I’ve been lucky enough to have a natural tendency to examine my life in great detail. Maybe too much detail. On the whole this is a huge asset, it allows me to maintain tight control and achieve the things I want. It does, however, comes with some downsides. My whole perspective is centred around discontent with the way things currently are.
This is definitely not a unique problem. This a pattern I see everywhere, you find your thoughts taking the shape of “if I could only do X then I would be happy” or “if I only had Y then I would be happy”. X & Y can take the form of pretty much anything: “get in shape”, “make $100,000”, “get a dog” or even just “write that article”.
It can be hard to see the downsides of this type of thinking, it allows you to set goals effortlessly and take responsibility for them, which seems pretty powerful on the surface. It wasn’t until I was a few years into university (around 22) that I really started running into trouble with this approach. I was working all day every day, splitting time between The Thin Silence, writing my thesis, working part time as a software engineer, maintaining a long term relationship (poorly) and hardly sleeping. I remember the distinct realisation that I was never actually enjoying myself. It turns out that being permanently discontent with your life… Doesn’t feel so good. I was starting to feel I was chasing after something that I could never catch.
Things improved briefly after university, I graduated and started working full-time. I was still making The Thin Silence and still maintaining a relationship (still poorly) but I was also studying to apply at Facebook, Google and across Silicon Valley in general. My housemate during university had moved to Mountain View to work at Google and was enthusiastically encouraging me to join. I was apprehensive but I felt pressured to jump at an opportunity some would consider a dream.
Then a lot happened in one year. My relationship (after 4.5 years) ended mutually, but it was still brutal. I finally admitted that I didn’t want to go to Silicon Valley and I would rather have a “mediocre” job in Brisbane (my job is actually great) if I could keep pursuing indie games (this is the case). I started meditating consistently to try and help with my mood, and I really liked it. I took LSD for the first time, and I really liked it.
My breakthrough came after all this. I had the sudden and direct realisation that no matter what specific challenges you are facing, you can access a state of calm contentment in the present moment. It firmly sunk in that that is where happiness lies, not in chasing status, money, romance or even escapist adventure. Once I started to really appreciate how good it feels to be calm, I adjusted my entire perspective on what constitutes a pleasant life. I began to finally appreciate the value of relaxation and rest.
It’s easy to shrug this off as an obvious point but for someone with my personality type this is, well, profound. I was starkly aware that the struggle I was going through was both self-inflicted and infinite. I was still working on The Thin Silence but I allowed myself time to actually relax. I became increasingly morally opposed to the idea of working at large, Silicon Valley based software companies due to both privacy concerns and unethical design tactics (addictive newsfeeds, etc.)
From here I finally started seeing the value of taking time for myself and my relationships. I kept meditating and I gobbled up content by Alan Watts, Terrance McKenna, Sam Harris (and more). Not that I agree with everything they say, but they certainly opened me up. I could see that it was possible to balance my creative drive with a deep appreciation for what I already have. When you can calmly accept things exactly as they are you have a new tool in the kit, it enables you to switch between the headspaces of productivity and that of gratitude at will.
There was no reason to wait to be happy. There still isn’t. Especially when I actually take a moment to see my privileged position. I have great people around me, stable income and no immediate threats to any of it. It just took perspective.
It seems critical to mention that despite this perspective shift, I still deal with pressure, depression and anxiety regularly. Being able to be content with the present certainly doesn’t prevent negative emotions or thought patterns from arising, but it does allow you to accept those feelings for what they are: feelings. I can regard my mood as “just another sensation” in the present moment and sit at ease with it. I especially find that accepting depressive or anxious feelings, i.e. “I’m just feeling anxious right now, it will pass”, eases the intensity of the experience.
I know my experience is not universal but I think there is a lesson here for everyone, even those who’s lives are unfairly laden with adversity. Even if you strive to make things better and every day feels like a struggle it is possible to find peace. This doesn’t mean you should stop trying to change your life, or the system or the attitudes of those around you, it means cutting yourself some slack.