Mind is a certain kind of leg. True, it has no toes. It doesn’t walk on ground. Mind walks on air – on the groundless air of abstraction. Mind is an information-processing leg that is in the business of evolutionary navigation. In its primordial function, mind is merely a trip-wire that alerts the body to take evasive or predatory action. Mind moves the body. This e-motion (endogenously-generated motion) is the very first step of the mind-leg.
At higher levels of complexity, mind infinitely expands the menu of its survival dance-steps. It becomes more precise. Mind informs the body as to the direction and velocity of the escape route and to the velocity and the direction of target acquisition.
At even higher levels of complexity, “left” and “right,” “forward” and “backward,” “up” and “down” begin to lose their concrete physicality and acquire ephemeral idealism. What used to be a specific coordinate in space becomes a vague goal in time. The “left” and “right” may even eventually acquire totally disembodied meaning of morality and ideology. That’s why mind keeps racing – the information-processing leg that it is, mind is in competition with itself.
I am not being metaphorical. Rodolfo Llinas, a famous neuroscientist, proposes that mind is a kind of glorified movement system that has evolved to assist a multi-cellular organism with motricity (evasive and predatory action).[ii]
The mind – for all intents and purposes – is the body, and thinking is nothing other than action.
Mind is in a constant state of becoming. Notice the gerundive nature of this word. “Becoming” says it all: life is motion; it’s always in process, always in formation. Not coincidentally, the word “emotion,” for example, is related to the word “motion.”
Indeed, we experience emotions as some kind of inner motion: first, you feel one way; then, all of a sudden, you are moved in another affective direction.
Mind is restless with urges and impulses. And these words also tell the story of motion. The original Latin word “impulse” means “push, shock, pressure.” The word “urge” —also an import from Latin - means “to press hard.”
Mind streams, presses, pushes, shoves, urges, moves and acts out. Ever restless it keeps us up night and day.
Mind battles against rest and that is its restlessness. Rest is danger. When at rest, when mind-leg is asleep, the body is vulnerable to predation.
So, mind tosses and turns as much as it can, battling against the lethargy of acedia, ever afraid to slow down and to fall prey to the unknowns. Acedia is a restless mind-leg syndrome.
Mind is a chatty leg. At higher levels of organismic complexity, mind speaks symbols rather than signs. Symbols are more strategic and ephemeral whereas signs are more tactical and concrete.
But language is language whether it keeps us close to home or carries us off into the far-away lands of abstraction. Language is always in motion. Your tongue, the extension of your mind, is also a leg. Open your mouth and watch it move to see what I mean.
Made for processing information, in the absence of real survival battles, the mind-leg paces the info-vacuum of its own skull-cell like a sleepless monk who is on the brink of losing faith, talk-walking and walk-talking to itself about what might be, about what lurks in the silence of the world …
Getting back to Cassian’s description of acedia, let us make a quick note of his reference to the “noonday demon.” This was the time – literally mid-day – when an otherwise devout monk would begin to succumb to acedia. It is a curious point, is it not, that there was such a pattern. Why would the onset of acedia be so punctually on time?!
The clue is in the biological hustle of living. Each day we awaken to a kind of biological to-do list. We have to take a piss and, if lucky, a shit. Then we have to find something to eat. Mornings keep us naturally busy.
Back in the prehistoric day, this morning “to-do” list might have kept us busy most of the day. Think about the lives of other animals in the wild – not much downtime to sit on their hands (did you want me to say “paws,” my fellow modern-day apes?).
As we win the minor battles of early-day survival, we arrive at mid-day. The hustle – if we are at all skillful – is mostly over. We didn’t get eaten. We got something to eat. It’s time to wind down. Nap time!
Body doesn’t mind this simple schedule. But mind does. Mind minds.
To justify its existence, the mind-leg yearns for the desert of meaning, taking us on all kinds of restless detours.
But the noon-day sun is too high in the sky to hide the long shadows of falsehoods and abstractions. At mid-day the world is brutally illuminated and the neurotic disillusionment sets in. We glimpse the meaningless hamster-wheel periodicity of our days and – so as to not deal with this meaninglessness – succumb to escapist afternoon naps.
The “noonday demon” described by Cassian – to my mind – is the daily equivalent of a “mid-life crisis” – a crisis of meaning that can strike us at any day of our adulthood, and not just at that existentially frail biological age of our mid-thirties and forties.
At any day, at any age, and at any time. It’s not only the Sun that shines light onto our illusions. So does the Moon. Mind has a way of turning into a dervish at mid-night. Particularly on a full moon.
I bet you are by now tired of all this conceptual impressionism. Probably jonesing for some hard facts, right? F-fff-ine. Let’s talk about the Sea Squirt.
“The sea squirt is an ugly creature. In its adult form it has a tubular shape that resembles a sponge or worm, and in its larval form it looks like a tadpole. Still, the sea squirt is one of our most ancient relatives. Its primitive nervous system makes it more closely related to humans than the sponges and corals it resembles. Scientists say a sea squirt tadpole approximates what an early human ancestor - the very first chordate - may have looked like some 550 million years ago. In this larval form, it has a primitive spinal cord and bundle of ganglia that act as a functional brain. This tiny brain helps it move selectively toward nutrients and away from harm. Like most oceanic creatures, juvenile sea squirts spend their time growing and exploring the sea. Once the sea squirt grows to adulthood, it attaches itself permanently to a rock or a boat’s hull or pilings. It no longer needs to monitor the world as it did as a juvenile because the passing current provides enough nutrients for it to survive. Its life becomes purely passive. The adult sea squirt becomes the couch potato of the sea. In a surprisingly macabre twist, the sea squirt digests its own brain. Without a need to explore or find its sustenance, the creature devours its own cerebral ganglia.” (Stuart Brown, pp. 47-48, 2009).
Let me restate this curious little fact in my own words to make sure you didn’t miss anything here.
So, there is this creature – a relative of ours, which is important. It starts out just as we do, with the same neural architecture that we have. It has a mini-brain – a cephalized (forward-looking) ganglion (tangle) of nerves (neurons), with a spinal cord extending into its body. It uses its mini-brain just as we do – as a leg – to navigate from becoming a lunch to having a lunch. The front-part (the mini-brain) directs the back part (the spinal cord) to direct the body (soma) to wriggle here or yonder, away from existential threats towards metabolic rewards; towards a propitious spot, hopefully somewhere on the side of a coral reef, where the creature will settle down – just like we resist to do in our middle-age – and continue on its existence in a vegetative mode.
So, tadpole that it is, it putzes around until it finds a good enough spot and then it burrows into the corral. Drills itself, head-first, into a corral! And – get this – proceeds to digest its’ own brain.
Why? Because it doesn’t need it anymore. How’s them apples, fellow mind?!
So, following this self-decapitating metamorphosis, the Sea Squirt continues on as a kind of undulating stomach, a living pitcher that sucks in the nutrients in the water and siphons out the waste.
No brain required any further.
The moral of the Sea Squirt story?
Mind is disposable.
Mind (brain) is a leg, an info-processing leg, an organic GPS that has its contextual/situational utility, until it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, mind is to be kicked off like the shoes when you walk through the front door of your home, ready to veg.
Now imagine that our adorably morbid Sea Squirt somehow decided to hold on to its GPS, just in case. So, instead of just going on with its Zen-like vegetative existence, it would have preserved its mini-brain in case it wants to relocate someday.
Let’s call this neurotic sea squirt a Woody Allen sea squirt.
So, here sits the Woody Allen sea squirt, perched on a side of a corral reef, siphoning water in and out, with its monkey-mind going a mile a minute – “Is this a good corral reef? Perhaps, we should have continued to shop around… What if the nutrient flow here is unsustainable? We need to weigh the pros and cons of staying versus leaving …”
With all due respect, that’s what you and I are – Woody-Allenesque sea-squirts with a monkey-mind.
This is the neurotic liability of acedia. The Sea Squirt won the battle – it made it, it survived. But the organic CPU inside its gelatinous body keeps chirping with neurotic hypotheticals. Mind-leg is neurotically apace.
Mind-brain fears sleep because sleep is oblivion. Sleep is info-processing entropy. When the mind-leg falls asleep it tries to tingle itself back awake with the paresthesia of dreams.
Mind is afraid that if you don’t use it, you will choose to lose it.
Neurons – the microscopic cellular life-forms that collectively constitute your sense of “self” – don’t want to veg because they know that vegetables get by just fine without brains.
So, let’s pan out for a second. Let’s soar up to the altitude of a bird’s eye view.
If we are to win the existential war against suffering, we have to learn how to not mind our own minds.
Unlike the sea squirt, we do not have the anatomical option of digesting our own brains.
But, not all is lost. We do have options. Just because we swallowed some information, it doesn’t mean we have to digest it. Just because something pops into our mind, it doesn’t mean you have to chew (ruminate) on it.
We can let the mind-leg rest.
Let us now backtrack a bit and re-approach the problem in a slightly more methodical manner. Let us re-examine the Sixth Battle in more detail, with more pixilation. Then let us review the Cassian solution-paths out of this existential impasse.
I see several themes of acedia. Several strands of it. Let us systematize, but without the pedantic attachment to categories.
So, there is the “loss of interest” kind of acedia. By this I mean boredom, ennui, tedium (in a psychic rather than physical sense), anhedonia (clinical slang for loss of desire/interest). Apathy, indifference, saturation are other examples of the same.
In some ways this kind of acedia is developmental; it comes with the tenure of time and maturity. When you’ve been around the block enough times, you begin to feel that life no longer excites you. It’s a “lack of stimulation” kind of acedia. There is an element of desensitization to this.
The scary older cousin of the “loss of interest” acedia is “the loss of meaning” acedia. There comes a moment when somehow the neat little conceptual framework that you were operating from – suddenly – no longer makes sense. You find yourself in a conceptual, philosophical, spiritual, ideological free-fall.
Maybe something happened and you’ve been traumatized by a sudden onset of meaninglessness. Maybe, paradoxically, by digging deeper and deeper into some conceptual niche you pop out on the other side of the dialectic and your own initial premises and axioms now seem arbitrary and ludicrous.
Here, too, can be a developmental progression. “The loss of interest” ferments into “the loss of meaning.” First, you begin to notice that you are becoming a bit apathetic to what used to turn you on. Maybe you try to spice it up. But to no avail. And then it dawns on you that you are not just disinterested – it’s worse than that – you no longer see the meaning in what used to hold your interest.
This kind of acedic (I’m using the word “acedia” here in an adjective sense) – this kind of acedic erosion spares no idols. Anything is up for disillusionment – parents are dethroned, values are questioned, gods are pronounced dead, ideologies are discarded. Even the possibility of truth may be once and for all undermined.
Another way to organize the phenomenology of acedia is to examine it through a clinical, symptomatic lense. Whatever its theme or origin, experientially acedia manifests as restlessness, insomnia, anxiety, angst, even panic; as melancholia or depression or even passive suicidality; or, perhaps, as what clinicians sometimes call “manic defense” – a defensive burst of activity – a mid-career shift, reinventing yourself spiritually (spiritual seeking), deciding that you absolutely have to have a second kid, moving across the country, getting politically active, etc, etc.
Cassian’s description of acedia emphasizes the “loss of motivation” – he talks of sloth, lethargy, inactivity, indolence, passivity, laziness.
I feel that he is missing the point. First of all, it is a symptomatically narrow description of acedia. Secondly, it is a misunderstanding of the cause and effect. It appears to me that the loss of motivation is a) secondary to loss of interest and/or loss of meaning and b) is not necessarily a problem.
I see this acedic passivity as a legitimate stage in the evolution of information processing. Think of this passivity/inactivity as a kind of buffering. An organism – I mean the modern-day sea squirt that you and I are – hits the pause button, goes into a kind of contemplative hibernation, so as to re-orient oneself.
I see depression the same way. (And I share this non-pathologizing point of view with Sheri Huber, a humanistic Zen teacher who skillfully reframes depression from being seen as a problem to being seen as a solution, as an opportunity for understanding oneself).
But, John Cassian was right to ring the bell of alarm. If left unaddressed, acedia is acidic and toxic. It erodes the experience of life. It poisons the simple pleasures of the body with the need for some bigger-picture justification.
So what did John Cassian propose? What are the solution-paths from this existential dead-end?
Many folks have weighed in on this issue. But I am only going to single out four – John Cassian, Victor Frankl, Epicurus, and Nietszche. And I lump these four into the same category – into the overall category of Cassian solutions. (In this case, I am using the name “Cassian” as an adjective.)
Cassian solutions – in my opinion – are case-specific, tactical, and therefore, at best, palliative. They are cognitive, affective and behavioral. They are – unwittingly – aimed at keeping the sea squirt from digesting its own brain. They are conceptual, philosophical, and narrative in premise.
Cassian solutions, in my opinion, are the restless thrashings of the mind-leg. And, as such, they are not enough. (We have to find a way to let the mind-leg rest).
Cassian solutions are mind-heavy and mind-serving. Cassian solutions are made by mind and serve the mind. And in serving the mind, they once again fail the soma (the body).
Cassian solutions try to win the Sixth Battle. But I am convinced the Sixth Battle must be lost – if we are to win the war against suffering. And that is the basis of my criticism of them. A different path is needed – a path of acceptance, a Zen path, a path of not minding the mind-leg.
All opposition must be first understood before it is itself opposed. So, let us now briefly understand the Cassian solutions on how to win the Sixth Battle and slay the ice-breathing dragon of sloth.
John Cassian’s main solution to the “noonday demon” of acedia – and by extension, to the mid-life crisis phenomenon, – is to stay busy. Here’s how he puts it:
“That he is sure to be restless who will not be content with the work of his own hands.”
“The cause of all these ulcers, which spring from the root of idleness” will be “heal[ed] … by a single salutary charge to work.”
Paraphrased, Cassian’s suggestion is all too familiar: whoever is idle, will feel restless, so get busy and stay busy. Most readers will recognize this admonition as a Biblical meme that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”
This is immediately misguided. To stay busy the monk had to have the interest and the motivation to stay busy in the first place. To get busy, the monk would have had to somehow pull oneself up out of the bog of acedia by the bootstraps. This is Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no (to drugs)!” empty sloganeering. This is the oft-used and utterly useless call to willpower. Much of our modern-day approach to working with substance misuse and addictions is predicated on this kind of misunderstanding of motivation.
The Cassian “get busy” advice misses the point. It’s not that the monk lost the motivation because he stopped being busy. No, it’s the other way around. The monk stopped being busy because he lost motivation. John Cassian doesn’t seem to get it: like a boot-camp sergeant, he prioritizes compliance.
This kind of Cassian solution is an oversimplification of the matter.
We need to dig deeper into this motivational permafrost. And we will. But for now let’s run through a few modern-day examples of how we try to stay busy when we bump into the invisible wall of acedia.
The solution of course depends on the time-scale of the problem. If we are wrestling with a fleeting moment of acedic restlessness, a simple band-aid of distraction would do just fine. If, however, we got stuck in the quick sands of a bona fide mid-life crisis, we need a crane of a solution.
On a micro-scale – say, in the evening or over the weekend – we might get busy cleaning or re-arranging; we might go shopping even if we don’t necessarily need to. In this day and age of smart-phones, the distractions are all too readily available – so, we start playing Angry Birds or start thumbing through Facebook posts. If you are old school, you might pick up a book or just turn on the TV.
The distinction between getting busy and distraction, by the way, is only in form, not in intent. Whether you are busy “fine-tuning” your privacy settings on Facebook or power-washing your porch steps, you are trying to distract yourself from the gaping emptiness of your downtime.
As far as more protracted periods of acedia are concerned – say, a vacation or a mid-life crisis – we get busy on a macro scale. (Yours truly, for example, with a few days to kill in this early spring of 2017 sat down to pen this little opus on acedia. Yes, I did! But there is no fooling myself: I know that at the end of the manuscript, the door of acedia is still ajar and I too will need to rest my mind-leg.)
Sometimes we go to extremes. Just as you breathe a deep sigh of relief that your first baby finally managed to sleep through the night, you might surprise yourself with a desire for another child. Is it because you liked the experience that much in the first place or because in some lightning-fast preview of your future empty-nest syndrome, you decided that it is not too early to start postponing that eventual separation from your offspring? This kind of strategic preemption of separation anxiety might also be a manifestation of acedia. (So, before you know it you and your partner are getting busy “trying” to get pregnant or filling out the adoption paperwork.)
Or, having succeeded on your first career path, you suddenly sully your success as a burnout (because you are starting to understandably feel a tad apathetic about what you’ve been doing for years); so you decide to reinvent yourself professionally; you get busy by re-enrolling in school; or you get busy redesigning your resume, contacting head hunters, picking others’ brains as to the alternative career paths you might take. Suddenly, instead of deleting LinkedIn notifications, you are all about it, browsing for a better profile picture, scrolling through possible connections and making connection requests. You know the drill …
Or you might get busy by embarking on a spiritual search: you leave the church you are in, buy a handful of new books (probably on Eastern religions), look up Meet-up groups in the area, go on retreats, etc.
Seeking (of any kind) is doing. Seeking – for truth, for a better partner, for fulfillment, for meaning – keeps us busy and, therefore, distracted from the unanswered and unanswerable existential questions.
Examples of “busy-making” are endless. People move – they up-size, they down-size. They remodel. They landscape. They reinvent. Some get busy updating their emotional and romantic lives. They seek intimacy. They go to reunions to reconnect. They end up having affairs, which naturally keep them quite busy. Then they try to rebuild the burned bridges in couple’s therapy. Some divorce, some remarry.
The “re-” prefix is the name of the game here. “Re-” stands for repetition.
We keep busy by going in circles – we recycle the old battles.
Anything would do in the name of not losing the Sixth Battle. And the samsaric cycle of suffering continues on.
So, this is my beef with the Cassian solution of “staying busy.” Mind-leg marching in place is no solution. Sure, it has tactical value – keeps us distracted. But strategically we are still walking in place in front of the invisible wall of acedia.
But let us not throw the baby out with the bath water. The Cassian solution of staying busy is palliative. Palliative solution-paths are tactical and existentially necessary. While a quick fix is not always better than nothing, sometimes a quick fix is a true life-saver. A tourniquet is a great example: if you don’t stop the bleeding, you die. A tourniquet of “staying busy” is the first intuitive tactic in the Sixth Battle against acedia. But you’d do well to also have a post-palliative strategy up your self-help sleeve.
John Cassian, with surprising humanism, also cautioned against harsh judgment of those who are idle. In chapter XV of his Institutes, John Cassian speaks of “how kindness should be shown even to the idle and careless.”
Taking a hint from him, I encourage you to have mercy on those who fight acedia tactically, by “staying busy.” Indeed, if mind is a leg, and if it is pacing up a storm inside its skull-cell, it makes sense to take it (mind) outside. It’s just intuitive. What is here to judge or condemn? Walk the mind-leg a bit, restore the flow of life. Go for a walk around the block. Or for a more geographically expansive walkabout. Take this mind-leg places. Get it active. No sin in that. Whether you are brushing up on French before your trip to Paris or joining a gym, the info-processing leg inside your cranium could always benefit from a new learning curve to climb. In this sense, a Cassian solution of “staying busy” is a perfectly okay tactic. So, let the curmudgeon philosophers among us not scoff at Cassian tactics.
Another Cassian (palliative) path is hedonism. Associated, at least initially, with an ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (370 BC), hedonism is a life that emphasizes pleasure. A historically accurate Epicurean definition of pleasure is very different from the orgiastic, carnal pleasures that come to mind when we nowadays speak of hedonism. But I will nevertheless use the attribute “Epicurean” interchangeably with “hedonic” in this context.
To clarify: an Epicurean (hedonic) solution to acedia is another Cassian (tactical) path. A good many of us, if not a majority, escape into some form of Epicurean self-psychiatry. When we run into the invisible wall of acedia, when we suddenly lose interest and then motivation to hustle in life, we begin to palliate our angst with various forms of pleasure.
Eating is a common Epicurean solution. And, as a solution, it is absolutely intuitive and relatable: since we feel empty, we try to literally fill up – we begin to overeat, we start stuffing ourselves, if not with meaning than with food.
Eating is a universal Epicurean distraction. Feeling bored? Raid the fridge, right?
Mindless, boredom-driven grazing or binge-eating is an effective tactical defense against the terrifying emptiness of the bodymind. On the front end, any eating makes us feel better which is why we do it in the first place. It is a basic pleasure, a rudimentary coping tactic. And on the back-end, overeating keeps us busy in a classic Cassian sense. As we gain weight, we eventually try to lose it. And in yet another brilliant displacement, we battle the weight instead of battling the acedia.
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