Meta-beliefs: is the game of life worth playing?

I’ve spent a lot of time using the Abraham-Hicks teachings to feel better, largely by changing my thoughts.

But much of this work has taken place in the domain of everyday living, or on subjects like money, relationships, health and so on.

If life were a game, these thoughts and subjects would be the contents of the game – all the stuff the players play with.

Yet despite my progress in feeling better about the contents of the game, it turns out I have some strong thoughts or beliefs about the game itself.

At a relatively early age I doubted that the game was worth playing at all. I started to think it was a pointless, meaningless game, where none of the rewards were worth the effort required to attain them.

Nonetheless I felt I had no real choice but to play. Sometimes I was coerced or conscripted into playing, sometimes the pressures of the game forced my hand.

Once you start playing a game, you can’t help but feel invested to some degree, even if your overall attitude to the game is negative.

But it’s impossible to love playing the game while hating the game. It’s impossible to feel truly excited about winning while also thinking that winning is pointless and not worth the effort.

In Abraham-Hicks terms, this is some major vibrational discord.

Changing your meta-beliefs

A lot of the Abraham-Hicks methods are for people who struggle with a subject like money, and it helps them to recognise their conflicting thoughts: I’d love more money vs money doesn’t grow on trees, for example.

If you only have good-feeling thoughts about money you won’t resist or sabotage opportunities. Money will become an easy subject for you.

I haven’t found as much teaching on the meta-subject of life itself or existence itself. I think I’m slightly unusual in having embraced existential pessimism early in life, and ended up living in the shadow of those negative thoughts.

But all the same principles apply! Thinking that life is meaningless, pointless, and not worth the effort, is just another set of thoughts on a subject that can be soothed, softened and shifted gradually.

Life could be worse. This is not the most absurd and painful of all possible worlds. Parts of it are not as bad, some parts are better than others.

And what if “meaning” is not the only thing that gives life value and makes it enjoyable? What if there is more to life than meaning and purpose? What if enjoyment were the point of life?

If my thoughts create my reality, then haven’t I very likely experienced a whole lot of confirmation bias that life is not worth the struggle? Would I like to revisit this old belief just in case my youthful assessment was not as accurate as I thought at the time?

Reconsidering the game

Whether this game of life seems worth playing or not depends on what I think about it. How I feel about life is, in A-H terms, guidance as to the alignment or misalignment of my thoughts about life. Thinking the game is not worth playing feels bad because my inner being does not share that view.

When I know what I don’t want, I implicitly know what I do want. What I don’t want is for life to be a meaningless, pointless game where the rewards aren’t worth the struggle. Therefore what I do want is the opposite of that: I want life to be a meaningful and pointed game where the rewards are more than worth the struggle.

I asked for this many times over, yet instead of staying tuned into that desire I kept turning my attention back to the bleak unwanted perspective that inspired it.

I can change my reality if I change my thoughts, and focus now on what I have desired. I want this game of life to be fun, meaningful, pointed, rewarding, easy and enjoyable.

Count Your Blessings Day 10

Getting picky!

I can feel all of this work coming together.

I’m laughing a lot more and feeling good a lot more.

I’m really sensitive to “old stories” that don’t feel good.

In fact some things that felt good before – like my morning routine of getting my son ready for school – don’t feel so good now.

I want it to be an easier, more enjoyable process for us both. And it’s as if being happier has raised my expectations.

I don’t want to rush, and I don’t want to feel pressed or pressured. So I won’t.

It actually doesn’t matter if he’s late for school. What matters is that he gets enough sleep and we have a good time together.

What I love is walking him to school, playing the feeling game together, talking about how good the day is going to be.

I love the trees along our walk, especially the enormous fir tree in front of the old college.

I want to live among trees like that. That’s my dream.

I wrote all that just minutes before waking him up. While his breakfast cooked I helped him get dressed, and now he’s 90% ready, with 10 mins to go, and he’s still able to watch his favourite YouTube channel.

It can be easy, if we allow it to be! And we allow it by focusing on what we want and really feeling it.

Later

The walk was fun. If I focused on getting there my son got slower and more tired. But if I focused on enjoying the walk myself he sped up to walk alongside me.

We ran into an old friend on the way there and she stopped to chat as we walked along.

I’m now sitting in a garden beneath the amazing fir tree while I finish this post and ask myself “what next?”

What next?

I was contemplating wrapping up this Blessings series because I missed a day and wasn’t sure how to keep it going.But I can see that’s coming from a feeling of worry, when really there’s nothing about blogging that should inspire worry.

So I’ll keep letting it evolve and see where it takes me.

For now I think my original purpose has been served. Counting my blessings changed my perspective of what blessings are and how many I have.

It’s beyond counting now. Yet the focus on appreciating what is in my life is still valuable.

For appreciation to become my dominant feeling I need to practise it.

Are you living your purpose?

I used to long to find my purpose in life.

I imagined it as a place I was meant to be, a career I was meant to follow, an ideal or a teaching or talent that would bring me fulfilment in life if I just poured my whole self into it.

I thought I had found it in being a “problem-solver” of the intellectual kind. But however great it seemed at first, thinking for a living eventually grew old.

I wasn’t fulfilled by mastering complex ethical problems, and as my job in ethics came to an end I began to feel increasingly devoid of purpose and even prospects.

My grand spiritual quest was in stasis, my PhD ran into a brick wall, and the books I wrote didn’t provide the sense of purpose, direction, or income I’d hoped for.

The four temperaments taught me that ideals and meaning and therefore purpose in life were fundamental to my sense of self and my worldview. Yet thanks to my deeply pessimistic and world-weary outlook, I regarded these things as unreal.

Getting into positive thinking via the Abraham Hicks material has helped me enormously. But it only just occurred to me that I’ve still been looking at the world through the filter of my past disenchantment and despair of any real meaning or purpose.

What is purpose?

The real reason we want purpose is because we think it will feel good when we have it.

Try to analyse purpose and it loses its mystery.

Purpose is, after all, just an intention or a goal. It’s what you pro-pose or put forth.

But melancholics won’t be content with an arbitrary goal or a self-generated intention.

By our very temperament, we desire something greater and more powerful than ourselves, and that means something inherently mysterious.

That’s why all my attempted goals and paths lost their appeal as soon as I considered trying to make some kind of career out of them: what I sought was, by definition, to reduce them to predictable, repeatable and therefore non-mysterious processes or outcomes.

Mysterious power

And yet there was something I had encountered however briefly in my years of searching. I came upon it while trying to emulate the “acting without acting” of the Daoist canon. I think I hit upon it by accident and succeeded because there were no instructions, no real method, just a description and a feeling.

What I had was best described as a “mysterious power”, a product of faith, feeling, and intuition that I allowed intermittently to flow.

I found it again last night, trying to put my baby daughter to sleep.

I remembered the sense of ease, the feeling of alignment, the certainty (faith) that it would work because (mystery) I was aligning myself with this great power that creates, guides, and nourishes all things.

The feeling is most like those dreams where you discover you can fly just by focusing in a particular way with a kind of expectation and gentle certainty that allows you to find invisible footholds in the air, or simply levitate as easily as drawing in a deep breath.

It’s the feeling you get when you change ever so slightly the angle or focus with which you regard a familiar scene like your own living room. Everything changes and you suddenly appreciate it in a whole new light with a feeling of clarity and buoyancy like a gust of wind has filled the room and stirred everything in it.

Or like a lens suddenly coming into focus, and everything is sharp and crisp and you feel your control over that act of focusing, while everything else is securely in the flow of that mysterious power.

I never knew what to call it, and I tended to lose it in the past as soon as I ran into cold hard thoughts about “reality”.

But last night I allowed it to come to the fore, and with it came a shift in perspective. I wasn’t exhaustedly trying to get my daughter to sleep so my wife and I could relax, instead I was lovingly helping her to sleep so she could rest and refresh and grow.

With this mysterious power guiding me, buoying me and uplifting me I felt not only that I had the energy and the patience I needed, but also the sensitivity and the guidance to find the easiest and best path forward.

Better yet, that by staying in this feeling of power I was already on the right path, and everything else was coming together to make it work out perfectly.

Is purpose right for melancholics?

Whatever this thing is that I find fulfilling, it doesn’t match the idea of purpose. It’s much more like a way of being than an external goal – yet it is satisfying in the way that I always imagined an explicit purpose or direction would be.

It suits the melancholic longing for authenticity, meaning and the ideal.

So maybe that’s the purpose of life for a melancholic: to find authenticity, meaning, and the ideal; not for the sake of accomplishing other tasks, but as the goal in and of itself.

I’ve said before that being a melancholic is a bit like living in a fog. You can hear everything going on around you, but you can’t really see where you are going. This can lead to worry and anxiety, but it is also what makes us desire the ideal – because the ideal is always right no matter what is going on around you.

And when you know how to act, how to be, then you can at last be authentically yourself.

Terrifying moral dilemmas

A regular interlocutor and occasional sparring partner over at MercatorNet asked for my opinion as an ethicist on a difficult moral dilemma: should couples who are, or suspect they are, genetically predisposed to terminal illness or other serious disease avoid having children?

For me these questions hit close to home. It is not difficult to imagine having children with serious illnesses or disabilities, though it is undoubtedly more salient for people who have witnessed and experienced the same in their families for generations.

Difficult cases such as these seem overwhelming when considered in isolation. It does indeed appear prudent and reasonable to avoid having children in order to avoid certain or highly probable disease.

However, ethics forces us to think not only of the outcomes, but of the principles behind an action. This is reasonable in part because our ability to assess outcomes is heavily constrained. For example, how do we correctly weigh the value of a life lived for thirty years, cut short by illness?
Even in a strictly consequentialist sense, we are not equipped to predict what medical advances or discoveries may come in the future.

In terms of the principles behind the action: at first glance, simply avoiding having children does not appear to be as bad as, say, actively killing people in order to root out genetic faults or variables either in utero or in vitro. The harm done is not to the non-existent offspring (assuming non-abortifacient contraceptive methods or alternatively NFP methods).

The harm done is to the marriage, and to the otherwise-would-be parents themselves. The nature of the harm or error is multifaceted and not obvious. It ranges from the simple harm of missing out on the fulfillment and enrichment that offspring provide, to the perhaps more ‘existential’ harm of adopting a worldview in which one is able and morally required to act with certitude and control in regard to circumstances and outcomes that are generally speaking beyond both our knowledge and our true control.

However, this last point broaches on terrain typically regarded as ‘religious’ and not encouraged in public debate. But I would say nonetheless that if the purpose of life is to avoid suffering and delay death, then perhaps such actions are a noble sacrifice. But if the purpose of our life is more than that, or better yet, the context of our life is broader than suffering and death, then we may have hope that such painful moral dilemmas are not as closed and complete as they appear.

I think the melancholic temperament is well-suited to ethics because it searches always for the principle or ideal behind an action. Melancholics are not good with ‘exceptional circumstances’ or arbitrary redrawing of boundaries. If we decide as a society that it would be wrong for children with certain disabilities to not be born, then an ethicist should (quite rightly) start to look for the operative principle behind such a conclusion.

The melancholics are, I think, merely more sensitive than most to the principles that exert constant albeit imperfect influence on all humans. That is why the eugenic fantasies may begin on ‘safe’ territory with the killing of severely disabled infants or the execution of the very worst serial criminals, but they tend to end with the elimination of those unlikely to achieve good university GPAs, and the culling of people with minor impulses toward rebellion or unconventional behaviour.

Adelaide Feng Shui

Embed from Getty Images

The great Jesuit missionary to China Matteo Ricci was apparently not a fan of Feng Shui:

“What could be more absurd than their imagining that the safety of a family, honors, and their entire existence must depend upon such trifles as a door being opened from one side or another, as rain falling into a courtyard from the right or from the left, a window opened here or there, or one roof being higher than another?”

I’m not much of a geomancer myself, but as a hypervigilant person I appreciate the wisdom in, say, never sitting with your back to a window, or not having the front and rear doors of your house in alignment such that anyone standing at the front could see you running out the back.

But it’s not all about finding a position of strategic advantage in anticipation of violent attack; there’s also an aesthetic quality to the arrangement of buildings, furniture, and landscapes that is hard to ignore for all but the most insensitive people.

So I don’t know if it’s just aesthetics or something more deeply wrong with the arrangement of Adelaide, but coming back from interstate the dissonance is palpable.

First, there’s the plain.  Adelaide was built in the middle of a great, flat, seemingly featureless plain running between the hills and the sea.  It’s as if someone came in with a giant steamroller and rolled it all flat before settlement – though I’m yet to find such a myth in Aboriginal Dreamtime.

As such, Adelaide was built without any real limits on its expansion, offering our forbears the kind of absolute freedom that only dampens creativity.  The Adelaide plains are like an immense blank canvas, freedom without inspiration, growth without a corresponding challenge.  As such, what you get in the bulk of Adelaide is not real development but just ‘more of the same’, suburbs replicated without end, their limited character distinguished only by minor variations in age and more significant variations in socio-economic status.

What is lacking is a sense of proportion.  The plain would ‘work’ if there were something more significant to offset it: if the hills were more like mountains, if the city centre was a hive of overbearing towers and economic activity.

Better still if the plain were not a plain at all, if the city were forced to bend and blend into a range of natural undulations and contours, if the land itself had demanded more of its inhabitants, drawn from them some creativity, some ingenuity in response to genuine limitations of space and shape.

The founders of Adelaide responded to the lack of limitations by putting aside imagination, planning the city in an immense grid of parallel and perpendicular roads, thus proving for all time that the geometric elegance of a habitation is inversely proportional to its innate human character.

As Adelaideans will attest, it’s impossible to lose yourself in Adelaide since 99% of the major roads, not to mention the smaller streets, run either North-South or East-West.  Roads that run otherwise are the exceptions that prove the rule, at least one of which having thereby earned itself the moniker ‘Diagonal Road’.

Entering Adelaide via the hills, the grid-like feel is subtle yet all-encompassing. Look North up Portrush Rd, or West down Cross Rd and its as though you can see to the farthest reaches of the city.  The front door and the back are very much in alignment.

Such flat, uniform geometry is unnatural, and if there were some other profound redemptive feature it might not matter so much. Yet in a city that struggles to find a reason for being, Adelaide could hardly afford to be so regular, so unforgiving, so clear and up-front.

This unnatural arrangement is just one of the small yet significant contributors to the strangeness of Adelaide, a strangeness I am intent on unravelling as we ponder the mysteries of my adopted home, this uncanny city with no reason for existing.

 

What do you live for?

mountain view

View from a mountain in Fuzhou, South East China.

I was thinking this would be my 101st blog post, but apparently that was the previous one…

Nevertheless, I’d like to take the opportunity presented by this 102nd blog post to thank everyone who has read, followed, or commented in the past three months.  Having a blog has changed my approach to writing, and it’s been gratifying to have such a positive response from readers internationally.

Like everything in my life at present the blog remains in a state of development with its ultimate end still unclear.  Like parenting, writing, studying, kung fu, music, and no doubt every long-term human endeavour, there are always new levels of challenge, refinement, and skill.  Sometimes it seems like we’re going in circles, or back to the start, and I’m pretty sure at times I’m just repeating mistakes I was too stupid to learn from the first few dozen times.

At other times I think the mistakes are there to keep us humble, to remind us how good it is to be able to enjoy a night’s sleep without your child waking up screaming and crying, or how nice it is to be able to speak without the pain from a sore throat you got after leaving the fan on all night when it wasn’t really that hot.  Or how refreshing it can be to just sit quietly in your living room without obsessively checking your email or compulsively refreshing your favourite websites; listen instead to the traffic go by and readjust to the subtler pace of non-virtual reality.

I think I might be a Quietist at heart; not the Christian heresy, but the philosophical approach:

Quietist philosophers believe that philosophy has no positive thesis to contribute, but rather that its value is in defusing confusions in the linguistic and conceptual frameworks of other subjects, including non-quietist philosophy. By re-formulating supposed problems in a way that makes the misguided reasoning from which they arise apparent, the quietist hopes to put an end to man’s confusion, and help return to a state of intellectual quietude.

In chapter 48 of the Dao De Jing (Legge translation):

He who devotes himself to learning (seeks) from day to day to increase (his knowledge); he who devotes himself to the Dao (seeks) from day to day to diminish (his doing). He diminishes it and again diminishes it, till he arrives at doing nothing (on purpose). Having arrived at this point of non-action, there is nothing which he does not do.

The way I see it, we are all either adding to our troubles or subtracting from them.  Everything I’ve done since losing my job has aimed at letting that loss be a real benefit, the final step towards a freedom that I could not have justified under the financial imperative that drove me at that time.  Yet there is a risk of letting these new activities – especially blogging and writing – become a new form of enslavement, a mere continuation of the dysfunctional dynamic of employment albeit with no one to blame but myself.

Being free from a ‘bullshit job’ is a worthy goal when you are in the job.  But once you are free you need a new goal, one even more inspiring and worthwhile now that you have the freedom to pursue it.  As much as I’ve enjoyed writing about my freedom from employment, it’s not enough to keep me motivated.  And as a philosophically-minded person, a superficial goal will not suffice.  I may wish to one day buy a piece of land in the hills and build a house on it one day, but that’s not really a desire, that’s an eventuality.

You know that old line: do you live to work or work to live? I think the answer to that question is obvious. The next question is: what do you live for?  Taking my Quietist impulses seriously suggests that the answer to this question is, paradoxically, not an answer, but the state of quiet we arrive at only when we are utterly diminished; a freedom from disturbance or conflict, a stillness, a calm that is beyond our understanding.

The greatness of a goal is reflected in how insignificant all other worries and cares seem in comparison, just as the view from a mountain top makes everything else look small. In this state of quiet everything else does indeed seem small, and the question of ‘what to live for’ is put into perspective.  Whatever this quiet is, it has the feel of being ‘right’ and ‘real’ in a way that the ordinary messiness of daily life does not.  It transcends the more limited perspective of struggle and strive.  From it, we can enjoy a higher view of life.

 

“Follow your blisters”

There’s an apocryphal account that Joseph Campbell, the scholar of comparative religion and mythology and originator of the ‘follow your bliss’ saying, was unhappy with the hedonistic misinterpretation of his theme, and exclaimed:

I should have said ‘Follow your blisters.’

The original quote was apparently a reference to the Vedantic concept of Saccidananda: the threefold attributes of Brahman as ‘being’, ‘consciousness’, and ‘bliss’; not, it seems, an injunction to pursue freelance writing, or become a professional baker of cupcakes because that’s where you feel happiest.

Nonetheless, that’s how most people seem to understand it: do what makes you happiest and the path will open, and there are plenty of stories of successful people who took a chance based on doing what they loved.

But Campbell’s follow-up is equally apposite, because the whole point about doing what you love is that you are able to throw yourself into it more fully, to derive meaning from it, and therefore stand a better chance of excelling at it.

Take writing, for example: I’ve put more effort into two months of writing than I did in six to nine months of regular paid employment. It’s not that I shirked my responsibilities, just that initiative was not encouraged, and the work we were given was rather tedious and mediocre.

But because I love writing, I can put in comparatively huge amounts of effort and it feels like nothing. The effort still takes a physical and mental toll, but love of the work leaves me strangely oblivious to it, until I start wondering why I can no longer form sentences and my eyes feel like they’re filled with fine sawdust.

The fact is that Campbell’s transcendent Upanishadic triad of ‘being, consciousness, bliss’ and the more mundane idea of doing what you love do converge. In doing what you love, practising your art and your skill, pursuing something of the utmost meaning, you do in fact approach an experience of transcendence that accelerates and deepens your efforts. You love it all the more because it takes you beyond yourself, and brings you back with an even greater determination to transform this mundane reality, ordinary life, into something far more special, blisters and all.