Re: On letting go [philosophy about acceptance]
The following is an excerpt from a recent exchange where I respond to my correspondent’s questions about living without clinging on to obsessions about rewards, recognition, et cetera. The text is shared with permission and the identity of the person remains private.
I might be better known to you as the person who wrote to you “About the purpose of life”. Your reply was useful to me in performing a catharsis and I did gain some different perspective on life, albeit trivial.
When you overdo it, when you over-commit to a cause you are necessarily fully invested in it; you are obsessed with it; you cannot let go of it; you become it.
Yes, I remember that quote of mine and am happy to read from you again!
Quoting the book of Ecc.:
The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill.
I had autistically devoted myself to various endeavours, with unhealthy amounts of time and energy spent in them, failing to /live life/. Whenever I feel I don’t get the deserved recognition for it, or when an undeserving person gets them I get a feel of anger or grief.
While I understand that I can’t control what happens to me, but how I react to it, I still fail to get rid of the childish obsession with recognision, fame and the like.
I am trying to get rid of my bitter view of life. The Stoics were indeed successful in highlighting a need for indifference to joy, grief, and pain; but I failed to understand the “how to” of it.
The past is gone. Is all my worries due to the remembrance of something that no longer exists. How do I start living instead of bringing the absent to the present? Cessation of the mind, like the monks say?
Maybe “cessation of the mind” will yield the desired results, though I am of a different view. Let me gradually unpack it for you.
Let’s start with recognition. I think we can simplify things by saying that there are things we like in their own right and things we want for what they bring to us.
For example, I like hiking and walking long distances. I do this privately (me and my dog or me alone): there is no audience to congratulate me for my endurance and reward me for my tenacity. I do it because I like it and don’t care if anyone is watching and/or if I will gain something more out of it that is not pertinent to it (e.g. fame and wealth is not inherent to walking). I talk about this to make a point, as I have explained in my various philosophical videos where I walk and talk. I do not mention it to brag about it.
Contrary to this we have something like the pursuit of followers on social media. We go for a high score. There is no inherent worth to the number 100 or 10000 or however many added zeroes: its value is relative to what our peers have or what finds currency as “success” in our circle. If the perceived competitor has an order of magnitude higher than us, we feel empty even if we have a million followers.
The difference between the two is one of disposition: how do I feel about it. If I go for a walk expecting some reward along the way, I am treating the walk as a means to the end which is the reward. This is to say that we influence our state of mind based on how we approach a given situation.
This relates to what I have talked about regarding the concept of self-improvement. Do I want to be a better version of myself because, say, it invigorates me? Or do I want it to improve my chances at whatever market? Which takes precedence?
If we think that doing something comes with the externality of recognition, reward, desert (as in deserve), we entertain the falsehood of entitlement. We believe that we have the right to something. For instance, I do all this hard work and so I deserve to be this or that. The reason entitlement/desert is misguided is because it assumes that we are the epicentre of the world and that everything or everyone is watching us and acts as the arbiter who will deliver what we have earned the right to. Do we know for a fact that such a per-person justice exists that always rewards us with riches, health, partnership, or whatnot? We sure have faith that such a universal and personalised justice exists, but does it? I have my doubts.
Entitlement and the cosmic self-centredness it implies exalts us in our mind as special amid our peers. We are biased in our favour by overestimating what we do while underestimating what others have. Why should, say, my hard work guarantee me health instead of someone else’s natural good looks? What’s the common thread between those two? It doesn’t matter: my point is that we want to establish criteria where there are none. We want to apply our instituted reality, the sense of justice we enforce in our culture, to the cosmos at-large.
It is this mistake that makes us feel that we are owned recognition, success, or whatever. We might do everything we can, yet for whatever reason brought about by the interplay of a wide range of factors, we do not get what we think we deserve. If we insist on deserving the reward we are of the disposition that our efforts are the means to that end. We do not get what we think is ours and we are disturbed as a result.
As such, I am of the view that tranquility, this relaxed attitude of not worrying about things, consists in acceptance: I do stuff because I like them, because my natural inclinations favour them, and acknowledge that in a world of coincidences there is no grand design that is specific to me and, by extension, to each of us (cosmic self-centredness on a personalised basis).
We let go of the need for recognition when we overcome the desire to prove ourselves to others. We conduct ourselves in accordance with our nature (in moderation) without expecting anything from “the gods” in return for us just being ourselves. If there is something, so be it. If there isn’t, so be it.
It is true that you do not control what happens to you. For instance, you do not control the fact that you are ageing. What you do influence though is your disposition: how you feel about the fact. If you think that your youth is “yours” exclusively and only you can decide what happens to it, then you are wrong: it is not yours and your opinion of what should happen to it is irrelevant. In other words, you will age whether you like it or not. Extend this to everything we do not really own. By accepting this state of non-ownership we again behave in a manner that is consistent with the actuality of our experience. We do not project our wishes and notions of instituted reality on the world: we take it for what it is.
The “how to” is where we start thinking about the appropriate method. In my experience, the best approach is to take it slow and focus on the here-and-now. We need patience. Focusing on the present means that we do not get distracted by the bigger goal of being aloof from the fray of our experience: our attention is on how to perform the next minute change that will nudge us in that direction. For example, I want to do this walk without thinking that I deserve a reward out of it. Then I want to do it again and again. Step by step, gradually generalising my practice, I want to make it my default attitude for everything.
There is this misunderstanding that focusing on the here-and-now makes us opportunistic. No, it does not because we still operate in accordance with knowledge and wisdom. We do not merely react to whatever phenomenon occurs in the given moment and lose our attention along the way. No, we rather adopt a method that frames the ultimate end as a stepwise endeavour. Equipped with this incrementalism, we can pay attention to the moment while maintaining our undivided attention on what we want.
As for the past, I think we can draw lessons from it. What we must avoid though is to think that we can reenact it. Here too acceptance must underpin our attitude. We should not let our thoughts anchor us in that which cannot be actualised, as we will then be operating contrary to acceptance: instead of recognising how things stand, we will fabricate our own narrative based on our biases and rationalisations. We will be turning our perception of a comfort zone into a cage that confines us to the known and the accordingly desired.
[ Watch: Loss, entitlement, and presence https://protesilaos.com/books/2022-10-17-loss-entitlement-presence/. ]
In conclusion, acceptance is about taking it easy. We do not have to prove anything to anyone. We do not enjoy some special status among others and do not deserve anything from some bespoke cosmic justice that monitors our every step individually and severally. In this regard, we have a lot to learn from, say, the dog that simply does what its condition renders possible. If we let go of our expectations of how the cosmos should be, if we forgo this entitlement of ours, we too will be dog-like in our disposition. There will be a lightness to our being and we will take whatever comes our way as part of this singular reality of the world: life, death, happiness, grief, and all others are part of the larger whole we belong to.
[ Read: Interpretation of “Pompeii” by Memphis (Μ3ΜΦ1Σ) https://protesilaos.com/interpretations/2022-12-25-memphis-pompeii/. ]