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Ascetic Hedonism and Learning Self-trust
On developing a diplomatic, anti-war relationship with our most basic desires.
Hello everyone! I hope this finds you well today. Today we are talking about desire and a whole new way of thinking about habits and self-development. Let’s get into it.
From the Ages
“It’s time you realized that you have something in you more powerful and miraculous than the things that affect you and make you dance like a puppet.”
— Marcus Aurelius
What we desire makes us vulnerable. Whether it’s an opportunity to travel the world or to be the president or for five minutes of peace and quiet, when we pine for something, when we hope against hope, we set ourselves up for disappointment. Because fate can always intervene and then we’ll likely lose our self-control in response.
— Ryan Holiday, The Daily Stoic
There is a narrative beneath much of the self-development advice that I find that seems to demonize our basic desires. We are told that we improve by overcoming our basic impulses and behaving in a more intentional/moral/healthy/etc. way. The Buddha taught non-attachment and non-wanting, to give an extreme oversimplification. The Enlightenment values that gave birth to our modern culture tell us that we should strive for logic and rational action. Today, we interpret these overlapping value structures to form a modern story that would seem to put us in opposition to our basic desires. This is a pretty inconvenient arrangement and bleak picture of our internal workings. Are we truly to believe that the instinctual feelings that arise in our bodies and minds are not to be trusted? Are they meant to lead us astray and it is the goal of life to, with some other part of our mind, learn to overcome these impulses?
In a sense, yes. Much of the modern crisis of mental and physical health is to our basic instincts being co-opted by commercial interests. But this story is also incomplete. It's true that growth is one of the main animating forces for finding meaning. We need to feel that we are progressing to be happy. It’s also true that positive changes begin with new actions that eventually harden into a natural part of who we are. But our actions are also inextricably linked to our desires. So personal development comes not from overcoming our desires but by tuning them — training ourselves to desire the right things. Our instincts come from a much earlier period in human history, during which they suited us perfectly. In our modern environment, we need to train our instincts before we can trust them to guide us.
Desire tends to lead you astray if you have not learned to tend to your own internal state. We could even consider this process as the definition of maturity. An extremely unfulfilled person tends to pine for the most hedonistic of options. But a person who feels an internal sense of calm, strength, and agency can probably trust their desires to point them toward more productive things and a fulfilling life path. Food is the clearest example. I eat in a way that most would consider more healthy than 99% of the population. But I have never imposed a hard rule on myself or confined my choices. I began to change the way that I eat in service of athletic performance. It was a slow process of learning what made me feel and perform best. It took trial and error, intention, and attention. Though I've had periods of extreme rigidity in my nutrition choices, it was never an imposition. I'm now much less rigid and much less concerned with performance, but my diet is largely unchanged. What I desire most is to feel good and I now crave the things that my instincts know will do that. This doesn't mean that treats no longer taste good but it means they have very little power over me. I eat exactly what I want to and never fret over a single choice because I have complete self-trust that my desires are tuned toward good food.
This is not a boast. I have this maturity in my nutrition choices, but I’m still tuning my desires in other areas. However, I arrived at my eating habits without any internal conflict. They arose by tuning my desires with my nutritional needs. I’m not sure it is even possible to conquer your desires through war-like internal combat, but I know that we can transcend temptation (probably not all together but at least in a few domains). This process of tuning our desires toward the right things and developing self-trust is a much more natural path to the changes that we want to see in ourselves.
In the modern world, we've learned to tend to our internal state only through external tools. We seek to re-arrange other particles in the universe (food, possessions, entertainment, other people) in service of making ourselves feel a certain way. But there are free tools developed over millennia that are meant to help you tune your internal state and maturity in your desires; tools that, by the way, do not require us to consume any natural resources. Meditation, breathwork, journaling, cold exposure, and rites of passage are tools to be done alone. Then there are tools for Durkheim's "collective effervescence" such as dancing, chanting, sharing a meal, group study, coordinated group movement, psychedelics, and large communal gatherings. Learn to apply and trust the individual tools and fill your life with the communal ones. When we learn to tend to our state through natural means and practice this process, we can eventually come to trust that most of the desires that are left over will lead us to wholesome choices and a great life. Rather than a hyper-focus on the details of your habits or daily patterns, learn to develop self-trust.
Thank you for reading this week and remember, life is too short to be normal!