Monthly Archives: July 2014

#10: Who Are You Avoiding?

Other people give us trouble. They do annoying things. They insult us. They not only make us feel inadequate but in the process of doing so trigger disagreeable feelings of envy within us—not that we will admit as much.

Nevertheless, we seek the company of other people. We do this in part because they do things for us. Not only that, but during the intervals when they aren’t annoying us, their company can be quite enjoyable. There is, however, another easily overlooked reason we seek the company of other people: by hanging out with them, we can avoid encountering someone we very much want to avoid. The identity of that person might surprise you. Before I reveal his (or her) identity, though, let me provide some background.

In my book On Desire: Why We Want What We Want, I describe the zazen meditation, performed by zen Buddhists. They sit for a period of time in a quiet environment and attempt to empty their mind of all thoughts. If you try this exercise, you will discover how little control you have over the contents of your mind. Ideas, worries, and desires will pop into it, despite your attempts to keep them out. You will likely find this disconcerting. It is, after all, your mind! And yet your mind seems to have a mind of its own!

There is another exercise of self-discovery that you can do. Find a quiet environment with nothing to distract you—no people, no sounds, no words to read, and most of all, no computer! In this exercise, you don’t try to empty your mind of thoughts; you instead try to entertain yourself with them. Many of those who try this exercise quickly discover that their thoughts are oppressively boring and that being alone with them is therefore an intolerable situation. After a few minutes, they will seek external stimulation the way a drowning man seeks the surface of the water. Time to check their e-mail!

If people misbehave, we put them in prison. If they continue to misbehave, we punish them more severely by putting them into solitary confinement. One might reasonably think this practice would be counterproductive: wouldn’t prisoners rather be alone in a cell than share it with someone with criminally antisocial tendencies? It turns out, though, that given a choice between spending time with their own thoughts and spending it with, say, a convicted arsonist or child abuser, most prisoners will unhesitatingly choose the latter.

Indeed, one of the most brutal prisons ever to exist was Eastern State Penitentiary. What made it brutal was its insistence that inmates spend their days alone with their thoughts.

Recently, psychologists did an experiment to explore our aversion to being deprived of external stimulation. In this experiment, subjects were instructed to entertain themselves with their thoughts for a period of between six and fifteen minutes. Most of them found the interval to be oppressively boring.

Then experimenters added an option: subjects could, if they wanted, “entertain” themselves not with their thoughts but by giving themselves mild electric shocks. It turned out that 67% of men and 25% of women preferred shocks to quiet thinking. One man was sufficiently bored that he shocked himself 190 times!

Why don’t we want to be alone with our thoughts? Presumably because it puts us face to face with someone we want desperately to avoid, namely, ourselves.

And why do we want to avoid ourselves? In part because we find ourselves boring—so boring, in fact, that we would rather spend time with someone we regard as somewhat boring than spend that time with ourselves. It would seem to follow that we regard ourselves as one of the most boring people on the planet!

But I suspect that there is another reason we don’t want to spend time with ourselves. Doing so for any length of time reveals things about us that we don’t care to know. Why do we engage in various diversions? To divert ourselves, of course! And what is it we are diverting ourselves from? Apparently ourselves!

In response to this state of affairs, we resort to desperate measures to avoid being alone with our thoughts. We talk to people or send them e-mails or tweets. We surf the internet or relentlessly channel-hop on the television. We drive somewhere to buy something that we don’t really need.

And this desperation is nothing new. Seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal observed it all around him and drew the conclusion that “all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.”

One important difference between the seventeenth and twenty-first centuries, of course, is that thanks to technology, we can, in the privacy of our own chamber, divert ourselves to a degree that Pascal could only have dreamed of. And so we do.

#9: The Search for Anti-Mentors

In my previous post, I explained what mentors are and how they differ from teachers and coaches. I also said that we 21st century Stoics will be on the lookout for mentors, people who have insights into living. We will observe them, ask questions, and learn what we can from them.

Many people, as I explained, eschew mentoring because they don’t feel any need for personal improvement. It is an attitude that makes self-improvement unlikely. A Stoic, though, will regard himself as a work in progress and will always be on the lookout for ways to improve himself.

Besides being on the lookout for mentors, a 21st century Stoic will be on the lookout for anti-mentors, people who are making important mistakes in how they are living. Such individuals can offer the Stoic valuable lessons on what not to do if he wishes to have a good life.

People are much more willing to look for anti-mentors than for mentors. This is because by exposing ourselves to an anti-mentor, we can feel better about ourselves: we may not be perfect, but at least we are better than this guy! Indeed, one of the primary reasons people watch reality television shows is because they are, in many cases, populated by individuals whose character flaws and general ignorance of the world doom them to a miserable existence. How amusing!

A 21st century Stoic, though, will not seek anti-mentors for their entertainment value or so he can feel superior. Instead, he will seek them in order to learn from them.

At the first level of learning, a Stoic will try to identify the mistakes an anti-mentor is making. She might, for example, have chosen the wrong values by which to live. Alternatively, despite having chosen the correct values, she might have adopted a defective strategy for attaining the things she values.

At the next, more profound level of learning, a Stoic will try to fathom how a rational human being could make such mistakes. How, in particular, could someone choose a defective strategy for living? It turns out to be remarkably easy to do.

Consider, by way of illustration, one common strategy for dealing with desire. Many people are unhappy because they detect in themselves an unsatisfied desire. They respond to this desire by working to satisfy it. They reason that once it is satisfied, they will be satisfied as well and will therefore be happy.

What they fail to realize is that as soon as this desire is satisfied, another will likely pop into existence to take its place, leaving them no better off than they were before. To adopt the strategy of pursuing happiness by satisfying our desires is therefore to put ourselves on a treadmill. We can labor for years on this treadmill and be no closer to our goal than we were before setting foot on it.  (For more on this phenomenon, see my On Desire: Why We Want What We Want.)

So why do people adopt the desire-satisfaction strategy? In many cases, they simply mimic the strategy the people around them are using, on the assumption, usually mistaken, that these other people have given careful thought to their choice of a strategy.

In other cases, they adopt the desire-satisfaction strategy because it is the one that should work—except that it doesn’t! Indeed, it is a solution that not only doesn’t solve their problem but makes that problem worse! It is an example of what a Stoic would call a counter-solution.

A Stoic will be quite interested in this and other cases in which people’s misery is self-inflicted. He will be interested not so he can gloat over other people’s mistakes but so he can avoid making similar mistakes himself. Thus, besides seeking mentors who will teach him how to live, a Stoic will seek anti-mentors who will teach him how not to live.

As a result of his examination of people who have adopted the desire-satisfaction strategy, a Stoic will adopt the radically different and somewhat counterintuitive strategy of dealing with the desires he detects in himself not by trying to satisfy them but by trying to extinguish them. A Stoic will also work to prevent the recurrence of these undesirable desires in the future.

It is, curiously, the strategy that Buddha also hit upon. And like the Stoics, Buddha was “taught” this strategy by the anti-mentors he chose to study.