Ran Prieur

"The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed."

- Terence McKenna

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October 4. When I said that a perfect life is one with no obligations, I was trying to get at something more fundamental, but so obvious it's hardly worth saying: a perfect life is one where every action is intrinsically rewarding. And a perfect society is one where every action by everyone is intrinsically rewarding.

This is not as unrealistic as it sounds. At the beginning of his book In Search of the Primitive, Stanley Diamond argues that many tribal cultures, said by anthropologists to make no distinction between work and play, would be more fairly described as doing no work. Of course they do lots of stuff that might feel like work to us, but they carefully maintain a cultural and psychological context where everything necessary to keep the tribe going feels like what we would call play.

How did we get from there to here, where we spend half our lives doing useful chores, and the other half having useless fun, with almost no overlap? This is how I imagine the Fall of Man: not that we were lured from innocent righteousness by wicked fun, but that we were lured from fun by stodgy pragmatism, when someone said, "I don't care if you don't feel like doing it, you're going to do it anyway." Or maybe it started with prehistoric slavery, and once it became normal to separate useful activity from freely chosen activity, it got locked in, and it spread.

An activity redefined as a chore can be done on a consistent schedule, instead of waiting for people to feel like doing it. This is what we call industry, and it drags related activities into the same mind space -- if horseshoes can't depend on a whim, then nails can't depend on a whim. And if you try to go back, you have to pass through a stage where nobody wants to do any of that shit, and any benefits gained will be lost.

So what can we do about it? On the level of society, there are utopian dreams of re-merging the useful and the fun, but we're actually getting somewhere with another strategy: to shift the whole world of useful chores to machines, and leave humans doing only useless fun. I support this one hundred percent. Of course there will be challenges, described in dystopian fiction from The Machine Stops to WALL-E, but I trust human nature. If we all have the absolute right to do nothing, we will eventually learn to do things that reconnect us in a healthy way to the wider world.

Meanwhile, is there anything we can do on a personal level, maybe change our outlook so that our chores feel more like play? Once I stayed at an intentional community where the idea was that work would feel meaningful if people were doing it for their friends. In practice that didn't happen, and there were firm requirements, enforced by penalties, to do more hours of work per week than a frugal person can get away with in the dominant society. But one guy did figure out a mind hack. He turned washing dishes into a game, where the crew would try to do it as fast as possible, so they would get credit for however long it was supposed to take, while getting off work sooner and having fun.

Another thing is just to notice what makes us feel better or feel worse, and act on it, especially when it goes against what society calls normal. I just rode my bike to the store in the rain, even though we have a car, because I've noticed that driving is stressful and makes me want to curl up under a blanket, while bicycling is fun and I come home energized, even if I'm less comfortable.

October 1. Quick topical note. The Clinton campaign has found Trump's weakness: that he will not back down from public feuds even when he seems to be in the wrong. His first collapse in the polls came right after the Democratic convention when he bizarrely attacked the family of a fallen soldier. Now he's doing it again, making hostile tweets at 3AM in a nonsensical grudge against a former beauty queen.

This is especially bad for Trump because it undermines his strength in the world of myth. Trump represents the trickster archetype, and people are hungry for a trickster because the established order is getting more and more lifeless. But now he seems less like a joker and more like an uptight straight man. He needs to be Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack and he's turning out to be more like Ted Knight, or he needs to be Ferris Bueller and he suddenly seems more like the principal.

Trump could still pull it out if Hillary has more health problems. And even if she wins, she's clearly a one-termer, and in 2020 we're likely to get a trickster president if a candidate without Trump's negatives can play that role.

September 30. Some stuff from emails over the last couple weeks. Griffiths asks whether I think drug use is a zero sum game. My answer is that it's too complex to be zero sum, but that I would simplify it like this:

Infrequent use is positive sum, because not only do the benefits tend to outweigh the costs, but it changes your reality and expands your consciousness. And using a drug all day every day is usually negative sum, but even there you can find exceptions.

In an email to Kevin, on the subject of anxiety and rage, I wrote:

When I get anxiety, what I fear is being in a social situation that's way over my head, which is a rational fear because that's actually happened to me many times. The clue that I've messed up a social situation is when someone is angry with me and I have no idea why.

And in my experience, anger is a secondary emotion that comes from processing pain a certain way -- usually the wrong way, although sometimes anger is useful. I should keep that in mind when people are angry with me, that they're misprocessing their pain.

On the subject of avoiding external demands, Tim asks, "Does taking out the garbage in your cosmology constitute something that comes from 'outside' or 'inside?'" Now I'm thinking that inside vs outside is not the best model, but my answer is:

Taking out the garbage is definitely outside. In a better primitive world, I could just drop it on the ground and it would decompose, and in a better high-tech world, nanobots would take care of it.

Finally, Carey quotes Bjork: "The best way to start anew is to fail miserably," which reminds me that one song lyric, which you've all heard a hundred times, turns out to be a really powerful mantra when things are going badly: "Hold your head up, movin on, keep your head up, movin on."

September 28. "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger." If you interpret "stronger" like a Clint Eastwood character, that statement is dangerous bullshit. But after I've made a series of reasonable decisions and heroic efforts that only dug me deeper, after I faced larger fears leading to larger disasters, as the challenge has dragged on to the point where even deus ex machina would come too late to not feel like an insult, I find that I've become better in subtle ways.

Twice a week I drive Leigh Ann to physical therapy for her torn patellar tendon, so she can take Vicodin and not have to drive home, and I wait in the parking lot of the medical clinic building for more than an hour. Monday I forgot my book, so I just sat and watched the people go in and out, many of them in bad shape, patiently led by family members, or driven by people who waited in cars like me. Before that procession of the damned, I was overcome with the beauty of human persistence in the face of the tragedy of life.

Later, when someone on Reddit suggested that homeless people should be required to pick up litter, I realized, this person has never had a bad day. They might think they have, but if they really had, they would understand that anyone in the world can end up on the street if they don't have money or a support network and life deals them too many low cards in a row.

I hold my energy closer to my body now. It's hard to explain, but suppose I'm walking across my bedroom to pick up my shoes. There used to be part of me that reached out to grasp the shoes ahead of my hands, but now I feel that I could stumble on something before I get there, or I've mistaken something else for my shoes which are actually lost forever, or I'll be stopped by some other thing that I've forgotten or never imagined. So I try to keep my attention centered on where I am, not an inch or a second farther.

I'm better at meditating, because when I wake up in the night full of dread, I can only sleep by blanking my mind with the relentless focus of an elite athlete, or by expanding into the fear with the angry intention of breaking something inside. But it doesn't feel worth it. Whether life is meaningless, or whether the scales of chance are tipped by some program or intention, I just want to get this shit out of the way, not just the recent shit but all of it, so I can be trivial and happy. Am I optimistic? "We cannot defeat the armies of Mordor. But we will meet them in battle nonetheless."

Update, 10pm: After almost two weeks, I finally got through the original problem. It's a good story, but I'm not going to tell it just yet.

September 26. I've had some pushback from my definition of a perfect life as one with zero obligations, and I'm sticking to it, but I need to be more clear about what I meant. I wasn't talking about doing rewarding stuff that's requested by other people or demanded by society. That would be an even more perfect life, but it's wildly unrealistic, at least in this century.

In practice, almost everything I've done that's come from the outside has been a tedious and meaningless chore, while almost everything rewarding I've done has come from the inside, either indifferent to the outside world or opposing it. (Exploring the external world, including art and entertainment, is an important subject that's beyond the scope of this post.)

Of course, to master a life with no external demands you have to pass through boredom, but of all the challenges I've ever faced, boredom is my favorite. Giant blocks of empty time are the fires in which I've forged my identity and found my strength. I'm not saying everyone is like that, but I am. Some people say "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger," but in my experience, what doesn't kill me only makes me want to spend the rest of my life in a Norwegian prison. Mass killer Anders Breivik has my perfect life, and of course he hates it because he's an idiot.

There's an old Twilight Zone episode where a thug dies and goes to heaven, where he can have everything he desires, and by the end of the episode he's gone mad with boredom and it turns out he's in hell. I think I would be happy for decades, and then I would just figure out how to selectively delete memories and be happy forever. Greg Egan's Permutation City is a sci-fi novel that explores this idea with virtual reality.

An even more ambitious utopia would be a world where external demands are stuff that we want to do anyway or that we end up enjoying. Some hunter-gatherer tribes have done this, but not all of them, and we've never come anywhere close with a large complex society.

That's why I used to be in favor of a hard crash, but now I think the path is not back but through: to use the present system as a shell, an incubator, a cocoon of a better system. Individualism has gone too far but maybe not far enough: imagine if we could break society down into atoms, billions of disconnected individuals kept from dying by an unconditional basic income, and then we can put ourselves back together in a structure where every link is understood, approved, and valued by every party.

September 23. Last Thursday I began a long run of bad luck and bad decisions, and I've been spending hours and hours on a tedious and fiddly bit of car repair to try to avoid going to a mechanic, which would cost more than $500 and force Leigh Ann to bus and walk to her classes and pet care jobs on a bad knee.

Through some combination of this event, the lingering effects of my concussion, and poor timing of drug use, I've been depressed. Everything that used to give me joy gives me only half as much, everything I do feels like walking uphill, I have that dread in the pit of my stomach a lot of the time for no apparent reason, and reality itself feels like going through a razor car wash.

Yesterday I even spent some time on the depression subreddit, which is mostly unloved 20 year olds and not people with my problems. But I did find this great short video on empathy, and I do expect to get better.

Back to the subject of drugs, it's crazy how much the effects differ from person to person. Most people have to try several antidepressants before they find the right one, and it's the same with the old drugs. I was just saying in an email how alcohol doesn't work for me -- I don't like any of the cognitive effects and the body buzz is feeble compared to cannabis, which also gives me awesome head effects. Hydrocodone has an even better body high, but the head trip is nothing special and it destroys my digestion.

Two weeks ago I mentioned that I don't trip from psilocybin, but I do get a clear effect: 36-48 hours later I have more energy and it feels like my brain has been rebooted. This seems to be independent of dose size, and a big dose makes me feel like I have the flu, which is why I only microdose now. So to celebrate my birthday I took one psilocybin gel cap with some cannabis chocolate. Like my other bad decisions, it seemed like a good idea at the time, but I would have held back if I'd really thought about it. If you're going to take a drug that reboots your brain, wait until you're feeling safe and happy and not in the middle of a crisis.

I also need to be more careful with cannabis timing. Just like in the movies, using it occasionally brings wisdom and inspiration, and using it all the time makes me numb and stupid -- although it seems to work for Willie Nelson. So I'm still trying to find the balance. I'm thinking, if my life is perfect (which I define as zero obligations) I can go four nights on and three nights off, but with more stress I have to take longer breaks and face the world hard and cold.

Some more marijuana links: How weed keeps you skinny, probably by increasing metabolism, and Former NFL player says he played his best games while stoned. Finally, some great hypnotic drug music, Wreaths - Goin' Back to Haiti.

September 21. Just a quick thought on the NYC bombings. You've probably heard that the bomber's family tried to warn the FBI two years ago, and they decided he wasn't a threat because he wasn't in contact with any violent political organizations. Of course they were wrong. Their mistake, which almost everyone makes, was to assume that violence is rooted in politics, when really it's rooted in psychology.

Still, I'm not sure I'd want to live in a world where the government looks for enemies by looking at psychology.

September 19. I still don't feel like posting, but since today is my 49th birthday, here's the Hawkwind song Seven by Seven.

September 16. Have the last few days been bad for everyone, or just for me and everyone around me? Anyway, for the weekend I have some quick thoughts about watching sports. It's not necessarily a waste of time. For me the key is to not care who wins or loses. It's a kind of meditation, to just watch for the performances and the unscripted developing story, and every time I slip into a preference for one side or the other, I try to notice and come back into balance. The funny thing is that TV commentators have to do this, so there's an example, right in front of us, of the best way to think about sports, and yet almost all viewers fail to follow that example.

One thing I've learned from watching it this way: as the level of competition gets higher, success is less about atheticism and more about focusing the mind in smaller and smaller moments.

September 14. Today a reader email says what I've been thinking lately: "The older you get, the more you realize how little you can actually do in the world for the world. Even reactions to it seem unnecessary. The focus is more internal, and then upon realizing how superficial that realization is, it becomes even more internal. Then, constant surgery."

I was going to say, I've wasted so much attention on social and political issues over which I have no power, when all along there were internal psychological issues over which I alone have power.

Last night I had a thought: what we call "the subconscious" is not some kind of nebulous intelligence, just a big web of unexamined habits. Most of our behavior is stuff we don't even know we're doing, or we know but we don't see other options. And what we call the "ego" is the impermeability of the membrane between self and other. To add a new belief or behavior, or drop an old one, you have to move it across that membrane, and this is a skill you can develop.

A valuable practice, which I've mentioned a few times before, is the "not that" meditation: Ask yourself "who am I?" and keep answering "not that" and looking deeper, until almost nothing seems like a necessary part of who you are. Another technique is ordinary meditation where you try to keep your mind blank, and when you catch yourself thinking about anything you notice and let it go. This is a lot like using the task manager on a Windows computer: you look at all the stuff running in the background and think "What the hell is that? Do I even need it or is it just eating up my CPU?"

I wonder how much of our identity is just a projection of unresolved internal conflict. A line from a song says it best, and I've had this at the top of my "about me" page for a few months now: "Does a man seek his own face for the flaws in shadows beneath?"

September 12. Unrelated stray links. Last week there was a fun thread on the Ask Men Over 30 subreddit: What are the 5 things that you most would like to have?

From the same day on reddit, a long comment about Vincent Van Gogh, starting with the Doctor Who episode and ending on some personal stuff about how to live well.

I had no idea: Canadian surgeons urge people to throw out bristle BBQ brushes, because bits of wire can get stuck to the grill, then stuck in the food, then stuck in your throat and they're damn hard to get out. Have they tried really strong magnets?

And a good article about a strange musical instrument, the glass harmonica's unlikely comeback.

September 9. From the New Yorker, a long and balanced article about Ayahuasca. There's also some good stuff in the Hacker News comment thread, including a link to this Onion article, Ayahuasca Shaman Dreading Another Week Of Guiding Tech CEOs To Spiritual Oneness.

My experience with psychedelics is limited. Psilocybin gives me a hard body trip but no head trip, and I've never had a source for anything stronger. I've done a lot of cannabis, and it has opened paths that I never would have imagined without it. But you still have to walk the path. The problem with expansion of consciousness is that stuff has been blocked from your consciousness for a reason, and it's usually not because society doesn't want you to know that we are all one. More often it's because you have spent your life making terrible mistakes, and living without those mistakes is really hard, but now you have to do it because you know about it. Ignorance is bliss, and to emerge from ignorance is to climb through pain.

I'm not surprised to find the same idea in this long reddit comment about antidepressants, by someone who has studied them through both neuroscience and personal experience. Edited excerpt:

It's a tool. It'll help you in your battle if you need it. Other tools work for other people. The trick is to not rely on it as an easy fix. Depression is hard as fuck to fix. It requires embracing the source of your suffering, the ability to admit your brain is thinking bad thoughts, the ability to reality check yourself, and constant behavior changes to make sure you're setting yourself up for a good life.

September 6. I've been thinking about the meaning of life -- not the conscious large-scale stories about the reason (or lack of reason) that we're in this world, but about the unconscious stories and value systems that guide our small-scale actions. A month ago on the subreddit there was a massive comment thread about MGTOW, men who "believe that legal and romantic entanglements with women fail a cost-benefit analysis." Now it occurs to me that cost-benefit analysis is an optional, peculiar, and mostly unexamined story about the meaning of life.

I mean it can be a useful tool, but it's not a good script to have running in the background all the time, constantly guarding against getting a bad deal. And yet most of us do it. That's why we don't like being cut off in traffic, or being in the slow line at the supermarket, or not getting the best possible price when we buy stuff online. But when is it enough? When do we say, "Okay, over the whole span of my life I'm sure I'm getting a good deal so I'm going to stop caring about that." Most people never say that, because it would leave a void where there used to be meaning. Instead, normal behavior is to skew our perception so we always feel like we're getting a slightly bad deal no matter how good a deal we're getting.

This is part of what Buddhists call attachment and Eckhart Tolle calls ego, but I want to call it incompetent self-gamification. Gamification is "the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts," often by big institutions as part of creepy social control. But we also do it to ourselves all the time, turning everyday life into little games where we can win or lose based on events we don't fully control. And if we really examined this habit, we would find that the excitement of the game is not worth the suffering of losing.

But wait, isn't that a cost-benefit analysis? Maybe my point is that we apply cost-benefit analysis too much toward the outside, and not enough toward the inside.

September 2. Some fun stuff for the weekend. This silly quiz is actually a good execution of a good idea: What Garden of Earthly Delights Abomination Are You? My result strangely nails the deepest tension in my life, between my desire to simply have a good time, and my unseen role in some mysterious tale in which I'm supposed to be doing something or other, and if I try to have too much of a good time I get smacked down. I can relate even better to this 2014 Onion article: Man Hates Being Put In Position Where He Has To Think, Feel, Or Act.

And this might be the greatest joke ever told, Norm MacDonald's Moth Joke. It's actually an old joke that he puts his own spin on. Where other comedians play within the rules of comedy, Norm MacDonald plays with the rules of comedy.

August 31. Continuing from Monday, I want to say a bit more about puritanism, because it's a common affliction of young people outside the dominant culture. I define puritanism as getting a sense of meaning or value from refusing to do a fun thing that ordinary people do. This is a mistake because it's good to have fun and it's good to do more things. Also it's a denial of the power of moderation. The person who watches TV all day and the person who never watches TV have put off learning the same skill.

New subject: I just defined a word, and a long-time reader has just published a book loaded with interesting definitions of a whole bunch of words, many of them made up. Thanks Darren for sending me a free copy of The Apocalypedia. It's a lot like my early writing in that Darren seems to be having great fun striking again and again at the heart of the Beast. What really stands out to me is how thoroughly moral the book is. You can put your finger down at random and ask if the author thinks the thing he's describing is a good thing or a bad thing, and the answer usually jumps off the page. Between that and the book's thick feel and frequent use of burgundy colored text, it reminds me more than anything of a Bible.

August 29. Back when I started writing for the internet, I was already good with words, in some ways better than I am now, but my ideas were mostly kitsch, the text equivalent of Thomas Kinkade paintings and heavy metal album covers. I would just look at the biggest events and come up with the simplest and most superficially exciting stories. Over the years I've shifted my tone from righteousness toward curiosity, my explanations from epic and airtight toward complex and open-ended, and my predictions from what would make a good movie toward what seems to be actually happening. I've made some effort to explain how and why my thinking has changed, but I suppose it's karma that some readers prefer their own simple and flashy explanations.

Last week on the subreddit someone posted the old story that men lose their creative edge when they get a girlfriend. Now, I'm fascinated by creative decay because it seems to happen to everyone. How many musical artists made their best album in their first five years and how many made it after 20 years? Anecdotally, this process can be blamed on anything, but I think being with a new person is more often a source of creative renewal. Look at what Kathleen Brennan did for Tom Waits. And it's suspicious that the people who tell that story tend to be single guys, and that no one ever tells it with the genders reversed.

Anyone who has been in a long-term live-in relationship knows that it's the opposite of settling into comfort. To explain my own experience, I have to start with some deeper background.

Lately my main angle of self-improvement is to become more aware of the voices inside my head. You might think you don't have voices inside your head, but do you ever have internal arguments? That's at least two voices, and where did they come from? I used to take them as absolutes, like the rocks of the mountains, when really they're arbitrary, socially constructed, and within your power to change. It reminds me of the Gurdjieff line, that humans are so ruled by habit that psychology is basically mechanics. Also it reminds me of the Steven Wright line: "The other day I... uh, no, that wasn't me."

So we have all these unexamined habits that we think of as the "self", and we have developed them by engaging with the world. For people we know casually, or people we'll never see again, we have shallow and short-term strategies, but these are going to break down if you're living with someone for years. Probably the only social context in which you have developed and tested deep and long-term strategies is with your weird-ass family.

So, when you look for a long-term partner, you're subconsciously looking for a social environment just like your family, except now you have more power, so you can finally get the happiness you deserve without having to learn anything new. Of course this never happens. As soon as you move in together the tensions start to build, and the only way through is for both partners to grind through the process of developing new habits that hold up over time.

Specifically: I used to be more complainy, more judgmental, and more puritanical. As a writer I was able to make those habits entertaining, but they're bad habits, and as they've gone out of my personal life, they've gone out of my writing.

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