I’m on a precipice. On one side there’s reality and on the other side, there’s everything my heart desires. It seems like an easy choice, right? So why have I been standing here for so long?
My tethers to reality feel like chains cutting into my skin. Every day, they get just a smidge tighter.
I’ve had several conversations recently about whether or not it’s possible to lead a “contemplative” life while still being a functioning member of modern society. For our purposes let’s define a contemplative life as one filled with plenty of meditation, time for reflection, and consumption of the great arts. I for one, do not lead a contemplative lifestyle at the moment, but I do feel as though I am moving in that direction.
One of my friends votes no, citing time as the primary constraint. One votes yes, hoping she will learn how in the coming years. I used to be a strong yes but as of late, I’m more undecided.
YES A few months ago my friend, let’s call her Jane, expressed a mild concern that her husband has no interest in the contemplative, self-reflective topics we discuss in our weekly chats. At first, I agreed with her analysis believing this to be a mild con and potentially something to look out for in my future relationships. Then, I didn’t think much of it — until we revived our discussion of society vs. contemplation and again questioned the existence of an intersection. I somewhat regrettably formed my initial opinions on the matter in the midst of society, first in school, then in work. As an ultra-beginner, I found that my most moderate forays into contemplation actually advanced my position in normal society, as I developed skills of discipline, self-awareness, and continued reflection. I believed this would last forever, that contemplation gave its users a cheat code for life. I spent the last nine weeks living alone on a remote island and in that time I felt myself drifting. Only then did I realize the advantage in Jane’s husband, namely that he is a tether and one Jane loves very dearly.
You see, their relationship was formed and strengthened before Jane found contemplation. If I had to guess, I would say Jane is in her early 30s. She’s a skilled software engineer specializing in rapid prototyping on small teams. Jane discovered contemplation in the last year or so during somewhat of an identity crisis. I maligned my generation for not having pensive inclinations. Janes thinks it takes pain to push one into contemplation. Sometimes it takes a while to find the right pain. I guess I just got lucky.
Since Jane has her husband holding her dearly in straightjacket society, she can drift without care, for she will always have somewhere to return, someone to pull her in. I have no such luck.
MAYBE Jane suggested I find string for my kite, to keep me from flying away. Off-the-bat she suggested I use either my job or a close, “normal” friend. I’ve been feeling quite withdrawn from my friends lately so let’s try my job. It’s interesting because in the same way Jane expressed frustration with her husband, I express frustration with my job. The funny thing is it’s my “dream” job — on the right side of the cliff anyways. In some ways, I’m lucky because that makes it so much worse.
I work on a small team filled with brilliant people and the coolest problems you could ask for, and yet daily it feels like a volcanic implosion. It began with light smoke and a google doc inconspicuously titled “Work Philosophy” where I diligently documented every disagreement I had with a leadership strategy or decision-making. This and studying people’s reactions became my coping mechanism for meetings. But overall, I was in awe of the team. I had (and still hold) exorbitant respect for my technical mentor and couldn’t believe the fast track to success I saw this team to be. Over the next two years, the team expanded and entropy attacked.
I no longer find it a worthy use of my attention to stay present in meetings and so nose-dived into the work itself, narrowing my focus in an attempt to crowd out the frustration. It’s hard to pinpoint causality because over those same two years I honed my clarity and focus. Is my increasing frustration a product of my diminishing tolerance or of growing confusion? I believe the answer to this question is the crux of the society-contemplation debate.
NO Time is a compelling argument. I can confidently say that 100% of the parents I know have no significant hobbies. Granted, I don’t know that many parents. My friend who argues no, let’s call him John, believes you ideally need around 4 hours a day for meditation alone. And just think, so many people believe they don’t even have time for a mere ten minutes.
However, things get a bit fuzzy when you expand the scope of what you consider to be meditation. If walking and driving and cleaning, performed mindfully, can be meditation then maybe there’s hope still. Now I don’t want to dismiss the time argument altogether but if there’s one thing I’ve always been good at, it’s time management.
Having a penchant for aggressively eliminating inefficiencies tends to give you a bit of an edge over the relaxed individual. I recognize that being single and child-free biases me greatly, but at the same time I still have many years to practice and prepare.
The more I think about it, the more I realize time is not the deciding factor. Or rather, for the majority, time is the deciding factor, but that same majority is the population that already has no hope of representing the intersection, if one exists.
The next thread is friendship. Theoretically, you don’t need friends, although we are social creatures. Regardless, I believe you can find people to be friends with, if you so desire, contemplative or not. And though I have been struggling with my own friendships lately, I think that’s more to do with their current virtuality and less to do with our ability to connect.
So that leaves occupation. But does one really need to have a 9–5 job to be a “functioning member of society”? Now that I think about it we defined contemplation but never discussed civilization. How does one “fit in” really? Is it having a family? Having a “normal” job? I actually think you don’t technically need either of those things, and it’s more about the total amount of time you spend interacting with the majority, but to strengthen the opposition, let’s say you do. To have a family and a 9–5 job and to still lead a contemplative life, you need two things (1) time and (2) the ability to tolerate family and a 9–5 job. We’ve already covered the time argument so let’s jump straight to tolerance. Tolerating your family is pretty much required for human existence, even if tolerating just means completely ignoring. If you choose to expand your family, you get to pick a partner and raise your children. So in that sense, much is under your control, and for that reason, I actually think family is the easier piece here.
Because unless you’re the big boss, in a 9–5 job, there’s a lot you can’t control. This brings us straight back to my question about the underlying source of frustration for my current work. Am I simply being sensitive? Vain? Entitled? All of the above?
Lack of clarity is the worst mental illness one can pass onto another, as it is literally pollution of the mind. But that job is also my rock-solid tether. It teaches me invaluable lessons on that world and its majority and I haven’t quit yet.
I do believe there is a crossing. But, it’s the 1% of the 1%. And whether or not I can be a part of that tiny fraction, is a whole other story…