Emptiness

The excellent Michael Fassbender stars in Shame, Steve McQueen’s chilling and deeply affecting portrayal of addiction and loneliness.

If we live in an age of constant stimulation and busyness, then how come there’s such a lack of fulfillment and constant complaint of boredom in our society? Why are we incapable of enjoying the free time that we so desperately clamor for? Why do we feel so easily disconnected?

The feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man in the sciences. We do not come into this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree.” — Alan Watts

I personally had to re-engage directly with this dilemma after the fire to my home earlier this year. The sudden and massive disruption to my life was much more than the tally of artistic and financial loss could account for. With routines disrupted and being forced into temporary housing, the uncertainty and sudden insecurity made for tremendous confusion of priorities both long and short term. In a sense I was lost again. And in the midst of such a state of dislocation, I found myself, almost unknowingly, doing two things without even realizing it;  I began to snack more and spend more and more time online.

Beagles are some of the smartest hunting dogs in the world. But they’re also absolutely addicted to food. They love it so much, they’ll crazily eat themselves to death if the opportunity presents itself.

By the time I caught onto my new habits, I had gained back a quarter of the weight I had lost since my dialysis diagnosis (weight that I had proudly lost with a new diet and exercise regimen). My blood sugar went thru the roof and my chronic aches and pains were elevated. Even worse, I found myself more tired, frustrated and despondent than ever. It took a while to realize it but all that web browsing — thinking that I’m doing research and catching up on all the current events and trends that I’ve missed — made my brain all shifty, reactionary and chaotic. Despite being an avid reader (averaging about two to three books a week) I noticed that my new found activities were effecting my attention span, substantially altering my ability to focus. More importantly, I felt very unhappy. Although much could be reasonably assigned to dealing with the trauma and inconvenience the fire had on my life and marriage, it still didn’t add up. I had actually more time, but less space in my mind, if that makes any sense. Even attempts at enjoying the summer — going to the parks on the weekends to hike or run and trying to eat healthy again — didn’t resolve my predicament. No matter what kind of will power I exerted, I kept on snacking and kept on browsing. And of course, the outcome was predictable; increased weight gain and greater unhappiness.

“When our brain is overtaxed, we find “distractions more distracting.” ― Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

The phenomenon of the Ouroborus (snake eating its own tail) is typically associated with the mythological tale of renewal. But in real life, snakes attack themselves when they are confused, such as when they fail to regulate their body temperature and develop a ramped-up metabolism that urges them to eat the first thing that they see devouring themselves in a horrific vicious circle.

Then I realized that perhaps my body was trying to tell me something. Since the universe abhors a vacuum, it was clear now that a sense of emptiness had formed inside causing me to desperately try to fill it with something, anything. And in our very visceral and stimulating world, if you open yourself to receive — being vulnerable and susceptible to change — it’s more than happy to oblige. This means of course that we’re open to both the good and the bad, both love and its opposite — anxiety.

“Anxiety is love’s greatest killer. It makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds on to you. You want to save him, but you know he will strangle you with his panic. ” — Anais Nin

Suddenly my attempts to inform myself (catch up on the news etc) meant entangling myself with increased noise: inconsequential data, opinionated chatter about finance, politics and entertainment, and of course, that ceaseless bombardment and persuasion towards consumption, advertising. All of it just confirming again the distressful realization that the more the world continues to change the more it remains the same. Is it any surprise then, that when we find out that we’ve missed out on some current events or trends that it made absolutely no difference to our lives whether we knew about them or not?

All the chatter gave me was more disappointment and a greater sense of helplessness. And the more I felt this way the more I snacked and more I continued to search and read online. It was in essence, a self-destructive vicious circle — a strange sense of preoccupation of activity without any real productivity or deep inner development. Then I extrapolated my crisis globally and realized that the larger portion of society probably feels this way quite often; caught in jobs that are soulless, obsessing over nonsense, chasing after objects they don’t need and lacking the time and energy to engage in things that truly matter. Our attention, as a society, is completely misplaced. Fear of missing out (FOMO) is the modern cultural malaise.

Lemmings do without thinking clearly. Just because other people are doing it, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

In the old days, anxious behavior was strictly restricted to those with Type 1 personalities — you know, those hardcore go-getters who typically fly high in the fields of finance, law or medical school. But high ambition and the predominantly materialistic lifestyle that tags along with it, also brings narcissistic, irritable and highly reactionary behavior. The privilege of owning these maladies no longer belongs to the high achiever — today, we all suffer from psychological disarray. (Attention Deficit Disorder anyone?) We’re getting the rich man’s ailments but without the riches! I know of few people who don’t complain that they’re perpetually stressed or, that strange opposite, bored. Our success, social status and even moral worthiness now seems to be defined by a money-focused, constantly busy and fast-consuming lifestyle. That’s the goal. And here’s the crazy part; the suggested reprieve from working so hard towards that goal is more of the same!

This vicious cycle refers to alcohol addiction, but pretty much all addictive behaviors follow the same pattern.

So, the conclusion seems clear; we consume to fill our inner emptiness — whether that be from the lack of love, self-expression, or spiritual connection. We all “hunger” mentally or physically in the wake of feeling less valuable and less worthwhile. But as behavioral scientist William James observed, that at its conclusion, the total value of our lives is the sum of all the things we’ve focused on. So we must be careful with what we put into our minds (and bodies).

“My experience is what I agree to pay attention to.” — William James

Now, we might wonder on the other hand, why we can’t just do more? Isn’t our human capacity to grow and advance unlimited? Throughout our history, we’ve advanced language, productive capacity, scientific discovery and now, more recently, instant and global communication. Why can’t we just juggle more balls in the air so to speak? Isn’t that progress and natural adaptation?

“Attention, after all, is ultimately a zero-sum game.” — Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants

Biologically, we know our limitations. Human’s can’t fly (without stuff) for instance. If you consume more calories than you used up, you gain weight. Understanding that is easy, doing something about it is another issue. Still, we KNOW what’s bad for us in terms of physical consumption. Being a diabetic, I know I can’t eat so much fruits or high carbohydrate snacks. My body just turns it all to fat while shooting my blood sugar to the roof. In didn’t matter that my doctor said I had reversed my condition under my pre-fire routine. If you’re glucose intolerant, you’re glucose intolerant. If there’s twenty-four hours in a day, then that’s all you got to do anything with for that day. We have to make our selections wisely.

Although this study from The Wall Street Journal presents non-mutually exclusive data (i.e. people may be browsing the internet and watching TV at the same time), the numbers are still frightening. If you’re using a digital interface at work you’re probably spending much more time with media than is healthy.

Feeding the mind with junk isn’t always so easily discernible. The internet is a fantastic piece of technology, allowing connection, sharing of ideas and access to a vast source of information. It’s impossible to be ignorant of it in today’s global economy. But it’s this unquestioning acceptance of its benefits that cause us to overlook its power to overtake us. In Nicolas Carr’s marvelous book “The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains” it’s been revealed thru history, deep insight and new found science that there’s been a serious transformation in our abilities to think, focus, and transfer short-term information into long term memory when technology offers us a new interface by which to operate. In short, our abilities to find deeper, more fulfilling experiences associated with any newfound information may be compromised by our usage of the technology. Although we often think of the internet as a tool we can control, that control is illusory. The tools we use change us.

“[Patricia Greenfield] concluded that “every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others.” Our growing use of the Net and other screen-based technologies has led to the “widespread and sophisticated development of visual-spatial skills.” We can, for example, rotate objects in our minds better than we used to be able to. But our “new strengths in visual-spatial intelligence” go hand in hand with a weakening of our capacities for the kind of “deep processing” that underpins “mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.”
― Nicholas Carr

What’s even more frightening about consumptive behavior as a reaction to emptiness, is that both junk food and media — especially the internet — are designed to be addictive.  Thousands of the brightest and most talented minds in the fields of business, behavioral science, and commercial art (yes, us!) are working harder and harder to ensure that our minds and hearts are aligned with what corporations want us to consume. It won’t be long before the goals of the internet achieving total immersion and omnipresence becomes an unavoidable, everyday reality. How many of us can ever just check one email or look online for a mere minute or two? As Tim Wu states so brilliantly in his book, The Attention Merchants, “advertising implants thoughts not by force but by infiltration.”

“Through its variously “scientific” techniques like demand engineering, branding, or targeting, the advertising industry had become an increasingly efficient engine for converting attention into revenue.” — Tim Wu

Frito-Lay’s famous tag line ” I betcha can’t eat just one” aptly applies to our behavior with the internet.

After this realization and associating my deeper malaise with this excess and suddenly addictive behavior, I decided to put a halt to the entire routine. As cool and informative as the internet is, I said to myself “I have to limit my usage”. Just like I had to limit my intake of that perfect food called fruit, I had to refuse the many potentially “good things” that are part of the internet. In short, learning to say NO to some things allows us to say YES to more meaningful things.

The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” — William James

These marvelous drawings are by the one and only Walt Stanchfield, a legendary animator and teacher I was fortunate enough to have as a life drawing instructor. Walt would draw anywhere and everywhere, and if he was ever caught without his sketchbook, he’d make do with just a stick for a pen, coffee for ink, and a napkin for paper.

It didn’t take long to realize that the solution was to go back to regular creative and physical activity. Despite losing my art supplies and studio, I found a way to work again. Because in our greatest need, we come up with our greatest effort and resourcefulness. Drawing only on yellow-lined office paper with black sharpies, then painting at night on a newly invested ipad, I got myself (and my imagination) going again. I followed that up by setting up a small 6ft by 6ft space to do calisthenics and isometric exercise, ramping up the old school routine of basic push ups, squats and sit ups. It didn’t matter that I wouldn’t be in my home for another three months. I didn’t care. Limitations are always just in the mind. Once we take action again, it gets easier. We are, after all, defined by the routines we choose. If we clear up our mental and emotional space, we can find balance and meaning again. Or, as Marie Kondo notes in her marvelous little book on tidying:

“Human beings can only cherish a limited number of things at a time.” — Marie Kondo, The life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

In the face of emptiness or even adversity we always have a choice. It’s best we turn away from the quicker and easier route. Unrestrained consumption, whether that be media, shopping, or toxic food/drugs that lead to addiction are not our only options. Instead, we can turn our attention to two simple things that are a guaranteed cure for emptiness: physical and creative activity. We might even have a bit of fun while we’re at it.