Life’s Best Problem: Excess Fascination

Life’s Best Problem: Excess Fascination

20 unfinished essays – some will be published – others will never escape the Darwinian gravity of “draft”. 50 books I’d love to read, which will invariably lead to 100 more. Podcasts that need a second listen. Places I want to travel. Photos I need to edit. People I need to have long conversations with. Art I want to flow. And all the minutes I need to sit in silence and simply observe. There is absolutely zero chance I can pack this into my life. What a fantastic conundrum. And here – I must hold two things in mind: I don’t NEED any of this. I’m already a metaphorical billionaire. Second, I might die tomorrow. I have to be at peace with that, too. From this position, humility and gratitude emerge.

How preposterous, to ever feel life was diminishingly interesting after the third decade. How silly, to suspect I found the peak of the “novelty” rollercoaster, and it’d all be same ole’ there forward.

I had no idea the rollercoaster would fall sideways off the track, and just before hitting the ground, drop into a wormhole of curiosity, which led to yet more wormholes of curiosity… ad infinitum.

Blinder Function

The human mind seems happiest when it’s discovering. How absurd then, in a world with billions of people, and billions of ideas, for any human, to be bored, ever? How is this even possible?

“The mind works to ‘screen out all those perceptions that do not directly aid us in our day-to-day struggle for existence’. The brain normally screens out ‘noise’, even though plenty of that noise may well be very interesting.”
Sam Jordison

Unfortunately, the brain has a way of persistently blinding us to novelty – saying – “oh – that again – ignore this”. This happens subconsciously. This blinder function has a purpose… enabling us to move swiftly through the world, and focus like a laser only on what is most obviously “new” or “valuable” – then adapt. This is survival 101. We are survival machines, after all. Without this blinder function, we’d be transfixed in perpetual awe of the 10,000 aspects of experience… sights sounds smells thoughts emotions. Clearly, we can’t simultaneously be awestruck by consciousness, while also running from a bear or searching for food.

Physical Psychological Survival

… But the average human doesn’t worry about bears or food. The essential survival game is won, as Keynes described in 1930. This leaves us humans in one hell of a pickle: a mind that craves novelty while simultaneously blinding itself to it, for survival reasons. This results in a new, higher-stakes survival game: psychological survival. Albert Camus brilliantly illuminated this game, in the Myth of Sisyphus, 1942.

What to do? There are only two options:

Path 1: Anxiety, Distraction, Desperation

“With all of our gadgets and the totality of human knowledge and artistic output always available to us, you might successfully avoid boredom for the rest of your life. But you might also never discover what’s on the other side of boredom. And you might not recognize the price you are paying for being compelled to distract yourself.”
Sam Harris

Mindless behavior is an excellent way to conquer boredom. Obvious examples are binging content-du-jour. Less obvious examples might include “pursuits” to “accomplish” something – whether it’s in business, in sports, in creativity. This is not to suggest anything wrong with amusement, pursuits, business, sports, or creativity. But, what is the motivation to immerse oneself there? Is the immersion for simple joy or simple need, or, is it a reflexive hiding place from boredom, or suffering? A dim search for meaning or satisfaction, which, can never possibly be satiated? The latter can only terminate in despair.

I have never seen a work of art more fully dedicate itself to this warning than Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. The title alone is enough to meditate on for weeks. By this, I mean hold the mere idea of “infinite amusement” in your mind as you look out at the world and how it works.

As David Foster Wallace suggested in his commencement speech to Kenyon College, this path is our “Default Setting”, to be fully absorbed in our personal thoughts, habits, and impulses.

Path 2: Kill Your Blinder

A bit dramatic – murder. However, the consequence of not dimming your blinder is even worse. Flight from boredom (consciously or unconsciously) can quite literally consume an entire life. There is no higher consequence from the standpoint of the individual who is consumed.

How to see past the blinder, and rediscover fascination?

There is one way: experiential understanding of mind, and there are two predominant vehicles to get there. One is a helicopter, the other is a trek. Both are profound. Both are wildly misunderstood for different reasons, which is the impetus for writing this – to make the value of each abundantly, rationally, clear.

In short? Choose one or both. Let’s start with the helicopter.

“It’s the the question of climbing the mountain to the peak gradually, or, taking a helicopter to the top and really look around and see if it’s worth all that climb.”
Dr. James Fadiman

In both cases, I link a short article devoted to each topic. I’ll keep the introductions here brief.

Helicopter: Psychedelics

First of all, I have never tripped or hallucinated. But I have used psychedelics. If this sounds confusing, this is called microdosing, and it’s a way to glimpse the tangible benefits of psychedelic insight without going on a wild, crazy trip. And this is not dismissal of the value in tripping – but – I think it’s important to say emphatically – tripping is not the only way. I offer my journey as evidence. As the famous metaphor goes: microdosing is like a whisper of truth, whereas tripping is like being shaken and shouted at.

Here is a short guide to microdosing, and links to multiple science-based resources on why it is undeniably valuable. Please, explore.

Trek: Mindfulness

Mindfulness, or mindfulness meditation, is wildly misunderstood, in my opinion. From the outside, it seems like meditation looks so boring and uninteresting. How is it fathomable, that anything interesting can happen to a human life by sitting down in silence, and observing? Yet, the underestimation here is absurd. You cannot possibly know until you try. And while psychedelics obviously require one to navigate choppy waters of stigma and misinformation, mindfulness is totally uncontroversial and ultimately touches the same buttons in the mind. In truth, I started here for nearly two years before considering the helicopter, and it absolutely changed by life. If I had to do it the same way, I would start here.

Combined Force of Trek and Helicopter

Because I am not a scientist immersed in the neuroscience and psychology of either psychedelics or mindfulness, I scrupulously study the work of credible, credentialed professionals who are. They have committed their lives not only to science, but wellbeing of humanity at large.

In this particular case, one of my favorite clips that weaves all threads of this topic together is Dr. Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins.

I beg forgiveness of sophisticated science for the following crude statement. However, after two years, it feels so “true”. The “Default Mode Network” in the mind is the scientific name for the blinder. Watch Roland Griffiths here, explain how psychedelics (psilocybin) and meditation BOTH dim the default mode network, leading to the phenomenon of “fascination with the present”.

Contentment and Fascination

Contentment-with, and fascination-with, life, working together, produce what I am certain is one of the most blissful ways to live. In one hand, deep understanding of desire and self show a person that they truly are the richest person alive, despite any expectations and unrealized dreams that may have previously haunted them. In the other hand, there are infinite ways to be curious and invigorate your mind with wonder and awe, all around you, every day. This awe can be channeled to your benefit, and the benefit of humanity. Infinitely more paths of wellbeing than you can ever possibly walk. Is this not miraculous?

A final parting suggestion: explore mindfulness and microdosing.

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