Melancholy of A Beautiful Place

The sun is disappearing below the horizon. The sky is soaked in a whirl of pink and purple. It looks almost like a surrealist painter took his brush to the clouds. Arrows of light splinter through the leaves of the tree you are sitting under as a gentle breeze caresses your skin. It feels sublime, peaceful and serene. You are perfectly content. There is not another thing in the world you would rather have or another place you would rather be.

Then, your skin begins to crawl, your lower lip quivers, you start feeling distressed, upset, even a little bit sick. Only moments ago, you were supremely satisfied, now you just feel sad. You tell yourself that something is wrong with you, but the only thing that is wrong here is failing to identify your feelings and instead labelling yourself as flawed, wrong-headed, or even deranged.

You are not deformed; you are suffering from melancholy. As your attention was focused on the beautiful landscape in front of you, your unconscious had another thought: just how rare it is for you to experience beautiful moments such as these. You are not sad at being a part of this beautiful moment, rather, you are sad that so much of your life is bereft of moments like these.

You are melancholic because it was not until now that you realized how happy you could be, and inversely, how much happiness has been denied to you by the dull monotony of your everyday life. Thanks to the spears of light casting curious shadows on the undersides of the leaves on this tree, you are able to see just how little joy and how much agony fills your day-to-day life.

What you are looking at is not just a beautiful sunset. You are looking at peace, inspiration, equanimity, clarity, and sublimity. These virtues inspire. You are melancholic because these virtues fill your heart now, only to remind you that before that space was empty.

To sit under the tree (or be in a garden, looking at the window at the ocean, or sitting in your fancy hotel room on holiday) and cry in a melancholic state is a testament to the poverty in your hearts and your life, of how much happiness is denied to you. But it is likewise an opportunity to be grateful for the small slice of serenity in a chaotic life; and also a moment to reflect on the absence of joy in our lives and change it.


McDonald’s prides itself on the fact their hamburgers taste identical no matter where in the world you are; Bombay or Barcelona, Milan or Madrid, you are guaranteed an entirely replicable experience. Looked at from one angle, this is a wonderful example of uniformity and consistency. From another angle, it is the deletion of local flavour and uniqueness, extinction of difference between one place and another.

The principles behind McDonald’s business model can be found elsewhere. Once upon a time, architects had no option but to source materials that were natural and local. This is why the cedarwood homes of Swiss villages and the terracotta tiled roofs of Bologna are so distinctive. Building was dependent on a local time and place, and therefore had a local flavour. But, with the development and use of steel, glass, and concrete on grand scales, these local flavours disappear. One benefit of local materials is they help orient you to a particular place. But with steel, glass, and concrete, buildings in Frankfurt resemble those in Tokyo, Manhattan, and Melbourne. Once buildings look like they can be anywhere, they make you feel like you are nowhere.

27+ Skyscraper Pictures | Download Free Images on Unsplash
Which city is this?

This same issue applies to the ‘cookie-cutter’ Metricon homes and estates built on the urban fringe. Every single home looks the same. Without going inside, you know what to expect: white walls, built-in LED lights, a stone slate kitchen-island bench, and this deep, pervading sense of emptiness as you walk into a property that looks like it was designed for capital accumulation, not for people. The feeling that you could be in any building makes you feel like you are in no building. It feels like a template, not a home. It will be one home in an estate among many, are you in Epping or Cranbourne, Pakenham or Kalkallo? Differences become, as Herbert Marcus writes, ‘flattened out’ and the world begins feeling increasingly one-dimensional.

Sydney's New Suburbs Are Too Hot for People to Live In - Bloomberg

The commodities we buy suffer from a similar ‘flattening out’ or more pointedly, deletion of uniqueness. In his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin notes the mass-produced commodities, like McDonald’s burgers or Metricon homes lack the element of ‘time and space’. Just as Metricon homes and skyscrapers lack geography, our phones, laptops, clothes, and furniture lack history. They are just reproductions among reproductions, infinitely exchangeable with each other and therefore, lacking a transcendent value that might prompt us to possess them for longer than 6 months. In contrast, on my father’s workbench sits a pencil holder I produced as a small child. It is utterly unique, an original, and because of this, it is irreplaceable. It is filled with history. But most of what we own lacks history. They are just machine-made commodities, destined for the rubbish bin eventually. That is, they have no future because they have no past.

We are immersed in a society that operates without a tangible sense of time and place, of history and geography. The result is a feeling of not really being at home. After all, if everywhere is like anywhere, and everything is like anything; you do not feel like you are everywhere with everything, you feel like you are nowhere with nothing. This is merely to indicate that the places we live and the things we surround ourselves with determine to a significant extent the type of people we are.

The rootlessness that seems to be the cause of so much contemporary malaise and ennui could be rectified if, rather than focusing on brutal functionalism and mechanical reproduction, we instead cultivated a sense of time and place in our buildings, our art, our food, our clothes, and (within reason), the everyday items we use. The solution then, as Benjamin Barber notes in his book Jihad vs. McWorld, is living beyond the homogenous one-dimensional world of contemporary capitalism and instead, creating culture that makes things meaningful, rather than just cheap.

On Living & Dying

‘The psychological curve of life’, writes Carl Jung in The Soul and Death, often fails to conform to the natural curve of our biological development. Acting like it is morning when it is midday, ‘we straggle behind our years, hugging our childhood as if we could not tear ourselves away’. He notes,

We stop the hands of the clock and imagine that time will stand still.

But this is an illusion because time stops for nobody. As we desperately cling to the past for its security and reassurances, life pushes forward inexorably, bringing us with it. Not us living life so much as life living us. When we live in the past, the psychological and biological curves separate, and out of that arises neurosis.

Kathy Gibbs, Time Stops For No-one, 2019.

The fear of life, Jung observed, is just as prevalent and damaging as the fear of death. The fear of life afflicting the young; the fear of death, the old. The young are often reluctant to jump in the deep end, take risks and try new things; fearing what might happen. The old are often reluctant to acknowledge ‘how far the hand of the clock has moved forward’ and fear the subtracting years, choosing instead to live in their memories.

We can imagine life as the ascent and descent of a mountain. On the way up, we cling to each rock as we climb. We want to stay put, to be safe and secure on our perch. We are scared of falling off, or do not trust ourselves to make it to the top. When we arrive at the summit, Jung’s ‘midday of life’, we hesitate descending back to base. But the body will descend whether the mind wants to or not. Climbing down, we spend our time looking backwards, focusing on the summit we once stood upon, rather than facing forward.

When after some delay we finally reach the summit, there again, psychologically, we settle down to rest, and although we can see ourselves sliding down the other side, we cling, if only with longing backward glances, to the peak once attained

Fear of life held us back on the upward slope, but just because of this delay we claim all the more right to hold fast to the summit we have now reached.

Despite our resistance, we must climb the mountain and once again, no matter how much we resist, we must descend. Life reasserts itself. By failing to accept this face, we lose our psychological footing. ‘Consciousness stays up in the air, while the curve of the parabola sinks downward with ever-increasing speed’.

To borrow the everyday phrase, we must ‘go with the flow’. Not that we could do anything different anyway. The only difference is between letting the current pull you along or swimming with it. Jung writes,

From the middle of life onward, only he remains vitally alive who is ready to die with life. For in the secret hour of life’s midday the parabola is reversed, death is born. The second half of life does not signify ascent, unfolding, increase, exuberance, but death, since the end is its goal. The negation of life’s fulfilment is synonymous with the refusal to accept its ending. Both mean not wanting to live, and not wanting to live is identical with not wanting to die. Waxing and waning make one curve.

In his brilliant essay Walking On The Wheel, Alan Watts echoes Jung,

Consider life as a revolving wheel set upright with man walking on its tire. As he walks, the wheel is revolving toward him beneath his feet, and if he is not to be carried backward by it and flung to the ground he must walk at the same speed as the wheel turns. If he exceeds that speed, he will topple forward and slip off the wheel onto his face. For at every moment we stand, as it were, on the top of a wheel; immediately, we try to cling to that moment, to that particular point of the wheel, it is no longer at the top and we are off balance.

We must keep pace with the turning of the wheel which is life and death. Holding on will do us no good. The paradox is that by trying to seize the moment, we lose it and fall off, but by not seizing it, we keep it.

Jung’s psychology and Watts’ philosophy communicate the same message: we must keep moving with life; not that we have a choice, the wheel turns, nonetheless. It is only a matter of deciding whether we shall embrace the ascent and descent, or spend our time clinging on our way up and looking backwards on our way down. Watch your step.

On Feelings

Within each of us there exists a censor, a judge, an authority who is ready at any moment to tell us ‘you shouldn’t feel that’. Something taboo turned you on, someone falling over made you laugh, a friend said something stupid that drove you into a fit of rage; and each time you say to yourself, ‘what I’m feeling is wrong’. Perhaps you said ‘I am disgusting for being turned on’, ‘I am dishonourable for wanting to laugh’, or ‘I am petty for becoming angry’. At the end of the day, you are still censoring yourself and the message in these reflections is: it is wrong to feel this way.

But truly, is it? Feelings don’t arise out of nowhere. They are not conjured out of will. Feelings are always a result of something. If you have been bullied and begin feeling like you are worthless, the feeling itself is not wrong, the bullying was. If you spent your life being ignored or abused by your mother and begin feeling like you would rather her dead, the feeling is not wrong, but how you were treated was. The cause of a feeling can be wrong, but not the feeling itself.

There might not be wrong feelings, but there can be wrong actions. If you feel like hurting someone, there is nothing wrong with that. That feeling is expressing something deep about you, something that should, with care and compassion, be investigated. However, acting on that feeling and hurting someone, that can be wrong.

In a more philosophical sense, the entire notion of speaking about feelings as right or wrong rests on a misunderstanding. A thought, idea, or statement can be wrong because they belong to the realm of ‘true or false’. A thought: thinking to yourself ‘this food is yuck’; an idea: running will help cardiovascular health; a statement: ‘it is raining.’ These all belong to the realm of true or false because each can be verified, respectively, by how you enjoy the taste of your food, your resting heart rate, or looking at the sky. Each is propositional and therefore belongs to the realm of ‘true or false’. Feelings, however, do not. They are not propositions, they simply are and therefore, it makes no sense to regard them as correct or incorrect, right or wrong.


Taking a sideways step, there might not be wrong feelings, but there can certainly be wrongly reported feelings. After a long work week, your friend might ask you how you feel and you say, ‘I’m tired’ rather than, ‘my job drains me and makes me want to shut off from the world’. Or, when seeing a particular act, you say ‘that’s disgusting’ rather than ‘that’s strangely arousing’. Our ‘feelings’ here are not wrong, our statements about them are, because these statements fail to conform to the ‘true’ state of our emotional landscape.

The only thing that is ever wrong with our feelings is how out of touch with them we often are. We do not deal with our sadness, so it bursts forth in paroxysms of rage. We do not address our need for love, so it turns into a hatred of intimacy. We do not tackle our insecurities, so we become pompous and proud. Again, it is entirely appropriate to feel rage, hate and pride, but it is unfortunate. Feelings we fail to address do not disappear, they just move around and come out in different forms.

We need to provide ourselves a space where we can observe our feelings. It might be writing them down in a journal, sitting quietly and meditating, or paying a visit to a counsellor, psychologist, or good friend. What matters is creating a safe space where feelings can be expressed, observed, and allowed to exist. When we allow our feelings (no matter how horrible or uncomfortable they might be) a space to appear, peace with ourselves becomes a possibility. We have acknowledged a part of ourselves that needed to be heard and that is the beginning of philosophy: knowing yourself.

How To Be A Good Creature

Journeying across generations and species, How To Be A Good Creature by Sy Montgomery is a celebration of friendship transcending time, place, and genes. Featuring charming illustrations by Rebecca Green, How To Be A Good Creature is a textured weave of auto-biography, naturalism, poetry and philosophy. It is a love letter to the complex beings who call Earth home, a celebration of life in all forms, from outback Emu’s, to a Tarantula named Clarabelle in French Guiana.

Each creature Sy meets with has its own story and a lesson to impart. Her pig, Christopher Hogwood taught her ‘how to love what life gives you. Even when life gives you slops’. Her friend summed him up as a great big Buddha master,

Studying at the cloven feet of this porcine Buddha every day, I could not help but learn from a master how to revel in and savour this world’s abundance: the glow of warm sun on skin, the joy of playing with children…

After my parents had disowned me…Christopher helped create for me a ‘real’ family – a family made not from genes, not from blood, but from love.

At a New England aquarium, Sy meets Octavia, an octopus from the Pacific Northwest, who shared with Sy that ‘profoundly beautiful’ devotion of a mother tending to her eggs and without realising, imparted a profound message onto Sy,

Thousands of billions of mothers – from the gelatinous ancestors of Octavia, to my own mother – have taught their kind to love, and to know that love is the highest and best use of a life.  Love alone matters, and makes its object worthwhile.

Yet, a mother octopus never leaves her eggs, even to eat. Octavia would starve herself to death in her devotion to her children.

I realised, too soon, Octavia herself would be no more. But love never dies, and love always matters. And so it still fills me with gratitude that Octavia tended her eggs with such diligence and grace. For I could face the inevitable fact of her dying with the knowledge that she would do so in the act of loving, as only a mature female octopus at the end of her short, strange life can love.

Being friends with an Octopus, ‘whatever that friendship meant to her’ writes Sy,

Has shown me that our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom – and is far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.

Country Life, Owen Davey, 2020

Rachel Carson, in her work The Edge of the Sea, remarked on the transfiguration that occurs when we come into contact with the unknown – unknown places, unknown creatures. When we enter a new world, or when a new life enters ours, ‘fascination grows and somehow you find your mind has gained a new dimension, a new perspective’. Without ever meaning to, those who come into our lives enlarge us.

Those we love expand us and teach us to love in new and hitherto undiscovered ways. In love, it is not a matter of ‘the more you give the less you have’ but rather, ‘the more you give, the more you have’.

Each creature that comes into our lives is different, and demands something different of us. We adapt, adjust, and in the process, expand on the quality of love we are able to provide. This message is at the heart of How to be a Good Creature. Sy loved her dog Tess, writing that

Never before had anyone relied on me so completely. Never before had anyone loved me more deeply. Never before had I experienced grace so profound.

And when Tess died, Sy believes she could never come to love again, until Sally came into her life. The death of Tess was not the end of Sy’s love. Rather, the life of Tess expanded Sy, and gave her the ability to love in new and yet unexplored ways.

Those we love enrich the complex tapestry of our lives. When the time comes for those we love to leave, we can see this loss as a negative space of a new beginning, filled with potential.

Each person I have welcomed into my heart gave me something I did not have before, and each one prepared me (often without realising it at the time) to be a better creature. Being utterly unique and special (as we all are), each person expanded my ability to love in different ways and made me a better person for it.

To be a good creature is to listen and learn from those around us, to embrace those lessons and continue our journey to always become better versions of ourselves.


We think of appreciation as a quality we already possess and argue to ourselves that the only reason we are not experiencing it is because (unfortunately) we lack the necessary things in life that are worthy of it.

Sure, while we may possess, let’s say, the ability to appreciate, abilities themselves can be developed, expanded, heightened and improved. Perhaps what we are lacking are not things worthy of appreciation, but the will and imagination to see how what we have is already deserving of the appreciation we designate to other (more grandiose and fantastic) things.

We can find ourselves being unappreciative for what we have because our sights are set (often much farther away) on things we do not. We fill our hearts and minds with things that are absent. Of course we cannot appreciate what is here, because we are looking at what is over there. We want to adventure around Macedonia, attend events rich with euphoria and bonhomie, and live in a decadent property with marble bench-tops and spiral columns. We tell ourselves that we would rather be there because here is so thoroughly dull, stupid and unworthy of appreciation.

But sometimes, something surprising happens. You chance upon an old photograph of your family and you at the local beach from your childhood, or you see your mum cooking dinner for the family on your regular-not-so-marble bench-top, or you look down and see your scruffy little dog wagging his tail and rubbing his head against your leg asking for a pat. A warm feeling rushes over you and you are faced with a new and perhaps rather counter-intuitive thought: you are already quite rich. There is so much for you to already appreciate. The problem was not that we lacked what we wanted, but that we were unable to draw succour and satisfaction from what we already have.

Simple Things, Carlos Reales, 2014.

Following in the stead of painters such as Manet and Vermeer, Reales is celebrating the unexotic but heart warming satisfactions of daily life. The bread, lovingly prepared, has just come out of the oven and will surely be delightfully crunchy. The jug, while plain, is sturdy. It was perhaps bought by a craftsman who made it with care and affection. The items sit upon a varnished table passed down thorugh generations. While it may not be a celebration of excess like Dutch Pronkstilleven, it is a celebration of simplicity. Reales is communicating to us that even simple pleasures are worthy of veneration, and when taken from the background and made objects of attention, can be beautiful in their own right. Context can change how we appreciate something, as can familiarity.

If I place my hand on your leg, while you may feel it initially, after some time the feeling of my hand disappears and you will only realise its presence once I remove it. This holds true for so many things in life. We ‘get used to’ our parents, our pets, our friends; to warm hugs, kind text messages, and the songs of birds. They move from the foreground to the background, from objects of amazement to simply the fabric of our life. Usually, it is only when they disappear, when a parent dies or an ex leaves you that you realise how much joy they gave you. Like the hand leaving the leg, we often do not realise what we had until it is gone. One of the greatest obstacles to appreciation, therefore, is that we ‘get used to’ the things in our lives and fail to meet them with fresh eyes.

Krishnamurti implored people to ‘die to yesterday’ every single day so that the mind is always ‘fresh, vital, and alive’. There is hardly better advice for cultivating appreciation than his. Because we become familiar, we no longer appreciate the value of a good morning text the way we first did. However, if we can wipe the slate clean, if we can practice ‘defamiliarisation’ than these small things in life take on the importance that they properly deserve.

We have this mistaken belief that appreciating what we already have, like a loving but sometimes grouchy mother, or a soft breeze coming through a window, would be a type of second-best in life, accepting that we will never have a fancy car or a first-class trip to Macedonia. But there is no reason why appreciating what we have will delete the will or effort to have something else. We should simply practice awareness of how rich our life already is. You are already rich in so many ways, and if you cannot appreciate it now, you will be no better equipped to appreciate it when you have a slightly faster car, or more marble-laden bench-top.

Are You A Good Person?

The Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu once said ‘he who knows does not speak, he who speaks, does not know’. Suggested here is knowing and speaking exist in inverse proportion to each other. The more you know, the more you know that you do not know; and if you know little without bothering to learn more, you will think that what you know is all there is. Implied in being knowledgeable is a recognition that there is so little that you actually know, and consequently, humility.

We can use a parody of this logic elsewhere. If you want to know whether you are a good person, it has nothing to do with how many charities you donate to, how much guilt you feel after you don’t call your mother back, or whether you have mastered the art of holding your tongue when someone says something dumb. The answer to whether or not you are a good person comes down to something very simple. When you ask yourself: am I am good person? that your answer is: no.

Lao Tzu might have said: If you think you are a good person, you aren’t, if you think you aren’t a good person, you are.

If you don’t think you’re a good person, it doesn’t mean you hate yourself, it means you’re able to evaluate yourself with a critical and uncompromising attitude. You know that you have not been a perfect human being. You don’t want to lie to yourself about it either. Being able to say ‘I am not a good person’ is not about putting yourself down, but rather, about recognising your flaws and acting upon them.

We are all ‘fallen’ in the classical theological sense. Nobody is perfect; nobody is truly ‘good’. There is always something or other we can improve on. We can always be more gracious, caring, compassionate and kind people.

The person who already thinks they are good will see no reason to change and will never aspire to be a better version of themselves. The person who sees that they aren’t good, however, through self-examination, has opened a space where they can become a better version of themselves. They might not have the willpower to do so, but they have the imagination to conceive it (which is an important first, but by no means only, step).

In his works, Plato emphasised the distinction between the sophist (meaning: wise man) and the philosopher (meaning: lover of wisdom). The sophist believes he possess knowledge, and therefore, sees no reason to learn. Why learn, after all, if you already know? The philosopher, however, is best described as he who knows he does not know. Because he does not think he already knows, a space opens up for learning and the discovery of truth. Similarly, if you already believe you are a good person, you will not adapt and change your behaviours, as you believe they are already how they should be. However, if you think you are not a good person, you open up the space where it becomes possible to think different, act different, be different.

Ironically, the necessary pre-condition for being a good person is to think that you are not. By rejecting the (misguided) belief in our own infallibility, we open a space where we can humbly learn from and forgive our past mistakes, missteps, and misguided judgements, and become better versions of ourselves.

Interpretation & Stockholm Syndrome of the Super-Ego

In Freudian theory, the super-ego operates is something like a judge: adjudicator and discipliner, critic and censor. The super-ego is the authority figure ruling on our thoughts and behaviours. It is the aspect of you speaking when you call yourself a failure, a reject, and a disappointment; it is the voice you hear when you think your work was not good enough, the break up was entirely your fault, and nobody will ever love someone as flawed and broken as you. It can be quite cruel.

What is interesting is how quick we are to agree with its pronouncements. If our super-ego was a person we met on the street, we would quickly tell it that it was wrong, punch it in the face, or walk away. Only the most masochistic among us would allow a total stranger to call us a failure, a bore, or an atrocious excuse for a human being. Yet, in our own minds, we have come to accept this and to a certain extent, rely on it for ruling and direction.

From childhood we submit to those in positions of authority: first our parents (and older siblings), then our teachers (and our peers), then the state (and police). We are brought and raised in a world that demands compliance to authority at every turn. This has, to a significant extent, shaped how we have come to think. It creates a docile, submissive, repressed mind that will not think for itself, but simply do as it is told, with little argument. It is fertile soil for the emergence of a very powerful super-ego.

We are generally unsympathetic to our own situation. While we might look upon others with forgiveness and compassion for their transgressions, we hold ourselves to a different standard. We know all the ‘wrong’ and ‘bad’ things we have done, and as this archive amasses we begin to agree that essentially, deep down, we are criminals and we need this authority to protect us from our own depraved selves.

But we are not bad, this is just the opinion of a single voice and we would be wise not to take it on its word alone.

More appropriately understood as an argument ‘against a single interpretation’, Susan Sontag, in her work Against Interpretation, warns against adopting a single interpretation. A single view flattens a multi-dimensional experience (whether it is art, or a thought or feeling), while saying more about the speaker than what is spoken about.

Echoing Susan Sontag, Adam Phillips in his work Unforbidden Pleasures encourages what he calls ‘over-interpretation’. When the super-ego screams that we are failures or nobody will ever love someone so tragically flawed, we should pause and invite ourselves to think about our predicament from another point of view.

You can only understand anything that matters – dreams, neurotic symptoms, literature – by overinterpreting it; by seeing it from different aspects as the product of multiple impulses.

We should allow another voice to show itself and another interpretation to be pronounced. In doing so, we begin enriching our internal universe, bit by bit, no longer confining ourselves to one perspective and thereby giving ourselves a lot more room to move and think about things.

We could think about what is going on along the lines of Carl Jung and his theory of archetypes. We treat our super-ego as if it is a single god on a throne whom we must submit to. But really, within us is a pantheon of gods, and we all sit at a round table. We have given one voice precedence but there are so many within us wanting to speak, and we can hear them if we take the time to listen. As Phillips notes, without redescription upon redescription…‘the fragmentary repository of alternate selves will be silenced’. Through over-interpretation, we can turn a ‘judgement’ by our super-ego into a ‘conversation’ between our composite selves.

By nurturing the capacity for multiple interpretations, we expand the horizon of meaning we give to certain events in our lives. Maybe we did deserve to be dumped, but perhaps the timing simply was not right, or they weren’t ready to love someone and it has nothing to do with you. By embracing interpretation after interpretation, we can look at things with more discernment and scorn, appreciating that things may not always be as (misleadingly) simple as our super-ego claims them to be. Phillips reminds us that with the ‘shared internal jurisprudence’ of multiple perspectives and interpretations, ‘self-criticism might be less jaded and jading, more imaginative and less spiteful’.

A Little Piece of Earth

When we are younger, we are not quite in the right state of mind to appreciate the beauty of a small garden. Our hearts and minds are focused on much grander projects than a small plot of earth. As young adults, we want to change everything. Our minds are set on transforming society, Marxism, astronomical success in work, and making a name for ourselves in the world. Ironically, how much we want from life often operates in inversion to our age.

As we get older, with the emancipation of the proletariat still generations away, society trudging along almost exactly as it did a decade ago, and numerous fall backs, collapses, and disappointments in our career; we realise we invested our hopes, dreams, wishes and desires in grand projects hoping they would give us the satisfaction and guarantee of a life well lived.

It is then that we begin to adjust our focus. Instead of looking towards (well-meaning but) grandiose and abstract projects, we set our sights a little closer to home and a little closer to the ground. It is after the failure and disappointment of our larger projects that we begin to appreciate the sublime satisfaction of a small garden with some flowers in it.

Once our vision is no longer obscured by our ambitious (yet unlikely) dreams, we can come to appreciate something as wondrously insignificant as a small bed of flowers. We can kneel down in an act of prayer and bury our hands in the soil to plant a small seedling with the knowledge that while we may not be able to change the landscapes of societies, we can change this small little parcel of land right here.

This isn’t about being defeated. It is about rescuing yourself. The small bed of flowers is your way to change the world, to make it a little less troubled, a little more beautiful and to affirm that there is immense beauty to be found if we exchange our grand ambitions for a slightly more humble acceptance, both of the world and our place in it.

A Game

In one of his many insightful talks on the nature of consciousness, self and ego, fear and insecurity, Alan Watts plays a game which he would humorously refer to as ‘chasing the heebie-jeebies’. The point of this game was to reveal the ‘below surface’ thoughts operating when we think.

Take, for example, death. I am afraid of death. It gives me the ‘heebie-jeebies’. Well, what is the problem, death, or the heebie-jeebies? It appears the heebie-jeebies are actually the problem. They make me feel anxious. So being anxious is the problem. Well, I only feel anxious because I don’t think I have been living a full and rich life. So that is the problem. When I think about the absence of richness and fulfillment in my life I run away facing it. So running away is the problem. But, I only run away because I do not know how to answer it. So being unable to answer this existential question is the problem. With each question being another step, as we walk down the stairs we uncover questions we would not originally have asked ourselves.

To take another example: talking to strangers. I am afraid of talking to strangers. It makes me nervous. So, being unable to talk to strangers isn’t the problem, nervousness is. But I am only nervous because I think they will judge me. Okay, so fear of judgement is the problem. I fear judgement because I care so much about what others think instead of what I think. So, my lack of faith in myself is the problem. I lack faith in myself because I focus on my failures rather than my success. Now this is the problem. But I think this way because my failures were always rebuked and my successes were never praised, so I developed a slavish tendency towards self-abuse. So, self-abuse is the problem. Yet, that happened in the past and this is the present, so holding onto my pain is the problem. However, I only hold onto my pain because I cannot think any other way. I cannot think any other way because this way of thinking is known, comfortable, and reassuring. It is all these things because I am afraid. I am afraid of trying something new because I will have to leave my old self behind. If I leave it behind, I become vulnerable and exposed. If I allow myself to do this, I might get hurt. I do not want to get hurt because I am fragile and do not want my security shaken and assaulted. So, perhaps this, then, is the problem.

Of course, you can keep going and going…

The game is insightful, especially when written down, because you begin to see the complex interactions and multi-textured pattern of every thought. While we think in specifics and particulars, behind and beneath (or rather, within and throughout) each thought is a textured and multi-layered process occurring. In the example the fear of death, the fear cannot be severed from feelings (anxiety, dread, disappointment), thoughts (reflections on an unfulfilling present, nostalgia for a lost past, and the expectation of a frustrated future), and bodily sensations (tensing, clenching, restlessness). Everything occurs together in a wonderfully complex process.

The game is a type of hide-and-seek, or rather, a game of chase with yourself, where you try to locate the fountainhead of a particular thought or feeling. Frustratingly, it is like chasing a shadow, no matter how close you get, it keeps getting away. The lesson in all of this is to pay attention, attention to how thoughts are never isolated but imbued with the messages of so many other thoughts in an ever unfolding pattern of complexity.