JournalJournal & MusingsOptingOut!

The Meaning of Opting Out

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I am almost four months in now, and thus far I have written almost exclusively about aspects of RV living. At this point I can say with some confidence that I am fairly well established out on the roads – I have most practical problems to do with everyday life pretty much figured out, and I have found sources of income which keep me ticking over  reasonably well. I have been able to turn a pipe dream into reality – I can’t say I am secure and comfortable in my circumstances, but that was never the aim anyway. As Benjamin Franklin said : “Whoever trades freedom for security deserves neither !”.

But you know, opting out has been about a whole lot more than just full-time van life. In fact, the physical aspect – getting out of the rat race, leaving behind my possessions, and giving society the one-finger salute – was really only preparatory work, in the same way as you have to prepare a patch of soil before you can plant a new crop, or else nothing decent will grow on it. Reducing my life down to what actually matters, and what I really need as opposed to want, was done in order to create the right conditions for the next step.

I wish to opt out not only of the conventions of the rat race ( step 1 – now tentatively complete ), but also of the conditioned thinking patterns which I was made to accumulate over the last 40 years or so. What I mean by this is not easy to explain without getting into an overly philosophical treatise; I guess it all comes down to the fact that not only are we caught in an economic rat race, but we are also caught in a rat race within our very own minds. We are utterly trapped in conditioned thinking patterns which cause us a great deal of sorrow and suffering, because they inherently go against basic principles of nature. To give just one – but rather prominent and pervasive – example, let us consider the concept of happiness.

Close your eyes for a second and focus on your breathing, observe it as if you were a neutral witness. You inhale and exhale in a natural rhythm, and it happens spontaneously and all by itself. There is no intent, no effort, no plan, no conscious control – we just let it happen. Crucially, every time you inhale, an exhalation must follow – it is inevitable. Inhaling conditions exhaling, and vice versa. It can’t be any other way, because that is the natural way of things, and it is the only way to sustain our bodies. No one goes along and says “right, I really dislike this whole exhalation business, so I am going to stop engaging in it. From now on, I only inhale. I like breathing in. That exhalation can *&$% right off !”. That would be just stupid. Trying to just constantly inhale, and avoid exhaling, would cause us a great deal of suffering, and eventually we die. No one is that stupid.

And yet this way of thinking is exactly how we have become unconsciously conditioned. Somehow we have gotten it into our minds that the purpose of our lives has to be the pursuit of happiness – we want to be happy at all times, and exclude everything that does not make us happy. And so we chase the most beautiful and sexy people, indulge in the most luxurious pleasures of the senses, strive for the most lavish material possessions, and stroke our egos in infinitely many ways to make us feel good; we fear illness and ignore death, abhor boredom and avoid ugliness. If only we would be in a relationship with that girl/guy, we would be happy. If only we could have this food/music/drug/experience/entertainment etc, we would be happy. If only we could have that new car, that latest iPad model, that bigger house, we would be happy. If only we need not get sick, die, loose loved ones, not be bored with life, and not have to see that ugly thing over there, then surely we could be happy.

I call this the “pleasure paradigm” – we crave what makes us feel good, and avoid what doesn’t. If you really think about it, all of society ( regardless of modern or historical, regardless of economic status or geographic location ) is build around this paradigm – give me food, booze, religion, power, wealth, status, things, entertainment, knowledge, wisdom, meaning – I want to feel good, good, good, and always good. If I feel bad, the world has failed me, my body has failed me, the universe is against me, I’m a poor victim.

But here’s the problem – there is nothing wrong with being happy, but there’s a whole lot wrong with grasping at happiness at the exclusion of everything else. Why ? Because it never lasts. It cannot. And because of that, it’s an oxymoron – grasping at happiness is in itself a source of frustration and unhappiness.

Those beautiful and sexy people – they grow old and turn into wrinkled, silly old men and women. Each time we stimulate our senses in a certain manner, we get a little less of a hit out of it. Each time we obtain that latest possession, we are happy for a little while, and then the novelty slowly fades out. Each time we enjoy good health for a while, we eventually pick up some bug or other health problem. Each time a baby is born, a funeral is on the cards at some point in the future. Each form of entertainment we choose will loose its appeal eventually, and we get bored. Each beautiful, firm, well-tanned belly we see on the beach is literally full of shit on the inside.

Birth conditions death.
Youth leads into old age.
Entertainment conditions boredom.
Pleasure fades into pain.
Things must break and wear out, and loose their value and purpose.
And so on.

These are all perfectly natural conditions. Everything changes, all the time, just like the in-breath must be followed by an out-breath. It is inevitable, and there is no problem with it whatsoever. The hang-up happens only if we attach ourselves to some idea that runs contrary to nature – we cannot attach ourselves to the idea of only breathing in, but avoiding the out-breath; doing so leads to frustration, suffering, and death. The problem is not the out-breath itself, but rather how we react to it; that is a conditioning of the mind, a thinking pattern gone badly wrong. You can apply this to any of the random examples I gave above, and you will find it to be true.

And exactly in the same manner, the pursuit of happiness in life is destined to failure from the outset, because happiness is nothing more than a mental condition, a chemical state in the brain, and as such cannot last; every mental high will be follow by a decline. The higher the climb, the longer the fall. It is as inevitable as the out-breath having to follow the in-breath. It is entirely irrelevant how that happiness was caused – by pleasure of the senses, entertaining the ego, altering the mind by using substances, or whatever else the case may be.

The important thing to understand is that there is nothing wrong with happiness; but there is equally nothing wrong with sorrow. Frustration and suffering arise only if we try to cling to either one of them, in the same way as in/out-breath are both natural, and turn into suffering only if we try to hold it. Unfortunately that is what we do at every moment of every day – we try to run from what we hate, towards what we like. And so it is the very act of chasing happiness that in fact prevents us from ever finding peace. Instead of accepting whatever condition we are faced with at a given moment, we cling to some abstract idea that has no basis in reality – I hate to break it to you ladies and gentlemen, but the “happily ever after” ( regardless of context ) is a myth, a fairy tale, that has been sold to us as the truth all of our lives. Love is supposed to be eternal happiness. Having the perfect body is eternal happiness. Being wealthy is eternal happiness. Family is eternal happiness. Health is eternal happiness. Youth is eternal happiness. That car over there is eternal happiness. And so on.

Bullshit ! That’s not how things work. It can’t happen, because it is unnatural. Mental states aren’t permanent, and if we elevate them to be the purpose of our lives, then we are bound for frustration and suffering. There will always be times of happiness, but there will also always be pain. Sorrow and happiness are both inevitable, and they change from one to the other all the time. You seek and seek and never find, because the seeking itself stops it from being true. In Allan Watt’s words, it’s like being given a pill with the warning not to think of a monkey when you take it, or else it won’t work. And there you are, desperately trying not to think of a monkey, and the very act of trying stops you from ever actually getting there. Life’s the same – you desperately cling to happiness as an abstract idea, and that very attachment stops you from ever being at peace. And hence happy.

This, my dear readers, is just one example of the ridiculously deceptive thinking and behavioural patterns we find ourselves trapped in. There are in fact many other traps, some so subtle that even recognising them is hugely difficult. Our minds work in ways that go against the basic principles of nature, and are therefore bound to frustrate themselves. That is the source of all discontent and suffering in our lives.

But here’s the thing – patterns can be undone. Much of the way our adult minds function is learned behaviour and conditioning. We can’t do anything about the fact that we feel both happiness and sorrow – but we can do a great deal about the way we react to these things. Frustration and suffering don’t arise from the conditions themselves, but from how our mind reacts to them. And that’s the key. We are not just helpless victims of an essentially uncaring universe, but agents of our own liberation. Pain is inevitable – but suffering, that is optional. Pain isn’t the same as suffering, just as pleasure isn’t the same as happiness. The difference between these provides a way out for us.

And that ladies and gentlemen, that for me is the true meaning of “opting out”. Leaving the rat race was only in order to get into a situation where it is possible to devote time, effort and resources to the real task at hand – being the elimination of my own suffering in all its forms in the first instance, and addressing the problem of suffering in the wider world later on, if possible. The campervan, the freelancing and everything else is just a means to an end, a tool, a device. It’s not the end of my road, so to speak, but rather the beginning.

Once all is said and done, anyone can walk out and live in a camper. Or in a hut in the woods. Or on a boat. There’s nothing much to it really, it just takes having the right reasons to do it, and a dash of courage. It’s just a tiny house on wheels. The true challenge is what happens from here on in, and that will be a very much more involved journey.

Going forward, I will focus much more on the “inner opting-out” as opposed to the campervan in my writings. I apologise in advance to all those of you who are interested only in RV living, but like I said, I never took up the nomadic life just for the sake of it. There was always a deeper purpose behind it, even though in the beginning I really didn’t have a very clear idea about what that purpose was. But now I have a much more focussed outlook, and intend to keep blogging about it.

Fair warning to you all : my stance here is that as human beings, we have both the ability and the moral imperative to work out or own “salvation” from suffering; the universe at large doesn’t care, and no one else will do it for us. We ourselves must make the effort. The greatest moral crime we can commit – towards ourselves and others – is to sit back, resign ourselves to fate, and not do anything. If that doesn’t sit well with your religious or philosophical beliefs, then now is probably a good time to unfollow my blog 🙂 Quite frankly, at this point in my life I could not possibly care less if people agree or disagree, and I have no intention of trying to convince anyone of anything. I will simply follow a road that I think is the right one, and there will be no faith-based bullshit. All I do will be things that can be replicated by anyone – they may or may not work, but they are things that people can try for themselves in order to observe the consequences and effects. It’s pretty much according to the scientific method, really, except that the object of study is not the universe, but mind, awareness, and consciousness. I invite you all to join !

Stay tuned, or not – it’s your choice now. Choose wisely 🙂

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