My people have a ritual, and in fact I performed this ritual as I sat down to write what you’re reading.
It goes like this: I take a spoonful of special seeds and grind them down into a powder. I run hot water through the powder, and collect the dark liquid that seeps out. I take the cup of hot liquid and bring it to my desk because I believe drinking it will make for a better working experience.
Coming to the desk with this liquid is a tradition for millions of us because getting down to work first thing in the morning is traditionally a less-than-comfortable moment. We welcome anything that seems to make it more comfortable.
This liquid does that. As I drink it, I can feel it has immediate effects on my experience. I kind of feel like dancing, but instead of dancing, I type. I always look forward to the next time I have a chance to do it, sometimes even before I’m done. I don’t do it too often because I know that by the third time in a day, the ritual makes me tired and cranky.
I’ve made the ingestion of this substance an ordinary part of my day, and in fact I own specialized equipment for preparing it: one that grinds the beans into a powder for me, and another machine that makes the powder into the drinkable liquid. Mine is a fairly fancy one that makes a super-concentrated form of the liquid. If you don’t have one (or even if you do) there are also stores whose sole purpose is to have professionals make this liquid for you.
Interestingly, these seeds don’t grow within two thousand miles of me. But I have steady supply through a convoluted channel of farmers, marketers and middlemen. We call the seeds “beans” even though they are actually the pits of a tropical berry, which most of us have never seen.
The bean-liquid industry is worth 100 billion dollars worldwide, but there is another mind-altering liquid whose sales are expected to exceed 1 trillion dollars this year. It’s prepared differently, through fermenting plant materials. We have tried fermenting almost everything to make this stuff, and so there are all different types.
Its effects on your consciousness are a lot more dramatic. It gives you a certain confidence and sense of freedom. Its side-effects are quite reliably awful though. It makes you more careless and less intelligent. If you drink a lot of it (and it is common to drink this amount on purpose) it will make you nauseous, irresponsible and difficult to be around. Still, it is almost as popular as food.
The regular use of these liquids has become prominent in almost every society. Both made their way around the globe relatively quickly, and everywhere they went, they stayed.
The battle to be anywhere but here
The truth is we human beings are extremely interested in altering our state of consciousness. Even when we’re not using psychoactive substances to do it, we’re constantly trying to make our experience more bearable or more interesting by pulling out our phones, eating something, or flipping something on.
It is amazing what we will do to avoid letting a particular state of mind just be like it is without trying to change it. Why drink a liquid that costs a fortune and makes you fall down, unless you believe there is something seriously wrong with what you would otherwise feel like?
I think we underestimate how uncomfortable we are with most of our normal, unadulterated states. We try to have a lot more control over them than is really possible.
I just did it right now. A moment ago, I didn’t know what line to write next. I became uncomfortable for a moment, and almost got up to make coffee. Then I realized I had just finished a coffee, so instead I went to click on my Gmail, to see if I could find a hit of comfort there instead — even a small, temporary one that puts me right back into the same state a few moments later. It was such a minor discomfort that triggered this.
I have a whole arsenal of weapons I could have unleashed on my discomfort, which — if I hadn’t noticed what I was doing — could have led to an entire day of snacks, Netflix, apps and magazines. If I had gone down this road, I would have carried on until these activities became less comfortable than getting back to work, which does happen eventually, when that escapist glee runs out and turns into guilt.
Substances are especially popular weapons against boredom or discomfort, because they work a) immediately and b) reliably. They give us a kind of power we don’t normally have: direct control over a state of mind.
It’s natural for us to want to improve the quality of our state of mind. But we don’t need to. Most of us are so unaccustomed to voluntarily being with an unpleasant or uncertain state that we don’t even recognize those moments when we reach for the hammer-effect of substances or entertainment.
Even if we know some of these responses cost endless amounts of money, or reliably make us feel worse later, or do nothing but move a problem a few hours later into our lives, we still let the desire for an easier experience (right now) get the better of us. This need to attack all instances of discomfort with some kind of substance or technology becomes its own addiction.
What it costs us
The biggest downside to the state-avoidance habit isn’t that it costs us our money and our time. It’s that we are constantly forfeiting personal power. By reaching for the hammer (whether it’s a beer or a remote control) every time we’d like the moment to be a little easier or more interesting, we are training ourselves to be needy and dependent on circumstances.
By learning to allow different types of discomfort to simply stay in the room with you, without your scrambling for a button to push (real or metaphorical), you make discomfort matter less.
The pool of things you’re afraid of shrinks. It becomes a lot less important to control circumstances, because you know you can handle moments of uncertainty or awkwardness or disappointment without an escape plan.
On his blog, Jacob Lund Fisker often writes about the self-empowering habit of simply allowing discomfort to be a part of your experience sometimes. “Without discomfort, wants turn into needs and luxuries are treated as necessities.” He applied this principle methodically to all aspects of his life, and in five years it left him tough as nails and financially independent.
The more you dodge discomfort (or attack it with chemicals), the more you must dodge it, and the more it hurts when it finally corners you. And of course it will.
The key is noticing that moment in which you reach for the hammer — knowing when you’re trying to clobber your current experience into a more pleasant one. Knowing, and then refraining, is a powerful experience. Even if you do decide to take up arms against that moment, at least you are conscious of it.
No matter what you do, your life is going to be a largely uncontrolled parade of comfortable, uncomfortable and neutral developments. It can be quite a relief to let the comfortable and uncomfortable things arrive in their own time. Needs become simple preferences, and lose their power to strain the heart.
The bad parts become better because they don’t create desperation any more. The good parts become better too, because they’re not as hard fought and often arrive unexpected. And the in-between parts become at worst interesting, because they don’t have to be anything except what they already are.