Thursday, May 15, 2014

On being Epicurean

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.” Annie Dillard


I do enjoy a good schedule, a well-designed routine; it really does free one’s hands (and one’s mind); and I do firmly believe in the power of showing up every day (rather than “waiting for the Muse”). But for a couple of weeks now, I have been trying something opposite: I have completely and utterly freed my life from all time-catching nets, destroyed all scaffoldings (there are things I absolutely must do -- but this domain is strictly limited to the bare minimum). An exercise in free fall, if you will -- or in free flight: what I do with this hour, with this particular here and now is exactly what I want to do here and now.

Here is why: my schedule, which had been pretty effective and comfortable for a while, failed to pass a “stress test”, a relatively mild one, as a matter of fact. The rapid deterioration of political situation in Ukraine and in Russia exerted a strangely powerful pull on my mind, drawing me into its life-threatening flame further and further by the day, by the hour even, and almost completely destroying the fragile harmony of my existence. It seemed like almost any step through my daily schedule led me, inevitably, into the quicksand of “checking the news”. I saw huge chunks of my life falling into bottomless time gaps, which kept appearing somewhere between the scaffolding and the building itself; days disappearing away as easily and pointlessly as though there were no “day-catching net” in place.

I wasn’t, I came to understand, replacing my scheduled activities with anything enjoyable, quite the contrary: my usual daily routine consisted of things way more pleasurable than reading the news. I kept doing something both completely anti-Epicurean and completely counterproductive: decreasing my pleasure and increasing my pain and frustration, and losing time and productivity by the same token. The question was, then: if I was not doing what I had planned to do anyway, why wouldn’t I rather switch to what I really wanted to do, something that would give me pleasure rather than pain?   

The answer, when it came, was unexpected and, to tell you the truth, rather frightening: in those crucial moments, I don’t know what it is that I want to do, plain and simple; there must be some desires within me, surely, but no awareness of them whatsoever.

Don’t get me wrong: there are many things I know I love to do; and yet it seems like “love to do” (in principle) and “want to do” here and now are not the same thing: it turns out that, even if your schedule is constructed from your love-to-dos exclusively, it can still be misaligned with the inner rhythms of your desires. It can still work while there is an inertia of daily routine; but if something breaks it (like, in my case, the events in Ukraine), this misalignment leaves you helpless and clueless. At least if you have lost touch with your desires, like I have.

And it’s rather easy to lose touch with them, for the sheer lack of practice: if one’s life is controlled and constrained by a tight schedule (be it self-imposed or determined by the circumstances), held together by the inertia of daily routine, what’s the point of ever knowing what it is that you want to do now? You aren’t going to do it anyway -- you’ve got a plan and a schedule -- so this knowledge would just add more frustration.

I have heard that the same “loss of touch” can happen even with such a basic thing as food. If one eats what one is given, and always at predetermined “meal times”, and the portion size is also fixed by someone else -- then the inborn skills of recognizing hunger, appetites, satiation are often lost for the lack of practice; one doesn’t hear these natural body clues any longer, and this can lead to all kinds of eating disorders. In a similar way, my live-long love of good schedules seems to have lead me into some kind of “living disorder”.  

So this is the why and wherefore of my little experiment in redesigning my life: I wanted to reawaken myself to the inner current of my desires, and to do that, I reckoned, I had to promise myself to follow them. Originally, I thought I’d be running this experiment for a couple of weeks (and they are nearly over), but it has been working so well so far that I think I’ll stay with it for a while more.

For one thing, I’ve managed to completely wean myself from this compulsive-obsessive news checking; I do check the news, but no more than necessary (about ten minutes a day, in fact). It turned out, too, that I want to take my bike for a ride around the nearby lake quite often -- quite a healthy change, by all accounts. Or reading Pushkin: one of the most enjoyable activities on this earth, surely, and I’ve known it since forever, but it somehow slipped away from my neatly scheduled life; so much so that I was surprised (pleasantly) when I felt this desire.

And then there is this very post, of course: over the last couple of months, I could scarcely bring myself to string two sentences together, and this blog had been completely abandoned. Whenever writing a blog post would show up on my schedule, I would feel reluctant to do so (and so decide to “check the news”). Now, though, in this particular moment of my life, I am writing because I’ve detected this desire to write within, not without, on my “to-do” list -- as it has turned out, this desire does come, and quite often. Writing this has taken a much longer time than I used to spend on a blog post, but every minute of it was meaningful and filled with pleasure. And if you are reading it now, it means that, at some point, I felt the desire to publish it.  

I do want to end it with a promise to keep you informed about how this experiment goes, but this would defy the idea, wouldn’t it? Just another to-do item for my non-existent (for now) to-do list… Still, I believe I will return to this theme at some point, because something tells me I am not the only one experiencing this kind of “living disorder”: I’ve read, for example, that some people use random number generators to choose what to do now from lists of things they wanted to do (when they put them on their lists). This very need to have something outside yourself choose for you what you want to do, even if completely at random, looks to me like a symptom of the same misalignment, the same loss of touch with oneself.

And so I want to write down, both for myself and for you, just in case you’d want to try it one day, how I am learning to reawaken myself to the inner current of my desires, to listen, to get back in touch. But I still have a long way to go in this process, so we’ll wait and see…  
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