Stepping into the river

Sometimes, the only way I can be “productive” is by fooling myself. Thus, when logic and rationality prove unpersuasive, I resort to compelling narratives and vivid imagery. And one of the most powerful images I have is that of standing in a river. I imagine myself wading, barefoot, from the bank, out into the current. I imagine that, in my hand, is a spear. And I imagine that I am there to hunt. I feel the cold, fresh water rush around my lower body and I watch as multitudes of fish swim towards me. As I advance to the centre of the river, the fish swerve, avoiding my foreign presence. But as I find my position and become still, waiting, their avoidance lessens. I become a part of the river, and the fish begin to edge closer, to swim in closer proximity to me. When they do this, when they get close enough, I bring my arm down, releasing the spear in the swiftest of motions, impaling one of the fish.

This imagery suits the task of writing. If I feel that I cannot create, then I wade into the river, watch what comes downstream and capture it with my pen. It also suits the process of meditation and mindfulness. Step into the river of thought, be still, and see what flows by. It has another layer too. Heraclitus said that we never step in the same river twice. It is true; every time I take off my shoes and make my way into the river of thought, it is different. The fish are different, the river bed feels different between my toes, the sky above me is new, and the water that so gently moves around me is, without question, not the same.

What we hear

The older I get, the more certain I become that the primary role of our minds is to persuade and seduce our selves. Consider all the alluring narratives we construct about our past, present and future. Think about how we selectively process the feedback from reality. Wonder about our mind’s ability to create a connection between any two disparate points. Or, it could be that as I get older, my mind is becoming more adept, first, at discerning my wants and needs, and second, at ensuring they are met, either in truth or in an illusory fashion. 

The mind is a labyrinth, easy to get lost amongst. Especially, when it conflates impression with reality. For example, we tend to believe that we are what we think. If I have thoughts of jealousy and anger, I must be a jealous and angry person. If I think like a liberal—whatever that means—I must be a liberal. It’s not true, though. We are not what we think. Or, phrased more enigmatically, sound is not what we hear. How can it be when the very cells in our body are entirely replaced, over and over again? How can it be when between our selves and reality there is a barrier of remarkably flexible permeability?

No longer an adversarial world

If I had to choose one process which signified the development of someone’s ability to reason effectively, it might be the dissolution of dualities—the shift away from black-and-white towards grey thinking, in every domain. It would be a dropping of sincere belief in simplistic, either-or models. For example, suspension of the Left-vs-Right model in politics, abandonment of Good-vs-Evil posturing, and a decline in fanatical support or fervent hatred of particular ideas.

Because of this, because of my own attempted move towards grey thinking, I’ve started to explicitly highlight any dualities I find myself subscribing to or thinking in. The most recent comes from Steven Erikson’s The Bonehunters:

“Shadowthrone cannot – must not – be underestimated. He possesses too much knowledge. Of the Azath. Perhaps, too, of us. He is not yet our enemy, but that alone does not make him our ally.”

Until reading that passage, I had been viewing the world—and more specifically, the people in it—in adversarial terms. Someone was either a friend or a foe, for me or against me, an enemy or an ally to my cause. Naive, I know. But such perceptions are being dissolved, replaced with something more nuanced: the idea that there are stepping stones between the extremes of explicit ally and explicit enemy. Individuals can be indifferent to me or my efforts. They can be supportive in a minor or major way, or they can be un-supportive in a passive or active manner.

My point, I suppose, is that Enemy-Ally is not a dichotomy, but a spectrum with many, many stop-offs between the poles. So don’t believe anyone who preaches the “If you’re not for me, you’re against me” rhetoric—especially if that preacher is yourself.  

Embracing the pain is not enough

The Buddhists teach that the only way to escape pain is by embracing it. By fully immersing ourselves in it, we are led to realise that pain exists only in the present moment, and is thus, transient. The discipline of mindfulness has taken this teaching and ran with it. Feeling anxious, depressed, stressed, jealous, angry? The way to deal with such feelings, we are taught, is not to flee them, but to examine their foundations. The examination of the roots of these feelings reveals them to be frail, fragile, vulnerable to sober inspection. It all sounds alluring. And I won’t deny the utility of these practises. I myself attempt to practice vipissana meditation on a daily basis; it has brought me much clarity, composure and insight. But I do suspect that there are limits. 

In The Theory and Practice of Hell, Eugen Kogon describes the structures of the Nazi concentration camps and the methodologies used by the SS, first, to control, and second, to exterminate their captives. In one chapter he describes the ritual degradation of new inmates, a degradation that began as soon as the individuals marked for death stumbled out of the cramped boxcars that shuttled them to the site of their demise.

“The end of the admission formalities removed the prisoners for the time being from the clutches of the SS, and few prisoners survived without some damage to their personality. Many kept their bearings only by a kind of split personality. They surrendered their bodies resistlessly to the terror, while their inner being withdrew and held aloof.”

Inmates survived the ordeal of the concentration camps, Kogon says, not by embracing the inhumanity of their treatment, but by divorcing a part of their selves from it entirely. Such a survival strategy reminds me of the Stoic idea of an “inner citadel”, a retreat to a fortress whose walls the assaults of reality can never penetrate. 

When I came across the above passage, and recalled the Buddhist notions of inhabiting pain, the mindfulness exercises of sincere evaluation, and the Stoic cultivation of untouchable inner spaces, I realised that mindfulness is very much a fair-weather policy. It can get us through the ordinary trials of existence—fatigue, disillusion, frustration, interpersonal conflicts, and even ideological conflicts. But to endure the harshest, most unimaginable conditions and treatment? It doesn’t suffice. Embracing pain does not enable us to endure utter inhumanity. No. Another strategy is required: retreat, divorce, an agonising sundering of our very being.

Character is revealed in the tails

First: Mark Baker (A.K.A. Guru Anaerobic) made an interesting point: ageing is a declining tolerance of the tails. Generally, the young handle extreme physical and psychological stimuli better than the old. They can endure more, and recover faster from that which they endure. Second: Brent Beshore posted some scenarios that he’d found effective at revealing the character of an individual. I responded by saying that his methods could be reduced to observing how an individual behaves 1) under great duress and 2) when they have a lot of time and attention to allocate. Combining these ideas—the notion of the tails of existence and methods that reveal character—has led me to formulate the following: character is revealed in the tails of existence.
Unimaginable pain and suffering; terrible misfortune; indecipherable chaos; overwhelming pleasure; unlimited wealth; boundless luck; inexhaustible abundance. These things strip all masks, obliterate all facades. But they are not the norm. The extreme events of existence—both the best and the worst—occur infrequently. Thus, only infrequently do we get to see what we ourselves, and others, are really made of. 

Ethics, via profit

I read an article in the New Year about the good things that happened in 2017. One of the things listed was luxury fashion brands dropping fur from their collections. The decision by these name-brands was celebrated as a victory for animal rights. It was, but it wasn’t initiated by animal rights campaigners. It was brought about by the profit motive.

A business is not an individual. An individual has ethics, can comprehend and live by systems of honour, kindness, compassion and morality. A business has no such internal scorecard. It exists only to propagate itself, to profit. Which is why appeals to ethics directed towards global brands are so ineffective. Companies only care about ethics when it impacts their bottom line. Luxury fashion brands didn’t stop using fur in their products because of concerns for animal welfare. They stopped using fur because people stopped buying fur due to a shift in how our culture regards its use.

This observation extrapolates. If we wish for businesses to be ethical, to abide by something akin to the standards of behaviour and morality with which we hold ourselves individually, our approach needs to change. Instead of appealing to ethics, we need to appeal to profit. Because the only way in which we can stop a business from acting unethically is if we first make it unprofitable.

Easy to say, hard to undertake. Especially when that which is unethical is often that with the greatest margins. Think about food production. Does a company make more from producing fresh fruit and vegetables, or from producing and selling highly processed foods?

Money rules, time rules

I abide by two rules for personal finance. The first:

– Control downside; let the upside take care of itself.

I stole the second from a Seth Godin blog post (which I can’t find):

– Spend as little as possible on what doesn’t matter, and as much as necessary on what does.

The first rule is the best kind of a rule: a simple one. The second rule is simple too, but it has some ambiguity built in, which means I can adapt it in the future—my understanding of what matters, what doesn’t and what constitutes “necessary” is likely to evolve over time. But enough with finance. See, what I realised—and why I’m writing this—is that these personal finance rules can double as time management rules. Time is my most precious resource, and I can’t do much better than knowing how I spend it (rule one) and resolving to devote as much of it to what matters as I can (rule two).