Thinking Out Loud No. 24

Total Work, launching 'Expanding Awareness', people-driven learning and how to fall asleep

Hello friends,

It’s a sunny weekend here in London and I, like you, am at home. I hope you’re all well and healthy.

This week’s edition is about:

  • 🚀The launch of Expanding Awareness - a new mailing list for Alexander Technique explorations

  • Awakening to – and escaping from – Total Work through non-doing

  • People-driven learning and the role of Thinking Out Loud

  • How to fall asleep - stop doing awake

I hope you enjoy! Until next time.


🚀 Launching Expanding Awareness 🚀

You may have noticed that I’ve been writing a lot more about Alexander Technique recently. That might even be why you’re here.

I’m also aware that this newsletter is not about the Alexander Technique. I’ve been yearning for a dedicated space to go deep into it without worrying about displacing other things I care about, or alienating those of you who aren’t interested in that.

I am therefore thrilled to announce the launch of a separate newsletter – Expanding Awareness – where I’ll be exploring Alexander Technique in detail, connecting it to other disciplines and working out how I can teach it online. If that sounds interesting then please subscribe separately to that newsletter. I’m thrilled to say there are already about 150 folks who have signed up over there from Twitter, and I can’t wait to start writing.

So where does that leave Thinking Out Loud? Actually, spinning out a new, focused newsletter has given me more perspective on what this one is really about.

Thinking Out Loud is where I will forever explore a multitude of ideas at the edge of my awareness – ideas like Total Work, solarpunk, carbon removal, sense-making, building communities, creating positive narratives for the future, identity, non-doing (it won’t go away) and whatever else – and see what resonates both with me and with others. Of course, it’s also one of my main tools to find the others.

Although I dislike the term, it’s a place for ‘Idea Sex’ to happen, with healthy idea offspring given a new home – like Expanding Awareness – when they get too big to fit comfortably in here.

So if you’re here for Alexander Technique content then please subscribe to Expanding Awareness. I hope you’ll stay here as well, but no hard feelings if you choose to leave! See you over there.

Awakening to – and escaping from – Total Work through non-doing

Have you ever had a realisation that shook the foundations of what you thought was real?

I don’t mean the “oh yeah, that – good reminder, but I already sort of knew” kind of realisation, but the “well, damn, I think the floor just fell out from underneath me” kind.

I had one of those recently as I've explored the idea of Total Work. Come with me on a journey, because if you’re the kind of person who reads a newsletter like this (and we both know you are), then you’ll want to see where this goes.

Total Work, a term coined by philosopher Joseph Pieper, is state of being where work is the central and defining focus of life. In his excellent TEDx talk on the subject, Andrew Taggart highlights the five conditions of Total Work:

  1. When work is the centre around which all of human life turns

  2. When everything else in human life is not only put in the service of, but is made to be subservient to, work

  3. When leisure, play and festivity slowly – perhaps imperceptibly – are turned into work

  4. When we come to believe that we were born to work

  5. When all other ways of living – those that existed well before work took over the world – fall away from cultural memory

Or, as Maria Popova puts it: "

Under the tyranny of total work, the human being is reduced to a functionary and her work becomes the be-all-end-all of existence.

There's a belief at the heart of Total Work that asserts that work is the highest good. Doing work is worthy. Not doing work is shameful, unless done in the service of work. Total Work says it's absolutely fine to nap, meditate, exercise, eat well, and sleep, because those things will make you more productive for work.

This idea made me uncomfortable as it sank in. Since my teens I’ve been involved in the whole 'personal development' thing, with a view to improving myself. Improving myself for what? To be more productive, to achieve, to create, to do. To make the most of my life. I've done all the self-optimisation things you can think of: online courses, Wim Hof breathing, GTD, even the ketogenic diet, which I started (and continue) for the cognitive benefits.

Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with any of this. These are all fantastic tools for improving my subjective experience of the world and my life. They just get tricky and fall within the domain of Total Work when they are done in the service of work, which for me they at least partly were and are.

Still, I thought I had a get out of jail free card. "I can't be a Total Worker," I told myself to ease the discomfort. "I don't work 80 weeks for one employer like those people who are definitely Total Workers do!"

But as I sat with the third criterion of Total Work above – when leisure, play and festivity are turned into work – I realised the depths of my own self-deception.

It's Saturday morning and I'm sitting at my laptop typing this article. Given that we're in lockdown and I've been working from home for weeks, the only indication that today is any different from other days is that I'm using a different laptop.

Twas ever thus. My 'leisure' has long consisted of either planned self-improvement (exercise, meditation and reading) or sitting at a laptop building something (like websites and newsletters).

If I dig a little deeper I do indeed find a kind of moral imperative that drives my thoughts, emotions and actions. At first glance it seems to be a search for meaning, as though all this activity is some kind of spiritual practice. After all, with the decline of religiosity, what else is left but work?

But as I dig deeper I see that it's actually quite the reverse. Total Work is an elaborate and sophisticated ruse that allows me to avoid the very thing that spiritual practice is really about: just being with what is.

Pieper himself highlighted this in his thoughts on what constitutes leisure (via Maria Popova):

Against the exclusiveness of the paradigm of work as activity … there is leisure as“non-activity” — an inner absence of preoccupation, a calm, an ability to let things go, to be quiet.

In leisure, there is … something of the serenity of “not-being-able-to-grasp,” of the recognition of the mysterious character of the world, and the confidence of blind faith, which can let things go as they will.

True leisure is not the opportunity to do things that aren't work, but the freedom – and the ability – not to do at all. But how difficult this is! In the words of Blaise Pascal:

All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

You know what he means: it's the discomfort that kicks in within seconds of removing task-focused attention, when our mind-wandering Default Mode Network kicks in and we drift to bigger topics: getting the things we want, avoiding the things we don't want, the shortness of life.

Total Work takes advantage of this existential discomfort by distracting us with an endless cascade of activity. It then cunningly adds that moral imperative – “it's right to be distracted” to prevent us from looking too closely at the whole game.

Is it fair to say that I use activity to avoid this discomfort? Sometimes, yes. Am I in fact a Total Worker? Not completely, but I'm much closer to it than I'd like. I know that feeling of discomfort very well from my Zen practice, which makes it all the more ironic that I'm still caught up in Total Work.

So what's the way out? How do I reclaim my ability to experience true leisure?

When all this dawned on me, I decided to opt out of Total Work for an hour and just read on the sofa. But at that moment I also saw the brilliant deviousness of Total Work: there is nothing anyone can do to get out without getting trapped by the first criterion: when work is the centre around which all of human life turns.

To decide to take an hour off from work is to assert that life is defined by work. This tweet from James Mulholland captures perfectly how Total Work binds us:

I have good news though, which is that escape is possible, and it comes from Daoism.

In The Watercourse Way, Alan Watts tells us that the Dao – the natural, effortless way of things – is that with which you cannot try to accord.

“Chao-Chou asked, “What is the Dao?” The master replied, “Your ordinary consciousness is the Dao.” “How can one return into accord with it?” “By intending to accord you immediately deviate.

In this way, Total Work is like the Dao, only the other way around: by intending to deviate you immediately accord.

So how do we actually accord with the Dao? How can we actually deviate from Total Work? By not trying to. Just notice that it's there and don’t try to change anything.

As I've learned from Alexander Technique – which I increasingly believe is actually a kind of applied Daoism – the ability to stop trying is a transformative, learnable and highly necessary skill if we are to escape traps like Total Work. It's the same sentiment echoed by the The Inner Game of Work, which says so clearly that "non-judgemental awareness is curative".

If you suspect that you too are caught up in Total Work then don't worry, it's enough just to notice it. Decide that you don't want to be and then be aware that you are. Total Work, like quicksand, will only pull you in deeper if you struggle.

People-driven learning and Thinking Out Loud

By creating a map of citations this striking image shows how academic fields are separated from each other. It turns out there are silos everywhere.

David Perell included this image in his recent article People-Driven Learning. The central thesis is that, as we increasingly follow online influencers with wide interests, or what David calls “intellectual ambassadors”, the Internet is helping to break down these silos. David asserts – and I agree – that opportunity abounds for people willing to take on this role. The article gives advice on how to do this if you’re interested.

For me, this breaking down of silos feels directly relevant to this newsletter and my Twitter presence. When I first kicked off this project I was anxious about not knowing what my ‘brand’ is. “Don’t make me choose!” was the struggle I sat with each time I thought about it.

Instead, the idea of People-Driven Learning, at least as I choose to interpret it, frees me from that. Rather than go deep into one discipline, as the graphic above suggests has been going on for some time, I would much rather be one of those intellectual ambassadors.

This newsletter, then, is one expression of that intention. It’s okay not to know exactly what it’s about – in fact, that’s the whole point.

How to fall asleep - stop doing awake

I made this video for the launch edition of Expanding Awareness, but given that it might help more people besides those who exclusively want Alexander Technique content, here it is for you as well.

In short: falling asleep is not something you can do, and the more you try to fall asleep, the more awake you find yourself. Instead, falling asleep requires the absence of ‘doing awake’.

The more you notice this, the more you’ll be able to unhook from the processes that interfere with sleep. Something other than ‘you’ knows how to fall asleep – your job is to trust it and stay out of the way.

P.S. If you enjoyed this newsletter and think someone else might too then please feel encouraged to forward it on. And if you were sent this email by someone else, then welcome! You can subscribe here or check out my latest blog posts.