I could start this post by saying that the modern age has us preoccupied with material possessions and the acquisition of the same. And I have. But I don’t agree with the sentiment expressed in this bromide, or its conclusion that we should therefore shun materialism altogether and pursue spiritual paths instead.
Yes, spiritual paths are important, but they cannot be divorced from our material nature, otherwise they are just nonsensical, meaningless exercises in sophistry.
But there is a nugget of truth in the aforementioned bromide, and I only realized what it was after contemplating what is called dopamine fasting. I have considered myself a minimalist for some time now, despite the relatively large number of things I possess. I’ve disposed of many things I considered distracting and have sold others. But no matter how I reduced the clutter of these things, they would somehow find their way back into my life.
And then one day I just blurted out to my therapist something that took me a while to figure out afterwards what it meant. I told him my mind was a mess and that I never had any sense of order about anything in it. By “order” I really meant “purpose”, or “direction”. The “clutter” in my mind was really creating the clutter in my life, and in my environment. I may have tidied my desk, but without clear goals it would again become cluttered with the many things that came my way and which I had no way of judging as either relevant or irrelevant.
But why was there no purpose? In a way, the “material possessions” that the bromide mentioned played a significant role. Think of material possessions as sources of light. You own things you like and they give you pleasure, a sense of security, a sense of social status. If you have many things like that, there is a whole lot of light surrounding you.
All this light could be so bright that it’s blinding you to that tiny light far, far away, which is the place where you would rather be instead of where you are now. Your goal; your purpose.
Instead of heading straight for your distant star, you trudge day after day from one of your material possessions to another, then another, then another. Then after a while perhaps you make a move towards that star of yours, but since you can’t even see where it is from all the light pollution, you head in the wrong direction and quickly give up. Or you simply go back to your usual daily trudge.
Now, those lights near you, they are your local sources of dopamine – things you can easily reach that give you pleasure; like your TV and your Netflix subscription; or your gaming console, and your games; or your bottle of whiskey; or your next-door neighbor who is always open for gossip; or your sweets; or your cigarette, your weed, your heroin shot…
That star in the distance? That’s a place where you would like to be. Maybe it represents the goal of having a family and children who love you; maybe it represents material wealth and abundance… Whatever it is, it’s far away. It takes a great deal of effort to get there. It requires a sense of purpose, a kind of everyday dedication that your local sources of dopamine undermine.
What I realized is that through the blinding lights of my local sources of dopamine, I can’t even see any stars. I’m a sugar addict. My favorite pastime is playing video games. I browse Facebook a lot and make comments on posts that are hardly relevant to me. Heck, I sometimes even re-read my comments on Facebook, just to see if I still think they’re as awesome as I thought they were when I wrote them. And if I get reactions I like to browse profiles of people who reacted to see if they’re the kind of people I would hold in high regard (and feel stupid if they’re not), or if they seem qualified to have an opinion on the topic. Yeah, I’m that guy. I imagine all these nonsensical actions release loads of dopamine (or else I wouldn’t do them). The lights are shining brightly around me.
But what happens with lights is much like what happens with dopamine. If you don’t get more of it then you get accustomed to the level you’re getting and you need more or…well…nothing really good happens. The lights gradually dim and the horizons open to show all the possible places where I could be instead of this dopamine quagmire and I then either up my dopamine intake, to hide from the fact that I haven’t moved a single inch towards any of the goals I thought were noteworthy, or I decide to aim for that star; and then I really work at reaching it, but realize that the journey is long and difficult and I decide once again to boost my local lights to maximum to hide from my goals again.
There’s a third alternative and it involves the bromide from the beginning of this story. It consists of destroying the local sources of dopamine. It consists of turning off the lights and face the starry sky. It consists of abandoning my material possessions and living an ascetic life.
For a while.
Until the skies clear and I can see my stars again. And then choose a star to aim for.
When I return to my worldly possessions, however, I can’t go on as if nothing had happened. I need to be able to keep my aim and adjust it if necessary. If I let the lights blare again I’ll just keep losing sight of my goal and it will all have been for naught. No. The light can only tingle on low. Not bright enough to hide the stars, and not completely dark either. I imagine I will spend quite some time figuring out which lights can and which cannot be left on. And some will be much easier to switch off than others.
One could ask why go completely dark in the first place, just keep lights low and aim. That’s alright too, but I think it’s like trying to find the brightest star when the sky is already half-illuminated by the rising Sun. You may not see all the stars.