Editor’s Notebook: The flip-flop-ability of things
Most of us spend our days lost in thought while the minutes tick away. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)
Hours before the alarm is set to go off, the worrying begins.
Real and potential work crises swirl in a jolted mind and are soon joined by financial concerns and sundry negative fantasies about tomorrow or next week. As the minutes tick away, you think about how difficult the day will be without sleep, and so you start worrying about worrying. A human mind built to detect ancient dangers now sparks a fight-or-flight response to the very cycle of thought. The possibility of sleep is shredded in the gears.
Modernity has only made the problem more acute. The endless threads of Twitter – an app that perfectly externalizes the racket of the human mind – sync with the churn of our own disconnected thoughts. Every day is a barrage of off-the-cuff opinions, criticisms, and judgments – all of which leave behind fragments that will re-emerge as towering monsters in the wee hours. In the darkness of a quiet bedroom, the possibilities for annihilation seem endless.
Years ago I had a conversation with Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard professor and political activist, in which he argued that campaign finance reform was the most pressing issue in America. I and others sitting at the table exchanged puzzled looks and started rattling off all of the matters of greater existential importance we could think of: climate change, war, terrorism, poverty, racial injustice, etc. Lessig listened patiently and then said none of those problems could be addressed until we fixed the way campaigns work. His point was that policy is often purchased with big money from dark places and you have to start at the roots.
I’ve come to think of our noisy minds in much the same way. How can we reduce suffering in the world when we are incapable or unwilling to first do it for ourselves? I’m not talking about the anguish born of tragedy we see in our communities and in the news, but rather the mental suffering we create because we are clinging too tightly to things, ideas, and people.
The late lecturer and philosopher Alan Watts said, “The person who’s anxious, constantly anxious, is the person who is resisting the flip-flop-ability of things.”
That resistance is the essence of sleepless nights. It’s never really about the work crisis or financial strain. It’s about the habitual chewing on all that has gone wrong and all that could go wrong – the suffering created by a mind racing between past and future and rarely stopping at the only place that’s real.
So if this churning of thoughts is the disease, what’s the cure? Watts would have said, with a laugh, “Why do you want to know?” After having some fun with you, he would tell you everyone holds the cure and it’s the wanting itself that keeps them from it.
In other words, it’s hard to sleep when you want to sleep. It’s difficult to concentrate when you try to force yourself to concentrate. And it’s impossible to break free of suffering when that is what you most desire. Wanting and desire – including desiring not to desire – are the blockades.
Realizing that, maybe it’s possible to stop resisting what was, is, and could be – to stop holding on to everything so tightly – and get some rest.
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