chasing perfection, blurring experience
We can get so caught up in the idea that this tradition and this practice are about somehow perfecting ourselves or about purifying our view. Even if we’re in a tradition that tells us not to see it that way, that particular door feels so wide, so open, so seductive. But if we choose that path, if we try to walk through that door, then we walk past this, the thing that is truly on offer.
This message hits me in the gut. It speaks to a prevalent pattern in me, the habit of trying to optimize the moment, instead of experiencing the moment as it is.
We are conditioned to believe we should optimize the moment. Optimize everything - our lives, relationships, bodies, minds, finances, you name it.
Why not? Isn't optimal...optimal?
The tautology points to the absurdity. We spend our lives optimizing, not recognizing that each moment spent optimizing is a moment not spent experiencing what is. We think we're deferring, punting our experience down the road, to a better, more effortlessly enjoyable moment. Once I'm x, or they are y, or life is z, then I'll get to drop all this efforting and just experience it, just nakedly enjoy it.
When we repeatedly focus on optimizing, rather than experiencing, we reenforce those core beliefs that say the world is not enough as it is, we are not enough as we are, and so now is a time to work, imagine, dig, burrow acorns - anything but nakedly and unguardedly be.
With those beliefs empowered, our outlook remains in a scarcity mode, treating any unsatsifactory elements of experience as something to be fixed, ignored, or otherwise deemed unworthy of our uncompromised attention.
Looking at the world through this lens, the cycle of optimize-scarcity-optimize tightens like a boa constrictor, driving us into narrower and narrower conceptions of reality and our role in it.
This is where the blurring comes in. Some of our attention is on reality as it's emerging in time. The rest is devoted to our optimization app, which is breaking reality down into chunks and then crunching the chunks in its algorithms. Kinda like a photoshop app - we're paying attention not only to the raw images, but also to our ongoing manipulations of them. Our attention is divided between what is and what we're trying to do about it.
So divided, our attention blurs, trying to maintain coherent engagements with both experiences at once. As Kuon Franz said in the initial quote, this door of optimization seems "so wide, so open, so seductive." So we end up spending much of our time in a blur between what is and what we imagine should be, entering and exiting the door of imagination again and again and again. We become so conditioned to this revolving door act that we barely notice how blurry we're being. Sometimes it takes a meltdown or big mistake to realize how blurry we've gotten.
This blurriness then calls for optimization of its own (experience shouldn't be blurry!). So we run more optimization, this time on the blurring creating by...optimization. The snake swallows another segment of its own tail. Our throats tighten. Our gazes stiffen. Our thinking becomes rigid, programmatic, scattered. We suffer more. All in the name of suffering less.
Change occurs when we recognize the futility of it all. Of the optimization-scarcity-optimization cycle. Of the blurred attention required to simultaneously navigate reality and our imagined manipulations of it.
We let go and commit to a new approach: attending to what is. Without the extra game of trying to fix our experience of it.
This doesn't mean we don't attend to situations we wanna change - we clean up spilled milk, apologize when we cause harm. We just don't invest so much energy into compulsively imagining a world where the milk wasn't spilled, where the harm wasn't done. We don't force our mind into alternate reality. We stay with the reality that is. Including the difficult, edgy feelings that arise.
As we do this more and more, we realize a humbling truth - the optimization app was an escape game all along. Telling ourselves we were trying to optimize, really, we were trying to hide from the surges of feelings that seemed too overwhelming to experience directly.
As we de-condition the optimization game, and reacclimate ourselves to a more direct and unguarded experience, we begin to feel these feelings more, and we begin to accept just how difficult that can be - especially when we're also trying to navigate something else (a conversation, task, etc.) at the same time. Just being present with those difficult feelings as they arise, remain, and pass away, is a harrowing experience, sometimes a downright terrifying experience. Add in another person's presence, or a situation where we want badly to succeed, and suddenly we're both terrified & on the spot.
How, exactly, is this better???
We dropped the optimization game to have a more direct experience of what is, to be present here & now, only to discover that what is within is sometimes unbearable, or seems so, at least. In other words, instead of trading blurring for being, as we'd hoped, we've traded blurring reality & optimization for blurring reality & raw suffering.
And in the transitional phase, as we try to break the old habit and generate the new one, we blur all three experiences: reality, optimization, & raw suffering.
Now we're more fragmented and constricted than ever! Hardly seems like progress. Certainly doesn't feel like it much of the time.
So what do we do?
We can try to fix the situation. Optimize it. We may go back to our old habits and abandon the new ones.
We may conclude there's something deeply wrong with us, something profoundly broken, and so we may start treating ourselves as a problem to fix, a corruption to purify.
Or we can surrender. We can accept that our strategic efforts, no matter how clever or well intentioned, always end up tangling us into even nastier knots. We say okay. This uncomfortable feeling has arisen. As has this hostile reaction in me. Now someone's talking, and I'm not catching their meaning. Now there's a strange ache in my foot, and in my stomach there's a disturbance, maybe hunger, maybe angst.
What do I do?
The closer our answer is to nothing, and being, the closer we'll get to raw presence, to experiencing what's "truly on offer," this. We do less that'ing. That feeling. That conversation. That awfulness. "That" shoves experience away, if only in our minds. We accept everything as this, this as here & now, and here & now as our sweet spot, our zone of thriving.
It takes faith. Because much of the time, especially at first, here & now feels very unlike thriving. It feels overwhelming, dangerous even, with so many internal and external stimuli arising at once, and our limited attention struggling to stay on top of it all. It feels like we went from swimming in a pool to swimming in a stormy sea.
So we surrender needing to be on top of it all. We choose presense instead. Here & now. In this moment. With this breath, this beat of the heart. As experience overwhelms our attention, we surrender again, and choose presence again. We choose to be kind with ourselves, patient & compassionate with ourselves, as we break our addictive patterns and train these new muscles.
The old regime dies hard. Addictions use withdrawals to deter sobriety, to knock us off our newfound poise. The addiction to optimization is no different. It puts its thumb on the scale: amplifying our pain, dialing up the destructive impulses & flashing nightmares, blurring & scattering our already limited attention. It sabotages our effort to break free.
Over and over, we wash up on the same shore, and we face the same options. Fall back into our addictive pattern. Run away from it all. Hide from reality in imagination. Or re-surrender, re-choose, re-commit.
Ultimately, we're choosing between reality & the alternate reality we create to escape reality's difficulties & messiness. We can look at this dynamic and say, well yeah, obviously I wanna choose reality. We can feel instinctively in our heart that escapism is a coping mechanism, not a fulfilling way of life. And then we watch ourselves relapse again & again. What do I really want? My heart says one thing, my habits another.
This is where we define ourselves. We honor our habits. We honor the difficulty of breaking them. We honor our hearts. We honor its yearning for direct & honest living. And we brave the unpredictable seas between them. Accepting that habit & heart are equally what is. Accepting that both paths involve suffering. Accepting that only the heart path offers freedom. Accepting that freedom means facing what we've been dodging all this time.
May we point our prow toward the heart's path, our north star.
May we surrender into what is, as unguardedly as the moment's courage allows.