For many years I have described myself, in profiles online, as a hedonist. As much as any label can fit someone, it seems to fit me. This past weekend I’ve started to understand why that’s so.
I’ve described my recent ‘presence’ journey as, in part, a moving from being primarily reactive to needs, to being driven by wants, and finally to being at peace with what is. Until recently, however, although I feel less reactive, less obsessed with needs (mostly around the ‘need’ to be free from the fears and anxiety that have so damaged my health), I have found that my wants are piling up, waiting for their turn to preoccupy me.
Some definitions of what I mean: To me a need is something you can’t be or do without, an incompleteness you carry with you like an anchor. A want is something you crave, something you are driven to distraction to pursue and satisfy. Failure to meet a need makes you dysfunctional or ill; failure to meet a want merely makes you unhappy.
I should also stress that needs and wants are subjective. Perception is, alas, often our reality: We may actually be able to function very well without something we perceive as a need, but the very fact that we feel it as a need can render us dysfunctional or make us ill.
The word I have used for that (relatively) need-free, want-free state in past has been love, but that ambiguous and emotionally laden word has been so debased (and used in deliberately vague and ambiguous ways) in modern discourse that it’s become, in many contexts, meaningless. The word I’m starting to use instead is equanimity. The Pali language term for it is upekkha, as in Buddhism’s four essences or sublime states that remain after enlightenment: metta (loving kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (joy in others’ joy— what is known in polyamory circles as compersion), and upekkha (equanimity).
When I am (all too rarely and shallowly) in that state of equanimity, I receive pleasure from everything I do, and from just being. The word pleasure comes from the Latin words meaning ‘calm delight’ (the word hedonism comes from similar words in Greek). Our culture has imbued these words with somewhat lascivious and shallow connotations, but I mean these words in this sense of peaceful joy. So while there is love that is very needy (and causes great suffering when it is even temporarily removed), and there is love that brings an unsatisfiable craving for more, and there is the craving for love itself when it is felt to be missing or inadequate, there is a different, less urgent and less ecstatic love that arises in this state of equanimity as well, a love that is accepting, appreciative, open and boundless and not focused on any specific person or thing.
When I used to say ‘I love you’ I often meant ‘I need you, I can’t be or do anything without you, I’m incomplete without you’, or ‘I want you, I crave your presence, your attention, your body, your appreciation, your affection, and I miss that whenever you are not around’. But now it means something more to me like ‘Your presence brings me pleasure, fills me with peaceful joy’. I won’t be sad when you’re away, I won’t ‘miss you’, but I’ll be delighted if/whenever you are back in my presence.
In this sense I love two amazing women, I love the rainforest, I love the warm ocean beaches, I love to play, I love to just be in that peaceful state of joy, to be open and aware of and accepting of just what so astonishingly is. Equanimous love, a more enduring state, may lack the euphoria of being ‘in love’ (or ‘in lust’), and may lack the roiling surge of potent chemicals of attraction, attachment and utter preoccupation, but it is no less wondrous or magical for that. More than personal love, it is metta, karuna, mudita and upekkha all rolled into one.
Much of my realization of this came from the brief time I spent this past weekend with a remarkable and delightful young woman who seems to reside in this state of present equanimity most of the time, and yet, like a feral creature, hasn’t really articulated this in words, and comes across to some, I think, as a bit distant, lost in her own world. Being in her company is like being with something wild, and while we talked for hours, to our obvious mutual pleasure (when she’s thinking about an understanding or idea that she finds satisfying or interesting the only way to describe the sound she makes is a purr), it was almost as if we were speaking different languages, learning new ways to understand and appreciate what each of us deep within already knew but had never thought about in quite this way.
What does it mean to see the world as a wild being? While it might be frustrating to be seen by others as somewhat un-analytical, naive, and perhaps distant or indifferent, such a worldview, I think, could allow one to transcend some of the limiting thinking that civilization culture has constrained us to, as that culture has formed and informed our neural pathways throughout our lives.
I began to wonder: Could it be that upcoming generations, the ones who will inherit our ruinous and bankrupt culture, are already beginning to rewild themselves, as they have remained relatively untainted by the culturally entrained beliefs and ways of thinking that have kept us in thrall?
As we talked a bit about my New Political Map, I began to realize that its worldviews, from Humanist and Transitional through Activist, Communitarian, Existentialist and Extinctionist, are all paradigms of older people seeking alternatives to the dominant culture from within this culture. What my young friend’s worldview most resembled to me was an Anarchist one, similar to that of the 1960s idealists and dreamers like Wolfi Landstreicher, a worldview that is utterly radical, indifferent to and disinterested in, rather than violently opposed to or rejecting, the dominant culture.
If I understood my young friend correctly, that perspective might allow them (and us, if we could fathom it) to truly walk away from that dominant culture and forge new ones that are intuitively sensible for a world of staggering change, and then, hopefully after that, for the world of radical new beginnings that they will inherit.
This may be merely a romantic notion on my part, but it has made more and more sense to me as I listened to and bounced ideas off my young friend. Perhaps what we perceive to be anomie in our youngest citizens is nothing of the sort, but instead the start of an instinctive preparation to cast off what they never appreciated (or benefited from). Perhaps the astonishing eagerness and patient experimentation with radical ways of being that I have noticed in youthful collectives like Beautiful Trouble or the Mud Girls is not naive optimism but rather a necessary equanimity.
As my friend and I spoke, I began to question several of the fundamental ideas and beliefs that have underpinned my worldview and the decisions I have made about my life for many years. From a feral, anarchistic perspective, many of them are starting to seem to me obviously flawed, and still too rooted in entrained cultural thinking. Not radical enough.
For example, instead of quitting our jobs and doing the ‘meaningful’ work ‘we are meant to do’, should we be more radically rejecting the very idea of work — any work, especially if it’s compulsory? Prehistoric human societies didn’t do ‘work’ — they lived in trees and ate the abundant foods at hand, and if those ceased to be abundant they migrated to where they were. The whole idea of work as necessary, desirous or virtuous is actually kind of insane. Goodbye Sweet Spot. How might we find ways to live comfortably free of any ‘work’?
And what about this idea of our lives having a ‘purpose’ or meaning? If we are all expressions of life’s one consciousness, an emergence of joy in just being, why should we need or want or expect life to have any ‘purpose’? Why should the random walk that led to the temporary emergence of complex life on Earth, no matter how improbable, have to be ‘meaningful’? What would it be like to live a life free of purpose and meaning?
And similarly, what about the idea of personal love (love of one person for another) as being desirable or virtuous? The emergence of feelings of intense love and lust by who we imagine ourselves to be for those we imagine others to be may be an obvious evolutionary success, but is it not fundamentally illusory, a form of delicious but unsustainable madness (and sometimes enslavement)? We can’t hope to know who another really is or what they feel, and the very notion of a separate self is arguably a mental construct, not real at all. Instead of seeing love as a universal answer to everything, “all you need” or something that “conquers all [obstacles]”, what would it be like to live a life free of personal love?
And what about the idea that inaction is lazy or otherwise not virtuous, that we have the free will and responsibility as a human adult to do what we can to make our communities and our world better, more just, more resilient, less dependent, or at least less terrible?. This would seem to be a belief rooted in the religion of ‘progress’, reinforced by civilization’s largely-falsified success stories of those ‘heroes’ who have chosen to act, the belief that the 100 trillion cells that make up each individual are capable of collectively exercising the ‘self’-control and free will to choose, and the belief we actually can influence or control outcomes or prepare for the unknowable through intention, which is belied by everything we know about complexity. What would it be like to live a life free of expectation, responsibility, and the belief that ‘intentional’ choices and actions are (a) possible and (b) likely to make any significant difference?
And finally, some radical thinking about conversation and language: Wild creatures thrive without the need to talk with each other conceptually or abstractly. They meet, love, mate, and live full, aware, connected lives without the need to express ideas or beliefs. Birds have two sets of vocalizations — those that warn of specific and immediate dangers (“calls”), and those that are joyful expressions of being alive (“songs”). The former are intuitive and unambiguous, and the latter are emotional — artistic rather than conversational. What would it be like to live a life free of conversation and the thinking that underlies it? What would it be like to live a life entirely without abstract language, as we have done for at least two thirds of human life’s history on Earth?
These are unsettling, even infuriating ideas, to be sure. Most truly radical ideas are. At first blush, the idea of living without work, purpose, personal love, intentional actions, conversation, abstract language and abstract thought, might seem outrageous, impossible, unconscionable, empty. I’m still just starting to think my way through them.
Perhaps if we watch non-human wild creatures we might see that this is how they live, that this is the essence of being wild rather than domesticated. I’ve observed that (except when their habitats are suddenly destroyed by human activity) wild creatures seemingly have no wants, no needs. Except during the short season of rearing their young, their lives are full of abundance, leisure and, presumably, pleasure. Except in our dreams, it is too late for us all to live like that — too many of us now, and the lands where we lived naturally are largely desolated and destroyed.
Still, we can, some of us, the lucky ones, at least some of the time, just be, in the sublime states of metta, karuna, mudita and upekkha, taking pleasure in everything — notably in beauty and the company of other wild and somewhat de-civilized creatures. In the process we will come to recognize each other, perhaps, learning the signals, being a little bit tribal, a little bit feral, together. What we will do while at peace in those wild states is instinctive, beyond ‘our’ control, though it is certain to be pleasurable.
We will, regardless, do our best; we cannot do otherwise.
Peeling and tearing off a little bit more of the gunk that our culture has, with the best of intentions, plastered on to me in trying to make me everybody else. Still, there seem to be so many layers of it remaining. I wonder if, once they are all peeled away, there will be anything left, or if I will just vanish.
Thanks to Smoky for much of the inspiration for this article.