The desire to be more healthy (and experience less pain)

My mum passed away when she was 54. I was in my early twenties and her death from kidney failure (with cancer being the underlying cause) impressed upon me a number of things. Firstly, I decided to try to look after my health better and to minimise stress where possible. And secondly, I decided to make better decisions to live a happier and more fulfilling life. While I am up and down with my success in achieving this, my desire to try be more healthy is a big influence on my day to day decision making. And my desire to improve my decision making has led me to read more in an effort to assimilate this desire to be more healthy. Taking in as much as I can, I’m hoping to get to the point where the decisions I make lead to a more balanced life without too much (self inflicted) pain.

Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.’ is an interesting proverb that I keep on my monitor at work. It reminds me that I have a choice about suffering, and how ending that suffering is only a decision away. On reflecting on the sometimes fleeting, sometimes chronic and sometimes mysterious pain I feel, I see that my thoughts shift as much as the pain itself.

Put scientifically, the Pain Australia organisation defines pain as : “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage” The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP).

Like most people, I strive to fulfill the desire to be healthy. I grew up in a fit family and started gymnastics when I was four. When I was 11, I was in the elite stream and spent 24 hours a week in the gym. One benefit of being a gymnast was the relatively easy transition into comparable sports such as trampolining, tumbling and diving. While pursuing so much sport kept me super fit, it also kept me really busy, leaving little spare time for study (which I now know to be a real shame because I never realised how deep my desire to learn was until I was much older). Anyways one of the negatives of doing gymnastics is that it’s a sport with such a desire for perfection it requires extreme dedication and single minded focus. Attaining that intensity of focus from a young age was something I strived for with all the strength I could muster, and I sometimes wonder if this has warped my mind, leaving me with a somewhat skewed sense of self and a odd set of measures for success. Now it may be that I’m just wired that way – who can say, but perhaps a coach repeating to youngsters that ‘practice doesn’t make perfect – perfect practice makes perfect’ isn’t the healthiest of brain foods. Who knows? but after years of repetition, conditioning and pushing through pain, I’m fairly sure I have mastered the art of blocking out pain – to my own detriment.

Interestingly, my Traditional Chinese Medicine woman’s daughter was an elite gymnast competing at an International level when she had to retire due to a back injury. The prognosis was not good, and after several years of trying everything to relieve the chronic pain, surgery to fuse her spine is now her only option. While she is almost certainly in constant pain and avoids pain medication where possible, she is about to undergo the surgery that will grant her excruciating pain at first, but should improve her long term prospects- if they don’t sever her spinal chord in the process. Her mother, is hopeful her daughter’s mental toughness and fortitude built over her gymnastics career will assist in her recovery – I’m fairly sure it will.

Thankfully my relatively good conditioning, sporty genes, and perhaps good luck, meant I made it through my gymnastics career without any broken bones, stress fractures or hernias – like some gym friends. However, I did injure my neck quite seriously one week at gym and topped it off at trampolining sometime back in 1991. That injury is still with me, some 23 years later, having cost me a small fortune in osteopathy, remedial massage and physiotherapy. And while it doesn’t stop me for long, sometimes its complexity adds to my desire to be healthy. It certainly means I reflect a lot on the causes and conditions of pain in my body, feeding my desire to learn more and improve myself. So you can see that on one level it’s a challenge and a learning experience. But at another level – the other extreme- I find it possible to ignore a multitude of small aches and pains until they accumulate or combine to a level that is impossible to tune out from. Thankfully, it takes a lot of energy to deal with that level of tuning out and eventually I seek refuge with some remedial massage, osteopathy or Traditional Chinese Medicine.

One of my massage therapist’s favourite sayings is ‘Pain is a good teacher’, and she is right. A lot of my pain seems to come from my desire to stretch further, work harder and ignore my limitations. ‘Strength is my strength’ I tell her on the odd occasion when she wants me to relax. It is an interesting desire, this desire to be healthy – and sometimes it can fall into what Epicetus would say is an unhealthy or unnatural desire.

I’ve previously mentioned a bike accident and the turmoil it brought to my mental life. Well a lot of that turmoil was due to my inability to fulfill my desire to be physically active without causing myself physically limiting and persistent pain. If I were to view this desire under the lens of Epicetus, to extend the thinking a little further and attribute a sensory experience – I would say that pain’s desire to make us feel something is natural and necessary. Over time, I have come to see the folly of pushing through and ignoring pain, and eventually pain has become that good teacher. And after being mindful and focusing on the pain, I can now say I have a heightened sense of the difference between pain and strain. It is a much gentler way to be, and takes me further down the path of my desire to be healthy than continually breaking through boundaries and pushing through pain. Maybe the healthy balance I seek is closer than I think.

The desire for creativity

I have been driven by my desire to create art for as long as I can remember. From drawing, building ceramics, to painting and printmaking. Growing up, my father built two kilns in the backyard for my mother to fire her ceramics. All through my childhood we entered the Royal Easter Show in Lapidary and Painting, and my mother taught ceramics at primary school. Creativity has always been part of my life. Yet it’s taken a while to recognise the importance of fulfilling my creative desires in life. My drive to give it further prominence necessitated a move to Melbourne after doing a course in Stone Lithography here. Once here, it was two more short courses in Etching and several more years before I finally accepted that formal training was necessary to further my printmaking practice and enrolled in art school. Three years of art school was fantastic, hard work and mind extending in ways that are still influencing my creative output. Learning new techniques, and re-learning old techniques, staying true to the creative journey and being brave were all things I learnt from art school. Being open to criticism and feedback was often challenging, but once processed – always useful. I will never forget ‘the mistakes or unintended results bring about some of your best works’ feedback at assessment. Being asking to repeat my mistakes in a more structured and nuanced way gave me license to chase my creative desires uninhibited and it was powerful advice that stays with me even today when I am in my studio.

I have always been an open and curious person and I must admit that coming to Melbourne augured changes within me, opening me further and providing stimulus for fulfilment I never knew possible. The move delivered more challenges, and with that, more desires to meet. It provided me with more creative inspiration and energy than I have had in any other city or country I have lived. And as part of my creative evolution, I have become more open to experiences I would have previously shunned or feared. At the same time, over the last few years I have been fortunate to work for some highly intelligent, brilliant, articulate people who have supported and nurtured me and my work. To a greater extent, this exploration on desire is due to their encouragement. They push me to learn, they push me to embrace my creativity and produce more art, they help me get back onto the path that they see I struggle to stay with. Normalising my tendency towards over achievement, they encourage me to slow down, be mindful and seek out experiences that open and extend me. All the while, providing space for me to study an undergraduate degree and produce art so I can best reach my potential as a human being, individual snowflake and artist.

Attending art school legitimised my ‘creative ways’ – providing explanation for some of my more quirky ‘artistic’ tendencies and so it was with much amusement that I read the following articles exploring why creative people might be unhinged (psychotic) or how as this article on Fast Company puts it ‘the amount of information that’s getting into your mind determines how creative -or crazy- you might be” 

Or as Shane Parrish on Farnam Street puts it, in a slightly different way here: “why creative people tend to be eccentric”

And as Eric Barker puts it on Barking up the wrong tree here: ‘are great artists more like to be crazy?’

The intensity of the creative mind and the subtle differences between creative people and the rest of the world was covered in some of the lectures in art school. Yet there was no advice for killing off the crazy, just advice for handling its intensity while following your passion in a measured way, as to not drive yourself insane focusing on only one thing -fulfilling your creative desires – to the exclusion of everything else.

So it is with this in mind that I actually wonder when I indulge my ability to quickly collate and process high volumes of information I may be skewing my perception of time? Taking this a step further – I wonder whether this perception of time effects my view of permanence and impermanence? I have always thought fast, talked fast and been quick to judge, and while I can be patient, I do tend to start looking for the next point of stimulus just after finishing with the last. You could say I get bored easily. But it’s more than that. I get through one thing and go looking for the next thing, it is now second nature to feed my desire for going fast. This is a good skill for some work, like processing high volumes of information, scanning uni readings for key messages, and quickly creating a critical commentary or urgent briefing. Yet I find it challenging in my personal life, particularly around interactions with men I desire to be desired by. If I can process a large volume of information and articulate thoughts in what seems like an instant, imagine if you will, what it feels like waiting 20 mins, three hours, or a day for a response to a message. Perhaps it is just a matter of focus. Perhaps my desire to be desired acutely blunts my focus. I am not certain, but I believe that to be free of this desire would be wonderful and liberating and perhaps allow more space for my quest to find more meaning and purpose in my life. So perhaps as part of this exploration on desire it is time to turn my attention to sharpening my focus, as suggested by Daniel Goleman in this article for the Huffington Post here: ‘7 ways to sharpen your focus’ and improving my attention span as suggested by Eric Barker here in ‘stay focused’, so I can focus on what really matters and live a better life. We will see.

 

 

The desire for spiritual fulfilment

Another Natural and necessary desire I have is to become more spiritually fulfilled. I find myself seeking something more from life that perhaps spirituality can provide. For years I’ve done yoga as the physical embodiment of this spiritual quest, however I’m yet to properly join together or yoke the spiritual side with the physical side, and perhaps this exploration will yield more clues as to how to fulfill this desire. I’ve recently started following Phillip Moffitt on Twitter, and the links to his teachings on his dharma wisdom website are phenomenal. Here is one from I particularly liked on Balancing Priorities where he posits:

If you hope to find lasting happiness, you must answer the question, what is your true priority—your inner life or your outer life?

So, I hope to find the answer to this as I continue this exploration. There’s a lot of ground to cover: from the philosophical: Schopenhauer and Hegel, to the spiritual dimension – Buddhism and psychology, I will be vigilant and keep exploring until I reach a satisfactory conclusion. Just where it ends, I do not know. And perhaps to make it more interesting for me as I tend to be easily distracted, I will add novelty- make it a challenge, something that doesn’t put me into the sure to fail New Year’s Resolutionist zone but something that adds meaning. I love added meaning and I love a challenge, so I will be sure to check out Eric Barker’s Barking Up the Wrong tree blog for some of the best how to be awesome at life advice I have ever seen, and in particular study up on his entry on New Years Resolutions.

I will also be exploring Charles Duhigg‘s new book The Power of Habit, and keep referring back to this excellent flowchart, reminding me what I already knew and had read last year in Shane Parrish’s Farnam Street blog entry 66 Personal Development habits for Smart people. I say it again – there’s a lot of ground to cover, and I think it’s time for a glittering prize: a nap!

The desire to be loved

So if I am honest, I am strongly motivated by the desire to be liked, and let’s face it – the desire to be loved. Who isn’t? But sometimes I feel like this desire to be loved is detrimental to my sense of inner peace. It’s not helpful to spend time and energy helping people if it’s going to increase my suffering. So it is with all of this in mind, that I commence this quest to see whether I can master the sometimes disruptive, sometimes corrosive influence in my life – or at least contain it to a more manageable form where I feel more at ease with myself and at peace in this world – or as the Stamford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says about Schopenhauer here:

emphasizing that in the face of a world filled with endless strife, we ought to minimize our natural desires for the sake of achieving a more tranquil frame of mind and a disposition towards universal beneficence.

Universal beneficence – seems like an ambitious and worthwhile goal. An interview with the Dalai Lama comes to mind here, where he suggested that if everyone was working on their true purpose there would be no war, because there would be contentment, perhaps the universal beneficence that Schopenhauer is suggesting. But don’t get me wrong – I love my life and almost everything in it, but I also feel like there is something missing, like I can do better and develop further as an individual snowflake, with more meaning and purpose to my existence.

Desire is an important element in the human experience, it is not all bad per say, as Epicurus suggested some is necessary and natural – some desire leads me to help others, be kind and good, to fit into societal expectations and go with the flow disturbing as little as possible as I journey. One could say these are all useful ways to relate to others and a good measure of success for life. However, some desires are neither not necessary, some desires, if I am honest, such as my strong or overt relational / sexual desires, demand my attention and distract me from other meaningful endeavours –namely the desire to be happy and find meaning in my life, yet I am not alone in this. Lama Surya Das explains in Awakening the Buddhist Heart:

..many are the errors in judgement committed in the name of love. Who would argue that many of our sufferings are due to romantic attachments? …

Our need for romance, passion, and love often get corrupted by greed, jealousy, fear and the shadows of our personal histories. If we are not conscious and awake, an unrealistic search for romantic love can rule our lives- often at the cost of our happiness and fulfilment.

So when I really think about it, I can choose not to follow every desire to be loved or fulfilled by someone else namely, a sexual partner. And I can choose to stop, look and listen to what is really going on around me and within me and seek fulfilment in myself. Perhaps this journey will help me do this better– we will see.

Desire

I have a confession to make: I am almost completely (and unashamedly) driven by desire. The desire to fill my life spending time accumulating more knowledge and experiencing more beauty – which broadly covers fulfilling the desire to be happy, to be free, to be desired, to be loved and ultimately, one day to become spiritually enlightened. Fairly normal human experience stuff, but I am curious about it and how much it drives me.

Much has been written on desire and I hope to unlock some of the lessons and see how I can apply them, so I can learn and grow. In the Consolations of Philosophy Alain de Botton quotes Epicurus in the Consolation for Not Having Enough money:

To highlight what is essential for happiness and what may, if one is denied prosperity through social injustice or economic turmoil, be forgone without great regrets, Epicurus divided our needs into three categories:

Of the desires, some are natural and necessary. Others are natural but unnecessary. And there are desires that are neither natural nor necessary.

Viewed under the Epicurus lens, I have desires in all of these categories and perhaps it is a good way to start this investigation. Natural and necessary according to me, is the desire for accumulating more knowledge. My thirst for knowledge is seemingly boundless. I value learning so highly I sacrifice a multitude of things in order to satisfy the desire to learn, adapt, grow, change and ultimately be a better person today than I was yesterday. I hope that through this investigation – in reading, researching, reflecting and talking it over with a friend I will really come to understand my desires and the role they play in my life.

Several years ago, after months of significant challenges, both personally and professionally, I turned to a couple of Mark Epstein M.D books for guidance: Going to pieces without falling apart, and Thoughts without a thinker. After a bike accident my life was in turmoil, I took on too many projects, and I lost my self. I could feel my heart and mind closing in to protect me, yet I sensed it would be more useful to stay open to experiences lest life pass me by while I wallowed in self pity. Epstein put it eloquently when he explained the importance of staying open:

The next important quality of bare attention -openness- grows out of this ability to take whatever is given. Requiring the meditator to scan with a wide lens, not a narrow one, this openness establishes a receptive intrapsychic environment for exploration of the personal and private.

And so bare attention -mindfulness – and openness are all key features of this exploration. No matter where it takes me, it requires me to be open. Open to the idea that I could be wrong about which desires are necessary and the prominence I give them. We shall see.