Sunday, December 1, 2019

Mental Tickertape

If you could peer into a human brain, reading the mental tickertape, here's what it would look like:
I'm cold. I'm bored. I hate it here. I hate my job. I hate my boss. I hate my apartment. I can't believe my friend said that thing to me in third grade. I'm cold. I'm hungry. I'm fat. I need to get back to the gym. My knee hurts. I'm hungry. I'm fat. It's cold.
This is the sort of thing many/most/all people do all day, every day: a running moment-by-moment tabulation of how the universe fails to be optimal, starting with the current sensory critique, leaping to associations triggered by that critique - crackling way back to some painful thing that happened in second grade or whatever - and then re-registering the current sensory critique. Round and round.

If you don't believe me, sit in the window of an urban Dunkin Donuts and study the faces of people walking by. See if your observations don't perfectly jibe with this sort of internal narrative. I challenge you to find one person who's not obviously absorbed in aimless, senseless rumination.

Hell is what's missing, while Heaven is what’s right here, right now. Heaven is letting go into the moment, utterly accepting and embracing it, without resistance, even if it seems unacceptably marred by the recognition that you're cold and you hate your boss and your knee hurts and your friend said that thing and you're cold. Heaven is a perennially available frame of perspective.

The nonstop tabulation of grievance is extremely hard to keep up. It's a real accomplishment! Great job, seriously! People who are unable to finish a book or to work down their to-do lists manage to sustain this ambitious lifelong project. Their commitment is phenomenal, their labor heroic, and they hardly ever waver. In fact, that's why they never get anything else done! They're busy!!

Reading this, you may acknowledge that you ought to work on being more present, more mindful, less critical and ungrateful. Perhaps attend a seminar. Get to work chipping away at the problem. But, no, that's crazy. The lifelong spree of critical tabulation has been the hard thing. Not spending every waking second finding fault with the universe isn't work, nor would it be an accomplishment. The dropping of a task is not a task.

If you found yourself digging a ditch in the blazing noon sun, would it be hard to put down the shovel and go sit under a tree and relax? Would you need to learn how to do this, or practice it? Would you need, like, instructions? No! You'd just let go of the damned shovel!

And the moment you do, you'll recognize how fruitless it's been, all along. You get literally nothing from this. It exhausts and depresses you, disrupting efforts to think clearly or get stuff done. If you knock it off, you'll enjoy 50 free IQ points, a few extra hours in your day, and the ecstatic relief of having cast aside a crushing burden.

Intelligence either stems from plenty of mental horsepower, or else from wasting fewer cognitive resources, freeing up more of the mental horsepower you've got. This Slog is an eleven year record of what's possible when a merely reasonably-bright guy ceases ruminating over useless bullshit. I actually started much earlier - as a child - but only decisively dropped the shovel over the past decade.

Since then, my mental tickertape has become richly interesting. It's no longer a whiny, needy, tedious, unendurable energy-sucking screed. The interestingness had always been there, but the trash-thinking was louder. In rare moments when my grievance tabulation spontaneously paused (due to exhaustion or surprise or emotional shift - or simply from uttering the magic words "I give up!"), I often experienced a brush with epiphany, eureka, and inspiration. It would arrive and quickly be gone, like a bolt from the blue. I never imagined that was, all along, the underlying default, and that I'd been tirelessly working to drown it out.

Hmm, I already made the same point, pretty much the same way, here. After 2373 postings, I suppose it‘s unavoidable. But while there are topics where I ration my retreads (because most people "got" it the first time, or because it's some nerdy narrowness only I'd ever obsess over) this is something we need to hear frequently, and from different angles, hoping some tendril of truth might stick.

I was graced with more than tendrils as a child, and yet it took until my mid 50s to finally drop the shovel and get out of the blazing sun. In my 30s and 40s, I deemed my still-foggy insight some sort of accomplishment. But no. It was a simple flip of perspective; a "reframing", that's all. It's not a matter of acquiring wisdom, it's a comical forehead-slapping recognition of having been an absolute idiot. This is not a leap forward, it's a letting go of what needlessly held you back.

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