Sunday, March 10, 2024

Opting Out of Rumination Over What's Missing

I'm replaying this posting from June 2022. I undersold it at the time. This is the secret to human happiness. And there's nothing to develop or practice, because it's a choice, not a course of action. A re-framing. It is an action of cessation, not of acquisition; a dropping of false assumptions and counterproductive reactions. You own your assumptions and your reactions! You can reframe at any moment! You're free!

I am a completely different person after having learned this lesson. I seem the same; still goofy and wry; still seeking bodacious yum-yums. But now I have a magic trick. I can have doors shut in my face, receive awful news, be oddly persecuted, or (worst of all) drive 100 miles to a boarded-up restaurant without so much as blinking. All without turning numb. I'm right here, totally alive and alert, but enjoying the ride, come what may. All from one little adjustment. One flip. One re-framing.

Way back in January 2009, at the dawn of the Slog, I posted one of the most enduringly popular entries, titled "The Monks and the Coffee". It featured this story:
A woman worked as a driver for some Buddhist monks traveling around California for a series of meditation programs. The monks had fallen crazily in love with a certain brand of coffee they'd discovered during the trip. But while they practically jumped for joy whenever they came upon some, she found it interesting that they never showed the slightest trace of disappointment if they failed to find any. Even when days went by without finding their coffee, they were no less happy. It began to dawn on her that if they never drank that coffee again, it wouldn't bother them in the least. Yet each time they found it they positively basked in the delight.
It struck a chord with me (and with many readers), but I couldn't say I really understood it. But a few months later, I was given the key to unlock the mystery. That Christmas Eve I found myself flipping between peak experience and crushing sadness, all while nothing changed even the tiniest bit. Just my perspective! My framing!

This galvanized my attention, and I pondered it closely for years, cataloguing here my unfolding epiphanies, as indexed in "The Evolution of a Perspective". Eventually this exploration of perspective/framing produced fresh understanding of human happiness, autism, addiction, depression (here and here), creativity, art, cosmology, theology, and all the way up to the nature of the universe and multiverse.

But the initial insight was the most practically useful: We don’t live in What’s Missing. We live in What Is. What's Missing isn't real. In fact, it’s the very definition of unreality. And there's always stuff missing; an infinite depot to draw from in dredging up needless misery for oneself.
Why would you do this? To ballast your happiness, of course!
It works according to a dementedly simple formula:
(Optimality) - (Current Moment) = (Misery)
It's absurd, because "optimality" is a mind trip; a head fake; an empty intellectual construct. It's plainly ditzy to begin with. Just for one thing, optimality is famously slippery. Once you attain it, you quickly grow tired of it and start dreaming up some other notion of it. You know this! Yet you still fall for it every time, generating gratuitous misery. 

Whatever's happening right here/right now, your dear departed grandpa won't be here to see it. And odds are that you are not currently experiencing a thrashing orgasm courtesy of a mesmerizingly attractive and solicitous lover. Moment: I proclaim thee SUBOPTIMAL! Hence misery.

But what-isn't-happening doesn't have anything to do with anything, and certainly shouldn't affect our experience of the current moment - aka "reality". If you drop the habit of scanning for suboptimality (like a princess detecting smaller and smaller peas beneath her mattress), you'll be left with nothing but appreciation of the current moment on its own terms. And that appreciation won't deplete over time, because it's real.

Peak moments are quickly deflated by trivialities. You have to pee. You remember that you don't own a Porsche. You recall that terrible thing your second grade teacher said. Or you just get tired of the sunset view from your chaise lounge in Hawaii. Time to go in, and find lots of fresh juicy suboptimalities to thwart your natural flow of contentment, appreciation, and grace.

We scramble to reconstruct peak experience by trying to book another vacation. We save up, praying for a raise at work and for the perfect obliging companion to share it all with. We struggle to get it all just right; to make the world correspond as closely as possible with the fake, cartoon-like optimality cooked up by our fevered brains.

But, again, even if we make the world cough up that optimality cartoon, we won't be happy for long. Soon we'll need to pee, or remember we don't own Porsches, or recall that thing teacher said. When the dog catches the car, it's just a car. Just a chaise lounge. And I need to pee.

The spiritual teacher/troll GI Gurdjieff wrote a book that was bullshit aside from its title: "Life is Real Only Then, when 'I Am…'". He hid the entire message in plain sight: We're all 100% aspirational. Like hamsters on a wheel, we never arrive, and it's entirely a choice of perspective. Of framing.

Arrival is a manifestation of perspective, not the prize received for lining up ducks in a perfect row. You can arrive now, just as you are, even if you need to pee and are not in Hawaii and still don't own a Porsche. Even if grandpa isn’t here with you right now

Without the neurotic, delusional consideration of fake-out "Optimality" in the formula...
(Optimality) - (Current Moment) = (Misery)
....all you have is Now; un-judged, un-ranked, directly experienced. “Right here, right now” is all that’s real. What’s missing is not real. Obsession with What Isn’t is indulgent caprice. At best, it's stories we tell ourselves. At worst, we're all bonkers, living a dystopian fantasy of un-lost loss; of needless misery.

If you live in a fairytale (i.e. bonkers) world of self-narrated stories, you are condemned to live in What's Missing, and there's another word for that world: Hell.

If you opt out when your mind gently invites you to consider how GRANDPA'S NOT HERE WITH YOU - which is completely irrelevant - you will appreciate the here and now, and there's a word for that world: Heaven.

There is a dangerous rebound effect to watch out for. I explained it very tersely here, filled it in here and here. Take this seriously. No one else will warn you about this; it is a humungous pitfall no one seems to have previously pointed out, and it's easily avoided if you're watching for it.

Oh, and for an index of postings related to this insight, see (per mention above) The Evolution of a Perspective.

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