We live in a circle of chaos and confusion. We are in constant motion, both physically and mentally. We have convinced ourselves that we are important, what we do is important and what we want is important. And we build structures to support and reinforce our importance.
We submit to continuously scrolling to-do lists. We maintain constant connectivity to the rest of the world. We strive to accumulate more and more material possessions, or achievements or influence. We are so caught up in the process of striving that we fail to recognize that our goals have become cravings, and that we are addicted to the process itself.
To accommodate the process, the hunt, we oppose our natural rhythms. We don’t sleep when darkness comes. We don’t eat when we are hungry. We don’t rest when we are tired. We no longer live according to the seasons of the year, or the seasons of our lives. We ignore the cycles of nature and live in a linear fashion, our lives ruled by clocks.
We try to manipulate time. We try to make more efficient use of it. We trade it for temporary things. We treat time – our most precious resource – as our enemy. We are oblivious to the reality that we cannot save time; we can only spend it.
We race about in this outer circle, rarely stopping to catch our mental breath. But brief interludes seldom bring about a respite. For then we submerge within the inner circle – a place of incessant mental noise and babble. While the outer circle is somewhat organized according to the consensus of the players, the inner circle is messy and muddled.
Our mental commotion is relentless. We obsess over a multitude of things, regardless of whether they are within our control. We relive past grievances, unable to let go of thoughts and emotions that no longer matter. We live with regrets and unfulfilled expectations, unaware that most goals are not achieved because we allow things of lesser importance to distract us.
We repeatedly reassess our self-worth and judge ourselves according to the idealistic standards that we, or others, have set for us. Self-worth is an interesting concept in that we create an informal grading system to gauge the value of our “self,” which is the cause of so many of our perceived problems.
The result of all of this activity — what the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard termed “ineffectual activism” — is stress and anxiety. Stress and anxiety are symptoms of a life that is out of balance. They are indicators that we have placed too much emphasis on certain areas of our lives to the detriment of others. Moreover, stress and anxiety are contagious. We infect others and others share theirs with us.
At some point, we may be fortunate enough to realize that the costs of constant stress and anxiety are disproportionate to the results they have helped us to achieve. This realization may come in the form of a health crisis, a failed relationship or a foreclosure notice. Often, it comes about by poking through the usual intellectual clamor to inform us that our efforts have been meaningless and empty.
But the assessment of our efforts are no more objective than the assessment of our self-worth. They are what they are regardless of how we perceive them. The only thing that is real is the constant stress and anxiety that permeates our existence – jeopardizing our health, challenging our relationships and hindering our personal development. What threatens us is that which makes us uniquely human – our capability for “rational” thought. The problem is that most of our thinking is irrational. In the outer circle, we become frustrated trying to concentrate on multiple priorities and overlook the need to not focus on anything at all. Within, our thoughts are haphazard and uncontrolled.
We cannot retreat from the outer circle. We need to make a living, engage in society and contribute our unique talents to the human ensemble. The antidote to a harried life filled with tension and unease is to separate the circles – to do what is necessary to achieve our objectives without letting the collective norms and activities disturb us within. We need to step back, tame the wild mind and reside in the center of the circle. The psychologist Carl Gustav Jung said, “Resistance to the organized mass can be effected only by the man who is as well organized in his individuality as the mass itself.”
We begin by simplifying our lives. Simplicity is the ability to resist needlessly complicating our lives with too many unimportant or unnecessary things. Simplicity is performing necessary actions in a way that takes the least amount of time and produces the least anxiety. It is about the intelligent use of tools and technology. Simplicity is deciding what is really important and, once we do that, finding that there is very little to prioritize.
Simplification naturally leads to the elimination of cravings and desires. It’s okay to work toward attaining goals as long as the process doesn’t distract us from what is truly important, as long as we don’t become attached to the striving or the things it produces. Goals motivate us in productive ways. Desires and cravings create attachments which are counterproductive. Focus on what is important because whoever or whatever controls what we want has power over us, and the struggle for power and influence complicates our lives.
Eliminating attachments permits us to calm our minds, even as the circle of chaos and confusion swirls around us. We take the time to reflect, to ponder, to meditate, to watch the clouds. We reconsider what is really important as we contemplate the impermanence of life, the futility of control and the absurdity of “saving” time. A calm mind is a mind of equanimity – recognizing what is within our control and what is not, unattached to the churning events and activities without, and the fleeting interpretations that occur within.
At first, our respite may be brief, just a pause, lasting for only a moment. Gradually, those moments will expand, and our self-importance will diminish, until we are residing at the center of the circle, eventually unaware that we are even there.