Essay

Embrace The Chaos

I’ve always struggled with a caffeine addiction. At times I might be ingesting up to 2 whole pots a day. The Black Magic Woman, its deep aroma tickling my nose like an apple pie in Looney Tunes, promises floods of feel-good neurotransmitters, a sense of euphoria and focus like a low-level blend of heroin and amphetamines. A real-life Soma.

I’ve come to the conclusion that caffeine is a more serious drug than we realize.

I’ve been reading “The Tao of Gung Fu” by Bruce Lee, been getting pretty heavy in to physics, philosophy, Zen. Generally thinking a lot.

This is not a new phenomenon. Though I do find it funny that I’m beginning to revisit a lot of the standard High School subjects. Same with conducting: After taking struggling through hating every moment of the two required classes at Berklee, I’ve come back to it now with near reverence. There’s a lesson in there.

Also that was only sort of related. My bad.

I’ve come to realize that the various words that we use to describe human “energy”–inspiration, focus, determination, creativity, etc–are all really the same thing, come from the same place. When one runs dry, they all run dry. Think about it.

I myself am a musician by trade and by hobby, and when I’m lacking energy (and by this I mean that which can be synthesized by caffeine and is better fueled by sleep, exercise, and good food) I’m also lacking inspiration. My mood suffers, my music suffers, my career suffers, my life suffers. I drink caffeine to get through the day, I feel extra good, crash, have a night of insomnia, terrible sleep, and the cycle continues.

Drinking caffeine is like forcing yourself to be bi-polar.

So I’ve finally quit cold turkey. I can successfully say that I’m completely done with my addiction, but my energy levels (and therefore creativity, focus, etc) have been erratic and unpredictable. I’ve lately adopted a “plant-based” diet–pretty much vegan, but eating egg whites, greek yogurt, and occasional chicken and fish–and this has changed me for the better immensely. I’ve also recently gotten over bi-lateral tendinosis to the point where I can begin lifting weights again. All of these changes have come together to give me this insight:

Mental strength is our ability to make ourselves do what we know we need to do most, when we want to do it least. Drinking caffeine synthesizes mental strength in an energy and dopamine boost. Like doing squats with a machine rather than free weights, we feel good about ourselves for getting off our asses and doing something but don’t even touch that which holds real value and sustains us.

In case this analogy made no sense to you: When you do squats, for example, you can either choose between doing a box squat or using free weights (either a bar bell over the shoulder blades, or hold dumbbells). The box squat limits your range of motion, keeping you from going side-to-side or front-to-back–you can only go up and down. This might enable you to lift a heavier weight (and feel better about yourself while doing it), but due to the range-of-motion restriction, you won’t be working those little stabilizing muscles in your core that ignite when you’re keeping yourself from moving side-to-side or front-to-back. If these stabilizing muscles don’t grow in proportion to your bigger, more “obvious” muscles, you’ll eventually get injured and/or hit a weight ceiling. In short, you do something “big,” feel good about yourself, and over the long-term, set yourself up for failure, or at best will have to turn around and do something essential that you could’ve been doing the entire time. Drinking caffeine is the same. You might get a lot of work done while drinking it, but you aren’t exercising that which is essential: your mental strength, your ability to make yourself do what you need to do when you want to do it least. It’s a setup for failure–a complete lack of personal growth with zero tangible meaning except for a rise in “productivity,” all the while being less and less concerned with said personal growth due to said rise in productivity. I think it’s obvious that our culture has cultivated an excess of the latter and a deficit in the former.

I’ve come up with a somewhat silly but effective visualization for this:

I’m sure many of you watched Dragon Ball Z. When they’re powering up to kick ass they yell DEADLY KAMEHAMEHA!!!!!!!! and subsequently kick ass with a torrent of energy. Cultivating one’s focus is like that. Before you practice an instrument, or do a workout, or even to help yourself get up in the morning, work on cultivating your focus and channeling your energy. Again, I don’t mean “energy” in a stupid hippy pseudoscience quasi-deep way. I mean your real energy that is fed by food and sleep and exercise. Tap in to it. You’ll feel your real power, and its depth is far deeper than you have ever imagined.

I’ve recently adopted the idea that we should treat our bodies–from a physiological perspective, at least–as nothing more than animals that have evolved in a particular way and for particular things. It’s no wonder that eating good food (and by “good” I mean that which provides a more direct line to the Sun’s energy–fruits, plants, other things that growI mean, eating a salad is as close to eating a star as you can get. Why not do it?), getting adequate sleep, and doing what we were born to do (move) makes us feel best, or as I’ve already referred to it, most human. Add to the mix that which we know is essential but not necessarily physiological, such as some basic tenants of sociology and psychology (basically, do things you like and be social), and you’re pretty far up on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. You’ve been given all the resources in the world, literally at your fingertips. Why not make it to the top of the pyramid?

Become a Jedi, dammit.

I still deal with sleepless nights (I am an actual, real-deal chronic insomniac) but have been able to force myself to go to the gym on only a couple or even zero hours of sleep, when before I had to rely on caffeine to barely get through it. Now “cultivating my energy” energizes me like never before; my workouts (or whatever else I’m “forcing” myself to do) flourish. One could think of it as a form of meditation–in fact I’m sure there’s a name for something like this.

Action creates motivation, not the other way around.

Again, “motivation” could possibly be synonymous with focus, determination, inspiration…at its simplest, all these terms represent that UMPH that we feel when we are using our bodies and minds at their best, when we feel most human.

If you don’t want to do something, start doing it. Ten minutes in, I bet you won’t want to be doing anything else, let alone stop.

Some of you may not really vibe with the whole “just do it” mindset. To some, it just comes naturally. They see both the forest and the tress. Others get caught up on the trees or feel overwhelmed by the forest. So if this post has made you feel motivated or happy or optimistic, here’s some good news:

This feeling won’t last. It is your life’s unreliable narrator, the same voice that at times tells you what you can’t do, that you’re not good enough. Learn to ignore it and even bypass it altogether, and to act regardless of its input.

Instead, find a protocol, something to start with, to work with. Here’s an example.

1) Think about what you want to do.
2) If you feel some sort of cognitive dissonance–resistance–then figure out why. Maybe this thing you think you want to do is actually something you don’t want to do. Search your feelings for the source. If you don’t want to do a step in a process but want the end goal, suck it up. If you conclude that you don’t actually want the end goal, stop reaching for it. Change paths, even if it means finding a new job or changing majors or schools. This is the most direct path to “knowing yourself” that I’ve experienced.
3) Find clear, concrete reasons as to why you want this. Write them down if you must. These reasons will help remind you and keep you on the Way when all you want to do is quit. Be your own mentor.
4) Narrow this goal down to clear, concrete steps.
5) Narrow each step to where you are.
6) Go about accomplishing them efficiently, revising them along the way. Schedule out each day, when you’ll do what, etc. Be aware that these things change, and that your goals might change as well. Each plan opens itself up for the possibility of failure the moment it’s implemented. Don’t fear this fact, because it’s an inescapable constant in everything you do. Accept and react, don’t expect and control. Embrace the chaos.
7) Before doing what you must do everyday, cultivate your focus. Call it meditation if you want. Remind yourself why you’re here, doing what you’re doing.
8) Do it.

If the simplicity of step number 8 still doesn’t sit well with you, listen to the immortal words of Philip Toshido Sudo:

(Paraphrased): “Do your task once, today, as well as you can, and do it that way every time. There is no other time than Now, so you’re only to do it once. Tomorrow, you’ll do it once, when tomorrow is Now.”

So, long-winded, confusing, kind of goofy. This type of thinking and acting has helped me immensely–in fact, more than any other approach to life thus far–and hopefully it will help at least one of you. Like many things posted in this genre of material, much flies over many peoples’ heads, makes some nod in agreement, and significantly moves a tiny few.

And remember, action cures fear; action is an effect of motivation. When in doubt, go forth.

Solitaire

It’s a lonely man’s game. At least that’s what they say.

You start indifferent to it all. The fact that it’s a game never really occurs to you. You plod along, putting cards where they need to be, and you find success, effortlessly.

You enjoy the game for what it is. Nothing more, nothing less. You can win any time, quit any time. It is what it is.

You see others around you doing better than you. Or worse. But you’re all in this together, right? Just playing a game.

But you find more success. More confidence. And now you know that not only is it a game, but it’s a game that you’re playing pretty damn well.

The cards you need keep on coming. You’re on a roll. And—

A brick wall.

For the first time, you’re legitimately filled with doubt. Step back. Plan. Act more cautiously now. Maybe this game isn’t as easy as I had thought? You sense there’s a lesson to be learned here.

Nope, there’s not. Because you’re a winner. That little pickle you got yourself in to was a stupid mistake. You won’t let it happen again. Right? Your confidence builds again, much like when you started the game. You work a little bit, and now you’re close to winning again.

Funny, the goal: to win. You sit in a chair and you’re dealt cards and you play them. You’re alone the whole time, more or less, save for a few people that come up every now and then to watch you play. Some are vastly interested, most don’t care at all, but ultimately, none of them are permanent spectators. You can’t even see the dealer. Just a blank screen staring back at you. No answers, no matter how much you ask. You wonder if anyone knows who it is that’s dealing the cards—the one really behind the game.

You pass some players by. Those slackers need to get their act together. Get in the game.

You envy those better than you. We’re in this together, right? Help a guy out. Just playing the game.

When the lucky ones win, it’s not as glamorous as they expect. A handshake, a flash, a blinking sign that says

CONGRATULATIONS!!

You’re so caught up with winning that you forget to enjoy the game. And after a little pause, a little celebration with every minor victory, you begin playing again.

You hit another brick wall, and this time, you’re not so sure you’ll get through. And you were so close to winning! What was that lesson I thought I was learning that one time I was in this situation? Maybe I should have listened…

You’re just missing that One Piece needed to win. To be Perfect. To be among those that have Won the Game. Alas, that One Piece is just beyond reach, buried beyond a card you already have.

You contemplate quitting.

Some people do. You know the type. The X is clicked, the window closes. Blank screen.

No. You’re a Winner, not a Quitter. You’ll keep going. Figure this one out.

You buckle down and work for the first time since you’ve started playing. You sweat and struggle and even dare to think! and suddenly, you’re almost there. You look around to see if anyone has noticed your rapid ascent—but no, they’re too wrapped up in their games anyway.

You’ve almost won. You can taste it. The fireworks, the banner. You—

Wait.

One wrong move.

Funny thing about this game. You have to do everything in the exact right order, or it’s all for naught; even if you had all the right cards the whole time, the factor of luck is ever-present. 

It’s not just the cards you have, but the way you play them, the order you put them down. Sometimes a card out of place yields unexpected positive results. But not usually. That’s reserved for the lucky ones.

And you’re not lucky.

It hits you. You’re too stupid to even see what you knew when you started playing. What you need is right in front of you, all around you, inside you. It’s just a game, and you can beat it any time you want. But the lesson is learned too late.

The window closes. Blank screen.