Thinking Out Loud No. 20
Non-doing meets global change, being prolific and the value of optimistic narratives
Welcome to Thinking Out Loud No. 20! One fifth of the way to 100.
Writing a regular newsletter has become a strange and wonderful feature of my life, both as an engine for my personal growth and as a public record of it. Edition 20 represents around half a year of consistent writing. What will my life look like at edition 50, 100, or 500? What will I be writing about? I can’t wait to find out!
This week I discuss:
integrating non-doing and global systemic change
being prolific as a mechanism for effortless improvement
why positive narratives for the future are necessary and valuable
This is a big one and I get a bit esoteric at times. Remember, this newsletter is a testing ground for ideas – thinking out loud in action – and thinking is never done. I feel that what is in here is important and hope that it resonates with you. And, as ever, feel free to hit reply and say hello.
Also: new article alert! I recently published my ultimate guide to public speaking, using my recent trip to Korea as a case study. May it help you get up on your own stage.
Until next time.
Integrating non-doing with global systemic change
I’m torn. There seem to be two elements of me that are constantly fighting with each other.
The first is my belief that humanity is at a crossroads with respect to global systemic change, particularly around global warming and the associated need to restructure our civilisation. If we don’t adjust our course dramatically and quickly then we will find ourselves in a world very much unlike the one that has allowed human civilisations to rise and flourish.
The energy I channel here is Carl Sagan’s, particularly his child-like wonder as he looked up at the stars and saw humanity’s future exploring them.
“The sky calls to us. If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars.” – Carl Sagan, Cosmos Episode 7
The second is my belief that the best outcomes flow from a state of ‘non-doing’, which is something I’ve picked up from Alexander Technique and my Zen practice.
Forcefully trying to achieve something with an excess of effort, particularly in the context of our minds and bodies, just interferes with the natural functioning of our system. Trying to catch a ball is harder and less effective than just letting it happen (you’ll just have to take my word for it if that doesn’t make sense).
The energy I channel here is more like the Buddha’s: no clinging, no grasping, no attachment. The heart of being is emptiness – a full, vibrant and always transforming emptiness – and expecting it to be otherwise only creates suffering:
If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha.
If you meet your father, kill your father.
Only live your life as it is,
Not bound to anything.”
― Gautama Siddharta (Buddha)
These perspectives are both very alive in me, yet it feels like they also set up a contradiction. Reversing climate change, exploring the stars and evolving down a path of enlightened high technology feels like ‘doing’. Meanwhile, letting go of any craving for things to be any particular way feels like ‘non-doing’.
Which of these feelings is correct? Well, every fibre of my being is telling me that non-doing is correct. It is nature – that thing the Daoists call Ziran (自然) – “so of itself”.
On the other hand, it’s clear that I – and I think most of us – see ideas like reversing climate change and exploring the stars as a kind of doing, as things that require trying and effort. There’s an implicit belief at play here that human nature is, at its core, bad and must be fought against for fear of regressing to some debauched state that is what we really are. “If we stop trying then entropy will knock us back to where we belong.”
It boils down to the paradox at the heart of all endeavours in self-improvement, which is captured perfectly by Alan Watts:
“Human beings are largely engaged in wasting enormous amounts of psychic energy in attempting to do things that are quite impossible. You know—as the proverb says—you can’t lift yourself up by your own bootstraps. But recently, I’ve heard a lot of references in just general reading and listening where people say, “We’ve got to lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps!” And you can’t! And you can struggle, and tug, and pull until you’re blue in the face, and nothing happens except that you’ve exhausted yourself.”
“But the thing is that you can’t do it for one very simple reason—which, I think, most of you are by now familiar with—is that the part of you which is supposed to improve you is exactly the same as that part of you which needs to be improved.” – Alan Watts, Veil of Thoughts – Pt. 2
This is where Alan would go off and talk about the self being an illusion, that the part of us that wants to improve (the self) can’t do anything to improve because it doesn’t exist. I won’t go there (much). Instead, I’ll ask a question that this line of thought implies: how, then, do we make things better?
Alan talks about this paradox at the societal scale in his excellent Conversation With Myself (well worth watching in full), where he describes a meeting of famous people exploring what to do about environmental degradation. The conclusion they reached was that the best approach would be to leave the world alone and return the direction of nature to nature, since it knows a lot more about how it works than we do.
To leave the world alone suggests, to me, a kind of civilisational non-doing. As a teacher of the Alexander Technique, which explores the cessation of doing at its core, I know the value of non-doing and can now begin to recognise my mistake in thinking of exploring the stars as a kind of ‘doing’.
The felt sense of non-doing – what the Daoists call wu-wei – is not the same as doing nothing. Doing and doing nothing are two sides of the same coin, while non-doing – the absence of doing or doing nothing – is something else entirely.
When you peel back all the layers of effort that you do habitually, what you find is just you, authentically and naturally you. It’s your own, personal Ziran (nature that is “so of itself”). This is what remains when the illusion of the self goes away. It’s not some void of nothingness – quite the opposite. It’s what it’s like to be fully alive, switched on and one with your environment. It’s the world turned up to 11.
I get excited here, because I know that our non-doing selves are so much more powerful, creative and competent than our habitual, doing selves. Rather than using the thinking part of my brain to move my body to catch a ball, I can just watch as my body does it on its own, much better than ‘I’ could have done. Rather than trying to fall asleep, which only keeps me awake, I can decide to stop doing the things that are keeping me awake and just watch as I fall asleep.
This is what it means to return the direction of nature to nature, but it requires some acts of faith that, in my experience working on myself and with others, can be difficult.
First, it’s difficult because it requires letting go of control and trusting that something else knows what it’s doing. When I catch that ball effortlessly or fall asleep, I don’t know how I did that. There’s something else doing it and it isn’t ‘me’.
Second, it’s difficult because it requires believing that letting go of control and trusting this other system is a good thing. In fact, this point is somewhat moot for the same reason that it’s impossible to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Transformation is the nature of all things and it happens by allowing it, not by forcing or fighting it, whether you believe it or not. The challenge for us here is about accepting that. Both fighting and forcing interfere with the process and cause us suffering.
Let’s bring this back to such grand things as reversing climate change and one day exploring the stars. The process by which we’ll get to wherever we’re going can be reached without forcing it, if you believe that we are part of nature and that nature is always transforming and evolving. In fact, to try to force it in any particular direction just interferes with the transformation that is always going on.
I believe that reversing climate change and exploring the stars are part of our transformational journey – a natural part of where we’re going as a species. We don’t need to force it, we just need to not interfere with it. Thus, what I am talking about is neither trying to create a new space age (‘doing’), nor de-industrialising completely (‘doing nothing’). I wrote about these opposing views in my article on carbon removal and in fact now believe them to be two sides of the same doing coin.
One of the principles of non-doing is to be able to stop doing. We know there are plenty of things we shouldn’t be doing that we could stop if we so wanted. We’re on the path to this with decarbonisation, but at the moment I fear that we are trying half-heartedly to assert a new system while still strongly asserting the old one, like investing in renewables while subsidising fossil fuels. This is self-interference.
We have now reached the edge of my awareness, though. I’m at a stage where I know there is something important here, but I don’t yet know what it is. It will unfold, I just need to not force it.
Being prolific is a mechanism for effortless improvement
I came across an informal interview with Ed Sheeran on YouTube, which really illustrates the idea of being prolific and learning through play. Asked if he has any advice for any up and coming musicians, he evokes the image of letting a ‘dirty tap’ run:
"When you switch the dirty tap on it's going to flow shit water out for a substantial amount of time and then clean water's gonna start flowing."
"You're going to write shit songs in the beginning, you are. My songs were terrible, but I got it out of me."
I wrote about this in No.5, where I decided to focus on volume in my own process. My writing has become much more polished than it was when I started, but the important thing is that I haven’t really tried to get here (there’s trying again). Instead, my writing has improved as an indirect result of writing a lot and observing my performance non-judgementally.
The alternative is to spend excess effort working (trying) on a single magnum opus, fussing about technique, but never showing anyone anything. By focusing on getting words out there and not worrying too much about quality, the quality improved on its own. That’s the power of the non-doing system that I have learned to trust and as a result my writing process always feels like play, not work.
How can you apply this to your life? Are there any areas where you can just play, prolifically, and let improvement happen on its own?
Positive narratives for the future are necessary and valuable
I started my career with an internship for a magazine called Green Futures. It’s no longer in print, but the impact it had on my perspective on the environmental movement remains strong. In a narrative world of doom, gloom and problems, Green Futures focused on optimistic solutions and ideas that might form part of a future we’d like to live in.
This is important, because such stories expand our awareness of what’s possible. By highlighting different ways the future could be, these hopeful stories give us something to move towards, even if this process is largely unconscious.
This has been one of the key roles played by science fiction, of course. Star Trek inspired a wave of engineers and innovators to create the things they saw depicted on screen, while also showing what a more egalitarian, post-scarcity world might look like. I wrote about this in No. 10, in case you want to read more.
I feel that this has been largely missing from the climate discourse recently. There’s value in raising the alarm, but I don’t see enough people saying “what about coming this way?” We’re not looking for any single solution, but rather a multiplicity of possibilities that can foster creativity and innovation, a human-scale “thinking out loud” process.
I believe that the more stories we have, the more we’ll trust that such futures are achievable, which will unlock our natural capacity for transformation. If we believe we can’t do something, or have no awareness that there is a space we can explore, then we’ll interfere with our abilities to explore and create. This is no different from how anxiety inhibits learning for us an individuals.
Yes, we need the impetus to change our collective behaviour now, to stop doing things we shouldn’t be doing, but we also need to not scare ourselves out of our own agency. Positive narratives for the future will help give us that agency.
Media of the week
I want to give you an example of how positive visions of the future are helpful. My day job is in Infrastructure Advisory at KPMG. We advise infrastructure clients who are navigating the energy transition, with a particular focus on financial services.
As you can imagine, this can get deeply technical pretty quickly, which can make it hard to see the wood for the trees sometimes. So, to remind myself of what the higher purpose is, and to make work seem more like play, I set this image as my desktop background.
Whenever I need a shot of inspiration, all I need to do is look at my screen. This is infrastructure portrayed in a way that evokes positive emotions, and sometimes those emotions help me do a better job. Design fiction in action.
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