You are most yourself when not trying to be yourself

“A good traveller is one who does not know the destination, and a perfect traveller does not know where he came from.” – Lin Yutang

Do you ever feel that you can never get quite what you wanted to express out and into the world? There’s an aching in your spine, the nausea moving through your stomach and clouded thoughts sifting dimply through your mind. Life is strange paradox, we have all the options in the world open yet we don’t know which one to choose. It’s a paradox of freedom I suppose, to be frozen by the overwhelming abundance of choice. There are so many examples, so many individuals to learn from and to guide us. Yet we sit. We stare. We long.

It seems that creation and art itself is a paradox because in order to authentically express one’s self it must come from an absent mind, without intention. The Taoist term is wu-we: to do by not doing. Anything clear and distinct or whenever we have a vision or conviction it seems the outcome is less powerful, at least to ourselves, than unabashed expression. It may be primal instinct, something as civilized as culture may just mold our urge to thump around on the ground in a socially acceptable way. Another paradox it seems: to lash out because you’re unable to lash out. Freud called this neurotic behavior, to express our desires in a way society approves of. Heavy Metal and video games are great examples of neuroses. Instead of a Dionysian and cathartic explosion of our urges, we bury it or try and find that which hits closest to what we would really like to do.

This perspective works well when considering the evolution of Western culture of the past two centuries. As man became more and more civilized, his urges for primal expression grew stronger. Capitalists try to develop products to submerge these, to use material possessions as a subterfuge for that which is most natural. As Christianity and guilt’s grip loosened, the new iron grasp of consumerism swoops in to relieve the forgotten gods and replace them with a new form of diversion. As industrialism developed so did uniformity, blandness and perfectionism. With new technology came new standards. Man began to feel more and more separated from his world, alienated from the dirt under his nails.

When looking at the artistic development of the past few centuries one begins to see the breakdown of artificial barriers and rules while simultaneously more structure and rule began to rise all around. As the ground was paved to roads and skies filled with buildings, music and art became freer and looser than before. Composers began rejecting tonality, artists became more and more abstract and social standards began to loosen. Within their constraint man found a way to be free beyond their physical barriers. Neuroses began to evolve. As science developed man was found to be a speck within the whirlwind of the universe leaving him lonelier and in greater despair than ever before. Mankind began its decline into nihilism and has been faced with the paradox of their freedom ever since. Even with God in the picture, more and more paradoxes began to arise.

While we became more civilized externally, internally we remained just as primal. Bigger bullets, bigger bombs, bigger buildings, bigger fires, bigger disasters and yet our hearts remain the same size. Another paradox, how the greater the technology, the greater the wealth, the lower the happiness, and the increase of discontentment (manufactured or not) than ever before. Life itself became a paradox, that meaningless must become our meaning like a phoenix from a flame. Even when the big picture makes all of life seem trivial and pointless, we live on continuing to feel, love and desire. Walking aimlessly in the dark we keep the light in our minds and paint our own canvas.

I’ve always found the most absurd and chaotic to be the most beautiful, something I find very rare. Somehow in chaos, absurdity and atonality I find harmony. Staring the mess of Jackson Pollack’s art I feel for a moment as if the whole world makes sense. All the calculated and formulated art seems so cold and distant. It was as if the artists were missing something or maybe I was missing something; probably a little of both. However, when staring into a smear of paint on the wall, I feel most alive. The same goes with music. When hearing atonal chaotic noise as in a Frank Zappa composition I feel as if the world is dancing. Maybe these artists finally caught up with the universe and began to play to the world’s tune rather than making it fit into theirs. The music of atonal “avant-garde” artists seems to write music for life that matches the sounds and poetry of the world around us in all its chaotic harmony. Their music and art is closest to pure expression, to a primordial release. It speaks to the heart and mind in ways formulated and civilized culture cannot. There is a very unique emotion to it, an emotion that runs deeper than any other and blankets one’s body inside and out.

What’s most fascinating in my experience of creating such music and art is that intention can be the biggest hindrance to achieving a potent effect. Like wu-we, creating powerful improvised or spontaneous music, poetry or art, one must let go and surrender all will and intention while involved in the creative process. Facilitating this sort of creation becomes a very complex task. Like in Zen, enlightenment or the Zen realization comes when one is relieved of action. To do this is hard to explain and even harder to do. This is so because doing is quite the opposite of the intention, and again intention will tarnish the results. Like trying to calm the waves in a pond, the best method is to let it be. You cannot flatten water; to do so would only make the matter worse. Authenticity is much the same. As soon as awareness or intention is brought to the matter, it disappears. You are most yourself when not trying to be yourself, this is when you are most authentic.

These ideas are quite foreign to the Western ideal of things. Work is highly valued and non-action or idleness is looked down upon and a waste of time. Time is given a dollar value and to waste time is to waste money. One must have goals, orientation, and most of all intention. It is no wonder many are walking around feeling hallow, inauthentic, and confused. How can one capture that which can only be captured by not looking for it? Another paradox is that happiness only comes when it is not sought after. This is called the paradox of hedonism. This is not too foreign. Just think of all the most compelling and interesting nights of your life. Often they arise when unplanned or out of boredom. As soon as an intention is set, the goal is lost. However, it seems counterintuitive to claim life is best lived directionless and without purpose. This is what we consider depression, a state of confusion,  and despair. It seems we have on our hands another paradox; life is best lived when aimlessly chasing something. Sounds off still.

If our lives are like a Pollock painting like the existentialist proposes , how is it we capture our authenticity? We already let go the idea of the aimless life, but is there a way to synthesize the two extremes? To look at the opposite end, a life of rigid rules and strict dogmatic devotion leaves one caged and bored. Routine is the punishment Sisyphus was condemned to, and it is commonly said variety is the spice of life. Too much though may prove too strong for most. Total instability is stressful and begins to turn life into a proverbial whirlpool. However, if we try and mix our lives up, it becomes contrived like the middle aged man trying to recapture his youth with hip clothes and a hot rod. So what is the overarching philosophy to be? Can we learn from spontaneous creation?

For me, I feel most at home when writing, doing as I am now: making the message up as I go while watching my thoughts and emotions weave themselves through my fingertips and onto the paper or into the air; letting the piece of work take form as it may. Sure, the finished product is not as refined as it could be, but it is as true and real as it gets. It remains authentic so long as intention is kept at a distance (which is hard when intention is the topic at hand). One must facilitate a necessary environment for it to occur without forming any sort of goal, like when opening Microsoft Word or setting up a canvas. One is placing themselves in a context relevant to their mode of expression or catharsis while letting go of a goal. This is very much like meditation where you take position to facilitate non-action.

There must be a way to do the same in life. To allow for the possibility of happiness and spontaneity without actually seeking it and remaining open to all life has to offer. Like a Pollock piece, one has to take a step back and absorb all the strokes of life. It’s in the big picture we are simultaneously lost and found. Could it be the meaning of life is simply to live it, to accept it, and revel in its ambiguity? Is life an end in itself? If so, is seeking meaning, purpose and direction self defeating? Like a guitar solo or poem, maybe authenticity and truth come when we stop trying. Bukowski has two words written on his grave: Don’t Try. This is a message to writers looking for inspiration on how to stay inspired. As he so elegantly put it, “A good poem is like a beer shit.”

In our society and the collective consciousness, being “put together” and holding a clear and distinct understanding are held in high esteem, but maybe being lost isn’t so bad. It always seemed to me that the ones who appear to have their lives together are the lost ones, while the rest end up with something beautiful. It seems that life happens whether we want it to or not. We wake up, the sun rises, things happen, we die and life goes on. Change is the way of the world, and trying to grab onto something will only make its departure more painful.

It seems all of life is a paradox, and most of the truths are backwards. This isn’t anything new, which is another paradox: that sometimes the oldest and most primitive end up being the most timeless and sophisticated. As for expression and the irking under my skin I started with, it seems as if I achieved my goal as always, by not meaning to.



One comment on “You are most yourself when not trying to be yourself

  1. Mike says:

    Can there be different level of intention? It seems that the while Zen is premised on the idea of the relief of action but conversely and, perhaps, paradoxically this comes from directed intention. The manner of that direction and intention is filled by the desired consequence or the desired action.

    For cathartic purposes it becomes the action itself that is all important. Lashing out, self-betrayal, revenge (while all being negative) uphold the action over the consequence. A person that betrays himself, let’s say a person who admits responsibility, often lifts the action above the consequence; the latter conceivably being undesirable the former self-fulfilling.

    The paradoxical nature of happiness is, probably, as you describe it to be. It is only in searching that we fail; we lift the consequence high above the directed intention and thus when nothing pans out we feel it is pointless trying. Is this impatience? Has the modern world driven us to a point where the only immediate pleasure we derive comes with or without fries?

    As you conclude, I would also propose a balancing of the two, the action and the consequence. Find something you love doing, which in turn brings about something you desire. (Oh! We can slip into ethics here.) I suppose the problem with happiness is probably seeing it in the form of a conclusion and not, like a Zen master is still, seeing it as a mode of being. Surely, as you describe writing, happiness is both the directed intention and the consequence.

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