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Chronicles of Tao III


-What does wu wei mean?

-It means that everything you do seems spontaneous, natural and complete. Nothing affects you. Nothing stirs up the emotions to interrupt the precious tranquility that you have constantly cultivated.

-Nothing affects you?


-What if you are meditating and someone tries to kill you?

-If they come to kill me, fine. I shall kill them first.

-And then?

-And then I sit back down to meditate.

-That’s all?


-Wouldn’t you suffer for killing another?

-Not in this case. They came to kill me. I merely interrupted them.

– Wouldn’t you suffer within?

-No. that’s wu wei. One event happens, then another. If you are truly wu wei, then you are always placid.


-Ever learn to fly without wings, young man?

-Yes, I have. Unless one can fly, how could one go to heaven?

-Quite so, quite so. What is the technique?

-The phrase ’to fly without wings’ is, of course, a metaphor. It means to bring one’s spiritual essence up the spine.

-What is the secret to invisibility?

-The secret is to sit so still that one is like a lizard on a branch who is unnoticed because it is unmoving.

-Point the way to heaven.

Saihung touched his forehead.

-The term ‘heaven’ is a reference to the psychic centers within the skull.

-Is Lao Tzu in your head, then?

-Just so. Even the holy one is a symbol of the psychic center associated with the pineal gland.


You must seek the Mysterious Portal. But it is guarded. You must have an offering to first bribe the guards and then the ability to be invisible so that you may slip through unnoticed. With these preparations, you must then learn to fly to heaven, surprise Lao Tzu in his chambers, snatch up the flask of golden elixir, slay the defenders, break down the palace walls, and return to earth an immortal.

The first thing is the bribe of the guards. Gold and jewels do not move the demon generals. It is the human spirit. Your bribe is a vow that should you attain the golden elixir that will liberate you from this earthly plane, you shall not depart into the infinite before teaching others and continuing the lineage.

You are obviously a man of determination, but you must maintain a certain perspective. For this brings up the question of flying. Flying means weightlessness. Such lightness means shedding weight. Your emotional burden is over eagerness to succeed and anxiety about failing. Gain and loss are not to be taken to heart. You must leave these attitudes behind.

Invisibility signifies stillness in meditation. With it, you can slip through the Mysterious Portal. This gateway is in the region known as the Precious Square Inch in the center of the head at eyebrow level. It is through this gateway that you will someday glimpse the divine light that is always there. When you can unify semen, breath, and spirit, you will soar to heaven – that is to say that you raise this essence to the Mysterious Portal. Snatching the golden elixir means that your channels are now open and that your energy breaches the Mysterious Portal. But at that final stage, the guardians will appear, and you will have  to slay them.

Guardians are the agents of your own involvement with illusion. Your ego will not want you to succeed, for the resulting realization will negate your sense of self. Therefore, it will fight you and attempt to stop you from achieving your goals.

This leaves only one task: to break down the walls of the mind-palace. The palace walls must be broken down, for they will be the final barrier between you and the Source. Once we merge with the Source, temporarily at least for our time of meditation, we surrender all sense of the world and our own individuality.

Surrender is nearly impossible for a fighter like you, but that is actually what you must do. It means deliberately surrendering all actions, motivations, decisions. Even the form of meditation is transcended. The palace walls are the world of forms.

-How can they be smashed by surrendering? How can illusion be overcome like this?

Let me clarify that illusion is not falsehood. Rather, it is the active side of reality. This activity generates form. From that variety comes illusion. Yet all this variation, all these changes, exist only in the mind. You look at me, look at the temple, look at the mountains, and forget your identity with this things. Focus on consciousness, not form, and the illusion of diversity and separateness breaks like a dream. Withdraw from the mind’s interplay into stillness. Withdraw from activity to inactivity. Withdraw into the Source, and all illusion will cease. Then you will know that Lao Tzu, the golden elixir, the guardians, and palace walls existed only in your mind. The only truth lies in realizing yourself as the formless One.

But talking does nothing. None succeed without effort.


Do not fear the sensations you feel during meditation. Let all phenomena come and go. Even death is a part of such illusion. Don’t identify with phenomena, but instead look deeply into the Tao and its source. Forget the illusion of a separate existence. Cast off this imaginary limitation that separates you from the Way. Let your finiteness merge with the infinite. Far from becoming diminished, you will become infinite yourself. When you have this perception, you will then know the true secret of the sages: The mind of one who returns to the Source becomes the Source.


It matters not whether you read the Seven Bamboo Tablets or not. You could read it and it might be as dull as a dictionary. In fact, that would be its exact appearance. But take its components, benefit from its tradition, use them as alloys to be blended in the crucible of life, and forge them into your own unique personality. Don’t follow any book dogmatically, not even the most sacred scripture. It’s stupidity to think any book is the word of the gods.


The two Taoists reminded Saihung that the critical thing in life was to die a spiritual death, to merge with the Void. In order to do so, one had to be free of the cycle of reincarnation. This meant absolutely no earthly ties. The important point was that having children automatically tied one to the circle of reincarnation. How could it be otherwise? By passing on one’s metaphysical and physical genetics, one perpetuated one’s earthly karma. This was why the sages had no biological children.


No one carries another being along the Way. No one.


There are two rules to Taoist dietary practices: moderation and variety. First is moderation. Do not overeat, do not undereat. Do not go to extremes of fasting or overemphasis on any one food. Each meal should have moderate amounts of meat, vegetables, a starch, and a beverage. Avoid pork, duck, wild fowl, and shellfish, as we regard these as having toxins in them.

Variety means that one eat according to the seasons. In winter, eat foods that will build the kidneys and the blood, such as lamb or veal. In summer, the cooling fruits, vegetables, and melons should predominate in your diet. Whatever the meal, try to have a minimum of three vegetables at every meal: one red, one green, one yellow. Do not have great amounts of single ingredients with your meal, but have a great variety of foods instead. If you follow the way of the ancients, you will have the strength to meet your challenges.

Food is a primary source of energy. Thus, it is foolish to restrict it. It is wisdom to control it, however, for this can be a significant factor in the cultivation of energy. One’s qi, the very vital force of the body and soul, is formed from the essence gleaned from food. One might even go as far as to say that the foods you eat can be used to manipulate the consciousness.

Source: Deng Ming-Dao – Chronicles of Tao

Chronicles of Tao II


Taoism is the method of studying and bringing ourselves into harmony with the Tao – or, still further, it is the procedure for uniting with the Tao itself. The sages say, “Tao is forever, and he that possesses it, though his body ceases, is not destroyed.” However, there is no one simple method. People are different, and the Tao is never static. Different ways of life must be tailored according to the needs and destinies of individuals. This is why The Seven Bamboo Tablets catalogue three hundred sixty ways of self-cultivation.

Taoism is a spiritual system of many levels. Where other religions strive to totally define their beliefs to the exclusion of all others, the vast, sprawling range of Taoism embraces the whole universe. One of its most fundamental points of philosophical origin is to accept humanity and the world as they are.

Starting with humanity itself, the Taoists appreciated its intrinsic characteristics of sin and aspiration, wretchedness and nobility, savagery and artfulness, emotion and intelligence, perversity and purity, sadism and compassion, violence and pacifism, egotism and transcendence. Unlike other sages, the Taoists chose not to reject humanity’s evil impulses. The duality had to be accepted and worked with.

Once both sides of dualism were accepted, the Taoists clearly saw that individuals combined good and evil in varying proportions. Taoism therefore evolved into a system large enough to satisfy the needs of all the different people. Taoists gave morality and piety to the common man; faith and loyality to the hero; martial arts and sorcery to the power-hungry man; knowledge to the intellectual; and, for the rare few looking for even more, they gave meditation and the secret to transcendence. Then they turned everything inside out and said, “Not only are these segments of the world’s people, but by the principle of microcosm and macrocosm, they are also inner realities of every individual.”

The Taoist is always a pragmatist, not an idealist. His interest is always to deal with what is there before him, rather than to impose his will upon reality. Perhaps it is for this reason that Taoism is sometimes accused of being too slippery and elusive to define. Some might even say it is an opportunist’s doctrine. But actually, all Taoism cares about is dealing with the situation before it, the one that always changes, the Tao.

Historically, there are five major antecedents to Taoism. Shamanism, philosophy, hygiene, alchemy, and the school of Peng-Lai were the components of what would develop into a massive spiritual movement.

Shamanism was Taoism’s earliest beginning. The primitive peoples believed in a world of gods, demons, ancestral spirits, and an all-powerful Nature that was mysterious and even unresponsive to humanity. They turned to their leaders, shaman priests who used magic to cure the sick, divine the hidden, and control events. The priests intervened through their personal power between their constituents ans a hostile world.

Cults of divine beings sprang up to further make life understandable. Chief among these cults were the worship of ancestors – for the joint work of agriculture made the family unit essential – and the worship of nature gods of the earth, mountain, lake, trees, harvest, and so on. Indeed, every conceivable feature of the landscape and agricultural life was believed to have its divinity. The Yellow River, for example, was called the Count of the River, and he was believed to ride a chariot drawn by tortoises. The people sought to placate his cruel and temperamental flooding by human sacrifices equally as terrible. It was only through the intervention of enlightened sages that the people gradually progressed in their consciousness. Emperor Huang-Di was known for his discourse on medicine. Emperor Fu Xi taught divination and formulated the Eight Trigrams. Emperor Shen Nong experimented with herbs upon his own body. Emperor Yu tamed the floods. These emperors of prehistory shaped shamanism and originated elements of Taoism that still persist today. Many of our traditions of nature worship, divination, geomancy, talismanic art, exorcism, and spirit oracles harken back to the centuries that preceded recorded history.

The philosophical school of Taoism, the pure Conversation School, can be held to have originated during the Zhou dynasty. Lao Tzu was such a Taoist. When he left Luoyang to renounce the world, he came for a time to Huashan. But because of his discourses in the court with Confucius, his philosophy took a twin course: It became part of Taoism, and it gradually became a somewhat secular philosophy for the literati. In the third century A.D. schools of thought, centered around such thinkers as Chuang Tzu and Lieh Tzu, advocated a Taoism that propounded non-contention, theories of government by virtue, relativity of opposites, and the search for the Tao through meditation. The schools that arose from this period may therefore be considered to have advocated an intellectual class of Taoism that paid little attention to divinities, shamanism, or physical practice.

Physical practice arose from hygiene school. The essential premises of this lineage are that both the physical body and the mind must be disciplined and cultivated as means to spiritual attainment. From the first to fourth centuries A.D., the school’s teachings were codified first in the Jade Classic of the Yellow Chamber and then the True Classic of the Great Mystery. It was in these early centuries doctrines arose of the three dan tian vital centers: breath circulation, diet, meditation,  martial arts. All this was united in a principle postulating the existence of thirty-six thousand gods within the human body. Given the assumption of the person as divine receptacle, it is easy to see how they believed that the body should be kept pure and strong – for it was believed that the gods would abandon an unfit body. There was a strong leaning toward asceticism. Wine, drugs, and all external means were rejected, since they could potentially offend one’s resident gods.

The goal of the hygiene school was initially physical immortality. But they gradually became aware of the doctrine of reincarnation, and their priorities shifted to the creation of an immortal soul within the earthly shell that could transcend death.

The alchemists, by contrast, continued to believe in physical immortality. Their origins were in the Five Element School of Tsou Yen, who came into prominence about 325 B.C. It was from this lineage that the fang shih originated. The Fang shih – Formula Masters – were so called because they experimented constantly to find the formula for immortality. They engaged in endless combining of herbs, minerals, and chemicals, and all sorts of smelting processes. Unfortunately for their health, most of their early efforts concentrated on such minerals as mercury, sulfur, and lead. Eventually, they adjusted their research – if only in the interests of self-preservation – toward the use of herbs, ritual, sexual alchemy, meditation and magic. It is this division of Taoism that inherited the early shamanistic concerns of demon enslavement and sorcery.

We come finally to the cult of Peng-Lai, the school that is most unabashedly concerned with simple physical immortality. Sometime around the fourth century B.C., a legend arose about magic islands somewhere in the Pacific where the Mushroom of Immortality grew. Expedition after expedition was launched to find the islands. By the time of Emperor Qin Shi, who united China in 221 B.C. and ruled a mere sixty miles from Huashan, the cult of Peng-Lai combined with the alchemist-magicians. Along with their arts of spirit possession and witchcraft, they advocated the cult of Peng-Lai. Emperor Qin Shi wanted to live forever, and the man who ordered the Great Wall built became a fanatic about Peng-Lai and alchemy. The Emperor sent ten thousand girls and boys to search for Peng-Lai, with orders to succeed or be punished with execution. The ten thousand found the islands of Japan, but no Mushrooms of Immortality, and opted to stay rather than be executed. The Emperor’s efforts at alchemical preservation of his own Imperial person were no more successful. In fact, it is rumored that the illness that killed him was brought on by ingesting some poisonous formula.

From the fourth century A.D. to the present, there has been enormously complex cross-pollination of these five basic aspects. Sixteen centuries of the Taoist movement have generated endless combinations and recombinations. All the thousands of later sects and forms of Taoism can be distinguished as either left- or right-handed Taoism. On the left are sorcery, alchemy, sexual practice and demon enslavement. Roughly, it is a path that believes in external methods. The right-handed path advocates asceticism, celibacy, and meditation. Roughly, it is an internal path. Somewhat common to both are studies in scriptures, worship, meditation, divination, chanting, pursuit of immortality, geomancy, talismanic art, vision quests, and so on. All ostensibly seek union with the Tao; they only differ in their methodology and interpretation of Taoist principles. All are considered valid and orthodox methods. All yield results, and high masters of any sect can demonstrate supernatural power and manifest great spiritual insight.

But I am rigorously opposed to the left-handed path. There is too much temptation. Admittedly, one can practice asceticism sincerely and honestly and gain only contentment, tranquility, and piety. One is not necessarily freed from tribulation. The left-hand path grants great power with a simple incantation or ingestion of pills. But the results are not honestly gained, and the adept, not having undergone the struggle to gain his position with a sound set of values, finds it too tempting to abuse his power. Levitation, transformation, seeing into the future, and controlling demons are all instantly available on the left-hand path. But nothing is free in life. Consorting with the dark side requires payment, and one’s only form of barter is the human soul. Each time the force of dark Tao is tapped, it feeds upon a small bit of the human essence. The whole person is eventually transformed into an agent for the dark Tao. Immortality and power are yours for eternity, but you have sacrificed your soul for it.

In conclusion, I say that the Tao is awesome and transcends human conception. Taoism, with its centuries of great minds seeking to know the Tao, has expanded into a labyrinthine sprawl of different doctrines and schools. There are Taoists for every facet of the Tao – even if it is Tao’s evil side. But I say to you that in spite of this staggering amount of human effort, the Tao remains an enigma and mystery that nevertheless inexorably surrounds our lives and destinies.

Source: Deng Ming-Dao – Chronicles of Tao

Chronicles of Tao


A person is like a cartwheel; each stage of his life is like a spoke. When the wheel hits a rock, it will either stop, shatter, or roll right over. But the rock cannot be avoided. So it is for you: no matter what happens, you must meet life head-on.

You must proceed from one stage to another, just as the spokes of the cartwheel revolve. At each stage, you will experience new knowledge. It is only by using this knowledge and following uninterruptedly the turning of your life that you will fulfill your destiny.

(…) At the edge of each new phase, you will feel aspiration, curiosity, inquisitiveness. You will want knowledge, and acquiring some will only make you thirst for more. That is right. You are a human being, and it is human nature to seek knowledge. Therefore, pursue knowledge without hesitation or compromise.

Remember, however, that the time to go from stage to stage is precise, just as the spokes of the cartwheel are precisely set. If you try to skip a stage, or rush to the next, your personality will warp. If you do not move on to the next stage, you will be retarded. The stages of growth can neither be avoided nor held fast. You must proceed through them. This requires guidance. Only a master can guide you, only he can perceive the stages, only he can shape you into the perfection you will need to succeed.


If you do not work, you do not eat. Work and reward go hand in hand.

Everyone in the temple must work, and humility is always fostered. One who works, one who serves, cannot set himself above others. This is important, because with humility you will never become arrogant. No matter how high you climb on the path of knowledge, you will not misuse your powers but instead will help others. Through work and humility, you will know compassion.


“The more you learn, the more you must use your knowledge for others,” said the Grand Master. “The wiser you become, the more unselfish you must also become. As your experience deepens, and with it your humility, you will realize unfathomable depths of knowledge. You can never become arrogant and narrow-minded if you perceive how small your abilities are when contrasted to those of the greatest.

Remember to use your knowledge in the service of others, but expect nothing in return. Never seek a reward for your labors, for that is a sin.”


Learning martial arts means self-assurance, not arrogance. Your confidence should make you the meekest, most humble person on earth. If you are secure in your techniques, nothing anyone can do has any meaning. It is impossible for them to annoy you because you know they cannot harm you. You know you can fight, but you do not exercise that ability. You remain free of violence.

Walking away from a confrontation makes one superior. You have not been taught martial arts to kill, to win glory for yourself, or to exalt religion. Rather, the purpose is self-discipline and self-defense.


You can only see the gods and heaven by mastering this world.


Meditation is not simply something you do by itself, casually. Other disciplines complement it and must also be mastered. Martial arts generate mighty strength, and the raw energy for meditation, but the mind must be cultivated through music, calligraphy, painting, and metaphysics before you can be ready for contemplation.


Good and evil exists as destiny and fate. (…) No, they aren’t [the same]. Destiny is that which you must fulfill in this lifetime. You are born with a task. During your life, you must continually strive to identify it and complete it to its last detail. This is no simple errand, mind you. It is a terrible intricate and unique enigma for each person that must be slowly be brought to fruition. The issue at stake is nothing less than transcending the consequences of past lives in order to be reborn in a higher state or, better yet, to escape all together. That is destiny.

Fate is an active agent that exists solely to deter you from fulfilling your destiny. It struggles against you, impedes your progress. Fate functions through illusion. It is responsible for mirages that lead you astray. It is temptation. It tricks you, fills your mind with grand notions and proud thoughts. Fate would like nothing better than to deter you from your goal. Whenever you think of doing wrong or play a trick, and you become aware of yourself, you have instantly found fate. Give and fate has won. Resist and it has lost. But it will be there, tirelessly waiting to distract you once more.

This is what “Heaven and hell are right here on earth” means. Don’t look outwardly for heavenly beings and hellish denizens. Look within you. Pursue your destiny and you are closer to heaven. Yield to fate and you slip toward hell. If you ultimately fulfill your destiny, you transcend human existence. If you fall to Fate, you suffer in a quagmire of delusion and ignorance.

If you understand good and evil as destiny and fate, you understand that your actions alone move you toward one or the other. Nothing else enters into your life equation. Solve a bit of your destiny and you triumph. Give in the slightest to delusion and your vision is all the more obscured.


Enter stillness.

Source: Deng Ming-Dao – Chronicles of Tao

Notes on a Nervous Planet IV



In terms of shaping our own future, spaces are key. We need to make sure there are spaces to be free. To be ourselves. Literal spaces, psychological spaces.

Increasingly, our towns and cities are places which want us there primarily as consumers, rather than people. Which makes it all the more important that we value those threatened spaces where economically irrelevant being is still allowed. Forests, parks, state-funded museums and galleries, libraries.

Libraries, for instance, are wonderful places currently at risk. Many people in power dismiss them as irrelevant in the age of the internet. This really misses the point. Many libraries are using the internet in innovative ways, enabling access to books and the internet itself. And besides, libraries aren’t just about books. They are one of the few public spaces we have left which don’t like our wallets more than us.

But there are other spaces which are threatened, too.

Non-physical spaces. Spaces of time. Digital spaces. Some online companies increasingly want to infringe on our selfhood, seeing us as less of a human being and more as an organism full of data to be mined, or sold on.

There are spaces in the day and week that are being continually devoured in the name of work or other responsibilities.

There are even spaces of the mind that are under threat. The space to think freely, or at least calmly, seems to be harder to find. Which might explain the rise not only in anxiety disorders but also of counterbalancing habits such as yoga and meditation.

People are craving not just physical space but the space to be mentally free. A space from unwanted distracted thoughts that clutter our heads like pop-up advertising of the mind in an already frantic world. And that space is still there to be found. It’s just that we can’t rely on it. We have to consciously seek it out. We might have to set time to read or do some yoga or have a long bath or cook a favorite meal or go for a walk. We might have to switch our phone off. We might have to close the laptop. We might have to unplug ourselves, to find a kind of stripped-back acoustic version of us.


For me, reading was never an antisocial activity. It was deeply social. It was the most profound kind of socializing there was. A deep connection to the imagination of another human being. A way to connect without the many filters society normally demands.

So often, reading is seen as important because of its social value. It is tied to education and the economy and so on. But that misses the whole point of reading.

Reading isn’t important because it helps to get you a job. It’s important because it gives you room to exist beyond the reality you’re given. It is how humans merge. How minds connect. Dreams. Empathy. Understanding. Escape.

Reading is love in action.

It doesn’t need to be books. But we do need to find that space.

(…)To be comfortable with yourself, to know yourself, requires creating some inner space where you can find yourself, away from a world that often encourages you to lose yourself.

We need to carve out a place in time for ourselves, whether it is via books or meditation or appreciating the view out of a window. A place where we are not craving, or yearning, or working, or worrying, or over-thinking. A place where we might not even be hoping. A place where we are set to neutral. Where we can just breathe, just be, just bathe in the simple animal contentment of being, and not crave anything except what we already have: life itself.



The world affects us, but it isn’t quite us. There is a space inside us that is independent to what we see and where we are. This means we can feel pain amid external beauty and peace. But the flipside is that we can feel calm in a world of fear. We can cultivate a calmness inside us, one that lives and grows, and gets us through.

There is a cliché about reading. That there are as many books as there are readers. Meaning every reader has their own take on a book. Five people could sit down and read, say, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin and have five totally different legitimate responses. It isn’t really about what you read, but how you read it. The writer might start a story but they need a reader for it to come alive, and it never comes alive the same way twice. The story is never just the words. It is also the reading of them. And that is the variable. That is where the magic lives. All a writer can do is provide a match, and hopefully a dry one. The reader has to strike the flame into being.

The world is like that, too. There are as many worlds as there are inhabitants. The world exists in you. Your experience of the world isn’t this objective unchangeable thing called ‘The World’. No. Your experience of the world is your interaction with it, your interpretation of it. To a certain degree we all make our own worlds. We read it in our own way. But also: we can, to a degree, choose what to read. We have to work out what about the world makes us feel sad or scared or confused or ill or calm or happy.

We have to find, within all those billions of human worlds, the one we want to live on. The one that, without us imagining it, would never arrive.

And, likewise, we have to understand that however it might influence them, the world is not our feelings. We can feel calm in a hospital, or in pain on a Spanish clifftop.

We can contradict ourselves. We can contradict the world. We can sometimes even do the impossible. We can live when death seems inevitable. And we can hope after we knew hope had gone.


Everything special about humans – our capacity for love and art and friendship and stories and all the rest – is not a product of modern life, it is a product of being a human. And so, while we can’t disentangle ourselves from the transient and frantic stress of modern life, we can place an ear next to our human self (or soul, if you’d rather) and listen to the quiet stillness of being. And realize that we don’t need to distract ourselves from ourselves.

Everything we need is right here. Everything we are is enough. We don’t need the bigger boat to deal with the invisible sharks around us. We are the bigger boat. The brain, as Emily Dickinson put it, is bigger than the sky. And by noticing how modern life makes us feel, by allowing that reality and by being broad-minded enough to change when change is healthy, we can engage with this beautiful world without being worried it will steal who we are.


Source: Matt Haig – Notes on a Nervous Planet

Notes on a Nervous Planet III


Realize the world is not as violent as it feels. Many writers on this subject – such as the famed cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker – have pointed out that, despite all its horrors, society is less violent than it used to be. ‘There is definitely still violence,’ says the historian Yuval Noah Harari. ‘I live in the Middle East so I know this perfectly well. But, comparatively, there is less violence than ever before in history. Today more people die from eating too much than from human violence, which is really an amazing achievement.’


Edith Wharton believed the cure for loneliness  wasn’t always to have company, but to find a way to be happy with your own company. Not to be antisocial, but not to be scared of your own unaccompanied presence.

She thought the cure to misery was to ‘decorate one’s inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same when one is inevitably alone’.


The detective of despair

I think the world is always going to be a mess. And I am always going to be a mess. Maybe you’re a mess, too. But – and this bit is everything for me – I believe it’s possible to be a happy mess. Or, at least, a less miserable mess. A mess who can cope.

‘In all chaos there is a cosmos,’ said Carl Jung, ‘in all disorder a secret order.’

Mess is actually okay. (…) The problem is not that the world is a mess, but that we expect it to be otherwise. We are given the idea that we have control. That we can go anywhere and be anything. That, because of free will in a world of choice, we should be able to choose not just where to go online or what to watch on TV or which recipe to follow of the billion online recipes, but also what to feel. And so when we don’t feel what we want or expect to feel, it becomes confusing and disheartening. Why can’t I be happy when I have so much choice? And why do I feel sad and worried when I don’t really have anything to be sad and worried about?


It makes sense that shopping centres aren’t easy places to be in. A shopping centre is a deliberately stimulating environment, designed not to calm or comfort, but merely to get us to spend money. And as anxiety is often a trigger for consumption, feeling calm and satisfied would probably work against the shopping centre’s best interests. Calmness and satisfaction – in the agenda of the shopping centre – are destinations we reach by purchasing. Not places already there.


As with living in Ibiza, or in a religious cult, it is hard to see the things we may have problems with if everyone has the same problems. If everyone is spending hour after hour on their phones, scrolling through texts and timelines, then that becomes normal behavior. If everyone is getting out of bed too early to work 12-hour days in jobs they hate, then why question it? If everyone is worrying about their looks, then worrying about our looks is what we should be doing. If everyone is maxing out their credit cards to pay for things they don’t really need, then it can’t be a problem. If the whole planet is having a kind of collective breakdown, then unhealthy behavior fits right in. When normality becomes madness, the only way to find sanity is by daring to be different. Or daring to be the you that exists beyond all the physical clutter and mind debris of modern existence.


A paradox

There’s a paradox about modern hi-tech consumer societies. They seem to encourage individualism while not encouraging us – actually forbidding us – to think as individuals. They discourage us from standing back from their distractions, like serious addicts have to if they want their life back, and asking: what am I doing? And why do I keep doing it if it doesn’t make me happy? In a weird way, this is easier if you choose a socially unacceptable compulsion like heroin addiction than if you have a socially acceptable one like compulsive dieting or tweeting or shopping or working. If the madness is collective and the illness is cultural it can be hard to diagnose, let alone treat.

Even when the tide of society is pulling us in one direction it has to be possible – if that direction makes and keeps us unhappy – to learn how to swim another way. To swim towards the truth of ourselves, a truth our distractions might be hiding. Our very lives might depend on it.


‘How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away.’

—Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011)


‘I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work.’

—Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness (1932)


Source: Matt Haig – Notes on a Nervous Planet

Notes on a Nervous Planet II


How to stay sane on the internet: a list of utopian commandments I rarely follow, because they are so damn difficult

1.Practise abstinence. Social media abstinence, especially. Resist whatever unhealthy excesses you feel drawn towards. Strengthen those muscles of restraint.

2.Don’t type symptoms into Google unless you want to spend seven hours convinced you will be dead before dinner.

3.Remember no one really cares what you look like. They care what they look like. You are the only person in the world to have worried about your face.

4.Understand that what seems real might not be. When the novelist William Gibson first imagined the idea of what he coined ‘cyberspace’ in 1982’s ‘Burning Chrome’, he pictured it as a ‘consensual hallucination’. I find this description useful when I am getting too caught up in technology. When it is affecting my non-digital life. The whole internet is one step removed from the physical world. The most powerful aspects of the internet are mirrors of the offline world, but replications of the external world aren’t the actual external world. It is the real internet, but that’s all it can be. Yes, you can make real friends on there. But non-digital reality is still a useful test for that friendship. As soon as you step away from the internet – for a minute, an hour, a day, a week – it is surprising how quickly it disappears from your mind.

5.Understand people are more than a social media post. Think how many conflicting thoughts you have in a day. Think of the different contradictory positions you have held in your life. Respond to online opinions but never let one rushed opinion define a whole human being. ‘Every one of us,’ said the physicist Carl Sagan, ‘is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.’

6.Don’t hate-follow people. This has been my promise to myself since New Year’s Day, 2018, and so far it is working. Hate-following doesn’t give your righteous anger a focus. It fuels it. In a weird way, it also reinforces your echo chamber by making you feel like the only other opinions are extreme ones. Do not seek out stuff that makes you unhappy. Do not measure your own worth against other people. Do not seek to define yourself against. Define what you are for. And browse accordingly.

7.Don’t play the ratings game. The internet loves ratings, whether it is reviews on Amazon and TripAdvisor and Rotten Tomatoes, or the ratings of photos and updates and tweets. Likes, favourites, retweets. Ignore it. Ratings are no sign of worth. Never judge yourself on them. To be liked by everyone you would have to be the blandest person ever. William Shakespeare is arguably the greatest writer of all time. He has a mediocre 3.7 average on Goodreads.

8.Don’t spend your life worrying about what you are missing out on. Not to be Buddhist about it – okay, to be a little Buddhist about it – life isn’t about being pleased with what you are doing, but about what you are being.

9.Never delay a meal, or sleep, for the sake of the internet.

10.Stay human. Resist the algorithms. Don’t be steered towards being a caricature of yourself. Switch off the pop-up ads. Step out of your echo chamber. Don’t let anonymity turn you into someone you would be ashamed to be offline. Be a mystery, not a demographic. Be someone a computer could never quite know. Keep empathy alive. Break patterns. Resist robotic tendencies. Stay human.


Be careful who you pretend to be

KURT VONNEGUT said, decades before anyone had an Instagram account, that ‘we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful who we pretend to be’. This seems especially true for the social media age. We have always presented ourselves to the world – chosen which band T-shirt to wear and which words to say and which body parts to shave – but on social media the act of presenting is heightened a stage further. We are eternally one step removed from our online selves. We become walking merchandise. Our profiles are Star Wars figures of ourselves.

A picture of a pipe is not a pipe, as Magritte told us. There is a permanent gap between the signifier and the thing signified. An online profile of your best friend is not your best friend. A status update about a day in the park is not a day in the park. And the desire have always presented ourselves to the world – chosen which band T-shirt to wear and which words to say and which body parts to shave – but on social media the act of presenting is heightened a stage further. We are eternally one step removed from our online selves. We become walking merchandise. Our profiles are Star Wars figures of ourselves.

A picture of a pipe is not a pipe, as Magritte told us. There is a permanent gap between the signifier and the thing signified. An online profile of your best friend is not your best friend. A status update about a day in the park is not a day in the park. And the desire to tell the world about how happy you are, is not how happy you are.


Make ourselves see what we pretend to know. Remind ourselves that we are an animal united as a species existing on this tender blue speck in space, the only planet that we know of containing life. Bathe in the corny sentimental miracle of that. Define ourselves by the freakish luck of not only being alive, but being aware of that. That we are here, right now, on the most beautiful planet we’ll ever know. A planet where we can breathe and live and fall in love and eat peanut butter on toast and say hello to dogs and dance to music and read Bonjour Tristesse and binge-watch TV dramas and notice the sunlight accentuated by hard shadow on a building and feel the wind and the rain on our tender skin and look after each other and lose ourselves in daydreams and night dreams and dissolve into the sweet mystery of ourselves.

alan watts

Source: Matt Haig – Notes on a Nervous Planet