Mindfulness in a difficult situation 1/2

Mindfulness takes people away from sadness over the past or worries over the future. What if the now feels stressful? With the brutal honesty this situation deserves, I describe the fleeting thoughts and finer insights I’ve been able to obtain by being in the moment as much as I could – in a difficult situation I caused. I felt it more, which was painful, but I also learnt more than I would have by not paying attention. Once again I learn that what made this situation difficult was rooted in the past or projected to the future. This story may be difficult to read for anyone who love animals, especially cats.

A charming new friend

I’ve always loved the furry little creatures. Maybe it is growing up with The Lion King as a favourite cartoon, I am not sure. Last Monday, coming back from work I felt quite lonely. There are a lot of feral cats near where I live. The community here feed them, it’s like a little sanctuary for them. In case you were wondering, cats can live in a kind of a pride, they’re not always solitary like it is normally presumed. I don’t usually pet them.  i tell myself the reason is that they have all kinds of parasites, etc. There’s something else that bothers me though:

I feel there’s something disingenuous about petting a stray cat. I am interfering with its life, implying that I can be good for the cat, but really I don’t know if I am habituating it to being accepting of humans when it shouldn’t necessarily be.

However, this cute grey kitten of about 8 months old sat there on a garden fence, looking at me. I came over to pet it and it seemed very happy. I was very happy too. We played for about 10 minutes and then she followed me for a long stretch of the journey home. I even wondered – should I bring her to stay in my garden, feed her, etc. But there are other cats living there, who knows what they’ll do. We passed by someone in a man hole and the cat didn’t want to keep going.

She made eye contact with me as I regretfully waved at her – and ran back to her part of the beach.

Talking to a friend later that day, I reminisced about the cat that we had when I was younger. She had to be given away as I had bad allergic rhinitis. My friend reassured me that it was good for me to befriend a cat like that, and it would be right to have the cat migrate from where it normally lives.

On Thursday I was passing by the same stretch of the beach. All of a sudden the very same kitty appeared out of nowhere. I know that dogs have a fantastic sense of smell, but this cat new who I was as it came over very confidently awaiting to be cuddled. About 10 minutes later, I decided it wouldn’t be right to play with the cat and not feed it. After all, these cutesy cats know how to play us: they are very used to getting fed by humans. So I decided that we shall cross the road and get some tuna in the shop. You know where this is going…

Watching the consequences of bad judgement in real time

I carried the cat across the road, but as we were finished crossing, agitated, she wanted to get out of my arms. And I let her. She jumped on the pavement. We were a good few metres away from the cars at this point – and all of a sudden she bolted back to run to the other side of the road.

The next moment seemed to last forever.

I don’t know how long it took her to get across. I remember the tiny pieces of cat fur vaporised in the air as if they were feathers. I remember anxious drivers mindful of their blind spots but also aware of the traffic behind them on a busy road… At the same time, it happened so fast, I don’t even know which car hit her. I stood there terrified. Even after it was injured it relentlessly kept searching for safety, breathing fast, its back arched and eyes wide open, pulling itself by its front paws.

I felt that I had taken this defenceless trusting creature, promised her safety and negligently let her fall into the Styx.

The adrenaline was pumping, but I knew that I couldn’t just go out into the stream of cars to save her. Between the traffic coming from 2 sides and the frantic cat, all at night time, there were more moving parts than I could safely handle.The hardest part was standing there, watching the poor cat trying to get to safety having absolutely no insight into how traffic works knowing that this wouldn’t have happened without me and realising my own powerlessness.

Most of this blog is in some way related to mindfulness.

By and large, mindfulness makes life easier to be mindful as the vast majority of moments are better than anxieties about the future or ruminations about the past. This wasn’t one of those moments.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget it – neither should I.

There were just seconds between being a happy friendly kitten and suffering the most intense fear and life-threatening injuries.

When I came over to her, her little heart was pounding so fast I could barely distinguish a pulse.

As I lifted her, it was obvious her back legs weren’t functional. She tried to climb into a bush, dragging herself by her front legs.

As a doctor, I have a certain confidence when it comes to emergency situations: I was trained to handle emergencies. However, it turns out this only applies to specific emergencies. Given the time of day, it didn’t even occur to me to look for a vet. Just like the cat’s, my instinct was to hide in my own metaphorical bush – carry her home, to my safety. As I carried her, I thought she might be dying. Cats’ pupils are usually so tiny. This cat’s were so dilated, I could barely see the green of her irises. She was supine in my arms, staring into space, hyperventilating and foaming at the mouth.

I’d never seen so much anguish in any creature’s eyes.

Reflection and rumination

What stopped me from crossing on my own to get the cat food? It seemed like it would be so much fun to go together. It seems that with all that scrolling through Instagram, I’d forgotten that animals aren’t a form entertainment. They have fragile lives that we don’t understand the same way that they do. One of the reasons I didn’t think that it was in issue to bring the cat across was that I’d seen plenty of cats crossing the road like they knew exactly what they were doing. I’ve seen a few lucky escapes by less than knowledgeable cats, but they somehow didn’t come up in my mind quite so prominently. It was possibly a semi-conscious decision to refuse insight as it seemed that doing things together with this cat was my way to connect with it and to feel less lonely. She’s a lonely stray cat, and I felt like a stray that day too.

It felt right to pick her up – and felt wrong to be overly calculated about it.

As she ran back across I tried to stop her. Even at that point, I was a bit scared but mostly confident she knew what she was doing.

There’s a certain arrogance that comes with being human.

When I picked her up the first time, I was sure I knew how to handle a cat. I felt I knew more about what’s good for the cat than she did. But really, what am I capable of? I can’t pause the traffic. I can’t keep a cat due to family circumstances. I can’t expect to find someone to home a sick cat in a country full of stray cats. I can’t even be sure I can pay the vet’s bills.

It’s a terrifying realisation: how fragile we all are. It is so hard to handle this concept. It’s hard to not feel helpless knowing how vulnerable we really are.

Not only was this creature fragile, but also lacking in insight. This poor cat didn’t know how it worked even though it lived by the road.

And it just reminded me of how we all are: we don’t know why things happen the way they happen.

Things seem random and dangerous. We try so hard, we give it all we’ve got, but we don’t know how to get to safety any better than this little kitten.

Guilt, guilt, more guilt

Is it all just guilt? There’s a lot of guilt. While everything I did was well intended, it was also negligent. I should have known that the feral cat isn’t that used to being picked up, that it may want to run home, that it may not understand how the road works.

It’s difficult to recognise that being well intended, I ended up putting this cat into a horrible situation.

At the same time I know that I was never going to be perfect. I err; it is my nature as a human being. I can forgive myself at some point, given that I learnt. It’s tough to write this. All of this is written while crying. I’ve been crying multiple times a day since this happened. It’s my n-th draft. The least I can do is learn and share what I learnt. I can’t let go of this until I learn everything I can – and of course, do everything I can for the poor cat.

Of course, I realise that all of these ruminations aren’t very mindful. However, I have no intention of purging them as I know they’re trying to teach me something. Most of this is written as they occur.

I know it’s better to acknowledge my thoughts and feelings: the good, the bad and the ugly rather than trying to get rid of them. It’s the choices and actions that count, so that’s my focus now.

No vet was open at this late hour. I rang a few “emergency” numbers where the vets all advised me to wait until tomorrow. I struggled to fall asleep. I tried to focus on my breath as my mind insisted on replaying the events of the night as well as all the ifs and the should haves… It was particularly hard to let go of those. I couldn’t, but I kept trying. I woke up very early the next morning. It wasn’t clear whether it was alive as it hid behind the air conditioning unit. I didn’t want to wake it. It was only a fleeting thought of yet another part of me that I am seriously not proud of that she was dead so that I wouldn’t have to face difficult decisions at the vet’s like having to “put her to sleep”. It wouldn’t be sleep though, would it?

When we got to the vet in the morning, this woman in her early 40s didn’t seem enthused at having to see a stray. She examined the cat: there was reason to believe that the spine could be broken and the bladder ruptured, both of which a guarded prognosis. I cried again in the vet’s office. The vet wasn’t in any way unprofessional, but she had a cold and clinical style. It seems I was sufficiently inconsolable to get her a bit more involved. When she was writing up the cat’s chart, the vet asked me what the cat’s name was. This is when I really stopped being able to speak through the tears. Obviously, cats don’t give consent, but if they did, I felt that I surely didn’t have it. I failed this animal, I didn’t have any rights over her and surely she was not the sort of cat who has a name. She was a feral cat, and it was time for me to finally respect that fact.

I am crying again while I am writing this. My emotions seem completely overwhelming.

I had a role to play in this cat’s misfortune. I made an error in judgement. I realised yet again our fragility and transience. It’s bad, but it doesn’t explain how intensely bad I feel.

Transference and empathy

To some extent, I feel that this isn’t a stray cat, but my old cat from years ago. Freud called it transference. On another level, I feel that I have much in common with the cat. I believe that is what they really call empathy. Being an NT type on Myers-Briggs, it seems to me that I don’t feel things as intensely or as quickly as some others seem to. I might come across as cold to some people, but I it’s not really what it’s like for me. I cry from watching films, reading books… I can’t watch fail videos… I couldn’t even finish Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, in the same way that, I would argue, the main character wouldn’t finish it either.

Having a habit of reading deeply into things, I wonder if being a thinking type (as distinct from a feeling type) is a form of defence – because experiencing real, insightful empathy is utterly intolerable.

Perhaps that’s why most nerds seem kind of maladjusted socially and don’t relate well to people.

IQ combined with EQ allows one to see things that are very scary – and nobody wants to be this scared. Perhaps having a high grade on both of these stops being evolutionary advantageous.

Of course,  it is about how one uses it, but even that requires constant overriding of primal limbic empathy. I remember seeing pictures of Syrian children that went viral and feeling awful on one level, simply as any human being would towards a harmed child, on another – recognising that such emotionally charged images are used to promote certain political interests, that most people who see the images don’t realise this and that this lack of insight from the mass readership of social media and newspapers is instrumental in the advancement of the said political interests. It’s not that I have the opposite political interest, it is the fact that politics is involved that made it feel nasty. In other words, suffering children are used to condition the masses in a way that suits some elite. This isn’t all that deep, but it’s just an example of IQ and EQ working together to show how the world is a hugely complex place. Why am I using the word complex? Why not just say that its nasty? Well, because I know that I don’t fully understand it. Maybe the consequences of this media reporting are going to be better than the alternative. I will never know.

A few attempts at rationalisation

Years ago, I read about Shingon Buddhism. It’s not something that is written about a lot on the internet or indeed in print. It teaches about right and wrong in a way that we’re not used to.

For example, if a tiger kills an antelope, we conventionally feel sorry for the antelope. There’s something wrong about it. In reality, the tiger needs to kill the antelope because its little tiger cub will shrivel and die otherwise. What is right and what is wrong?

We like the day and fear the night: but they can’t exist without each other. I guess Buddhism, in general, tells us that it’s difficult to judge what’s good and bad, at least as far as external circumstances we’ve no control over are concerned.

Of course, part of me is consoling myself and searching for a rationalisation. However, there genuinely may be some good that will emerge from this experience. Maybe my learning will help me – or someone reading this – to do something better than what we would have otherwise done. In a strange twist, a day or two before this happened, I was replying to someone’s comment and saying that meaning remains after death, regardless of whether one’s top of the food chain homo sapiens or… a feral cat. I hope she doesn’t die from this, but in any case, she is very meaningful to me.

Lessons I learnt

We’re all fragile. A moment can change everything. It’s a bad idea to interfere in another’s life as I don’t know nearly as much as I think I do about it.

What else did I learn?

At no point during the ordeal did the cat show any signs of giving up.

I am here lamenting and analysing. The cat is getting on with her life. Tildeb recently introduced me to some old English literature, and in particular this:

Whether fate be foul or fair,

Why falter I or fear?

What should man do but dare?

The cat doesn’t give up. The cat is always preoccupied with her surroundings. She’s constantly looking around and just does her best to adapt. The night before we went to the vet she cried, I assume for her relatives and because of pain. I’d never heard a cat cry before. It’s kind of like a dog squealing, but less protracted and a bit more like a meow. It’s also completely heart-wrenching.

I also learnt a huge amount about guilt, compassion, motivation, bias, empathy, sense of self and expectations.

To be continued….

mindfulness in a difficult situation
No words

Top 5 music apps for mindful focus

There are a lot of apps that try to leverage mindfulness, music and nature sounds so as to improve focus, productivity, help with healthy sleep as well as alleviate anxiety and help to overcome depression. Here are my picks:

1. brain.fm

Brain.fm is music designed for the brain to enhance focus, relaxation, meditation, naps and sleep within 10 – 15 minutes of use.

I am a big fan of house music. Brain.fm is kind of like house music without the bass drops.

In my experience, brain.fm does help to focus.

I wouldn’t call it pleasant – and it has given me a headache once or twice. The music isn’t composed by a human, instead an AI engine does the creative work. An interesting and scary thought.

Artificial intelligence is an expectedly dystopian composer. Listening to it, I get visions of abandoned Soviet steel factories at twilight – potentially infested with zombies. It does help with focus though!

Perhaps this sort of music makes the thing you’re meant to be focusing on more attractive – and that’s the real reason it helps to focus! I am sure the guys at brain.fm will figure out how to cheer that algorithm up with time.

Their research isn’t very useful at present as there is conflict of interest. All the same, they were able to show  some promising results:

best music for mindfulness meditation

In short, brain.fm claims that brains like rhythmic things, attention is rhythmic and they try to align this so as to increase focus.

Here is some background neuroscience.

The dynamic attending theory is the idea is that attention is modulated dynamically to optimise sensory processing at expected intervals set by a rhythm.

Many natural stimuli and actions are rhythmically organised, such as speech, walking – and music. The brain is able to predict the occurrence of subsequent events of interest and optimise their processing. When a rhythm is present in the environment, neuronal oscillations can synchronise to this external rhythmic stream. Again, no real conclusive research is currently available to back up their findings, but here is what they’ve been able to show:

best music for mindfulness and focus

The science part is a work in progress, but it looks good at the moment. Brain.fm is available as an app or you can try it for free on the website, however, you do have to give your email address.

2. Pause

Pause claims to pause the active mind and lower the mental workload, release stress and regain focus. It is inspired by the practice of Tai Chi, and it is all about the here and now.

You need keep moving your finger on the screen following a little circle in a lava lamp-like environment – and it provides feedback. If you’re good at following the circle, it tells you “Good”, “Continue at a slow pace”, etc. There are different difficulty levels. It also plays soothing sounds. The sounds aren’t dystopian, rather they are futuristic.

If you’ve seen the film Her, about a guy who fell love with an operating system (a very fancy Siri), it’s kind of like that – pleasant, full of light, but also a bit eery.

There are birds singing in the background. It is relaxing for sure, but it’s also kind of.. lonely or something. If you enjoy futuristic things, it’s for you. It’s 1.99 to get on the AppStore.

best mindfulness music apps

3. White Noise

White Noise is free and a pretty unassuming useful app. It’s recordings of things like the Amazon jungle, a fireplace, rain, thunder… It does exactly what it says on the tin and does it well. I know it’s not technically music, but it serves a similar purpose.

Pro tip: there are few things as calming as the sound of a fireplace. We’ve been conditioned for millennia to feel safe and connected while hearing that sound.

Another pro tip: the sound of barking induces anxiety. Again, conditioning plays its role.

Having said that, Calm does it all too and much much more. You may want to read about the best guided meditations for beginners to find out more.

4. Get work done music

Get work done music is a little indie gem of a page (you have to open it in a browser, it’s not an app per se). Again, it is missing the veneer of the apps listed at the top. It is basically a set of curated electronic dance music tracks from Soundcloud. I thought Spotify was great, but whoever chooses these tracks really knows what it takes to focus – or get into a full on trance. I would especially recommend this to anyone who likes mindful exercise.

Running, spinning or HIIT to this is a completely different experience to your normal playlist. This little app will fill you with energy better than any amount of caffeine. Unadulterated bass drops ahead.

5. Focus.fm

Focus.fm tells us it is beats for work, productivity, flow. In reality, it is sweet old house, gentle EDM with mellow bass and generally pleasant vibes.

Some tracks are painfully 1990s. I can just see a girl in a glittery tank top and platforms.

best music apps for mindfulness

It is beautifully simple, it doesn’t make any scientific claims. It didn’t really help me focus as such, but it’s a nice blast from the past.

6. The piano

OK, I know this is cheating, but really, none of these beat Frederick Chopin.

Have a mindful Monday all 😉

You may also like:

Mindfulness changes brain structure

Mindfulness colouring sheets

Fear: a millennial perspective

Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level

Ernest Becker

Fear of the passage of time

I recently came across the term chronophobia in the context of people doing exams: knowing that exam day is ever closer makes people anxious. Chronophobia was defined as an experience of unease and anxiety about time, a feeling that events are moving too fast and are thus hard to make sense of, in “Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s” by Pamela Lee.

Chronophobia isn’t a formal diagnosis, neither does it feature in scientific literature. In other words, it’s not really a phobia. It is more of an unpleasant feeling – one that is often expressed in art.

It is common in prison inmates, students in long academic programs and the elderly. When one is anxious, it is not only possible to be anxious about the event, but also its inescapable approach. Chronophobia is less about the doom and more about it being impending.

chronophobia anxiety about passage of time
Salvador Dali: The Persistence of Memory, 1931. The melting clock describes the feeling of chronophobia rather well

Chronophobia appears to be connected with heightened awareness of the passage of time that is inherent in distant deadlines for significant events.

This morning during my 10 minutes of mindfulness, something interesting bubbled up. I randomly remembered myself on an airplane travelling back to Moscow to visit family about 2 years ago. I felt a strong urge to be that person again, a bit like when I’m on vacation and towards the end, with a sigh, I think back to how liberating the first day off felt. Or when I reach the last bite of some dopamine-explosive dessert, I think back to how happy I felt when it was just put in front of me. We all love vacation and desert. However, my wish to be 2 years younger makes little sense. I was in the throes of a challenging 70-80 hours per week medical rota. It took much ingenuity to carve out enough time to travel. Is it regret? It wouldn’t be fair to say that the last 2 years were somehow a waste of time in any regard. Why do I feel so drawn to the thought of going back in time?

fear of the passage of time chronophobia
Salvador Dali: The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, 1954. Dali saw the fish as a symbol of life

Fear of opportunity cost

Aged 27, I frequently contemplate what it would go back to a previous point in time. I think it’s the understanding of the limited nature of time. I also worry about opportunity cost. In economics, there is the term opportunity (alternative) cost is the value of the option that we don’t choose when making a decision. [If I have 1 euro and buy a 1 euro can of Coke, I would have to forego the 1 euro Mars bar in order to have it. I would thus potentially worry about what it would have been like if they got a Mars bar instead.] The feeling is different to decision-anxiety. It’s not even about second guessing one’s choice, but more about imagining alternative paths.

The word decision literally means the cutting off – of other options. Thinking of the alternatives always reminds us of the unyielding nature of choice and how we really can’t literally “have it all”.

Robert Frost’s famous (infamous?) “The Road Not Taken” is a brilliant and often misinterpreted examination of the nature of choice. It is important to recognise the speaker’s deliberation: he says the roads are much the same: “just as fair”, “really about the same”, “equally lay”.

“The Road Not Taken”, a frequent feature of post-card philosophy, is often oversimplified to say that the speaker chose the less travelled road – and, woohoo, that’s amazing. It’s more complex than that.

The speaker admits that he left the first road “for another day”. While he knew he would never go back, the torment of admitting the final nature of choice is just too much. 

One can get very detailed when describing their particular fear. I certainly don’t support the idea of including “fear of opportunity cost”, “fear of the passage of time” or even “fear of choice” as phobias into the DSM. Indeed, this is perfect ground for thinking by induction. Is there a common thread here?

fear of death emotional coping mechanisms
Hans Holbein the Younger: The Ambassadors, 1533. Note the anamorphic skull in the foreground. It surely is a reminder of death

Boiling down fears to a common denominator: could it be death?

Why does chronophobia affect students? Time forces them to deal with events that will affect serious aspects of their lives such as their future careers – and thus even more permanent things like social class, the kind of people they will be likely to marry and so on. Exam results’ effects are by no means definitive, but probabilistically they are significant.

It has become popular to say that there are only 2 human emotions: fear and love.

Everything negative is a form of fear. It kind of makes sense: anger is a way of defending one’s point of view, property or whatever other boundary. Being sad is a fear that one will never be as happy as they were before as a result of an event (not talking about depression here). Disgust is a fear that something will negatively impact one’s existence. You get the gist.

The other popular thought is that all fear is a form of the ultimate fear – of death.

Going back to chronophobia again, why does it affect the elderly? Time threatens the existence of the elderly. It threatens all of our’s existence, but the elderly are more aware of it – mostly for social and cultural reasons. Now, none of us are deluded enough to actually think we’re not going to die. However, as Ernest Becker points out:

we have 2 ideas of the self: the physical and the symbolic.

In my opinion, our rationality only extends as far as the physical self. We are preoccupied with ways to immortalise our symbolic self. As per the “Mahabharata”:

“The most wondrous thing in the world is that although every day innumerable creatures go to the abode of death, still man thinks that he is immortal”.

fear of being insignificant
Salvador Dali: Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937. Dali had an interest in psychiatry

The recent debate that followed my discussion of the role of validation in our self-esteem sparked some follow on thoughts. In short, it showed that people with narcissistic tendencies experience much emptiness or even self-hatred – and validation is used to take the edge off. However, as all creatures who make choices, people with narcissistic tendencies are subject to avoiding pain and seeking pleasure (thank you, Dr. Freud). Clearly, they find narcissism more tolerable that the alternative. How could this be?

What if those who crave validation to feel good about themselves chose to be this way because the alternative – knowing that one is inherently valuable, without any validation – makes the thought of inevitable death absolutely intolerable? If one feels that they’re not that valuable, dying isn’t quite as scary or tragic.

Realising that a person is valuable, getting attached and then letting go is much harder than never getting attached – in this case to your self, as is the case with death. This devaluation allows people to cope with the fear of death. At the same time, the person with narcissistic tendencies maintains the upside of being able to work on “their immortality projects”, like winning medals and getting promotions. This is just a hypothesis of mine. I understand that I have no idea what Steve Jobs was really like. A lot of people say that he was an obnoxious narcissist. He said this, which happens to be congruent with my hypothesis:

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

There are other psychologically sneaky ways that we deal with the fear of death that have stood the test of time (well, since 1974 or so when “Denial of Death” was published):

Becker argues that everything we do: writing books, starting businesses, having children are all ways to transcend – and not have to deal with – death.

It makes sense too: the thought that everything one ever does will disappear into oblivion is so hard to accept that in order to keep going we find ways to defy death’s erasure of our existence by leaving a legacy.

fear of being insignificant

One’s own death is hard to imagine. It is as if we believe we will still be alive on some level after we die, but unable to act on our dreams and stuck reminiscing of the time we were alive and lamenting we didn’t do more.

If leaving a legacy isn’t an option, then one can choose to believe in the afterlife to help themselves cope with the concept death.

Paradoxically, dying may be a way to transcend death. Physical death could be a route to symbolic immortality. Just think of war heroes.

While death could explain a lot of our autopilot behaviour, we don’t seem to want to think about it very often. We are told to think positive thoughts instead.

To think, or not to think – about death

all fear is fear of death
...what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil…

Constant reminders of death were common all throughout the last millennium: having a skull on one’s desk was kind of like having sticky notes or an extra mouse. An experiment where people were asked to write about death before they were asked about their country’s war efforts showed that thinking of death made people more enthusiastic about war -as it adds meaning, purpose, a sense of belonging, a feeling of impact…

The Stoics came up with a variety of reasons and hacks to not fear death such as the symmetry argument: fearing death is like fearing the fact that one wasn’t alive before one was born. I won’t go down the rabbit hole of explaining how to fear death less.

The purpose of my reflection isn’t to say we shouldn’t fear death, and it will all be fine. It is more of an inquiry into what behaviours of ours are motivated by the fundamental, underlying fear, which so far appears to be that of death. However,…

It’s not death we fear, it is not having an impact

Is it really death we fear? I think a better way of putting it is that we fear that we’re inconsequential, insignificant, that we made no difference through our existence.

For those who insist that it is a fear of death: it’s that of the symbolic self. For those who insist that our biggest fear is to not be loved: to have someone love one is probably the biggest impact one can have on another human being. Perhaps, it is the ultimate, or the one that really count. I am not sure. However, my point remains: it is about impact.

It could just be a millennial’s take on it. With a lesser role of traditional religion in today’s society, millennials have the unfulfilled need for meaning – and have a habit of finding it in the most peculiar places.

My recent discussion of meaning according to Nietzsche prompted many to comment that the fact that we die and that the universe will ultimately end (something to do with the Sun and physics) implies that there could be no meaning in our lives. I don’t follow this argument. To me, it is like saying there’s no point in eating because you’ll get hungry again. Clearly though,

for a lot of people death is the ultimate enemy in a game rigged against them.

I used the word impact above for a reason. I could have said consequence or meaning, but something stopped me. Both of those words are overused and call to mind all kinds of associations. Furthermore, I thought of animals. They are driven largely by the same evolutionary forces as we are, and I think we overestimate the extent to which animals are different. They may not have insight, but they are a reflection at least of how nature intended things. To illustrate, I will use an example I recall from watching a BBC documentary on giraffes. Two massive male giraffes were fighting for a female. How on earth do giraffes fight, I hear you ask. Well, they violently swing their entire necks to strike. The force of the swing is enough to shatter their skulls. The battle went on to the point of near death… for the sake of a female. The giraffes decided/were driven by nature to go that far just to reproduce – so death is less important than an opportunity to have impact, which, for giraffes I think is reasonable to assume, is to have progeny.

I don’t think that the fear of not having an impact is the same as the fear of failure. One can fail, but still achieve a lot and have an impact. Failure is defined in terms of a percentage of the way to realising a dream. Impact, or lack thereof, is much more real.

I feel that a human being on their death bed is likely to think of what impact they have had, not where they ranked compared to their dream.

fear of not making a difference
Salvador Dali: The Elephants, 1948. Not quite giraffes, but close enough

On the bright side…

There is a “cure” for fear of choice

Going back to my own ENTP-torment of being more interested in talking about choices rather than actually making them, I am looking for some kind of resolution. N. N. Taleb, a favourite writer of mine, is popularising the concept of optionality. He argues that having options is a great thing:

Optionality is the property of asymmetric upside (preferably unlimited) with correspondingly limited downside (preferably tiny).

It’s not really a way to get out of making choices. Instead, it is a way to do what you were going to do anyway, but leaving cheap enough nets here and there to see if one day something nice washes up in one of them such that covers the cost of having had the nets n times over.

He argues against specialisation (i.e. going down too far in the decision tree of choices or going down to the end of just one branch). We are all familiar with specialisation success stories. The Nobel Prize goes to the person who studied a particular enzyme for 30 years. The startup that solves a specific problem in one particular niche is the one that does well. Kim Kardashian has one thing going for her, and she’s taken over the world…

Taleb reminds us that there are cemeteries of specialised ventures and people. Just because the successes that make into the media are specialised, doesn’t mean all of them are. Specialisation comes from the propensity to make choices. It is not the only way to achieve something. Hence, it is possible that the act of making choices is overvalued.

Richard Branson has over 400 companies. Is it because he is greedy – or perhaps because he understands that specialisation is a dangerous game to play? Venture capitalists and angel investors back things in a non-specialised way. All financial investors do. It may look like it is specialised on the surface, but it really isn’t. Biotech, or robotics, isn’t a specialisation. These are incredibly broad fields. It’s like saying blogging is a specialisation. Investors take directional bets once is a while, i.e. ones that really require a choice, but they do so in a way that for every 1 euro they invest, they stand to gain 10, and only invest a tiny fraction of their euros into these schemes. This is exactly congruent with Taleb’s definition of optionality.

I have fabulously rationalised away the pressure to make choices here. However, the real work is in putting oneself into situations where optionality can be exercised.

The older I get, the more I realise that there’s quite a lot of engineering involved in all of this. It’s not so much about going after specific visions, but creating situations where visions can flourish – and ultimately have an impact.

millennials fear not having an impact
Maybe, the millennial/Gen Y variety of man (and woman) are a bit different…

You may also like:

Millennial corporate office workers and their transgender bathrooms

Millennial ENTP struggles

Nietzsche’s meaning

Anthropologists have long known that when a tribe of people lose their feeling that their way of life is worthwhile they […] simply lie down and die beside streams full of fish.

Ernest Becker

What is nihilism?

Nihilism is a confusing term. It can mean rejection of societal norms (political nihilism). This is not what I am going to discuss here.

I will talk about Nietzsche’s definition of nihilism: the radical rejection of value, meaning* and desirability.

I think this communicates the most important concepts. Of course, there are more specific definitions, so I will get them out of the way here. There is moral nihilism that says that there is no right and wrong. Epistomological nihilism says there is no universal truth or meaning. Existential nihilism rejects meaning in life.

why we need meaning in life

Stoicism vs nihilism

Stoicism is really en vogue these days. Seneca’s writings have grabbed my attention early last year and haven’t really let go. First, his Moral Letters are incredibly easy to read – compared to most undigested original philosophical texts (e.g. A. Schopenhauer). Second, they make one feel good, a bit like after watching Pulp Fiction. I was starting to wonder – what’s the catch? My “too good to be true” radar was going off.

Here’s a short summary of Seneca’s views:

  • life is set in circumstances that we’ve no control over;
  • it is possible to get through life by working on our response – not on the circumstances;
  • there is no need to fear death because
    • it is just like the blissful nothingness that came before we were born;
    • it would, so to speak, “end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”;
    • we didn’t earn life – it was given to us by circumstance. Hence, we cannot expect to hang on to it.

Nietzsche on meaning of life and nihilism

This doesn’t sound so bad. In fact, it is quite resonant with the ultimate optimist Viktor Frankl: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves” and more or less the basis of modern day talking therapies like CBT and REBT. However, Seneca is quite pessimistic. Having re-read his letters a number of times, I picture him as a man who barely endured his life.

Any modern psychiatrist would say Seneca had a passive death wish.

It’s also interesting to remember that he was one of the wealthiest people of all time. Here’s a telling quotation from Letter 65:

“The wise man, the seeker after wisdom, is bound closely, indeed, to his body, but he is an absentee so far as his better self is concerned, and he concentrates his thoughts upon lofty things. Bound, so to speak, to his oath of allegiance, he regards the period of life as his term of service. He is so trained that he neither loves nor hates life; he endures a mortal lot, although he knows that an ampler lot is in store for him.”

Nietzsche famously pointed out that Christianity is nihilistic in the sense that it is denying the value of one’s current existence and instead placing it on a dream of a better afterlife.

By that same logic, Seneca too seems nihilistic. One might argue that in the context of Seneca thinking of death – it is kind of hopeful.

Nonetheless, Seneca belittles the value of the current life, encourages escapism and hope for, essentially, life in heaven after death.

At the same time, Seneca repeats that we have limited time on Earth and we better use it wisely. Just like Christianity, this philosophy appealed to all strata in society. Using either philosophy, anyone could be a hero by thinking themselves so. In a sense, one is less responsible for their actions as this world doesn’t really matter. Certainly, making the right choices matters – as it will be assessed for the purposes of a heaven vs hell decision, but it presents life as something that happens to a person – and the person has little agency. Having said that, much of what Seneca demands of Lucilius could safely be called overcoming-oneself, a cardinal virtue according to Nietzsche.

Nietzsche on nihilism

Meaning by school of thought

Unbound by any aspiration to philosophical scholarship, I have taken the liberty of making these one liners on how different schools/philosophers viewed meaning:

Stoics: there is meaning, it is to be wise and kind;

Schopenhauer: there is meaning; awareness of suffering and death create the need for meaning;

Buddhists: there is meaning, but it is ambiguous;

Hinduism: there is meaning; it is to shed the illusion and realise the unity of the universe;

Christianity: there is meaning; the meaning is to live so as to attain entry into a superior world;

Nietzsche: there is meaning; meaningful suffering is sought after, meaningless suffering is a curse – more on this later;

Nihilists: there is no meaning.

are stoics nihilist

A nihilist’s escape routes

Being a bone fide nihilist is intolerable: there’s nothing to wish for, nothing makes a difference – like the tribes that encountered Western culture described by E. Becker in the epigraph, one may as well lie down and die. It’s a state fundamentally indistinguishable from severe and enduring depression.

Those who proclaim they are nihilistic and still go on about their lives as if nothing’s wrong are probably hedonistic, or have some kind of meaning they simply don’t call meaning. Or, they are like Anony Mole who appears to think that meaning is a psychological hack to staying motivated to live on, but ultimately hypothesising that there is no meaning at all.

For someone who doesn’t see meaning in life there’s another option, however. It is to defer meaning to one’s next life. In this sense, Christianity is a form of escapism away from nihilism.

In Christianity, the purpose of life is to live one’s current life in a certain way and attain entry into an alternate, “real and true” world – heaven. At first glance, it would seem that Nietzsche is overreacting by accusing Christianity of being nihilist. Christianity is full of ways that make this life meaningful. On closer reflection, the motivation behind acting according to the tenets  of Christianity is that someone, from a place that we all really belong in, said that it is the right thing to do. This life is only a smoke and mirrors version of the blissful life in heaven. Nietzsche rejected true world theories as nonsense. He demonstrated that it was an assumption of his – and ultimately unknowable. Richard Dawkins says it’s intellectual cowardice to not come down on one side or the other. I think it is intellectual cowardice to not admit that there are certain things that we just don’t have a way of knowing.

Despite his rejection of true world theories, Nietzsche understood that they are the fabric that holds people’s lives together.

Of course, there are many more true world theories than Christianity, but it is the one that dominates the Wester world today. For example, Marxism is a true world theory – yearning for a future utopia. Nietzsche also argued that a Christian heaven helps the human sense of self: it is kind of validating to know that, really, one belongs in a special true world – not here.

Pema Chodron wrote about the psychology of our need for such a world in an accessible way. [There’s a funny story to go with that. I was sitting on the beach right after reading Chodron, reflecting on the ways in which we’re conditioned to want a fatherly God. An elderly man approached me and wondered if I was OK – I guess I must have looked distraught. It’s rather unusual for a man in his 80s to approach a random person on a beach, so I was wondering what’s going on. He didn’t say much, just asked again if I was ok and if I like reading. He reached to hand me a brochure – looking directly at me – and said only this one thing: “Oh, and there is a God”. I thanked him, mind-boggled. After he walked away, I looked at the brochure – turns out he was a Jehovah’s witness. I didn’t know they mind read.]

Besides turning to true world theories, there is another way to avert the pain of nihilism.

Like David Foster Wallace pointed out, there’s no such thing as atheism. We all believe something.

Science slowly becomes scientism and provides explanations for things it can and cannot explain. Following a political movement gives a sense of belonging. Our culture is a kaleidoscope of options for all tastes.

meaning of life nihilism

Searching for meaning is nihilistic

Nietzsche argued that asking the question “What is the meaning of life” and demanding an external answer by some superhuman authority diminished the value of the person asking – as if it comes from a lack one’s faith in their own ability to figure it out.

Nietzsche argued that nihilism arises when people get disillusioned with their default set of beliefs – let’s say beliefs that are inherent in one’s cultures – and take this disillusionment to more generally mean that no beliefs could ever be satisfactory.

This view of nihilism is once again almost indistinguishable from depression. Nietzsche expressed it best here:

“A new pride my ego taught me, and this I teach men: no longer to bury one’s head in the sand of heavenly things, but to bear it freely, an earthly head, which creates a meaning for the earth.”

nihilism in christianity and stoicism Nietzsche

Prof. Nietzsche’s meaning of life

So what did Nietzsche himself think the meaning of life was? It was to realise one’s inner potential.

Nietzsche believed in radical responsibility: it is only ourselves who we have to blame if we miss our life’s calling.

To him, we weren’t all born human. We become human by realising our potential. This is what he meant when he said “become who you are”. Fear and laziness are our ultimate enemies. Incidentally, this sounds like it is straight out of Seneca’s writings. Nietzsche claimed there was a higher self, a kind of will that dragged us to become who we are. To me this is terribly reminiscent of a true world theory albeit one confined to the self and to this life. His method was through setting difficult goals pursuing which elevates the soul. Congruent with the traditions of Buddhism, Nietzsche argued that suffering isn’t inherently bad – and one doesn’t need to immediately try and fix it or worse, distract oneself away from it. It is an opportunity for growth and wisdom, according to Nietzsche.

Nietzsche on meaning of life

I guess it comes down to awareness, adaptability and agency again. This whole piece makes me sound like a Nietzsche fan girl. In a sense, it’s true, but he was a bit too anti-social, self-contradicting and melancholic for my liking. I will put that in more analytical terms at a later stage.

You may want to read

Kevin Simler’s reflections on meaning

Schopenhauer’s genius and mindful boredom

*[To be clear, we’re talking about meaning to a given person, not some universal, objective meta-meaning because ultimately an attempt at identifying this universal meaning will always be the meaning to the person thinking about it, or a projection thereof. This is one of the reasons humans are so naturally self-centred. David Foster Wallace describes it well here. As seen above, none of the major philosophies really even try to answer what the ultimate meaning of the universe is. This is probably because the question isn’t asked very often. This author is more interested in the tangible psychology of it – than the unknowable philosophy].

“What… is water?” asks the fish

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.

David Foster Wallace

I got into a merry debate with the lovely Pink Agendist about choosing day-dreaming versus being in the moment that ultimately elicited that we broadly agree: reality is a hugely interesting topic. In his touching speech, David Foster Wallace says :

The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

In a disarming manner, he admits that he isn’t saying anything ground-breaking. His point, however, is that it is so hard to keep the important thoughts in front of us that they are worth repeating. It seems that from Buddhists to Seneca to Darwin, the main philosophical thought that resonates with me is: be aware and adapt. Even in his seemingly grim Letter 61, Seneca says:

Let us set our minds in order that we may desire whatever is demanded of us by circumstances, and above all that we may reflect upon our end without sadness.

Few concepts send my mind into a spin like this. Part of me resists: humans accomplished what they’ve accomplished by defying their odds, not by accepting what is demanded of them. Siberia demands that you freeze to death or leave, for example. However, I think it is a misinterpretation on my part. Seneca is instead saying: find a way to use this situation. What is demanded is that one figures out how to chop wood and sustain a fire, so one has to manage themselves in such a way that they could do this eagerly and well. This one sentence explains the nature of cognitive behavioural therapy used today: changing one’s mind will change one’s emotions – and how one behaves. The point isn’t to idolise Seneca. I am sure that many generations of John the Caveman said it before him. The point is that the concept is as relevant today as it ever was.

Another part of me says: what are the circumstances – and what do they demand? I made a little graphic to show the nature of my confusion. Understanding the circumstances may require the sort of insight that I am not even aware exists.

developing self awareness though mindfulness

I haven’t figured out another way to get closer to understanding any of the above other than through mindfulness and reading the works of philosophers that stood the test of time. Even then, reading a philosopher’s thoughts is secretly wishing that someone else has it all figured out. This is another brilliant point that David Foster Wallace brings up: even if one doesn’t think that they have a religion, they still worship something – and have some kind of default setting:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship… The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings.

Just like Pema Chodron explains, it is part of human nature to assume that someone else has the answer. After all, that is what we are conditioned to believe as children through the behaviour of adults – they always know best. When we ourselves become adults, that void is then filled with some kind of worship. The only way to snap out and have the ability to choose again, even for a moment, seems to be by being in the moment.

I am tangentially involved in game development and recently came across a game called The Stanley ParableIt involves a corporate employee and his choices. The game is incredibly philosophical, touching on the concept of choice and free will – and I couldn’t do it justice here. However, if you have nothing to do on a dark January night, it will rock your world.

Have a mindful weekend, everyone.

Don’t change the channel

Mindfulness is effective in treating many mental health problems and psychiatric conditions. For those who don’t suffer from the above, it seems to still be beneficial in terms of focus, mood, relationships and results – based on many people’s personal experiences. Why then, is it so difficult at times? It is difficult for the same reason than escapism is easy. I am not Bill Murray’s biggest follower, but in one interview he said:

I would like to be more consistently here… I would like to see what I could get done if I didn’t cloud myself with automatic [thoughts]… If I were able to not change channels in my mind and body.

everyday mindfulness not day dreaming

He didn’t say anything ground-breaking, but his channels analogy really struck home with me. Having listened to this interview in the morning, I was on an uncomfortable journey between two cities today. To the right of me was a morbidly obese gentleman who sprawled himself across about three seats in an unorthodox position rarely seen in public. To the left – a lady who evidently led a lifestyle that didn’t involve too much personal hygiene. Having sneakily moved to another seat, I was putting my headphones in, prepared to sail away into a safe and pleasant day-dream. However, in my mind, I could hear the echo of the interview: don’t change the channel. Some voice of cognition questioned what I could possibly gain by being present when the present is like this? I wasn’t sure. What did I have to gain by being in a day-dream? A mindfulness devotee would surely say: nothing. Well, if people never day-dreamed, we would still live in caves. If we didn’t rehearse situations, ruminate, “mind-read” and obsess, the world would be different. I guess some may even argue it would be better. I am not sure.

I wish it was clear cut. I wish this story had an elegant twist where being present resulted in some kind of miraculous revelation. Instead it made me more aware that it is as easy to slip into the mindfulness cult as it is into a day-dream.

Ironically, Spotify shuffled to a nice house remix of R. Kelly’s Bump and Grind. As my mind was indeed very distinctly telling me “No“,  I took my headphones out. I could feel so much resistance. It angered me and made me sad that instead of floating off into a day-dream, I righteously deemed it necessary to stay in the present moment. I felt a bit like a Brave New World character without her soma. It felt necessary to stay present though. I ended up just being aware – of a storm inside.

Now, at the end of this mindful day, I can’t proudly declare that I feel at peace. There was no external conflict whatsoever, but I feel like I’d been in a blazing row for hours. With it though, there’s a certain exhausted clarity, like everything has been unreservedly said and it is all out in the open.

Faced with a choice like this again, I will probably choose mindfulness over the day-dream – again. I will stick with this channel called Reality, as we know it, rather than If I were with my friends or some other blissful escape route to rainbows and unicorns. Being honest, in part it is because I “read it in a book” and the high priests say it’s good for me. However, in part it is because I appreciate just how rarely I am even present enough to make this choice.

The day-dreams will happen regardless, the awareness won’t.

how to stop daydreaming

Validation and self-esteem

I’ll drop my glove, to prove his love; great glory will be mine.

Leigh Hunt

Vanity and fair are simple words. However, it was only recently that I understood what these words mean together. In more contemporary English, it means an exchange of validation between two people. What got me thinking about it is the book I recently read by Robert Cialdini called Influence. It describes the mechanics of how easily people’s need for validation  can be used to play them in a Machiavellian way.

Validation is always a treat. We must be wired for it. Given that humans are social animals, it makes sense to yearn for validation as it increases one’s chances of survival. If one is part of a tribe (i.e. accepted/validated by the tribe), he/she is less likely to get eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger. However, it seems that this pathway gets hijacked an awful lot.

addicted to validation

I think the best way to explain this is by looking at an extreme example: narcissism, because the logic is the same no matter where someone is on the spectrum. I grew up with and subsequently encountered some florid narcissists – though I didn’t always know it at the time. While the full blown narcissistic personality disorder is relatively uncommon, traits thereof appear quite ubiquitous. I will loosely use the word narcissistic here to signify anyone with traits of the disorder. During my late teens I loved high-achieving people and hated arrogance. It made no sense to me why somebody would act so unpleasantly. I thought that arrogant people believe they are better and that I am not worth their time. It turns out that’s only half-true.*

I subsequently figured out – through a mix of psychiatry training and reading (Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence is brilliant for this) – that arrogance is a form of insecurity. However, the exact same insecurity can be revealed through being super friendly (hence, not all narcissistic people are arrogant**).

Much of it boils down to the source of one’s self-esteem. I hypothesise that a self-esteem based on external circumstances is one of the factors that contributes to much unhappiness and perhaps even the poorly understood personality disorders – such as narcissistic, histrionic and emotionally unstable.

What does that actually mean? What is it like to be narcissistic (or a person with some narcissistic traits)? Most people think they are deluded with their own glory. This can be true – if the narcissistic person doesn’t have insight into just how hooked they are on validation. Sadly, having insight doesn’t instantly cure it. If the person with narcissistic traits does have insight, it’s a never ending cycle of feeling high from validation, feeling pathetic for being like that and seeking more validation to take the edge of. New Insights Into Narcissistic Personality Disorder highlights their fragility, internal vulnerability and external self-enhancement, their attempts to regulate insecurity by numbing emotion, especially in interpersonal contexts and their preoccupation with blame, and criticism.

For some, it is “I think therefore, I am”. For people with narcissistic tendencies, it is “I produce a good reflection, therefore I am worth existing.”

Interestingly, patients with narcissistic personality disorder have intact cognitive empathic ability and can identify with thoughts, feelings, and intentions of others. However, their capacity for emotional empathy is compromised, especially their ability to care about and share feelings of others.

Having one’s self esteem decided by external factors is hugely painful. It’s like waking up every morning and feeling awful about oneself – and yearning to encounter something or someone in the world that will prove that one’s actually worth something. No amount of proof will ever stop this feeling of emptiness for very long.

This proof could be likes on a social media post, getting any sort of good news, a reassuring friend, attention from a member of their desired sex – anything that reminds them that they aren’t near worthless (which is the default setting). This is also why so many narcissistic people are high achievers. Actually “being the best” is sometimes the only way to get rid of the pain.

If one’s self-esteem is only lifted from the depth of despair by accomplishments (validation), then he/she will do anything to accomplish – and ease the pain.

If one’s self-esteem is set externally, validation is like an addictive drug. If it’s  set internally, validation is like an occasional glass of wine. These two types of self-esteem are also knows as contingent and non-contingent.

However, what does that even mean, “set internally”? Having an interest in mindfulness, I often come across things like loving-acceptance, unconditional positive regard, etc. Maybe the reader understands them better, but more often than not, they make me feel like there’s something fake there. To me, an internally-controlled self-esteem means answering the question: is a person proud of his/her actions.

It’s impossible to hold oneself fully responsible for one’s circumstances. Yes, over time, patterns emerge that reflect the small decisions made everyday. However, there is so much beyond our control that one needs to be cautious making conclusions about themselves based on results. As all of these kind of musings, this is specific to the person in question. Some people are perhaps too laid back about how much they control and others – too intensely determined to control everything. (See this post on how to find good tailored advice.)

I think that one has to always learn from their results, but it isn’t always true that their results are a reflection of their actions. Even learning from results is tough because it is so hard to attribute results to causes.

So to bring one’s self-esteem back to being internal, one can only judge whether he/she is happy with their actions and decisions given the information they had at the time.

This post is to some extent inspired by N.N. Taleb’s commencement speech transcript. It’s not like any commencement speech I’d heard before. He says:

…I have a single definition of success: you look in the mirror every evening, and wonder if you disappoint the person you were at 18, right before the age when people start getting corrupted by life. Let him or her be the only judge; not your reputation, not your wealth, not your standing in the community, not the decorations on your lapel.

Taleb says that by his definition, he’s not successful. Fair enough. However, he doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who lacks in self-esteem. This goes back to how different people use the same words to mean different things. Obviously, to Taleb being successful is a kind of a luxury, not a must-have. Otherwise, if one looked in the mirror and resented themselves everyday, that’s a shortcut to despair.

need for validation ruins self-esteem

I wonder what it’s like for other people. For me, my 18 year old self had no clue about how the world works, so I can’t adopt this definition of success – it’s pretty useless to me. Maybe though, that’s Taleb’s point – that one should think back to their idealistic self and see what they would think. I probably shouldn’t say what my 18 year old self would think of me now, but I do wonder what Taleb got up to so that he doesn’t approve of.

I think that’s it though – reconnecting with one’s internal self-esteem is an uncanny exercise of separating oneself into two people and getting one to judge the other’s decision and actions – not their results.

Perhaps, at this point the concept of acceptance become relevant. Otherwise, it is the same old addiction to validation sugar coated with forced positive thinking.

* Whether a narcissistic person believes they are better depends on their insight into the need for validation and their actual achievements. However, narcissists do prefer to associate with people they see as being worthy of surrounding them.

** Some narcissistic people are sweet and charming. Different people use different strategies to feel special and seem worthwhile to others.

Get these blog posts via Facebook!

how to regain self-esteem narcissism