Forced Convalescence

A self-referential restart.

I've written a lot about aspiring to stay open and unsure. Likewise, I've written about embracing changes of heart and mind. Last week, I wrote that you can expect me to change my mind here sometimes. Welcome to another one of those times.

I'm going to keep Think List going. I already wrote about my reasons for shutting it down and the conflicting thoughts I was having about that. Today I'm going to attempt to better explain some of what led to my initial decision, and the reasons for my reversal. I'm also going to explain why I think the whole ordeal will make Think List a better newsletter and me a better person.

First of all, when I wrote, "Think List is not doing well," I meant it. But I meant it in two ways, and I only elaborated on one of those ways; the one where Think List's small readership was shrinking. The other way I meant it was this way: "I'm not doing well."

Anyone who's been reading my writing for a long time will know that I'm not afraid or ashamed to admit when I'm not doing well mentally. I don't express it as much as I used to because I mostly feel much better than I used to. But I have my moments. And sometimes those moments sneak up on me without warning and smother me for weeks. The past few weeks have been some of those weeks.

The thing with depression is it doesn't need anything to be going wrong. It can and does show up when things are going right. It's a heavy, claustrophobic thing that scoffs at and s**ts on all that's going right. It makes it hard to think and move and be. But it's not because it's hard to think or move or be. Not necessarily. It's not because of anything necessarily. It just is. And as long as you get through it, and cultivate methods to help you get through it, it is not forever. It's not even all bad all the time. Sometimes it is instructive. Sometimes it is constructive. Sometimes it is necessary.

All of that said, I think my recent bout of depression arrived when it did without any cause or reason. But I also think it was exacerbated greatly by some of what was going on in my mind at the time re: Think List. Most notably, that bipolar rollercoaster I mentioned last week, where I attain a pleasurable high while writing, but then come down hard to an unpleasant silence and sense of nothingness and just the ringing in my ears of the pleasure that got away from me again.

What the aggravated depression also did was quiet my fingers down for long enough to get a grip. It guided me to the fact that a few things were happening at once: Think List was improving my mental state; Think List was worsening my mental state; these things were not happening outside of me, nor were they, in fact, the result of things happening outside of me (subscribes, unsubscribes, email open rates, angry emails, etc.); these things were happening inside of me, and they were happening because of a habitual problem I'd created inside of me, and they could therefore be solved by creating a habitual solution inside of me.

Thank you, goodnight!

But really, that's it. That's what it is and that's what I need to do. And it's what I'm going to try my best to do starting about now.

When I was young, my parents made me and my brothers go to church. I only hated it about 100% of the time. But the longer you go on living the more circles you see form. Here's one of those circles: More than a few times, the priest would be delivering his homily and it would seem like he was speaking directly to us, about some problem we were having at home. I never really attached any significance to it. But it did happen and I do remember it. I also have a memory of my mom commenting on it. In fact, that might even be the only memory I have of it. I may have made the rest up. In any event, the same thing happens now when I listen to meditation talks. The connective tissue is that the speakers in both scenarios are speaking to the universal human, not to the individual human. The individual human is complex, unique and aged atop things old and invisible and fundamental and still-burning and forgotten. The universal human is simple. The universal human is a bag of conflict made of two thought-questions: Are my actions helping or harming me? Are my actions helping or harming others? That's it. That's all of us. And we don't know the answers. We pretend to know. But we don't know. And it's f**king hard not knowing. It's f**king brutal and beautiful and sad and joyous and roughly every other adjective in life. Which brings me to the internal problem (and solution) of pleasant vs. unpleasant.

One day earlier this week, exhausted by my depression and anxiety and all their awful babies, I closed the curtains in my office, put on a Joseph Goldstein meditation talk, and lay on a mat on the floor to rest. At some point, I fell asleep. When I woke up, Goldstein was still talking. He was talking to people at a meditation retreat about equanimity, and he said this:

For almost all of us, there is this deeply habituated conditioning—it almost seems hardwired—that we want to have and to hold on to what's pleasant, and we want to avoid or push away what's unpleasant. What's so interesting as we explore this is that it seems so natural: "Of course I want what's pleasant and want to to avoid what's unpleasant." It just seems like the natural response to these experiences. And because it seems so natural and is so deeply habituated, it's really only in the context of a retreat like this, or perhaps other special circumstances, where we even take the time to investigate this conditioning. “What is this conditioning about, wanting the pleasant and avoiding the unpleasant?” And it needs a special circumstance. It needs this laboratory, which you're all in. That's what I love about retreats. They're just like a laboratory of the mind. And you're all in there investigating and exploring how it's all working. In that investigation, we can begin to at least glimpse or taste other possibilities besides the attachment to the pleasant and the avoidance of the unpleasant.

A quick note: While attending a meditation retreat is high on my list of things to do, I view Think List as one of those "special circumstances." It's not meditating the way meditating is meditating. But it is, to me, a kind of retreat. And it is, I would argue and defend, a laboratory of the mind.

It's precisely this attachment to the pleasant and resistance to the unpleasant that keeps us on the rollercoaster of hope and fear. We hope that the unpleasant will go away. We're afraid that it won't go away. We hope the pleasant will come. We're afraid that it won't come. As long as this conditioning is prevalent in our lives, we're continually buffeted in our reactions, in our reactivity—hope and fear, hope and fear. With increasing clarity, and wisdom, and mindfulness, we see that these changes—of pleasant and pain, happiness and sadness—these changes are not a mistake. It's in the nature of conditioned, changing phenomena. It's not that pleasant feelings go away because we've done something wrong: "If only I hadn't done that, then the pleasant feelings would have remained." That's magical thinking. Pleasant feelings don't go away because we've done something wrong. They go away because everything goes away. Everything has the nature to change. It's so interesting that all of us know this on some level. But it's quite amazing how in our practice and in our lives, there's also some place in us that doesn't believe it. We think that we should be able to hold on, to maintain.

He goes on to share a mantra that has helped bring his mind back to equanimity in the face of these changes: "Anything can happen any time." Anything can happen any time. To punctuate this, he shares a quote from the Buddha: "Praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and sorrow: they come and go like the wind."

We all know this. But as Goldstein said, there’s also a part of us that doesn’t want to believe it. I’m not special. I’m no different. I have that part, too. But it likes to hide. And I think one of our jobs is to not let it. And it became ultra clear to me about here, that this was the inner solution that I needed to cultivate and make habitual. That solution, in a few words: stop clinging to the highs of writing, and stop pushing away the lows of the comedown.

So here's what's going to happen next:

  • I'm going to work on implementing the solution noted above.

  • I'm going to keep writing and sending one or two Think List emails a week (mostly one; occasionally two), and I'm going to keep everything free for the foreseeable.

  • I'm going to make an effort to avoid writing directly about US politics and policy, the insufferable US culture wars, and current events in the US in general. The things I've written about these topics have, in the end, almost exclusively brought me only loss and distress. So I'm going to try to look at this as something I don't do anymore. A man I once knew told me he quit smoking by shifting his perspective in this same way. When he wanted a cigarette, he'd just remind himself, "I don't do that anymore." I've since used this technique with other things (as well as quitting smoking many years ago) to some success. This is how I think things change: soft, slow, slight, barely perceptible shifts. So I'm going to make an effort to not write about those things anymore. Not because I want to push away the unpleasant. But because I want to eliminate the habit I've adopted that unnecessarily creates the unpleasantness, seems to do harm, and does not seem to help. But remember: This is an effort I'm making, not a promise. In any case, you'll still have my tax dollars, America. Buy what you'd like with them.

  • I'm going to continue writing about the mind and society. By society I mostly mean the psychology of individuals and groups in societies. This will likely result in some unavoidable overlap with the topics noted above. But again, those topics will not be my focus. My focus will be on exploring the mental and behavioral aspects of the infinite odd things we do when we're alone and together. (And we are always alone and together.)

  • I'm going to keep writing personal stories and essays about whatever seems worthy of passage from the individual to the universal.

  • I'm probably going to mention Bon Jovi a bunch more times.

  • I might, if it occurs to me, write something that I think is funny while I'm in the midst of writing about something that you and I both think is serious. That's life. It's all just one big fart at a funeral.

  • I'm going to do my best to ignore the number of subscribers, unsubscribes, and open rates. It was a mistake to look for self-worth in these numbers. It wasn't a conscious decision to do so. But it's what I was doing. And I don't do that anymore.

I stole the title of this piece immediately before sending it from a Bright Eyes song. I shared the song in a very early Think List letter, but it came to mind again maybe 10 minutes ago, as the lyrics, or at least my interpretation of them, speak to much of what I’ve written above. Peace be with you.