Saturday, May 13, 2006

Not Enough Nothing

There's a funny thing about creating.  When you create, you make something out of nothing.  But what if you don't have any nothing to make something from?

It sounds kind of stupid, but it's really not.  It's all too easy to get your head full of lots of somethings, leaving no room at all for nothings.  And that means there's no space for something else to be born.

And it's not just creation either.  Freedom and autonomy are also things that come from nothing.  Just think about it: if you do something because of something else, doesn't that mean you are not free?  You are not "The Decider" if circumstances decide for you.

And is there anything more important to living a fulfilling life than being able to choose and create?  Definitely not.  Some people might suggest love or family, but if you're not choosing to love, independent of the current circumstance, then your love is nothing but a trade pact.

Free will is the momentary silent space between stimulus and response, during which we can choose not to respond.  It is also the void from which we create our new responses.  Without these empty places, we are nothing but reflections of our circumstances.

But emptiness tends to fill.  Work expands to fill our work time, and entertainment expands to fill our "off" time.  And requests from others expand to fill our willingness to respond.

The Wheel of Cause and Effect

This week has been quite a roller coaster for me.  On the one hand, I was really excited about the initial rush of bids in the auction for my book.  But then I spent much of the last few days depressed about the fact that as soon as I posted about that initial rush, the bids dropped nearly to zero and stayed that way.  In addition, I felt stressed by the number of comments here accusing me of being "greedy", or otherwise nitpicking my choice of posting topics.

Trying to please everybody is always a losing game, of course.  The complaints about my "greed" made me think that maybe I should be doing more to support other people's efforts to make a living through their creations, so I posted a link and review in support of Jonathan Coulton's work with music.  Naturally, I got a complaint about that too!  (Yeah, I'm ignoring the part where the anonymous commenter said "keep up the otherwise fantastic work" -- I was too depressed to notice at the time and only just realized while writing this that he said anything positive at all.)

So the only other really bright spot in my week was my Wednesday evening dinner with my old friend Ty Sarna.  Ty and I share interests in mind hacking, business, and a variety of geeky topics (including Python, of course), so we ended up talking for hours catching up.

Ty mentioned that he was working on an article for his blog, to be called something like "Part-Time Jedi".  It seems he's recently been experiencing that phenomenon where you know that you have all these "Jedi mind tricks" that work so well, they're almost like having super powers.  But if you don't remember to use them, they're worthless.  It's like if Superman didn't know he was bulletproof, so when somebody pointed a gun at him he'd just surrender.

And that, unfortunately, is what both he and I are doing a lot of the time.  For example, I know several mind tricks that can rapidly get me into a flow state.  I know how to make exercise a pleasure.  I know how to make things happen for me more or less automatically.  I know how to pass through fear and pain and confusion and sorrow.

You Can't Fly While You're Staring at the Ground

And yet, way more often than not, I don't use any of those mind tricks.  In the normal daily flow of life, those "force powers" still seem unreal, the way dreams of flying do after you wake up.  Sometimes, it's like I remember the dream and feel that sense of longing for the sky, but something stops me from taking off.  I know there's a place in my mind where I can do the thing that I want, but I just can't seem to get there.

Because there is really only one place from which all these "powers" flow; a kind of relaxed state of "just-do-it".  A state where you just commit to the leap and know you won't fall.  A detached state in which you stand apart from the tangled web of feelings you believe is "you", and then you pluck the web to make it sing.

On a sticky note attached to my monitor stand, there are a couple of cryptic sentences from one of the last times I studied this phenomenon: "Self is feeling.  Effort is illusion," I wrote.  I still know what I meant by that, but I'm not often in touch with the experience behind those sentences.

Effort is an illusion created by the feelings that regulate your behavior. When you feel fear, for example, you are being reminded of what you don't normally do or what you believe is not safe for you.  When you feel sadness, you are being reminded of what you value, but do not yet have or are losing.  Acting against these (or any other) feelings creates a feeling of "effort".

And effort is like a limiting device that allows you to temporarily go outside your normal bounds.  It's sort of like if the accelerator pedal in your car was designed to require you to push harder whenever you were exceeding the speed limit, so that you won't exceed it for long.  It's just too much work.

And you can see this effect whenever you try something new that's outside your comfort zone.  That exercise program or whatever quickly becomes "too hard", and eventually it's just another failed resolution.

And that's the cycle I was stuck in this week, trapped between feelings that I should be doing something, and feelings that I didn't want to do anything.  Everything seemed like too much effort, even the idea of going back and reading my book to see what I did about it before.

What Finally Worked, And Why I Couldn't Remember It

I ended up doing several things to get out of my funk.  I started listening to more upbeat songs (like Coulton's "Ikea" and "Mandelbrot Set"), opened lots of shades to let sunlight in.  I even ate more food, especially natural fats like avocado and olive oil, as I'd been eating relatively little for a few days and almost no fat.

These things lifted my general mood, especially hearing these lines from "Mandelbrot Set": "You can change the world in a tiny way -- come on, change the world in a tiny way."  That got me moving again, clearing out some little tasks that I'd been putting off, like releasing setuptools 0.6b1 and answering some setuptools-related emails.  It seemed easier once I remembered that I could just do tiny things, and this allowed me to bypass the "effort" barrier.

None of these things were new ideas for me; they all fall under the heading of "duh, I should've done that sooner."  The tricky thing is that when I'm in the state of being "stuck", I don't seem to remember how I got unstuck the last time.  As soon as I figure out (again) how to get unstuck, I suddenly remember, "Oh yeah, that's what I did last time."

And now, as I write about it, the explanation is really obvious.  Scientists have previously shown that memory is state-dependent.  It's easier to remember happy things when you're happy, and easier to remember sad things when you're sad.  So all of my memories of how to get unstuck, are easiest to remember when I've just gotten unstuck!  How's that for useless?

This effect tends to make changing your own mental state quite difficult.  Even if you have things you can do to reliably change your state, it's not likely that you'll remember that those things even exist, at precisely the time you need them most!  It's like going into a room and then forgetting it has doors, until you accidentally bump into one of the doorknobs.

The Return to Nothing

Once I'd managed to improve my mood, I found myself still restless, and largely directionless.  Most of my recent personal goals revolved around getting the book (and its associated sales machinery) ready, and with those things done, I wasn't sure what to do next, despite having many things piled up around me.

It was then that I realized the problem was not in needing to add more to my life, but rather to have less.  Specifically, I needed to get some distance from what I perceived as my blog readers' demands and my software users' demands, so I could figure out what I wanted.

At first I thought I would need to do some Zen meditation, but then it occurred to me that one thing I used to do all the time was go for long walks to clear my head.  Since it was a cool and moonlit night, I did just that.  It's funny, but something about "just walking" works to recharge my batteries of "nothing" rather quickly.  Perhaps it's just that getting away from my usual space removes all the cues and reminders and distractions.  Probably the increased blood flow to the brain doesn't hurt, either.

I was only a few minutes into the walk when all the stuff that had been bothering me sort of just dropped away.  Feelings of pressure dropped, and people's comments became just comments.  It was all "just stuff", not things I "had to" do.  None of it had anything to do with who I am or what I want to do with my life.  I was free to just be me, and to decide from a place of spontaneity.

In short, nothingness gets you out of your own way.  Most of the things that bother us in life are illusion, but it doesn't do any good to sit around telling yourself that.  I'd been doing that all day, and accomplished nothing by it.  Fighting your demons only makes them stronger, even if you're fighting by trying to ignore them!  The only way to get past such things is to drop them entirely, seeking the quiet places within.

David Allen's book Getting Things Done talks about having a "mind like water": clear and deep and open to anything, but always returning to stillness after any momentary disturbance.  Unfortunately, the practices he teaches in his book will not automatically give you this mind.  It's true that if you don't have a thousand tasks on your mind, it will be clearer, but it's also true that you can have a clear mind no matter how many demands are upon you.  All that's required is that you be willing to suspend your attachment to -- and belief in the reality of -- those demands.

And that can be as simple as taking a short walk to find your authentic self.  The self that is here to live its own life, not anybody else's.  The self that's not caught up in the game of life, but instead realizes that life is real and precious and irreplaceable.  Because you really can't afford to be so distracted by the illusions of self and effort and pressure that you forget to live.

What's Next?

Ty suggested that a kind of grimoire or "patterns" book of mind hacks might be a good thing to create.  A kind of quick reference to frequently-needed "spells" or "force powers", as it were.  His theory was that this would be helpful for remembering their existence, and it actually sounds like something that could be an interesting project to do, although I think I'd want to also include some audio CDs that explain in real time how to do the techniques.  Maybe some kind of quick reference card, too.

But I'm not sure whether it makes economic sense to produce such a thing for sale, since at this point You, Version 2.0 hasn't quite broken even on expenses yet (entirely ignoring the value of my time to produce the book version, let alone the time spent writing the articles in the first place).  So probably what I'll do for any subsequent products is prepare a detailed plan of what's going to be in the product first, and then ask for interested parties to make purchasing reservations before I produce it, so I'll know how many copies will be selling at first, and perhaps even tailor the product more for the people who'll be buying it.

(Hm, isn't that just like a marketer, to contemplate taking orders for a product that doesn't exist yet!  I must be starting to get the hang of this marketing thing, after all...)

Of course, it's possible I'm still just overreacting to the sudden drop-off in orders this week, and for all I know there's a huge number of people who are just waiting until the very last minute to place their orders.  If so, don't wait too long, as the auction ends Monday, and I'm thinking about only signing and numbering the copies that are sold in the auction, so that the ones people got via the auction will be more valuable than the ones bought later.

As for me personally, I think I'm going to look into this state-dependent memory phenomenon a bit more, so I can see if there's a way to get unstuck when I'm actually stuck, and experiment to see if there are quicker ways to reach that state of mental independence, outside the illusions of effort and pressure.  In particular, I'm curious whether I can create mental linkages that will automatically remind me of appropriate techniques at the times when they would be useful.

In the meantime, why not go for a walk, and recharge your supply of "nothing"?  Your soul will thank you for it.