SPIRITUAL SOAP: Bad Times: An Owner's Manual
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I’ve always run from discomfort. I don’t call myself disciplined — I barely ride out the waves of self-doubt that visit me each time I start something new. I look towards the kitchen with procrastination-invented hunger. I feel my very soul lurching towards my phone. I look at a blank page. It looks back. We both sit there in a steely duel, waiting to see who cracks first. Writing is not romantic. Finishing a piece of writing is extremely romantic, but the process to get finished is the opposite of romantic. It’s even kind of ugly sometimes. A lot of slouching and nail biting, pained expressions shifting into confusion and back again.
Processes are not meant to be romantic; the word process itself is harsh and demanding. Everything that ends romantically requires a process, though. The more idealized the ending, the uglier the process. The ugly process is not something to bare — the ugly process is the mother. It’s through the ugly process that beautiful, pure baby called Completion is born. No mother, no baby. No process, no completion.
If I stopped writing here this would be a menial, self-motivational quip we all agree on but with no roots to grow. It would be like a bouquet of flowers instead of a plant cutting; very beautiful and alive now but will eventually wilt and need replacing with a new self-motivating platitude. Instead I want to give you a cutting that’s small, no flowers and few leaves but with tiny, newly unfurled roots.
It’s not enough for me to tell you the process of doing challenging things is difficult but difficulty is part of the journey and other things you’ve heard a hundred million times before yet never seem to be affected by in the way you hope. The message here comes across as one of overcoming; you must overcome the difficulty in the process to achieve the ending. This is the mistake. This is why the message falls flat. We’re like hamsters in a wheel trying to overcome, surmount, and surpass our difficulties and exhaustedly never seeing the end. Are you really making progress if every time you overcome an obstacle another stands up in its place? You become Sisyphos, eternally pushing a boulder up a mountainside, only to have it roll back down to your starting place each time you near the end.
Unfortunately for Sisyphos, he was being punished by Greek gods, which is truly a pitiable condition. This story is only a metaphor to us though, one we take to express the inherent tragedy of monotonous suffering. The vital part of this metaphor is left behind but exists in other philosophies, notably Buddhism. The story of Sisyphos is the story of acceptance. It’s a testament to the inescapable difficulty in human life just as Buddhism teaches suffering is inevitable. Sisyphos is a tragic character but the metaphor itself is an invitation to accept the reality of ever-present obstacles. Neither the story of Sisyphos nor the teachings of Buddhism preach a mentality of overcoming. Just as Sisyphos attempts to overcome the mountain, boulder rolled right back into starting place, we attempt to overcome the difficulties of life only to have them replaced each time.
The discomfort we feel in our lives is our lives. It has never been something to overcome. Discomfort is underrated. It’s one of the least examined experiences we have. It’s an entire side of life we lock out. We don’t think about discomfort as something worth experiencing in and of itself; it’s seen only as an alarm, a sign that something is going horribly wrong and we have to rush to do things that will end it, as if we could truly do things about any emotion. Doing Things is the pair of rubber gloves we use to hold emotions with, saying “Yes this is nice” or “No this is unpleasant” and quickly passing them off, never gaining a sense of what those emotions truly feel like. Doing Things is a neon-blue wading pool sat next to a turquoise-emerald ocean. Doing Things is swallowing words. Doing Things is being a tourist in your own life, suitcase never fully unpacked.
Aristotle lists 12 virtues: courage, temperance, honor, truthfulness, so on, but the virtue he puts at the top of this list is intellectual contemplation. It might seem trite to place intellectualism above values like honesty and justice, but curiosity is the heart of contemplation; it’s through curiosity we question and choose to act. Without that curiosity, we are less independent in our decisions and more instructed; the surroundings of an incurious person can just as readily take credit for their actions. Curiosity is one of the most underutilized resources we have. If you’ve truly used it, you’ll know why; curiosity requires bravery — the courage to be wrong, to leave behind blissful ignorance, to reach out into the world blind to what will be placed in your open hands. It’s no surprise many people leave this quality behind in childhood and replace it with ego.
Curiosity is the enemy of Doing Things. Curiosity wears no gloves, swims in oceans, and arrives to each place it visits as if it was home. It takes a surprising amount of courage to be curious about our own lives. Try it and see how the fear wells up in you like air bubbles in every part of your body but your lungs — its the fairy tale fear that you might go looking for something you never wanted to find. Instead of risking getting stuck in the tar at the depth of our souls, we stay pleasantly floating at the surface, content with certainty, content with safety, content with the nice but shallow pleasantries we pass our time, pass our lives with. We do not exist to be certain and safe.
Infusing our unconscious approach to life with curiosity feels like waking up in a new country. All the habits and patterns we cemented into our lives become pliable and we find the space to experience old things in new ways. Even the pleasurable parts of life we thought we knew how to enjoy become bigger, full of new territory to experience. Better than the pleasures will be the pains, pains you thought were so familiar you couldn’t stand them even a moment more change color and shape and look at you differently because you look at them differently. Everything responds to curiosity, even the dark. A pain that hurt in one way hurts in new ways when you listen to it. Sadness becomes longing, becomes rejection, becomes fear of others, becomes fear of yourself. Everything teaches when listened to, but listening only supersedes curiosity.
The beauty of curiosity is its transformative effect. Looking into anything long enough, with true openness, yields complexity. I’ve been surprised to find that a wave of what first felt like pure depression melted into yearning as I sat with it and gave it the space to be. Had I rushed into Doing Things out of the fear of discomfort, this initial perception of depression would’ve lingered around me, asking to seen for what it was but with my back turned in refusal. It takes courage. I am still afraid each time a harsh feeling rises up in me that this will be the one that truly breaks me down, this will be the one that is too big. Yet, the years and years I’ve spent running from discomfort out of the fear it would be too big for me had never revealed a monster but instead left me exhausted, small, and ever-fearful of the monster I’d never found.
Running from discomfort creates the monster; only when you run can you feel chased. When we fail to embody the root of intellectual contemplation, curiosity, we cheat ourselves of depth. Instead we should see our discomfort like a child — when it cries, we don’t avoid it and hope the cries will dissipate. We tend to it, checking to see whether there is real suffering or instead just a desire to be held. Sometimes your discomfort asks nothing more than to be seen and held for that moment before it is soothed, like an eternal child, something to pacify, never to overcome.
Type A Personality notes for the “So what can I do?? Give me homework” readers:
Look for discomfort like a zoologist searching for dangerous, wild specimens. There’s a risk but only through observing this specimen can you understand it.
You found it. Now observe. What does it feel like? “Bad,” now deeper. “Sad,” deeper. “Scared,” of what? Keep going. Be curious.
Sit and feel. Do nothing. Feel and feel and feel. Accept the discomfort and hold it.
You are not cured, enlightened or elated, but you are very alive.
The art of attention and the power of the deep dive are lost in today’s media. We are like Skinner’s rats, frantically pressing the lever in hopes of our next 30 second pleasure bite. Get essays like these and more honest, advertisement-free, mind-food by subscribing to Spiritual Soap.
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