The toxic triangle of modernity

I said to a correspondent recently that it feels like I am perpetually walking on ice—whenever I seem to have found a philosophical, spiritual, psychological or epistemological safe spot, I take a few more steps and fall into the freezing waters of uncertainty and doubt once again. And because my intellectual awakening was brought on by the sweet goodness of books and blogs about self-improvement and productivity, Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity functioned as an unexpected dunk into some Nordic fjord.

The book actually turned out to be one of the best I’ve read in the last year or so, which is saying a lot as I’ve had the fortune of being exposed to some absolute crackers. It discusses developments in our relationships to things like emancipation, work, community and what we think about when we think about time and space. But the two things that most interest me about it are its discussion of the concepts of individualism and impotence, which, taken together with the idea of an over-emphasis on normative models, form what I have termed the “toxic triangle of modernity”.

toxic triangle of modernity

THE FIRST INGREDIENT: THE NORMATIVE

Let’s begin with the first concept: the over-emphasis on the normative. I mentioned it recently in Removing the normative, but I’d like to revisit it here.

The definition of “normative” I have in mind here is something like, “An ideal but unachievable model”. For example, in his Letters Seneca advises:

“Choose someone whose way of life as well as words, and whose very face as mirroring the character that lies behind it, have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model. There is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make the crooked straight.”

The idea is that by choosing some great man or woman as a model and holding them in mind, you can begin to pull yourself up and improve the quality of your words, deeds and thoughts. It’s a shoot-for-the-moon-but-if-you-miss-you’ll-land-amongst-the-stars kind of thing. But there is an insidious side to it.

If a model is taken with the assumption that the model’s state is achievable by the imitator, then the imitator is setting themselves up for a world of pain and misery. It’s the difference between aspiration and ambition. Aspiring to live and learn with the same joy as a Richard Feynman is very different, in process and outcome, from having the ambition to be like Richard Feynman. The former is a selective imitation and application of his most positive traits in the context of your own life; the latter is a slavish attempt to solve—or skirt around—your own problems by becoming someone else.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand the over-emphasis on the normative in our current cultural climate is to turn to Instagram. We all know the schtick: social media is the highlight reel of someone’s life, it is not a faithful representation, etc. etc.. Yet, we still fall for it and make the comparison between so-and-so’s “best life” and our own. The latter seems utterly enthralling and the former is exquisitely mundane. The digital nomad; the big-city yogi; the wildlife photographer; the van dweller; the artisan; the happy family—every aspect of our life and being is represented on social media and every aspect is illuminated with the most perfect combination of light and framing. Is it any wonder that we, who live a normal live in an often grey world, spend a lot of time feeling like shit?

THE SECOND INGREDIENT: INDIVIDUALISM

The cult of individualism demands independence and self-reliance from all its acolytes. It’s motto could well be Henley’s, “I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul.” It preaches the idea that all problems encountered by the individual can be solved by the individual. Conversely, that means that any problem’s perpetuation is the fault of the individual. As Bauman says:

“..if they fall ill, it is assumed that this has happened because they were not resolute and industrious enough in following their health regime; if they stay unemployed, it is because they failed to learn the skills of gaining an interview, or because they did not try hard enough to find a job or because they are, purely and simply, work-shy; if they are not sure about their career prospects and agonise about their future, it is because they are not good enough at winning friends and influencing people and failed to learn and master, as they should have done, the arts of self-expression and impressing others. This is, at any rate, what they are told these days to be the case, and what they have come to believe, so that they now behave as if this was, indeed, the truth of the matter. As Beck aptly and poignantly puts it, ‘how one lives becomes a biographical solution to systemic contradictions’. Risks and contradictions go on being socially produced; it is just the duty and the necessity to cope with them which are being individualised.”

Like the women who is raped “because” she had the audacity to wear “provocative” clothing, or the Jewish concentration camp inmates who were seen as worthy of detention and destruction by neighbouring civilians because of their abject condition, the individual is the one ultimately responsible for his or her inability to vault over systemically-produced obstacles. All success is individually generated, as is all failure.

Liquid Modernity contains a few examples of the inhumanity of the cult of individualism, but the most striking, and the one I’ll end this section with, came in the domain of health and fitness. Bauman quotes Jane Fonda:

“ ‘I like to think a lot of my body is my own doing and my own blood and guts. It’s my responsibility.’ Fonda’s message for every woman is to treat her body as her own possession (my blood, my guts), her own product (my own doing) and above all, her own responsibility. To sustain and reinforce the postmodern amour de soi, she invokes (alongside the consumer tendency to self-identify through possessions) the memory of a very pre-postmodern – in fact more pre-modern than modern – instinct of workmanship: the product of my work is as good as (and no better than) the skills, attention and care which I invest in its production. Whatever the results, I have no one else to praise or to blame, as the case may be. The obverse side of the message is also unambiguous, even if not spelled out with similar clarity: you owe your body thought and care, and should you neglect that duty you should feel guilty and ashamed. Imperfections of your body are your guilt and your shame. But the redemption of sins is in the hands of the sinner, and in his or her hands alone.”

THE THIRD INGREDIENT: IMPOTENCE

First, we are presented with an abundance of normative models. One can go on Instagram and instantly stumble upon well-meaning people attempting to “empower” their followers by teaching them ways to improve their bodies, but who at the same time are manufacturing a deep dissatisfaction in the minds of their followers due to the follower’s inability to ever achieve that normative state.

Second, we are persuaded that all failures are individual failures. A person gets their just desert. The ill, the unemployed, the homeless, the unhealthy, the impoverished, the less-than-best; they have failed themselves.

It is sometimes possible to move beyond the constraints normative models and the school of individualism impose. After all, we’ve all heard stories of incredible transformations, of people turning their lives around, of those who accomplish something with nothing through the virtue of sheer will. But those are the exception, and will become increasingly so once we factor in the third ingredient: impotence, either real or perceived. The best lens through which to view this idea is the idea of climate change.

In a remarkable thread David Roberts comes to a conclusion about our approach to climate change. Some choice excerpts:

“We have the tech we need for sustainability. The economics are aligned. The policy tools are tested and available. Everything is queued up! The only thing missing, the final detail, the last item on the checklist, is … leadership!

“We could solve this affordably & to mutual benefit” is true of almost *every* social dysfunction. I mean, we have the money & policy tools to eliminate poverty. It would generate enormous collective benefit. But we don’t. Why not? B/c we lack … political will!

To sum up: yes, we get it! We have to tools we need to transition to sustainability. It makes economic sense. We just need political will. Message received.”

Now, add to this one of Bauman’s observations:

“The most poignant yet the least answerable question of our times of liquid modernity is not ‘What is to be done?’ (in order to make the world better or happier), but ‘Who is going to do it?’ ”

Knowing what to do but being unable to do it—that is the definition of impotence. And it is a state surprisingly akin to much of modern life. Circling back to health and fitness: it’s easy to get information about what we should eat and what sort of activities we should engage in to remain healthy. There’s millions of sources. Which is the problem. We have the information, and a lot of it conflicts, so we don’t know what to do with it.

THE WHOLE AND ITS PARTS

This is what you should look like, but it’s your fault that you don’t and there’s nothing you can do to change your body.

Work should be meaningful, fun and wealth-generating, but you haven’t developed the skills to get such a job and it will take the rest of your life to do so.

The best relationships are deep and intimate and long-lasting, but all your relationships are rocky and marred with implicit ruptures that you can never hope to repair or bridge because you’re a broken person.

The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Over-emphasis on the normative, the cult of individualism, and the actual or perceived impotence of the modern person when confronting personal, community or societal issues are, alone, bad news. Together? They are utterly toxic. They feed one another and perpetuate a society where everyone is ashamed of their non-normative state, where everyone feels responsible for problems outside of their control, and where everyone is terrorised by a real or perceived inability to do what they know they must.

THE DOSE

I’ve painted a particularly grim picture. However, there is hope, especially when recalling that toxicity is dependent not on the substance itself, but on the amount of it that is consumed. With that in mind I would say that:

1) Normative models are useful when used as the basis for aspiration, not ambition.
2) Individualism is virtuous when limited to the domain and scale of what one person can reasonably hope to accomplish.
3) Impotence has a function, particularly on the societal scale, of checking reckless action and ensuring best results. It slows the decision-making and action-taking processes with the aim of producing sustainable positive effects.

The dose makes the poison, but who will say when enough becomes too much? When normative models have taken over, when the individual has become the sovereign of our times, and when the status quo is one of well-meaning people who know what to do but not how to do it, what will be our response?

The real limit

My foray into strength and conditioning began with some fundamental texts. I read Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength; I read Tudor Bompa’s Periodisation; I read Dan John’s Never Let Go; I read Mike Boyle’s Advances in Functional Training; I read Mel Siff’s Supertraining. These texts gave me a good start and introduced me to important ideas, one of which was the difference between a real limit and a perceived limit.

Do a search for “training max”. What you’ll quickly uncover is that, when it comes to weightlifting and fitness, there are multiple types of maxes:

– Training max: the most you’ve ever lifted in training.
– Technical max: the most you can lift with no deviation from what is considered flawless form.
– Competition max: the most you’ve lifted in a competitive scenario.
– Absolute max: the most you can lift with no regard for proper form and the most provocative of stimuli.

The point: the real limit to your capacity is constantly fluctuating, as is the perceived limit to your capacity.

Another example of the gap between the real and the perceived limit comes from Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved:

“No one can know how long and what torments his soul can resist before crumpling or breaking. Every human being has reserves of strength whose measure he does not know; they may be large, small, or nonexistent, but the only means of assessing them is severe adversity. Even without invoking the extreme case of the Sonderkommandos [the inmates responsible for removing corpses from the gas chambers post annihilation], we survivors commonly find that when we talk about our experience our listeners say, “In your place, I wouldn’t have lasted a day.” This statement has no precise meaning; you are never in someone else’s place. Each individual is an object so complex that it is useless to try to predict behaviour, especially in extreme situations; we cannot even predict our own behaviour.”

Some more examples:

Love: we reserve our love for the small amount of people we are close to and intimate with. We think that our love can extend only to them. But the credit of our love can extend well beyond. Instead of loving a few individuals, we can love strangers too. We can “prove love”, as Chuck Tingle would say, for everyone, not just a select few.

Creativity: in Impro Keith Johnstone makes the point that creativity, or its absence, is a matter of inhibition, not ability. We cease being creative not because our stores are limited but because we begin to censor our output. “Creative” is the base state of humanity, not the peak state.

Overtraining/under-recovery: many disciples of CrossFit, and of fitness in general, end up taking enforced breaks from training. Why? Because they push themselves harder than they are able to recover from. They think their body can handle more stress than it is currently capable of, so they get hit with injuries and long periods of diminished performance.

Pain: Brazilian jiu-jitsu is great for many reasons, but one of the most important is the “tap”. Submitting enables a person to train year-round, without too much damage—contrary to striking sports where to train means to get hit. But when you choose to tap changes. Beginners, when first experiencing the onset of a choke or joint lock will panic and tap immediately. But the more experienced know that, often, the psychological can override the biological. The point at which you feel your consciousness fading is actually ten or twenty seconds later than you first thought; the amount of pressure your clenched jaw can endure from a shoulder being driven into it is a lot more after you relax.

INCREASE, DECREASE

The gap between the real and the perceived limit is always present, if not always apparent. But what to do with it? Take a look at this sketch.

perceived and real

It portrays four possible actions: 1) Increase the real limit. 2) Decrease the real limit. 3) Increase the perceived limit. 4) Decrease the perceived limit.

Increasing the real limit is akin to physiological and psychological adaptation. Think of how the bodily tissues are broken down and reconstructed, over and over, in the course of a deadlift or squat training cycle. Or how the aerobic system adapts and becomes more efficient after regular bouts of low-intensity, long-duration activity. Or how the mind steadily accumulates a body of knowledge and a network of relationships during periods of deep immersion in a particular field or discipline.

Decreasing the real limit is akin to physical and psychological deterioration. Deprived of adequate quantities of food, the body will turn on itself for sustenance. Fat stores will be raided, followed by stores of carbohydrate, and when those are fully depleted the body will begin to cannibalise its own muscular tissue. And if that is still not enough, the body will shut down tertiary operations of the organs and prioritise the operation of systems critical to life, like the brain and the heart. When deprived of another central nutrient, sleep, the mind will start to malfunction. Regulation of hormones and neurotransmitters will go awry; energy and mood will fluctuate wildly; information and memory processing will become impaired, and if sleep deprivation is taken far enough, will cease altogether. Natural processes like ageing also lower the real limits of our capacities: the bones of an eighty year old are more brittle than the bones of an eight year old.

Increasing the perceived limit is akin to the awakening of awareness. A top tier athlete understands, more deeply than an amateur, his biological limits, and a large part of his development is the result of training himself to bypass the perceived limit and reset it at a higher bar. The upper echelons of performance are as much a tale of how close one can get to, without overstepping, the limits of biology as much as they are the continued optimisation of the human specimen.

Decreasing the perceived limit is akin to onset of caution. When a mountain biker, skier or climber attempts a difficult trail and fails it—crashing, falling or similar—the common response is to set the bar back in a position lower than where it was before. For example, if the climber overestimates their capacity by n and suffers a disastrous fall, they will tend to recalibrate their limit to be more than n below what they previously thought they were capable of.

POSITIVE, NEGATIVE AND NEUTRAL

Those are the actions one can take in response to real and perceived limits. But what states do these actions result in? There are three: positive, negative and neutral.

pos neg neut

A positive state is the norm in nature. For example, there’s a very real reason that our grip is the first thing to go when we try to lift something incredibly heavy: the grip is a circuit breaker that protects the rest of the system. It breaks so that other muscular tissue, connective tissue, and skeletal structures don’t. The typically always-maintained gap between our perceived limit and our real limit is a safety mechanism that keeps us in whatever games we choose to engage in. Bypassing the perceived limits using artificial aids and stimulants often leads us to bypass the real limit of our capacities, resulting in damage that, if not irreversible, at least causes considerable stagnation.

A negative state is dangerous. It is when we think that we—or some thing—can do more than is possible. We can, to some degree, model and predict the potential limits of an entity, but more often than not limits are found by going beyond them. Via trial that leads to error. The example of this that comes to mind is from Robert Coram’s biography of John Boyd:

“ “…the general mused on how this new aircraft would require intensive pilot training. The general then boasted about the safety record of fighter pilots under his command and told how he had had no training accidents for several years.
‘General, if you’re not having accidents, your training program is not what it should be,’ Boyd said. He told the general about Nellis [a US training base] and how realistic the training was — and how it resulted in a ten-to-one exchange ratio in Korea. ‘Goddamit, General, you need more accidents,’ he said. ‘You need to kill some pilots.’ ”

Boyd’s “killing pilots” is aggressive trial-and-error, pushing the skills of pilots and the planes they were flying past their limit.

The above example is also an example of the third state, the neutral state. Boyd is trying to get his pilots and his planes to operate as close as possible to the real limit—to make the real limit and the perceived limit one and the same. This is the aim of all high performance. For example, sports stars are genetically optimised for their sport, but they also exhibit a remarkable psychological ability to eek out the most from themselves. Their trade is high reward, but also high risk—they operate on the precipice, performance after performance.

WHAT TO DO

The difference between perceived and real limits; the ways one can act on them; the states they result in. What are we supposed to do with this? Well, that depends.

If you seek high performance in any domain the priority is to untangle the perceived limit from the real limit and try to close the gap, to get towards neutral. But that does entail risk—sometimes minor and sometimes considerable. Ideally, it is best to avoid the negative state in any domain and preserve positive status. After all, it is possible to raise the real limit whilst keeping the perceived limit well below it.

That’s the real aim of intelligent training and pragmatic learning, to profit maximally whilst minimising risk.

The problem with Lindy

Lindy is all that which remains in the good graces of Mother and Father Time. As Nassim Taleb put it in An Expert Called Lindy:

“The idea of fragility helped put some rigor around the notion that the only effective judge of things is time –by things we mean ideas, people, intellectual productions, car models, scientific theories, books, etc. You can’t fool Lindy: books of the type written by the current hotshot Op-Ed writer at the New York Times may get some hype at publication time, manufactured or spontaneous, but their five year survival is generally inferior to that of pancreatic cancer.

And the operation of time is necessarily done through skin in the game. Without skin in the game, via contact with reality, the mechanism of fragility is disrupted: things may survive for no reason for a while, then ultimately collapse causing a lot of side harm.

A few more details –for those interested in the intricacies, the Lindy Effect has been covered at length in Antifragile. There are two ways things handle time. First, there is aging and perishability: things die because they may have a biological clock, what we call senescence. Second, there is hazard, the rate of accidents. What we witness in physical life is the combination of the two: when you are old and fragile, you don’t handle accidents very well. These accidents don’t have to be external, like falling from a ladder or being attacked by a bear; they can also be internal, from random malfunctioning of your organs or circulation. On the other hand, animals that don’t really age, say turtles and crocodiles, seem to have a life expectancy that remains constant for a long time.

Only the nonperishable can be Lindy-compatible. When it comes to ideas, books, technologies, procedures, institutions, political systems, there is no intrinsic aging and perishability. A physical copy of War and Peace can age (particularly when the publisher cuts corner to save 20 cents on paper for a $50 book); the book itself as an idea doesn’t.”

Some examples of things that are Lindy:

– The ideas of Plato.
– Olive oil and red wine.
– Walking.
– Buildings of wood and stone, in vernacular style, constructed via traditional methods.
– Postal systems.
– Our understanding of human nature.

I suspect you get the idea and, to some extent, are in agreement with it. I am too. However, I also have a very specific problem with it. And that problem also presents an opportunity. The problem—and the opportunity—is mostly confined to the domain of media, but it can also be applicable to the realm of technology.

THE OPPOSITE OF COURAGE

Nassim Taleb is, undoubtedly, a charismatic figure. I suspect it wasn’t his intention, but nevertheless, a cult of personality has developed around him. And one of the key tenets of said cult is the determination to consume and engage with only that which is Lindy. Even such a luminous person (meaning, “giver of light”) as Naval Ravikant has fallen prey to it. In a tweet, he compiled a list of “Asymmetric opportunities”, one of which was, “Read a Lindy book”. This is the key to the problem: the use of the word “asymmetric” in tandem with “Lindy”.

“Tragedy of the commons” is “a term used in social science to describe a situation in a shared-resource system where individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling that resource through their collective action.” Reading only “Lindy” books is a tragedy of the commons, an exploitation of other’s consumption labour. Deciding to read only Lindy books means relying on others to decide whether a book is Lindy or not. It is akin to picking fruit from the orchard without having contributed to its creation and supervision.

That which is Lindy is that which has survived the filtering of Time. But the agent of time is an army of people. For a book to survive, to become “Lindy”, it has to be read by people, be marked by individuals and institutions as “good”, generation after generation after generation. But if everyone were to read only Lindy books, what would happen? Would new books even be written? Would knowledge ever move forward again? No.

Nassim Taleb, in The Logic of Risk Taking, discusses the kinship of the concepts of courage and prudence, and comes to a profound conclusion:

“How can courage and prudence be both classical virtues? Virtue, as presented in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics includes: sophrosyne (σωφροσύνη), prudence, a form of sound judgment he called more broadly phronesis. Aren’t these inconsistent with courage?

In our framework, they are not at all. They are actually, as Fat Tony would say, the same ting. How?

I can exercise courage to save a collection of kids from drowning, and it would also correspond to some form of prudence. I am sacrificing a lower layer in Figure x for the sake of a higher one.

Courage, according to the Greek ideal that Aristotle inherited–say the Homeric and the ones conveyed through Solon, Pericles, and Thucydides, is never a selfish action:

Courage is when you sacrifice your own wellbeing for the sake of the survival of a layer higher than yours.

Reading only Lindy books is the opposite of a courageous decisions; it is profiting, exclusively, from risks taken by others. But it is also the forfeiting of an opportunity.

BLEEDING EDGE

Time is the greatest of filters. But it also takes a long while to come into effect. To read only Lindy means operating in a state of perpetual lag.

Further, everything that is Lindy had to be, at some point, non-Lindy—new. A book that has survived for one hundred years has to have been newly published. So too with every book that is published now. Most will flit into existence and exit out of cultural consciousness almost instantaneously. This blog post will be read by a handful of people then fade into obscurity. Most bestsellers of the previous decade will be all but forgotten over the course of the next year. But a few will survive. This is the opportunity.

The proliferation of information and the falling of barriers that previously prevented access to it mean that information itself no longer represents such a great advantage. Individuals and organisations gain a step on the competition not because of what they know, but because of how they deploy and combine what they know. In the novel Musashi I learnt how samurai schools used to pass on the secrets of their art: after long study and tutelage, the masters would hand the student a scroll which contained the highest form of their art. Thus, they would share their secrets. That doesn’t happen anymore. There’s no secret technique, only unique ways to plaster them together.

Informational gaps are diminishing, and modern life is now more of a sprint than a marathon—milliseconds, not minutes, make all the difference. Thus, reading the newest books, experimenting with the newest tech, communicating with “unknown” people, placing yourself on the bleeding edge of X, Y and Z can yield the slightest—and sometimes the most meaningful—of advantages.

THE BARBELL

The preference for engaging with Lindy is logical, sensible and safe. I can’t and won’t deny that. But to rely on it completely is immoral. Better to pursue a hybrid strategy, to take a “barbell” approach. Read the old and the new. Work with classic technology and interact with the newest tech. That way, you can get the definite benefit of Lindy and the possible benefit of the bleeding edge whilst not abandoning your moral obligation to be an agent of time.

The Lord of the Gap

I may not be a tech-bro but even I can see the pointlessness of write-only memory, something which can be written to but never read. Yet, when I learnt of it I was reminded of something I do have some familiarity with: mindfulness. Consider this excerpt from Bhante Gunartana’s Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English (which is the follow-up to his excellent Mindfulness in Plain English):

“You need to sit in the place where the whole world of your experience is coming up and passing away so rapidly that there is just nothing to hang on to. Nothing lasts long enough for you to mentally glue it together into “something.” As soon as you turn your attention to any occurrence, it goes “poof”! It vanishes as soon as pure awareness touches it. It all just comes up and goes away, leaving no trace. There is no time for such a trace to be left. As each thing comes up, it pushes the last thing out of the mind and there is no residue. You come out of this experience with no solid memory of anything that occurred. There is just the lingering impression of everything arising and passing away more rapidly than the mind can hold. This is termed “seeing things as they really are.” You are not verbalising or conceptualising. You are just “seeing.” This happens in the awareness of your deeply concentrated mind.
It all just comes up and goes away as a raging torrent without the slightest straw to grasp to keep you from drowning. Yet you do not drown. Because you are not really there. “Me” is just another “thing” that only exists when you glue your passing experience together in that artificial way. What does the seeing in this state is a calm, unruffled, pure watchfulness that does not get involved and does not exist as a thing. It just watches.”

To me, it sounds as if the higher states of mindfulness are nothing more than a write-only consciousness, a truly momentary existence, where each instant of experience is integrated with but isolated from every other.

The rest of Beyond Mindfulness goes on to describe “Jhana” states, states that through the means of supreme concentration enable a person to experience something more. There are twelve Jhanas in total and the idea is that they form a sequential ladder—a rung cannot be missed, each one must be grasped and used to ascend to the next. Unfortunately, the orderly ascent through the first four Jhanas, through the four Immaterial Jhanas, and through the Supramundane Jhanas didn’t grab a hold of me. It just didn’t resonate. So I created my own hierarchy of mindfulness, and it uses as its central metaphor the idea of “the gap”.

“Between stimulus and response there is a gap, and in that gap resides choice.” It’s an idea often attributed to Viktor Frankl, though I think its origin is immaterial at this point. The idea is common coin, now. But hold it in mind for a second.

THE FOUR LEVELS

In An implacable enemy I mentioned the different ranking methods TV Tropes utilises. My favourite is the “Super Weight Scale”, which includes a “Muggle” tier, a “Super” tier and a “Cosmic” tier. The first is composed of normal humans; the second is composed of humans with extra-ordinary abilities; the third is composed of non-human entities, or humans that have gone beyond their ordinary human essence. I’d like to adopt a similar set up: my hierarchy of mindfulness has four levels.

Level Zero is composed of Mortals—they do not comprehend the existence of The Gap. To them, stimulus is indistinguishable from response.
Level One is composed of Apprentices—they comprehend that there is a Gap between stimulus and response, but they remain unable to manipulate it. Sometimes The Gap seems tiny. Other times The Gap seems like a chasm. They have to work with it in whatever guise it appears to them.
Level Two is composed of Adepts—they comprehend that there is a Gap and they are able to manipulate it, expanding and shrinking its borders. The experience of time itself is malleable to these people.
Level Three is composed of Lords—they too can comprehend The Gap and manipulate it. But they can do something else. They can enter into it, inhabit it.

Mortals don’t comprehend The Gap; Apprentices demonstrate awareness of The Gap; Adepts exhibit control of The Gap; Lords are presented with the opportunity to inhabit The Gap. The last, “inhabitation”, is what interests me most. What does it even mean?

RESULT, SEED, INTERFACE

One way to model existence is to separate it into domains of the past, present and future. If I were to visually represent this, it would look something like this:

triangles existence

In magnitude, the present is dwarfed by both the past and the future. It is tiny in comparison to the totality of those two great entities. But not in meaning, for the present’s meaning is immense, threefold. The present is, all at once, result, seed and interface:

– The present is the result of everything that occurred in the past.
– The present is the seed for everything that could occur in the future.
– The present is the interface between the immutable past and the possible futures.

The Lord of the Gap recognises this, and to him or her, The Gap manifests as a Gateway that when stepped through leads to a state of transcendence. The Lord of the Gap escapes time and escapes space. The Lord of the Gap inhabits the present, utterly, and so becomes everything that has happened in the past and everything that could happen in the future.

INADEQUATE TOOLS

Miyamoto Mushashi’s The Book of Five Rings was intended as a manual for combat, a guide to an eminently physical art. Because of this, alongside its instructions one can often find commands like, “You should investigate thoroughly”, directing the reader to stop reading and try doing instead. Mindfulness and what I’ve discussed above is similar. Reading will only get you so far. It is a supplement, not a meal replacement.

Put another way: Guy Sajer, a young French-born German soldier in World War Two, once said: “I cannot find the words to describe what I saw. My impression is that all words and syllables were perfected to describe unimportant things.” Above, I have tried to describe something important and primarily experiential using the wholly inadequate tools known as words. I was aware of the difficulty before I started, but I still felt compelled to try, and I hope that I have at least provided a signpost to aid in your own exploration.

Or, in more Zen terms, I hope I have used my finger to point you in the direction of the moon.

A taxonomy of travel

Our last holiday was booked through a travel agent. After it had been arranged I was informed—by my partner—of some of the preparatory errands that needed to be ran, one of which was the acquisition of suitcases.

“We don’t have any, so we need to borrow some.”

“No, you need to borrow a suitcase.”

It was my intention to take a single backpack, as I had done on other holidays. But, as so often happens, questions, worries and what-ifs took over and we ended up with a backpack and a suitcase each. I was a little annoyed as I prefer to travel light, as opposed to heavy. However, there was some upside: having a suitcase meant I could take more books than usual.

The trip itself was relatively flawless: the journey out and back was easy, and our week abroad, together, was beautiful. But whilst lounging on the empty beaches and floating in the warm, blue sea, I kept thinking about the notion of travelling. Specifically, the different ways one can do it. I came up with three spectra: light or heavy, slow or fast, and near or far.

The light-heavy spectrum is concerned, at one end, with necessity, and at the other with possibility. The person who travels light takes only (and sometimes less than) what is needed. The person who travels heavy takes things just in case—extra shoes, extra shorts, more potions and lotions, a bit more money, wet and winter gear to a moderate clime. The slow-fast spectrum is concerned with distance covered over time. A slow traveller takes hours to go ten miles; a fast traveller traverses the globe in under twenty-four hours. The near-far spectrum is the simplest and not in need of explanation.

EIGHT POSSIBILITIES

The three spectra taken together yield eight possible ways to travel, listed below with an example and a name that, hopefully, acts as a narrative hook.

1. “The Walker” (Light, slow, near.)
Wanders hills, fields and forests on foot, carrying only that which provides a minimum level of sustenance, shelter and warmth.

2. “The Van Dweller” (Light, fast, near.)
Undertakes rapid pilgrimages to the countryside, the mountains and the coast, taking their abode with them and carrying all the gear necessary to bike, surf or climb for a weekend.

3. “The Pack Leader” (Heavy, slow, near.)
The head of the family herds up the children, crams anything that the pack might possibly need over the next week into the estate and onto its roof, and heads off down the motorway, stopping at every service station en route to preserve their sanity for just a little longer.

4. “The Person of Stature” (Heavy, fast, near.)
Imagine an old-school statesman. Wherever they went, their retinue went with them, and so did a hefty amount of baggage, often loaded into the next carriage of the train they were taking to get to their summer home upstate.

5. “The World Tourer” (Light, slow, far.)
With panniers firmly affixed to bicycle racks, The Tourer makes their way through villages, towns and cities, engaging with local culture and people, and savouring every pedal stroke.

6. “The C-Level Nomad” (Light, fast, far.)
With everything they own packed obsessively into their unique Kickstarter-sourced backpack, C-Level Nomads are always in transit but never out-of-touch. They whip through airports, sail through the skies, take Ubers to their AirBnBs and spend their days in a co-working space co-ordinating the actions of their globally distributed team.

7. “The Sheikh” (Heavy, slow, far.)
Coming from the Middle East to the metropolises of the West for weeks at a time, The Sheikhs are preceded by messengers and officials and take over entire upper levels of the most expensive hotels, receiving dignitaries and other Notable People, whilst exasperating porters and other service staff in the process with the luxuries they expect to be available around the clock.

8. “The Icon” (Heavy, fast, far.)
Crossing states, crossing borders, crossing continents, performing one night after another after another for months on end, The Icon travels in a blaze of purpose and opulence Their staff handles the details, their schedule, their priorities. All they have to do is prepare and perform, night after night.

I don’t know about you, but the archetypes above are what I attach to the different means of travel. But how do I, myself, like to travel? Answer: light and slow.

ON TRAVELLING LIGHT

Travelling light compels me to think about that which I don’t need. Which is why I like it. So much of modern life is clutter, things we have just because we can have them, things we purchase even though their use to us is transient. Travelling light does away with this modern tendency to accumulate and forces me to question the value of that which I choose to take with me. It also has the handy side-effect of reducing anxiety and stress—with less to carry there is less to worry about, practically and existentially.

Of course, there is a dark side to the desire to travel light. As Zygmunt Bauman points out in Liquid Modernity, the virtues of lightness and liquidity can morph into vices when you begin to see everything as replaceable and all within reach should you need it. I haven’t reached that stage. If I do have to take something with me I prefer it to be a tool that lasts, a more expensive device intended to last a lifetime.

At the deepest level, I think my preference for travelling light is a response to my inability to be happy and at-ease with my position of relative comfort. Having more than most—historically and in comparison to my contemporaries around the world—often feels like it still isn’t enough, and travelling light is one way for me to practice appreciation of and satisfaction from less.

ON TRAVELLING SLOW

Travelling slow is simpler to understand. I’ve said it before:

“Speed places a constraint on experience. It narrows the vision. It sharpens the ears. It quickens the breath. If life is measured in terms of psychological and physiological arousal then speed kicks us onto a higher plane of existence. But life is not just about arousal. Life can also be about stillness, about appreciation, about noticing, about presence. And speed is the enemy of these things.”

Or, visualised:

the faster I go

Thus, I want to travel slow because travelling slow allows me the opportunity to see more, even if I don’t always take it.

Another way of thinking about it: the person travelling fast is concerned primarily with the reaching of their destination. Their “journey” is a “journey” in the truest sense of the word—a means to an end. They leave in order to arrive. But for the person travelling slow, every moment can be a destination, a place to arrive at, be at ease in, and appreciate.

SYNTHESIS

The synthesis of travelling slow and light results, in my imagination, in a traveller who can immerse himself in and experience wherever he happens to be. Lightness and slowness are, to me, the means of travel most amenable to a full and unfettered experience of every place that isn’t home.

The floor and the canopy

When I was sixteen I thought it was impressive to deadlift 100kg. When I was nineteen I thought it was impressive to squat twice your bodyweight. When I was twenty-two I was caught up with Dan John’s notion of standards. “I should have a specific level of proficiency in the push, pull, squat, hinge and carry patterns,” I told myself. When I was twenty-five performance impressed me less than process—I attributed more value to how someone approached their problems, not the extent to which they had managed to overcome them. Now, I’m twenty-seven, and right on cue a development in my philosophy of movement has come around. And it’s occurred for two reasons.

First, I read a Twitter threads: one and two. The ideas being debated centred around the ludic-ness of movements like the deadlift; how much they simulate and cross-over into the “real world”. I won’t rehash it at length, but I will include what I thought was the most interesting observation. Says @e-volutionarily:

“Barbell ~100 years old, not Lindy.
Human movement is gait cycle and is rotation based, think 95% of Olympic sports outside of lifting, it’s all swinging and rotation, throwing, kicking, jumping (one legged), running. Everything in real life is unilateral, in gym bilateral.”

Second, on a recent holiday to Greece I went stand-up paddleboarding. I’ve wanted to do it for a while, and a place with calm, blue waters and near-empty beaches (it was end of season) seemed like the ideal location. After a few stumbles I figured out my two main mistakes. First, I was watching the water and trying to anticipate how the waves would move the board. Second, and this feeds into the first, I was holding myself with too much rigidity. In Judo, you have to go with the throw—if you resist it the ground seems a lot harder. You have to have faith in your body’s ability to unconsciously provide the correct reaction. Same with stand-up paddleboarding. Your body needs a little tension, but only enough to keep you upright. The aim is to be pliable, to let the waves and the board show you how to move. Seas and oceans are big, powerful things—better to work with them.

But how do these two things make up a new aspect of my movement philosophy? Let me explain.

HAT AND HEART

The gymnasium is an unnatural environment. But what is the opposite of the gymnasium, with its precision engineered equipment, with its sweat stink, with its Barbell Bros and Crossfit Cultists, with its mediocre pop-music ambiance, with its straight lines, right angles and flat planes? The jungle. The jungle which we primates forget that we come from. And to traverse a jungle one must find a way across the floor and the canopy. Which is an apt name for what exactly it is that I have come to be most impressed by.

See, deadlifting double bodyweight is cool. Doing a Turkish get-up with a half-bodyweight kettlebell is badass. But I think it’s better to be able to fall, roll and crawl across the floor. I think it’s better to be able to leap, balance, climb and hang. I doff my hat to powerlifters and Olympic lifters, but I give my heart to dancers and martial artists.

Yet, I think it’s more than that. It’s not so much what these exquisite movers actually do, more what they could do. I think that, fundamentally, what impresses me most is someone who can quickly attain competence in any physical discipline, from the gross to the fine, from the simple to the complex. A person able to do that has mastery of his physiology, and as a consequence probably possesses a distinct psychological sensitivity too.

I wonder what will impress me when I’m thirty?

From tree to tree

Most books that are proclaimed to be “profound” and “life-changing” aren’t. Sometimes they are, but never to the degree advertised. Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga’s The Courage to Be Disliked is one such book. It didn’t shatter my soul into a million pieces and then give me a blueprint for a more aesthetically pleasing and functional reconstruction, but it did offer some concrete advice about the how to live a life. But more importantly, it brought to my awareness the fact that all philosophies and all religions tend towards a consensus on the human condition.

The book is based on the psychological research of Alfred Adler, founder of the school of individual psychology, and it has a few key concepts. One such idea is “the separation of tasks”. Here’s how it works: it is my task to trust and believe in the people I love, but it is their task to decide what to do with that investment. The book uses the example of a parent-child relationship:

“…a parent suffering over the relationship with his or her child will tend to think, My child is my life. In other words, the parent is taking on the child’s task as his or her own, and is no longer able to think about anything but the child. When at last the parent notices it, the ‘I’ is already gone from his or her life. However, no matter how much of the burden of the child’s task one carries, the child is still an independent individual. Children do not become what their parents want them to become. In their choices of university, place of employment and partner in marriage, and even in the everyday subtleties of speech and conduct, they do not act according to their parents’ wishes. Naturally, the parents will worry about them, and probably want to intervene at times. But, as I said earlier, other people are not living to satisfy your expectations. Though the child is one’s own, he or she is not living to satisfy one’s expectations as a parent.”

This sounds remarkably similar to ideas contained within a poem called, “On Children”, by Khalil Gibran, which itself is a part of a collection entitled The Prophet. Here’s the poem in full:

“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.”

The “separation of tasks” also has a striking similarity to the Stoic “dichotomy of control”—the identification of what is within your control and what is not, and the decision to focus only on the former. The premise being that attempting to control what you cannot is a straight path to pain and suffering. Better, Stoicism teaches, to focus on the only things within your domain: your words, your thoughts and your deeds.

Another key idea in The Courage to Be Disliked is that “all problems are interpersonal problems”. It goes on to explain that one of the main causes of these interpersonal issues is vertical-versus-horizontal relationships—perceptions of inferiority and superiority versus perceptions of equal value. The person who sees relationships in vertical terms is always placing others above themselves and themselves above others—thus, they flip-flop between arrogance and insecurity, between a cruel elation and a cynical despondency. The advice the book provides is to “flatten” vertical relationships and make them horizontal. How? By choosing to value human beings on “the level of being” instead of the “level of acts”. By appreciating a person because they are, not because they do. Doing this removes the barrier of comparison, making the route to sincere and honest communication easier to travel.

This “flattening” of relationships reminds me of something I picked up from Nassim Taleb’s Incertoit’s better to exist outside of hierarchies. I can’t re-trace his exact path of reasoning, but I believe he implied that, bound by the constraints of a traditional hierarchy, humanity’s priorities become warped and everything is evaluated according to its ability to help or hinder a person’s rise upwards. In the midst of hierarchies, moral and ethical considerations fade into the background and the only thing that matters is one’s status relative to others.

Nassim Taleb is also the person who, when talking of Seneca the Younger in Antifragile, defined “the modern Stoic sage” as “someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.” Why would such alchemy make someone a “sage”? Because if a person can transform all the negatives of existence into positives—or, at least, neutrals—then that person experiences nothing but upside from the march of Time. As Taleb says, Stoicism as he understands it is not the “elimination” of emotion or adverse events, but their “domestication”—which is, as far as I can see, a key tenet of Buddhism.

However, this “transforming”, or leveraging, of negative emotions and events is not exclusive to Taleb or Stoicism. Rene Girard also advises it. Girard, prodigious scholar, academic and late convert to Christianity, is known for theorising “mimetic desire”, the idea that our yearnings are not spontaneous. He says that all desire begins with the imitation of a model. Example: for a long time, I’ve been trying to build a remote business that generates a lot of value for others and provides just enough for me to work less than full-time (so I can read, write and all that). The advantages to such an arrangement seemed self-evident to me—location independence; satisfaction from bespoke, high quality work; mastery of my time—but I only began to lust for the achievement of this goal after I had selected certain eminent people as worthy of my admiration. I learnt about them and so learnt what they desired, and in the process I begun to desire it too.

In his books, Girard lays out the structure and subtleties of this mechanism. But, contrary to my expectations, he didn’t argue that because the mechanism is revealed it can be dissolved. No, he suggested that if we understand the mechanism we can co-opt it. Girard points to Christianity and describes how the taking of Jesus as a mimetic model can have transformative effects and result in a mimetic desire that is beneficial to society and the self, instead of harmful.

THE SAME ROOTS

I could continue to draw connections unearthed in my own experience, but I think I have made my point. If you look close enough, all religions and all philosophies are concerned with the same things and they all manage to reach some consensus. They all discuss and debate concepts like agency, awareness, truth and suffering, and for every point at which they draw apart there are two at which they come together.

consensus on the human condition

Why is that? Well. Humanity shares its hard- and software. We are all made from the same stuff and have mostly similar instincts—they differ only by degree. And we are all confronted by the same problem: life. So is it so unreasonable to suggest that the solutions we propose only diverge once they come out of the ground? After all, whilst the trunks, the branches and the leaves may differ from tree to tree, all must have their roots, and to remain standing those roots must bury deep into the earth that is the human condition.