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Defy mother nature

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Mother Nature’s running a trial-and-error business, so sometimes our programming doesn’t make a lot of sense.

We come out of the box tuned for self-preservation and conformity. Not self-expression, not self-actualization, not happiness. But that’s what we want. Our genes want rock-solid, redundant systems for survival, nothing more. We want to have fun and feel good about our lives. Not the same thing!

The bulk of human activity is still driven by our oldest impulses — to secure, to acquire, to indulge, to conquer, and to reproduce these motives in one’s children. They were around when that first fish-monster fin-flopped onto the land and began our extended family, and still sit at the centre of human motivation.

But we’re quite far along from that now, and while we’ve developed some great new tricks and some new desires, it’s all built on the same bedrock of high-strung survival impulses that kept sea creatures flourishing hundreds of millions of years ago.

So by now, for humans, the basic survival motives are still prominent in our consciousness. You feel their influence whenever you sense a mannequin’s presence, or when weird people get into the elevator with you.

They come in a thousand forms and the reactions they create are all quite normal and quite unconscious. But because they’re normal, they’re generally unquestioned, and because they’re unconscious they can be really destructive. Nearly every instance of conflict you read about in your newspaper is somebody’s base motives leading them to create trouble for themselves or others.

We do have newer impulses though. They’re more complex, more delicate and a lot more interesting. We exhibit capacity for creativity, mindfulness, curiosity, wonder and love. We want to arrange things in certain ways, beautiful ways, and we want to see them arranged that way. And not necessarily because it helps the species survive. We just want to do it.

Those impulses don’t have a lot of driving power in the biological evolution game. But this is civilization, and we’re not really playing that game anymore. It is still running in the background, but let’s just say that if you don’t survive it’s probably not because you’re not quite as jumpy as your fish-monster ancestors.

Today, you can survive just as easily, maybe better, if you’re not a sharpened killer or an insatiable hoarder. So with survival now fairly easy, our higher faculties finally have a chance to air themselves out.

That is, if we’re listening when they ask to be aired out. They’re subtle. They aren’t rude like our survival impulses — the fight, fuck or flee systems that commandeer our entire bodies when they get set off. Our newest sensitivities are liable to be drowned out if we’re preoccupied by the more familiar, older, closer-at-hand impulses of survival.

On the grand scale, it amounts to an awkward stage in human development. We’re still almost overwhelmingly obedient to the three desires of the animal kingdom — for security, sense gratification and power. Yet we’re feeling increasingly compelled by relatively new human sensitivities, for curiosity, creativity, peace and gratitude.

But the loudest call prevails, and so we get conflict of the most asinine and irreconcilable kind. Mind-numbing partisan politics, environmental devastation as a normal business practice, opportunists getting rich at the expense of their grandchildren, religious wars, bad TV.

On the street level, it creates personal tension about what we decide to do with our lives and our time. We often feel torn between our aspirations to do work we love or to let our inhibitions down, and the impulse to be practical and save for a house and get some kids on the way before the spouse market dries up for your age group.

The older motives are deeper and more invisible to us. But they lead to security and procreation, not happiness and peace. Nature’s goals — not necessarily our own.

I keep meeting people that are really airing out the higher faculties. As much as I’m interested in them — in creativity, mindfulness, love — compared to some I’ve really just been dabbling, afraid I might lose sight of what’s practical.

But what’s “practical” is always on the survival end, the end that’s already pretty sewn up. The old roadmap. It’s not that survival isn’t important, of course it is. Everything else is contingent on it. But civilization makes it way, way easier than it was for most humans who lived with the same set of impulses.

Yet old Mother Nature still wants us fully preoccupied with it, rather than just keeping it mindfully on the radar. She thinks we’re still cavemen who need to be altogether consumed with self-preservation in all its forms — physical but especially social — which leads us to conformity, more than anything. And conformity leads to boredom, recurring sinking feelings, periodic where-is-my-life-going crises — and ultimately — deathbed regrets.

Living only by the lower motives is the definition of going through the motions. The forces of life will still move you, but where, and for what?

Defiance is necessary — defiance to the strongest gravity in the human world, the pull of security. That’s the force that sucks you into the couch to watch TV, that tells you the safest thing to say is nothing, that tells you to stay in tonight, not to wear red, and to wait for the other person to call.

Nature made us this way and the only sensible thing now is to defy her. We know how important this kind of defiance is. Even people whittling their hours away on Facebook still post the odd picture-quote championing the idea of really living before you die.

How exactly to do it is rarely discussed though.

Clearly, we need to harbor a certain suspicion towards impulses of self-preservation, especially the social kind. We’re so high-strung about saving face, even though nowadays there’s nothing remotely fatal about being cast out of a particular clique for saying something unpalatable to the others. This isn’t the savannah anymore.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on it. How do you live before you die? Do you feel like you are ? Do you feel like you’re always about to?


Photo by Grufnik

DiscoveredJoys February 13, 2012 at 3:44 am

Good Morning one and all!

I’ve been thinking about this issue for a little while. I’ve come up with a technique I call ‘The Small Freedom’ and I’ve noticed that Leo Barbuta has come up with something he calls ‘The Pause’.

The idea is to make a habit of pausing between the stimulus and your reaction. For example, someone is rude to you in a meeting. Instead of reacting in your normal way (feeling upset, bursting into tears, smacking them in the face, been even ruder back, whatever) give yourself a few brief moments to consider your best response. Your best response in keeping with your values, not the automated old brain animal response. Don’t worry, if you are in a true survival situation, your instincts are going to cut straight through your moment of consideration anyway.

Over time this ‘Pause’ allows your life to be more of an expression of your values rather than your animal instincts. My elaboration – ‘The Small Freedom’ – is that you spend some effort in identifying and throwing off the inappropriate expectations of others, and your arbitrary bad habits, so that you can be prepared to live your values both consistently and at the drop of a hat…

David February 13, 2012 at 3:17 pm

The pause is the place to get that foot in the door, yes. I’ve written about it here. I think I called it “the tiny space where freedom lives”.

Dan Mitchinson February 13, 2012 at 5:24 am


Made me think of this, David.

David February 13, 2012 at 3:19 pm

xkcd hits it on the head sometimes.

Alan Ominous February 13, 2012 at 5:44 am

I’ve only been around 48 years, and it seems probable to me that I’m pretty similar to the fin-flapper in basic instincts and the rest is bullshit that I learned from Mum, Dad and society. If painting pretty pictures and wearing my hair a certain way gets me positive reactions I’m gonna do it again and better. If the only way I get attention is biting heads off birds then a lifestyle behind bars might suit me later on! Climbing to the top of Little Pond Inc. is what I learned in the quadrangle at school…yet isn’t this all 21st Century style survival of the fittest with brand names sewn on our camouflage?

David February 13, 2012 at 3:20 pm

Haha, what? Didn’t society teach you anything that isn’t bullshit?

DiscoveredJoys February 13, 2012 at 6:30 am

Me again.

By some strange coincidence (yes, really) Amazon recommended a new book to me this morning. I’ve already bought a Kindle version, speed read a third of it, and will probably buy the print version too (very rare event).

The book is call ‘The Chimp Paradox’ by Dr. Steve Peters. It uses a metaphor of three parts of the brain – the Human, the Chimp, and the Computer – and talks a great deal of practical sense about how we can manage the learned behaviours and instinctive emotions to give ourselves a better life.

I’m still a bit gobsmacked by the coincidence!

Tiva February 13, 2012 at 6:41 am

Personally, the most important thing, I think, for me to do before I die always seems to revolve around how I treat people. Sure, I’d like to travel the world, experience different cultures and foods, definitely get married, maybe have a kid or two, but if I don’t get to do half of those things, it won’t haunt me on my death bed.
I lost my dad to suicide when I was 15, and I never regreted telling him that I loved him. Maybe that was a huge influence in my life as to how I treat people, and how important it is for me to do so.
Everyone’s different though when it comes to things the must experience in life… that’s the beauty of individuality. My truth is I will follow the path that life leads me and see what is in store, because I like the surprises life has given me so far, plus it all seems far grander than my own imagination as to what I have to have in life or have to experience.
I think when my time comes, if I always follow my instincts, it will be at exactly the right time for my life to end… no ifs, ands or buts.

David February 13, 2012 at 3:23 pm

Personally, the most important thing, I think, for me to do before I die always seems to revolve around how I treat people.

That seems to be the theme I’m seeing, too. I’ve done all kinds of cool stuff but it’s the encounters with other people that makes me really feel like I am living life the right way. This trip has been amazing, but if I imagine the same trip without having had any new interpersonal experiences, it would feel pretty flat. That’s what really makes it for me, other people, and maybe it’s true for everyone.

Zack February 13, 2012 at 6:58 pm

I’d like to feel the same way, but for some reason it seems like my life is filled with nothing but morons. I know about 75%, if not more, of the problem is me and not other people. But how do I get over my narcisism and misanthropy? Instinctually, I look down on the kids who get lower test scores than me. I know it’s my problem because if they get higher scores than me, I’ll rationalize it away by saying “well, they don’t spend as much time at the gym as I do, so I’m still better overall.” So my question boils down to: how can I change? How can I build relationships with people that are less intelligent, people that bore me to death?

Leul February 14, 2012 at 11:48 pm

I think the problem is in how you are judging people, are test scores really how you want to associate with others? Test scores measure our capacity to memorize and regurgitate information, hardly material to base friendships on. The fact that you are looking for others with high test scores shows the fact that it is a trait you value in yourself, so my suggestion to you is to reevaluate and find what else you value in yourself, and you will start to notice it in others which will allow you to connect with them better.

Zack February 15, 2012 at 6:54 am

That makes a lot of sense, I’ll start applying it today! Thanks.

Dar February 13, 2012 at 8:09 am

Three weeks ago my marriage ended. It was the best thing that’s ever happened to me. My life for the past few years consisted mostly of going to a job I hate, coming home and watching TV. Day in and day out. I saw friends less than once a month, saw family even less often then that.

As soon as the relationship was over, something snapped in me. I woke up the very next day alone and happy. Knowing I had this one life to live and there was no time to waste. I’d suddenly, over night, become the person I’d always wanted to be. I lost almost all my fear and apprehension. I’ve had interviews, I’ve met new people, talked to strangers on the bus, danced to my iPod on the street. Done and said all the things I wanted to, when I wanted to and have yet to suffer for it. What had I been waiting for? Fear dissolves when you face it, it lasts forever when you hesitate.

I haven’t watched TV once since then, I’ve been out every single day, with family, with old friends, with new friends, and the time I spend alone is rewarding as well. I am living for my higher faculties, I am pursuing happiness first and security second. Happiness comes with mindfulness, it is the state beneath obscure thoughts and fears.

David February 13, 2012 at 3:26 pm

That’s awesome Dar, I’m so happy for you and your newfound freedom. Imagine never having found it! I wonder how many people are that close to breaking free and don’t know it. Enjoy!

Crys February 16, 2012 at 11:08 am

Thanks Dar, your post is encouraging and inspiring.
I will indeed seek happiness first and security later on.
Just what I needed to hear.

Katie February 22, 2012 at 3:45 pm

“Fear dissolves when you face it, it lasts forever when you hesitate.” – Amen

Julia February 13, 2012 at 10:13 am

Dear David,
I admire your thoughtfulness and analysing ability. It does help a lots of people to understand themselves better.
About you questions, I always try to see a bigger picture in difficult situations. The bigger picture, meaning, what we are here for. We are here to learn our lessons and gain experience to become better and wiser beings.
I love story about Abu Kasem’s slippers:
You have to accept who you are and make peace with yourself and everything else will fall in to place.
I know, I am far from accomplishing this but I am working on it and taking pleasure from the journey.
Sorry, there are too much of reassuring statements rather than doubting, that is not me. I am half-a-cup minded person.

David February 13, 2012 at 3:30 pm

You have to accept who you are and make peace with yourself and everything else will fall in to place.

^^^ I know this is a cliche, but it really is it. Something clicked in me this last while that made me feel so grateful and accepting of my living situation. I’m super lucky and there’s so much to enjoy about it. I guess for the last few years I’ve felt like I needed to be somewhere else, a little further along.

Meg February 13, 2012 at 10:14 am

I’ve never been the sort of person who would do sky-diving or travel to war-torn countries or be a contestant on Fear Factor, but I’ve done a lot of things, from speaking and performing in public to creating many different kinds of businesses to walking alone in scary places to turning my house into an art gallery to living totally alone without interacting with other people for several months straight. There are a lot of things I still want to do that I can’t do anymore due to physical limitations, but I gave them a go when I could. There are a lot of things I could do if I had the funds, which I don’t, but I’m working on that. I do spend a lot of time on the sofa in the evenings and watch a carefully selected range of programs (via Roku)–but that’s my time to rest and be passively amused. Getting out there to mix it up with other people doesn’t appeal–I’ve been there, done that, it was fun but I’d rather save my energy for my work.

The top of my bucket list was to publish a work of fiction before I die, even if a small one. I finally got it done last week. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since first grade, and I had a moment of feeling stunned when I realized that was fifty years ago. So, yeah, regardless of how good or bad the work is, it’s definitely part of “how I live before I die.” I’ve been growing an income as a writer for the past two years, because it was what I always wanted to do, did for ten years after college, and intend to do from here on out, no matter what, because that’s the surest way I won’t have regrets on my deathbed.

I made it possible to live and work the way I wanted by radically changing my lifestyle, simplifying and streamlining everything from diet to possessions, and becoming a Minimalist. It is a good example of “defying Nature,” stepping back from cocooning myself in possessions and shopping and bad food and fear-based compulsions. Sometimes doing so upset the status quo, but that’s the status quo’s problem.

Everybody that’s born is gonna die. Curling up in a corner to hide with a bag of Cheetos doesn’t change it anymore than agreeing to marry someone sight unseen, but the latter makes for a better story. And that’s what I think our human trait of storytelling gives us: a built-in way of inspiring ourselves to defy Nature, to have interesting lives, to becomes heroes–to, in short, live to tell the story.

David February 13, 2012 at 3:36 pm

Hi Meg. Wow, well put. I love your comments here. And congratulations on your milestone!

Minimalism is definitely in defiance of lower motives. Even now that I’ve seen how refreshing it is to cull possessions, I still feel this primal attachment when I consider getting rid of something. Glad there’s a movement around it, or I never would have experimented with it.

Meg February 13, 2012 at 5:53 pm

I’m glad you enjoy my comments, but they wouldn’t be possible without a solid post to comment on–and yours never fail to deliver, David!

VaeVictis February 13, 2012 at 12:22 pm

Live like nobody loves you, because in the end they don’t.

David February 13, 2012 at 3:37 pm

You’ve been to the end already?

VaeVictis February 13, 2012 at 6:24 pm

Good point, though some days it feels like it, Haha!

No, I mean that you can love the traits of a person (kindness, your attraction to them, what they can do for you and vice versa.) But I think it’s impossible to expect someone to love, let alone accept EVERYTHING about you. The best you can hope for is to rebel against what you think you need or want and try to appreciate what you have right now.

Joy February 13, 2012 at 12:32 pm

I *love* this…the article and the comments.
I live as if this is the moment I am given. I wake and greet the day and live fully present in this moment. How? I connect with people because I love the energy through connection, but I lead an unconventional, not mainstream life so I *disconnect* from mainstream ways. And, I organize my life so that I may live in such a way. Meaning I lived on a boat in the harbor so I could come home to peace and joy and nature and I do not have TV, and now I work solely online so I have the freedom to travel and explore and experiment.
This means that my way might not be understood by many, but that is okay, because I am creating from a peace filled, centered place and I do not need external approval (although affirmation is lovely!) because my daily life is quite magical regardless of external. And, no I don’t live in a bubble *grin* I have two children and relationship and connections and I engage..I just choose not to “attach” and “expect”..instead, to just be and experience fully.
And that is just one way of many to embrace this day, this moment, this experience…

David February 13, 2012 at 3:55 pm

No TV seems to be a theme among people who feel they are truly living before they die :)

Ben February 13, 2012 at 1:04 pm

Hey David,

I’m guessing you won’t receive nearly as many Facebook “Likes” as a reaction to your comment about posting inspirational material on that particular site. I know that’s how I felt! LOL

A good read as usual, hope you are well.

David February 13, 2012 at 3:40 pm

I am well, thanks Ben. I’m not against inspirational quotes! Don’t get me wrong. I just mean it’s really common to talk the talk, I’d like to hear how people walk the walk, if they do.

Chris Walter February 13, 2012 at 1:20 pm

This is somethings that really hits close to home for me. Every single day I am struggling with this. Constantly making excuses not to approach someone and ask them for their photograph, constantly telling myself later would be better, they dont want to talk to now anyways.

But every day I just try to not think just do. my mantra in cases like these, Act. Don’t think. Do. Don’t Plan.

I love your analogy about the Savannah. Good perspective!

David February 13, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Hey Chris. Dude, you’re living it, if anyone is. You’re halfway through a 35-country tour! Who just up and does that?! If it’s a struggle for you, you seem to be handling it all right :)

Bruno Gonçalo February 13, 2012 at 2:27 pm

I understand what you’re saying and I agree that it is essential to push the envelop, and to overcome our conditioning. But I see it more from the point of view that cultural conditioning has a more heavy and harmful consequence than the biological conditioning. It is important to wake up from that entropic mind-set most people find themselves in, but that mind-set was not given to us by Nature, but by cultural conditioning. I usually use to refer to “getting back to Nature” as a solution, and not defy mother Nature. I would rather say, “defy cultural conditioning” and embrace the Natural. The natural mind and heart are in harmony with creativity, beauty, love, wisdom and so on.

Civilisation as a whole, including our attitude towards Nature, the planet and other species, seems to be a compliance to that survival program (in the mind as a language construct), based on fear, self-preservation, which started out when the primitive man first started using tools to hunt and to wage war. That survival program may not be solely passed on to future generations through genes, nature, instincts and so on, but essentially through education, as a language and emotional construct that is passed on through education, like a psychic virus, or meme that has been passed on through education, it’s a “cause and effect” phenomenon. I’ve noticed that there is a natural tendency for children who have still not become “infested” with a dualistic mindset given to them by civilisation and family, to recognise intuitively a connection, friendliness and cheerfulness towards other forms of life and people. It is only later when thrown in the civilisation game of win or lose, school, competition and so on that there seems to be lost and repressed the intuitive knowledge that the Universe is a playground for fun, creativity, love and harmony. What do you think?


David February 13, 2012 at 3:52 pm

You’re right, the cultural side has the same effect as the instinct side in a lot of ways. The two reinforce each other, especially when it comes to feelings of security and saving face. The same defiance applies, because conformity is the main product of both. We’re lucky to live in a time when the cultural conformity is breaking down, and people (in many places) are freer to defy convention.

Children are different, yes. They are freer from the beginning. But I think we all have to go through a phase where we accumulate fears and worries, if only to shed them later. Otherwise we’d hurt ourselves too much along the way. That playfulness will always have to be lost and re-learned, I think. I wrote about that here.

Bruno Gonçalo February 14, 2012 at 7:41 am

Thank you for that link.

Nitya February 13, 2012 at 2:48 pm

We are so lucky to have the ability to set aside the biological imperatives and induluge in the luxury of a bit of higher ordered thinking. No longer do we have to sustain our hyper vigilance and wariness, though these traits are probably just lurking beneath the surface.
I love living in the age we do. I love being able to ignore most threats to my survival, and contemplate the future, the nature of humanity, the past & the cosmos.
For most of the era of humankind our survival has depended on our response to danger and our ability to detect patterns,( a useful trait when following the seasons & seeking out prey). These very skills have led us to value some pretty superstitious behaviour.
These days, I no longer have to worry about finding a profession & securing my future, I can invest all my time & attention to the appreciation of works done by those before me. A luxury for which I’m eternally grateful.

David February 13, 2012 at 3:54 pm

Oh me too. I keep reminding myself I live in the far future, a time and place with fantastic technologies and freedoms.

Tom K February 13, 2012 at 5:09 pm

Hi Dave. Enjoyed your words. Just this niggle: let’s see, defiance of Life…how’re you going to get outside of Life? Remember, Life’s got its hands up the dress of both the couch potato and the swashbuckler. That doesn’t mean ‘tho that a shock can’t be put into the system with certain salubrious results. Still, it can’t be done – separation from Life (even the hand that holds the suicide pill is Life’s) – and yet it can be done…but not by defiance.

Brenda February 13, 2012 at 6:06 pm

“Conformity leads to boredom, recurring sinking feelings, periodic where-is-my-life-going crises — and ultimately — deathbed regrets.”

Woo! For people like us, maybe, but I can imagine those who on their deathbeds would feel proud to have fit so well into the crowd. Conformity definitely has its place. People of average intelligence seem to need a system that tells them what to do and how to feel in certain situations. That’s why organized religion and partisan politics and public education are so successful, and why many of us feel bored and stuck around those. That old-school what-will-people-think credo that I grew up with is still alive and well because, as you stated, “the bulk of human activity is still driven by our oldest impulses.” There’s no getting rid of conformity and base impulses as long as there is intellectual inequality. There’s nothing we can do about that, but we can, as you say, “defy mother nature” by rejecting worn-out conventions.

nrhatch February 13, 2012 at 9:11 pm

After 13 years practicing law, I decided that being the best “ME” was far more important than being the best at something I no longer wanted to do . . . so I left the law, giving up the security of a good sized paycheck, took a 6 month sabbatical to regroup, and learned to trust my inner wisdom rather than listening to what “they” said I should be, do, or think.

At the same time, I read Simplify Your Life, by Elaine St. James, and made the conscious decision to downsize and declutter my life. Now, 15 years later, I’m happier than I ever was while practicing law.

Aah . . . that’s better!

raenze February 14, 2012 at 2:31 am

I do love nature too and my favorite color was even green..Thanks for this awesome post…

Dean February 14, 2012 at 9:24 am

Hey David. This is totally off topic , but i am very curious about this – do you have stage fear?

Tinna February 14, 2012 at 9:34 am

I enjoyed reading your post here and I am sure this can help too…

Jon February 14, 2012 at 9:44 am

Fantastic article, as usual, and one that’s echoing a lot of thoughts I’ve been having recently. So much of humanity’s problems stem from those old hind brain commands and impulses, and if we can learn to be more aware of them, we can learn to pursue other goals instead.

I do have one minor caveat. I see a lot of people who share this idea proudly proclaiming the fact that they don’t have a TV. While I’d definitely agree that the vast majority of TV is pretty terrible, there are some very good programs with fantastic writing that have really inspired me as well as entertained me. Is there anything wrong with that? It’s just like film or books; expressions of human thoughts and emotions through art. While I understand that you shouldn’t slavishly watch TV just to pass the time, I do think that it has its place in a good life, as art.

Nea | Self Improvement Saga February 14, 2012 at 12:29 pm

Awesome, awesome topic. I often feel myself being torn between these two ways of living. On one hand, I want to completely give myself over to living through creativity, mindfulness, inner peace, letting go, exploration, excitement, following my bliss, etc. On the other hand, the fear of losing my grip on “the normal stuff” is right there in the background.

Because it’s my job to help others step outside of their comfort zone in order to live their best life, I push myself to do the same. Nature’s goals, as you referred to them, have a stronghold on most people’s minds. I’m not immune to that at all. However, more and more, I make the conscious choice to just enjoy my freaking life. I do things that I want to do even if it may get stares or have unexpected consequences.

My hope is that the tug-of-war will lighten up at some point. I’d love to never again fear the way that I’m living my life these days. I’d love to be blissfully unaware (or far less aware) of those impulses that drove my ancestors. What’s the point in survival if it’s a monotonous bore?

Deborah February 14, 2012 at 2:19 pm

It is fortunate that we developed ways to consume less time focusing on our survival since we can spend more time having fun and relaxing. Brilliant article.

Sean February 14, 2012 at 8:05 pm

Absolutely brilliant! This is exactly what I’ve been getting at in my own ponderings, but worded so succinctly and exquisitely! It gave me the chills!

As for me I do feel like I’m always just ABOUT to truly live. I’ve been telling myself that for years… letting the security instinct hold me back! My subconscious must think we’re still on the Savannah, because it tells me to be deathly afraid of how others will judge me socially. It’s like I feel the same discomfort about saying something to a stranger as I feel walking alone on a dark street in a nasty part of the city. And I feel the same urge to never try it again, despite knowing consciously how much better my life could be!

I bet seeing those unneeded social instincts for what they are will help me to become more friendly with discomfort. More defiant of mother nature! That life I’m always about to live is waiting just outside the reach of my sense of security, isn’t it?

Thank you so much for this inspiring article!

Réjean Lévesque February 14, 2012 at 9:30 pm

Great article!
It made me realize that the US is a primitive society, living in great part according to the three F’s of survival: “fight, fuck, flee”. That leads to much of the warmongering. The American media, knowing that what sells is these primitive impulses, promote the posturing. As you say, it’s not because it is unconscious that it should be unquestioned; it is this questioning that leads to civilization.

Ingrid February 16, 2012 at 10:18 am

I feel like I am always in the beginning of the jurney. It keeps moving, and I AM moving forward, but the beautiful part is my experience of never settling down and always searching for new possibilities and ways to tackle/enjoy/bare with life. Life is very dualistic to me. I have also been lost in facebook-chatter and masks that tell the lies of a hipocrite, but in time I have learned to get out and DO.
After I started practicing meditation (Nichiren Daishonin’s), I realized that with choosing the good in life and taking action – getting actual proof that you are working for the better – has it’s price. It was like turning up the volume. I stayed in stronger. I went out like a lion. I shouted like a monster and I was calm like a still water. Viewing yourself from the outside is really healthy, and it is how I handle procrastination, laziness, low-energy (or too much energy). I believe in the potential in every thought and choise and spark of inspiration that can carry things somewhere for the better. And that the work on the journey is long and the hardest you will do, but your soul will continue whatsoever, because you made the choise to live – as a part of the universe you have no chouce but to stick to yourself.

This was a lot, but I had a lot on my heart. Please don’t stop blogging, it is refreshing. – best, Ingrid

Ingrid February 16, 2012 at 10:23 am

That humans are ahead of prime way of living – the basic survival of the species, opens up a door. And therein behind the door lies the opportunity and the mystery. What else? What new? What now? And so we make it.

Rusty Southwick February 16, 2012 at 10:02 pm

Evolutionary descriptions have often eluded me. They don’t always seem logical. If we’ve indeed moved past the need for most of our survival instinct, then why hasn’t evolution caught up to that, but instead kept us in the very, very distant past? Evolution doesn’t seem the big player here (though it continues to linger), and one wonders how little it might affect other species throughout history or if other developmental factors contributed more. So then if it’s not a big player and hasn’t been for many millennia, why does it seem to still have such a firm grip on us? If we’ve escaped the utility of evolution, why haven’t we seemed to break away to any appreciable degree from its clutches? As Desi said to Luci, I think there’s still a lot of splainin’ to do…

On the main topic of living a life largely away from practicality, I think creating each day anew and reinventing oneself aids with this. Doing things with different motives than the conventional, not remaining in any rut for very long, stretching one’s limits, extending and trying harder than you have before, thinking in new ways, approaching things from a multitude of angles, trying to jump outside of the physical self to a great extent, ignoring automatic impulses, becoming more in touch with the distinctions between the conscious and subconscious, thinking outside the box, meeting new and interesting people, having conversations with them that don’t fit a prescribed template, doing things for no particular reason at all, not necessarily trying to fit in, going where your other less-used instincts take you, taking nothing for granted and ridding oneself of all assumption, using the mind more and examining it from the inside, unlearning what you’ve been told through society, and molding a new person.

David February 21, 2012 at 6:23 pm

We haven’t outgrown our need for security, I’m not saying that. Only that the environment has changed rapidly and we are tuned for a completely different kind of experience from the one we’re having in modern life. So we need to look at all of our impulses, cultivate the newer and more delicate ones, and stay wary of the unconscious behaviors that stem from the older ones.

Evolution never catches up. The only question is ever, “Where to go from here?”

Ethan G. February 17, 2012 at 9:04 pm

Part of me revels in the David articulating what I often feel and think.

And another part of me thinks that all this talk about getting out of our skin and living completely novely day to day is as pretentiously short-sighted as the punk culture embracing a form of anarchy. The part of us that just wants freedom to be whoever we randomly turn out to be is contradicted by the part of us that wants others to meet our needs. If people are to meet our needs, which is an integral part of satisfying relationships, they have to be intentional about thinking where we’re coming from and then try to align their actions with our receptors. If everyone else were just random, we’d look at them and say “What the F are you talking about?”.

I think there’s an irony buried in this contradiction. It’s our desire for security that drives us crazy wanting to just be okay the way we are. Why do we have to be so intentional about being okay? What if we just can’t be good enough for other people today? That means we’ve failed, and since social failure tends to register pretty heavily with most of us, it hurts. Security is freedom from pain. Being accountable to helping meet other people’s needs means we could feel pain of failing them, and if we just say “F that S”, then we can convince ourselves that we’re okay no matter what. Go berzerk. Do whatever you like…and it’s still cool. We can tell ourselves that, but the truth is that if everyone else was living that way, we’d be living in a hostile world. Where does the golden rule fit into just being whoever the hell we want to be?

I think everyone in every challenge can find liberation in seeing new solutions through fresh eyes, but I don’t think that the random stuff of sleeping dreams is the stuff that’s going to save the world. We need to figure out what humans need and how to best meet other people’s needs if we’re ever to enjoy the world we really hope for. What’s wrong with the world? Just that we don’t know exactly how to provide others with what they’re needing. It takes thought, creativity, and time to figure this stuff out.

David February 21, 2012 at 6:18 pm

“And another part of me thinks that all this talk about getting out of our skin and living completely novely day to day is as pretentiously short-sighted as the punk culture embracing a form of anarchy.”

Sounds like that part of you loves to exaggerate! Go with the first part.

“I think there’s an irony buried in this contradiction. It’s our desire for security that drives us crazy wanting to just be okay the way we are. ”

That’s a good point and I think you’re right, at least that far. I’m not suggesting we can cure our need to feel secure (in all sorts of ways) but only to shine a light on it — become conscious of the pushes and pulls that make you want to do this or that, and observe what its real-time consequences are. That’s mindfulness.

Ethan G. February 17, 2012 at 9:53 pm

Although I think highly of David, I meant “Part of me revels in [crossout: the] David articulating what I often feel and think.” Cheers to proofreading before hitting “submit”.

Chris February 17, 2012 at 10:22 pm

I don’t think adopting a self-correcting attitude is defiance from Mother Nature, we are PART of Nature. Anything that extends out of nature, is already part of it. We’re not ruled by genetics, we ARE the genes.

Partha February 20, 2012 at 7:28 am

Actually that’s a rather neat thing, what you’ve said here. I’ve wondered about this … one aspect of what you’re saying anyway.

Take enlightenment. From a purely survival point of view, that’s as dead a cul-de-sac as can be, isn’t it? What you’re essentially try to do there is to, well, extinguish yourself (as far as nature, that is physical nature, is concerned). If you succeed, you’re gone. If you don’t, you still “waste” a good deal of your time and effort.

If all humans were to follow this route, and follow this well, we’d be extinct soon, wouldn’t we?

I think that is what happened to India. (I’m an Indian.) You had this whole land, which is said to have reached very advanced states of civilisation when most of the rest of world was still clambering up trees and plucking fruit or attacking animals (and each other) with clubs. The cream of this land gives itself up to the “spiritual endeavour”. That is the ideal that is given the highest importance by that society. Result? In two and a half millenia, the land is reduced to conquest by every marauding barbarian race, for almost half a millennium, until finally now the impoverished people of that land are beginning to lick their wounds and starting to stand up again — a very few to walk that path again, and most to look dazed at the “successful” Occident and to try to ape them as best they can.

And yet that doesn’t detract from the nobility of that goal. I’m sure the Buddha would have acted no differently, not one whit, even if had seen all this happening to “his” land.

You’re right, D., you’ve hit it right on the spot: that’s an fundamental mistake we make. We (when we think about this kind of thing) tend to mistake Nature’s goals for our own. And that’s a huge fallacy, one we pay for with our lives, literally, and much more besides.

Noch Noch | be me. be natural. February 20, 2012 at 9:20 am

i wonder sometimes, why they don’t teach us self awareness at school over random chemistry equations? i feel i haven’t lived, now that i’ve discovered how to enjoy life, and feel like i’m trying to catch up wiht lost time
NOch Noch

David February 21, 2012 at 6:13 pm

That’s a great question, and I think part of the answer is that public school is exceedingly conservative and stubborn about its role in preparing human beings to become independent citizens. There are so many skills *everyone* could use that people never talk about. That’s really why I started this blog.

Ellai February 20, 2012 at 8:51 pm

Most people should be aware with this information…Thanks for the nice post you have provided here…

Raimond February 21, 2012 at 5:43 am

Hi, David! Do you plan to write smth. more about headlesness? Those were the parts of your writing that draw my attention to your site. However, for several month there has been nothing on this topic.

David February 21, 2012 at 8:05 am

Yes I do. Very soon.

Torrie February 21, 2012 at 8:44 am

I think it is a huge over-generalization to suggest that the house-spouse-kid lifestyle is somehow rudimentary. Many people find happiness and peace in this lifestyle and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
I do think many of us desire to step into a more “creative” way of living, but we don’t know what that is exactly. We think we need to travel the globe, or jump out of a plane. But racking up a list of experiences can be just as unproductive as racking of a bunch of material possessions. We need to be able to discern if something is just another distraction or not. Stepping into that “bigger” life that is calling us requires identifying where the comfort zone is and then pushing that. It doesn’t have to be some huge action. It can be as subtle as smiling at someone instead of turning away. Or saying something “controversial” when otherwise we would remain silent.

David February 21, 2012 at 6:10 pm

“I think it is a huge over-generalization to suggest that the house-spouse-kid lifestyle is somehow rudimentary.”

I didn’t, I just used it as an example of a typical life path that may happen unconsciously, because our natural impulses and our cultural inputs direct us to do it. I agree with you that we need to discern if something is just another distraction, that’s kind of discernment is what I’m trying to suggest here.

Lindsay February 21, 2012 at 5:53 pm

“Yet we’re feeling increasingly compelled by relatively new human sensitivities, for curiosity, creativity, peace and gratitude.”

I agree that we have our basic motives that evolution laid out for us like you said, but wouldn’t you think that our new need/want for curiosity, creativity, peace and gratitude would also be a process of evolution as well? I feel as though nature is a strong, strong force that wouldn’t do anything to compromise itself. I’ve been thinking a lot about how I feel like we have been going against nature and ultimately fucking up evolution, for example with our genetically modified and overprocessed foods. But in reality, the people who are consuming these foods are getting diseases, cancers, and other illnesses, and eventually are going to die. The ones that try to stay clear of these foods, eat a raw diet, etc., will be healthier and pass on better genes to their children. The survival of the fittest is still at work despite the fact that we have gone against nature.

So I guess I’m suggesting that curiosity, creativity, peace and gratitude must have evolved in us because these things are NECESSARY for humans to continue to inhabit this planet. I don’t think we would have evolved to need these things if it didn’t have a purpose in sustaining human life. For example–we’d need curiosity to learn more about our universe and how to protect it. Creativity: to think in ways outside of the boxes our cultures and social realities have put us in, and to figure out the answers to the environmental issues (exploitation and depletion of natural resources). Peace: since we have been acting on our most basic drives (as you said) and they have lead us to war, racism, social inequalities, poverty, etc. we evolutionarily NEED peace so that we don’t destroy our own species. Gratitude: to make the world we live in a happy place, because our bodies fundamentally need to FEEL good (psychologically too) to stay healthy.

David February 21, 2012 at 6:05 pm

Oh yes, absolutely. Of course they are products of evolution too. I certainly didn’t mean the newer and older traits are different in that respect.

Evolution is not design. It does not create perfectly adapted organisms — by its nature it can’t. It lags and it is unconscious. There is always going to be friction between our tendencies and our environment. The problem is that our environment is changing so fast that many of our traits are becoming exceedingly dangerous to our species — the drive to accumulate wealth for example. Technology has given us so much power over other humans and the whole ecosystem, that we stand to cause tremendous damage if we do not question our oldest, most impulsive traits, like hoarding resources and trying to achieve complete security.

What I’m saying is that our more recently evolved traits give us the only chance to mitigate the dangers of the most ancient ones.

The Dude February 21, 2012 at 7:49 pm

I am currently taking an evolutionary psychology class. I am not sure where you developed the ideas in this post but the field I mentioned represents this mentality exactly.

Our instincts prepare us for survival in a competitive, aggressive environment. Thus is the nature of the primordial earth. Competitive and aggressive.

Luckily we have moved into a time where merely surviving is not the same struggle it once was (in the United States at least). And so we have space to expand our goals into more transcendent planes of existence.
(Check out Maslow’s hierarchy)

I could provide examples of this type of thinking but I think your creativity can fill in the blanks.

An idea I have been playing with is related to depression. Clinical depression has undoubtedly become the “common cold of psychological disorders” and so far there isn’t a comprehensive theory which explains it.

It seems to me that because we are born prepared for strife and then dumped into a life that requires very little struggle we feel useless. Rates of depression are higher among wealthy individuals. Lower income families don’t have time to mope around. They have to fight to feed themselves.

Natural motivation only works until necessities are met. Once a point of comfortably is reached a higher calling has to be imposed or the action and learning potential of a person goes to waste.

Anyway, I have read a number of your posts and I can say this is the best blog I have ever stumbled upon. Keep it coming David.

Katie February 22, 2012 at 12:44 pm

It really is an interesting time that we are living in. For the first time, humans are able to truly explore and develop qualities beyond basic human survival. That pull of security though, is a lot stronger than I’d truly like to admit. When I started my career 3 years ago, I was excited that I was going to be working in the competitive field I studied for, but more excited about the money I was going to be making. I remember having a conversation with a friend shortly after I got the job, and explaining to her that although I was happy I wasn’t going to be miserably poor any longer but also that I was terrified I’d keep this job forever. While I am acquiring the skills and tools I need to advance my career (I work in Media – and I do LOVE creating) I am worried that I will become too comfortable and drown in a sea of complacency. I know that when I leave here, I will be destined to draw a much smaller salary. I do good work here, but I want to do great work. I want to shine and I want to make a difference. I want to enjoy work more and get less caught up in all of the corporate bureaucracy that tends to go with a decent living wage. I do think that in order to live life to its full potential – you’re going to have to take some risks, but you’re also going to have to do some planning. Planning won’t completely safeguard you from everything, but it will help your rational mind. So I’m going for it. I’ve created a two-year plan to get out of here and do something more. Maybe I’ll make less money, maybe I’ll dislike my new job more, but I will never know unless I go for it. I think it’s OK to want more, I keep telling myself that; sometimes I wonder if I’m hoping for too much though, and that I should just be happy with what I have. This feeling comes from comparing myself to others. It’s nauseating, but it’s human nature. I look at other people struggling and I think, “am I just being too selfish? Do I just not know when enough is enough? Maybe I should stay here and collect the 10-year watch.”

The same goes for my love life. I have a great relationship – compared to everyone else I know. Friends say to me – “Geez, what I wouldn’t do for a man who: makes me dinner, rubs my feet, listens to everything I say, isn’t jealous, up for almost anything, only had 5 arguments (including bickering) in 5 years.”

And you know what – yeah, I have it great, but there is this horrible feeling deep in the pit of my stomach that is telling me that this isn’t the life for me. How can I not feel selfish? How do I stop comparing myself to others? How can I feel like I have so much more to gain than to lose? It. Is. Hard. Being really true to yourself is the hardest thing, especially when the true you happens to feel like you’re going against the grain of society and everything you were raised to be – a middle class family with all the bells and whistles – vacations, cottage, cars, big box stores. Going against a lot of other people’s goals makes it harder to trust those gut emotions and a lot easier to question yourself.

I’m happy and grateful for what I have – I truly am…but why is it then I hear this little voice saying – “You’ve got a good respectable job and a nice pension, you like who you work with – it won’t get any better than this” or “You’ve got a wonderful man and you’re getting older – maybe you won’t find anyone else – do you want to be alone for the rest of your life?”

The little voices and my gut are telling me two very different things – how do I know I haven’t confused where which message is coming from? What I do know, is that I can’t live like this anymore, spending all my time thinking and not doing. It’s tearing me apart. I’ve over-analyzed everything in my life and it’s starting to slowly kill me. I don’t know if I’m making the right decisions but I know I don’t want to settle into complacency because although it’s easier right now, in the long run you suffer through a lot more mental anguish and have more regrets. I’ll take uncertainty over regrets any day.

I do have one question for you: Aren’t you ever overwhelmed by choice? There are an infinite number of doors opening in an infinite number of directions – it’s only natural that a lot of those paths will lead to happiness. When you’re a person who loves and values experiences, learning, and the people you meet – when do you stop opening doors?

I’d like to just end with a good piece of advice a friend gave me:

“The first time I realized that I was OK being lost in this world was the first time I felt peace. Wanting and not wanting at the same time is just life; suffering because of it doesn’t make sense. Do what’s best for you, with honesty to your heart (not just your desires & whims) and honesty to others. Hurt as few people as possible along the way.”

Scott March 23, 2012 at 11:34 am

Many things in this post resonated with me, including the part about how do you know when to stop opening doors? It’s funny that so many people obsess over things like money and objects, yet then many people that claim to buck the trend obsess over spirtuality and openness. However, in some way, it is just the same idea of chasing something you don’t have and going through life trying to acquire as many things as you possibly can (wondering when is enough, and if you have gotten “there” yet).

The paradox of choice is very frustrating, and can be particularly stressful when you start thinking about the options for your entire life. That amount of pressure, coupled with the fact that you don’t want to regret much of your life, is just a great breeding ground for fear and other negative emotions. Barry Schwartz does a fantastic TED talk about the Paradox of Choice, and he just talks about how much our lives are lessened the more and more choices that we have. We become less satisfied with everything, yet want more and more.

Katie, what I would love to ask you is, how are you dealing with these seemingly conflicting feelings? I too have similar feelings of comparing my life, and the idea that this should be good enough…but I don’t know if it matches who I am etc. and I too wonder, well where is each of those feelings coming from and what is real? In realation to this wonderful article (thanks David!), I wonder if the feeling that the relationship and job I am in is good enough…is a feeling of survival, of settling, of having a family and procreating. Or, I wonder if that is a peaceful idea that I want to do to be happy. A part of me has those same feelings of dread and aching in my stomach every once in awhile that this isn’t ME, that I am not being true to myself, but I don’t really know what being true to ME is, or what ME is. That’s why zero distance is such good food for thought, and can be a starting ground for exploration.

Have you felt you have been able to reconcile these feelings on occasion? For instance, do you see yourself with your current partner for a long time down the road or does that shake you?

Mark August 21, 2013 at 9:29 pm

This article sounds like it was written by Napolean Hill. I say that because I just finished reading, “Outwitting the Devil.” It’s a great book! After reading the book, the reader has a better understanding how that voice inside our head (the devil) has such a vice grip-like control over our thoughts, beliefs and therefore our actions. The more control this voice has over us, the more we become “drifters” and settle into a routine life of mediocrity. I just started following your blog posts and look forward to future posts. We are definitely thinking alike about life, and life is so much more fun and interesting when we can really connect with like-minded individuals!

Trisha Scott August 21, 2013 at 9:34 pm

Gosh. I get a whole different thing from nature which is whole and fulfilling. Make friends with nature. Talk to a tree. Talk to a cat. It’s all good. http://www.trishascott.com/animal-communication-2/

Millie August 21, 2013 at 9:53 pm

I was reminded of the mudskipper after the first part of your comments. Adaptation is certainly a part of our physical nature. Pain/pleasure is a motivating factor for many of us.
When you get comfortable with all the ambiguity of life unfolding and still see beauty you become more in tune/connected with the Mother Nature essence within.

Genevieve Hawkins August 27, 2013 at 2:54 pm

I feel like I’m living life to the fullest. The Dude made some good points about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs but is depression really more common amongst higher income classes? Sometimes I feel like I thrust myself into a gigantic web of chaos just so boredom, complacency, and depression stay 10 years of accomplishments away from me at all times. On a related note I’ve met many people who, when confronted with a chance to go out of survival mode go back to habits such as drinking, unhealthy relationships and substance abuse that keep them in survival mode. I think the mind is like a house with many rooms–if the lower ones are filled with junk (outmoded survival instincts) then they have to be cleared out (addictions, childish impulses, financial insecurity) for the higher facilities to operate. But once the rooms are cleared of junk, the mind resists a vacuum, so you have to put something else in there or the old junk will begin cluttering them again. But how do you weave the old and the new together?
For the record I did not marry my husband sight unseen. I’d known him about a year when we wed and we met the old fashioned way–in person, at a friends party. The fact that we were on a tropical island together getting chased down for money by the Thai mafia on our beachfront bar, well, maybe that’s a good story. ;-) But I digress…

Christopher September 1, 2013 at 3:10 am

David, you are remarkably wise for your apparent youth. I see the Buddhist strains in your thought, the science strains too (as in this post) and I come away from your work feeling that there can be a network of those among us who actually do the work of lifting the human spirit. You have certainly found your niche, I believe. For that I am grateful and hold you in compassion.

As for me, I am a poet and musician, but also spent over thirty years communicating to and among engineers as a designer for industry. I learned to be concise and precise from catering to their needs. Nonetheless I am still first a poet and musician. Something happened to me a long time ago, near the end of 1966. When it happened the thrust of it saved my life. I can’t do it justice saying any less. Before that experience, I was stuck, perhaps more radically than you but maybe not. I have been living out the consequences of that experience ever since.

In the context of this posting, it was at that time that I popped free of the lock that survival had on me. Within that context, I was failing as a creature and as a man and I knew it, bound soon to die, perhaps at my own hand. That pop was radical and overwhelming but I think of it now as a kind of spiritual triage. I was failing within the context of being too small a creature for my true spiritual “size”.

I think the positives of civilization are to be found in that kind of increase in spirit, but they are not well trained in us. We still don’t know how to do this. In the east are the Guru systems and in the west, what? I think the sixties and early seventies at their best were about this attempt to free up. We are still looking. No one has actually successfully gathered a universally acceptable system.

So we are (all who care about this and capable of the work that is) all still mostly individual, and the best part is the internet permits it at this time. Hurry. It may not always.

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