Ecstasis – Going Beyond the Pale

Almost everyone is operating from a fixed, limited way of being. I hesitate to say everyone, but I do think it’s everyone at varying degrees of flexibility, mobility, freedom.

One of the most fundamental limitations is how we identify ourselves, what we identify with. What do we consider “me”, “I”, “mine”? Do I identify with my body? My feelings? My possessions? My job? My family? My Facebook friend count? My followers? Likes? Comments? Amount of money? Income? Sexual partners? Body weight?

We can tell each other, “don’t take it personally.” What does that mean? Personally as in don’t identify with it. It’s not really about you. Yet, all of us often take things personally when it’s not useful or even true.

Being able to not identify with these symbols, these abstractions helps us be more free, be more happy, be more effective.

After all, our bodies will decay and die despite what the technological transhumanists say. Our careers jobs are to a large degree not solely dependent on our selves. Basing our identity and self worth off of our income, our weight, our body is just a recipe for eventual misery.

To be sure, this does not mean that we neglect or abuse or be ignorant about these things. These bodies do exist. Money does have an impact. But, they don’t need to define our identity or self-worth. We take care of these things but we don’t base our entire lives on them. And the truth is for most of us, we do live our lives and make our decisions on minimizing the potential danger to one of these symbols or trying to maximize them. For example, choosing to move cross country for a job opportunity while sacrificing perhaps one’s spiritual life, friends, and family (valuing money). Or not doing new things that would be good because we’re afraid of being embarrassed (valuing fame, status, reputation, social identity).

One of the useful things about being at the monastery is that to some degree, this identity as a “monastic” helps empower me to do the right thing. I don’t have to worry about losing my “job” because I talk about global warming or really these blog posts. There was a way that I censored myself online at my old job because I was worried about our customers potentially reading my stuff.

Another major limitation is not being able to control and direct our attention. I hark on this point often. I notice it daily in my life too. Between constant music streaming, on-demand entertainment, advertising, social media, and everything else, it’s incredibly challenging to train and hold attention. To be in a state of not-knowing or physically uncomfortable. To just be bored.

This video from CGP Grey from last year talks about “quitting (parts of) the internet”.

I’ve previously talked about hacking my Facebook (How to Effectively Use Facebook) such that I almost never ever read anyone else’s posts. I can’t see any of the number of likes. I just share what I want and that’s it.

Meditation and mindfulness is all about training attention. Being able to focus on what we want. About being able to trust and be in any experience.

To jump back to a previous book I mentioned before:  Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work . He talks a lot about ecstasis technologies and altered states. About how powerful and impactful democratizing these technologies to access altered states would be in the world and the existing groups doing it. (Of course, the author’s company’s business model is just exploring and providing such experiences).

But what is ecstasis?

Ecstasis – act of stepping beyond oneself, rapture, ecstasy, group flow, peak state, individuals merging into group intelligence.

For most of my peers, I imagine the most obvious source of ecstasis is drug use. However, there are a number of ways to explore going beyond one’s usual self. The obvious one for me that I aspire to master is meditation.

One interesting tidbit is that a lot of “rational”, educated people often worry on retreats about being brainwashed or losing themselves through meditation. It can sometimes feel like I’m dying in this weird, hard to define way that’s not really mental or physical. Yet, it feels viscerally uncomfortable in a non-intense, intense way. Just that last paragraph demonstrates how hard it is to put into words and unusual it is.

I remember during my first year talking to Soryu how I don’t trust the Great Unknown, don’t trust my ego dying. Won’t the crowds of humanity just murder the truth-teller like they did with Jesus? Of course, a lot of that is my childhood baggage but it’s still there. This general fear of civilized social lies vs the real truth (or perhaps “realer truths”).

I really like the book talks about Going Beyond the Pale in a way that honors both the safety and usefulness of the civilized social boundaries as well as going beyond them:

In 1172, the English invaded Ireland, planted their flag, and built a great big fence. That barrier, known as the English Pale — from pale, meaning a stake or picket – defined the world for those invaders. Within their pale, all was safe, true, and good, a civilized land ruled by English law and institutions.

Beyond the pale, on the other hand, lay bad news. That’s where mayhem, murder, and madness resided. Most who ventured beyond it were never heard from again. And the few who did manage to return weren’t always welcomed with open arms. They were no longer trustworthy; they might have seen too much.

…the experiences….stand outside the perimeter fence of polite society. Instead of hearing stories about the possibilities of altered states, we’re treated to cautionary tales. Stories of hubris and excess….

…This is no idle warning. History is littered with tales of ecstatic explorations gone wrong. Consider the 1960s, Ken Kesey snuck LSD out of a Stanford research lab and all manner of tye-dyed hell broke loose. The same thing happened with the sexual revolution of the 1970s. What began as a quest for personal liberation ended up spiking rates of marital dissatisfaction and divorce. And 1990’s rave culture too, which blended synthetic drugs with electronic music, collapsed under a series of tightening legal restrictions, ER visits, and tabloid fodder.

…nearly every time we light out into this terrain, somebody gets lost. By definition, ecstasis makes for tricky navigation. The term means out of our heads and “out” isn’t always pleasant. These states can be destabilizing. It’s why psychologists use terms like “ego death” to describe the experiences…”this experience of ego-death seems to entail an instant merciless destruction of all previous reference points in the life of an individual.”

…let’s give the gatekeepers their due. What lies beyond the pale isn’t always safe and secure. Outside the state-sanctioned consciousness, there are, to be sure, peaks of profound insight and inspiration. But there are also the swamps of addiction, superstition, and groupthink, where the unprepared can get stuck.

For this reason, most people don’t venture outside alone. We look for others who have gone this way before us; we look for guidance and for leadership. But…not everyone who leads us beyond that fence has our best intentions at heart.

So, people’s misgivings about surrendering themselves to experience something different is legitimate in a lot of ways. There’s a history of abusive teachers, organizations, and such. It’s important to know that the intention of the leader or group is not fixated on some philosophical idea (communism, capitalism, etc) nor is it for self-aggrandizement. To be honest, that’s a really high bar. Most people don’t reach it.

What’s special about a legitimate mystical or spiritual group is that the first and foremost value is helping protect life, in liberating people from imprisonment. Not on their own institutional/personal survival or thriving.

And, it’s important, to point out that the existing societal institutions, existing ways of life, that you and me are doing right now, are broken. Are not only broken but complicit in continually destroying the world and everyone on it. All of the major problems today are essentially man-made from climate change, nuclear war, racism, poverty, starvation, and so on. That’s incredible.

People can sometimes worry that the monastery is a “cult”. Particularly parents. But, the truth is that everyone believes something, worships something, is a part of a cult of something. The question is whether or not you are conscious of it? And whether that cult, whether those beliefs are consciously chosen, intentionally structured or are they operating off of blind instinct or pre-existing systems of oppression?

Going Beyond the Pale has its dangers. Find trustworthy partners and a trustworthy place to go. But, staying within the Pale is also dangerous and for sure will not lead to peace, happiness, or meaning given the present conditions.

Learn and Have Fun Learning

All of us start off as bright, innocent kids. Endlessly curious about the world around them. Good singers, artists, communicators. Expressive. Filled with life.

Somehow, as we become socialized into adults, we lose that spark.
Some of us become perfectionists. We constantly evaluate, judge, and criticize everything we do. There’s a constant self-anxiety and shame. It becomes hard to concentrate. Feeling bad, our minds are endlessly anxious and loose rather than focused and relaxed.

I’ve been working on rekindling the bright, creative, and action oriented mode of children and the stupid.

Part of that has been learning how to sew. I spent at least thirty minutes watching videos and practicing how to thread a needle and tie a knot. I practiced on a napkin and paper. I fixed a few broken cushions. It wasn’t a great job, looked pretty terrible, and one of them broke again. But it worked and most of all I’m learning and having fun while doing so.

Today, I went to the hardware store and bought 4 caster wheels and a board. I wanted to make a cart so it’s easier to move large bulky items like beds around the building. Rather than perfect the drilling holes and get the perfect piece of wood, I just went for it. By the end, I realized I made a great and dangerous skateboard and zoomed around the room before finally falling on my ass.

I also bought a shelf and two brackets. Again, I did some minimum measurements and leveled it a bit. But mostly I just went for it and now have a wall shelf.

For perfectionist and intellectual folks like me, the temptations is always to keep planning and doing everything but the actual actions which involve making mistakes. I want to close that loop between learning, trying, feedback, and learn again.

And have a whole lot of fun in the process.

We Do It For The Children

Growing up, my mother used to tell me, “when you have kids, you’ll understand.”

I didn’t like that answer. I still don’t. But I think I do understand more even though I don’t have kids.

It’s feels really hard sometimes. Living this monastic life. Trying to build something new within a great deal of uncertainty and change. Cultivating this community and culture. Key word here being “feels”. Because, for the most part it’s a good life.

The challenge is that we run towards our shadows. We continually work to face the truths within ourselves and with each other that we deeply don’t want to face. To live fully present is to be fully alive without anywhere to hide.

It’s funny. People don’t say it more often. But meditation retreats are obviously the happiest and best experience for a lot of people. Yet, there’s something deeply disturbing at the thought of doing it continuously. The actual retreat itself can be hellish for most of us at times.

And in those challenging moments, facing my angels and demons, letting go of who I think I am, viscerally working through the repressed parts of myself, shedding all the stable reference points, many many times I don’t want to continue, don’t think I can continue. Don’t think I should continue.

Lately, more and more, I think of children. What sin has these children committed? What sin has the Earth committed?

And who will protect them? Who will guide them? Who will help them?

If everyone is satisfied with their patch of mixed truth and lies to live a good-enough, comfortable-enough life, who will guide the kids of the future?

Somehow, that helps thinking of the kids.

Out of love for the innocent, I’ll do whatever it takes or at least try to.

Defining Success For Today

One of my favorite activities at the monastery is washing dishes.

I love washing dishes because it’s repetitive, it’s mostly physical, and the end point is obvious. These traits are the opposite of my office work where it’s often unclear when the work is done, mostly mental, and novel situations.

Because mental, office and creative work is so nebulous, I find it’s important to have a way to define the scope of work and define what is good enough. Too many people burn themselves out trying to do as many tasks as possible and still feel unsatisfied at the end of the day. At the same time, they’re often doing unimportant tasks where a lot gets done but doesn’t feel like it really mattered.

In order to overcome these obstacles, I find it’s important to do a few steps:

  1. Define your big goals, what’s the most important things to do? For me this includes the monastery, circling, meditation, health, and friendships.
  2. Work backwards from the big goals to what are the projects and tasks?
  3. Each day prioritize at least 2-3 most important tasks tied to those big goals.

If I complete those most important tasks then my day is a success.

Metaphorically speaking, there are more “dishes” (tasks, projects) than I have time to do each day. So, I’m choosing what are the most important ones that fit my given day / week / month. If I do them then I’ve succeeded.

Detox Non-Fiction

Before, I wrote about my experiment going a month without fiction books. It went very well. I found my attention moved towards reading more non-fiction instead. While I enjoyed reading new things, I still felt like the non-fiction was more of a distraction than a positive.

So, I decided to go one step further by removing any new non-fiction reading for the next month too.

My rule is:

  1. No Fiction Reading
  2. No New Non-Fiction Books (Exception: unless balanced with practice/implementation)
  3. Allowed to Read Non-Fiction Books for the sake of note taking review & implementation

This next month (Feb-March), my aim is to implement the skills and learning from my reading. I find it’s too easy to continually read more and more without any of the knowledge translating to a positive impact on my life or behavior. Instead, the reading is information-porn that feels good in the moment but doesn’t provide benefit in the long run.

Part of my motivation came recently from reading my old notebooks. I noticed the same goals year after year to learn swimming or implement systems like cloud backing up my data. Yet, I kept pushing these projects off.

I could always argue that I’m too busy to add any new activities. After all, I live in a metamodern monastery. My schedule is tightly regimented. Where would the time come from?

Yet, the truth is I had no trouble finding time to read many hours each week .

So, my biggest time sink appeared to be reading. I had already severely limited my social media (see my facebook post). I rarely watch television shows or movies. I don’t play video games. But reading is a huge part of my week. By cutting out reading, I can devote time towards practice and implementation of these projects and skills.

Surprisingly, it hasn’t been too difficult to cut out reading. I think like porn, reading was a way to fill time and feel some pleasure. But I find enjoyment in practicing these skills and projects too, there’s just an initial resistance to starting them.

It’s not all perfect though. The one stumbling block is reading online articles. I get into research obsessions like RV dwelling, mini PCs, phone/computer automation, best ways to backup, and more. I found myself spending hours reading everything I could about these obscure topics. At the end of the day though, all that research is only useful if I implement them into my life. I’m not sure what to do about this except ruthlessly plan, track, and review my time.

So, what am I doing with this extra time that used to be spent reading?

One of my current side projects is to learn basic hand sewing. It took me thirty minutes to find the best way to thread a needle and tie a knot. It took me another thirty minutes to sew my first button. On one hand, this seems like a waste of time. On the other hand, I can always do these basic sewing things now. More importantly, it’s helping me to practice a new way of learning with fun, patience, and curiosity rather than perfectionism and anxiety. That’s worth more than reading another book or even the skill of sewing itself. I’m learning how to learn better.

For years, I’ve worried about backing up my computer files and finally came up with a good, free solution. With my laptop recently dying (resurrected with a new battery), the urgency of backing up my files became more important. I had previously backed everything manually using an external HD. But, I’ve been robbed before and lost my external HD so that didn’t seem the best, final solution. After some murking around, I discovered Google Drive now has a better backup/sync app that allows you to choose any folder/file on your computer as well as do only one-way sync without automatic deletion. So, now I can backup my important folders to Google Drive without having to download any of my google drive files. I can also delete files on my computer and they stay on Google Drive. Cloud Backups Done.

I’m also re-reading the Work Clean book to systematically learn the values, habits, and behaviors to practice this way of being, this way of excellence involving focus, discipline, planning, continuous process improvement, and presence.

Eventually, I’m sure I’ll re-introduce more books to my life. For now, I’m going the extreme of practice 80%, reading 20%.