Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"It's only food, it's only food, it's only food..."

Above all, remember the Seventh Noble Truth: It is only food. When you feel rage beginning to surface or exasperation threatening to submerge you, repeat this again and again. Let it be your mantra. It is only food. It is only food. It is only food. This applies to all areas.

--Zen and the Art of Waitering


Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

--Steve Jobs

The above quote is from a commencement speech address Steve Jobs gave to the Stanford graduating class of 2005 (like me, Steve Jobs is a college dropout. Unlike me, Steve Jobs is worth $6.1 billion). In it, Jobs reflects on his decision to follow the path less chosen, the blessing in disguise of being fired by the company he co-founded (in the interim, he founded Pixar studios and created the technology that would be at the heart of Apple's late 00's renaissance), and his brush with cancer, an event that would forever change his perspective on what matters in life. Far from being depressing or nihilistic, being ever mindful of one's own mortality is an amazingly positive and transformative tool. There's a thousands-years-old practice of Buddhist corpse meditation where you literally meditate on yourself become a corpse: the body bloating with gas, maggots eating your flesh, decomposing into the earth, the bones eventually turning to dust, etc. Practiced regularly, it greatly helps to establish a clarity about priorities in life and keep things in their true perspective.

Navigating life effectively for me really is all about perspective, and it's certainly not something that comes easily or naturally. My natural instinct is to be constantly caught up in the crisis of the moment, usually freaking out to varying degrees about 30-minute ticket times or misrun food or whatever particular nonsense is going on during that turn of tables. Stepping back from that immediate "worm's -eye view" not only helps to facilitate peace in an otherwise frustrating and stressful situation, it also has the added benefit of increasing my effectiveness. Trying to keep in mind that “is is only food” helps you to detach from the situation, and detaching from the situation leads to less wasted energy and a much more efficient use of your time and resources. It's a vastly better way of doing things than running around like a maniac swearing under your breath (or swearing loudly and pointedly, as I have also been guilty of).

From my friends in the white-collar world, or with parenting, or just life goals in general, I know that perspective can be a sticky issue for all of us. We get so used to putting out those fires that are right in front of us that those big things, the really important things, those never get done. If you spend all your time responding to the emails and the phone calls of whatever crisis is going on right now you'll never have the time or energy to work on the larger, more important projects, let alone the even larger (and much more important) life goals. I don't know if it's a function of our evolutionary design, or the pressures of the modern world, but with each new problem that comes along that's all we can see. For that period of time, that specific problem becomes our entire world. And, of course, there's always another problem right behind that. When you are driven only by the crisis of the moment, you have no power to move and shape your life, your life moves and shapes you – and then you tend to end up wherever momentum has carried you.

Seeing things from that whole-life perspective not only clarifies personal priorities, it severely alters how we interact with each other. When you know that not only you are going to die, but the people around you are too, resentments and petty disputes, and even long standing bitterness, tend to just fall away. As a society we are unfortunately locked in a perpetually short-sighted perspective, and it's looking more and more to me like it's going to lead us to disaster. Industry only cares about the next fiscal quarter and government only cares about the next election cycle, so anything that could be remotely detrimental to profit in the short term or temporarily unpopular never gets done. The Native Americans used to adhere to a seven-generation philosophy for their tribal government – namely any action had to be judged on how it would effect the lives of the tribe seven generations into the future. If we started applying that kind of wide-ranging perspective to our society, I wonder what kind of world we would create?