, if you were wondering) and eventually fell asleep.
I woke up early the following morning after only a few hours’ sleep, totally free of drowsiness. After confirming I wasn’t going to fall back asleep anytime soon, I set about looking for things to fill the time with.
The first thing I did was try to meditate — that is to say, focus on the motions of the breath. I had been trying to get into the habit over the summer, but only got round to it a couple times by this point.
That is because noticing my breath has historically been the Number 1 trigger for those anxious thought loops I described above. It goes:
“Oh, shoot. I just noticed my breath. Now it’s becoming laboured and awkward. How do I go back? Ah, I can’t. Oh no. Now I remembered the other things like this. And now that I’ve remembered the other things like this, I’m going to remember them every time this happens in the future. Oh dear. Etc.”
And it takes a while to untangle two decades of bad associations.
So after finding that my thoughts were racing and that focusing on the breath was very much not calming them down, I stopped, rolled over, and picked up the book I had been reading the night before.
It is called the Zhuangzi, or Chuang-tzu, and it is my favourite book. You’re going to be hearing a lot more about it if you keep reading and/or listening to me.
(If you’re considering picking it up, and are interested in my recommendation, I’d go for the A.C. Graham translation. But that’s just cus it’s my favourite.)
As usual, I opened it up to a random page and started reading.
This is the passage I happened upon (from Chapter 6: The Teacher who is the Ultimate Ancestor):
Four men, Masters Ssu, Yu, Li, and Lai, were talking together.
‘Which of us is able to think of nothingness as the head, of life as the spine, of death as the rump? Which of us knows that the living and the dead, the surviving and the lost, are all one body? He shall be my friend.’
The four men looked at each other and smiled, and none was reluctant in his heart. So they all became friends.
Soon Master Yu fell ill, and Master Ssu went to inquire.
‘Wonderful! how the maker of things is turning me into this crumpled thing. He hunches me and sticks out my back, the five pipes to the spine run up above my head, my chin hides down in my navel, my shoulders are higher than my crown, the knobbly bone in my neck points up at the sky. The energies of Yin and Yang are all awry.’
His heart was at ease and he had nothing to do. He tottered out to look at his reflection in the well.
It proceeds like that for a while. The point is, it describes four people who don’t really care if they die or become ill.
I set the book to one side and started thinking.
I brought to mind a certain kind of person with whom I’ve been arguing in my head for many years: people who are very, very concerned with the idea of discovering immortality, whether through biological or digital means. People, in other words, who are big fans of Nick Bostrom and Elon Musk.
My point to them went thus.
Picture one of those robot arms they have on assembly lines in car factories. They’re programmed to do one very specific job to the car as it passes by them on the conveyor belt.
What they are *not* programmed to do is defend themselves. You could go up and start hacking at them with a hatchet, and all they’d do is keep trying to do their job, with rapidly diminishing success.
Now. It’s true that being chopped to pieces would prevent them from doing their job. So you could program them to ward off perceived attackers. But what would be happening there is still, on a fundamental level, that they are trying to do their job. Avoiding death is just a means to an end, not an end in itself.
Well. All that Zhuangzi and those other old wise people are trying to say is that it is possible for humans to view things similarly. They have things they want to do. Because they are humans, and not robots, that means they care about those things. And they avoid death because it would prevent them from doing those things. But it should be possible for them to not care about death itself. All that would be required is for them to be in a state of mind, or mood, in which they are very calm and focused. In such a state, they would theoretically just care about what they really care about, and view their own bodies and minds kind of the same way you might view a car: as just a means to get you there. When the car breaks down, the car breaks down. So what?
So, it is not really a normative claim: “Death is not bad”. “Death should be accepted”.
It’s a descriptive claim. “Humans don’t necessarily have to view death as bad”. “Humans can accept death”.
Thus, this whole question of life and death becomes quite simple. When people are in that sort of mood, they don’t care about their death. When they’re not, they do. Then it just depends which mood you’re in… or which mood you’d like to be in.
And, furthermore, after having experienced that mood, it is quite conceivable that the view may remain, even if the mood has passed.
So then I asked myself: “is such a mood possible?”
And I reckoned it probably was. It would be quite a spectacular con these old people have been pulling on us otherwise.
And then I found myself wondering something which could be said to have changed the course of my life.
“Am I… by any chance… in that mood now?”
And, to my very great surprise… I discovered I was.
My immediate reaction was to find this absolutely hilarious. In fact, until I say otherwise, just assume I found everything I’m telling you absolutely hilarious. If you want an idea of how this all looked from the outside, you can picture me lying in my bed, thinking away quietly with a little smile on my face, happy as can be, and occasionally letting out a short chuckle.
So, of course, my first thoughts were just:
Hah. No way. You have got to be kidding me. Hah. I mean… really? Hah. Wow. Hah.
(From now on, I’m going to elaborate on my internal dialogue a little bit, for purposes of clear communication. But, in case you’re wondering — no, I wasn’t thinking in such chatty sentences at the time. I was thinking in exactly the way you normally think — that is, in a kind of shorthand, the way you might take notes at a lecture. “Huh, is that… [loose images, a few words]… no, probably not, but then… [images, words]… OK, so I guess…[…]… fine, but…[…]… so then about how about…[…] cool, so basically…[…] right, then…” etc. etc.)
This was what was happening.
Every time I had thought of the idea of my death before this point, it had been followed by a small negative reaction. I don’t mean every time I’d heard the word “death”. If I was just reading a sentence like “After the death of Alexander, his generals split up his Empire”, it wouldn’t even register. What I mean is: every time I actually stopped and thought “…holy cow. I am going to die.”
Think of what it’s like to receive criticism. No matter how good you are at it, there’s probably always a little feeling of resistance, of dissonance, of panic that accompanies it.
That’s how I would feel when I would think of my death. It never bothered me very much. I always felt I had bigger fish to fry — like figuring out what to do with all the time in between. But it was still there.
And the point is, on that morning in September, I felt *no* adverse reaction. Not a single hint. Just a gentle mirth, and perhaps a slight bemusement as to why it had ever bothered me at all.
“OK then,” I told myself. “What if some dude in a ski mask burst into your room right now and tried to hack you to pieces with a hatchet?”
So, firstly, I noticed that the thought produced absolutely no adverse reaction.
But secondly, I realized that — at least so long as this mood held — no thought could possibly bother me at all. Because I could see that it was just a thought.
I don’t mean that I understood this point in the abstract, felt fear, and then and argued myself out of it. I mean that I was too clear-headed for the fear to come about at all; I saw the whole process of the thought from start to finish.
Imagine you were talking to some guy, and halfway through the conversation he said “hold on a second”, pulled a sock puppet out of his pocket, put it on his hand, and then went “Aaargggh! I’m Mr. Stabby! I’ve come to murder youuuu!” while making vague waving motions. And then imagine if he were to ask you “So! …did I scare you?”
You’d be like “…dude. Are you for real? Maybe if I were five years old, and drunk, and you’d actually put your hand behind your back before you did it, then *maybe* it would have surprised me for a second. But as it is…”
Well, it was just like that.
So, I thought to myself, I don’t know what would happen if a masked murderer *actually* burst into my room right now. Presumably, the adrenaline would kick in and the mood would shift. But as things stand, it appears that the mere thought of something bad will not be enough to trouble me. I will always take it as a thought and nothing more.
“Alright then,” went my brain. “How about the opposite scenario? What if I were to offer you the choice to snap your fingers and be transported to somewhere really cool? Like, I dunno, a big palace with the swimming pool and the views and the ladies feeding you peeled grapes and offering to please you sexually. Would you take me up on the opportunity to do that?”
Cue the direct observation that it was just a thought.
But then I noticed something else. Even if I moved past the realization that it was just a thought and took the question seriously for a moment… I noticed that I actually was not tempted in the slightest.
Because I was currently lying there in my bed, perfectly happy, quietly thinking. If I were to snap my fingers and be transported to that palace or whatnot, I would be lying there on a divan, perfectly happy, quietly thinking… with a bunch of random ladies fondling fruit suggestively.
…so why would I bother snapping my fingers?
I was already perfectly happy. All the palace and stuff wouldn’t make me *more* happy. It would just mean that my eyes would be taking in different sights, that my skin would be experiencing different sensations. But I’d be feeling exactly the same.
Given that that was the case… why bother going through the effort? The palace would just be a needless complication.
Again, it wasn’t as if I talked myself into that feeling. I directly observed that (in my words at the time) I “didn’t give a shit”, and then my thoughts trickled forwards on their course, explaining why I felt that way, because (surprise surprise) I like explaining things.
So then I cycled through another few examples, like a kid poking at a slug, laughing, and then poking at it again and laughing. And then poking it and laughing again a few more times, for good measure.
“You could get up and take a shower…….or you could just continue lying here! Which one do you feel like? Haha, would you look at that! You feel like continuing to lie here! OK. Well how about going to get a glass of water? ….hahaha! You’ll continue lying here, huh?”
And that went on for a little while, and with me giggling to myself like an idiot.
I remember that, around this time, I had the thought:
“Man. What the heck is it going to be that gets you out of bed? Cus it is presumably going to happen at some point. You’re probably not going to lie here until you die of thirst. But what the heck is it going to be? Obviously, I don’t give a shit either way. But still. I wonder.”
So, if you’re wondering that too… hold that thought. We will be returning to it later. At the end of the narrative, where, you know, endings usually go.
Anyway. After a while, my subconscious decided to stop playing around, and attempted to go in for the coup de grace. Like a boxer who throws a flurry of non-committal feints and then loads up for a killer right straight.
Also, it’s the following point that demonstrates how this kind of mental clarity can be very dangerous in the hands of people who don’t have your best interests at heart.
What I did was try to pick on my worst insecurities. Given full knowledge of my weaknesses, I went for that space between the ribs right in front of the heart.
“OK then, wiseguy. You seem to be totally indifferent to everything I’ve thrown at you so far. But how about this? What if you were to really hurt someone? Do something that you know to be wrong, and that ends up genuinely wounding them. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about. Are you going to tell me you are totally indifferent to that? That you’d choose to not do it simply because you couldn’t be arsed to make the effort?”
The mirth stopped on a dime. It was there one moment, and gone the next, without leaving a single trace.
And something quite remarkable arose instead.
True-blue, genuine, unadulterated sadness.
Sadness — not even tinged by any hints of shame, guilt, panic, or embarrassment.
I thought of the possibility of hurting other people. And I just felt sad.
Sad for them. And sad for myself. Because I knew the pain that it would cause me later.
That one really threw me for a loop. Knocked me for six, as they say in England.
I was shocked that I was capable of observing that reaction, and then having that thought, and not immediately following it up with a hyper-critical counter-argument.
The other stuff was cool, but not that cool. I had felt that way plenty of times before. When I was immersed in some pleasant activity (typically, absorbed in a daydream or in an interesting train of thought), I had known the absence of pain or fear or negative emotions. What was remarkable about them this time was simply that they arose in a state of such acute self-awareness, rather than absorption in something else. And that this state of joyful equanimity was so very stable.
But this was different. If you know me at all, you know I’m full of endless prevarications, qualifications, and excuses. I’m almost incapable of saying something without immediately backtracking and attempting to preempt imagined criticism… especially if it is something positive about myself.
And yet look at me now. Or then. Or whatever.
I was capable of having the thought “I feel pure sadness at the thought of hurting someone else. Simply for the fact that it causes them pain — not that I might be punished or humiliated for it later. And I feel pain too for myself. And I feel no shame for feeling that.” without immediately following it up with doubt. Because, in this case, I just couldn’t. It was so obviously true. The doubts simply could not arise. It is like thinking “Hmm, I’d quite like to eat some watermelon”, and then doubting whether or not you thought that.
And here I am, just blankly stating it. But what else can I do? I’ve set out to present as accurate an account of events as I can. And that is simply what happened.
The next thought was literally: “Ah. So I suppose bodhisattvas make sense, then.”
I had long been confused about the concept of bodhisattvas.
“How can you attain perfect equanimity and pass beyond any attachments, and yet still feel compassion? Not just act compassionately, like a well-programmed robot. But actually feel the pain of others. Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?”
Turns out it isn’t. From one moment to the next, that was it. I was convinced.
So then I kept thinking.
“OK. So it appears you *do* have preferences, even in this state. Compassion. Pro-social behaviour. Whatever you wanna call it. Fine. Well then. What else you got?”
I waited a while. And then I noticed.
“…you’re gonna write about this later.”
I’ll dwell on this for a second, because it is an important point, and it could easily be obscured by more dramatic events.
The first point is not to get too hung up on the words that pop into your head accompanying an observation. The core of the insight is more general than “I am going to write a blog post about this” (although bear that specific point in mind for later).
The actual thing I was noticing was something like a basic impulse to express oneself — to do the thing one has been trained to do and enjoys doing. It’s the brain going “that thing worked well. Let’s keep doing that.” It’s your basic drive to act in the world. If you’re into your Early Modern philosophy, it’s your conatus. And if you happen to find it… I’d humbly ask you to listen to it, without writing over it too much with words and interpretation (though anyone who thinks you can do entirely without words and interpretation is rather overstretching the point, I suspect).
The second point is to please stop counting things so much (the irony here is not lost on me). I’ve slowly come round to the very serious conclusion that the history of religion, philosophy, and psychology is nothing but a bunch of people taking their little set of post-it-note mantras and then making sure to turn them into a very definitive and itemised list, all with the single purpose of confusing the hell out of *me* specifically.
“There are two basic drives: Eros and Thanatos. There are five aggregates of experience, seven factors of awakening, eight steps on the path for the spiritually ennobled. There are sixteen personality types, each with their own cute little acronym. There are either three, four, five, six, etc., twelve, etc., or twenty-six characteristics (or gunas) of existence (either material or ideal), according to different temporal layers of textual and interpretive history of the six main schools (or darshanas) of classical Indian thought. There are twelve zodiac signs, but no, not those Zodiac signs, those are Chinese, but also yes, *those* twelve Chinese Zodiac signs, which somehow fit together with the pseudo-Greek ones, even though they correspond to different fucking months on a different fucking calendar based on the *fucking* LUNAR CYCLE rather than the *FUCKING SUN* AND—-“
Guys. Stop it. Please. You are *actually* driving me nuts here.
All that to say: no, I did not discover that human nature has two fundamental properties and that that’s the bottom line. I came up with those two insights because I just so happened to ask those two questions. Ask two questions, you’ll probably get two answers. Ask three, and you might get three. Ask four, and you’ll eventually get me knocking politely on your door and telling you to please stop making life so difficult for me.
(For further reference, rewatch the Monty Python “Spanish Inquisition” sketch.)
Ahem. OK. Anyway.
I came up with the following simile at the time, as I lay happily on my bed.
Picture a decorative pool in a quiet garden. That’s your mind.
The water on it is perfectly flat and still, undisturbed by the wind. That’s you when you are truly at rest.
Occasionally, droplets of rain fall onto its surface, sending out ripples in uneven circles.
Those droplets are your typical desires and motivations. They are pretty cool. Without them, you’d just lie there forever. So if you like the idea of occasionally moving around, then rejoice at them.
However. These two desires I made out the contours of above were a little different.
They were like two perfectly round and smooth rocks, the tips of which protruded from the surface of the pool. They also created circles in the water. However, unlike our usual desires and motivations, these did not disturb the water’s evenness, and neither did they dissipate. They remained there — quiet, stable, and only visible when the waves died down.
Alright. Let’s keep going. We’re almost there.
I can’t remember exactly how we got from the stones-in-the-pool simile to the next bit, but eventually, I ended up wondering the question that finally brought things to a head.
“OK,” quoth I. “So, you clearly aren’t particularly bothered by anything in this state. So this is my very last curveball. In this state, you clearly couldn’t hurt a fly. You’d simply be too lazy. And so, you’re safe. So long as you’re like this, you’d never say a word in anger, never take an action to hurt someone, and so on. But this state probably won’t last. So here’s my question.
“Do you mind that you weren’t in this state before, when you did say words and take actions you would later come to regret? And, most crucially… do you mind that you won’t be in this state in the future? With all its implications? That you will do things you regret? That you will hurt others, and be hurt yourself?”
And then, the usual. A chuckle. A bemused smile.
“Why would I care about that? That’s just what happens. When that happens, it happens. I wish myself and everyone else good luck. But of what use would it be for me to worry about it now? In fact………………..
…wait a second…….
And then everything went very, very quiet.
My thoughts resumed almost instantly. But before we continue, I think a few words would be appropriate.
So, firstly… what exactly happened?
Well… nothing. Obviously. I was still just lying there quietly in my bed. It was just like any other moment in my life. The only thing of note was that all the gleeful laughter vanished instantly again, leaving me only very calm indeed.
It was like being at a bar, at that perfect point when you’ve had one or two beers, you’re just starting to feel the buzz, and you’re holding forth with fresh material to an uproarious response. Then you get a notification on your phone, make a polite gesture to excuse yourself, and check it to find that you’ve gotten the dream job, been given the promotion, gotten accepted to the university, had the charges dropped, or whatever. You seem to sober up all of a sudden, and enter a quite peculiar mood. You’ve never been happier, and yet, you suddenly just want to go for a slow walk along the river. One of your friends notices you’re staring off into space, asks what’s up. You hesitate to tell them, suppose you shouldn’t lie, finally let them know. They go quiet, and then everyone gets excited, congratulating you, going to buy a special round, shouting incoherently, slapping you on the back, etc., while you take it all in rather bashfully, and then finally let out a little smile.
Well, it was just like that. Except without the other people around, so without the need to take the uptick back into forced joviality.
I really, really want to just leave it at that, but I feel like it would be coy to fob you off with such a . So, I’ll have a go at a slightly more direct translation of what that “Oh.” felt like.
“…Eureka, I suppose.”
“…this is it, huh? …this is actually… actually… literally it. It’s… really happening.”
“Turns out it’s all true.”
“Hmm. Well, I guess I gotta take this whole religion thing more seriously from now on.”
That, allow me to stress once again, is not what I thought. It’s an attempt to communicate how I felt. And I think that’s quite enough of that for today.
Secondly, I’d like to make an observation which will probably teach us all a thing or two about that lady called Karma, who also goes by the scene name ‘Cause and Effect’.
I’ll just come right out with it. Obviously, the next thing I thought was about the Buddha and Buddhism.
But the thing is… that’s not the only Enlightenment game in town.
Some of you may already know this, but Descartes famously thought he did his best thinking in bed. That’s where he woke from the nightmares that led him to the line of thought which would become the Meditations. According to legend, it was a constant source of friction with his cleaning lady, who just could not understand how a healthy young man could be so unforgivably lazy, and insisted on letting herself in and pottering about in an unsubtle attempt to shame him out of there.
Now. Am I saying that Descartes had the right kind of Enlightenment and the Buddha had the wrong one? Naturally not. Speaking frankly, I think they were both nuts.
But here’s the thing. I did not think of Descartes in those following moments. In fact, I did not make this connection until quite recently.
Mostly because I’m an idiot. But more objectively: because I hadn’t read Descartes since my mid-teens. My thought had been gradually moving eastwards over the past two years. As evidenced by the fact that this whole story started with a book I’m going to have a lot of trouble popularizing, due to the fact “Zhuangzi” sounds rather awkward in English. And, if you’ll forgive the cliche… you are what you eat. With every day that passes, I realize how much insight is packed into that phrase. Feed someone Eastern philosophy and religion… and they’ll think about Eastern philosophy and religion.
And, I suspect, if my next thought had been about Descartes, this past year and a half would have gone a touch more smoothly. Not because the Meditations are that much better than the Pali Canon. Just because I would have probably spent significantly less time worrying that I was crazy.
But anyway. As we have established, I didn’t think about Descartes.
Instead, the next couple of hours went something like this.
“…OK. So, obviously, Buddhism. But, which bit? Zen? Kensho and satori? This sounds an awful lot like what I’ve read about that. But then, why has the whole Theravada thing stuck around, when you could just do this? And what the fuck do they have going on in Tibet? Hmm. Oh yeah. What was that I read about the jhanas? Ah, man, I can’t remember.
Hmm. Mmm. So, obviously this is cool. But from what I recall, it’s supposed to be way more intense. I sure ain’t gettin’ any radio waves from my past lives.
Also, I’m definitely still thinking. In fact, this is literally exactly like normal consciousness, except just more chill. But, I mean, this really must be it. So long as thinking is a part of it, I can’t imagine it would be substantially different from this. I literally cannot conceive of how I could possibly feel any discomfort or pain. What is there that is less than nothing; what is more impossible than impossible? So, I suppose the only thing that’s left to get rid of is the internal dialogue. But why? What exactly would be gained by that? Isn’t that just what happens when you take drugs? Am I supposed to be K-holing right now? Is that really the recommended course of action? That seems silly.
Also, remember that little anxious thought loop from last night? Isn’t this actually the exact same thing, minus the panic? Hmm, that’s interesting…
Also, didn’t this all start up from the Zhuangzi? So, Daoism? Can I forget about Buddhism and just do that? Hmm. What are the differences? Am I gonna have to read the Daoist Canon? I’m probably going to have to read the Daoist Canon.
OK, we’ll think about that some other time. Back to this. Everything still there? Yup, still there.
Hmm. Can’t we just think of this as ‘getting into the zone’, or ‘getting into the flow’ — except instead of having it be some physical activity, having it be a purely mental activity? Is it because I’ve spent my whole life lying around in bed, navel-gazing, that I’ve moulded myself into the equivalent of an Olympic athlete at lying around in bed navel-gazing? So like, can this be thought of as basically the same thing as what happens when you do any pleasant activity you’ve practiced for many years? Hmm.
Let’s check back up on it. Still feel the same? Yup. Still don’t give a shit about anything? Not this? Not that? Sweet. Also, this is so funny. This is the funniest thing I have ever heard of. Ever. Bar none.”
And so on and so on.
There would be little point going into the specifics, because these lines of thought have continued for a year and a half, and gotten substantially richer and better researched. In an ideal world, I’d get another couple decades to keep thinking; I reckon that whatever I have worked out by the time I’m in my fifties is all I’ll ever really be able to manage on the topic. But hey. This isn’t an ideal world, and time’s a-ticking, so I’m opening my mouth about it now.
So anyway. We’ll skip the commentary and just continue on with highlights.
But before we do, another note about karma/cause-and-effect. Do any of you find it amusing that my next thought was immediately to try and figure it out and understand how it works, in such a simultaneously silly and extremely nerdy way? Rather than… I dunno…… what the hell do other people do when this happens to them? If I’ve learned one thing over this past year and a half, it’s that I find almost everyone who has advanced an opinion on these matters very strange. And that nothing is worse for my heart rate than seeing the smug fucking expression on the face of every smarmy-ass guru this side of the invention of video recording.
At any rate. Having come to understand myself fairly well over the years, I can confidently say that this is so very typical of me that it kind of hurts.
Remember earlier when I wondered how this would end?
Well, at some point, I felt myself getting drowsy.
Which, as you’ve no doubt learned to expect by now, I found hilarious.
“Actually, that’s perfect. That’s actually perfect.
‘How did your awakening experience go, D?’
‘Oh, great. I woke up. And then I fell back asleep.’
If I weren’t feeling so chilled out, I’d be busting a gut right now.”
So then, indeed, I fell asleep.
Some time later, I woke up again.
My first coherent thought was to check on my whole mental state thing.
Cue another rush of mirth.
“Wahhheeeeyyyyyyy! It’s still there! Hahaha! Mate. This is just too bloody good.”
Turns out this was the funniest thing yet.
OK. So. Here’s where it gets a little PG.
The thing is… upon waking, I noticed that I had morning wood.
Smile. Laugh. Etc.
And then I joked to myself:
“Oh. Dude. You know what would be hilarious? If you tried to beat it now. You’d be pushing forward the boundaries of human knowledge. What would you prefer your Nobel Prize in — Chemistry or Peace? This would be totally be front page news. ‘Guy objectively proves masturbation is actually compatible with religious experience.'”
So after I’d had my little laugh, I settled down a little.
“OK, ok. That’s enough of that. So, you know the drill by now. You ask yourself: will you do this, or won’t you? And then you notice you can’t be arsed, and then you crack up like an idiot, and—“
But I didn’t even have time to finish the thought before being super surprised again.
Because I noticed I actually cared about this one this time.
On this occasion, my reason for desisting from taking any action was not simply joyful apathy.
There was something else. An old, familiar feeling. Just the barest hint of it… but after the deafening silence of the past few hours, it felt like shout right by your ear. A murmur in a mausoleum, so to speak.
This feeling, of course, was shame.
And then came the thought.
“Man. You’re going to write about this later. And I know you. You are not going to leave this bit out. That means that however many people hear about this will indirectly be seeing you totally naked. They are, in a manner of speaking, looking at you now, from the future. Who knows how many of them. Your mom’s among them, almost certainly. Oh wow. This is… really embarrassing.”
It was just the barest, barest hint of a negative affect. And it didn’t last very long before my thoughts continued on their course. But it was enough for me to notice that this peculiar state of mind was coming to an end.
So I let it trickle onwards for a while, thinking the usual thoughts.
After some time, I reached over for my phone to check the time and look up a few things I had thought about earlier.
And here comes the moment I’d long wondered about: “what the heck is it that will get me out of bed?”
Well. After reading up on the jhanas and, for some reason, checking out what this was like for Jiddhu Krishnamurti, I had somehow found my way to the Laughing Buddha koan.
The Laughing Buddha, or Budai, is something like a Santa Claus figure. He was said to have wandered the country backwaters, accepting pennies from the passing laymen and using them to buy sweets he would carry around in a huge, cloth sack and distribute to the children of the destitute.
So anyway. The koan goes thus.
A monk comes across the Laughing Buddha and inquires:
“What is the meaning of Zen?”
The reverend fat man takes the cloth sack off his shoulder and lays it on the ground.
The monk then inquires:
“How does one realize Zen?”
The honoured and awakened one picks up the sack from the floor, slings it back over his shoulder, and continues on his way.
When I came to the end of the koan, I realized with a sudden start that, while reading it, I had inadvertently left bed and started putting on my underwear.
Now that really was just way, way too good.
I spent the next few minutes pacing around my room, laughing like a madman and clapping in appreciation for such an unfeasibly picture-perfect ending.
Phew. Alright. Got through it.
First things first.
Obviously I’m not the only one who has gone through things like this. Literally millions and millions of people have. These days, mostly in carefully curated group sessions, which means you have someone around to keep you company through whatever doubts may follow, and teach/indoctrinate you in how to interpret it (indoctrinate literally just means teach in Latin, by the way).
The more interesting thought is to what extent people were like this quite a lot of the time before the dawn of civilization, when they didn’t have very complicated things to think about. And then, of course, one begins to think of tortoises. And, well, you know… whales. Drifting along with huge brains, in perfect peace. Just opening their mouths to feed. Rarely, if ever, being beset by predators after their infancy.
It’s not even that difficult to understand why it happens. You can think of it as a little manic episode after a long depression. The classic way to do it, for which I am soon going to claim copyright (with a certain S. Gautama credited as co-author) is to quit your job, stop seeing your family, isolate yourself from everyone you know, and spend a few years doing your honest best to put yourself into as much distress as possible.
Then, you stop doing that, get comfortable, chill out, and — lo and behold — you discover that not torturing yourself is actually quite nice, and that everything is actually OK when you really think about it.
Basically, it’s your brain’s way of saying:
“Dude. You’ve been hurting me very badly for a very long time. You’ve recently stopped doing that. Not only that, you’ve begun healing some of the wounds, and are well on your way to figuring out how not to make those same mistakes in the future. Here. Have some drugs. First, some speed to help you out with the good work, and a little splash of cocaine every few minutes as a special treat. No, don’t worry — it’s on the house. Whatever it is you’re doing, it’s working out well. Please keep doing it.”
So. Did I listen?
Of course I fucking didn’t. Because I was born stupid, and I only learn very slowly from my mistakes.
What did I do instead?
Well, make the same mistakes I always make. Obviously. What other mistakes do you expect me to be making — someone else’s?
I spent some time tying off loose ends, making savings, and cutting costs. Then I threw myself full-time into a life devoted single-mindedly to the study and practice of philosophy and religion. In more concrete terms, I would go to the Bodleian Library, read primary sources (sacred scriptures and philosophical treatises) and the driest secondary scholarly resources I could find, go for long walks, and then nurse the headache that results. Because I am an incorrigibly dramatic person prone to taking things to extremes in the search for quick fixes.
So far, so predictable. The real mistake lies in the fact I did so without any real sense of confidence in myself or faith that such a life was actually possible, nor a sufficiently thoroughgoing resignation to the inevitable course of the world as it courses through me.
In other words, I allowed myself to live a life of constant intellectual struggle, without any safety net or back-up plan, while also saddled with constant, nagging self-doubt.
What was it that I doubted? Well, the two things I established quite clearly above.
Firstly, I doubted my basic (if often gormless) goodness. I allowed every mistake to throw me into an ever-deepening cycle of self-recrimination. And this despite the fact that, on sober reflection, there is only one moral error I committed over the past 20 months that I honestly regret — and even that, only mildly. (Not that such moral cleanliness was much of an achievement; making few mistakes is easy when you do almost nothing at all.) In their absence, I have allowed myself to bring up old obsessions I had promised myself I was done with, and re-entrench them again and again.
And in the absence of any actions to hate myself over, I turned to the only other thing I have — my thoughts.
As I explained above, I live a life built around the consistent intake of ideas and opinions that are not mine. And then I blame myself for getting annoyed, frustrated, and occasionally personally wounded by them. I beat myself up for having these reactions, which only makes them come back stronger, which makes me beat myself all the more, in a senseless cycle of self-hatred.
If you constantly demand the highest standard from yourself, even on the inside, you become nothing more than a bargain-bin saint — a martyr to your own guilt complex.
And why do I do this? Because my mind pursues the path of least resistance. These are the habits of a lifetime, and it is easier to indulge in them than to confront the alternative.
Because the alternative is extremely difficult to face.
I blame myself for being judgemental, rather than admit that I am deeply, deeply disappointed in the people around me. Which in turn makes me less patient with them, and more irritable.
I blame myself for not being able to follow the example of the one person I have ever met that I truly looked up to from the bottom of my heart, rather than confront the fact that I am going to have to find my own way, without an easy role model. And so I have not lived entirely genuinely, and strayed as a result.
I blame myself for being self-righteous, rather than confront the rage that seethes in me at every headline and every word of self-indulgence that passes for wisdom. And so I cannot move on from it, towards a more mature engagement with the world.
I blame myself for being overly idealistic, rather than admit that my extreme earnestness is here to stay, and will be the thorn in my side that makes me who I am.
I could go on, but the basic point is made.
Such an approach is not saintliness. It is (at least in my case) a form of immaturity — an unwillingness to admit to my actual faults, which (if less dramatic than my imagined ones) are all the more painful to try and remedy. Not facing them allows them to fester, which rots my soul, saps me of the strength to go on, and does nothing to help anyone else. It turns me into a bitter person, and a sad one. Someone who has less room for true compassion, because he is so exhausted from expending every effort to keep from lashing out in petty ways.
Hence the importance of self-acceptance and self-love.
These are the mistakes we all make. These are the mistakes I shall keep making the rest of my life. And these are the burdens of increased self-awareness.
With a razor-sharp gaze, it becomes all too easy to cut yourself. When so many of your unpleasant habits are laid bare, self-hatred, self-disgust, and self-contempt are quick to follow. And they will eat you alive if left unchecked.
The line between complacency and burnout is so very, very thin. It is impossible to tread it without straying. We can only hope to keep the veering from becoming too dramatic.
The tone of this section should tell you all you need to know about my feelings on this issue. I am in no mood to joke about it. I am just tired of falling into the same traps again and again, in exactly the same ways. It seems I’ll end up backing myself into self-acceptance and self-love just to escape the sheer tedium of it.
So, doubting my own basically good intentions was my first mistake.
My second was doubting that impulse to express myself.
After I settled down from the laughter, I sat and typed out all I could remember from the experience, and then told myself that’s all I meant when I thought to myself “you’re going to write about this later”.
That was bullshit and I knew it.
Why, then, did I doubt?
Well. Lemme try and put this as calmly as I can. In this, I am caught between the impulse to express myself honestly and the fervent desire not freak anyone else out. And because freaking people out is a very, very dangerous business, I think that caution is the better part of valour in this case, and I should at least keep my cards in the *vicinity* of my chest.
For now, making light of it is the only compromise I feel I can rely on.
Some guy sat down in a park one day. Then he told some people about it. And bam. A billion Buddhists.
Some other guy laid around in bed all day, had some thoughts, told some people. And bam. European Enlightenment.
I don’t think people have any real notion of just how sticky and path-dependent our ideas are. Once you recognize something as true, and it makes a sufficiently strong impression in your neural networking, it then becomes the core around which all your future ideas on the topic are constructed. And while the mind is flexible, and there is plenty of room for future reflection to change your mind, the path will never be fully re-routed. I’ll probably write something explaining it sometime. I say “probably”. I mean “inevitably”. But definitely not today.
For now, I’ll just say this. When you finally learn to trace back your thoughts and emotions, the results are absolutely terrifying. Peering inwards until you see the ticking of your own clockwork is a shattering experience. It only becomes easy if you let go the tethers that tie you to the familiar world of the recognizably human, and just accept the possibility of becoming a total (albeit benign) psychopath. I’m pretty sure that’s not what happens. But I’ve been too shit-scared up until this point to try.
Let’s continue with the thought.
If you haven’t read the Meditations or, say, the Noble Search Sutta, then it is quite possible that my stupid little September morning is now a deeper part of your idea of what constitutes enlightenment than that of Descartes or the Buddha.
That is *nuts*.
A sock puppet called Mr. Stabby is now more central to your thinking than the daughters of Mara the Tempter.
And before anyone starts in with this shit, I don’t think this is just a “””religion””” thing.
It’s still happening today, in our so-called “secular” world. If anything, it’s accelerating. Because we haven’t actually changed one single bit since the dawn of civilization. We’ve just moved around the labels.
I mean, what the heck do you think this whole self-help book industry is?
Some guy gets depressed, picks up a basketball, has a decent time. Then bam. He writes a book about how basketball is the cure to anxiety and depression, and ten thousand people lace up their old Air Jordans and embarrass themselves in front of school children in their local park.
Some lady gets unhappy, has one happy thought, has a decent time. Then bam. She writes a book about how that one thought is the cure to all our ills and we should all just repeat that to ourselves all day and we’ll be fine.
And it really is everywhere, once you know to look for it. One unfortunate family leave their kids unattended for few hours, and their poor girl gets abducted. The press gets wind of it, and bam. Front page news for a year. Which means millions of parents all of a sudden get really anal and stressed, which makes them ridiculously overprotective of their kids for no good reason, leading to deep-seated psychological issues and significantly increasing the chances their kids react against their control and expose themselves to real dangers. And so on, virtually ad infinitum. I’m sorry to say it, but if you’re still thinking that the real problem today is so-called “fake” news, your reality is slowly going to become a lot more depressing. That’s just the tippity-tip of the iceberg.
So then comes the question.
Do I really want to add more noise to this cacophany? Am I really, *really* sure what I have to say is worthwhile? And even if it is… how do I put it? How to strike the balance between doing justice to the insights and putting them in a way someone who has no familiarity with the language in which these things have been discussed through the ages can understand?
(And notice how seldom I used the words “some lady” rather than “some guy” up there. 1 time in 4 examples is being pretty generous to the representation of female opinion. So, great. Another straight white guy who thinks he’s gonna be the one to explain everything to everyone. Just what the world was clamouring for.)
This is what I spend all my time thinking about. And I’m joking about it now. But these are not entirely unreasonable fears. When this stuff started happening to that other guy, Brahma — the highest god of the Indian pantheon — personally came down, literally knelt on the ground, and begged him to not keep his insights to himself, and instead share them with the world.
I dunno what the heck level that guy was on, but I certainly got no such treatment.
And so, I’ve been literally worrying myself sick about this for 20 months.
What’s worse — I’ve not been thinking about this. I’ve been avoiding thinking about this. As if I didn’t know that you can never run away from your fears; that you can only live in denial of them — which is to say, not live at all. How stupid do I have to be, that I didn’t notice I was doing that?
And, what’s more, I’ve been doing it quite entirely alone. Without really confiding in anyone. And without being able to rely on any existing religious or secular institution, whether formal or informal. Because every single one seems to be wilfully blind to their own — often glaring — flaws, and willing to do anything except examine those. And yes, this includes universities and research institutes and other coteries of modern-day hierophants.
Again — how stupid do I have to be, that I didn’t notice that this was the road to a slow suicide?
Instead, I told myself the answer must be in some book somewhere. You haven’t yet read every discourse in the Sutta Nipata, David. Keep going and you’ll find it eventually. Surely. Probably. Maybe. …alright, fine — probably not. But you’re still going to have to do it. Your guilt complex says you have to.
And it really did my head in. Precisely for those reasons of path-dependency I mentioned earlier, I could spend the rest of my life stuffing my face full of every early text I can find, and I still won’t be able to escape my core of (Jewish) Modernism. I’m never, ever, ever going to become a Buddhist, in any pretty much any form. No matter how much I try to deny it, I will never take on the conceptual frame of 6th century BC northern India. Or 5th century AD Sri Lanka. Or 8th Century AD Tibet. Or 20th Century AD Myanmar. Or….wait, actually, 7th Century AD China is mostly fine. (I only have my tongue lightly brushing my cheek when I say that the Tang Dynasty is clearly when we peaked as a species. As the Dothraki would put it: it is known.)
So, as I said — I went at it entirely alone, both in spirit and in fact.
Every time I tried to let out a hint of these kind of worries, people were just falling over themselves to slam the door on it.
Best case scenario, they tell you you’re overthinking it, and anything you say after that feels like you’re being a naughty boy, arguing with your therapist.
Worst case scenario, the “you’ve got such a big ego”, “who do you think you are”, “Messiah Complex” bugbear starts to loom.
So how do I react?
“Oh, haha, yes, you’re surely right.”
*shuts self in for another month. entrenches fear*
But there is, of course, another angle to it. I’m not just worried about having an unduly strong influence on other people. I am very much also worried for myself.
Again, I’m going to try not to get overdramatic about this. I’ll keep the more extreme versions of these worries to myself — cus otherwise, I’d really just be asking for it.
But even leaving worst-case scenarios aside… I’m going to be catching an unreal amount of shit if anyone begins to overhear what I have to say. And, in case you haven’t noticed yet, I am a very sensitive person. I may talk a big game, but I am as soft as goose feathers on the inside. I am extremely conflict averse. A dirty look is all it takes to send me into a spiral of self-recrimination. And I’m thinking of wading into the dirtiest shit-flinging contest there is? I mean, I know I have a masochistic streak, but come on guys, this is a whole ‘nuther level.
Because, let’s face it. No one likes a smart-ass. If I’ve learned one single thing in this stupid little life of mine, it’s that. People do not like being told what they don’t want to hear. And what am I going to be saying is most decidedly not what people want to hear.
>enter atheist schmuck from stage left
Me: “Hello. I think your whole secular scheme is bullshit, and that religion is the inevitable framework from which to view these questions.”
>enter religious nutjob from stage right
Me: “Hey there! I really think you’re letting yourself take your fantasies a little too seriously. You should understand science more, and preferably get your head checked.”
To put the point more seriously, let’s return to where we started with this whole thing. A liberating insight is not fundamentally that different from an anxious thought loop. What all this boils down to is, in essence, tinkering with other people’s minds. Best case scenario, what I’d be doing by sharing my thoughts on the mind and the world around us is a form of inoculation. I’d be giving you a form of self-consciousness — that is, an benign anxiety — that would hopefully, in the long term, take the place of your other anxieties. Cus if you have cowpox, you can’t catch smallpox. I would, in other words, be taking the “old lady who swallowed a fly” gamble with someone else’s head.
And do you know what people do when they don’t like someone playing with their heads? They get unpleasant, that’s what.
I have recently come to realize that I have been something of a magnet for perfectly good people in not-so-excellent states of mental health. And on some occasions, I have not dealt with that particularly well. Usually, it’s just me getting spooked like a rabbit that someone actually takes me seriously, and running away back home where no one can see me. But what I’m referring to in particular are the times that I have guilt-tripped myself into feeling bad for getting hurt by a few of the more extreme examples.
“Stop being so judgmental, David! Maybe they have some kind of point when they tell you you’re the reincarnation of the Lizard King Zeblon. Maybe they just mean it as a metaphor for something. Yeah — you’re really horrible for thinking such mean thoughts about them. So, definitely keep seeing them. In fact, invite them to your house. Yeah! Let them freak you out more! And then tell yourself it’s your fault! Buy into their narrative! Apologize repeatedly for doubting them! That’s what a smart person would do!”
And that’s when I was nobody, and the most explosive thought I was hiding deep inside was a somewhat idiosyncratic reading of classic political realist thought. And now I’m proposing to actually reach out and offer up stuff which — even if excruciatingly tentative and disguised through layers of self-deprecating humour — constitutes, in essence, exactly the kind of answers these fellow unfortunate, benighted souls were so desperately looking to me for in the first place. And I’m genuinely not sure that I am in a stable enough situation to be able to deal with that in a manner that is healthy for everyone involved.
…so, in a nutshell, all of the above is why I didn’t listen to my wisest, calmest self and just come out and tell people I had myself a good time one morning two years ago.
And thus, I slowly drove myself mad, in pretty much every way.
Because, you see, it’s not as if these kind of events stopped happening. Nothing, kind reader, could be further from the case. Moods and mental states of this life-changing magnitude started to crop up at an alarming rate. All I had to do was push the boat out a little bit, in virtually any direction.
What’s this? You’re actually taking drugs? After all you’ve been through already? Oh, this one’s too easy. BANG. Mystical experience.
Not get enough sleep? Hehe. BANG. Mystical experience.
Spent too much time reading about religion? Didn’t you pay attention earlier, when you told yourself you are what you eat? KABLAM. Mystical experience.
Oh, what’s this? Been really good lately? Crossing all your i’s, dotting all your t’s? Regular sleep schedule? Healthy food? Stopped reading about what long-dead, half-starved old men are said to have said things no one understands thousands of years ago? Bet you thought you were safe now, didn’t you? Thought nothing crazy could happen now, huh? Well, what you didn’t realize was that… SOBRIETY IS THE CRAZIEST DRUG. Here. Try thinking REEAALLY lucidly for a few hours. Let’s see how you deal with *THAT*. HAHA! THERE’S NO ESCAPE!
And, of course, I told no one about any of this.
How could I, when I couldn’t even tell people about the first?
Because, you see, these things are path-dependent. To understand the later ones, you have to understand the first. Because the one I described above was ground-zero. I was perfectly calm, perfectly sober, in as complete control of my mental faculties as I ever had been. And in such a state, thoughts were just thoughts. I was unable to lose track of the present moment and my immediate surroundings enough to let the mind’s imagined scenarios shake me.
Every other type of religious experience happens when you let yourself indulge the train of thought — sometimes to the point of outright hallucination — rather than pop the bubble and come back to a calm and contented present. (Or, in the case of deep meditative states, when you indulge a train of not-thought, or non-discursive cognition, or what have you.)
Without a firm (preferably first-person) understanding of that, all the other types of religious experience are pretty much unintelligible. I would be unable to communicate the insight they gave me into the nature of the mind and its relation to the world. It would be like trying to point something out with your finger to someone who doesn’t understand pointing; they would look at the finger, not the thing being pointed to.
Basically, I would just sound insane. Because, obviously, I *was* insane. All these things are just forms of psychosis. But, if examined carefully, and thought about attentively, they reveal to us the basic ways we view the world, which we often take so much for granted that they’re only visible when magnified to their extremes.
And so, I drifted ever further from the human herd — on the inside, if not yet on the outside. I grew more isolated, more withdrawn, and thus became ever more vulnerable to my worst mental habits. We are social animals. We start to shrivel when we think we are alone. We grow more desperate, more restless, more generally ill-at-ease. Remember what happened to Gollum, folks. And with every new and nigh-on-uncommunicable experience that happened to me, the prospect of ever making contact again grew more and more remote.
So how did I get out of it?
Well, firstly, let me once again hasten to add that it wasn’t always that bad. No matter how often I say that I am stupid, the fact is that this period has been without a doubt the happiest of my life since early childhood, so it was actually quite hard to notice.
Shit only really started to hit the fan when I hit 30, back in January. By that point, I really had burned all the boats to get back to the homeland. I had finished the novel I started back when I was 22; I had stopped taking on the freelance work I’d been doing earlier; and the one person I would occasionally and vaguely talk around these issues with had left town. (Although that last one was always a double-edged sword: precisely by virtue of the fact that he was the only person I talked to who took these things with a modicum of seriousness, I was never sure if this was a case of the madman reassuring the madman. I mean, come on — the guy’s a physicist, for Chrissakes.)
So I had more time than ever to just do this shit, and no prospect of it ever ending with anything but my eventual death. And I ended up reading way, way too friggin’ much about Buddhism.
It hit a nadir on a Wednesday not too long back, when I did nothing the entire day but meditate using techniques I thought were stupid, towards a goal I thought was as undesirable as it was unattainable, and then stare blankly at my room, unwilling to reach for any of the distractions which had kept me from hitting rock-bottom during any previous depression.
So instead, I just sat there and fucking ate the punches until my skull went soft. It was a 12-hour stretch of raw, unmitigated despair. Straight — no chaser.
OK, so — climbing back out of the hole.
Firstly, there was something this Early Buddhism scholar named Alexander Wynne said at the conclusion of the truly excellent, 5-part lecture series he gave in February 2018 at the Oxford Buddhist Studies Centre, and recorded so that I and the two other clowns trying to figure this shit out could listen to it (I won’t even bother linking to it; trust me, you don’t actually care — and if you do, take it from the horse’s mouth: skip the bullshit and just go see a shrink).
He said, basically, that we don’t have to be so darned precious about departing from received Buddhist tradition in our intellectual inquiry.
“We are the inheritors of Spinoza,” said he, “not Buddhaghosa.”
Took a while for that one to sink in. But when it finally did, I shifted gears and started reading ol’ Benny S. again. And in so doing, I reminded myself about what I actually thought, and why I wanted to study all this stuff in the first place. So that did absolute wonders for my mood. (Not that I’d ever recommend reading Spinoza as a cure for depression for any but the most ridonkulous neuro-weirdos.)
(Also, while I’m on my “falling back in love with (Jewish) Modernism” spiel, I must give props to Grandpappy Marx, who so comfortingly explained that it is not man’s consciousness that determines his social circumstances, but rather his social circumstances that determine his consciousness.
In other words: ideas only spread if the conditions are right for them to spread. Ancient India was just gagging for someone to tell them that the alternative to just getting a job and pumping out a kid every few years was not just stabbing yourself in the thigh with knives all day — that there was a middle way between them. And yeah, the Buddha had some top-drawer ideas about how to go about it. But they only spread the way they did because other people wanted them to. So if my half-baked opinions get more traction than the latest self-help garbage by Mr. Basketball-Solves-All-Your-Worries, it’s not so much me as the historical moment that has made it so. And also, it’s the historical moment that has made me so.
If I did not believe that as thoroughly as I have since my early adolescence, I would have come much closer to entirely losing it these past few months.)
The biggest turning point took place when I finally came in from the cold and went on my first meditation retreat — one with other, real humans and everything. And, aside from all the batshit psychotic mystical experiences I had feared would happen when you spend a week not sleeping much and then staring at a wall for 6+ hours a day, what that definitively convinced me of was that all the people running these things have no fucking clue what the hell they’re doing, and that there is just no way I’ll actually screw this shit up worse than they’re already doing.
Other than that, there were two very kind young women who very generously dropped by to visit me in my dotage and share a cup of lemon-and-ginger infusion (and thus remind me to hydrate myself). They sat through my going full Gollum at them, listened very patiently, and occasionally put in a word to remind me that I was not, in fact, a decommissioned nuclear warhead leaking radioactive waste, as I was beginning to suspect at the time. So, shout-out to them.
And so we arrive, in a roundabout and cursory way, to the present moment.
I have, as you can evidently see, finally gotten round to writing that blog post. My dirty, dirty secret is out; I have nothing more to lose or be ashamed of.
As to what comes next… I have absolutely no idea.
Or rather, I have 1001 trillion ideas, which have been banging against each other in my head like billiard balls for so long that I don’t know which way is up anymore.
So what am I going to do?
What a stupid question.
Go back to the Bodleian Library and read more about religion and philosophy.
You didn’t think that was going to change, did you? That one made a much-more-than-sufficiently-strong impression on my neural networking. And the path will never be fully re-routed. So back to the books and the brain-pain it is. For, despite my best efforts at self-isolation, I have in fact let a few people know what I’m up to before writing this, and a tiny minority of them have actually started to come to me with questions. And — again, trying not to get too dramatic here — I will be damned to everlasting torment before I blow them off with the cliches, excuses, and silence I have had to deal with when coming at these things myself.
I’m assuming that, at some point, someone will come along and let me know of a better way to go about it.
All I can say, though, is that I won’t go another 20 months before sending out some kind of signal. For the sake of my tenuous and threadbare sanity, if nothing else. So, I guess, stay tuned.
3. Concluding Thoughts
I don’t feel qualified to leave off by giving anyone unsolicited advice. So instead, I’ll do exactly the same thing, but phrase it as a request instead.
- Please don’t doubt your sanity.
Ideally, don’t doubt anything at all. If it occurs to you to question things calmly, I would beg you to do so. But don’t work yourself up about it. It honestly doesn’t work.
- Please don’t doubt your basic goodness.
Much as I might be a crusty, cynical, misanthropic and flea-bitten Taoist, even I admit that there’s a reason the Mencian school of thought won out in the Chinese conversation and held sway for the nearly 700 years before the advent of modernism. If you’re reading these words, you’re basically fine. Sociopaths don’t usually go through the trouble of reading someone else’s thoughts so attentively. Also, even if you are a sociopath…… whatever, dude. That’s fine too. Just don’t murder anyone or vote Republican and we’re golden.
- If at all possible, please don’t go almost two years without telling someone what’s really on your mind.
This one, I say with great trepidation. Because I know how hard it can be to find someone to properly talk to. People just looooove to tell you to go get therapy or reach out to your friends, as if quality clinicians grew from roadside bushes, or as if people weren’t so deeply in denial about their own neuroses that they have the slightest capacity to listen to yours. So if you find a therapist conversant in matters mystical and mundane, then good for you, and sorry for whomever’s paying for it. But otherwise… we’ll have to wing it. So, please. Go ahead and think about it calmly firstly. Wait until it settles. But eventually… try something. I have lived a life of consistent, if not entirely constant, isolation, and after thirty years of it, I still see no good reason to romanticize hermeticism.
- And, finally, the one that is probably the toughest to fulfill.
Please do, as they say, follow your heart. The cost of denying it is catastrophic.
More specifically: if you think something in your calmest, quietest, most pleasant moment… then, I’m sorry to say, but that’s just what you think. You’ll have to trust the arbitrary nonsense that led you to that thought through the course of your life, and not be too disappointed once you see how the sausage was made.
And if what you’re thinking is that you’re going to do something… then that is what you are going to do. The only option you have now is to block yourself from doing it. But you cannot do it forever. You will burst apart at your seams.
And if you’re really sure that was your calmest, quietest, most pleasant moment, and you still don’t really like what you see there… then you truly have my deepest sympathies. You’ll just have to go to social services and pray they’ve suddenly received a windfall of funding that would allow them to actually take care of you well enough to stop you shooting up the school or whatever.
So just do it. Also, fuck Nike and their stupid shoes. But also, do go ahead and do it.
Until next time, I wish you all the best.
I dunno if you noticed, but I made a typo in a rather crucial moment of the piece.
I wrote “Crossing all your i’s, dotting all your t’s?“, rather than the other way around.
I did catch the error, and spent about twenty minutes thinking about whether or not to correct it.
In the end, I clearly didn’t.
Specifically to mess with you.
That was definitely a bad idea. You really shouldn’t mess with people. Preferably in any way. It’s a really, really bad look.
But, as I mentioned — if I don’t have a little fun with this, at least every once in a while, I’ll just explode.
And, I reckon, if that’s the worst shit it occurs to me to pull on you now, and if (as I honestly believe) I’m getting better as I age, then we should honestly be OK.