At the top of my browser, just below the Back button and Refresh button, I have tiny icons linking to my Gmail and Facebook, my stats counter and Twitter and a few other things, and they are delicious to me.
When I sit down at the computer to do some work, I find it unbelievably difficult to not click each of these buttons at least once before I get on with the task at hand.
Now and then I become aware of what it is I’m actually seeking when I click them. Intellectually, I know it doesn’t really serve me to check email 17 times a day. But new emails and website traffic stats are not what I’m looking for, not really anyway.
I’m looking to get high.
What I’m seeking is scraps of gratification, and sometimes they’re hidden behind those buttons, maybe in a gushing email from a new fan, a spike in traffic when Reddit picks up a piece I wrote, or when I log on to Facebook to see a little red indicator that somebody “Likes” a snarky comment I made on something or other.
It feels good to find these scraps, and so those buttons have become enormously attractive to me. It’s not like there’s really any practical reward for checking email a 3rd, 4th, or 14th time for the day. Those actions come from an emotional motive. They make me high and I guess I like being high.
Sometimes when I’m about to click the little Gmail button, I have a flash of awareness, and realize that my thought process at that moment is exactly as dull and simple as a burned-out rat in a psychology lab, pressing a button that sometimes rewards it with a pellet of food.
This is normal
A lot of the time we’re so compelled by the emotional reward of getting what we’re attracted to that we don’t even bother figuring out what it actually adds to our lives.
A few years ago I quit watching the news, because I realized I only did it to get high. It felt good to feel outrage sometimes. It felt good to take up and defend certain mental positions about social issues, to hate people who did bad things. It also felt comforting to have some socially-acceptable TV to watch after dinner.
I did it because I was attracted to it, not because it actually gave me any advantages or improved my quality of life. When I think of all those hours spent watching the news, it’s hard to figure out quite what I gained in exchange. Those volumes of information about O.J. Simpson, Sarah Palin or any other Outrage of the Month haven’t done me a lick of good since the moment I absorbed it.
Because it was gratifying, I never had any incentive to examine what it was doing for me or what it cost me. In any case, I would tell myself I was “staying informed” like any responsible citizen, as the typical argument goes, but it was really a fairly useless indulgence that just made some part of me feel good at the time.
What you really want
Most people are driven entirely by the pull of attraction and its cousin, the push of aversion.
Attraction and aversion come and go constantly throughout our days, we’re talking thousands of times, though we aren’t usually conscious of their appearance on our radar. We just find ourselves enamored by something (or averse to something) and we’re in the middle of acting on it. Clicking on the email icon. Eating the cookie. Scratching the itch, whatever it is.
And you get a little rewarding hit of “YESSS” because you got what you wanted to get.
On the surface we are only taking the most natural-feeling action. But as we can see from the not-at-all-uncommon habit of checking email 17 times a day, we are often seeking a payoff that has no real value except that scrap of gratification.
I’m not just talking about restraining yourself from acting impulsively. Nobody acts out every impulse. We’re all experienced at life and we’ve learned not to, say, grab food from somebody else’s plate just because it looks good. We know there are immediate negative consequences to that so we don’t do it.
But a lot of times the consequences are not immediate, or at least not obvious, and so we chase the scrap of gratification because it’s there for the taking. For example, you might name-drop because it gives you an ego buzz right there, and not see the consequences: that people might start to see you as pretentious, or much worse, that you are training yourself to seek scraps of approval in conversations by making yourself sound cool.
Most of us act out of attraction for something without realizing what it is we are actually seeking.
I notice, for example, that when the topic of travel comes up in conversation, a desire appears for me to find a way to mention that I’m going to Hawaii in six weeks. It might be a perfectly normal thing to say, given the topic. But if I look closer at what appeals to me about doing it, it’s not that I have a desire to inform people of my trip, but that it feels good to say it. There is really no benefit to my saying it except the little ego boost I get when I drop the fact that I’m going surfing in a tropical paradise.
There is a secret joy that I’m sure you know: the feeling you get when you learn that your friend hasn’t heard the big news yet — that Michael Jackson is dead, that Jane and Dick broke up, that there is a new Radiohead album being released this Saturday. (You didn’t know?? I knew by 4pm yesterday.)
If your desire in that scenario really is simply to inform the other person (as we probably imagine), it shouldn’t matter if they already know or not. But we all know that we’d prefer if they didn’t know, so that we can get the good feeling of being the knower, the informer, the bearer of fascinating stories. That’s a very gratifying human motivation we are all familiar with.
I would like to think that most of our moment-to-moment behavior is driven by the rational, pragmatic parts of our brains — the parts that understand, say, sensible retirement plans, or the benefits of eating enough dietary fibre. But I think most behavior is actually driven by these exhilarating little bits of cheese we know are out there behind certain actions, wherever they lead. Ever wonder why we have wars, monopolies, corruption, abuse, exploitation? Someone wants their high, whatever it costs.
The rat trap
Not everything we do is just an attempt to feel good, but an incredible number of our behaviors probably only happen because we like to get high — on comfort, on sense gratification, on ego gratification, on feelings of security.
Arguing is one I get drawn into over and over again. We all know that by the time a conversation has turned into an argument, there’s no more mind-changing that’s going to happen. Communication has ceased but the words continue.
I get a little ego trip from arguing. This blog has thousands of comments (whoa I got a little high saying that) and a good chunk of them are probably just records of me trying to feel good by contradicting someone. Not that there was never any value in those debates, but I have to admit that many of them only exist because in the moment I was attracted to what some part of me knew was a chance to feel good.
Again, this is normal. We feel an attraction to do something, we indulge it, we feel good. But what’s normal is often not what’s healthy.
Sometimes we get afraid of the consequences of indulging (think dessert tables at Christmas) and so we develop an aversion. But it’s the same thing happening. Aversion is fundamentally no different than attraction — it’s an attraction to getting away from something.
So either we indulge the desire to get the good feeling, along with its consequences, or we deny the desire, feel deprived and remain afraid of it. Either way, we have very little leverage in the situation and don’t feel free. We’re stuck between two cravings.
Not to turn this into a Buddhist-flavored article, but it is when a desire becomes a craving that the suffering begins. We can’t stop desires from appearing. We can’t snuff them out once they do. Don’t try and beat it there.
The tiny space where freedom lives
Between that initial attraction and the craving that develops from it, there is a tiny space. If you learn to become aware of the attraction as it happens, you get some insight into the nature of the proposition that’s being offered to you:
Hold on, something feels delicious here. A button. A cookie. A chance to tell someone off.
What is it I’m actually looking for here? What am I not wanting to give up here?
The answer, if you look closely, is usually some nice feeling.
In fact, it’s always a feeling. All we want in life and all we fear in life are feelings. Everything you have ever wanted: toys, candy, sex, money, love, letters in the mail, friendship, a clean kitchen — what you really wanted was the feeling they give you.
Just the same, everything you have ever feared: embarrassment, failure, poverty, rejection, losing your job, getting sick or injured — it’s not the situations that are fearsome, but the awful feelings you expect them to give you.
These feelings — the true objects of our attractions and aversions — they run the world.
I want to go surfing because it will bring a lot of pleasant feelings with it. I’m afraid to tally up my bills because it will bring a lot of unpleasant feelings with it.
The problem is that sometimes the actions that reward us with pleasant feelings create situations that will generate a lot of bad feelings later. Like, say, smoking cigarettes, or distracting yourself from your work by checking email 17 times.
These are often really bad deals, but we’re conditioned to seek the high. Advertisers know this and play to it. I got a good feeling for you, just a few dollars away… Television, in particular, sharpens your conditioning to gloss over the tiny space between desire and craving.
And naturally, there are actions that come with an immediate dose of unpleasant feelings, yet which create circumstances that will generate a lot of good feelings later. Exercise comes to mind.
We need to learn to mind that tiny space. It’s the only place to find freedom.
Most of the time we are not conscious of the fact that we’re being pushed or pulled, or exactly what we’re being pushed or pulled toward. We’re still operating at the level of lab-rat, normally. Staying mindful of attraction as it arises gives you a chance to recognize that you’re just being offered a feeling here, a chance to get high, and you don’t have to take it. You won’t miss out on anything truly great or irreplaceable. But you have to be conscious of what is happening to really know that in the moment. Believing it is not enough.
This is a truly voluntary action, light years ahead of the teeth-gritting desire-denial approach most of us grew up with (especially you former Catholics.) It’s free will, finally, not a fearful aversion reaction along the lines of “I will not eat the donut I will not eat the donut I will not eat the donut…”
Consciously refraining by staying mindful when attraction arises is an exhilarating feeling, on an order much deeper than the feeling of eating a donut, and quite the opposite of the feeling of chastising yourself for wanting the donut. It’s the feeling of genuine freedom.
On the other side of it, bringing yourself to act consciously when you are aware that it scares you is also exhilarating. Many people call this courage, and it can knock down long-standing barriers in your life.
How to do it
How to stay mindful? Practice by setting up a trigger: a specific scenario that will remind you to return to the moment and be mindful. A perfect trigger for being mindful of attraction is whenever a plate of food is put in front of you. Notice what happens in your body. Notice what item on the plate you are most attracted to. Don’t pick up your fork until you’ve taken a moment to study the feelings present in the moment. I’ve written more on this concept here.
The tiny space grows as you practice. At this point I still probably miss it more than I catch it, at least when it comes to email. I don’t actually check it quite 17 times these days, but it’s definitely more than once. But in other areas it’s completely changed my life. There is so much less fear in my life, much less worry. There are far fewer breakdowns and I can’t remember the last time I felt “stuck.”
Many readers will nod their heads while reading through this article, but most of them won’t bother to practice it. The only benefit to them will be the pleasant feelings they had for the few minutes it took to get to the end.
Photo by jayfresh