As a quick note, what people post online is often taken as something they will forever agree with and are forever held to. This is unreasonable. There needs to be some equivalent of forgiveness if one posts something horrible online, but that’s a topic for another post. I’m not saying people aren’t responsible for what they post. But I am saying we should aspire to take the most charitable interpretation of what people post if we care about advancing the conversation. Obviously a person’s character is a factor in how you interpret what they post.
On my blog, I want to retain the right to post not only ideas that I understand well. But I also want the freedom to talk about things I’m not sure about. That means I run the risk of being wrong. No one posting their ideas online openly should expect to be immune to criticism. Criticism comes with the territory. But I want to say I’m interested in sharing ideas. If it’s clear to me you’re only interested in taking my words out of context, twisting what I write or using cheap gotchas because I didn’t state something perfectly, then I probably won’t respond. If you want clarification about anything I discuss, visit my about page for contact details. With that cleared up, let’s move on to the meat of this post.
Caring What Others Think
Most people are going around supremely concerned with what other people think of them. People convince themselves they don’t care about what others think, almost as a badge of honor. If someone tells you this, express disbelief as a test. If they insist they don’t care, then you might say they care enough about what you think to try to convince you that they don’t. If I get any emails from people who insist they don’t, I’ll probably find it funny because it only serves to further my point. Humans are social animals. It’s pretty well baked into all of us to be concerned with what other people think. Our brains have the capacity for theory of mind not by accident. It keeps us all in check so to speak. This is especially true if you’re around a lot of people, in a densely populated city like NYC for example. You literally have less room to think without the input of others.
There is no shortage of outside influences telling us how we ought to think, feel, and behave. In Japan, due to the influence of social conformity, tiger parenting and strict societal expectations to perpetual the status quo, there are over a million hikikomoris in Japan. For those who don’t know, a hikikomori is a reclusive person who undergoes self-isolation for extended periods of time. This could be months or years even. There are surely other contributing factors to hikikomoris such as psychiatric disorders, but I want to focus on social conformity.
In an extremely socially conformist culture where differences are not well-tolerated, is it any surprise that young Japanese are rejecting it, opting to live in isolation? Japanese children are often being crushed under the weight of parent’s and peer’s expectations, especially in education. Some hikikomoris attended “cram schools”, or juku. Ikuo Amano, professor of Sociology at the University of Tokyo said “It’s not healthy for kids to have so little free time. It is not healthy to become completely caught up in competition and status at such a young age”. In some cases in cram schools, Japanese children spend almost all their waking hours short of basic biological needs cramming. This is not good for their emotional or physical well-being. It’s not allowing enough room for the individual to flourish.
Feeling the Right Way
I have to add a disclaimer that not everyone is ready to face their repressed emotions head on. For example, veterans suffering from PTSD should not try to revisit the bad memories alone. That is where the role of a therapist comes in. They can gently guide you to facing your fears, in a professional setting. This goes for anyone who faces emotional trauma.
I’m not sure how true this is across different cultures, so I’ll speak on behalf of my own. There is something very misguided that young men are still taught in the US. I see the situation improving. Younger generations are becoming more aware of this, but it’s still a very present part of American culture. There is a taboo against boys and men displaying any negative emotion, except anger or maybe dissatisfaction. Displaying upset, sadness, depression, or anxiety is “unmanly”. Men talking to each other about their feelings is very taboo in our culture still. We have the phrase “man up”. Don’t you know men don’t cry? Men don’t complain. Be a man. This is a dangerous thing to impart to young boys because bottled up emotions end up coming out somehow. And better to have emotions coming out through tears than self-destructive habits or violence.
There is a huge pressure on men not to display emotions, to outright pretend their emotions don’t even exist, and to never talk about their problems. And it would serve us all well to change that extremely toxic part of our culture. There will be men who read and agree, yet still won’t feel comfortable showing emotions because it’s ingrained in the culture. You will be judged by other men for showing emotions. You might even lose your “man card”, respect from other men in the community.
There is this strange idea given to us by society which is this: If you show your emotions, if you cry, if you get upset and display it, then you aren’t in control. You don’t have a lid on it. This is completely backwards. In fact, the only way to manage so called negative feelings is to not push them away. It’s to allow yourself to feel them. By pushing negative emotions away, you push away a part of yourself. I’m not saying one should dwell on negative events in one’s life. But if they keep coming up in your mind, don’t necessarily push them away. If you distract yourself from them, you might succeed temporarily in not dealing with how you feel. But if you always do that and never face yourself, it will degrade your mental stability and your quality of life.
Besides the taboo against men’s emotions, there is also a taboo that applies to everyone. It is the taboo against being sad. I have to add another disclaimer here that I’m not talking about someone that is severely depressed. People with depression should get professional help. I’m not trying to give advice that treats or cures mental illness. I’m not saying people shouldn’t seek out what makes them happy in life. I’m talking about the natural state of every person of being sad sometimes. No one is happy all the time. In my experience, most people are vaguely discontent most of the time.
The idea is pushed on people by society that they ought to never be sad or anxious. Cheer up, don’t be a negative nancy, don’t be a party pooper, don’t worry, be happy, don’t be mad, and just relax. This is a form of doublethink. It is commanding someone to do something that can’t be forced. It’s as if you told someone to grow their hair faster, or beat their heart faster. If you pay very close attention, the physical sensations of stress and happiness have a very similar profile. It’s not the sensation of sadness itself that’s so bad. It’s what we think it means, because society has told us that it’s not a good thing to be sad. Why not? It’s a necessary emotion that healthy people feel sometimes. Why not be content being sad? It’s not the sensation of sadness that causes suffering. That’s a myth. It’s the aversion to sadness that causes the suffering.
This is a message that is more often implicitly than explicitly pushed on us. You don’t see sad people in advertisements. Everyone is always smiling. If you just buy this product, you’ll be as happy as those in the advertisement! Except that never happens. The nature of the mind is to invent a new obstacle as soon as you overcome the current one. In the US, food service workers are expected to produce a fake smile and be overly kind to customers, even if it’s not genuine. “Service with a smile”, “enjoy your meal”, and “Thank you for calling …”. I tune out when I hear these phrases because I know they’re just socially mandated platitudes. It’s a very sick thing about our culture that we are always expecting happiness. There needs to be more room to express sadness and discontent. Maybe if there was, we would have less food service workers spitting in people’s food.
The lesson here is if you allow yourself to feel how you actually feel, instead of how you’ve been told you are supposed to feel, you’ll be in a much better position to manage your emotions.
Being a Good Person
Society teaches us we have to be a good person. Do the right thing. Be kind to others. While being kind to others is useful if you have the same instrumental goals as the vast majority of the human species, that is goals that further other instrumental or ultimate goals, it is not useful for those who don’t share those goals. It’s just a mantra for them. If you share top goals that are typically associated with being a good person such as prosperity of the human race and other species and eliminating needless suffering, then you will naturally try to promote “good”. If deep down, you sincerely don’t care about anyone else at all and never will, you may be a psychopath.
Society has taught as that being a psychopath is a very bad thing to be. It has a highly negative connotation. We tend to avoid associating with people we recognize as psychopaths since they are incapable of empathy or remorse. While genuine psychopaths are very rare, many completely neurologically typical people wouldn’t like to see others succeed. They have particular people that they don’t feel compassion or remorse for, that they hold a grudge against, and they come by that honestly. The families of Ted Bundy’s victims probably felt great relief to see him electrocuted to death. This comes from a feeling of wanting revenge, not out of compassion. The compassionate view is that unfortunately someone whose values are incompatible with society ended up causing a lot of suffering. So I feel compassion for my own suffering and compassion for the victims for losing their lives and compassion for the perpetrator who, through being a victim of a chain of causality that wired his brain the way it did through his genes and upbringing, inevitably pushed him into becoming a serial killer.
I’m not saying don’t be a good person. If you really want the best for everyone, then feel free to promote goodness in the world. But if there are people you can’t empathize with, that you can’t relate to, then don’t pretend to. Maybe try talking to them to get their perspective. It is yet another form of doublethink to feel that you must have compassion for all people. Entertain the idea that disliking people is okay. Maybe it is not a good guide to what you should do in regard to that person, but it’s important that you accept your dislike of them, and not force yourself to like them. It’s true that one can cultivate compassion for even someone who did horrible things like Ted Bundy or Hitler. But there is no “contest” of who can be the most compassionate person.
There is the idea that you shouldn’t judge other people. “Don’t judge” and “Love, not hate”. Being judgmental is seen as a bad thing. What I think this means more precisely is not to look down on other people for the way they are or their actions. But this is doublethink at its finest. Because in the command “Don’t judge”, there is an assumption that judging is not a good thing to do. So if you believe in not judging others, then you cannot judge the judgmental either.
Another reason this idea of not judging doesn’t make sense is that you can’t not judge others. It’s not voluntary in any sense. It is not always appropriate to vocalize your judgment, but you cannot stop yourself from judging. It’s easy for me to point out someone like Kim Jong Un that everyone judges to be a bad human being. But you may meet someone with Tourette Syndrome and think to yourself, “Wow, their verbal tics are really annoying. Why can’t they shut up”? And next you think “I’m not supposed to feel that way. I know they can’t help it. What’s wrong with me”? This encapsulates the essence of doublethink. You feel like you’re not allowed to find it annoying because the disabled can’t help it.
So far, this post has been very philosophical. So, I want to add in a personal story for concreteness. I once overheard a conversation between a student and a professor in his office. She was studying accounting. And she was absolutely struggling with it. She ended up audibly upset and crying about it. She didn’t want to disappoint her parents by doing something else. I don’t know how far along she was in her degree, but that gave me the impression that she already invested some effort into it. She hated accounting, but felt like that’s what she had to do because of family pressure. This is a very common thing in my experience. Many students study just to avoid disappointing family, their main motivation not really being to learn. In her case though, it seemed like she just didn’t like accounting.
The professor gave her some really good advice. He told her that she doesn’t want to be doing something she doesn’t like to do for decades. And that she should consider what she really wants, instead of what other people have told her she should do. She listened intently and took his advice. If I remember correctly she ended up changing majors, but I didn’t know her personally so I’m not certain. That was some very solid advice he gave her though.
I have to add yet another important disclaimer. I worry that some readers could take this section the wrong way and I really don’t want that to happen. If you are suicidal, seek out professional help. I am not in any way condoning or encouraging suicide in this section. This is a purely philosophical discussion about the taboo of death. If someone you know has recently died or is dying, you might consider skipping ahead. If you are not mentally well or have depression, skip this section. It’s not worth the risk of reading into it something I didn’t intend. It’s not necessary for the rest of this post to make sense. If you have any questions, feel free to email me. With that out of the way, I’ll continue.
Death is perhaps one of the greatest taboos in our modern society. It is not something you bring up at the dinner table. People don’t like to be reminded that they won’t be here some day. There is a lot of anxiety around death. People generally avoid thinking about it. One benefit of believing in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism is that you get an afterlife or a next life. You never really have to die. To me, living for eternity is more terrifying. After a trillion billion years, I think anyone would have had enough. People don’t consider how long forever really is.
The fear of death, I believe, is largely taught. Children learn to be afraid of it from their parents, teachers and peers. For example, everyone is supposed to act solemn and sad at funerals. The dead are underground, cremated, or burned. Out of sight and out of mind. As another example, I’ve noticed people tend to have similar attitudes toward death as their parents and the prevailing culture. One thing that fascinates people about the joker character is that he doesn’t take anything seriously. He makes a mockery of even death itself. Ask yourself, why be afraid of death? What is there to fear? Maybe your family needs you. You are afraid of their grief. That’s fair. So then I ask, why be afraid of the fear of death? Fear is simply another sensation arising in the body. Are you afraid of the wind blowing against your skin? Then why be afraid of the feeling of fear? Why does it get a special status as opposed to any other feeling that passes by?
Where am I going with all this? I want to invite every reader to consider something. What would happen if you simply let go of all expectations society has of you? What would happen if you gave no thought to what others think of you? What if you forgot about being a good person, loving and not hating, being happy and not sad? What would happen if you allowed yourself to feel whatever you feel, without judging it? What would happen if you allowed your thoughts, emotions, and sensations to come and go like clouds in the sky without trying to label them? Healthy or unhealthy, good or bad, acceptable or taboo?
The sky is simply the space in which the clouds appear and dissipate. The sky does not follow the clouds. The sky does not push the clouds away. The sky simply allows the clouds to come and go. Consciousness is where thoughts, emotions, and sensations appear and dissipate. The sensation of being identified with your thoughts, is itself a sensation arising in consciousness. From an experiential perspective, there is nowhere outside of consciousness.
You might object: “You said earlier one cannot resist caring about what others think. So how can I be like the sky if I can’t stop judging my thoughts”? This is why they call it meditation practice. Non-attachment takes practice. And mindfulness meditation is one of the most effective ways to achieve that state. It’s not always easy to let go, because you have been conditioned your whole life to be passionate and cling. If you can’t resist judging your thoughts, then judge them. Just don’t judge your judgments of your thoughts. Let your judgments of your thoughts pass like clouds in the sky. So on and so forth. With meditation, your mind will tire of thinking and judging everything all the time. You will become thoughtless. That doesn’t mean you can’t think when you need to. It means you won’t be held hostage by the next so called negative thought you have. You can see you true nature, prior to any idea about who society has told you you are supposed to be. It is a state of nonjudgmental, pure awareness. Some people report getting the feeling that their mind is in complete harmony with all that is.
This is not a state of mind you can force. It’s a state of mind that comes about naturally as you practice meditation. It relates to the Chinese term “Wu Wei”. “Non-action” can be seen as not acting upon the contents of consciousness, nor judging them. It doesn’t mean you are completely isolated from society. To me, it means not being so involved in society that you lose who you are. Being in a state of mindlessness might sound contrary to intellectualism, but that’s a misunderstanding. The opposite is true. It’s easier to think when your mind isn’t getting in the way.