Life Doesn’t SuckReading Time: 16 minutes
Have you ever had one of those moments when you catch yourself at a strange angle in the mirror, and you barely recognize the figure staring back? I experienced this the other day, and it resulted in a staring contest with myself that lasted several minutes. Something had changed. I noticed a couple of slight wrinkles under my eyes that I had never seen before. My red beard was quite a bit thicker than it had always been. Unfortunately, my hairline was farther back than ever as well. When was the last time I had honestly looked at myself? Not just absentmindedly glanced at myself while I brushed my teeth, but got close to the mirror and stared at my reflection. The man looking back at me was almost a stranger. I’m getting old. Fuck. We all are.
Hi. I’m Christian. I’m only 25, but I think I’m nearing the end of my midlife/existential crisis. My life has changed 180 degrees over the last couple of years, causing a few moments like the one noted above, where I wonder who I’ve turned into and who I’ve left behind. I look back at my trek through my early twenties, and I see a blur of highs and lows. I left the church and small town I grew up in, much to the dismay of my friends and family. I dropped out of college to try my luck at the infamous corporate game. I moved to Las Vegas and made a bunch of money (by young millennial standards). I subsequently blew a good portion of it across countless weekends at bars, clubs, and parties. I fell in love, then witnessed as my relationship came crashing down. I gained weight; then got in the best shape of my life. I found life-changing philosophy along with mind opening substances. I’ve delved into fitness, meditation, yoga, and now finally, writing.
As I reflect on my many experiences and challenges so far, I can’t help but feel I could have spent those developing years a bit more efficiently. We all have to make mistakes so we can learn and grow, but that’s just one way to achieve growth. As humans, we have the unique ability to share information and ideas with each other, allowing others to gain understanding from the knowledge and wisdom we already possess. If I could write to my 18-year-old self just starting out on his adult journey in life, I would have numerous pages to fill, as I’m sure we all would. I would provide a resource he could revert to for advice, tips, hacks, and shortcuts for the arduous road ahead. This text might act as a compass of sorts, helping to find his bearings, and realigning him back to True North. This compass would point him in the direction of profound philosophy, great literary works, healing substances, epic destinations, and other experiences that could expand consciousness and assist in navigating his journey.
True North Project is a blog that will focus on that journey. Not just my campaign up to the present day, but the continuous “hero journey” that many of us have embarked on, and others are just beginning. Urban dictionary defines a psychonaut as an explorer of one’s mind. Psychonauts use all different types of tools and methods for this exploration of consciousness. I want to blog about any experiences, resources, psychedelic substances, and concepts that have aided in my self-discovery, and might invigorate other voyagers on their way. In all honesty, this blog is mainly for my benefit; The benefit of sorting out my thoughts and distilling down what Truth I can. So here’s what’s been on my mind lately.
Existence is Pain
Life can be a real grind. I’m not talking about just grinding out a Wednesday afternoon at the office, but something a bit more soul-crushing. I’m referring to being squeezed into a single meat block for the proverbial wall of society. I’m sure you can relate to Pink Floyd’s metaphor in one way or another. We’ve all experienced the voice of that inner child become more and more muffled with each passing year.
So often we hear about what is wrong with the world today. With a constant negative barrage of social media, news, blogs, and other streams of information infiltrating our lives, it’s quite easy to conclude that everything is burning down around us. This barrage includes topics like: “Death toll rises over 350,000 in Syria“, “More than 100 million Americans have diabetes or prediabetes”, and “Climate change is the worlds biggest risk”. All you have to do these days is snatch up your smartphone, and you are one or two small thumb smudges away from an information epidemic. Even if we somehow manage to block out the mass shootings, school massacres, and seemingly constant suicides, we are far from radio silence.
There are as many struggles as there are humans. You might be facing week 5 of unemployment, struggling to manage a toxic relationship, or maybe the scale is public enemy #1 at the moment. There’s also the hamster wheel of bills on which most of us are sprinting. We are perpetually eager for the relief of the next paycheck, only to find that this wheel accelerates with each raise or promotion. You had better run faster. Even if we are one of the few who has managed to get these bills under control, the search for meaning, belonging, and purpose can be just as disheartening. We live in a world full of screaming bosses, traffic tickets, addiction, and the notorious TSA.
Seriously though. For some reason we have to let that balding, middle-aged, cog of the aviation machine, rummage through our bags so he can throw the “explosive” toothpaste and body wash away; all while we stand helpless and shoeless on the contaminated terminal floor. Fuck you, Bin Laden.
Fighting the Chaos
Should we be taking to the streets and the internet crying out for a change? If we had lower taxes, better healthcare, and more handouts, happiness would undoubtedly increase, right? Perhaps just trying to juggle the anxiety of it all is as much as we can manage. Some strategic alcohol therapy or maybe a well-timed Xanax seems to be popular solutions. Buying new shiny stuff makes people a little less miserable, at least for a short while. Observing my surroundings, I see mass consumerism, escalating obesity, bottomless debt, and part of me wonders if maybe we haven’t lost the plot a bit.
But is it all that bad? Should we believe the doomsdayers and pessimists? If you take a closer look, it appears several aspects of Western Society are pretty incredible (more on this a bit later). I get to think as I want, say what I want, and for the most part, do what I want. I likely would have died at six years old if western medicine hadn’t combated my severe case of pneumonia, so just being alive is pretty dope. My most significant concerns in life right now are finding myself, finding my soulmate, and finding meaning. In fact, when I stop to think about it, I’m pretty fucking lucky. I have a genuinely pleasant life. Chances are if you have time to read this, you’re story doesn’t suck either. You’re literate enough to read my haphazard writing, you have an internet connection providing access to tremendous human achievements, you aren’t starving, and you’re not likely to have a seriously fatal disease.
So maybe America isn’t the problem. Perhaps Western Society isn’t the problem. It could be how we take all of this in as individuals and process it that is our problem. Let’s try looking to our suffering with some ancient perspective. Buddhism is a culture dating back millennia before America, and they dedicated their best minds to this problem of suffering for thousands of years. They may have something to teach us. So a Buddhist saying goes:
Suffering is universal
The origin of suffering is attachment
The cessation of suffering is attainable
Path to the cessation of suffering is detachment
Hmmmmm. So the Buddha is essentially saying all we have to do is detach ourselves from our desires a bit right? That seems easy enough. I’ll stop craving money, sex, notoriety, and happiness real quick. LOL. Yeah right. Getting a handle on our craving for things is nothing short of daunting. Some might call it a lifelong path in which we never really get where we’re going. However, being on the path itself is what matters. In fact, being is the path. The more we detach from craving, the more immersed we become in the present and the act of merely being. But even if somehow we could withhold desire of those things and more, wouldn’t we still be desiring not to desire? The rabbit hole goes deeper.
It turns out, Buddhists thought about this subject for a very very long time (some of these guys sit in caves and just meditate for an extended period of time). An integral piece of the puzzle seems to be finding what it is we desire in the first place. One of my all-time favorite humans Alan Watts has a few thoughts on desire where he articulates the concept masterfully. When I start to look inward and dig deep into the reassesses of my mind, I find a desire to control things. I want to stop harm from befalling myself and my loved ones. I want to ensure all positive aspects of my life stay on course. I want to have all the fun, and avoid all the pain. When I reflect on this, I realize I can be a bit of a maniac at times. I mean, who wants to be in control of everything? That’s bottomless stress, fear, and worry, every hour of every day. That’s the ego running wildly out of control trying to put out every fire and stop dozens more from starting. Sweating about a political race, screaming over the outcome of a game, and losing hair over climate change are all examples of useless anxiety. Not that there aren’t giant issues on the human agenda that need solving, but losing hair isn’t going to help anyone with the looming threat of climate change.
So how do we stop this anxiety train from taking us down the path of balding and an early heart attack? I’ll drop some wisdom on you from a guy who had his shit together. Marcus Aurelius was probably the most prolific Roman Emperor to have ever lived, and he was a philosopher king that would have made Plato himself proud. He was the leader of the World’s greatest empire, during one of the most tumultuous periods of its history, and he navigated it all like a bad ass. Here are a couple quotes from his Meditations:
“Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.”
“If thou are pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs thee, but thy own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now.”
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do, say, and think (Memento Mori).”
These passages are written in Marcus’ own journal, and he never intended for them to be published. In other words, he really bought into this stuff. Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, and others, championed a Greek philosophy called Stoicism, and it’s making a real comeback in today’s modern environment. Here is an excellent article by Higher Existence if you want to dive deeper into Stoicism and learn more about Marcus Aurelius. The essence of the philosophy can be dumbed down to this:
FOCUS ON WHAT YOU CAN CONTROL!
Ruminating about all the things that might go wrong and attempting to manage external factors only adds to your anxiety. We can’t stop that ass hole from cutting us off in traffic, make our spouse stay faithful, or determine the outcome of Donald Trump’s tweets. However, we can choose not to let traffic ruin our day by exercising patience, staying present, and enriching the drive with good conversation, music, or an Audible. We can focus on being the most supportive and loving partner possible, and perhaps our spouse won’t feel compelled to get their needs met elsewhere. With the Trump thing, I choose to nervously laugh that one off and hope the North Koreans prefer life over nuclear war (It’s been a good run if they don’t).
All of this stuff seems oversimplified and a bit cliche, but it really isn’t rocket science. Life is made up of a bunch of small moments and choices. You shape your character and dictate the reality you will experience by how you act in those little situations. They mold everything. If I can’t handle a dickhead swerving into my lane, how could I have patience enough to raise a teenager? If I’m so paranoid that I sneakily read my spouses messages, how could we ever fully trust each other and connect on a deeper level?
Letting go is the key. The Buddhists and the Stoics figured this out thousands of years ago. It’s overwhelming at first, especially because daily life can seem like a real clusterfuck, but all that really matters is that you are taking steps towards the “path.” One small step at a time, letting go of attachment, and focusing on what we can control. I’ve found that meditation, yoga, and writing really help with this process, but that’s a topic for another day.
Why Doesn’t Life Suck?
So we’ve just scratched the surface of suffering, but why are we focusing on all this negative shit all the time anyway? If you read the news every day, you would think we are in the middle of the second “dark ages.” It seems like we weren’t meant to handle all of this information. If you think about it, this information age thing is a brand new development in human history. A couple of centuries ago, one was considered a scholar of sorts if they read 50 books in their lifetime. I repeat, their LIFETIME. Now in the information age, we are exposed to incomprehensible amounts of data with which we have to somehow process and cope. Most children will have seen hundreds of movies, watched countless hours of videos, and read those 50 books and more, all before ever reaching adulthood. It’s almost incomprehensible how much data is being generated by humans nowadays. Roughly 2.5 quintillion bytes per day. 90% of all the data in the world was created in the last two years. Sorting through the information is a real mindfuck, and we have a human tenancy to focus on the negative data. For something to constitute as news, it usually has to be something worrisome that’s out of the ordinary and therefore worth reporting. We are then lead to believe that the situation is much worse than it really is. However, if we can filter through all this data, we can see how magnificent the time we live in really is.
Today is quite the opposite of “dark age-y.” In fact, today is the best time ever to have been a homo sapiens in the history of our species. Let us take a deeper look, courtesy of a gentleman and scholar named Stephen Pinker (this guy fucks). His new book, “Enlightenment Now,” covers this topic in great detail, and Bill Gates is calling it his favorite book of all time. For what it’s worth, it’s one of my favorites as well. Pinker points out several statistics that suggest human progress is far more considerable than we realize or care to acknowledge. The book is a refreshing breath of optimism that our species desperately needs, and I highly recommend it to anyone. Here is a click-worthy link to Pinker’s graphs summarizing the data from the book. I’ll break down the highlights below.
The big one: Mortality
For almost all of our known history, the average life expectancy of a human being was about 30 years old. 30 years old. That would land me in the winding up scene of my life if this were still the case today. It also means midlife crises and the “dirty 30’s” weren’t really a thing until very recently. Thanks to advances in medicine and science, child mortality has plummeted, maternal mortality has nosedived, and deaths by disease, famine, and war have been mostly stifled. Getting diagnosed with a disease is usually no longer a death sentence. Smallpox was eradicated entirely (responsible for killing 300 million in the 20th century alone), and the number of Polio victims dropped from 49,293 in 1975, to just 22 victims in 2017. Famine deaths in the 1870’s were about 1400 per 100,000 people. Famine deaths don’t happen anymore. Battle deaths have dropped from 22 per 100,000 people in 1950, to just 2 per 100,000 in 2015 (90% reduction). Deaths from various causes such as natural disasters, poising, accidents, lightning strikes, plane crashes, and genocide have all dramatically decreased. We seem to be checkmating many causes of human mortality, and as a result, the average life expectancy of a human being on earth is now just over 70 years. That’s 40 extra years of cat videos, dank memes, and new genders to discover. I identify as an Apache helicopter BTW.
Runner-up: More stuff
The world economy underwent a dramatic shift during the industrial revolution. Due to the help of machines and industry, we were able to shift from a zero-sum economic pie to a non-zero sum economic mega-ultra-holy-shit-premier-package-all-the-channels-pie. In earlier times, obtaining money or wealth meant you were taking it from someone else. Creating an environment where all the wealth gravitated to the top 1%, everyone else was either a surf, peasant, or slave. At the beginning of the industrial revolution, we began to create wealth without having to loot, plunder, and murder our neighbor for it.
Manufacturing, globalized trade and technological advances reshaped the landscape. The top 1% still controls a majority of the wealth on earth today, but the overall pie is so much larger now that we’ve created middle and lower classes with much higher standards of living. We’ve gone from about 1 trillion dollars of Gross World Product (all countries GDP combined) in 1800, to roughly 107.5 trillion dollars of Gross World Product today. That means in just about 200 years we have multiplied the total world economy by over 100 times. We have flipped the script on poverty. 90% of the world population was extremely impoverished back in 1820, just 200 years ago. Today only 10% of the world is in this kind of destitution. We definitely still need to get that number to zero, but can we just pause for a moment and pat ourselves on the back real quick? Hell yeah. Go humans!
Don’t sleep on: Technology
You could argue that technology is really the primary factor for the first two items we covered, but I want to talk about this in a bit more depth. Technology has been the driving force that has given our species, and the world, a massive facelift. If you looked at the dark side of the earth from space at any point over the last 4 billion years, you would see, well, darkness. However, if you take a peek down on Earths shady side nowadays, you’ll see an incredible transformation has taken place. The Earth is illuminated like a Christmas tree, acting as the ultimate example of how far technology has brought us. The photo below is an actual photo taken from space by NASA (sorry flat-earth-ers.)
Who else saw Elon Musk shoot a Tesla Roadster out towards Mars?…….. like, wut? Seriously? Not only has the space game changed but so has everything else. If you are reading this right now, you are participating in a miracle. I’m currently sharing ideas (regurgitated from Stephen Pinker) with you and other humans across the world, some of which I’ve never met. This information can reach you almost anywhere on earth through an invisible wave and presents itself to you on a wizardly computer or enchanting smartphone. I can read any of the great thinkers, listen to the best compositions ever written, and access endless public library content. I can stream countless hours of video, interact with others in online communities, and stay in touch with friends and family across the globe. I can do all of this for the cost of a coffee (Starbucks has free wifi). No amount of wealth and power could provide kings and emperors of the past with refrigeration, microwaves, phone calls, incredibly fast transportation, salted caramel ice cream, and condoms that worked.
Worth mentioning: Freedom and Education
Ahhh freedom. Drink it in. It always goes down smooth. Back when the founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, the majority of the world must have thought they were a bit slow. War with Britain seemed to be a death wish, and even if they won independence, this democracy shenanigans would never work out. Cut to today. Over half of the world is functioning in some Democratic state based on the concept of Freedom. Authoritarian regimes seem to be a thing of the past and are on their way out. Even today’s Authoritarian governments are much more liberal than they were centuries past. Human rights are a common thread throughout the developed world, including many Authoritarian states such as China and Russia. The freedom to choose your profession, your partner, and your sexuality is becoming universal rights for most humans across the globe. We’ve seen the near abolition of executions and the death penalty, along with the steady decriminalization of gay marriage, interracial marriage, and polyamorous relationships.
We’ve seen the decline of racism, segregation, and hate crimes as we’ve also witnessed equal rights (and wages) for men and women take hold. Domestic violence, rape, and the sexual and physical abuse of children have all decreased drastically.
We’ve removed children from factories and put them into schools. The literacy level of the world has shot up from roughly 10% of the population in 1825 to 85% of the population today. That accounts for rich and developing countries alike, but in America, the literacy rate is nearly 100%. The percentage of adults in the world with primary education has come up from 17% in 1820 to 80% in 2010. Also, average years of formal schooling in the U.S. has been hiked up from 4 years in 1875 to 14 years in 2015. Finally, measurable IQ has seen significant gains since 1905, rising about 30 points on average. That means that the greeter at Walmart could be a time machine away from being a “great thinker” of the distant past.
Wrapping this Bitch Up
Some of the best art, music, and literature has come about as a result of human suffering. Suffering is part of the human experience, but we always have a choice in how we cope with it. We can be the master’s of our reality, and we can dictate the story we tell ourselves about the world. We will all face grim moments throughout our hero journey, but it’s important to remember that we couldn’t have euphoric moments without those challenging times as well. They are two sides of the same coin, yin, and yang, black and white. One cannot exist without the other.
We are all truly blessed with this gift called life. Seriously, when we take a look back at what our ancestors were dealing with, it’s clear that we’ve been endowed with longer, more prosperous, and more exciting life. We all owe modernity a big thanks for the astonishingly plentiful ecosystem we find ourselves in. If any of our ancestors caught a glimpse of us whining about the line at the drive-through, bitching about cleaning up our dog’s poop, or hysterically crying because we got the wrong milk in our latte, they would probably kick us in the dick.
I know I was shitting on the TSA earlier, but let’s take another look at that one. We are talking about allowing our day to get ruined by the process of aviation. We get to sit down in a chair, fly through the air like a fucking giant aluminum dragon, and by some miracle we land safely in a distant far off land. We can traverse thousands of miles of ocean, wilderness, and traffic, for a few hundred bucks, all while getting our buzz on. I’ll take a little frisking from the TSA for that privilege any day.
Plus, what if you were in the frisking business? Talk about a grind. You have to touch irritable strangers in all the places they don’t want to be touched. You have to rummage through peoples bags full of weird shit and make sure they aren’t trying to blow everyone to hell. You have to receive looks of disdain and loathing daily, while you try to squeeze out a decent living and search for meaning in an airport. Sounds to me like being a TSA agent could be the granddaddy of all grinds. Maybe we should incorporate a little Buddhism or Stoicism into our lives and be grateful for the genuinely majestic present in which we all abide. Remember, that agent is a human being trying to cope with all the weird stuff, the terrifying news, and the accumulating bills just like you are. Let’s show them some love and perhaps flash them a smile to brighten up their day in some small way. Just don’t do it during the rub down