Today’s featured image: A pea farm west of Uppsala, Sweden. I’ve talked down the natural beauty of Sweden to a few of my friends who have been visiting Scandinavia, but I’ve done so because I’m constantly comparing it to Norway. Compared to just about anywhere else, Sweden really is a beautiful country. And when it looks like this at 5:00 am, it’s easy to get up early.
I’m already regretting everything, every recent decision. I’ve made so many mistakes. Someone recently told me not to regret anything because whatever decision I made was the best I could have made at that time. Bullshit. Complete and total bullshit. I’ve made a lot of decisions that I knew were not in the best interest of my future self, whether a few minutes or months in the future. Regret. Fatigue. Frustration. Contempt. Fear. Doubt. It’s all here, but it’s in no way inevitable.
None of this bothered me three weeks ago. Even with the heat, the filthy living conditions, the malnourishment, and the sedentariness. It was just the way things were, and my mind had no aversion to it. There was no disappointment of the poor organization of the program I had traveled halfway around the world to participate in. There was no frustration with my inability to sit properly, focus consistently, or motivate myself to exercise sufficiently. No, there was only the understanding that such things had happened and that I wanted to alter what was reasonable and possible to affect. But those things that could not be affected were what they were, and that they would remain with no judgment.
What was the difference? I was present. When one lives in the present moment, they accept it. When we live constantly in the future or the past, we are constantly frustrated by the fact that were are not actually in either of those imaginary worlds. The present world is the only one that exists, but we are humans. We don’t want what we have; we want what we don’t have. We don’t have a future different from the present. We don’t have the past that we had no way of holding onto. We don’t have the comfort, the thrill, the pleasure, the [whatever] that we think we will have if we could just fix something about our current situation.
The modern technological world all but demands that we exist in this state. Feeling lonely? See who liked my latest Instagram photo. Feeling bored? Scroll Twitter for an interesting idea. Feeling curious? Google something. Has all this task switching left you feeling too tired to think? Go down a YouTube rabbit hole. And every time we indulge, we reinforce the behavior. We train our brains to be averse to boredom, to stillness, to silence, to the present.
And that is exactly what happened. I am addicted to my phone. I am addicted to being connected. And since I’ve had almost constant internet access since I left Wat Khao Tahm, I have undone all of my practice. Each impulsive unlocking of the phone, checking of another app, or playing of another podcast, or reviewing of another photo satisfies only that instantaneous need. And the satisfaction is as fleeting as the craving that it addresses. But if it were only this, it would be an equally satisfactory way of life. I’m so often connected that it’s completely sustainable to do this consistently. If the present moment is all that exists, why not just continue to satisfy the present needs?
It doesn’t actually work. Each repetition results in a lower high followed by a lower baseline. In between distractions, there is a level of experience at some “neutral” position. When living from dopamine hit to dopamine hit, I find that this neutral baseline is less and less likely to be even moderately pleasant. When the cycle is broken, however, I find this state comfortable. There’s little disturbance, little grasping for change. Stillness becomes acceptable, and whatever action I am doing is the right action. It makes doing unpleasant things far less unpleasant. It makes the act of resisting known ephemeral pleasures far more satisfying. It makes having discipline easier.
It is, however, a bit of a catch-22. In order to live in our modern world while steering clear of the distractions that incessantly scream for our attention, we must exhibit discipline. It’s a feedback loop. As discipline is cultivated, it becomes stronger. As discipline is shirked, it becomes weaker. It is a practice just like any other skill, just like training the physical body.
I wrote a few months ago about Jocko Willink’s motivational rhetoric on “discipline equals freedom“. It is a cycle that feeds on itself, whether upward or downward. But it is not entirely self-propelling. It takes some effort to continue guiding it in the right direction. It takes resolve to resist the daily temptations of social media, junk food, gossip, and general comfort. It takes effort to work toward our goals, to exercise, and to focus on the task at hand. When energy is low and feelings are strong (oh, ya know, how you feel after crashing from too much caffeine, staying up late because of a red-eye flight, not sleeping well on said flight, eating garbage food before and during said flight, and trying to reset your body clock in a new time zone), I do not have the strength for such effort.
I will not rise to the level of my expectations; I will sink to the level of my training. Have I been training my mind through meditation? Or indulgence? Have I been training my habit of exercising? Or lounging? The answer to those questions will determine my next move. Do I continue to train for a better life? Or a worse one? Do I continue to train in such a manner that makes things better for my future self? Or worse? As Jordan Peterson said, “If you have any sense, you’re going to insist that at the end of the day you’re not in worse shape than you were at the beginning of the day because that’s a stupid day!” I essence, do my habits make for good days or stupid days?
I left Singapore thinking about what it means to “progress”. What ought we be progressing toward? It’s probably most useful to start thinking about what that means for me individually. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be formulating the personal moral code that I started reworking at Wat Khao Tahm. That’s something I’ll be progressing toward, but one doesn’t need a moral code to know that if you end the day feeling shittier than you did at the beginning of the day, that’s a stupid day. I’ve had a lot of stupid days over the past year, and training my mind with distraction and negative self-talk is a downward spiral to more stupid days.
Moral of the story: it’s good to have my computer back. I can type faster than I can write so I can keep up with my thoughts. Working out these thoughts helps me stay sane, stay motivated, stay disciplined, stay focused on where I’m going, and stay out of the cycle of regret.
Yes, I feel regret over how I have trained my mind of the past couple weeks. The poor training has left me with feelings of regret over having eaten so poorly on the road, having not kept up with my fitness regimen, and having made stupid mistakes that are costing me money that I would have preferred to spend on other things. And now that I’m back in Uppsala, I’m feeling the regret of having not prepared to the best of my ability for that Ph.D. interview, which could have led to my long-term stay in this lovely city with an income to support actually experiencing what it has to offer. Yet all of this regret gets me no closer to even my poorly defined goals.
If I have any sense, I’ll make a damn schedule and stick to it.