Life can be hard. Some of us may go without basic necessities for periods of time and most of us will experience health problems and aging. Rich and poor, healthy and sick, we all fight for survival. As Steve DeMasco says in The Shaolin Way, survival living is often living to die, not living to live. Even very wealthy people can be stuck in “living to die” mode, never being satisfied by what they have currently attained or achieved and never allowing for enjoyment. It is like the plentiful harvest idea; we put a carrot on the end of the stick, work hard to get the extra time or money but never eat it.
Fossil fuels and technology have replaced a lot of the laborious busy-work needed for civilization to run. I think there is an art to fulfilling busy-work that helps connect us to the rhythms of life, but the fact we do not need to fetch wood to heat our homes in winter, produce or hunt our own sustenance or know how to make any of our own clothes, cars, computers, etc., leads to affluence like no historic civilization has seen. Standards of living do not correlate with the quality of someone’s life, unless standards are so low that there is very little quality of life. However, anyone perpetually stuck in survival mode, whether absolutely necessary (for example, a child fighting his or her way out of poverty) or a habit formed out of fear, is living to die, even if the illusion is to get that carrot.
The carrot. The reward. The pat on the back from your boss and approval of your peers, the vacation time so you can finally spend some time with the family, the extra money to buy a car, a house or sign up for a gym or a class, a big, cream-filled doughnut treat for keeping to a diet for a week.
How the Reward System Fails
Our brain is reward-seeking. We spot out the colourful and delicious. When we pull a big-ass tuber out of the ground, get to spend some time with our sought-out special someone, win over a competitor, discover a new way to do something we get a bit hyped, or “get a buzz” or feel stimulated. It is an important pleasure that momentarily fills us up because it is this ‘feel good’ that gets us up and foraging for more tubers, for more sex, to be more competitive and discover new ideas. All of these things lead to survival and reproduction.
We have a natural, internal reward system that loves novelty. It is the external reward systems that fail us. If we associate the pleasure that arises from reward-seeking behaviour with an external source, we may be setting ourselves up for failure.
Being rewarded for good behaviour early on sets us up to seek reward for behaviour that should be expected. When the reward, the praise, the gold star for exceptional work doesn’t come, we feel disappointed. The reward system also relies on external authority; the reward-seekers and the reward-granters. Reward-granters also have bad days where they will not be able to recognize the exceptional and keep the reward-seekers wanting, angry or disappointed.
If we believe we are only as good as our last conquest we never stop to truly see how far we’ve come. Living to live involves indulging in the fruits of our labours. That is the reward.
How Pain Brings Pleasure and Pleasure Brings Pain
I truly believe we are anti-fragile creatures, that is, we are not only strong but we require physical and mental discomfort to be healthy. This is contrary to reward system thinking. Reward seeking keeps us dreaming about temporary pleasures and makes us lean towards them. Pleasure is good; pain is bad, even if necessary to gain pleasure. If instead we did the work for survival and cooperation with others without seeking reward, that is, feeling no need for external reward for doing good, we’d find good days and bad days. In discomfort we may find a different type of pleasure.
Quick and stimulating reward pleasure is the cream-filled doughnut, the energy drink, the shopping spree and the winning scratch ticket. What happens when you eat a cream-filled doughnut every day, get addicted to energy drinks or go on too many shopping sprees? The cream-filled doughnuts start tasting less like a treat, less delicious and stimulating. The energy drink habit requires more and more to get the same buzz. The new clothes or gadgets get “old” more and more quickly. On top of that, the pleasure-seeking may take a toll on our bodies, wallets and mental well-being.
We adapt to pleasure, that is, we normalize it. The pleasure, the buzz, the stimulation, comes in less and less of a spike and will eventually fade. If it is brought into normality, we no longer have this as a reward to turn to. We are disappointed and in pain. If we have become adapted to a high standard of living, anything less will bring pain, anything more will get our reward centres stimulated.
So being a pleasure-seeker may not be a wise path if you want more long-term happiness and stability. Luckily, the same normalization happens with discomfort. Pain-seeking works much the same as pleasure-seeking. It involves seeking. What I would be more inclined to promote is discomfort acceptance.
If we held pain and discomfort as a normal part of life and even felt that is helped us become stronger physically and more balanced mentally I think we could find a new type of pleasure. It is the pleasure of a hard workout, a climb up a mountain, a productive day’s work or a fast. Sometimes it works like medicine: voluntary stress.
Living to Live: Final/Personal Thoughts
I have limited memories of fleeting pleasures even though I’ve engaged in many. I have an off and on love affair with energy drinks and pre-workout stimulants. However, I have many good memories of times when I was not feeling pleasure but slight discomfort. I really like pizza, but there are no pizza memories that beat out camping, hiking, activities with my family, hanging out with friends.
After being injured and laid off this summer I took some time to really reflect on my goals in life. I went without a lot of things I’d normally take for granted, including regular grocery trips, playing sports or going out with friends. I enjoyed this time as I normalized to something that once caused severe discomfort. Coming out of it, I felt excitement and privilege but soon anxiety and disappointment. I find that accepting discomfort helps my perspective immensely, if used as “medicine” to nurture, rather than through guilt or self-destruction. I sometimes wonder if some people’s brains are more wired up to seek stimulation than others and that perhaps to live fully they need to embrace this nature (chronically low levels of dopamine?). Since beginning training in the martial arts again I sense my anxiety being replaced by acceptance. The kind of stimulation, including the stimulation via discomfort, allows me to tap into living to live. Without that stimulation I feel numbness towards daily life and often dysfunctional anxiety.
Anxiety is usually my primary motivator for writing. There is some hope in exploring an anxiety in written form will help others with similar struggles, but if there is no anxiety, I feel little urge to project my uncomfortable emotions on to the world through written word. This blog may take a pause or change course from here.
To all my readers, much love. ❤