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Radical lightness

Why I choose to anchor in process 

Words & images © Paul Ransom

“I ponder the Sanskrit word ‘namaha’ – not mine – and I remember that all is given; like your love. There was a moment, like a door, when you sat beside me, and I was not who I was the moment before.”

– Love letter 520 – freeloveletters.net

If it is liberty you seek…surrender. At first, this may seem ridiculous. Corny. Yet more pseudo-spiritual smugness from another no-name wannabe pretending to share so-called wisdom. Click away now, folks. However, far from being a cute one liner, the yin/yang of liberty/surrender opens doors to ways of navigating ‘self and world’ that have the potential to make life simpler. More enjoyable, more beautiful, less of a chore.

Of course, none of this is new. Human spiritual and mystic traditions have long extolled the benefits of ‘letting go,’ and indeed many of us discover this without recourse to lengthy sojourns in caves or expensive therapy. So, why am I writing this now?

Aside from a measure of undeniable vanity, I have lately been inspired by those around me. Not because they are practicing surrender but rather, the opposite. Without delving into psychobabble or personal details, the commonality is a desire for – perhaps even an addiction to – forms of perceived certainty. Security. Anchor points.  

I understand this desire. For decades I searched for similarly solid ground. My map references came in the guise of relationships, self-understanding and numerous philosophies. But ‘the answer’ – the fixed point that would allow me to triangulate everything else – never revealed itself, and the morass of conflicting impulses and dysfunctional dramas got thicker and heavier. Then, a beautiful woman gate crashed my life, and everything got thrown onto the fire. It was awful, but somehow I knew that the only way through the fire was through the fire. Go on, burn everything, I told myself. So I tried this crazy thing called surrender. It took a while, but it worked – which is the reason I am even able to write this.   

Radical lightness and anchoring in process are not merely esoteric baubles, neither are they are a form of ‘vacation clarity’ that gets smudged out in the daily grind. Rather than being spiritually correct, they offer us a more practical spirituality, one we can use every day. In the rush hour. When our hearts are breaking. When our expectations, of ourselves and others, are not met.

But a warning – they are not silver bullets, for there is no such thing. They are a practise. A discipline. A point of focus. Moreover, they are habits; it’s just that you don’t need to master levitation in order to adopt them.

You will, however, need to consider swimming against the tide. Almost everything in our various cultures impel us towards notions of fixity, accumulation and control. Call it dominion. Empire. Gather it up, fence it off, fly a flag and tell yourself it’s yours. It is a tempting mantra – more so because everyone else appears to be doing it. Furthermore, territoriality and proprietorial thinking are hard-wired into us. (It did not take a conspiracy to make us this way. Like other animals, we are a hierarchical species given to tribalisation and socially visible adherence to group norms. Viewed through the prism of evolution these are successful survivalist adaptations. Thus, when we speak of surrender, let us be careful not to demonise or pathologise the status quo or those who cleave to it. We are not here to conquer and convert, but to liberate ourselves.)1      

Terms like surrender, etcetera may sound like standard issue metaphysical mush, but for me they spring from a clear-eyed understanding and acceptance of hard fact.

Nothing is permanent.

We will all be as dead as each other.

All vanities are ultimately revealed to be just that.

You can’t take it with you.

Entropy will have its day.

Again, nothing new. More like obvious. Banal. Existence is a state of change. The one thing everything has in common is that it will not be the same at the end of this sentence as it was when you started reading it.

Some will decry this as brute nihilism. A cold dismissal or clever sounding cop out. I will not deny that some of us have, and will again, use these things as a justification for cruelty and narcissistic excess.

So here we remind ourselves of another little truth, that all ideas and beliefs are tools – means, motivators, mechanisms – regardless of our opinions about their supposed rightness or wrongness. Knowing this, we are prompted to ask, what do we use these tools for, and do we use them or allow them to use us?

I mention this to bring us back to the practical aspects of travelling light and anchoring in process. I have not embraced these practises and weaved them into my everyday existence for the purposes of enlightenment or virtue. Indeed, I regard them as amoral. As being more about risk/reward and the balance of probabilities than about essential truths or ethical perfection. Life is tricky enough without needing to be right all the time.   

*

What does it mean to travel lightly? Although many of us have already come to experience the liberation of less things, we can also believe lightly, attach lightly. To extend the metaphor, we can progress heavily – burdened by debts and musts and the countless, externally authored imperatives of security, merit and ideology – or we can live another way.

However, this does not mean we have to become self-mortifying ascetics. (After all, this is just another extremist belief. Another hill to die on.) Less does not necessarily mean nothing. Less is always relative; and poverty2 only ever seems holy when seen through the lens of comfort.

Yet, just as few would sign on for a return to subsistence, many in the rich world feel the weight of ownership. The bondage of mortgage. The emptiness of shiny and new. How often is the house full of things empty of love? Our iPhones don’t give a fuck about us (and neither do the folk who peddle them).

Likewise, many of us now understand that the high consumption, endless growth economic model is not sustainable long term – not merely in terms of resource use and biospheric impact, but socially. In response, we have seen the emergence of re-imagined economic architecture. Circular, sharing, laterally scaled, and degrowth economies are now on the radar of individuals, corporations and governments around the world. Whether or not any of these get adopted, or we personally buy into the various theories, they point to a deepening sense of disquiet with the heavy-footed default of more, more, more.              

Beyond the material though, there are other (perhaps more radical) modes of lightness. They are more personal and profound, and far more challenging than simply downsizing the wardrobe or giving away the treasured record collection. For now we are speaking of the heaviness of fixed beliefs. Of cherished notions and long-held ambitions. Of deep, often unconscious habits of thought. Of what we think of as need.3 As compulsory. As who we are.

I think now of the many people who inspired this article. Friends (old, new and erstwhile). Work colleagues and casual acquaintances. Despite differences in politics and class, age and ethnicity, sexuality and lifestyle, they all suffer from what we might call an ‘obesity of belief.’ To varying extents, they are each addicted to panaceas, persecution dramas and the delusions of control, correctness and permanence. I say this not to castigate; rather, to suggest that these are common proclivities.

  • Indeed, I too have been the slave of numerous need narratives, and a frequent sucker for should. Perhaps I still am. If so, I trust that I will pick the patterns early and find the best levers of choice to enable me to make more clear-headed, balanced decisions. (Suffice it to say, I will fail in this sometimes but, knowing this, I will not feel the need to punish myself – if only because I am no longer in the habit of wanting to be saintly or extraordinary. Nor am I immersed in the ascendent hero dramas of achievement, holy war and higher purpose.)        

So often we cling to our beliefs, anchor to our goals. Sometimes, this helps us, gives us clarity. Inspires us. Drives us through adversity. Yet there is a big difference between healthy determination and the stubborn pursuit of doomed crusades and self-punishing objectives.

  • Of late, I have seen too much of the latter in people I care about. It breaks my heart some days and I feel myself wanting to rescue them. But I have given up trying to be Jesus. I did not like the nails. Instead, I write in the safety of solitude – which I hope doubles as a kind of giving, rather than simply being a selfish, saviour conceit.            

At this juncture, Buddhist and Taoist alike would remind us about the perils of attachment. To attach too strongly is to pledge a troth to permanence. This is not simply a delusional strategy for living in an ever-changing world rife with multiple uncertainties, but an arrogant control fantasy. Who are we to insist that things remain, or that the universe neatly reflect and respond to our various whims, as though it were a shopping mall selling pre-packaged wish fulfilment? We are not entitled to anything.

It maybe easier said than done but, on the whole, we are better served by remaining in ‘beta’ mode. Just as all states are transitional, so too all our beliefs, ambitions and stories of self will likely serve us better if we tag them as works in progress. This way, they are forced to earn their keep, and the prism does not morph into a prison.

In short, believe as little as you can as lightly as you can. Ultimately, everything can be let go of. In fact, it will be. Even our habit of holding on is temporary.

*

A few months ago a friend asked me what my anchor was. I understood the gist of her question. In a world of constant flux, in a life of uncertainty, what were my fixed points? I answered in a heartbeat.

“These days I anchor in process.”

I realise this sounds boastful and catechistic, but I never really knew it till I said it – yet I knew at once it was true.4 Through a combination of circumstance, philosophical curiosity, brutal self-analysis, (plus a desire to stop being such a relentless misery freak), I stumbled onto the trick of process.

Without dragging you through the minutiae, the big turning points came roughly in this order, and occurred over a period of 8 years:

  • The decision to actively surrender – to allow rather than resist
  • The loss of self-importance – getting over myself
  • Consciously practising gratitude
  • Abandoning the search for answers – wisdom, enlightenment, etc
  • Embracing existential pointlessness and relative insignificance as a profound liberation
  • Embracing mortality with genuine gratitude
  • Understanding that self and life are events – unfixed and unfolding processes (like everything else)
  • Consciously focusing and acting on the above – practising them, turning them into habits

Somehow, all this added up to a love of fluidity. Uncertainty. Not knowing. My sense of self and purpose went off-grid. No longer did I reflexively measure my worth or triangulate my identity with fixed markers like artistic success, the approval of women, or the thousand other follies of exceptionalism and egomaniacal trophy hunting that I had been addicted to since adolescence. I did not even need to be who I thought I was anymore – let alone what anyone else thought I was or ought to be.                  

But, more than just affording me a kind of licence, or indeed being a massive relief, anchoring in process has made me more resilient. More patient, open, and prepared to fail. Less dramatic, worried, and territorial. And, significantly, more compassionate. More loving. Gentler with myself and others.

I did not know any of this was going to unfold in the way it has, nor do I hoist it now as a flag of merit. (Unlike Jose Mourinho, I am not the special one.) However, I am immensely thankful, if only because I like myself more.

As a merely intellectual exercise, making peace with uncertainty is relatively simple. We can easily remind ourselves to zoom out when things get stressful; but migrating this to the realm of feeling, making it a part of our inner dialogue, takes it a step further. If we can manage this we can reap the rewards every day. At times it can border on a form of ego-death and feel ecstatic.

If you are looking for a trigger to make it happen, all I can suggest is that you practise. Experiment. Play with it. When things get tough – as they will – remind yourself that nothing is truly compulsory.  Nothing is forever. And that there is no absolute failure, only partial discovery. Because all states are transitional – including who you tell yourself you are.  

However, if ‘anchoring in process’ sounds a tad fanciful or esoteric, re-imagine it in journey/destination terms. We can practise shifting the balance of our focus and attachment from outcomes – and the pass/fail binaries so often applied to them – to the process of moving towards those objectives. Furthermore, we can train ourselves to find joy and reward in the process, as opposed to making them contingent on ultimate success. (Whatever that is.)

None of us will perfect this trick – I certainly haven’t – but the goal is not perfection. Neither is happiness. If anything, happiness emerges from the ongoing process. Indeed, we might argue that happiness is a process. A verb. An act. Something we do, rather than something we find or own. 

Thus, my anchor, my navigational pole star, is process. Moreover, this anchor is less like an anchor and more like permission.

And I travel lightly because travelling (morphing, changing, evolving) is all I do, and I cannot be arsed heaving a bunch of heavy shit around with me as I go.    

The human animal is brilliantly adaptive, and our amazing plastic brains give us scope to re-wire ourselves. Old dogs can learn new tricks – or at the very least have fun trying.

*

PS: Lastly, I would say only this. Again, it may sound a trifle airy, but for me it cuts to the core psycho-emotional truth in play here.

We do not need a saviour to redeem us. We shall redeem ourselves.

1: Here it is worth reminding ourselves that the impulse to convert, to win others over to our side, is a form of control – of ‘them’ and, by extension, of the social environment we find ourselves in. By this sleight of thought, we seek to contain the entire world (universe) within the parameters of comfort, congruence and seeming certainty. In other words, we desire a world that ‘agrees’ with our conceptualisation of it; a world we can readily predict. Because a predictable world is less threatening. And who doesn’t want that?       

2: According to the various definitions currently used in my home country of Australia, I live either marginally above or below the nominated poverty line. Yet, I do not live in anything like hardship. Although I do not eat at fancy restaurants every weekend or buy $3000 handbags as a matter of course, neither do I carry a high debt burden or service expensive addictions. Furthermore, I have learned to ‘go without’ and have thus discovered that not only do I not need the multiple trinkets of advertised cool I do not even want them. (NB: I should also acknowledge and give thanks for the fact of being born into historical and economic circumstances that have made my ‘lightness’ choices realistically doable. As I have observed elsewhere on this site, choosing to live with less is a luxury that most people across human history have not been afforded.)

3: Confusing need with desire is something we have all done. Rationally, we know that there are very few genuine needs. (Food, shelter, drinkable water, breathable air, and at least some form of connection to others. We could also argue that there are a basket of psychological and cognitive musts for social animals with pattern loving brains, but these would be almost entirely unconscious and thus rarely, if ever, consciously pursued.) However, we have probably all convinced ourselves at some point that we needed that hot pink top or that cute girl’s attention. Or that regular wage and after-work drink. Perhaps, rather than need, we are talking addiction – and whether our habits run to heroin or patterns of behaviour, the horse can be damn hard to get off. But…we can dismount. We can recognise that it is desire – want – and not need, and we can change what we desire. Create new habits. Ones that don’t enslave us. Ones that set us free.   

4: On reflection, this is not quite true. I realised later, when revising this piece, that I had written about the ‘process thing’ in my previously published book The Pointless Revolution. However, the phrase anchoring in process did indeed just fall out of the sky that day in my friend’s car – and it arrived with a greater clarity than ever before. Sometimes, it seems, we are not fully aware of our thoughts and actions until we find the right language for them. (For this, I thank Gabi for her question.)

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