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The Problem That Doesn’t Exist; Our Cultural Disease.

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

‘God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables, slaves with white collars, advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of the history man, no purpose or place, we have no Great war, no Great depression, our great war is a spiritual war.’ — Tyler Durden.

You awaken out of a dream that you have no memory of. As the light seeps in, your bedroom floor is illuminated. And with it, a strange and subtle seeping of emotions that seem to merge together into an odd indescribable emulsion of melancholia and compulsion. There is a sickly synergy of inspiration and guilt, such that the one intensifies and yet blunts the other. Are you conscious of this feeling? You pull yourself out of bed. From this moment on, what compels you throughout the day? Why do you do what you do? Why do you do anything at all?

It is this predicament that I wish now to explore.

Let us step outside, and take a meandering walk about the streets of the city (which are not really made for meandering at all, or any kind of pleasure in-fact; but for mere practical efficiency).

Do notice, my dear wanderer, what is it that you first see upon the foreheads of these civil citizens of whom you share the streets with? Why, with little exception, the eyebrows! So madly twisted, tensed, frowning like little contorted worms. And their step so eager — no: tortured, hurried, forceful, hastily rushing about here and there and everywhere. Where do their eyes look? Where but at the ground in-front? What a calamity! It is as if something mad was about to happen, some grande disaster… or is it already happening!? Is this sanity? I can not dare to think so.

As the bastions upon high chant ‘PROGRESS!’ and march forward in fanaticism towards greater technological advancement and taller buildings and numbers with more zero’s on the end, I bid to politely question such a blindly accepted ideology that seems to lead the poor men and women of today on a frantic lifelong quest that is so very much analogous to the old image of a rabbit chasing a carrot on a string, dangled just in-front of him — a carrot that is tied to his own torso, or that of a dog chasing his own tail with ferocious vigour. This, I feel, is put very eloquently by the British philosopher, Alan Watts: ’A world which increasingly consists of destinations without journeys between them, a world which values only “getting somewhere” as fast as possible, becomes a world without substance.’

As such, we may do well to take a sweeping glance at todays ‘self help’ industry, an industry that seems predominantly focused on the idea that one can lift oneself up by tugging on one’s own shoelace, an industry that I feel is a great cause of psychological torment to many young people today; an industry that serves often to simply exacerbate our compulsive need for external validation.

Take a moment to open a YouTube page, type in ‘motivation’, ‘self-improvement’, ‘entrepreneur’, ‘success’ or any of the other trendy bullshit phrases that our culture farts out every year. Walk into a WHSmith and note how two-thirds of the bookshelves are stacked with colourful self-help tripes: How To Think, 7 Keys to Not Being Ugly or whatever. Welcome to the world of self-help. Welcome to the world of productivity, life-hacks, personal development, goal-setting; welcome to the world of habit-wanking-ego-stroking-life-advice bullocks. Welcome to the world of 4am alarms, 16 hour workdays, blood, sweat, tears, men shouting fervently about wanting-it-as-bad-as-you-want-to-breath to emotive orchestral backing music. Welcome to the world of Gary Vaynerchuk, a CEO / social icon, a tragic symbol for young men; the idealised figure for forcing yourself to work continuously throughout your youth and young adulthood in pursuit of some great goal… ‘success’. Start a business, build your assets; network, market, advertise, optimise, work hard, work smart, work, work, work. Fuck having fun, fuck enjoying life, fuck everyone and everything that gets in your way. Put your worthless head down and grind; pour your whole being into some future goal, some great achievement, something; anything. Get fit, get muscular, get slim, get rich, get popular, get a nice job, run a six-figure business, live the entrepreneur lifestyle. Passive income, compound interest, investment, risk assessment, six-tips-to-be-the-most-charismatic-person-in-the-room, ten-rules-for-life, eight-pillars-of-success, nine-mindsets-for-exponential-business-growth, who-comes-up-with-this-shit?

You want my two-cents? Don’t confuse yourself with this endless barrage of garbage trying to tell you how to live, what to do, who to be. It’s poison. It’s a deification of achievement-chasing, efficiency, productivity. It’s a product of a sick culture, a virus, a cultural narrative that has its roots dug way back in the canals of human history, but it’s worse now than ever: it’s breaking through, it’s pulsating more ferociously than ever throughout the psychic mainframe of the common man. It’s a cultural narrative that we live by, something that’s so ingrained that we don’t even question it; it’s run itself so deep that it has taken on the illusion of ‘a priori’ when it’s really just an idea, just a set of beliefs that we’ve consciously or unconsciously chosen to worship. Why? Because we’re raised to believe that we’re not enough, that it’s our job to prove ourselves to the world, our duty to grind our souls against the cheese grater until we sculpt a hollow ideal of the archetypal successful man that no-one ever really achieves… because it’s not real, it’s an archetype, and a shit one at that.

We’re brought up in a world that is obsessed with image, with appearance, with the superficial glaze upon which we lay out fragile identities. We’re told from a young age that we’re on probation, that we’re only half a man or woman; only half human. And being young and impressionable, our little brains hardwire these ideas so deep that we forget that they’re conditioned in the first place — that these feelings within you that compel you to prove something to the world and to yourself has been implanted into your psyche; a feeling that I am not enough as I am, a feeling that in order to be acceptable I have to first become a success in the eyes of the societal matrix of hierarchical status and occupational merit and accumulative wealth. It’s a socially encouraged disease of thought: coming from the Old French ‘desaise’, meaning a ‘lack of ease’; what I am suggesting is that ‘ease’ is exactly what we need more of, and exactly what the neurosis that pervades the spoon-feeding self-help trends of today is so horrendously adverse to. As a Tibetan monk remarks to Conway in James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon, ‘Is there not too much tension in the world at present, and might it not be better if more people were slackers?’.

Let’s go back to the morning. You wake up from a dream that you have no memory of. You pull yourself out of bed. Now, almost completely unconsciously, you are ruled by a compulsive need to fill a hole that you feel to be within you somewhere, are you not? A part of you is simply not whole until you get THERE, or do THIS, or get THAT; until you ‘sort your life out’ or ‘make it’; until you complete the to-do list, which, of-course, never ends; until you make yourself sufficient in all of the areas in which you feel insufficient, but how can you — an insufficient being to start with — make yourself sufficient? How can a faulty thing fix itself? How can the imperfect make itself perfect?

This is to highlight the essential paradox of our self-enforced mental torture; the absurdity of our strivings — our unconscious, self-inflicted suffering. I am trying to cover up the fact that I feel there is something wrong with me by compensating with approval from the outside world. I am hiding from my own feelings of inadequacy through constant seeking of some kind of external achievement; anything to quell this strange sensation that I am by my very essence guilty, that I must prove myself in the eyes of everyone else… since, if they will approve of my behaviour, I will have my proof! I will be worthy! I will be officially human, no doubt!

The Japanese have a concept that we call ‘Wabi-Sabi’. It roughly translates as ‘that which is perfect exactly because it’s a little fucked up’. I suppose the most succinct and simultaneously clumsy way to put this in the English language is the idea of the ‘perfectly imperfect’, of that which is attractive precisely due to its asymmetry, the beauty of chaos. As such, we seem to forget that reality does not contain self-ideals: it does not contain perfection or imperfection, for these are concepts we have made in the assumption that there is, at the bottom of things, the possibility of something or someone being ‘wrong’; that it is something and yet, at the same time, should be something else — that I am someone, and yet, I should be someone else, and moreover that until I become this ‘other me’ I must feel continuously guilty; since after all, I am ‘doing me’ wrong.

We seem to have forgotten, then, that in the natural world no mistakes are ever made: that there is no such thing as an unsuccessful tree, a poorly designed cloud, or an earthworm that ought to sort its life out. Have you ever seen a cat setting goals? Have you ever met a self-actualising baby?

Lao tze wrote: ‘Stop leaving and you will arrive, stop searching and you will see, stop running away and you will be found.’ This is to see, then, that it is in the very act of chasing something beyond ourselves — something to hold, to validate our existence; it is in this very act that we generate and perpetuate the illusion that there is something in me that I need to fill. It is the very act of constant pursuit that keeps the inner discontentment alive. You create your own suffering.

In this knowledge, the Japanese Zen tradition is predominantly focused upon what we may call in our crude language (when it comes to ‘spiritual’ conversation), ‘getting out of my own way’. Zen acted very much as an antibody in the Japanese culture at a time when it was most needed; at a time of great individual dislocation from the essential aliveness and fulfilment of existence, at a time of collective neurosis.

I write this because I observe that we are in the midst of a strikingly similar time of our own. This is perhaps now an global phenomenon, and I admit that it is not at all new. However, with the collapse of collective values and culturally binding traditions and mythos, it seems that we are more than ever in a state of collective disconnect from the soul of mankind. It seems that in our own obsessive insecurity we have severed the last stable links to our ancestral wisdom, that we are floating on dark stormy seas with little light to navigate with; on both an individual and societal level.

The dawn of social media and smartphones, infinite entertainment and digital narcissism has swept our species off our feet. Our egoic identities are immersed in this new world of social metrics and comparison, all of which magnifies and deepens the essential feeling that I am simply not enough as I am, that I exist entirely on probation in a world of people who have no idea how I feel inside; that I must do my best to hide these feelings such that I am not rejected, that I must conceal, pretend, acquire, perform — that I must prove myself.

Much of the advice the perpetuates itself throughout the self-help industry is simply a projection of the same root issue, and therefore does little but provoke the same insecurities often at greater intensity than before. I am told to work harder, to wake up earlier; to optimise my time; to set yearly goals, monthly goals, weekly targets, to-do lists and micro to-do lists and reminders and alarms. I am told that in order to ‘ be successful’ and ‘achieve’ my dreams I must engage in a large degree of ‘personal development’. I am told that unless I devote myself to the ‘grind’, I will simply never be one of the 1%, one of the few that ‘make it’. To put it simply, the premier crème da le crème of todays guiding advice for young people is that the proper way to think about my life is a series of incremental adjustments that make me more, that make me better. In short, to ‘improve myself’.

We live in an age in which we believe in a problem that doesn’t really exist. Our cities are circuses, our schools are arenas for competing instead of communities for learning and discovering, our lives are full of conflict because we continue to ignore the conflict within our own minds, we are run by fear, motivated by insecurity, we are fueled by our own anxiety.

And if you think you’re getting advice from me, you’re not. Any advice I give will perpetuate the same illusory feeling that ‘there is something wrong with me that needs to be fixed’. So why try?

A charming Frenchman, Albert Camus, proposed that the only important question of philosophy is whether or not I should kill myself. Despite sounding horribly morbid at first, I find his thinking to be more and more freeing, empowering and uplifting the more I think about it. Camus was a man who remarked that our existence is essentially absurd, and therefore that our strivings are equally absurd, if not more-so given the circumstance. The question then arises, why live at all? Why do anything?

Similarly, in Taoist philosophy it is posited that all of existence is completely and beautifully purposeless. This is not seen as a detrimental statement at all, but rather quite the compliment. It is, in essence, the realisation of the whole universe as art pour l’art. The feeling of myself and my whole existence as being intrinsically valuable in and of itself, without any kind of striving, without any need to do anything but be; without any compulsion to prove myself to anyone, nor to myself.

It is true, that if there is no need; and perhaps no point in doing anything at all — one may feel initially quite bewildered, perhaps even existentially panicked. However, I think this is still missing the point: which is that there really is no point at all; nothing to achieve, nowhere to go. Where else but here, then? When else but now? One may find in this a certain awareness, a certain wisdom, a certain relaxation, a certain reignition of a part of oneself that is so often lost in the realms of ‘adulthood’ — the playful joy of the child with nowhere to go, nothing to do; and if one does not find this, it is exactly because one is trying to find it. Are you not enough as you are now? What’s missing? What do you need to acquire? Let’s look at it from the other side of the equation. If there is no reason to do anything; if nothing, in the final analysis, means anything at all beyond my own projection of personal meaning, then there is, equally, no reason NOT to do anything. At which point I am relatively free to act without obsessive anxiety, without hesitation, without compulsion, no? And for what end other than the act in and of itself?

This is life as art pour l’art. This is life pour l’ife: life for life’s sake, living for nothing else than to be alive. This is to talk of the transcendence of self-doubt, of social validation, of obsessive striving, of a great deal of suffering. This is empowerment; and yet, immense relaxation, ease! This is to talk of seeing through the neurotic, egoistic games that we play unconsciously; this is to acknowledge and embrace ones own freedom to choose what game one plays and how one plays it, and to play it sincerely, consciously — knowing that it is a game. Then, perhaps, the game may be truly enjoyed.

I recently watched a YouTube video in which Russell Brand made a comparison between himself and a cat as: ’two mammals, on a rock, in infinite space’. Brand made the point that the cat is not strategising all the time, he’s simply drifting into the infinite, doing as it wishes — eating when it is time to eat, sleeping when it is tired, playing when it wishes to play.

Human beings may of-course decide upon far more complex and diverse games to play than a cat; we may wish to paint great murals, to build fascinating machines, to dance and compose; even to play with words, as I am doing now. However, to forget for too long the wisdom of the cat — that there is no need for tension except as a form of play… that there is nothing missing in the first place — is to conduct these games in such a state as to feel horribly attached to what happens; to be lost in a neurotic world of shoulds and musts and not enoughs — to feel that one must conquer, achieve and attain in order to fill a whole that is at bottom self-perpetuated delusion; a forgetting of the profoundly simple reality of our lives. This is to lose the playful spirit of the child, the gentle swaying of the willow tree, the mellow ecstasy of chirping birds. This is to live without ever truly relaxing, without ever truly letting go, without ever enjoying the dance; the blissful rhythms of life. With this wisdom, one may learn to grow and evolve naturally; that is, as a part of the play, as a part of the dance — not from guilt, not from fear, not from a need to prove oneself in a world of delusional egoism.

‘A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.’ — Lao Tze.


Axle Winterson

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