“What we desire can distract us from how we desire. How we desire can distract us from what we desire.”
–Adam Phillips, Attention Seeking
What a word! Just typing it seems like a waste of life, a drain on my vital reserves. Well, it’s up there now and I’ll refer to it sparingly, judiciously. It does exist as a word (hence the problem we face), and even if it exists as a concept—(which I want to challenge)—I have doubts about the bulk of the instances in which it’s used. How often do we let this dubious term slide in as knee-jerk name for a whole lot of time, experience, sensation and movement that I (personally) would rather call my life?
So I’m going to subtract the word from our options now. Vamoosh. Gone.
Like a hideous Tinkerbelle, this idea (that harms you; yes, I reckon mostly it does you no good at all) can only exist now, in my proposed mind-experiment, when you believe in it. That’s right, p__________ is something you conjure, and if you don’t conjure it (as concept) it won’t be what’s happening.
I’m suggesting that you unbelieve in this word that—along with its evil twin, productivity—has snuck into our talk as a bad logic, as an unexamined thinking, that cares not a jot for you and your short span on this whirling, blueish ball.
You’re a lovely person (complicated, sure)—but probably a zinging, thrilling, changeable and true creature, full of impulses, devotion, inclinations and hunches, decision, ethics and some smarts. And p__________ (over-used, misused, such a dreary term) has the potential to cramp your style, render you sorry, nervous and wan. It has the very real effect of making you dithery and too-often apologetic for being alive, for feeling anything, for getting in life’s canoe and appreciating the scenery.
More than this, and arguably worse, the p-word has the potential to make you Distrust What You Want. P__________ (as term) is the missing ingredient in a bigger and uglier cake that might make you systematically second-guess your own longings or your own moments of Intelligent Pausing. P__________ can have the dire effect of making you regard your inner compass like some dodgy tech purchased during a kamikaze binge on Am(or)a(l)zon.
If you think I’m about to extol now some spontaneous, original tendency that rises up within us as a purer source of direction, as a natural font of morality, the original and “better” version of you, then you have misread my sensibility. Even I could misread my own sensibility along such lines, if I wasn’t very careful, given the kinds of sloppy thinking to which a modern person is prone. This essay is going for more precision than that.If I’ve learned anything from years of yoga and meditation teaching, it’s that one should never try to relieve people of their suffering.
We’ll have to entertain a few things at once, allow a few things to hover together in mid-air without collapsing them, to fully appreciate what can go wrong when we predominantly have recourse to a p__________ logic, rather than to a better framework for classifying (non)action, something more considerate, funnier, and less moody in the mornings.
What I’m going to argue is that wanting, rather than being wholly “natural” or something we “lost and could recover,” is something rather that we can choose either to cultivate or to chronically suspect. If you do the latter, over time, you end up with jumpy, skittish wants that you don’t—surprise! surprise!—trust. And if you do the former, if you take wanting as a seed worth treasuring, and you take care of it, by engaging with it non-suspiciously, wanting starts to deliver.
Your little wanting plot. Juicy soil. Non-GM seeds.
P__________ does a Monsanto on your capacity for inclination such that it always turns out to be foolish, unwise, endangering: a prophecy that fulfills itself.
People often avoid big words (so many syllables, so little time), but p__________ is a word that we seem to have learned to say quite fluently. People declare themselves—whether inwardly or out loud—to be pr%cra$tin*ting umpteen times a day. Or so I hear. I never use the dirty thing. (Along with its partner in Crimes Against Humanity, that you could consider weening yourself off: “productive,” the matching, prêt-à-porter p-word abhorrence.)
Speaking of words, “digress” is a snappier and more joyful word than p__________. So I’m going to use it and do it, right now.
In the final year of my degree, which was in German, I’d acquired a fair translation of the Tao Te Ching, and I read it a lot. In my Western-person, probably-distorted, reading of a staple text of Taoism, I did many passes through the book’s pages and logics. I even copied the whole thing out for a good friend, by hand, and hand-stitched a protective pocket out of silk, for this volume to be wrapped in. Golly—that was the kind of time it was.
I was living in a massive old wool-store, on the second floor, sharing with various artists, makers, and performers. They were unruly, smart, unconventional, and got stuff done—long dinners, dance parties, festivals, projects, performances, activisms, community initiatives, love-affairs, re-decorating, degrees. We also had a large swing that I’d made out of a recycled piece of hardwood, with a huge pendulum of heavy-gauge rope, and it swung almost out through the old doors where the bales would’ve been hoisted up in the day. But it didn’t quite. You felt as if you might fly off and never recover yourself, by going with the direction of that swing, but actually you did recover yourself, and the risk wasn’t as great as it seemed…
So, while I was finishing up some serious final year essays, I was also reading Taoism for fun. My reading of the text (in hindsight not such a terrible reading) was that there was this kind of force or principle, and it wasn’t nameable, and that I could learn to align with it, if I listened well, rather than fighting it at every step. It was “in” me; or I was “of” it (the first verse of the Tao Te Ching explains why I’ve got no hope in articulating this, really…) It was removed from the realm of any mutinous fuck-you to convention (it wasn’t a transgressive wanting/movement), nor was it a self-focused prioritizing of the tricksy and spurious “I” of identity. The upshot was a bit subtler, and rather than speaking about it, I was experimenting with it. I was doing tests on the concept in my own life (like climbing onto that swing and risking being hurled into the alley).
My idea-turned-experiment, which I thought might reveal something about this movement, about this principle, Tao, was that I wouldn’t do anything that I didn’t sincerely want to do. Such were the parameters. It was risky, but I took on the full brunt of the possible consequences of such an approach, with the idea that this would ensure the rigor of my efforts.All of this, all of this talk about p__________ is definitely not something which you “should” take up. No, please don’t. Not in this world of cynical advice.
Concept: my impulse (something non-suspicious and even wise in its own way) mattered, and that it could be included, rather than only interrogated or shaped by “shoulds” and super-egoic bullyings and brattish rebounds. I guess I wondered whether the capacity to listen to the want and the want itself could be refined, could become a mode of discernment. And that even if the wants were a bit raw to begin with, a bit immature, or shambolic, how else would I ever know myself if I didn’t at least admit or entertain them somewhat. (“Somewhat” here might just mean mentally acknowledging that the want is there, and then deciding within one’s ethical framework what one will do—given kindness, decency, consideration of others, legality.)
Bigger Theory: that this Work of Wanting wouldn’t stay the same over time. The want would become more elegant, artful. Nevertheless I couldn’t jump over the wants that momentarily constituted me now: the Want-I-Was. I had to navigate via it, but closely, honorably.
So there was a big essay that my class had to finish before semester wound up. I was out doing the grocery shopping (which was meagre in those days) and I bumped into a classmate. She was a very different creature to me, and we would end up having a history of friction because of it. She asked me how the essay was going (on Friday afternoon; it was due Tuesday, perhaps?)
“How’s the essay going?” (friendly, pleasant smile)
“Oh, not sure. I haven’t started it yet.” (friendly return-smile)
“Oh, Antonia! What do you mean you haven’t started it? That’s a disaster. It’s due next week.” (with disapproval, and perhaps slightly-schadenfreudic concern)
“Sure, I guess I’ll do it when I want to do it. And if I don’t want to do it, that will also be information.” (genuine, but very annoying reply)
“…” (some kind of sour facial spasm, laced with concealed glee)
I can see that, from a certain more-conventional world-view, I probably sounded like a careless asshole. I could have seemed like someone who was being explicitly cavalier about the privilege of an education (and its assessment processes) that many on the planet would sacrifice a limb for. This is true. And her disapproval was far more conventionally apt than was my off-hand, idiot-savant reply.
I probably went home via the garbage skips behind the bagel shop, and fished out a good dozen that we’d all eat that night, covered in vegan butter and various spreads. (My carb-heavy vegan experiment went a lot less well than my Tao-activation efforts, but that’s another story…)
My experimental logic, though, was not entirely daft. It went like this: I’m at university—at this higher level now, it was a 4th year Honours program—training to be an academic maybe or foreseeably someone who writes as their job. If I find myself never wanting to write essays, if I find that I get no simple and sincere joy from writing essays, then probably this career would be a bad fit for me. I would hate the very thing that constitutes its fabric. Hence, if I find that I genuinely don’t want to write this or further essays, then I will have clarified that this isn’t the career path for me, and that’s good information to have—right? Or I will have clarified that if I still choose this career, then a dollop of not-liking/not-wanting will be part of my daily life, and I could shut up about that, not subject everyone I meet to how hard that is for me, because… I checked it out; I did some preliminary tests.
Standing on that street corner, or wherever we were, all those years ago, it did not occur to me to summon the term p__________ to give an account to my classmate as to why I was not using time (not relating to time, not framing temporality more generally) in the way she deemed time should be used (related to, framed, etc.). In a way, I was working very closely with finding out how I wanted to consider time at all. Rather than simply being on auto-pilot Compliant Time, one that’s assumed to be generalizable and common-sensical, I was doing some coal-face research and discovering that time’s not really an “entity” or “object” that one “uses” at all. (This, furthermore, speaks to the problem with many Colour-By-Number approaches to time-management, or LinkedInfluencers spruiking their Schedule Religions, or whatever. Assuming time to be a transactional “thing,’’ they end up inferring that their compulsion is a model for the right kind of desire, and even that they know their own desire, and I’m not convinced they do… and neither is the whole field of contemporary psychoanalysis.)My best work, the solutions to things, the redirections that arrive like grace, take place for me in many windows that others would call p__________.
In terms of the dominant paradigm, what I was up to was, arguably, preposterous. It was dangerous, unhinged, powerful, risky, a bit cheeky, and thus in dire need of some domestication. My classmate, perhaps sensing this—power to her—probably would have found my approach neither interesting nor bracing. Just… irresponsible, and beside the point. For her the point seemed to be pleasing the examiners, climbing the ranks, and probably getting better marks than her wild-card peer. If she found her own pleasure in this caper and its parameters, then in some ways, we were doing the same thing, just with a different décor.
Anyway, why this (over)use of a (troubling, unkind and, for the purpose of this essay, evaporated) word? Why do we mobilize it? The pseudo-naive question might be: what’s it doing for us?
Honestly, from a certain point-of-view: I don’t really know.* P__________ seems more like a slap, or like calling yourself names: Pr%cra$tin*tor! It belongs to that class of obsolete parenting, coaching, teaching etc. which imagines that you get the best out of people by putting them down, by making them afraid. I believe it’s called “putting a fire under.” P__________ isn’t very warm or bright, however, and it sounds and tastes like defeat. It’s as if it always knows in advance, before you do, that you’ve already missed the Achievement Boat for that day, that hour, that minute.
As a word, it is the perfect neoliberal condiment to accompany the belly-ache brought on by the binary called: Achieving/Failing, Winners/Losers—that kind of tedious, incapacitating thinking. It is one side of the gruesome, vulgar and ubiquitous pair, the other side being (as hinted above)… “pr&duct!ve.”** As word, p__________ seems good-for-nothing like a number of tired leadership models, that we ought to keep closer eye on and call out for their Schmuckdom.
What’s helpful to grasp, I think, is simply that the word p__________ is useful for being mean to ourselves (with all the secondary gains that we secretly hope will come of this grimy strategy, which perhaps do come, but I wouldn’t know because I don’t use it). The word is in cahoots with a part of us that has been brainwashing us since forever that we need to toughen up; that we will “get more done” if we are disparaging and nasty to ourselves. It’s a vision that splits the person into two, and where one part Pays Out Big Time on the other part.
Both parts here, arguably—participating in their internal SM (that is: often already-plotted, less risky) scenario—harbor the belief that we never do things out of joy, out of generosity, out of sheer desire, oddness and juicy, untrammeled (but perhaps honed) impulse. In a single maneuver, by throwing the p-word about, we manage to: i) cut ourselves off at the knees (in terms of agency); and ii) turn sour or alienated the very stuff we actually would have liked, even loved, doing.
Do we say the p-word around our kids, around young humans? Do we model suspicion about wanting and impulse from a tender age so that any chance they might have to listen to themselves, to relax into learning about themselves, is interrupted, if not obliterated at the get-go? Do we not only fail to keep the internal taunter at bay, but actually introduce them to this figure!? The function that will take over from our authoritative voice for the rest of their lives? (Of course we do—that’s the Super Ego—but we could do it a tiny bit less forcefully…)
The hard thing about being an adult is trying to work out what not to bequeath down the line.
P__________ is no trust fund.
From memory, it was early Friday evening, down at the shops. And the essay was due on Tuesday, or even Monday. These are the historical facts.
P__________ is a word that people tend to use to describe their activities, either in the moment, or in accounts to others, after the fact. P__________ splits the things we do into at least two categories: those that we think “count” or make us “virtuous” (eek!); and those that we deem “distractions” or superfluous tinkerings. As if we’d know! As if we can really sort our life before the fact into such miserable piles. If we were looking for a simple definition (which appears to hold water, but only on first glance), we could say that a person is said to “pr%cra$tin*te” when they end up doing something when they should be doing or they intended to do something else.
As with most things, one has to go into the logic informing this “should” and the fine-grain of this “intention” to get a sharper picture of what’s driving the misery. As Byung-Chul Han, the Berlin-based Korean thinker, might say: the thing the current regime says you “should” be doing is activating your “can” at all times. This sounds good (if you’re raised on the 1% Milk of neoliberalism) but—as Han has articulated very well—it’s a cipher for a certain subordination and has profound problems. Problems for your Person, for your Happiness, for your… Exuberant Trajectory.I had made it clear to myself that I didn’t have to write an essay. I was curious to see what I would do with my weekend. Rain. Bagels. Books. Time. Whim. Interest.
Furthermore, p__________ evokes the surprise that we feel when our understandings of agency don’t match up with the Hype Around About Subjectivity. I mean, when our received understandings about ourselves as conscious persons are actually quite fantastical, skewed and imprecise. The PR about being a person is (typically) that we are conscious beings, who know what we want, and that we take logical steps in relation to these wants. (Of course, the mirror-image of this idea is also at the same time that we are apparently deeply awful, insubordinate, inconsiderate and lazy etc.)
The Cover-Story about Subjectivity implies that our impulses naturally cohere to form a unity in action, whereas deep-in-the-machine things work very, very differently. The word p__________ gets thrown around to account for these divergent lines of whim and movement, of happening and direction. If we used the p-word to hint at how interesting this all was, with a modicum of wonder and respect, I wouldn’t be writing this essay. But we don’t use it descriptively, we use it disparagingly. P__________ (read straight) is what we Shouldn’t Be Doing. But who says? Obviously, it’s a moralistic and ideological slice of the Industrial-Military-Linguistic-Complex. Nietzsche knew lots about this confusion, and I quote:
The primeval delusion still lives on that one knows, and knows quite precisely in every case, how human action is brought about … Is the “terrible” truth not that no amount of knowledge about an act ever suffices to ensure its performance, that the space between knowledge and action has never yet been bridged even in one single instance? Actions are never what they appear to be! (From Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality; emphasis added.)
To digest Nietzsche’s unexpected claim about action, the reader might need time to chew its counterintuitive, but compelling, take. We tend to think we are the straightforward authors of our actions, but the story is (yay!) more complicated and (yippee!) interesting. P__________ is the word that colludes with this illusion, and situates our not-being-coherent-in-action as a personal fault, rather than as an ontological wonder. The word suggests that when actions unfold differently to our conscious understandings, there is a pathology, or a disobedience or something a little bit embarrassing or demeaning going on. Rather, Nietzsche says: this is how-it-is, folks. I say: It’s also kinda great. Because we can ride it, live it well, with some sexy flair for thinking.
That Friday evening (when the internet was still a gleam in its parents eyes), I think I opened one of the books I’d borrowed from the library about Rilke and the Duino Elegies. I also had some photocopies of critical essays and articles. I had some stuff lying around that I’d gathered over the course of the semester. Was it raining that night, on the metal roof of the warehouse? Good soothing rain-sounds enveloping the building. Was it a bit haunting, sitting there at my massive desk made from a converted boarding-school door, while others were out? I can’t recall whether bagels or no bagels. I felt like reading, and so I started reading.
I learned to do something in among these early experiments. I’m not recommending you try them. Seriously, I’m not. This is an essay, not a self-help book. The approach I’m sketching isn’t for everyone. But I did really want to risk facing my preferences. (Sometimes I’m fearless in stupid ways—you decide). If one only does the things one should (I thought), one never also encounters the fact that these should-activities (this category can get very hardened and rigid) also cross over with things one wants. Should cancels want. (Politics glimmers here, dark and smarmy.)
This is the problem with obedience/transgression binaries. They wreck all the fun; they sap all your capacity. People think transgression makes fun, but I disagree. My experiment was a bracing, high-jinx exercise in dismantling the fuel for transgression. Dismantling it as category. If we think our options are either compliance or throwing off authority, we remain under authority. That is: under the authority of the very binary that supports its own polarities and keeps us busy (okay / fuck you / alright then / no way / sure, I give in / just try to make me).
Another obvious reason why a mode of behavior (which you may have been taught to call p__________) might have become a little too fraught, too deafening in your life might have to do with a Once Authority who is no longer there. P__________ can also be the left-overs of a quiet mode of canny resistance that had its use under genuinely oppressive scenarios (in a school, in a family, in sibling dynamics, wherever). It might be that you invented and perfected a fierce technique of evading and protesting unfair power that now looks like p__________. It was great then; it was appropriate and creative, but now it’s a debilitating show with an audience of… one. That is, it’s become entrenched and nobody (‘cept you) is watching anymore.
This reminds me of an idea in Lacanian psychoanalysis, I think, it’s something like lingering in the circuit of the other’s demand. We imagine (that we can accurately imagine) what the other wants from us, and then decide to yield or withhold. (It amounts often to the same.) As reactive stance, it masks the fact that the other’s desire is not to be fathomed. That’s the blatant truth. One’s own desire is not even (really), as overall direction, to be fathomed. But what we can do is roller skate, surf, longboard our impulses—intelligently, cannily, with an eye on (this particularly astute) observation of Nietzsche’s.
So, let’s say—returning to our subtraction method—I state that I never do behaviors that I designate as p__________. What does this mean?
If I wake up with washing to do, and some phone calls, and maybe a clean-out of the vegetable drawer in the fridge, a longer email to write to a friend, and a trip to the post-office (which I hate the most, no idea why), then I note that these things are there if I want to do them, and then I wait-‘n’-see. I relax a lot. By this I mean that while being active, I remain kind of disinterested in what I’m doing. I definitely don’t give it any internal narration. Internal narration is a massive no-no… Don’t self-describe in a rambling, regular way. (It has nothing to do with crisp articulation or accountability, nah… ) Simultaneous narration, I reckon, drains the life out of actions, makes us self-aware in the sicko sense.I learned to do something in among these early experiments. I’m not recommending you try them. Seriously, I’m not. This is an essay, not a self-help book.
But let’s say, I find myself not doing the washing, because I’m doing something else, then I just affirm what I am actively doing. It would seem that I want to read that psychoanalytic text that’s nigh-impossible to read. I want to read that and drink some tea. Good. That’s what I’m doing. Now, you might be getting jittery that this sounds like open anarchy. You imagine that if you implemented this, that you’d just shoot up heroin all day, and watch repeats of Survivor with intravenous potato crisps slugging into your veins, or design Christmas cards all day using snaps of your cat with fireworks coming out of his paws, or masturbate until your hands bled. And indeed you might. But you might do all of that for far less time than you would have, if you’d have forbidden it or classed it as p__________.
What I’m describing is methodological. You reckon that “shoulding” yourself is speedy, but I venture to suggest, over the course of your whole strange and precious life, that it has an awful kind of velocity and snag. Tortoise/hare kind of stuff.
P__________ is the word that really saps your deciding-power, which is not clear-cut (as we saw in Nietzsche), but which can be slinked-along-with in an artful way. The p-word is a way to talk to yourself like a naughty child, and the children we call “naughty” don’t necessarily end up very self-determining … Self-determination—as I see it—is far more about noticing what you do and deciding to have done it. Deciding comes after the fact, not before. It is not the source of action; it’s an attitude to what happens. This equation, however, then does a wild, ontological backflip on what can happen. If you Can’t Do What You Intend (as the saying goes), Intend What You Do.***
I try to stay interested in the stuff I end up Having-Done. If I want to rein something in, then I don’t go at it head first. I don’t call it (or myself) unkind and smeary names. And if I find I haven’t done something for a long time that I can’t see any clear reason for avoiding, I wonder about that, but I still stay side-on to it. I still don’t charge at it with accusations.Walk away for a bit. Shove your whole face into a rose. Dignify your wanting, even at its toddler stage.
There are things that our unconscious cannot admit; and thus we might always end up having swerved around that throbbing blank space, around that nothing pulsating with loaded Not-There-Ness. Sure, you might say, isn’t direct and coercive effort the best way to smash through? Maybe. Try it. Maybe it works for you. It doesn’t work for me, and mostly, in this life which carries me along, stuff gets done, and I don’t think too much about the ostensible agent of that doing. The “I”, as certain philosophies try to help us think, is an effect. If you know it as effect, know it to the bottom of its fundamental unknowableness, then you get the Conjured Benefits (strangely) of being a so-called agent. People can view me as very directed, even disciplined. Hahahahahahaha.
The subject in psychoanalysis might be the one who knows they aren’t the agent, and who also knows they must assume responsibility for what this agent does.
You don’t need the word p__________ to live well. You don’t need it as a word or as a paradigm; it doesn’t deliver on its marketing.
Often, I won’t get started on a writing project immediately (as in sit and type) because while I do other things, my brain discards certain lines of argument, scenes etc. that I find less interesting, and it draws out others, finds a funny, cleaner angle, and so on. (Most writers know this; I’m sure I’m not telling them anything new…)
P__________ bemoans disingenuously the resistance that it solidifies, and guarantees that we are torn even more. A kind of Double Bind. If we are made up of fluctuating moods and impulses anyway, then this label scrambles all the codes. If there were a kind of emergent pattern or beauty to how we bumble through our inclinations, p__________ is the white noise that smothers any tune that could have rung out.
Now, there’s one further and sobering reason why sometimes you delay approaching certain tasks, and where the p-word will cover over something more useful to notice and name.
Back in the day, I had a habit of thinking of myself as containing a bottomless sadness. I used to use the word “depression” to describe some states I experienced. Why not? Everybody does, right? It’s all the rage. Luckily I had a very strict therapist, who said something very quietly to me one session: perhaps you’re not sad or depressed, perhaps you’re afraid.
It seeped in. I went home. The next time I had the “depressed” feeling, the paralysed-can’t-do-anything feeling, I asked: could I be afraid right now? And—holy fuck—was I ever? It wasn’t depression, it was dread. I was afraid of everything, and fair enough, too. Life’d had its serious knocks, vertiginous let-downs, horrific misfortune, and grinding, incapacitating instability. Dread not “depression.” Ahhhhhhhh.
I said to myself: this is dread. I felt it for as long as I could bear. (Horrid). And then I seemed to gain control over my limbs, and the day went on. No depression at all. (This is how it was for me; this is my story. For you, who can say?)
Again, p__________ is an imprecise term for something better framed in (personal) historical, societal, and often political terms. We need to get back towards the fear (or the anger?). We need to not stay languishing in the individualized put-downs of achievement-culture. If we are afraid, that is probably sane-and-saner, right now. Harsh times of late for many. Big lurches, and the meaty tendrils of injustice. Fear’s a feeling, and feelings change. If we freeze our reaction into a concept of who we are, that we’re a pr%cra$tin*tor, (making ourselves a new straitjacket of identity) we diffuse what’s really going on. Life is scary. We are allowed to be scared.
It is a power to feel your terrors, because when accurate, the articulation will unshackle you.
Walk away for a bit. Shove your whole face into a rose. Dignify your wanting, even at its toddler stage. There is no other way. Stupid wants. Go with it. Think them, smile at yourself. Embarrassing wants. Witness yourself, even experiment (and if you take on fully the consequences of your acts). Things I’ve thought were embarrassing turned out to be embarrassing for my family of origin mostly (ah!) and normal, fun and great for other folk.
Try also—another cool technique—to avoid what you also love. Activate your p__________! Do it more, in that Zen Koan way, until you’re wholly sated with it. If you intend your non-intention, something wild will happen.
Had I failed to submit any work to my teachers that coming Tuesday, “I” would have been the person responsible. It’s not like the “Universe” was going to offer me an Award for Trying. The Tao Te Ching, or The Bagels, or My Impulse, could not have been said to have made me do it. And I want to clarify, for this current moment of Hyperbolic Instrumentalism (grrrrrrr), that I also wasn’t using this question (about “want”) as a canny way to fluke a successful result behind my own back. I think I genuinely wanted to know if I liked what I was learning, and its tasks.The next time I had the “depressed” feeling, the paralysed-can’t-do-anything feeling, I asked: could I be afraid right now? And—holy fuck—was I ever?
I had made it clear to myself that I didn’t have to write an essay. I was curious to see what I would do with my weekend. Rain. Bagels. Books. Time. Whim. Interest. As it turned out, the book on Rilke was pretty great. The Duino Elegies were all kinds of luminous. The essay parameters weren’t stupid or insulting. I had good lecturers. They were a receptive audience for some writing.
My best work, the solutions to things, the redirections that arrive like grace, take place for me in many windows that others would call p__________. I give them different names, more precise titles, or simply refuse to name them full-stop. Rhythms are fun; whereas constant, predictable speeds are a tedious poetry (despite our contemporary hard-on for the fantasy of the latter).
I often am too tired to do my dishes after dinner. In that moment, I don’t bully myself to do dishes, nor do I make up some “identity” where I’m a Non-Dishes Do-er. I’m definitely not “meant” to do them now; and there is no one who cares when I do them (not even various parts of me). I have, furthermore, no idea—in terms of any temporal predictability—of whether I will ever want to do them. But what I can’t be sure of is that I won’t want to, sometime soon.
I can’t be sure that I won’t want to.
This particular equation of a repeated “negative” is a life secret. A conceptual alchemy that I’m giving you. Right here; right now. Remember and repurpose it.
In the practicing theory I’ve been working with, and on, for years, the third criterion that makes it not-impossible that one finds oneself practicing (where transformation and stability coincide) rather than only habiting (potentially a bit stuck) is the criterion of relaxation. This can be at the level of thinking, at the level of (not) narrating oneself constantly, or at the level of over-anticipating “what’s next.” Relaxing here is also temporal; it means aligning yourself with the fact that you DON’T know, you CAN’T know, and pretending you MIGHT know is the way you scam your whole life into blah-ness. Relaxing means less (slowly less) of some of this stuff.
Saturday morning. After strong black tea, soy milk and honey (and probably more bagel… that’s how it was in those days) I was back at the desk, not really thinking about essays or being “pr&duct!ve” or otherwise. I was thinking about Rilke, reading commentaries about Rilke, by people who probably loved… well, Rilke.
It was a humbling weekend on which I’m glad not to have missed out. My education had placed a major figure of German letters in my path, and I was grateful, affected. It turned out that I did want to read, write, think and—even better—to compose some things about what I’d read and thought.
I handed in on time. (The grade I got is irrelevant to what I’m telling you here and to the point of all this. It would also encourage your Instrumentalist Reptilian Brain that needs no bolstering, let’s face it.)
All of this, all of this talk about p__________ is definitely not something which you “should” take up. No, please don’t. Not in this world of cynical advice, and the proliferation of “better ways to be”—all monetised for your consuming pleasure. That would just sneakily lead us back to what worries me about this word in the first place. Also, if I’ve learned anything from years of yoga and meditation teaching, it’s that one should never try to relieve people of their suffering. (They seldom forgive you for it.) Our suffering—whatever form it takes, a form which might be the topic of this essay—may be a very cherished thing, protecting us from loss, from encounter, from the wiles of what we want ( … a swathe of psychoanalytic theory would back me on this, I reckon).
As Adam Phillips explains in the London Review of Books, “Nothing makes us more critical—more suspicious or appalled or even mildly amused—than the suggestion that we should drop all this relentless criticism, that we should be less impressed by it and start really loving ourselves.”
On that note, let’s say I just wanted to jelly-wrestle to the death this too-popular (IMO) word, its seedy logics, and sibling Ring Wraith concept, “pr%duct!ve.” You don’t need this concept, but knock yourself out with it, if you still like the lilt of its five little syllables. Either way, you’re woven out of wants; they glitter and stall and they’ll find their way. I’m thinking of that swing again (from whose vantage point we could sometimes glimpse the robed and silent monks who moved along the alley, trailing their ecstatic, counter-sensical understandings like weightless galaxies), and of Rilke, who can have the last word here (from “The First Elegy,” translated by J.B. Leishman and Stephen Spender).
Fling the emptiness out of your arms
into the spaces we breathe—maybe that the birds
will feel the extended air in more intimate flight.
* In fact, I do know about both the super-ego and then certain symptomatic avoidances, but there is no room in this essay to go into them thoroughly enough. They are not ignored in what I’m saying here. But I leave them aside for now. When the symptom expresses itself via avoidance, some of what I write here may not be helpful, or may need a serious and lengthy therapy.
** My thanks to early reader David McCooey for noticing this lurking binary and helping me to draw it out.
*** My gratitude to colleague Sean Bowden, from whose mouth I believe I first heard this fabulous aphorism.