More Fun Than a Treefull of Monkeys

I devoted much of the previous post to underlining the rather large amount of failure, destruction, and death that attend a problem like chronic addiction, and then enumerating and discussing some powerful forces which are aligned against us when we embark on a quest for freedom. Things with catchy names like “despair”, and “self-pity”. So – bit of a downer, you might say.

A necessary downer though, since my purpose was to introduce the topic of inspiration and how absolutely vital it is to find some. And then turn that into an effective and reliable generator of positive motivation – strong enough to offset all of that grim stuff, and propel you through the barren murky wasteland (my fanciful image for a life newly shorn of chemical crutch) into somewhere a little sunnier and grassier, with perhaps even a few flowers blooming. Which is essentially what I am intending to make this post about. So – hopefully a little bit cheerier this week.

And now, to warm up, and hopefully to provide some flimsy sense of continuity, I would like to pick up on, and expand a little upon, a couple of things I touched on last time: the emotional arc in the early phase of detox, and the insufficiency of purely negative motivations (just wanting out) to sustain us. That’s probably in general, but definitely in particular as we begin to move beyond that first phase. I’m going to open with an idea that might well appear bizarre, wrong, stupid, counter-intuitive, or even downright offensive. So I’ll qualify it first:

I don’t wish to downplay at all the heroism and grit of the person fighting through the acute phase of detox. Tremendous clarity, integrity, and courage have been shown in making this decision, and sticking with it, despite inner voices that are by turns screaming, commanding, threatening, and imploring you to change your mind, and unctuously promising delights if you do. Furthermore, for detoxing from some substances, or combinations (alcohol+benzodiazepines springs immediately to mind as an especially gruesome one), for many people this may well be the most physically demanding thing they have ever attempted. So all due kudos, and hurrah! HOWEVER…

By another measure, you will never have it so easy again. What an extraordinary statement – what on Earth can I mean by it?

Well – never again (probably, hopefully) will you have such a reliable generator of a sense of achievement, progress, hope, and all kinds of other positive vibes; as you have available to you in the early days of detox. And you can keep on getting that hit simply by doing (essentially) nothing. By getting to the end of another day without having thrown in the towel, without having checked yourself out, giving some absurd excuse (left the gas on/forgot to let the cat out/entire family in horrific car-crash, etc. – we all rehearse every possibility during the long insomniac nights), and headed straight for the nearest source of oblivion. You just have to not use, not drink, not [as applicable], and you’re a winner. Go, you!

You can start to feel the buzz of victory straight away, and within a few days you’ll start to receive the spoils of victory, since many factors in your physical and mental condition will start to tangibly improve, all by themselves, as if by magic. All you have to do is just keep not doing the thing. More positive vibes may be flowing (if not gushing) your way from family and friends. And however “I don’t give a monkey’s what people think of me” so many of us may affect to be, this feels good. Quite intoxicatingly good, in fact, if – as is quite likely – we have felt starved of approval for a long time. It can be a very pleasant novelty to be a centre of attention, but not for all the wrong reasons this time.

Here’s another proposition: From a certain angle, this could be seen as a counterpart – a yin to the yang – of the “fuck it” moment, which was discussed briefly in the post before last (and to be discussed less briefly in a post yet to come). It is a cusp – a moment where we sit at the top of a slide, and have just set ourselves in motion. One small push and we start to feel gravity, momentum, and a bunch of other physics stuff [please taser me if I make another move towards the science] starting to take over. It’s a ride, it’s a rush! It is doing itself – it is out of our hands. Here we go! Woo-hoo!

But that doesn’t last long, in either yin or yang version. The exhilarating slide is brief, and if we want to keep moving in the same direction, then we will soon be back to trudging on our own two weary feet.

To go (recklessly!) metaphor-free: we are not yet dealing with the larger and longer-term consequences of our decision. If it’s a relapse binge, then we are still only at the stage of feeling the pleasantly eye-watering sting of good whisky going down, and not yet thinking about the hangover, the degradation, the shame of broken promises, or the credit card bill. We are forgetting/ignoring [I keep wanting to combine those words to describe a thing that addicts often do so well – ignetting? Fignoring??] the hard grind of keeping some kind of show apparently on the road in moments when we are sober, or sober-seeming, enough to do so. Trying to pack all of life’s demands into that small window in-between our inglorious revels, unconsciousness, and our painful, slothful, resentful recovery phases. We may even be telling ourselves the delicious self-conscious lie that it’s “Just this once”, and we won’t have to soon contend with the unquenchable thirst that we have awakened.

We are free to do so in this blessed, deluded moment, because all is still in the future, and moments like this are all about NOW. In a far less distant future our course is set – we are already high on the lifting of the weight of responsibility, for the die is cast. Whisky in your belly, soon it will be in your bloodstream, and then drunk you will do what drunk you does – get more drunk. Que sera sera, and for a few precious hours I am free of having to make any bloody decisions – this script writes itself. Yep –relapsing feels good, like settling into a familiar comfortable armchair.

So can week 2/3 of quitting (week 1 can be pretty rocky). You are feeling stronger, clearer, and more capable with every passing day (just because you’re no longer poisoning yourself, and getting better quality sleep) but nobody should be asking anything much of you yet. If they’re saying anything it’s probably mainly about how brave you are, and how proud of you they are. You’re imagining a new you, just around the corner, and new you is awesome. In your mind you can be sun-saluting every dawn, growing your own ethical-grass-fed sprouted tofu, and going for healthy, wholesome bicycle-rides every weekend with your laughing, loving family and/or groovy new sober friends. You are getting your career and relationships back on track, qualifying to be an aromatherapist, getting your purple belt in Brazilian Ju-Jitsu, learning to speak Espresso, and how to brew the perfect Esperanto…

But none of this has to actually be happening quite yet. All of the positive vibes, the sense of possibility – not much of the donkey-work. It is no wonder that after quitting a straightforward “wrecked every day” habit, the next trap to watch out for is addiction to the positive and negative poles of the “quit-relapse” cycle. In addition to the delightful qualities already mentioned, they also supply maximum drama, and ensure that you remain a centre of attention – your own, and that of anyone who cares about you. These are heightened moments, in which you can feel far more alive than you do in the daily grind of either, a) being wrecked every day, or b) not being wrecked every day; which can come to resemble each other to quite a startling degree, becoming equally mundane. Yes, we’re adaptable creatures, humans – we can normalise almost anything.

And we can do it in a shockingly short frame of time. If you’re detoxing in a cool, supportive environment, with cool people around you, then the free buzz might last as long as a month.

A month is quite a short time. Or is it? Time passes very differently. With a suddenly unadjusted head, and a schedule no longer dictated by a biochemical clock, days can seem endless. This is either a very good, or a very bad thing, depending on what else may be going on in your newly virginal cranium. So it is wise to put something in there that can keep generating positive emotional feedback about how much time and energy and focus you now have to pour into proceeding towards…what? A goal is what we need, and then every step – large or small – towards it will give you a little hit of that sustaining mojo (as well as divert you from brooding on what you have lost – a very standard default position for an idle mind at this stage).

I hope that I didn’t sound too archly dismissive just now, rattling off a list of wholesome activities and aspirations that you might imagine filling up the New You’s engagements diary. If those really are your bag, then any of them might indeed perhaps serve as a new “pole star” to replace the primary aim of just not being completely spannered all the time, but probably not all of them at once. That was my point. That’s pure fantasy, and a very common one, due to having probably spent a long time using addiction as an excuse for why we are under-achieving, why we are not all that we could be. It is common to dwell a bit morosely on the person one can imagine one would have been, had time and resources that were poured into keeping the habit going, been used in more wholesome or productive ways, and then fantasise about over-compensating for that.

It is also fairly common to wishfully almost believe that this person exists in a parallel universe, and can just leap across now, through some kind of “wormhole” in the space-time continuum… [Final SCIENCE warning – cease and desist!] to take your place in this one. So that there were no “lost years”. It is not uncommon to find that our chemically addled former selves may have kind of almost believed that we were that person, and for the return of clarity to come bundled with a rude shock that one is not. Kind of a Dorian Gray moment.

Slightly crowbarred in, perhaps. But I make no apology for continually plugging Oscar Wilde. I also very heartily recommend Will Self’s tribute (or cover version, in musical parlance) entitled “Dorian”.

Furthermore though, the inspiring vision needs to be not just something picked from a stereotypical list of stuff that wholesome, happy people are thought to do – the kind of things we might see them doing in quick-fire montage form on advertising, perhaps when someone is trying to sell you a stress-free mortgage solution, or consolidate your existing loans “so you can get on with living the life you want…”

It needs to truly inspire you. So it needs to be highly personal, to be realistic – even if it is ambitious – and to really feel like something that would truly give a sense of greater purpose to existence. Something worth going through some shit for, making some sacrifices for. Because there will be shit, and there’s a sacrifice straight away [which happens to be our habitual coping mechanism for getting through shit – double whammy!]. It has to be motivating enough that you’ll still keep struggling towards it when things feel dull, unrewarding, or even awful. We could all fancy a bit of hot yoga on a good day, when we’re all chill.

And it might be good if it isn’t something too specific, or detailed. If you set a goal to go back to college and get your degree, then what happens if you don’t get into the university of your choice, or you do but fail to pass? That’s psychologically setting up a relapse if the uni(verse) fails to deliver on the bargain you’re trying to make with it. It could even lead to un/semi-conscious self-sabotage, specifically so that you can now relapse. But pointing the finger of blame at how hard and unfair life has been to you. Heard that one before??

But education is surely always a worthy aim, whether formal or informal. Perhaps it might be wiser to slightly adapt such an aspiration to something more like: being a curious person, interested in life, diligent and consistent enough to follow that interest through into some proper depth-learning. Being the kind of person who probably would go back to uni, and might very well get a good degree. Becoming that would be something far more under your own personal control, and it isn’t measured externally – you’re not counting on the world to recognise it and pay off on it. Furthermore, you can get started immediately, which is obviously a major plus-point for a daily motivator.

One caveat there, though – speaking for myself: I definitely benefit from setting some external markers for things I want to achieve, and those being at a level where I feel challenged to up my game a bit. Time limits are particularly useful, otherwise I can really let it fly by. Well – as we saw, I rashly committed myself to one piece a fortnight when I resumed writing, since framing it as, “get back into the habit of writing” (which I had been telling myself for some time) could have easily stretched out over another six months. Annnd… I have just violated that undertaking with this piece, which took a bit longer. But that larger, vaguer goal, has been achieved – I am back. The juices are flowing. Somewhere in-between those two stools, progress has been made.

I suppose everyone needs to find their correct personal balance between hard targets and woolier aspirations, but really the point is just to be sincere about it. To watch out for the habit – easily acquired when in the grip of another kind of habit – of just blithely saying the “right things” for quick and easy gratification/approval/daydreaming/leave-me-the-hell-alone, purposes, knowing that we’ll too readily let ourselves off if none of these things actually happen.

Also though, there’s a deeper level of sincerity, beyond just not being knowingly disingenuous. “Being real” might be a better way to put it – because this is YOU not using, not drinking, not messing everything up, that you have to conceive of and work towards. And very importantly work with, in the interim when full, immaculate, Buddha-like serenity still eludes you. Not some dreamed-up shiny-happy-wise-smug character with no rough edges who just wouldn’t have anything so scummy, so ordinary, as a drug-problem.

Many of us try to act our way to being clean and sober and sane. I did for a while. It can arguably be a useful short-term strategy – “fake it ’til you make it”, I’ve heard it called – because initially we do just need to rack up some hours, put some clean time in-between the last time we used, and now. This will interrupt some habit-patterns, and give your psyche a chance to remake its scattered pieces. But you can’t build much more on such shaky foundations.

I have now spent nearly seven years of my life as a monk, in two seperate stints. The first one, right after I detoxed just before Christmas 2002 (it’s my anniversary in 3 days!) involved a fair bit of acting at first. Some of that is built into the structure of the monkhood – we have a special costume and haircut, for a start. We have these arcane-seeming things that we do. We have a lot of things that we don’t do. These are incredibly useful for severing our habitual actions and thoughts. But it is easy to start believing that we are those things, which are actually supposed to be no-things – neutrality.

It is also desperately tempting to start believing that we are those things, especially once we perceive that others may now see us in a different light – that’s very seductive. And it isn’t just the outward appearance – we have a huge and comprehensive structure not just of ethics and manners, but of thinking itself, and even perception, fully and painstakingly detailed by Buddha and given to us as our new “identity” [as modern parlance would probably call it, although we wouldn’t]. All of that is vastly more functional and more elegant than my mess and madness. I wanted to be that, and to have always been that. To just drop, and ignore, and forget [fignet??] this sack of complex, seething, desires and resentments, these misperceptions, misconceptions, quirks and warts, and dodgy history, that I have been accumulating and dragging around since birth (or before). And so I did, insofar as I could, and I acted like, and said that, I did, insofar as I couldn’t.

Somehow it worked. Up to a point. My first go at this, for a year-and-a-half, was to some  extent a matter of pretence and pretentiousness. But that was still a pattern interrupt, a boot-camp in self-discipline, and it created a space for the meditative practices which will remake you, if you let them. Not in the ways you probably think they will, by the way, but that is not an exploration for this article.

What “worked” was that, when I left the monkhood and had to quickly assemble some kind of functioning personality for the outside world, the dual component that had most clearly  driven me to destruction previously simply wasn’t there any more. That being: a relentless urge to conduct any and all active endeavours with a nervous-system overclocked to an utterly frantic rate that could only be achieved by the constant use of powerful stimulants. Plus its yin-side of an equally relentless need to shut it down almost completely whenever I perceived that there was nothing much that I wanted to do (and I was picky) currently presenting itself. In other, more pharmaceutical, words – I have not felt any serious inclination to ingest either cocaine or heroin [or indeed coke AND heroin – mmm…] from that day until this one. So far so good.

The work of the subsequent decade though (in addition to earning a living, paying the bills, raising the kids – that kind of stuff, obviously) was to stabilise some kind of working model for all my remaining nonsense, which was plenty. I still had a “reality problem” – I’m just not a huge fan of “how things are” or how the world works. I much prefer other worlds, which is I suppose why I am a “creative”, in addition to why I like getting off my trolley. I am still a seething mass of greedy desires, and capable of quite vehement fury. I still have an ego that can get quite stroppy if it doesn’t receive a certain amount of stroking. I still have a great big “Fuck it” switch, with a blinking red-light next to it. I could go on…

Now, obviously [was a monk, came back for more, go figure…] I don’t deny the possibility of taking radical steps to make radical changes in how we are put together. And much of my writing concerns such steps. This writing concerns the converse side of that, which is: On any given day you are what you is, and it is on that day – this day – that you have the challenge of not screwing everything up. So we need to be fearlessly honest about how that might play out. Train for the match you are actually going to fight.

Furthermore though, and to relate this directly back to my stated theme here, of inspiration: I don’t just mean being realistic about how much stuff we still haven’t got around to fixing. I mean about what we actually want to fix. Aspiring to a non self-destructive version of you, that still is a workable you. A you that you would like, and would still want to be – and want sufficiently that you can tell the destructive version (who definitely does fit you perfectly, like an old glove) to naff off when he comes a-calling. Which he will.

For myself, well – I like living in old, quirky houses with twisty corridors, and manky “character” furniture, and don’t mind so much having to put a few buckets under the leaks in the roof. My favourite car that I ever owned was a veteran Land Rover that I never cleaned, and needed to be shouted at, and threatened with a hammer sometimes to make it work (but could drive through 2ft of mud when it did). I like odd, dank-sounding music with some elements in there that make no logical sense, and pure beauty never sounds quite right to me until seasoned with (at least) a pinch of ugliness. Most of the people I love most, and whose company I enjoy, are complex and difficult, if not downright lunatics. I don’t expect those tastes to change anytime soon. My “serenity solution” personality had to be something a bit more along those lines, which meant there was no oven-ready version widely available. It had to be cooked from scratch.

For a while I thought that perhaps I could leave that me completely behind – or any me, for that matter. But I am not going to be enlightened, not in this lifetime. And I’m certainly not going to try to talk from some point of view as if I were. I don’t see myself being at the point where I don’t want anything, and nothing makes me mad, or gets me down. I’m not ready to relinquish craving – I enjoy cooking and eating good food too much, and I don’t want to become too sublime to be moved profoundly by artistic genius (or excited by big, dumb rock bands, for that matter). Similarly, I may not be ready to relinquish raging at manifest worldly wrongness, at least where there’s perhaps something that could be done about it, however ephemeral that may turn out to be.

I of course understand – as the Dhamma makes clear – that clinging to these things, and the demand that life continues to deliver better versions of itself (which it rarely does, and then only with a lot of effort and a little luck) comes bundled with suffering, disappointment, melancholy, bitterness, loss, tragedy even.

In the larger frame of my entire life though – as opposed to just speaking from the monkish point-of-view I currently represent and try to adhere to – I accept those consequences. And, perversely perhaps, even almost welcome them. I’m quite fond of melancholy, actually. Perhaps it’s the “artistic” side of me, but I’m just too interested in the sloppy, wailing mess of human existence, which so often seems to give rise to the most transcendent of creations. It’s a good excuse, anyway…

Humanity: “Friday night, down The Old Mill, Plumstead”, by Hieronymous Bosch

What had to be done was more a balancing of these forces so that they did not ever get to sweep me away, off to sea, as they had done before. And – back on-topic – the establishment of something firmer, and more solid to cling to, whenever the floodwaters did seem to be getting a bit high. A purpose – a reason to not let it all drown again.

If I’m completely honest, that was probably mostly ambition. In my thirties I didn’t want to be that “loser” I had turned out to (at least) strongly resemble after a reasonably promising start in the music industry in my twenties. I am not just talking about material success and rewards. I’m (a little) deeper than that, I hope, although an income certainly does help. More just a desire to be doing music that seemed significant, and doing a good job of it, and having more opportunities to do so. And yes – being acknowledged for all that. So – more purely egotistical than materialistic, we could perhaps say, were we feeling a bit harsh. Although, also – curiosity. I do find it very intriguing when humans try to do odd and impractical things like making good-sounding records, and solving the strange conundra of how to do that, since the answer is never the same twice.

That all worked pretty well, until at a certain point I realised that it no longer did. Imperceptibly, by inches, I had ceased to care. Or to care enough. I was now undeniably middle-aged, and good enough to do the work I was getting, even on nights where I knew I had been pretty half-arsed by my own standards. I wasn’t sure I still had the fire in the belly, or perhaps even the talent, to mature into one of the very few musicians that the world actually needs to keep on doing their thing. Applause and approval didn’t buzz me like they used to, and in fact I was a bit shocked to realise what a large part of my “creative” inclinations those things might have been. My sense of purpose was no longer fit-for-purpose.

Where did that leave me? Needing something bigger and more meaningful than just “being someone”, showing that I wasn’t useless, not a loser. Making some okayish records that did pretty well, and some (I thought) pretty good ones that disappeared into the ether. Going places and making noises was still kind of amusing, but I had already had twenty years of that. I really couldn’t see any pressing or convincing reasons to effortfully maintain myself at peak match-fitness in the face of growing boredom and diminishing returns. Been there, done that – I know a slippery slope when I see one, having previously snowboarded down a few.

Well… I think that will do on the autobiography for the time being, at least. But I will utilise it, if I may, to provide a segue into another possible source of mojo and meaning that we could perhaps turn to:

A Noble Quest???

So, what about more noble-seeming goals to inspire us? Doing it for others. Being a better father/mother, husband/wife? There are others, but those are the big ones we hear a lot of from (hopefully) slightly older people. Especially the first mentioned. That’s a big dividing line between people – those who now have others in their lives who are arguably more important than themselves, and need you – and those who don’t.

I’m talking more about Westerners here, by the way. Thai culture is much more collectivist/family-orientated, and we hear a lot more from younger people saying that they want to clean up for their parents’ sake – there doesn’t seem to be that general acceptance that growing-up entails a right to enjoy a lengthy narcissistic phase, which will only end (hopefully…) when someone gets pregnant. Yes, to be born Thai is to be born into a heavy burden of social obligation – I can’t help thinking that some happy medium between our cultures might be a good thing for all of us to aim for.

At whatever point though, and for whatever reason, we may begin to view ourselves as responsible adults – that’s when our mistakes and wrong turns really start to transform from potential “growth opportunities” into being more just mainly harm-opportunities. Certainly an awareness of responsibility implies that our personal foibles and fuckeries should be able to take more of a back seat, so we really need to get our shit sorted now. Or at least develop some ability to stop making such a song-and-dance about the bits of it that aren’t, quite yet.

Now, this clearly fits the motivation bill in some very significant ways – if we really can man/woman/they up to the challenge. But it’s a much higher-stakes game. We can’t be messing around here.

Similar caveats apply to those already mentioned for purely individual goals. It is easy when visualising “being a good father” to slip into fantasising “having a great relationship with my kid”, perhaps now starting to conjure up visions resembling some garish combination of the mortgage solution plus a toothpaste ad. Well, maybe your personal vision isn’t quite that corny, but that’s still making a bargain – projecting or even demanding a result, and again one that isn’t under your control.

No harm in aspiring to having matching soup-bowls and wallpaper though. That’s do-able. If it floats your boat…

Certainly, you can commit to creating causes and conditions that might make such a result more likely – that is all down to you. That’s something that you can work on, in large or small ways, on each and every day going forward. So perhaps the trick is to try to frame that in your mind as the desired result, not just a means to an end. Then you can end each day with a sense of progress – a positive emotion payoff, regardless of whether your efforts are acknowledged, appreciated, or reciprocated by the other party involved – regardless of whether you are getting what you want, or not. If you can succeed at this, by your own measure and judgment, then there again is a source of mojo to keep it going consistently, and then eventually maybe, just maybe…

Interpersonal relationships tend to be tricky areas. For anyone, of course, but chronic addicts have more-often-than-not created some particularly labyrinthine structures around them, riddled with booby-traps and trick-mirrors. When a serious addiction has been maintained in parallel with one of the more serious kinds of relationship, then it can be almost as if the substance has been another member of the family. It competes for attention and resources, and can make its siblings feel jealous and neglected. For a husband or wife, it can seem to function like a lover, and one that you will naturally be under suspicion of staying in touch with, fantasising about at inappropriate moments, or at least being nostalgic about.

Wounded feelings, resentments, insecurity and mistrust don’t just evaporate just because you have been off the sauce for 3 weeks. Or even three months, or quite possibly years. There could be quite a broad expanse of treeless wasteland to trudge through before we see anything much blossoming in our external environment; even the smallest hardy Edelweiß clinging tenaciously to a frosty outcrop.

Plant, Flower, Rock – Object, Shape, Single Flower [this caption came with the pic. I quite like it]

And I am, unfortunately, not just talking about having a bit of patience, the ability to defer gratification for a while. There may be lasting damage, perhaps irreparable damage, to some relationships, and to some people. Not to mention careers, and stuff like that. So, again – when setting such noble goals as doing it for others, living up to your responsibilities, repaying love that has been given to you, etc., some care needs to be taken to keep them on a truly noble tip, and not deteriorate into bargaining. Or worse – demanding. Entitlement. Been there, done that – didn’t go so well.

Who knows? Perhaps we do just need to stop chemically sabotaging ourselves, and everything will fall into place. I am not saying that it won’t. Just that we really can’t be making deals with the universe and using these as our basic motivation – demanding one-for-one guaranteed rewards for whatever effort and sacrifice we offer. We can bargain only with ourselves, and negotiate only for what is in our power to offer. There are things we want, of course there are, but all that we can sensibly aim for is to be worthy of them, and then what happens is up to other people perhaps, or we could simply say that it is up to Life itself. Life, of course, isn’t fair – sometimes to the unworthy shall it be given, and the worthy can go whistle for it.

There’s not all that much we can do about that, I’m afraid, even if we can on occasion correct some imbalance that happens to be in front of us and within our power to have an effect on. So it’s a hiding-to-nothing dwelling on it, and it’s a very not-smart move to peg our own actions and attitudes to a demand for immediate cosmic “justice”, especially when we’re trying to motivate ourselves out of the dark places.

If we can accept that there are no guaranteed payouts, and not get in a strop about that, can we come to see worthiness itself as a goal? As a source of satisfaction? Never mind “of what?” and whether or not we get it. That’s one possible reaction to perceiving the unfairness in life, and trying to orientate ourselves appropriately. Well, what are the alternatives?

Another is despair – it’s all random, so why bother? Nothing matters. A third is cynical cheating – we don’t get what we’re worth, we get what we can grab. The latter two are very commonly encountered as a major component in persistent, destructive, substance-abuse (as well as myriad other ways to be part of the problem, in the absence of solutions). I’m currently pondering the notion that 2+3= active malevolence (which might otherwise be considered a fourth option). The only further option I can think of right now is to decide that life actually is fair, or will be eventually, although mostly in ways that can be elusive to direct perception or hard proof – the religious option.

That could be a good one to take in these circumstances; it has served many people well for defeating cynicism. The drawback is that it is faith dependent, and faith may ebb and flow. When it fails it tends to collapse to option 2 or even 3, and with a vengeance. Unless it can be somehow bundled with option 1. So, yeah – actually I maintain that we have only three basic philosophical positions we can take there.

“Worthy”, then. What might that look like?

Don’t worry. I think this piece has already thrown more than enough conventionally “good” suggestions around – go to school, get a job, be a good parent, go to church… Well yes, obviously. Those are super-cool things to do, but you know that. Everyone knows that. I don’t know about you, but I may be approaching a limit – there’s enough Rock’n’Roll still left in me that too much talk along those lines still (even now) makes me want to drop my trousers and run around screaming rude words. So a change of tack, I think, might be refreshing:

And anyway, I can’t tell you. As previously discussed, what we’re really looking for is an intensely personal vision. One that stirs your soul, and in ways some of which couldn’t really ever be properly explained to someone else who wasn’t naturally feeling it. Yes, it’s time to get primal now, and dig around way down in the subconscious. So how could I possibly know what that might be like for you?

I can, however, suggest a very good place to start looking: In stories. Not just any stories – your favourite stories. Well, actually, a subset within those, but if we’re really honest then many of us may find that these really are our actual faves, because the best place to start identifying the ones we’re after is back in childhood – before we learned to be all cool and knowing, and wry and sophisticated and jaded and weary. So, much as, in certain moods, I love a bit of Irvine Welsh, or Will Self, these are often better for helping me understand all the ways in which I am wrong and twisted, than for directly and simply trying to be a bit less so.

Stories aren’t just entertainment, a distraction from life (although they can be – and fair enough – sometimes). The best ones in fact constitute a highly efficient tool that humankind has developed and perfected over countless millennia. What this tool does, when wielded by a skilled craftsperson, is encode a huge amount of meaning. You can cram a lot more into a story than you could into a factual textbook of the same size, because a story can draw on archetypes and symbols, which then resonate with the power of every other story that has drawn on them. Until it’s all thrumming like a giant cosmic sitar of meaning. BOOINGGG..

I will attempt to unpack this idea a bit more in the next piece, and also explain a crazy-good feature of this amazingly sophisticated tool, which is that there are stories out there – many of them, in fact – which are precisely, exactly, specifically about you, and the problem in front of you. And their other awesome feature, which is the built-in mechanism those ones have for finding you. But I’m going to start by summarising some of my own special stories, and trying to convey a bit of what they did for me.

In the prologue I described the iconic image of the monk Quang Duc in flames, and how that, plus what I subsequently learned about him, formed a powerful and sustaining source of inspiration for all the kinds of stuff we have been talking about. I over-simplified somewhat.

Quang Duc was a later incarnation of an archetype that had already appeared in many forms over the course of my life. I suppose he was the most sophisticated, the most realistic (he was after all a real person) and the most closely related to an actual thing that I could directly emulate through established and accessible channels (a monastery). Thinking about it though, he was probably not the most profound manifestation, at least in the purely subjective terms of his formative impact on my psyche.

No – arguably, that would have been this guy:

Now, I may have to own up to some false advertising regarding the title of this post. I don’t think it was really all that much fun overall. Please accept my humble apologies, and my excuse that I had originally intended to get onto this theme by the end, but now it’s getting bumped to next time, coz I’m already over 6000 words. But it really will be super-fun – he’s the cheeky Monkey King of Fruit and Flowers Mountain!

Thanks to Mia Silverman and Tom Vermeir. In memory of Gareth.

Published by phrasuparo

I'm a monk at Wat Thamkrabok, Thailand. Go me!

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