Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Blahs

The Blahs
Hands down, I think the most difficult emotion to deal with is ennui, aka The Blahs. The Blahs are what you feel when your life is safe and comfortable, when you have everything you need and many things you want, yet you feel numb emotionally. It's what spoiled teenagers are feeling when they mope and say, "Life sucks." It's what you feel the morning after, or the week after, or the month after The Most Awesome Thing Ever actually occurs.

Other emotions, like fear or annoyance, give you something to work with, but The Blahs give you nothing. At least when you're angry you know what you're angry at and you can get to the bottom of the situation just by going on a walk or counting breaths and letting some productive course of action pop into your mind. The Blahs, on the other hand, don't make any sense. They just drag on for days, making you feel emotionally numb but at the same time uncomfortable, and they don't present any means of escape.

Drama Kitteh
We really want to escape that vague, crappy, numb feeling. A lot of times, the desire for an escape manifests itself in the form of a sudden craving for some excitement, which, I suspect, motivates a lot of maladaptive behaviors. People start fights, go to war, get drunk, get high, overeat, watch reality TV, and start all kinds of drama in their attempts to escape The Blahs.

The general strategy for escaping The Blahs usually centers around the pursuit of some immediate stimulation. That's a simple, direct solution, and it seems to work--for a while, at least. In the short term, a little bit of excitement creates some relief from The Blahs: some feeling, good or bad, which is preferable to no feeling at all. However, when the source of stimulation ends, what happens? The Blahs come back with a vengeance!

No matter how hard we try to maintain the excitement, we eventually get numb to it, and The Blahs come back. That's just how our minds work. If you smell a rose for a minute or two, you'll temporarily lose the ability to smell it. The same thing happens with all objects of our attention.

If you don't recognize this pattern, you can easily fall into a habit of endless cycling between The Blahs and temporary thrill-seeking. I think this is a particularly stressful lifestyle because the emotional discomfort of The Blahs is directly proportional to the intensity of the excitement that precedes them. Put another way: the higher the highs, the lower the lows. In this lifestyle, the more effort put into "escaping" The Blahs, the worse they get. People go crazy trying to top their last thrill, only to find that they feel even worse.

I've experimented with a "Buddhist" approach to this problem by attempting to slog through The Blahs, using meditation in place of thrill-seeking. It took some easing into it since habits are really hard to give up. I gradually extended the amount of time that I could go before indulging in a habitual craving, and I gradually learned to diminish the effort I put into the thrill-seeking phase once the indulgence began. How gradually? It only took, oh, about two years to start making a real difference with some of my most persistent bad habits.

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers:
Not an accurate depiction of a peaceful mind
Part of the resistance to quelling emotional extremes stems from a widespread fear, indoctrinated in us by Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, that emotional detachment would be an awful way to live. The reality is that, in spite of all the effort I've put into calming my mood swings, I still have a rich emotional life. Emotions don't go away. The "Buddhist" approach can't make your feelings vanish any more than it could make your nose vanish. What it can do is redirect your effort away from behaviors that cause extra distress.

The good news is that this approach works. I can vouch that my life has improved from it. It got easier to sustain this effort over time as I noticed the unhappiness of The Blahs was decreased by this effort, so there is a positive-feedback aspect to this approach which is encouraging.

The bad news is that The Blahs still come back. For sure, they're not as destructive or unbearable as they used to be, but they still suck. And, I'm afraid to say, they seem to be an intrinsic feature of life. Some days you feel crappy, and that's how it is.

Perhaps meditating all day every day is the solution. I would not be surprised. However, as I've considered in a prior post about livelihood, this would be the ultimate dick move because it would require that you neglect your ability to help other people just so you can get all blissed out.

So the challenge that I see in life is to walk a fine line between two extremes. We have to live with recurring Blahs, neither giving in to addictive, self-destructive, dramatic cravings, nor trying to tune out completely using Buddhism or anything else as an excuse to be indifferent.

What's significant about this view is that it portrays The Blahs not as an uncomfortable and pesky transition between the emotions we want to have, but as the mental battleground in which we wage our most important fights to stay strong in the face of destructive forces like apathy, numbness, and uncertainty. It is our response to The Blahs that determines the overall structure of our emotions, and by extension, our lives.

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