Our culture is obsessed with comfort. Collectively we have been coddled by modernity. We want more legroom, softer mattresses, and any vehicle that will save us from physically moving our bodies. Get in a time machine and travel to any generation before us and you'll be the softest, most sensitive soul around. Our hunter/gatherer ancestors, whose genes we still carry, would be stunned. Perhaps they are stunned inside of us at this very moment.
Suffering, inconvenience, and exertion are part of life. Just like one must experience heartbreak to get love, and betrayal to grasp trust; we must truly learn how to hold suffering to appreciate its absence: the sweet state of being at ease.
There is also a life principle at work. Accomplishing the best stuff involves pushing past challenges and imagined limitations. To become a better person one must take the Hero's Journey, walk into the dark cave, and face some tough things. If we don't learn how to frame hardship properly on the front side of life, it will find us truly unprepared on the backside.
The easiest realm in which to learn the virtue of suffering is in the physical. For that reason I organize Tuesday Trail Runs. Once a week we interval run up a small mountain in about 7 stages. The idea is to complete each segment with almost nothing in the tank and RPMs hovering at the edge of the red zone. Often I'll cry out in relief at the breaks as the powerful sensation of exertion giving way to rest floods my body. The more tension I hold on the segment, the more powerful the wave of glorious release.
On the trail the mechanisms of the self defeating mind get real clear. The first ascent triggers a cacophony of arguments to quit or walk. I treat this first chunk as chance to watch the modern mind's resistance to exertion. It's a phenomenal exposé of excuses.
On the second segment I cycle through empowering narratives to replace the weak ones.
For all other segments I settle on the technique that works best: Mindfulness and presence.
Hardship is a fascinating state that most of us work so hard to avoid. I encourage you to start a practice where you can hold and examine it. You'll find that what you were afraid of isn't so bad. It isn't bad at all. There is a side of you to explore there.
If you find yourself in LA, join me on my trail runs
There is a misguided concept that runs deep in Western culture. Christians express the idea with the acronym NOTW (Not of This World). Neo-spiritualists rephrase it by saying "We are spiritual beings having a human experience." And most of us carry this frame by imagining ourselves static capsules, encased in flesh, walking through a foreign (and often hostile) environment. This is a complete illusion of separation in an interconnected universe, where everything leans on something else. It's a misconception that undoubtably leaves us all feeling disconnected and anxious, and puts our planet in peril.
Here is a quote from gotquestions.org, a Christian site (highlights added):
"We are still surrounded by all the horrors and tragedy of this life, but this is not our life. The knowledge that we are not of this world gives Christians hope even in the darkest times; hope that this will pass and at the end of it we will be in heaven with our God, face to face forever. This cracked and broken place is not where we belong, and it is not where we will stay.
The appeal of this philosophy is evident. The challenges we have as a species are stressful. Watching the news is like consuming anxiety. What a relief to completely wash one's hands of all global problems with zero guilt. Stand by, ride it out, and grab your flight to paradise.
But what if this conjecture is wrong? It's impossible to verify stories of an afterlife. We see, hear, taste, smell, and feel the world every day. If this reality, confirmed by our physical senses, is our home then NOTW becomes a disastrous manifesto of non-responsibility. A bad idea that has spread past Christianity.
Recently I was at the University of Santa Monica, a school offering a spiritual degree in philosophy. This same concept was passed around in different clothing. One man, addressing the entire room with a microphone, began a long, rambling thought with, "We all know that this world is not our home..."
This perception even permeates the secular world. Look up from your screen and you'll likely feel a sense of subject and object with everything you see. There is a clear border between "you" and "not you". But is it really so distinct?
To challenge the idea here are a few questions to ponder:
"Hold on Jonny", one might say, "there is a difference between the body and the spirit." We have a spirit that is NOTW... that's the real us. OK. Let’s think about our spirit and how it might resemble the person our friends and family know.
What makes Jonathan Legg different than you?
Imagine a steel bar falls off a construction site and lands on my head. Instantly the brain is reorganized. My travel stories and a sense of adventure disappear. The new man remembers nothing about Jonathan Legg. However, he is a much more peaceful and kind person. When this man dies what does his spirit feel like: Jonathan Legg with his sense of adventure or the man who doesn't like to travel, but is extra compassionate?
The steel bar is unnecessary. This restructuring is happening every day.
This brain (and body) of ours is constantly reorganizing in a slower fashion. Brains at 2 years, 30, 90, and 'recently dead' are assembled differently, with profound affects on perception and behavior. Which version determines the characteristics of the spirit? Would a person to be lucky to die at 30 (to have a spirit in its prime), unlucky to die with Alzheimers, and terribly unfortunate to die while in a coma?
If this undocumented spirit, flying off into eternity, resembles none of these personalities, with no cognition of former selves, why do we cling so tightly to this phantom?
Here is the answer: the "spirit" is an escape capsule for the ego. A doomsday shelter for the pending identity apocalypse.
We live in an era of individualism unknown to our tribe-centered ancestors. The constant anxiety we feel in this modern age stems from our hyper-inflated, separately packaged egos. Egos that are culturally isolated from their environment, disconnected from each other, and terrified of their mortality. We cling to NOTW theories out of fear. They are sequels scripted to give the ego the happy ending of a Hollywood action hero.
Like many sequels there are some serious flaws with Jonathan Legg Part 2: The Real Jonathan:
What if we drop the sequel script and pay closer attention to the original movie that is in production right now. Let's look at it fresh as if all the characters, including us, are entirely OTW.
What if we embrace the fact that we are part of this planet just like the plants, birds, and whales? The air we are breathing at this very moment came from a tree that needs sun. The sun is crucially a certain distance from this earth. The sun's distance is governed by forces that extend beyond this solar system to the farthest reaches of the universe. This would make us a glorious arrangement of pieces which connect both down and up into the entirety of existence.. a continually changing assortment which is remarkably conscious in the here and now.
Who needs a far-fetched, piddling sequel? The original is a timeless classic.
Half of Americans suffer from loneliness. In my travels I've seen its prevalence around the world. The world, however, is spilling over with people. How is this possible?
To answer that question it's worth looking at how humans evolved. The Pharaohs of Egypt seem like long ago, but this was a recent event in the totality of our history. For 95% of this time we lived in tribes of 20-100 people that were completely egalitarian . Our ancestors hung out with all their family, friends, and homies all the time. They worked together, played together, grieved together, and constantly had each other's backs. Everything was shared. There is a strong possibility (as reflected in some modern day hunter-gatherer tribes) that they had no words for "mine" or "yours". Their concept of autonomy was much different than today's idea of individualism.
Flash forward to 2018. The tribes are gone. We are encouraged to believe that success means having your own house and living in it alone (or with a small nuclear family). The 4,000-5,000 ads you see in a day prod you to distinguish (i.e. separate) yourself from the pack: wear a better watch, drive a snazzier car, have cooler gadgets. "Exclusive" is an alluring word in marketing, but who is being excluded? Perhaps it's you.
Johann Hari, in his book Lost Connections, has called materialism a "junk value", comparing it to fast food. It hits the right signals in the brain but does not deliver the goods. Multiple studies have shown that people who think happiness comes from accumulating stuff and superior status suffer higher levels of depression and anxiety. This doesn't keep marketers from trying. That's the nature of today's economic game.
The philosopher Epicurus emphasized three things for human happiness: Friends, freedom, and thought. Author Alain de Botton has demonstrated how advertisers consistently link these three virtues to their products:
On top of all the advertising misdirection there are a couple more doozies: pervasive religious beliefs that the earth is, in fact, not our home; and agriculturist ideas that nature is our enemy. Whoof! No wonder why so many folks feel like lonely soldiers trudging through a hostile world.
The good news is we have the power to break free of this matrix and reform what we lost. If you were born in the bottom 95% of human existence you were born into a tribe. From the day you popped out of momma everybody in the group had your back. That tribe had an intimate relationship with nature, from which it did not consider itself separate. Today we get to form our tribes. It is, thankfully, not that hard to do. The toughest part is taking those first steps. Something I will ponder in an upcoming blog post.
So you had a little travel fling.. right on! Romantic connection is a beautiful, enlivening thing, It's a mind expanding experience (if you are actually taking interest in the contents of each other's brains).
Now you're back home and still flirting over a texting app. An invitation appears: "Come back and see me." You flip open your laptop and start browsing flights.
It's an admirable move. The mark of a romantic soul. However, let's adjust expectations and strategy before buying that ticket. Misadventure may await you. Are you ready for it?
These are ever present possibilities, but don't be dissuaded. Instead, change your perspective and approach:
Revisiting a travel fling is always a toss of the dice, but with the right preparation you can stack the odds in favor of a winning roll. By setting a realistic frame and controling expectations one can have a memorable trip no matter which numbers turn up. And remember the goal is that both people end up feeling empowered from this interaction. Let's all leave a trail of beautiful memories in our wake. Be honest. Be kind. Be your best self.
The "fearful creature" mentioned in the video has pointed out that I did not provide any solutions for what author Johann Hari has called the "ego addiction", an unhealthy attachment to self that is isolating us from each other. Here are my best ideas to scale that back:
* The term "drugs" is used to cover everything from caffeine to aspirin to crack to magic mushrooms. Clearly there is a difference between sipping a cup of coffee and injected heroin into a vein. We need new vocabulary that does not lump all mood altering substances under the same tainted banner.
** The "war on drugs" has been one of the most destructive and evil forces humanity has unleashed on itself, responsible for many more deaths than the drugs it purports to combat. It is fueled by hypocrisy, racism, and greed. To uncover the full perniciousness of these policies I'd recommend the documentaries 13th and America's War on Drugs as well as the book Chasing the Scream.
*** I've heard terrible stories of charlatans taking advantage of the vulnerable. Specifically if you plan to go to South America to experience an Ayahuasca ceremony vet your shaman very carefully.
Last Spring I made a blogpost which featured my pixelated buttocks. The post appeared on a popular hiking Facebook page. While most comments were supportive, a couple men blasted me. They were profoundly offended to see a bottom even blurred. One dude told me I should register as a sex offender.
When did these men consciously decided they found the gluteus muscles (and the skin and fat which surround them) so offensive? Did they sit down one day to figure out which body parts were cool and which shameful? Of course not. They were impressed at a very young age through a variety of mediums.
Now I had my awareness completely on the subject. What was wrong with the backside of the human body? For that matter, what was embarrassing about the frontside? Did we not all have similar features from little innocent babies to sweet old grandparents? I couldn't seem too find fault with this design when putting full reason on it.
However, the disesteem for ourselves runs deep. So deep that I discovered a new pocket of it under the full moon in Goa, India. Once again the matter cleared up when put under the full gaze of awareness and query**.
Have you had a similar experience?
*Book reference in video is Lost Connections by Johann Hari. He speaks about some of these thoughts on this podcast.
**There are some thorns imbedded so deep, however, that noticing them is just the beginning of a long process of pulling them out. The most pernicious, given to us by the same advertisers who have contributed to body shame, is materialism. Extrinsic thinking that acquiring a possession will make us happy. Study after study contradicts this belief, but it's so dominant all but the most enlightened fall under it's bewitchment.
I'm the lonely protagonist obstructed from my objective. The folks slow to get off the plane keep me from my goal, inefficient drivers do great injustice by reducing my speed, a crowded sidewalk on the way to the taco truck is a colossal inconvenience.
I often slip into this perspective under the bewitchment of thought or emotion. It occurs during figurative or literal movement towards a goal. Fulfillment awaits me at a destination and any impediment threatens my heroic mission. Yet, upon arrival, my troubled journey ends with only brief satisfaction before a new quest begins. I got from A to B, but now C beckons.
There are two unhealthy viewpoints in play here.
The first is that life can be savored only upon arrival. But arrival to exactly where? The majority of life will unfold between landmarks, goals, and achievements. It happens in traffic, on the plane, and during day to day striving.
Ultimately we labor towards a moment in which we hope to rest in present contentment. But.. Could that contentment occur right now?
The second problematic perspective is duality: Jonathan against the world.
Am I not a creature of the world? Do I not fall somewhere in the spectrum between atoms and galaxies? And is everything in this span not a piece of one big thing?
The airline incident occurred between myself and a woman. Both of us believing ourselves to be inconvenienced protagonists. Both of us focused on getting to a future moment instead of resting in a present one. It's a classic road rage formula which transcends highways and airports to infect our whole lives if never brought under the light of awareness.
Everything is on the line when you wake up. Looking at the cell phone is a plunge into the energy of others, the comparison traps of social media, and the anxiety of world news. It will start you off unbalanced and unfocused.
Dedicating the first moment of the day for yourself is the truest way to "look out for #1". A brief routine to consciously center oneself will make a remarkable impact on the rest of the waking hours.
Here is my current routine:
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world. - Walt Whitman**
If you've ever climbed to a mountain summit you know the jubilation of the accomplishment. We lift up our arms, high- five our companions, and take pictures. Then the elation quickly fades as thoughts of descent and food replace it. But what if we could savor that moment a little longer? Enter the barbaric yawp.
The mountaintop is a special place for release. Not something refined for your friends' ears. Not some cliched sound effect. Not something muted for fear of disturbing the neighbors. Rather give a vocalization to your "I am that I am." The sound of your life-force. The announcement that at this moment in time you are truly alive.
Take off your clothes if you dare. Sense the warmth of the sun and cool of the wind on your skin. Feel the grit of earth under the feet. Recognize that you are a product of this natural world. You are a ripple in the fabric of the cosmos.
Observe everything around you with the gift of awareness. What a mysterious thing it is to be conscious. Notice the beauty of existence exactly how it is. Then spread your arms high and sound your barbaric yawp so it can see you right back.
If you'd like to see my barbaric yawp in action be warned that you'll see me naked from behind (i.e. bare-assed): Naked B.Y.
** The first time I heard this poetic stanza was as it was referenced by Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society.
Coffee is one of the world's favorite drinks. It has many health benefits. It's the centerpiece of pleasant morning rituals, business meetings, and casual dates. So why stop? A temporary break from caffeine could make a profound impact on your perspective. Principally in these five areas:
1. Sympathy for your fellow addict: Go cold turkey on your coffee habit and you will quickly realize you are an addict. Moreover, there is a good chance you will relapse before breaking free (while reciting the classic excuses used by all drug addicts).
The rough attempt to quit caffeine will create sympathy for the staggering amount of people in prison for drug possession. Perhaps you could become an ally in changing the world's draconian policies to something more like Portugal's successful model of decriminalization.
2. Boost your self control: One of the great virtues in life is self control. Are we a slave to our passions or do we have choice? Whether it's porn, coffee, or refined sugar; the only way to prove control is to confirm the ability to stop. You've got a whole lifetime to indulge. Can you abstain for just one month?
3. Reframe views of happiness: There are many folks who would benefit from anti-depressants but don't utilize this resource. Why? There is a societal disapproval of chemical cures... a belief that a person should be able to make themselves happy through pure willpower.
Quitting a caffeine habit will smash this perception in the teeth. A day or two into the cleanse a chemical reaction will plunge one into a deep state of grumpiness. A grey raincloud will hang above. Watch how fast it evaporates just minutes after drinking a coffee. Everything is right in the world again.
While contemplating a new appreciation of chemical cures, the caffeine abstainer can also seek other methods of finding well being, such as meditation and mindfulness.
4. Get a grip on anxiety: There is a heap of worry in our modern world. We are inherently anxious creatures. But what is our baseline and how much is the caffeine? Temporarily removing this stimulant provides a more accurate assessment of the stress we process.
5. Unleash caffeine's power: To the addict a dose is like scratching an itch. Its appeal is the sensation of relief. To the casual user a dose provides the full potential of a drug. After breaking a coffee habit, one will discover that caffeine becomes a useful tool for moments when a boost of energy and alertness is most useful. The addict doesn't get the same reward.
The research say coffee consumption is positive, but committing to a cleanse has many benefits. I'm a fan of the beverage, but also dedicate myself to the occasional break**. It gives me a sense of self control, makes me more understanding of the delicate nature of brain chemistry, and has given me more sympathy for people who struggle with other addictions. Hope it does the same for you.
** The first break from coffee, done while filming in Romania, was a bitch. The withdrawal lasted 10 days. Sleepy, lethargic, and grumpy most of the duration; although I'd occasionally wake up at 4AM wide awake. Now I no longer cold turkey my breaks from caffeine, but will slowly decrease consumption over the course of a week until I'm off the sauce. However, that cold-turkey experience was extremely valuable for self growth and understanding the addictive power of drugs. I recommend everyone try it once.
I'm Jonathan Legg
The road has been my greatest teacher.. challenging stagnant beliefs, disarming prejudices, and developing understanding of others. I hope the content on this blog will bring a sliver of that juju to you.