It is interesting how everyone is talking about Marie Kondo now because of her Netflix series. I think more people are beginning to sense that despite the capitalistic narrative, the secret to our happiness is not more and more.
If you watch the series, it is obvious that having a lot is overwhelming. It seems so obvious on hindsight: every single thing we have will require our attention, whether on a conscious level or not. That applies not only to things, but to the way we live our life, the layers we’ve put on our selves, our relationships, our goals and expectations.
Last year was a breakthrough for me. I spent a lot of it in existential depression, because I no longer knew what I cared about and what truly mattered. I was keeping myself alive only partially because I knew what the alternative would bring to my loved ones, and partially because I think the only way to know whether life was worth living or not, is to live it till the end. If the end comes and I still feel that life was not worth living for me, that would have been a valid answer.
After a long period of contemplation, I decided that if I believed that life had no inherent meaning (please don’t quote Viktor Frankl to me because I think that narrative is problematic and I don’t want to spend this essay explaining why), what would make it endurable for me is to lessen my own suffering, and to do as little harm as I can to my environment, which includes people.
So I thought about why I suffer and how can I live in a way that can do as little harm. Accompanying my process were books on neuroscience, zen, buddhism, psychology, psychotherapy and philosophy. I wanted to know what other people thought and how they sought to resolve their inner-conflicts.
Generally, we suffer because our expectations of reality and reality itself is different. That, and the constant desire to have more, thinking more will soothe our psychological wounds and elevate our status among our peers, because what I think human beings fear most is rejection and loneliness. Pursuing more is one of the easiest and most conventional ways to gain respect, and gaining people’s respect and admiration protects us from feeling inadequate and lonely.
I have a fear of abandonment and rejection, so I spent my entire life pursuing more. I was never really materialistic, so I pursued more in other forms: being a better designer, attempting to create social impact, wanting to be seen as a nice person, trying to gain approval by making strides in my career, wanting to be recognised for my talents, experience and work, etc.
I think there is nothing seriously wrong with the above if one has a healthy psyche, but that person is not me. I kept burning myself out, had increasing self-hatred because I was never good enough for my own imagined standards, wanted to save the world though I can’t even save myself, thought of myself as weak and useless (I mean, look at those people working 7 days a week, 18 hours a day without complaining! /s). I basically wanted to be someone I was not and did things I thought were important to me without questioning why were they even important.
Those were just some of the more superficial reasons. Internally, I never healed from trauma, I kept replaying them over and over in my head, constantly sabotaged myself without knowing it, kept getting into toxic relationships because I didn’t even know what a healthy dynamic looks like, felt hurt and angry all the time.
It is easy to see why I was constantly depressed and suicidal, philosophical reasons aside.
Reading books on psychotherapy saved me, because I started to understand what a healthy relationship to one self and others looks like. When we grow up in a place where unhealthy dynamics are the norm, we don’t question it.
Books on neuroscience and psychology made me learn how little control we have over our behaviour, and yet how much we can actually change our brains.
Books on zen and buddhism opened up the space for me to understand what it means to be able to sit with difficult feelings, to be present, and to have the capacity to contain mystery and unanswered questions.
Books on philosophy (including zen philosophy) made me feel less alone and insane in wanting to contemplate how to live, that it has been a question asked many times throughout history with reasonable anguish and frustration.
All of those books probably reinforced to me that suffering is really a human condition, that so much of our misery and destruction comes from our inability to manage our psyche and understand how our brains work.
I guess that is a long introduction to what I would like to focus on 2019.
I would like to develop my capacity to sit with my difficult feelings so I can want and need less.
There are ways to change one’s life, but they require both time and discipline. Maybe it is possible to rewire one’s brain from trauma, or heal our bodies from chronic stress, or change ingrained conditioning, but most of the time it will take years, possibly money, patience and faith (I could argue it is not faith because the science proves that a lot of those things work so it is not just blind faith, but the change is so slow that one may not notice it and may lose confidence in the process).
So in the middle of it all: of attempting to eat better, think better, live better, relate better, there will be difficult feelings that will arise. And it is my inability to sit with my difficult feelings that causes a lot of my misery, because the easier thing to do is to react instinctively, to give in to our primal conditioning, to seek empty pursuits to soothe my anxiety and boredom.
It is also the inability to sit with difficult feelings that makes me miserable when I can’t find answers or resolutions. I felt like I cannot live life properly if I don’t find a meaning, and it never occurred to me that perhaps I can just live it?
To be able to sit with difficult feelings, that is what that will give me the ability to investigate those feelings, to pause the instinctive reflex, and to have the true power of choice.
All of that will allow me to pare down my life, to be capable of living with less: wanting less, needing less — because I no longer want or need more to be soothed — not for spiritual or moral reasons, but because it allows me to truly live.
Most things are just noise, distractions or weight. If I can eventually live with very little, there is a ton of space to be unfolded. More time, more attention, more blank slates to be creative with, more noticing of the details, more awareness of: the sweetness of the oxygen I breathe, the refreshingness of water, the majesty of trees, the love that surrounds me, the miraculous homeostasis of my body, the ingenuity and spirit of human beings, etc.
I don’t just mean to have less physical things. Things are the symptom, but they are often mistaken for the root cause. The need to feel accepted has nearly destroyed me and driven me insane. I would like to have a lot less of that, and to have a lot less expectations or whatever psychological cruft that is weighing me down.
I hope to want and need less. Not by deprivation, but to genuinely know how little I actually want and need.
These are the actions that I think will support me in my journey of sitting with my difficult feelings and by extension, to want and need less:
To resume my regular meditation habit
I mediated regularly in some periods over the last few years, but stopped because I was trying to run regularly. Now that I am running regularly and I don’t need much mental energy to convince myself to run anymore, so I can devote more energy to meditating.
People meditate for different reasons but for me it would be more towards the zen purpose of it: to be able to sit. In fact in the zen tradition they don’t call it meditating but sitting. Just sitting for long periods of time. I think the outcome of that is to expand our capacity to contain and observe our thoughts and feelings, and as a by-product, increase the mind’s ability to concentrate. Some schools focus more on the concentration part.
I think another huge part of it is simply to defragment our brains after being exposed to so much stimuli these days.
To eat better
One of my biggest problems is food. I use food as a crutch, so I tend to eat unhealthily and it usually results on chronic inflammation and hormonal imbalances, causing migraines and depression. So I hope to be able to eat better by being less prone to wanting to soothe my feelings with food which comes from being okay with feeling sad, depressed or bored.
Another part of it is to question my feelings of craving and hunger which is really hard for me to overcome. In modern societies our hunger is not real because we’re fed so much and all the time. So, why do I keep feeling hungry?
To read more deeply
Even though I read 80+ books over the past year I think I could probably do more if I spent less time worrying incessantly, browsing social media or watching tv. But more is not the point, I want depth, so I’ll try to source for books that go deeper into the topics I am interested in, or finally read the 500+ page books on Debt and Capital. I would also like to read more history.
Another way to read deeper is to actually be more conscientious about taking notes, making annotations and writing my thoughts after reading. I think I forget 95% of what I read, though I believe they do seep into our subconscious memory.
To write more deeply
I want to write my own theory of everything. I feel frustrated that everything exists in silos when they are connected in systems. I hope I can make more things out of the notes I will be taking when I read this year.
To write more freely
It may be hard to imagine but I self-censor a lot. I think a lot of it comes from the fear of alienation, or that people may think I am insane.
But now I want to be okay with that, so it’ll free me up creatively. I mostly write to document my life, and I’m the one who has to live my life, so I’m done living my life according to how I think people think I should live.
Expand my hermitdom
I wrote that last year I spent less time with people, this year I am going to double down on that. This period is a time of study and contemplation for me, so I am just going to focus on being with my thoughts. My family is excluded from this of course.
Partially this is also because from my desire to do no harm, so I don’t think I should be around people until I have a clear grasp of my psyche and inner drives, and also knowing what is appropriate to say is a difficult skill.
Examine my relationship with social media
I grew up on social media and thrived on it. It is a life-saver for me, especially because I felt so rejected in my own society. But I am not sure how I feel about it now. I no longer feel part of the communities I used to belong to.
I also publish my photos and writing publicly, and I may reconsider that this year. I did that because I wanted to model a different way of life from the mainstream, to let people know they are not alone, it is also my way of connecting to the world. But now I feel tension from letting everybody know almost everything about me.
I feel especially strongly as a LGBTQ+ and a mental health advocate. These are areas which still have considerable stigma and discrimination, so I think it helps to have representation. But it is getting much better these days, more people are coming out to speak about it, so maybe I can consider passing the baton.
Continue contemplating what makes a life well lived
I don’t know and I’ll continue to ask, and maybe I’ll never find the answers but maybe what matters is bearing the question.
I don’t believe in goals or resolutions, so this essay is more about setting intentions and where I want to focus. I am not going to be upset if I fail to do any of the above. This is not the way I want to live anymore. But I would like to try doing them and share why, that’s all.