Life is getting faster.
As the world becomes increasingly digitised and commodified it becomes difficult to escape the continuous influx of new, novel and interesting that inserts itself into our lives every day. As humans, we are predisposed towards the novel, it’s stimulating, we are curious animals. But hunting for novelty can be used against us. Continuous stimulation is a form of psychic distributed denial of service (DDoS). Though, this particular form of DDoS is not directed at our computer networks, it is directed at us.
This overwhelming emphasis upon speed at all costs restricts our ability to think and process. When the world becomes too much we tend to shut down, when it becomes too complex we reject it and focus upon simple narratives that feel good. This self slowdown is a defense mechanism to a world that is becoming increasingly strange and increasingly volatile. It protects us.
The psychic DDoS does not distinguish across economic grounds nor is it class based. The intelligent are just as (if not more so) susceptible than the average. The rich are if anything more vulnerable than the poor. It does not care about racial boundaries, the DDoS doesn’t care if you are White, Black, Asian or Hispanic. It is undirected and unfocused, though more effective for being so.
As we lose a rich inner life we tend to look externally, we look to the material world and others around us as a replacement. We look to our social peers and try to ape their behaviours. The reactionary amongst us cry out “things used to be better”, as though they can simply close Pandora’s Box with a simple refrain. But the past will never come again. It cannot, time is an arrow that flows in one direction.
Populist politicians and political activists may react or revolt against the present but we can never go back, nor should we want to. The refrain “things used to be better” is thoroughly pessimistic. It trivialises the spirt of humanity, it trivialises our inherent potential to improve our circumstances, not just individually but collectively. As David Deutsch says, “we are always at the beginning of infinity.” We must be optimistic and look towards our reason and our rationality to improve our circumstances. Just because “things used to be better” doesn’t mean that “things won’t be better in the future.” Our future is up to us to build.
To fight this populist backlash a meaningful alternative must be developed. The “things used to be better” crowd is reminiscent of the Roman Mob which caused huge problems for the Roman Emperors at home. They are political equivalent of the child screaming for attention. They say nothing about how to make the world better, nor do they propose a way to make the world better. The simply stamp their feet and scream that they want more.
To me, an isolated reaction isn’t helpful. Though it helps to identify a problem it doesn’t say anything about the solution. To me, we must first escape the DDoS that is being directed against us in the name of corporate profit and political power before we can begin to solve it. To achieve this, we must develop our inner lives, distinct from the external world around us.
Often, people begin down the journey towards a richer inner life with minimalism, the rejection of materiality. Yet, minimalism is not a life philosophy in and of itself so they look towards mindfulness, doing each action with purpose. But this begs the question, “what action should we be doing?” Ultimately, this must lead us to craftsmanship, the dedication of ones life towards a specific goal. Here, I use craftsmanship loosely, I am not just thinking of hand manufacturing in a classical sense, but instead a more all encompassing definition. Before I discuss craftsmanship it is important to understand the journey.
The first step is often minimalism, the rejection of the baubles material world in favour of “what matters”. Minimalists look at the symptoms of the problem, they see a world that is being covered in material goods, one where our endless thirst for consumption is destroying the environment and a world in which people’s lives are so full of “stuff” that they struggle to breathe. To a minimalist the maxim is simple, “You don’t own your stuff, your stuff owns you.” The minimalist solution to this problem is clear, get rid of all of the junk. Get rid of the things that are holding you down, strip material possessions out of your life and focus upon experiences.
Minimalism has a lot going for it. In general, having less stuff is often better. It’s better economically, it’s better environmentally and it’s better for your mental well being. But, having a lot of things is often a symptom, it speaks to missing something in your life as opposed to being the problem in and of itself. Becoming a minimalist is thus not a optimistic step, it is a reactionary one, a pessimistic one. In a caricatured form it states, “don’t worry about what you’re going to do, just have less stuff in your life.” Clearly, this won’t work for many people.
Often, minimalists seek to couple the exorcism of the material goods in their lives with a renewed focus upon their interior lives. The modern equivalent is the fetishisation of travel as the most worthy goal in and of itself. Modern, typically from the affluent classes (race tends to matter less here than affluence) seek to collect passport stamps almost as a support. It’s not uncommon to hear a conversation about someone “finding themselves” in India, Cambodia, the Middle East or wherever the trendiest destination de jour is currently.
Eventually, a focus upon minimalism as a goal in and of itself brings up shortfall. Cutting away the infection is often the first step in healing. It isn’t enough for proper health though, it leaves a void. the next step is to switch from an external orientation towards an internal orientation. Minimalists tend to find Mindfulness.
Mindfulness, in the modern perception, is often treated as synonymous with active practices such as meditation and will tend to bring to mind monastic images of men in robes chanting or continuously raking gravel gardens into elaborate shapes. Whilst these can be mindful activities they are just a subset of them, one of the more visible outcrops of an internally oriented practice.
Mindfulness is not an activity in and of itself, instead, it is a method.
Many of us go about our lives in a distracted fashion, continuously in a rush from task to task as we tick off our to do lists. We never take the time to focus upon what an activity actually means, what sensations we feel, how we respond and react to it, how we could modify it. Right now, at this present moment, I am writing. I am fully engaged in the act of writing itself, I’m thinking about sentence structure, about pacing, about whether I’m making the correct point, about whether I’m leaving any loose ends, about the flow. I’m doing it mindfully, the words that are appearing on the screen as I type are the only things running through my mind. I am focused upon the task at hand.
This same mentality can be applied to any part of your life. It can be applied to your work. It can be applied to how you drink your morning coffee. It can be applied to how you drive your car. Focusing upon the activity itself, immersing yourself within it and fully engaging in it are the hallmarks of mindfulness. It is not about raking sand gardens. It is about engaging in the task itself.
Yet, this will not appeal to most people. It is not specific enough, it doesn’t contain any actionable pieces of information or steps that someone can follow. There is no seven step plan to success.
Mindfulness has a marketing problem, you see this in the material that is recommended, often these are as inscrutable as Buddhist texts, filled with wishy washy language and Zen koans. While these may be suitable for the experienced practitioner who is dedicating their lives to the pursuit of mindfulness as a self contained goal. The problem, is that the average writer on mindfulness is so far divorced from the *average individual that they may as well be speaking a different language. Their writing isn’t helpful to our pursuit.
I believe that there is a third strategy, a way to use mindfulness in our lives without treating mindfulness as a goal in and of itself. A way to have a richer existence without becoming consumed by the pursuit. For me, this alternative is Craftsmanship.
Good craftsmanship is deceptively simple, it’s like pornography in that “we all know it when we see it” but it remains difficult to define. Craftsmanship has roots in working with our hands, in the historical guild structure and in the pursuit of quality.
To me, craftsmanship is a goal directed activity, it has an end in mind, often the production of an item or the completion of a task. What sets craftsmanship apart from mindless labour is:
- the degree of concentration required, dedication to the activity is important, you cannot practice craftsmanship properly without mindfulness
- the ability to improve your skills over time
- receiving instant feedback throughout the process as to the status of the project
Done well, craftsmanship is meditation, it is mindfulness. From the outside they should be utterly indistinguishable. Whereas meditation is internally looking, seeking to reach a degree of calm and focus, craftsmanship would look externally, would look towards the investiture of concentrated focus into the task at hand.
Craftsmanship is easier than meditation. We are still structuring our attention away from negative psychic thoughts (dwelling in the past leads to depression while dwelling in the future leads to anxiety) but we are using an external cue to help. Structuring our mind on to the task at hand is eminently more practical for most people than structuring our mind on to a single thought (Transcendental Meditation) or on to a general awareness of our body itself (Vipassana Meditation).
Ultimately, what is important is the improvement in the structure of our thinking. Undirected thoughts and undirected energy tends to lead to unhappiness. Having a healthier outlet short circuits this internally destructive loop.
Craftsmanship is a pure form of slow living. To be a craftsman is to live with intent and focus. You cannot practice a craft while distracted, you cannot practice it while mindlessly browsing the internet, you cannot practice it without your full attention directed towards the outcome. Practically speaking, craftsmanship in all of its form is one of the highest ideals of the Slow Living Revolution. It is the rejection of the mass consumption culture and a recognition that it is the quality of the outcome, not the quantity, that matters.
In theory, there is no difference between practice and theory. In practice, there is.
Thinking about meditation, mindfulness, craftsmanship is all well and good from a theoretical perspective but ultimately meaningless if we never introduce it into our lives. It is the action that matters, not the thought. Intellectual masturbation doesn’t really help anyone, especially ourselves.
So practically, how does this work? Clearly, we cannot start from scratch and become a craftsman overnight, nor would we obtain the mental benefits if we were to. Craftsmanship is a journey of many steps but we must start somewhere.
To introduce craftsmanship into your life remember the following:
- More is often simply more, the more you practice your craft the better you get.
- Don’t get caught up on being perfect in everything immediately, focus on one step at a time.
- The best time to start is always today.
- Commit to one thing at a time, don’t overwhelm yourself.
- Concentrate on the task at hand, try not to let your mind wander to other distractions. Be mindful.
- Review what you’ve been doing weekly, think about how you can get better, what’s been working and what hasn’t.
- Implement the results of the review into your life.
The journey towards craftsmanship and mastery is very fulfilling and can seem overwhelming. Articles, including this one, will wax lyrically about the benefits of mindfully practicing a craft. It’s too much.
Your journey will be your own, what you pursue and where you end up will be unique to you. Nothing is ever quite the same. This is okay. Just breathe and start, see where it goes and enjoy the ride.