Subtract More

Charlie Ambler
Feb 8, 2017 · 3 min read
Ruins of the ancient kingdom of Lahkam Ha, by Alfred Maudslay 1890

When I am experiencing difficulty in life, I often find the immediate solution seems to be to add something new. I don’t know if this is cultural or if it’s simply part of human nature; it’s difficult to tell. It’s not difficult to see this as a pattern among people— when things are unsatisfactory, our impulse is to add something new into the mix in order to alleviate the sense of lack.

What I’ve come to realize is that seeing the world in these terms is precisely the thing that makes us unhappy. To think that the solution is to add more is to assume that the moment is missing something. Seeing as the present is all that truly exists, this leads to a perpetual sense of lack and attempted lack-reduction, which leads to feeling overwhelmed all the time. If we see existence as lacking and keep trying to add things, we both remain unsatisfied and bury ourselves in distractions.

In the realm of material things, people fill their lives with various acquisitions that distract them from the perpetual sense of lack. On a grander historical scale, people look at one another and see happiness as the mere result of ‘lack’. They think that they can change the fundamental difficulty of existence by bringing material prosperity to anyone. But do things ever truly make us happy? Short of survival and basic comfort, do the distractions ever do much other than keep us from confronting reality? Modern people are no great example of anything other than excess.

In social interactions, people convince themselves that others are means to various ends. They fill the void within by engaging in vapid relationships, having mindless sex, and treating people as accessories and appendages. This is dehumanizing and, like materialism, also false.

In terms of abstract thinking, people are always trying on different hats in order to shift their reality towards something more tolerable. The irony of this is that becoming more idealistic or adhering to specific ideologies requires one to continue adding layers and layers of delusional thought on top of an already tough reality. This rarely ends well.

What’s the solution then? It’s so obvious that it seems stupid— subtract. Remove beliefs, remove things, remove clinginess, etc. Imagine if a pervasive lie persisted among society that said that you could win a race by tying lots of heavy iron weights to your body. People would do this and wonder why they became fatigued and lost the race. And yet this is how we treat life— we pretend that acquiring more and more will provide us with lasting satisfaction. The secret is to become light as a feather and flexible as water.

The person who thinks that having a large network of ‘connections’ is equivalent to friendship will prevent themselves from having truly intimate relationships. The person who thirsts for more and more money will be unhappy even with great success. The person who wants fame will neglect understanding the self in order to become someone else. The person who is too idealistic will neglect their own life for the sake of fantastical abstractions. The more of these delusional attachments we remove, the lighter and more versatile we become.

What is the truth of nature? It’s subtraction, decay, dissolution, destruction. Everything erodes over time. A precondition of every structure is that it will eventually dissolve. We should embrace this instead of arrogantly fighting against it. We should exist in harmony with less, not more. We weigh ourselves down until we are unable to transcend our petty attachments and egos. There is no permanence. Let’s shed these petty attachments and transcend to a greater reality.

Get my book here.

Support Daily Zen with a monthly donation.

Get Daily Zen delivered to your inbox.

Charlie Ambler

Written by

Founder of @dailyzen and Strike Gently Co. Meditation, self-inquiry, and self-mastery. Est. 2008