50 Percent

As an estimate, I would say about 25% of my thoughts and emotions in a day are productive and useful. Another 25% are not useful but also not a hinderance to my well being. And 50% are positively unproductive and not useful. Most of these 50% are repetitive and obsessive – they are thoughts and emotions which I feel I can’t help but have and attend to, like baggage I have to carry around even though I don’t need them and no one is telling me to carry them.

That’s an amazing number: 50%. And I am being perhaps generous, or maybe making myself look better than is the case. Maybe the number of unhelpful thoughts and emotions is 60% or 70% or higher.

But even sticking with 50%, that is incredible. It means that I would have a better life just in virtue of turning my mind off for 50% of the day more than I do now.

I try to be cautious about not wasting resources. Turn off lights and water when not needed. But I am wasting 50% of the resources of my mind everyday without even caring about it. I try to turn off the lights when I don’t need them, but I leave my mind on even when I don’t need to.

An even clearer analogy might be with leaving the heat on. It’s like I leave the heat on 90 degrees even when I leave the house for most of the day. And when I come home and though it’s hot outside, I turn it up to 100 degrees inside the house, and then worry about why it’s so hot and when the weather will get cooler again.

It’s hard to accept that if my mind was blank for 50% of the day, that would be better than now. How can that be? Who would “drive” my life for that 50% of the time? Isn’t this like saying I would drive better if I took my hands off the wheel half the time?

That’s pretty much what living with anxiety is like: feeling as if one is driving all the time. That one has to be vigilant and not relax too much because without one’s continual attention, an accident might happen, hurting oneself and others.

The thought of quieting the mind feels like accepting being comatose. As if to not have something to think or worry about, or to analyze or to anticipate, or to remember or mull over, is to inflict harm on oneself, like severing a part of the brain. Surely it is mere self protection and a healthy attitude, even just due diligence and being responsible, to not hurt oneself. Thoughts and emotions are as much a part of us as hands and legs. Who would be better off giving those up? And besides, how can one “turn off” thoughts and emotions anyway, that too for 50% of the time? It can seem as impossible as it does irresponsible.

But the point isn’t to turn off thoughts and emotions. It is simply to recognize that 50% of the thoughts and emotions are repetitive and don’t come from a space of creativity or spontaneity. In anxiety the distinction between creative thoughts and worn out thoughts becomes hard to hold onto. Every thought and emotion feels new, as if it has to be responded to with the energy of a new idea – even as it is obvious that the thought is as familiar and as old as stale bread which is inedible.

Thoughts and emotions come unbidden, constantly. About 25% of the time when they come unbidden they are linked to the context in which they arise and where they offer new, fresh perspectives. But 50% of the time they come unbidden without being linked to a relevant context. They come purely out of habit, not because an interaction with the world requires it. In anxiety this distinction between habit and the world requiring it gets blurred, so that keeping up with habit itself comes to seem like what the world requires. So thoughts which come 50% of the time just from habit appear as if they are coming from the world, and so as requiring the due urgency that any first time, spur of the moment interaction might require.

What feels like hurting oneself by letting go of the identification with 50% of thoughts and emotions is actually relaxation. Real relaxation. Not the type of relaxation which the thoughts I can’t stop tell me I need – where I can relax because I have fully protected myself from all imaginable threats. But the type of relaxation which doesn’t buy into the call to “fully protect” myself. The type of relaxation in which one can open into how one might be if one doesn’t have to worry about protecting oneself.

Most of what is ordinarily called “personality” is the unique combination of 25% helpful thoughts, 25% neutral thoughts and 50% unhelpful thoughts which a person has. The compulsion to hold on to even the 50% unhelpful thoughts comes from identifying with one’s personality. To see how 50% of the thoughts are unhelpful is, by it’s very essence, to mark a shift in one’s personality.

It is to be open to new mental habits and patterns, new ways of focusing the mind and relaxing. It is to be open to changing, to growing, to challenging oneself and tapping into deeper recesses of one’s creativity and imagination. Against this, the 50% unhelpful thoughts call out for identifying with them so as to resist change and so that an imagined stability can be held to which seems preferable to the openness of growth.

OCD and Philosophy

I have written in recent posts that I cultivated for many years a projection of a philosopher. Why do I call it a “projection” rather than simply developing an identity of a philosopher?

True, the line between projection and identity is vague. It’s not that I wasn’t a philosopher all these years, in whatever sense of ‘philosopher’.

But I speak of projection to highlight that the public identity of a philosopher I sought to cultivate was often contrasted with private struggles which I tried to hide. For me “being a philosopher” was inseparable from hiding a part of myself. The part I hid was my struggles with OCD.

It’s become clear to me recently as the symptoms have become more pronounced, that I have, and have had since probably my teens, OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). I often check doors and locks repeatedly, mentally go through checklists in response to anxieties, go from one anxiety to the next, am finely attuned to subtle changes in the environment or in social dynamics and feel uncomfortable until “order is established” again. I don’t have extreme OCD but it is significant enough to affect my quality of life.

What drives both the obsessions and compulsions is an anxiety – or a set of anxieties – that somehow I will mess up, be irresponsible, cause unintentional harm, be held responsible and blame worthy. The compulsions in response become ways to be hyper vigilant, to stand guard at all times to make sure things are indeed ok. The hyper vigilance leads to exhaustion as the mind is constantly working and not taking a break. This leads to dependence on ways which can dull the mind and create a sense of peace from the anxiety – in my case, food and desserts, especially ice cream, and movies which trigger nostalgia from the 80s and 90s when I was a teenager. Nothing feels more relaxing than watching a movie like Goodfellas or Mission Impossible with headphones so I can be immersed in the movie and with a bowl of ice cream with more in the freezer if needed. I used to think this was a simple pleasure, an entertainment earned at the end of a hard day. But seen in the light of OCD, it’s a compulsive behavior, a soothing mechanism meant to quiet the anxieties – not by checking in this case but by drowning out the anxieties in a haze of “contentment”. Inevitably, like any of the compulsive behaviors, it’s not enough. The obsessive worries arise afresh, often as soon as the ice cream or the movie is over, or the next day, and the usual compulsive behaviors are back in action.

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The Fantasy of Projection

What does it mean to be open to my sense of isolation? To sit with it without judging? Is the sense of isolation like a sense data, an inner experience I just attend to, as if I stare at it unblinkingly or without turning away from it?

Hume said when he looked within he didn’t see anything that was “the self”. Similarly, though my sense of isolation is all pervasive in that it is with me all the time and creeps into and behind every moment of my life, it is not a clearly delineated “it”. Not a object of attention, like a mental boulder which is too big to be moved.

Instead the sense of isolation is, like the projection of a philosopher, itself a narrative. A narrative of loss and discombobulation. Of disorientation and grief.

The projection of an identity, like that I am a philosopher, is a narrative that structures one’s experiences and interactions. The power of the projection consists in a vision it provides of oneself and also of the world, of what is happening and needs to happen, of how to interact with others and what the heroic acts to be done are and which are the acts to be shunned.

When in the grips of a projection it appears like a smooth, chiseled marble statue, as if underneath the daily chaos and murkiness of one’s life there is a deep structure of who one really is, of how the world really is and ought to be. The projection can feel not like a choice or even an option but just the inner reality of who one is that is, and has been, guiding everything. The projection is the center of gravity of the narratives of one’s mind.

To see the projection as a projection, as opposed to as the inner reality of who I really am, is to see that the projection is no less muddled and splintered and murky than the surface reality of life. It is to see that the projection isn’t a safe heaven of an unassailable fortress of identity, but is as prone to the winds and storms and leaks and rots as any thatched hut at mercy to the movements of nature.

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The Philosopher Projection

Am I really not interested in philosophy anymore? To me that is as implausible as saying I am uninterested in food or breathing. Philosophy for me isn’t primarily a profession or even a subject. It is life itself. It is beauty and love and care. Philosophy is the way I exist in the world.

But some image of philosophy is disappearing for me. Not beauty and love and care – those are still there. But philosophy as I used it as a crutch and a defense mechanism. Philosophy as I projected myself to be. A projection of myself as a philosopher – a projection mainly and firstly to myself – is disappearing. Forcing me to confront the fear and the anxiety underneath, which I used philosophy to cover over and assume that meant that I had overcome them.

What a thin line it is between overcoming something and covering it over!

When I projected myself as a philosopher, I projected an aura of calm detachment and serene wisdom. Even if I wasn’t feeling this, it is how I aimed to project myself to others. Some people project themselves as scientists or as punk or as religious or as artists or as happy or as depressed. I projected myself as a philosopher moving in a world unfamiliar with and uninterested in philosophy. As if I were free of the world’s worries and concerns. As if I were over them and had moved beyond them.

The projection was a mask. A hiding of my situation firstly from myself.

What is that situation? It is an intense sense of isolation. I have had it since I was a child. It seems sacrilegious to say so since I was, to my family and to myself, a golden child of human connectedness, easily moving in relationships and loving and loved by all. I do remember that. It was real. And yet that was what made the emerging sense of isolation so mysterious and so taboo. It was something to not be thought. To not be acknowledged. Tied up with that sense of isolation was so many emotions. Fear of the unknown. Failure at being normal. Arrogance that what seemed to suffice for others wasn’t good enough for me. Betrayal of my family’s love. What did they do to deserve my feeling isolated? How could I do that to them? And to people in the world in general who suffer so much more than me? Acknowledging the feeling of isolation seemed the height of privilege, a first world problem, a luxury of the middle class life which so many yearned for and into which I was born without any trouble on my part.

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Hello World

For the past few months I had a gnawing fear. A sense of impending loss. Am awareness of a loss that was in process.

As long as I can remember since I was a teenager, the identity of a philosopher was very central to me. This identity- directed towards the goal of wisdom and enlightenment – gave a purpose and a meaning to my life. I assumed becoming wise was my reason for being born. Was the reason for all life itself as it played out in a cosmic dance from the Big Bang to universal self-consciousness. The assumption of enlightenment as the end goal of my life and of life itself was the central peg holding up my sense of myself.

In past months that peg started to wobble. I started to lose my sense of what wisdom might be. Enlightenment seemed like a fuzzy concept which held no clear, discernible meaning to me. The edifice of my life started to shake with no clear sense of what might follow.

I started to experience it as a kind of memory loss. Like I forgot why philosophy matters. Or matters to me. In the present it didn’t matter. I don’t feel it mattering. Whatever I took philosophy and spirituality to be, which I took to be the essence of the world itself, started to seem like just another language – just another conceptual framework – one can speak in. And which I started to not care to speak in anymore. If I don’t speak in that language with categories like ‘wisdom’, ‘critical thinking,’ ‘self-consciousness,’ ‘universal self,’ and ‘meaning of life,’ would I be able to think at all? Having jumped off decades ago from the heights of ordinary life and, as I felt it, ordinary identities, in order to reach the greater heights of wisdom, was I now falling short of my goal, suspended in mid-air as I tumble back downwards, falling, falling all the way down past the normal heights of everyday consciousness and further down with a thud and a splat onto the ground of nothingness? Did I aim too high, too early, too arrogantly, too compulsively, only to fall as far down as I hoped to fly up? That’s how it felt in any case as I started to lose my sense of myself as a philosopher. As philosophy started to seem like an optional clothing which no longer fit me, and which I was tired of pretending fit me.

Since I left academic philosophy a decade ago, there was a thought in the back of my mind whether that leaving was only a preliminary to a greater leaving to come. A leaving not of a job, but a leaving of the philosopher self identity I carried with me since before I knew it could be a job. These past months I was petrified that this possibility was in fact coming true. When I left academia, I clung to the philosophy in my mind. If I leave that philosophy as well, what is left? And what did the last 30 years of my life mean? What was it all for?

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Arjuna’s Insecurities

It’s easy to think that spiritual progress means something grand, mystical and other wordly. That’s it’s removed from the everyday life of ordinary human beings.

But spirituality doesn’t point to some other world that is mysterious and only for special people. Spirituality is seeing the everyday world in a new way. It is itself part of the everyday world of self understanding and personal growth. It isn’t about metaphysical truths we can’t fathom or special experiences of consciousness that require mystical insight. Some people might have elaborate metaphysical ideas, just as some people might have visions and enter into trances. But those aren’t the essence of spirituality, as if they are a marker or signal that one is really spiritual.

Spirituality is the most mundane thing in the world: overcoming insecurities. It feels hard, and can be hard, when we think it is something we ought to do like homework or making the bed or donating to charity – a good deed and a good habit we should cultivate to be other than who we are.

A main obstacle to spirituality is the interpretation that it is something mystical and not for us ordinary folk. The desire for spirituality often manifests as a desire to see it as a diamond in the sky far above us, like we are ants looking up at a distant star light years away. In this picture the very image of the unbridgeable, incalculable distance between us and the diamond we admire becomes an obstacle to seeing how we are already holding the diamond in our hand.

When reading The Bhagavad Gita this sense of the diamond in the sky can present itself in two ways. First that one has to be a great warrior/thinker/human to actually even want spiritual truth. And second that to gain that truth one must gain some special, esoteric mystical awareness like seeing the thousandfold image of Krishna as the entirety of the universe. But in fact it’s so much simpler and also so much more beautiful in its ordinariness than that.

The root of Arjuna’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t have mystical knowledge. It is the extremely mundane problem that he is beset by anxiety. In contemporary terms we would say he is having a panic attack or he is depressed or he is having a nervous breakdown. He is frozen in the face of an action he experiences as overwhelming. He is nervous, unable to think clearly, obsessing over what to do and whether he can do it. He feels a natural easy flow of action has been thwarted, like he can’t do the simplest things with the ease with which he did them all his life and which others still seem to be doing with that ease.

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Struggling from the Depths

When I think about the war in Ukraine it is obvious how comfortable my life is. Compared to getting bombed, losing family members, becoming refugees and one’s life getting turned upside down, any complaint I have in my life is trivial and any dissatisfaction I feel seems selfish and not really justified.

And yet I can’t live my life simply telling myself constantly how much luckier I am than others who are worse off. Comparing myself to people who have more money or prestige or good looks than me and feeling bad about it is a sign of weak character – of not having enough inner fortitude to be comfortable with oneself as one is. But if comparing in that way is bad, why is comparing in the reverse direction (thinking how much luckier I am and so feeling less bad about my life as a result) any better?

I have come to think it actually isn’t better. If envy at others who are better off is one way of thwarting one’s growth, telling oneself to be content in comparison to others who are worse off is another way.

In both cases others are made the arbiters of the evaluation of one’s life. As if to know what I should think about myself, and whether I can be happy or not, I need to first look outside myself.

There are struggles in my mind and psyche which are central to my growth. Unhappiness and sadness, even sometimes depression and a sense of wretchedness, are an inevitable feature of these struggles. What if I told myself, “I shouldn’t have this sadness because there are refugees in the world and I am so lucky in comparison”? If I accepted this, my sadness will dissipate to some extent in the moment. But along with the sadness, something of my will to life dissipates as well.

Imagine someone trying to solve a complicated scientific problem and in the process feeling discombobulated and ill at ease. They don’t feel good because the problem is gnawing at them. Now also imagine if in that moment he told himself, “I shouldn’t feel bad because I am so lucky in comparison to refugees.” That might make him feel better but if it comes at the cost of feeling fine if the scientific problem isn’t solved, something has been lost in the process. That something is the natural will to life, to struggle, to persevere, to face challenges and confront pain, and to push through to the other side, and to keep moving and growing.

Not all sadness is a form of self-indulgence to be done away with by thinking of those who are worse off. Some forms of sadness or dissatisfaction are part of the internal growth of a person, and which is not meant to be set aside but meant to be lived through and pushed through.

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