November 21, 2014

The Unexamined Life

By In musings

Limits, are often the way one’s study of advanced math begins, a crushing way to begin, putting a name to how the study of math and many other subjects may often manifest throughout their duration, a constant experience of butting up against limits of physical or mental capacity, or more simply the extent to which one is able and willing to persevere for the sake of knowledge or achievement. This experience extends far beyond academia and well into philosophy, spirituality, and physicality. Calculus says and experiential knowledge reveals that limits are all around and everywhere. Constantly, begging the question, what is one to do if they don’t want to be limited, what if we want to bury the limits that hold us back the most.

We all have our limiting factors, mine keep coming up as I grapple with the question, is there no limit to my need for change, for excitement, for variety? Is there a limit to my ability to sustain stagnation or  more positively put, stability, in the same job, in the same place, with the same person, same friends, same shoes? There seems to be only so much joy, satisfaction and pride that paying the same bills can buy. Statistically speaking, for me, that can only stem from the number of pay days per month and that’s only two. Sadly and seemingly there’s a limit to how much of this excitement and joy I can breed and emit toward these things from within.

There is only so much variety that different books read in the same place, and different clothes in the same closet, and decorations on the same walls can provide. As I approach this time-bound limit(generally a year), the struggle begins, anxiety, sometimes depression and always a desperate desire to make drastic changes. Which isn’t always bad, but also isn’t the way I want to live the rest of life, partly because I can’t sustain it and purely because I wan’t to feel that my life choices are guided by that, choice, and not by some fight or flight instinct that’s told me to flee. And this is not to say excitement and spontaneity haven’t reaped amazing rewards and memories, they have, but it has also often uprooted and turned over soil that, in hindsight, was reaping its own growth and development.

Pema Chodron, and the philosophy she touts in The Places that Scare Us, keeps urging me to fight the need to flee, to stay and stick with where I am instead of constantly demanding immediate gratification from something just different and dynamic but not necessarily better. This need also stems from a desire to find limitless joy and patience within that’s applicable to any situation rather than one that seeps in from the external circumstances or surroundingss.

Like so many things this is impossible to believe without experiential evidence and impossible to want to try without it; because current state, never having been able to stay has only taught me that while the joy of instant gratification eventually wears off, it hasn’t assured me that it will eventually ramp back up

Chodron says to this; “At the beginning joy is just a feeling that our own situation is workable. We stop looking for a more suitable place to be. We’ve discovered that the continual search for something better does not work out. This doesn’t mean that there are suddenly flowers growing where before there were only rocks. It means we have confidence that something will grow here. As we cultivate our garden, the conditions become more conducive to the growth…The joy comes from not giving up on ourselves, from mindfully sticking with ourselves and beginning to experience our great warrior spirit.” The entire book is a convincing argument to practice patience for ourselves and for others. To find joy in the gratitude for waht is and the potentiality of what can grow in whatever dire state we find ourselves in. She indicates this practice will breed longer lasting joy than endless instances of dynamism and variability. Given this comes from a book titled The Places that Scare Us it would be unjust to deny that the need to fight the stifling limits of excitement, interest, and boredom is driven by the fear of what it will mean for the rest of our lives if we always succumb.  The underlying question being, what if nothing works, what if nothing can provide more than a year or so of happiness before my serotonin and dopamine riddled and addicted brain starts seeking another new fix?

Aaand, the somewhat sarcastic counter argument; if nothing in the world can hold your interest you probably just haven’t found it, but cross that bridge when you come to it, and spend the rest of your days trying everything…

My recent issue with this is, despite having embodied this endless search most of my life, is that it’s built upon a couple things that I don’t want to be the foundation of my happiness and overall engagement in life.

  1. external circumstances
  2. happiness, once achieved, will be constant — a clearly dangerous notion yet, isn’t it often an assumption we make when we convince ourselves to work toward a goal or lifestyle change or better life in general. Or does everyone have temporal happiness in mind but me?

Recently reading Jonathon Franzen’s The Corrections, I found myself absorbed in a beautiful description of a situation I all too often found myself in at the same age of the protagonist, Chip Lambert. In postmodern style Franzen allowed free flowing words of wisdom to come from the most unlikely of characters and while Chip sat at the dinner table for the duration of the evening as punishment for being unable to stomach an assortment of poorly cooked and seasoned vegetables he states, contrary to how I felt at his age; “Even the most extreme boredom had merciful limits.” How is he so sure? Chip, while sitting sorely at the table dips into a daydream about its underside. Feeling out all the different crevices and grains in the wood, he finds through previously insignificant details a level of mystery and intrigue through the sense of touch, as one can do by finding or searching for patterns in wall paper in the waiting room. Finding not only beauty but a bit of awe in the simplicity right in front of him. Chip exhibits not only that this is possible but to experience and enjoy requires a level of openness to said experience synonymous with his conviction that this boredom has a limit that can be surpassed. Without being so sure that this boredom will end, the underside of the table would have just been boring. Alluding to the fact that we must in fact open ourselves up to the small, however small, moments of synchronicity constantly swirling around us through an awareness and attentiveness to them that allows their beauty to shine, as opposed to allowing them to remain cloaked in the discord and chaos of modern life. Like appreciating a meet cute that occurs in the face of missing your train.

If this is taken to be philosophical truth then to find the merciful limits of our boredom, of any kind, all we need to do is narrow the scope of our attention and the more we narrow and are able to find the mysteries in the minute the more we can then extend the limit of our intrigue to and into what was previously mundane. And, if we just keep refining our area of interest to the small space around us,  then maybe the space inside us, and then maybe just our thoughts and thought patterns, then maybe we are what one would call meditating which is exactly what Chodron prescribes as practice and patience for staying power.

All too often I stray from happiness and patience as a practice, and they are too often described as inherent human characteristics. Neither will ever reside in me as a constant state I can rest easy and bask in. If they are for you, then I’ve convinced myself, you’ve just practiced enough to be close to perfect from what small part of you is presented to the world, the sum of some 10,000 hours of pure happiness, gratitude, or patience practice (if you subscribe to Malcolm Gladwell, probably blasphemous on a blog that intends to integrate mathematics), it’s the only way I can carry on because otherwise happiness is inherent and it’s not in me.

But, within ourselves, is an infinite mystery and through a practice of honing our attention in on the mystery and beauty of how we exist and move about in the world and think and breathe and interact with others then we can at the very least distract ourselves from, or even better find some small brilliance in a possibly boring, possibly stagnant, or miserable state of affairs and more hopefully push the limits of our ability to stay with our imperfectly needy and desirous selves out towards the infinite.

But, lastly, that’s all theoretical, what is concrete is that sitting in a cubicle wasn’t so bad while I was pondering this.

Thus, “the unexamined life is not worth living” [Socrates], because what’s outside this examination can never hold our interest as much as what’s inside?

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