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Fugitives from ourselves | #55
29 September 2022 :: exploring the shutdown mechanism
This one was part of my ConvertKit period, uploaded back into Substack on 4 February 2022.
It’s getting more and more humid here in Bali—rainy season approaches. I’m looking forward to another three months here before heading back to the UK for Christmas 🎄.
In this issue I write about an experience I suspect is quite common, that of running away from myself and ‘feelings I can’t be with’ and thereby contributing to my own suffering. A pattern I am slowly unpicking.
I hope you enjoy!
When feeling tired gets suspicious
Despite having developed some great habits around exercise, diet and circadian timing, I’ve been feeling generally tired and ambiguously weird a lot lately. I have loads of energy for physical exercise, which I’ve been doing every day for months now, but as soon as I turn my attention to particular kinds of cognitive work, planning or introspection, I suddenly want to nap or feel overcome with generalised malaise.
Curious, no? I am suspicious. What’s going on here?
I would guess that I have a lingering background shutdown defence mechanism in response to certain kinds of stressor. Put another way, there is some part of me that doesn’t feel safe when I engage with aspects of my world and, rather than take action to create the safety it needs, it makes my whole system go quiet.
This ‘works’, in that it successfully pushes away the feelings I struggle to be with, but at the same time it’s a terrible strategy for actually solving anything.
The shutdown state itself doesn’t even feel good. I’m still dimly aware of the things I haven’t dealt with, but it becomes easier to rationalise not taking action right now. And since the underlying problems don’t get addressed, life can quickly turn into a Groundhog Day of “huh I’m tired isn’t that strange well guess I’ll do the thing I’ve been putting off tomorrow instead”.
It’s a genius tactic, really. The main argument becomes “this oddly tired state of mind really isn’t great for the thing, and I don’t want the thing to be bad, so I’ll try the thing when I feel better”, which to some extent is sensible. The problem is that the right state of mind never comes, or if it does then it’s quickly overridden by shutdown (or distraction).
I also don’t think this is just a ‘me’ thing. I think that something like this is becoming more and more common…
Fugitives from ourselves
I’m reading Self-renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society, which Sam Sager has been making noise about on Twitter. It was published in 1963 by John Gardner, and I was struck by this passage in particular:
Human beings have always employed an enormous variety of clever devices for running away from themselves, and the modern world is particularly rich in such stratagems. We can keep ourselves so busy, fill our lives with so many diversions, stuff our heads with so much knowledge, involve ourselves with so many people and cover so much ground that we never have time to probe the fearful and wonderful world within. More often than not we don’t want to know ourselves, don’t want to depend on ourselves, don’t want to live with ourselves. By middle life most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves.
By the way, my partner has written some amazing commentary on the book if you want to read that.
What stands out to me is that Gardner is describing a strategy that achieves the same outcome as my weird tiredness: to be a fugitive from myself.
While reflecting on this I chanced upon Reading Ourselves To Death, a short essay about how reading actually distances us from the vivid reality of world around us. It’s worth reading on its own merits, but the author quotes others who capture the point pithily:
A. G. Sertillanges wrote in The Intellectual Life: “The mind is dulled, not fed, by inordinate reading, it is made gradually incapable of reflection and concentration, and therefore of production…. Never read when you can reflect; read only, except in moments of recreation, what concerns the purpose you are pursuing; and read little, so as not to eat up your interior silence.”
Peter Thorpe argued in Why Literature Is Bad for You that the negative effects of reading outweigh the positive: “If we become too involved in the beautiful imitation, we can begin to lose touch with the real thing.
I’m particularly fond of ‘inordinate reading’ to highlight that, even with reading, the dose makes the poison. There are kinds of reading that bring us closer to the bright and spacious interface with the real world, and kinds that pull us away into distraction, however virtuous that distraction may seem.
Just being with what is
I’m reminded of one of Alan Watts’ lectures where he talks about exactly this. Here’s one of those YouTube clips with music over it, but the specific lines are:
Once you’ve learned to think you can’t stop. And an enormous number of people devote their lives to keeping their minds busy and feel extremely uncomfortable with silence. When you’re alone, nobody’s saying anything, there’s nothing to do… just this worrying, this lack of distraction…
“I’m left alone with myself and I wanna get away from myself. I always want to get away from myself. That’s why I go to the movies, that’s why I read mystery stories, that’s why I go after the girls or anything or get drunk or whatever. I don’t want to be with myself. I feel queer.”
And there it is. When the flashing lights and white noise that preoccupy the mind drift away, what remains? And what to do about it?
What remains is a kind of suffering. At least, that’s almost right. What remains is a felt experience that, if I call it bad and try to run away from it, becomes exactly the suffering I want to avoid. It’s the suffering I experience while I’m feeling inexplicably tired or mindlessly scrolling Twitter.
In fact I appreciate the parts of myself that would rather I not suffer, the parts that send me to scroll Twitter, the parts that get me to read as distraction, and the parts that make me feel weird and tired. They have good intentions, but they’re missing something crucial.
Because here's the rub: the kind of suffering I run from can never go away until I accept that I—and everything I know and love—will. A large part of that suffering stems from my own unwillingness to turn around, look at that uncomfortable feeling and say “Yes, yes I know. This will all end. Everything is always ending.”
I cling to my own thoughts about the world in a desperate attempt to forget this challenge to my own existence, as if I could avert my own death if only I scrolled with enough fervour.
And yet, despite all that, existence itself is gorgeous. As I look out at a forest of indescribable colours, shapes, textures, movements and sounds, I remember that the only way I can truly be here is to stop running. When I cease to be a fugitive from myself, I cease to be a fugitive from the world—that from which I came, that to which I will return and that which I am.
Really being with the experience of being in the world—without distraction, with all the emotions, and however much the stories of what I think I am and what I fear may protest—is the only way I will ever truly feel at home.
This is the birthright I deny myself every time I decline to be with a feeling that demands to be felt. This is the birthright I remember every time I choose to pause and feel it.
Things to help you be with what is
The Arena by Rob Hardy
My friend Rob is running another round of The Arena, which is:
a one-week online experience—not a course—in which you get together with a group of creative peers, and everybody focuses on something that makes them come alive. It’s fun, it’s communal, and it brings serendipity and joy back to the creative process. And despite the fun exterior, it’s also meaningful work.
If you have a concern that this would be some kind of crush-it, hustle, publish every day thing… don’t worry, it’s not that.
But The Arena isn’t meant to be brutal or scary or demoralizing. It’s not about going to war with yourself. Quite the opposite. We do this work in a safe, private container, away from the prying eyes of the public. We do it as a community of supportive, encouraging peers. And most importantly, we prioritize aliveness and joy throughout the week. We make the choice to enjoy our work and trust ourselves.
It’s only $50, I’ve heard lots of good things, and I know that Rob is really committed to making it great, so I’d encourage you to check it out.
Supercharge Your Productivity by Khe He
If you really want to go deep into the existential questions that are often the ones that create that sense of wanting-to-be-a-fugitive-from-yourself, you might like to join the next cohort of Supercharge Your Productivity by another friend, Khe He.
I took the course a couple of years ago and it did a great job of sending me straight to those “what do I really want? questions and I still use many of the core concepts regularly.
According to Khe, You’ll learn how to:
Get more done (by working smarter)
Think bigger (versus making smaller things better)
Stop putting things off until some imaginary future date
Invest in improving your mind, career and relationships
Those aren’t my words, but I agree. Enrolment closes on October 3rd and this is the last cohort of 2022.
If you’re interested, you can learn more here. (This is an affiliate link, so you’d be supporting me if you do purchase the course after clicking it.)