On flinching

It’s the feeling that makes you want to stay under the covers. You feel an overwhelming urge to dive into something engrossing; to consume, not to be satiated, but so you don’t have to dwell in the alternative. I feel it as a bodily sensation – a painful twisting in my chest, a slight tingling all over like there would be an itch to scratch if any of it would just coalesce into something stronger.

This is impulsivity – the feeling of impulse – from the inside.

Once, on a melancholy but restless day, I got dressed, left the house, took a train to the city and wandered around until I found a place where I could play Dance Dance Revolution by myself as a last-ditch attempt to scratch the itch that was craving sugar, junk food or the physical experience of adrenaline. Something. It was a ravenous itch in my mind and I refused to give in to the obvious things. Keeping my promise to myself on a month-long restricted diet by hunting down a DDR machine would have looked crazy to outsiders but luckily nobody asked.

When it’s focused it feels like craving. When it’s diffuse it feels like restlessness. And when it’s dull it feels like ennui; the hollow slump of existential dread.

Rather than Carroll’s ‘ten impossible things before breakfast’, I aim for ‘ten existential crises before noon’. I’ve always looked at the ‘adults’ around me and noticed they seem dead; I now suspect that it comes from being on the other side of this desire/restlessness/existential dread combo. Inside of it, facing it, you can look crazy – like my friend who wails and lashes out for no concrete reason and whose eyes will pull tears from the ether with no catalyst at all. Staring at it properly, for me anyway, takes work, courage, and a bit of recklessness.

You can’t be a ‘reliable member of society’ while you’re engaging with it. It doesn’t care how many emails you need to send or how many pomodoros you need to do to feel like you’ve earned your place in the status hierarchy. On the easy side, this thing sparks passion, creativity and skin-to-skin contact with life, while letting you feel in your bones that it’s ok that there’s no triumphant final meaning or collectively agreed-upon purpose. I feel intensely in my body when I dance with it, and intensely present and alive. Maybe it is just presence. It feels childlike and natural and wonderful.

The flip side is the bad side. And I’m going to call it bad despite spiritual exhortations to recognise all experiences as perfect – because at the stage I’m at, goddamn, it still feels shitty.

You could cry, or scream, or punch things until you couldn’t breathe, but why? There’s no justification, nothing that will make you feel less ridiculous for feeling ‘upset’ while living in your beautiful house with your beautiful friends in one of the liveliest cities on the planet. It doesn’t even feel possible to cry. But it feels easy to flinch.

Remember ‘the floor is lava’? This feeling is exactly like the prick of anxiety you feel when you realise you’re about to fall on the floor, coupled with the flood of relief the second you jump up onto the couch or the chair. It’s the same feeling, right down to how made up it is. This unsettledness comes from investing in the game as completely real, in life as ‘completely real’. For me, the novice Buddhist, it makes no more intellectual sense to identify the things making me dissatisfied as ‘real’ as it would to feel pain if someone hit my avatar in a videogame – possible, yes, but ultimately absurd. But as the novice, I am yet to build the practical skills required to openly and lovingly engage with the game while knowing that it isn’t real. Right now I’m just in the ring getting hit, and knowing that it’s my lack of skill getting me hurt doesn’t make the blows any softer; if anything it makes them cruel.

Standing at this faultline between being present to the restlessness and flinching away from it into mental addictions, I’ve finally discovered an encompassing sense of empathy for those who switch off for years of their life. The married couple who spend two decades of their marriage asleep to each other. The corporate executive who is numb to his body and his sense of meaning. The video gamer who has no relationship to his physical reality and the community outside his monitor. It feels like a real place I could be, a precipice I could fall over. On days like yesterday, it feels like it would take bucketloads more actual courage than I had in that moment to stay present to my reality and not pacify myself like I did, with online shopping and Twitter.

Pacifiers can be anything; the same person (read: me) can use Twitter as an enlightening and empowering way to connect with public intellectuals they admire, and a self-soothing distracting plaything they keep wolfing down to dull the sound of their soul screaming.

‘Guns don’t kill people, people kill…’ Yeah, yeah, yeah. There are more and less addictive substances and activities, and it would probably be harder to flinch away from yourself in ascetic poverty than in the middle of a decadent civilisation but that’s not my point today. Another time I can talk about the acceleration of addictiveness, and how our internet-saturated lives have become laced with emotional and attentional landmines, but from the inside the scale of the temptation is irrelevant – the fact that we can be tempted easily at all is what matters. People will replace their pacifiers with whatever they can find to get their fix.

Dealing with this isn’t easy, and I have no elegant answers here. There’s an entire philosophical and spiritual system that’s been focused on the problem for millenia but it still demands you put in the right work with the right teacher for a loooong time. And so much ‘habit’ advice ignores this underlying phenomenon; the self-help guru whose advice leads to you quitting smoking thinks he has won but he doesn’t see the way you’ve replaced smoking with Netflix and shrinking from confrontational conversations. A millionaire and an overweight alcoholic can be just as existentially fucked up, but nobody’s giving the millionaire any sympathy.

It seems like the missing element here is something like courage, but not the social kind of courage that lets you stand up to a bully. Or maybe it is, but inside the society of your own mind. It does seem harder to be present when experience is shitty when you are worried about making a social faux-pas and making rent this month. Maybe ‘paying attention to the existential dread’ sits high up on Maslow’s hierarchy, and maybe that’s why it feels easy to fall away from that when life has stacked responsibilities and demands and complications in your lap.

In a conversation with a historically-minded friend, he mentioned that within his theory of history, most of the sweeping, fundamental changes came from people in positions of privilege, precisely because they (and only they) had enough spare energy and resources to actually focus on the messy work of shaping the world to their desires. I suspect the same is true for mindfulness, except that the hopeful mindful person needs less money and influence than the hopeful world-changer. ‘Breathing space’, the privilege of not having to worry so much about money, or being alone, or systemic racism, seems to be synonymous with the freedom or power to attempt to actually be alive in this mindful sense.

TLDR: be privileged, or else be a lifeless drone? How depressing. And I don’t think that’s the case. I suspect people with difficult lives can be courageous in the way that being mindful while suffering demands, but that it perhaps requires a precarious constant rebalancing of the things that drain emotional energy to expand constantly moving pockets of breathing space and wriggle out as much life slack as you can muster. I honestly have no idea, and I admire the people who push back to create these pockets for themselves.

I have no good advice for dealing with this phenomenon other than to notice it, practice leaning towards it, and find some damn good mentors. And recognise that even being able to spend precious minutes of your life grappling with the feeling of restlessness that comes along with existential crises is an exquisite kind of privilege and you might not always have the breathing space for it. I oscillate between wanting to ride these currents and quell them; I suspect the answer I choose will dictate whether I end up as an artist or an engineer. At its fullest this feeling seems like it has the seeds of enlightenment in it, so at least it’s a seductive abyss.

…and then sometimes I wake up well-rested and wonder whether existential crises are just a symptom of sleep deprivation, and human philosophy is just something else we made up to soothe our animal selves when everything hurts.

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