I think this question so frequently, it has almost become a mantra.
There is so much activity, but so little progress. Everyone (including myself) is constantly missing the forest for the trees.
We don’t know what progress is. Is it technology? Medicine? Ideology?
Or is it thoughtfulness? Joy? Wisdom? The ability to find peace within each moment, rather than it being some far-off goal that will arrive “someday”? Wouldn’t you rather have this sort of progress?
Too often we use the good technology or the improved material quality of life as a proxy for real joy and happiness. It is better, but it’s not the same kind of better. There are diminishing returns, does the iPhone X really make you happier than the iPhone 6? What are we really doing here?
Sometimes when I am playing chess, I have a good setup and I’m beginning to approach a checkmate against my opponent. Then suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, my opponent checkmates me, and I lose the game. I didn’t see it coming. I wasn’t reading the whole board, I was too focused on one part of the board. I had decided that if I won this battle, I’d win the game. But then another different battle came along that I didn’t even anticipate, I got destroyed, because I wasn’t prepared at all.
Isn’t that what happens in life so often? We think one specific thing is what will finally bring us joy and peace, so we chase that one thing. And chase it, and chase it. We get fixated on one “mini-game” of life, and miss the larger game of joy and experience being had. We play the proxy game thinking it is the best way to solve the main game.
For example, we may decide that “happiness” equals “success”. And then also later decide that “success” equals “career/money”. And then spend 40 years working a job that we aren’t very fond of, on the premise that someday it’ll make us happy. Because that’s what society is telling you, that’s what you once decided long ago, and the alternatives become scary once you’re locked in to the path. Especially if you have wife and kids to support, or have judgmental parents and friends.
Or a different example, someone might decide that “joy = forgiveness” because they have a very guilty conscience for whatever reason, and then decide the best way to get forgiveness is through Christianity because that’s what Jesus taught. And the best way to Christianity is the local church. And then spend a lifetime defending a fraudulent broken church, unable to step away with it because to do so would be to forsake god, and thus joy itself. Missing the forest for the trees.
Or someone might decide that world peace will come once all threats can be eliminated. So that becomes their mini-game in life. They join the army, shoot at combatants in a country they wouldn’t have been able to locate on a map 5 years ago, and get PTSD and experience a lack of veteran care at a broken VA once they come home. Where is that peace? Now it is further away than ever before.
What are we even doing? Right this very second on Earth, 7.7 billion human brains are abuzz with thoughts and emotion. What are the goals, and why? Every moment, human actions are taken, governed by thoughts, based on ideologies and assumptions about what mini-games are best to play in this game of life. Everyone is the good guy in their own story, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. What are we doing?
We are lost in mini-games we misunderstand to be the entire game. There are simply too many things to do, it’s almost out of necessity. We cannot see the forest for the trees, the forest is too big. We consistently fall for in-the-box thinking, without realizing it. We get caught in our ruts and tracks, going down the roller-coaster of life on the day-to-day, repeating actions guided by decisions we haven’t truly revisited in years or decades. Just going through the motions. Form over function. Work, produce, consume, die. Here we are. What are we doing? What is all this?
What could we do instead? We can use our minds like a garden, and grow only the thoughts and feelings that are actually worth having, and weed out the garbage thoughts caused by garbage habits.
Thoughts reinforce feelings, and feelings spontaneously generate certain types of thoughts. We all know this deep down, as we live it every second of every day.
Controlling this feedback loop can sometimes be like steering a ship out of heavy storm. Your arms might be sore the next day from steering the wheel and fighting the waves, but calm waters can eventually be found. And if you pay close attention to the weather, you can often avoid storms entirely. Or you can just let your boat crash in to whatever, that’s cool too. And I mean that, you are a free to choose as you wish, and that’s one of the craziest things about this whole existence. We have all these choices we didn’t even realize we had, because we never took the time to stop playing the mini-games we were fixated on, and just step back and re-evaluate things as a whole. We actually have the opportunity to notice that checkmate that’s coming and set up a defense. To truly find joy and peace. We also legitimately have the option to spend a lifetime ignoring that approach and instead just letting our boat crash about as the currents carry us wildly. It may make for a more exciting ride, but likely not a peaceful one.
There is a revolution. We all can do it together, but we also all have to do it individually. The revolution in your own mind has to happen of your own accord. No one can force it upon you. The freedom to choose your ideology and outlook on life in your own mind is one of the things that truly cannot ever be taken from you. Certain circumstances and contexts might cultivate certain types of moods and thoughts, but we always have the choice to try and steer the boat out of the storm, even if the storm is very large, it will take a long time, and we’re very tired. Clear waters do exist. And once we’re in them, it’s easier to find them again, and stay in them. But it’s not a guaranteed, nor will it ever be. It’s just a statistical thing, like much of life.
But I can tell you one thing, you won’t find peace through material goods, once your basic needs are met. Peace and joy is a mindset and a way of life, not a thing you buy. It’s a skill that is cultivated, much like depression is a skill that can be cultivated. What we spend time focusing on, and thinking about, and feeling things for, is what determines who we are, and the actions we take in this world. Our focus determines what we’re doing. And if we zoom in too much in to one mini-game, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. And it’s easy for 20 years to zip by, caught in a rut that you don’t even realize you’re in.
But luckily this is not a foregone conclusion, and luckily we have the faculties to be able to master this aspect of the human condition. It just takes focus, because what you focus on determines what you get better at. If you focus on cultivating a mindset of fun and peace, and de-focus on undesirable thoughts that you no longer wish to cultivate, over time your default mindset will inevitably change, it is nearly a law of physics. We are programmable beings, and the trick is to realize you can program yourself however you like, with enough persistence and attention to the reality around you and within you.
In any given moment in life, there are good things and bad things that can be noticed. Which are you focused on, and why? And this applies to every minute of every day, even in your dreams. What is the focus of these moments? Why do you take that focus? This is true self-awareness. And by understanding yourself in this way, it becomes much easier to understand others as well. We can see outside our mini-games because we’re not swept away by them. We can notice others swept away in theirs, and understand their struggle.
This understanding opens up a sort of mindful appreciation for everything that’s going on. And then who cares about working in a dingy office to get a better car? Who are you trying to impress? Yourself?
What could be more valuable than the present moment? If we don’t cherish it and built it up, what are we even doing?