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Survival Aesthetics XX: Why Your Resolutions Keep Failing
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It’s been a while. Some personal updates: I got married! We honeymooned for a few weeks in Greece and Italy. And it took a couple weeks getting to get settled into our new place in Brooklyn.

I’m spending the next 3 months at the Recurse Center geeking out with fellow nerds.

Survival Aesthetics and Sustainable Furniture

There’s a lot I’ve been working through over the past 6 weeks. One big one is, What is the intuition behind “Survival Aesthetics”? What am I trying to understand that compels me to write?

You must love the doing as much as what that doing creates. And vice versa.

Let’s explore this idea just a little.

We have a Greycork sectional sofa and a Floyd platform bed. Pardon my French, but I fucking love our sofa and our bed. Why? Because we assembled them ourselves.

They are designed to be assembled and disassembled without the need of fancy tools. They are designed to be transported from place to place with not much sweat.

We are connected to them because when we see them, we see something we put together. We care more about how things turn out for them in life. We’re more likely to fix them if they break (rather than toss them away). Planned obsolescence, stay away.

There’s some research on this being a psychological phenomenon! Check out Dan Ariely’s The IKEA Effect: When Labor Leads to Love. The Japanese have understood this for a while -- Kintsugi is the art of treating “breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.”

Our modern existence has decoupled consumption from production. It is far too easy to appreciate things as they are without appreciating how they got there. As a strange effect of all of this, we often find ourselves stuck in ruts, wanting to do certain things but being truly unable to do them.

Confused? Read on! 

Tough Love from Buddhist Masters

I’ve been slowly working through Roaring Silence, which is a wonderful practical meditation manual written by Aro Buddhist master Ngak’chang Rinpoche.

In one passage, a student asks masters Rinpoche and Dechen for guidance on why, despite his interest in meditation, he lapses and neglects to practice for weeks and months on end. (Emphasis is my own)

“Ngak’chang Rinpoche: How much do you want to practice?

Q: It’s very important to me.

NR: That’s interesting. I wonder why that is? [pause] Let me see if I understand you correctly. You want to do something. It’s important to you—but you don’t do it. Have I understood you correctly? Was that the gist of what you said?

Q: Yes.

NR: Well, the answer is fairly simple then. When you want to meditate more than you want to use your free time in other ways, you’ll find less difficulty. I must apologize if that sounds somewhat blunt, but it’s a simple statement of the manner in which motivation functions. We could look at it another way. What if I told you, ‘I want to get thinner, but I keep eating too much and don’t exercise.’ Your response might be the same: ‘You obviously like eating and not exercising more than you’d like to be thinner.’

Khandro Déchen: We’re not making a value judgment here either—we’re just saying, ‘Enjoy the roundness of your belly as much as the taste of your food.’”

For a recovering smoker, a convenience store can be hell. There are packs and packs of Marlboros and American Spirits in plain sight. Nonsmokers don’t even notice.

For a recovering drinker, a restaurant can be hell. They pass out drink menus first, or place them on top of the main menu. Many others would put that aside to figure out what cut of steak they want for dinner.

For a recovering tech addict, modern life can be hell. Everyone around you is buried in their phones, so it seems you shouldn’t be ashamed of your addiction. And yet you can’t even sit to meditate for 2 minutes without twitching to reach for your phone.

But as anyone who has kicked a habit (or picked up a radically new one) can attest to, lifestyle changes that stick go miles deep. You first try it, and it doesn’t take. Maybe you have a good run, and then you relapse and hit a bottom you didn’t know existed.

Finally, after years falling off the wagon and getting back on, something changes. 

A friend asks, “How’d you do it?”
You reply, a bit confused: “... I dunno, I just started doing it.”

Reordering Your Motivations

Journalist Michael Pollan has been writing a lot lately about psychedelics. Tim Ferriss had him as a guest on his podcast several months ago. There was one bit in which Pollan described the effect of psilocybin on chainsmokers who had been trying to quit for years:

“What was also noteworthy to me about that particular study was talking to the people in the study. And I would ask them, Why did this make it any easier to quit smoking? It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with smoking. And they would describe an experience that put their life and their behavior in such a radically new context.

And they would say these incredibly banal things. They’d say, I realized my breath is precious and that there’s no life without breath, and it’s really stupid to damage your breath.

I’m like, Duh, didn’t you know that already? And they did know it, in an intellectual way. But I think one of the real hallmarks of psychedelic experience is that things you think you know but really only exists on the very top of consciousness suddenly set down roots deep in your subconscious.

They become these convictions, absolute, rock solid convictions that you believe in a way you’ve never believed anything before.”

Something changes deep in your psyche, and it reorders the way you think about your preferences and motivations for doing (and not doing) anything.

Or, to get more pedantic with it, I’ll try and rephrase what I explored with a philosophy professor in college.

Motivation is not just wanting to do something. It is … wanting to want to do something. It is a higher-order capacity to rearrange your desires and your preferences. 

Someone may want to work out regularly or lose weight, but some conflicting want (say, eating cookies whenever he wants) may prevent this wish from manifesting itself. If he wants to lose weight, he can’t eat cookies whenever he wants. If he wants to eat cookies whenever he wants, he can’t lose weight.

Aye, there’s the rub. Why is one of them so hard to change? Probably because he loves cookies so damn much.

Perhaps he can’t imagine how much better his life would be without diabetes. Perhaps he’s tried quitting, but the process has proved too difficult … because the status quo of rampant cookie-eating is just so familiar and easy, while the terrain of low-sugar life is so disruptive in the short-term. Perhaps he carries the delusion that cookie-eating is an immutable part of him. It is simply who he is, full stop.

So you don’t really want to do anything unless you want to want to do it. All that money spent on diet plans and gym memberships go to waste because you cannot fully address the wanting to want.

On the flip side, if you come to a profound realization about the preciousness of your breath, you may just never smoke cigarettes again. 

Life, The Labor of Love

Earlier, I mentioned that Dan Ariely paper, The IKEA Effect. Ariely put together an experiment in which he had participants put together IKEA boxes, origami, and built sets of Legos. Ariely and his team concluded the following:

“Our account suggests that labor leads to increased valuation only when labor results in successful completion of tasks; thus when participants built and then destroyed their creations, or failed to complete them, the IKEA effect dissipated. [...] Labor increases valuation of completed products not just for consumers who profess an interest in ‘do-it-yourself’ projects, but even for those who are relatively uninterested.“

We begin to change how we value things when their doing becomes intertwined with their becoming. During this process, the default switches start to flip. What we previously saw as "just another sofa" morphs into "the couch that my roommate and I spent 2 hours putting together while listening to John Mayer."

When we learn to see and appreciate the life of things around us, we start poking at the switches of our own psyches that tell us we are fixed, static entities. We begin to see the past, present, and future in our possessions, our actions, and ourselves. All of it is in flux and constantly changing. We learn to care more about what we do, why we do it, and what that doing does. And then actually making the change you want to make seems trivially easy.

"Enjoy the roundness of your belly as much as the taste of your food. "

This one was tough! But I had to get one out. Hope you enjoyed reading!
Happy Wednesday and until next time. As always, all feedback is greatly appreciated, however big or small.
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Ammar · 725 15th St, NW · Washington, DC, DC 20005 · USA

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