Striving to Strive

If you think about the rewards you receive in video-games, you notice how lame they are. A high score? A virtual trophy? Your character jumping up and down? A screen that says “The End”. Meh. All that dedication and effort for what amounts to nothing? And that’s true in this game as well, the actual physical prizes available here are kinda lame.

There’s nothing here, that once gotten, you’d feel “Wow, this is IT! I’m done! Nothing left to get!”. Once anything’s received, it’s a fleeting sensation of attainment followed by a new-normal in which it becomes an everyday object that sits mundanely as any other. Therefore, as in any game, experiences themselves are the only actual reward.

I’ve wasted countless hours in video-games attempting to achieve lame objectives – yet, I was perfectly entertained by the experience. The fun isn’t in attainment, that’s just another form of “Game Over”. The fun is in striving after something, anything, even if it’s a frivolous goal. Striving itself IS the goal here.

And I don’t mean “struggle” by the way. You really should find a level of striving that feels comfortable. It’s kinda dumb to stress and strain over a pointless objective when objectives themselves are valueless. Since they’re all of equal value (i.e. zero), pick something fun. And if you actually attain the object of your effort? Great, now pick another appealing objective and keep striving.

Trend Spotting

I’ve been attempting to analyze the trends of reward/punishment in relation to my behavior.

For example, I’ve clearly noticed a negative trend from overeating. It’s not every time, but overall it leads to unpleasant circumstances such as a tummy-ache or a complete lack of energy. But when I eat sensibly, not stuffing myself mindlessly, things proceed much better. I can clearly see a path I should take and one I should avoid.

Another trend deals with thinking about things I don’t like. If I allow unpleasant topics to remain in my thoughts, I typically feel bad. And once in awhile, those undesirable things even show up in my life. Whereas if I reject those unpleasant thoughts and focus on things I do like, my mood is better and my situation tends to improve. There seems to be an obvious pathway here too.

Another trend deals with how I treat people. If I’m careless and rude for example, good things don’t usually follow. Whereas when I present the best version of myself, I’m more satisfied with my interactions and things typically go much better. Again, there seems to be an undeniable path here.

The overall trend seems to deal with the application of mental discipline. If I’m lazy and let myself act like a disrespectful pessimistic slob, things don’t go well. Whereas when I stay aware of myself and keep to the role of a polite lighthearted guy that colors within the lines, things trend better.

Why are there preset guidelines that I must stay within? Perhaps the answer’s simple: it provides me with something to do. In games you move your character, making sure he stays on the correct pathway – that’s it. Life isn’t a movie: if you sit there, nothing happens – and if you stomp the accelerator without steering, you’ll likely crash.

As player of this game, I must remain awake and aware, with my hands on the wheel ready to make micro-adjustments as necessary to keep my character on the pleasant path. A path that’s discoverable through the reward/punishment mechanism. For instance: I have to actively monitor what he eats, what he thinks, and how he treats others.

Skinner Box

Is Earth a form of aversion therapy? In other words, am I punished for improper behavior? And if that’s the case, am I rewarded for good behavior?

Even from a purely physical perspective, you’d likely say that penalties exist for inappropriate actions. For example: if I eat too much, I get a tummy-ache. If I treat others poorly, I tend to suffer negative repercussions. If I allow my mind to wander, I find myself thinking thoughts I don’t prefer. If I consume dour and pessimistic media, I feel bad. In short, there seems to be a direct correlation between careless behavior and discomfort.

Is the opposite also true? Am I rewarded for considerate behavior? If I eat an appropriate amount of nutritious food, do I feel better? If I treat others well, do I benefit from similar treatment? If I guide my thoughts down pleasant paths, do I find myself delighted? If I watch a lighthearted movie, do I feel cheerful? In short, is there a direct correlation between thoughtful behavior and well-being?

In behavioral conditioning, the obviousness of the correlation between cause-and-effect is a key factor for learning. For example, if I fail to realize that a specific action results in a particular punishment, there’s no reason to stop an action. In other words, the amount of punishment won’t matter if I don’t know why I’m being punished. Yet, it would be heavy-handed or even harsh to reprimand for every infringement.

In teaching/coaching situations, obviousness is often sacrificed for gentleness. Instead of correcting every single misstep, a gentle teacher often allows some incorrectness to slide. This puts more responsibility onto the student, who must actively watch for trends in order to grasp the direction of the reward/punishment mechanism. The tradeoff is a greater feeling of agency and influence over one’s own life.

This would explain why actions in life aren’t always rewarded or punished appropriately. Life trades cold mechanical conditioning for a more organic feel. There’s no lever that reliably releases a pellet when pressed – outcomes follow trends instead. Also, intermittent reward is a more captivating circumstance and likely leads to longer, more involved engagement.

Honestly, I’ve been obstinately plowing through life, ignoring any signs pointing in the proper direction. I follow my own assumptions about what’s appropriate. As you might imagine, it hasn’t been an effective strategy. Am I to simply follow the path set forth by the aversion/reward mechanism? Hm, that almost sounds like cheating. Wait, actually that seems like a lot of work. Well, I’ll have to keep this is mind and be on the lookout for trends resulting from my behavior.

Way of the Wood

When I set out to do something, the process and outcome aren’t typically what I expect. In other words, I’m frequently frustrated by an inability to do what I aspire to do. There’s way too much strain involved for a final product that I’m not satisfied with. That’s basically the story of my life: a lot of exertion with nothing to show for it – a whole bunch of frivolous toil – an engine revving in neutral.

Then a few months ago I got into woodworking. I’m pleased in the sense that I enjoy the effort and I’m somewhat satisfied with the outcome. I even like the ecosystem: I watch woodworking videos and browse websites for tools. The only unpleasant aspect is a slight tool obsession that’s conflicting with a constrained budget. I absolutely love the tools though – browsing through Lie-Nielsen planes takes me to another place.

I’ve only been crafting small-scale projects, like a 1:24 scale picnic table – and I prefer it (6 feet becomes 3 inches). I’m literally milling my own dimensional lumber from small blocks of wood with a little rip-saw and a tiny hand plane. I had started out with whittling and woodcarving, but the effort/output ratio wasn’t quite right. I’m not really an artist, so carving a block into a bunny isn’t something I can readily do. I can’t visualize organic stuff – whereas tables, benches, and boxes I can see.

Through the years, I tried at various times to get into woodworking but it never panned out. For example, my chisels are from a failed attempt almost twenty years ago. Finally, I think things are aligning. The projects aren’t works of art, but they’re good enough and they come together without a struggle. And of course, having a reason to collect and use tools is an awesome thing in itself.

Plowing Ahead

In one sense, it doesn’t matter what’s causing unpleasant external conditions. I have to deal with them either way. Whether it’s random chance, mischievous imps, an existential escape from boredom, karmic repercussions, part of a dramatic narrative, a simulated challenge-generator that maximizes player engagement — it doesn’t matter, the obstacles are there. And complaining about their presence, is an ineffective strategy for dealing with them (my exhaustive multi-decade study has proven this to be true).

Since complaining doesn’t work, I have to try a different approach. But I will NOT be engaging with these obstacles directly, it’s just not my play-style. Any time I’ve tried the direct approach, I’ve just gotten frustrated by my lack of ability. Whereas I’ve always been intrigued by the Buddha’s approach: disregard obstacles. “Oh is something blocking my path? Hm, cool, well I’ll just chill here, no biggie.” Haha suck it obstacles! You hold no power over me!!

There’s still hurdles, but instead of jumping over them, I shift my perspective until there’s no longer a desire to jump them. This isn’t new to me, I’ve been trying to get this nonchalant approach to work for a long time. It hasn’t been effective enough to end my angst yet. Essentially, I’ve been attempting to dismantle the veil of illusion that makes the world seem “real”. But of course the world lures me back with a mix of pain and pleasure, physical aches and aspirational promises.

Ideally, there’s a balance I can achieve in which I’m in this fictional world AND able to enjoy the experience. By all my efforts thus far, it seems to be a VERY delicate balance though. Oftentimes I wonder if a balance is actually achievable, and the attempt feels futile. I keep trying since I’ve got nothing better to do. I don’t believe I can quit this game – if I dared, I think I’d be right back where I started. My only option is to plow ahead.

Plowing ahead for me means to keep adjusting my focus. Thoughts streaming through my mind require evaluation before they monopolize my attention – most should be disregarded and left unconsidered. It doesn’t matter why I encounter unpleasant experiences or even the content of those experiences – my role is to remain calm and unattached, tuning my focus to whatever’s more pleasant in the moment. Day after day, I chisel away on my quest for balance.

Character Analysis

I’m not good at playing pretend – I often take my role too seriously and add too many procedural details and attempt to establish elaborate and often dour backstories. Plus, overreaction comprised of frustration and histrionics is a hallmark of my characters. “WHAT!? This is preposterous! How dare you!”

I think in life, you have to commit to a role. It makes improvisation easier in the sense that a character has a typical response to a given situation. Whereas I often don’t know how to react, so I stand awkwardly attempting to evaluate the situation and analyze my feelings. But a pre-established character would simply respond in his usual way. “Wowza, that’s the beez kneez!”

I don’t think it’s a good idea to figure out a character by examining the external world and looking for clues. Characters are best defined by whatever evokes the most joy – so you have to look inwardly. I think the world we experience is a product of our imagination and subject to interpretation, therefore the world can appear as a paradise or a nightmare solely based on perspective.

When you commit to a character, I think circumstances change and form to accommodate it. So if you play an anxious character for example, upsetting scenes and stimuli will become the basis of your experiences. I’ve often played as an overly-sensitive anxious-guy but I don’t enjoy it and never feel committed to the role. And like I mentioned, not having a preset role leads to slowed interactions with life since every stimulus sparks a new analysis.

Therefore, I’m in the market for a new role. And unlike before, I’ll take a much more lighthearted approach. Instead of that solemn guy that disappears into every room he enters, often spouting pessimistic nonsense to himself, I’d rather be a cheerful optimistic fellow that people are glad to see. “Oh snap! Rich is here!? It’s about to get good!”. Instead of nervousness and doubt, calm and confidence should be my foundational feelings. Yeah let’s do that instead of all the nonsense I’ve been doing.

Bragging Rights

To me, it feels like I’m on a reality gameshow in which I’m thrown into an unreasonable situation and must persist to the end despite the constant challenges. But what’s the prize? It’s certainly not the process itself right? As I find this game difficult to appreciate. And like those gameshows, I feel like any structure I create will only get torn-down by the producers when I leave. Therefore, I don’t have a desire to invest my time into anything significant – I’m fine with a temporary structure that simply gets me through the day.

I stay close to my small structure. I do little projects to stave off boredom. I talk to myself, trying to find the motivation to make it one more day. I wrestle with whatever challenge comes up that day. I celebrate minor victories, lament the losses. And like all other contestants, for whatever reason, I feel like I have to see this through – quitting isn’t an option. If it was, I’d have quit many times by now. Where’s my radio!? “Hey guys!? Yeah I’m done. Get me outta here!”

To me, there’s nothing in-game that provides a sense of satisfaction. It’s like a bootcamp where you’re relentlessly drilled and pushed until you break – a torture-chamber making you scream “I can’t take anymore! Please stop!” But apparently I can take more, and I do, running up the obstacle course again and again – day after day. “Please, may I have another!” Sicko. I might just be a masochist, using pain as a means to feel alive.

I used to lift heavy weights as a hobby, I know what it’s like to consciously push myself to failure. Who’s to say I don’t do it unconsciously too? Is this some other-worldly training facility? But am I any stronger because of it? Is my spirit actually improving? Is my soul some buff dude flexing amongst his peers? Or am I merely a pitiful weakling in this world, barely scraping by?

Or perhaps I’ll be sitting at a bar with other-worldly pals one day, bragging about the time I spent on Earth. Their eyes looking on in astonishment as I retell the hardships I experienced as an Earthbound being. “Believe me boys, it was rough stuff, the kinda thing that puts you into a higher tier of toughness. Why the things I did and the things I saw would melt your socks off.” They’ll be buying my drinks for eons to come. “Another round for Rich! The toughest S.O.B. in here!”

Calm and Easy

If you want a calm and easy life, you need a calm and easy attitude. Hm, I suppose that sounds plausible. Even though the external circumstances of my life are relatively calm and easy, I maintain a raging storm of distressing turbulence on the inside. My thoughts tend to be anxious, disparaging, selfish, petty, paranoid, and pessimistic. In summation, I have NOT harbored a calm and easy attitude – quite the opposite in fact.

Despite that, my external experiences are typically mundane. I suppose I simply couldn’t handle more than that. Remaining relatively isolated in a small room all day? I can do that. But of course that provides ample opportunity for me to wrestle with negative thoughts – resulting in a life that is NOT calm and easy despite its appearance. So now what?

I think after all these years, I’m ready for a calm and easy life. I’m tired of the turbulence. I’ve spent so much time straining and resisting – against what? I rejected life, wouldn’t accept it, and remained constantly suspicious of everything. Yet, this cantankerous contentiousness has not benefitted me in any way. I can finally recognize that perpetual negativity is a dumb hobby.

So is that it? We good here? Is this little epiphany enough to flip my attitude around? Um, hello? Apparently not. So now I’m in a limbo of sorts, aware of my situation and stuck cleaning up the mess? Am I supposed to undo decades of discontent and attempt to fashion a positive attitude from scratch? Well that sounds like a lot of work.

Spoiler Alert! It is a lot of work! I can say that with confidence because I’ve had this exact epiphany over and over for many years. This 8-year-old blog is a testament to that fact. A realization isn’t enough, it takes applied effort. Every minute of the day I’m presented with a new thought that must be processed. It’s tedious. Why are so many so negative!? The defects must be rejected and tossed into the trash.

But how can I catch them all!? I miss a lot of these faulty thoughts and one bad apple spoils the bunch. I’m always looking for a more efficient approach to everything and this process is no exception. If it’s not obvious, I haven’t found it yet – I’m still grinding away. It seems like the biggest obstacle is “forgetfulness” and getting lost in everyday life. I’ll have an epiphany, devise a strategy, then I’ll simply lose it as the day’s drama unfolds.

And no, simply writing it down doesn’t work – as this 8-year-old blog demonstrates. Well whatever, I’m gonna try my hardest to adopt a calm and easy attitude. That’ll be my mantra for now until it’s lost to the repetition. “Calm and easy, calm and easy, calm and easy…” I’ll be an unsinkable cork floating atop the undulating waves of the world on my own joy-filled frequency, calm and easy.

Untamed Mess

Take yesterday for example, I’d characterize many of the events as mildly unpleasant. And that’s not my opinion, nor simply my interpretation, the circumstances were actually disagreeable. For example, my hotdog bun was burnt. Someone I know acted-up and I found it irritating. There was a bunch of junk-mail in the mailbox. My wife received a mere 50 cents from a sale on Etsy. I had zero energy in the evening and just laid on the bed. That’s just some of what happened.

Again, these things were just mildly unpleasant, no big deal. Although in total, they added up to a pretty “meh” day, an experience I won’t treasure. But my point is this: a bunch of unpleasant things happened throughout the day. Why? It was as if I was drawing them to me, instigating sources of minor irritation wherever I went. I couldn’t seem to escape it, the dour cloud followed me around relentlessly.

I admit that my mind was erratic and wandering. I noticed a couple times that it seemed agitated. Was that it? Was it like a wild animal that found its way into a house, subsequently tearing everything apart in an untamed frenzy!? Had I not kept the door open to a wandering mind, would the day have proceeded that much better?

The evidence is this: actual unpleasant things happened AND my mind was perturbed. Yet, the regularity and frequency of vexing events suggests that they weren’t the source of annoyance, but the RESULT of an untamed mind. It was as if my unruly mind emitted a turbulence that upset my surroundings. This implies that my state-of-mind greatly influences my experiences on Earth, and I would therefore benefit by keeping a tighter leash on my mind.

Detailed Questions

Why is the sky blue? Why do people do what they do? What does it mean to fall in love? What’s the origin of illness? What’s healthy? What’s free-will? How do you live a good life?

If reasons and explanations to life’s questions vary over time, then perhaps details don’t matter. How can details be so subjective? You might postulate that understanding simply evolves. Well I don’t understand anything! I’ve certainly not received any of this advancing knowledge! Nor do I see evidence of it as I witness people living similarly dramatic storylines to those that came before. Fashions change, but the basics seem the same.

Schooling, amusements, occupations, competition, romance, parenting, complaining, and the search for satisfaction – what really changes? Style varies with era, but the fundamentals remain constant. Every age has its own explanations of why things happen, yet subsequent ages scoff at those antiquated ways. And this current age’s understanding will be mocked by those that follow. In that way, modernity admits its own lack of understanding.

What this adds up to is an obvious conclusion: events do NOT sit atop a solid concrete structure of objective ingredients. In fact, the framework for circumstances is fictional, mere illusion, a concoction cobbled together after-the-fact. Something happens, THEN the “how” and “why” forms based on perspective.

This conclusion obviously implies a dreamworld/simulated-reality in which a dreamer/player has ideas that manifest from imagination/pixels. There really is no “how” or “why”, it’s simply not necessary when dealing with dreams/simulations. Anything can appear anywhere at anytime.

And of course I had it backwards the entire time. I thought I was supposed to seek-out the step-by-step specifics in order to traverse a particular path. If you want to accomplish a task, read the pre-printed instructions obviously! NOPE! You simply “do the thing” and let it unfold before you. It’s a dream whose scenes manifest before your very eyes.

Whereas when you’re lost in the dream, it seems so concrete. The details ARE the reason, and nothing exists beyond what the senses perceive. But that’s such a limited perspective – you’re trapped into inaction and unable to do anything significant. Therefore, you must reset your frame-of-reference, step back from the intensity of a dream created by a wandering mind.

Remove yourself from the chaotic nightmare through discipline. Discipline is specifically focusing the mind. It’s pulling focus away from dissatisfying topics while putting focus on delightful ones. It sounds silly, but life is a silly thing. Tame the chaos you previously created, let it go, replace it with a new world in which you choose to experience contentment. In a dream, time is malleable. It is now the dawn.