Currently biking around the world

Posts will happen significantly less often for a while as I am currently focused on biking around the world.

It could be a few months between posts or it could be a few years. I will almost certainly return to this blog one day. In the meantime, enjoy what's already been posted, or read about my travels here.

Nothing Lasts Forever

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Zen is not peeling potatoes while thinking about zen. Zen is peeling potatoes.

If you know me at all, you know I like to dance. Among other styles, I take hip-hop which usually culminates in a performance. Right before the performance -- after all the lessons, the practicing in my room, the dress rehearsals and hours of waiting backstage, there’s this moment of peace. I walk onto the stage. The lights are off and all I can see is some colored tape on the stage and the silhouettes of my fellow dancers. I take my pose, breath, and, seconds before the culmination of months of work, time with friends, jokes, laughs, and memories… I smile.
One of the biggest challenges I struggle with when it comes to being happy is that happiness is fleeting. Our emotions are much like the tide of the ocean -- sometimes we’re up, and sometimes we’re down.1 There’s nothing wrong with that. But I think what makes my depression so potent is that when I’m down, I want to be up, and when I’m up, I’m afraid of going down. I’m conscious that I’m up, and somehow, that makes me not as happy.
Finding beauty in the fleeting comes naturally to many of us. Indeed, humans seem to be happier with ends: waiters remember more details about unpaid orders, but forget them once paid;2 we tend to feel about movies how we felt about the end, rather than any sum;3 and couples whose relationships have gone sour “remember” that they were never really happy in the first place.4 When situations such as relationships or jobs end without our knowing why, we seem wired to seek closure.5 But for me, this end is what I fear.
I know realizing a good situation will end is just my brain trying to protect me. I shouldn’t need to cite (but I will anyways) that we try and perpetuate “good” situations we fear are ending.6 But truth be told, I’d rather enjoy the moment. I don’t want to worry about it ending.
A friend recently introduced me to a concept of audiophilia known as “the vanishing point.” The idea is that you get so “into” the music you don’t think about anything else -- you aren’t even conscious you are listening to music. You hear it, of course, but the experience is so raw that you don’t have to think about hearing it. All your energy is going into experiencing the sound and none of your energy is going into thinking about experiencing the sound. In an extended article for the New Yorker, Karl Knausgaard concludes:
...the idiosyncratic, the particular and the singular, [all] are part of the same struggle to keep open our path of access to the world, so that our protections against it may fail and its individual character, its here and now, its you and I, may emerge and become salient.7
It is almost as if having a conscious makes me less happy, as if we were put on this world not to think but to experience. We struggle to grasp that life doesn’t have a happy ending because struggling indicates that it hasn’t ended. Life is about living and being, not remembering or planning.
Remembering and planning, of course, do have the ability to drastically improve your well being.8, 9 It’s just that analyzing situations can make us less happy about them. Consider two scenarios: you live to 60, and are happy your whole life; or, you live to 65, and are happy your whole life, but slightly less happy for the last five years. We know the ending of events tends to influence our opinions about them, so it should come as no surprise that, considered separately, participants in this study chose the shorter life with the happier ending.9 When placed side-by-side though, participants chose the longer life with the less happy (but still happy) ending. After thinking about it, the more appealing option was suddenly less appealing. What if we reach 59, are about to die, and realize we chose wrong (hint: rhetorical question)?
Knowing the antithesis of the vanishing point is thinking about the vanishing point, how do we cope? For now, the best I can come up with is that we should embrace the things that got us there. Remembering and planning make us happy. When I find myself thinking about why I’m enjoying myself, then rather than thinking, this too shall pass, I like to think, I did ___ to get here. For instance, last night one of my friends was celebrating life by sitting on the roof and watching the moon. She texted me about this, and rather than embracing and enjoying the experience vicariously through her, I started thinking about it. But instead of dulling down the experience with overthinking, I chose instead to reminisce on our friendship -- the past few months of sharing our lives together, experiencing the good and the bad, building trust, and just in general what a wonderful person I feel this friend is. I remembered that thoughts are often just unconscious habits and that I can change those habits.
I have made it obvious that I struggle to reach the vanishing point. This may, in fact, be more my problem than yours. So, more for me than for you, I’ll end with this:
One cannot divine nor forecast the conditions that will make happiness; one only stumbles upon them by chance, in a lucky hour, at the world’s end somewhere, and holds fast to the days, as to fortune or fame. Willa Cather, “Le Lavandou,” 1902

1Shephard, Roy J. “Sleep, Biorhythms and Human Performance.” Sports Medicine, Jan 1984. Vol 1, Issue 1, 11-37.
2Zeigarnik, Bluma. “Das Behalten erledigter und unerledigter Handlungen.” Psychologische Forschung, 1927. 9, 1-85.
3Fredrickson, B.L. and Kahneman, D. “Duration Neglect in Retrospective Evaluations of Affective Episodes.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1993. 65, 45-55.
4Holmberg, D. and Holmes, J.G. “Reconstruction of Relationship Memories: A Mental Models Approach.” Autobiographical Memory and the Validity of Retrospective Reports, 1994. Ed. N.Schwarz nad N. Sudman, 267-88.
5Van Hiel, A., and Mervielde, I. “The Need for closure and the Spontaneous Use of Complex and Simple Cognitive Structures.” Journal of Social Psychology, 2003. 14, 559-568.
6Labroo, A., and Mukhopadhyay, A. “Lay Theories of Emotion Transience and the Search for Happiness: A Fresh Perspective on Affect Regulation.”Journal of Consumer Research, Inc. Aug 2009. 242-252.
7Knuasgaard, K. “Vanishing Point.” The New Yorker, Nov 2015.
8Lepore, S., and Smyth, J. The writing cure: How expressive writing promotes health and emotional well-being. American Psychological Association, Washington, DC. 2002.
9Wiseman, R. 59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute. Anchor Books, New York. 2009. 83-87 and 225-226.

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