The Secrets of Not Doing Shit

Sometimes the way to feel better is to make yourself feel worse

My therapist stares at me.

I love the company of addicts. They’re the most interesting people I meet. I can smell an addict the second they walk into a room. I look at him sheepishly. And me? He looks back. No, I think you’ve got addictive qualities. You’re impulsive and compulsive. But you’re not a career addict. I can’t smell you. Having said that, he goes on, casting a wary eye on me as he so often does, you need to be mindful.

*

Each morning I wake up and put a little notch on the side of my fridge. It’s the no-fap revolution, I explain to my old man. His eyebrows raise a couple of mms and he reigns them in, creasing into laughter.

Another one of your experiments.

I continue, unfazed. It’s the ultimate in restraint. Zen-mastery over my libido. My record is 44 days, right now I’m on three, but I’m feeling good, this could be a long streak, it’s about laser-like control over your mind. I look over and my father is tiptoeing out of the room.

The experiment in question is one I wrestle with most days. The longer I go without nutting the happier I am. I don’t enjoy the aftermath at all, all it does is highlight every way my life is going badly. I enjoy the curtain coming down I suppose, but there is no applause. Just someone in the corner trying to start a slow-clap and getting nowhere.

Directly after copulation the devil’s laughter is heard.

Schopenhauer

I don’t have a problem with it, I have a problem with myself, after it. It makes me feel sordid. My life is better when I’m abstaining. When I’m on a long streak I feel like the man. Reddit threads declare if you get past six months you start giving off this energy, women can sense it, they just react.

My father is wary of these life-hacks. He has lived long enough to know there is more to life than trying to cunningly short-circuit it. I kind of agree. When someone tells me how listening to audiobooks on 4x the speed means they read up to five books a week, I also feel an urge to tiptoe out of a room.

But these experiments I was telling my dad about, ones I have at various times over the last decade been up to my eyeballs in, are conspicuous by something else. Instead of making my life easier, they do the opposite. They make it harder.

*

I didn’t drink for eight months. It made me make friends with myself. Depriving myself of the respite of a drink, left me with no option but to sit there in a sober state and get to know me.

I didn’t eat for three days. It changed how I understood food, how much of it I needed to stay alive. 36 hours into a water-fast was one of the best drugs on the planet.

I didn’t look at the news for a month. If nukes were incoming my mother was bound to text, asides from that the world would keep spinning. I became more present in my surroundings, more calm, more at peace.

I didn’t take a warm shower for a year. Turning off my boiler in the dead of winter and stepping in the shower was a horror-show, but getting out was otherworldly. There was no mood a cold shower couldn’t snap me out of.

Reigning my left wrist in for 44 days was proof that succumbing to the whim of my impulses was a dead-end street. Ejaculate brought me no closer to enlightenment.

The Greeks called them Gods. Lust, greed, rage. Psychological forces that could take us over and submit us to their will. The Buddhists spoke of Hungry Ghosts that follow us around, tapping on our shoulder, demanding we feed them. I thought of my therapist’s line.

You’re not a career addict, you have addictive qualities.

You’re impulsive, compulsive.

A question leered at me. When did I ever tell myself no. When did I ever feel hunger and wait. When did I ever feel my attention wain and not sink into a quagmire of YouTube. When did I lie in bed alone feeling commotion in my loins and open a good book.

I was totally at the whim of my impulses. These prohibitions were a part of me going bro sort your shit out. What would life be like if you didn’t succumb immediately to your reptilian brain. The part that was always trying to get somewhere, get away from somewhere, the next drink, the next click, the next bit of input that would get me where I needed to be as the drooling beast of impulse growled at my door, what next, what next, what did I need to achieve comfort.

Cavemen spent their entire lives waiting. When they happened across some berries on an idle morning something lit up in inside them, a dopamine receptor. We evolved to release dopamine every time the reward-centre of our brain was activated. It served a function, a dangled carrot designed to keep us motivated to stay alive.

The problem with dopamine is that we have hacked the algorithm, now every little thing in modern culture is designed to trigger it, so at the merest touch of a button our dopamine receptors light up. My parents spent 3/4 of their lives without internet and my mother now walks around with an iPad strapped to her forehead while my father spends his waking hours salivating in anticipation of a new Netfleex Especial.

What hope do Gen Z have.

It feels like somewhere down the line we lost our ability to just sit. What we did most days for hundreds of thousands of years. That’s what being a person is, said Louis CK, to sit there doing nothing. That’s what the phones are taking away.

I lack the peace of simple things.
I am never wholly in place.
I find no peace or grace.

Wendell Berry

*

In 2018 I attended a rip-off TM (transcendental meditation) course in Islington run by a dodgy guy called Neil. I didn’t know it then, but it turned out to be priceless. By meditating most days I learnt something I’d never understood, the difference between my perception and reality, the idea that thoughts were just stories my brain was telling me. Like a cloud moving across the sun, I could watch a negative thought enter my head and depart. I didn’t have to grab hold of it, I could just witness it.

These impulses were the same. If I trained myself not to answer when they came knocking, hunger departed, attention refocused, lust ebbed away. By forcing my dopamine-addicted brain to go cold turkey I could recode the algorithms, in a world doing its best to distract me I could take back control. It compounded. Before I knew it, I was on the autobahn to full-monk and I was loving it.

One night I showed a mate the side of my fridge. Just have a wank you twat, he said. I mean he was right. Where did it end. The problem with control is that it can go too far, you can tip over into full Patrick Bateman. Nobody wants to live like that.

*

Luckily something happened last year.

After many months of lockdown the world began to exhale. A spirit of mischief took hold of the capital. People went crazy. Some of my most professional friends were doing their best Toni Montana impressions most weekends.

Having spent half the year sober as a judge, I followed suit. Who was I to miss out on all the fun. Slowly but surely the discipline I’d built up, the monk-like mastery, to sit in my negative thoughts without distraction, began to subside.

Towards the end of the year, bouncing off the walls having more fun than I knew what to do with, I ignored the signs that slowly and imperceptibly I was moving away from my centre, from the anchor that kept me tethered. The hungry ghosts came knocking, and I began to grow unhappy.

Sat in my meditation chair one morning something landed up top, and I went over to get it down in my book before it disappeared.

You have a wise emotional centre. That is what sobriety touches base with. You grow to know it, and you befriend it, in turn you befriend yourself. You understand what life, your life, is without this external stimulus. You grow to know how to survive with just you. Without the need for these things. But they creep back in, because that is our disposition, to mind-alter, and before you know it, because these things are so good, you start relying on them for kicks, to get you through things. Next drink. Next smash-up. And we forget this centering, the link with our wise self grows faint, inaudible. Only by austerity do we learn we have power over it, to not be slave to the next impulse, the next thought that careens through our head.

By that point it was all a bit late, and as winter descended I fell into a depression. But perhaps that was the learning. To show me what was bound to happen if I didn’t take the right care of myself.

*

And so…

Buddhist monks denied themselves the worldly pleasures on a path to enlightenment. My reason for these experiments, for getting my monk-on, was to stop myself from going nuts, in a world tailor-made to make my life as easy as possible, to remember that going without whatever I needed might not be such a bad idea.

When the hungry ghosts grew loud, these austerities rebooted me, like a rehab for my bad habits, an anchor tethering me to something deeper. In a world as relentless as ours, spiritual practice could be the life raft I didn’t know I needed. Reminding me that life might consist not so much in changing the outside world but in changing how I thought about it.

Writing this I had a lightbulb moment.

Put your money where your mouth is. A 3 day water-fast, get you in the mood. Gain peace of mind, clarity, stimulate all sorts of processes in your digestive system. I cleared my fridge out, got into a zen headspace. 28 hours in, at 2am my hunger did a drum solo of my stomach and crawling Nam style to the fridge I engulfed the only thing left in it, half a block of parmesan with five spoonfuls of heather honey.

*

It occurred to me once that life is an escalator, comprised of two gears. Active and passive. You either walk up, or you stand there and let it take you. Two modes of being. You move life forward, or you let life happen. A good life, I thought, must consist of being in the active gear, striding up two steps at a time.

What if there is a third gear. One that lets the escalator take you, not because you are at a low ebb and life has you by the balls, but out of choice. To pause, remove yourself from the maelstrom, take a deep breath in and stand there, surveying the world around you as it moves on by.

There is a definitely a fourth gear. Probably the most accurate.

The one where life kicks your ass.

But I suppose in the end, gets you where you need to be.