You can read Part 2 here: My Experiment: Part 2 – The Return
Now that I’m away from all the situations that trigger my automatic responses, and slowing down my life, I’m becoming aware of the baseline programs running in my brain. I’m noticing my brain spends a lot of time planning for the future, thinking what I should do next, both in the short-term and long-term. This seems to be a common program that starts spinning up in my brain, thinking about the future, what I need to do to maximize happiness. It’s easy to spend so much time scheming for the future that I miss out on the present.
I read an interesting passage in Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment that touches on this topic. “One of the Buddha’s main messages was that the pleasures we seek evaporate quickly and leave us thirsting for more. We spend our time looking for the next gratifying thing, the next powdered sugar donut, the next sexual encounter, the next status-enhancing promotion, the next online purchase. But the thrill always fades, and it always leaves us wanting more.”
I’m noticing this happening to me. When all my schemes finally come to fruition, I often rarely get to enjoy the rewards, because my brain starts up again with new schemes.
Examining this dilemma through the lens of evolutionary psychology provides some insight. According to Wright, “We were ‘designed’ by natural selection to do certain things that helped our ancestors get their genes into the next generation…. Pleasure is designed by natural selection to evaporate, so that the ensuing dissatisfaction will get us to pursue more pleasure. Natural selection doesn’t want us to be happy after all, it just wants us to be productive… and the way to make us productive is to make the anticipation of pleasure very strong, but the pleasure itself not very long lasting.”
We’re programed to always want more, because cavemen who always wanted more passed on more genes than those who were content with life. But now that we’re not facing the same selective pressures our cavemen ancestors faced, that drive to always want more is making us crazy and destroying the environment.
I kept experiencing the other night, listening to the phenomenal musicians performing at the local open mic. Sometimes they get into a groove, and it’s like the world disappears, and the only thing that exists is the music. A moment of peak experience, when I’m totally present in the moment, absorbed in the music. Then the moment would pass, and my brain would start coming up for ideas of what I need to do, what circumstances I need to change in order to get back into that peak experience.
I began to realize that instead of doing anything, changing anything, if I just relax, and open my senses back up to the present, I could get back into the feeling of peak experience, sink back down into that total absorption in the moment. Throughout the night, whenever I noticed that dissatisfaction growing, I’d try to just let go of it, drop down out my mind and into my senses, fully experience whatever was going on around. It wasn’t always successful, sometimes I did need to move of change something. But overall, by continually focusing on experiencing my environment instead of judging it, I kept settling into a state of contentment. It was a pretty cool experience, and it made for a great night.
The next morning, when I had to work, it was much harder to stay totally focused in the moment, so I still have work to do. In theory, if my mind is really quiet, I should be able to be content in any environment. But I’m not there yet. In the meantime, moving to Costa Rica, to this totally new environment, is facilitating my efforts to be present. There is so much natural beauty around, and so many happy, content people, that it takes less effort to fully experience the environment. There’s lots there that I want to experience fully. The constant crashing of waves, the ocean sparkling in the sun, insect and bird calls, fascinating stories from people’s lives. It’s easier to get absorbed in the wonder surrounding me.
You can read Part 4 here: My Experiment: Part 4 – Breaking Patterns