Ethical Hedonism: A Little Sacrifice, A Little More Pleasure

It feel good to help people. It feels good to have loving and supportive friends who you can rely on to grab a drink or talk over something that’s bothering you. It feel good to have a job you enjoy doing and aren’t miserable for 40 hours of your week.

Some people might think, well, if you’re going to talk about things like that, why call it hedonism? Isn’t that about giving into all kinds of pleasure temptations like food and sex without holding back? Read on dear reader.

Give Up This, Get That

What do parents want for their kids? (at least non-neurotic ones) To have a better life than they did. They push them to go to school, to be friendly to others, to stay away from certain things or people. Ultimately the parent is trying to use their experience to help their child avoid their mishaps and learn from what they did right, to ultimately live an easier life, with more pleasure.

Many religions have a concept of heaven that comes from sacrificing certain short-term pleasures now to gain the ultimate pleasure when you get to heaven, where everything is supposed to be pretty swell.

In Practical Terms 

In the first post I mentioned there are things we know we could be doing or giving up in order to have a better life. The reason these can be hard is because you’re often giving up a temporary pleasure to invest in a greater pleasure in the future.

What we share with other animals is our instinct for wanting that which feels good and to avoid that which feels bad or painful. Humans have the unique ability to abstract and consider a future where you have more pleasure and life is easier, it just requires some sacrifice now.

I’ll be speaking more about the “how to” in a future article, but for now I encourage you to reflect on how more pleasure is ultimately tied to all your goals and intentions, and even the most devout religious people run by the same rule. No one would have a goal that would bring only misery to themselves and those around them. Even a parent gets pleasure from seeing their child succeed due to the sacrifices they made.

The path to pragmatism; making psychology useful

I had difficulty in trying to write over the last several months. On one hand I felt what I was communicating was helpful to me and those who read it, but in my own journey I began to find the things I was writing about as increasingly vague and unhelpful.

I try not to be overly critical of myself, and certainly at the time I wrote them, they felt correct and beneficial. It was difficult to go back and try to find practical meaning and something useful in much of it, and so I felt the need to do a little bit of a reset.

An Imaginary Journey

“I just want to go on my hero’s journey and get out of my comfort zone and overcome my fears and be a super successful entrepreneur that changes the world.” (perhaps a little over-dramatic.)

If you ask such a person, “what do you mean by that?” you’ll likely get something like “Well I’m tired of doing the 9-5, I’ve gotta connect to my life’s purpose and do what makes my heart sing.” (I’ll admit that one made me gag a little as I wrote it out.)

How many times would you have to ask “what do you mean by that?” before a person can give you a real concrete answer on what they want to do and why? You might actually never get such a concrete answer.

Hello Logic, My Old Friend

There is a stigma in spiritual circles about focusing only on what is rational and pragmatic, because the spirit is in the heart and it’s about emotion! And yet you’ll be making your daily choices that bring  you closer to your ideal reality with your seemingly “outdated” logic brain.

Even frequently used spiritual terms like “collective consciousness” and “true self” were developed by Carl Jung, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. I am not invalidating them, but merely saying the path to them will not come through vague ideas and concepts that cannot possibly manifest into the real world.

We all know things we could be doing today to improve our lives, we know things we could stop doing to improve our lives. Feeling guilty for not doing the good or not dropping the bad isn’t particularly helpful though.

In the posts to come, I hope to meaningfully communicate those more pragmatic life lessons I’ve picked up that have helped move my life more in the direction of “generally enjoyable”.


To be formless is to reach true freedom

“What then is freedom? The power to live as one wishes.” -Marcus Tullius Cicero

The beautiful thing about water is that it can take any shape, comes in a large variety of forms, and can be both destructive and life-giving. You may have heard parallels between a life of flow and the quality of water, such as the famous Bruce Lee line “Be as water my friend.” There is immense power to this imagery because it can act as a reminder in our daily lives.

Be As Water My Friend

Removing the esoteric aspect of what it means to “be as water”, I mean it simply as a movement through life that is authentic, moment by moment, and free of rigid ideas or beliefs. Simple, but not easy. I’ve written in the past month about bold action, doubt and meditation. In my mind, these are all rivers that flow into the ocean of formlessness.

Through meditation it is possible to see the noise that builds up in your mind, and through consistent practice, it is possible to see it as it happens, not just on the meditation cushion.

Through bold action it is possible to live authentically without giving in to insecurity. Whether that bold action is simply being straight with someone or allowing yourself to fall in love, the primary quality is self-trust.

Through doubt it is possible to not attach to new rigid beliefs once this process begins, such as “I am ultra spiritual and understand the world better than other people” as this is merely another unnecessary label.

In the ocean of formlessness, you are no longer separate from the world or other people. The ocean can connect to streams, rivers, ponds, or hot springs, and it is both all of these things, but none of these things at the same time. It is simply water.

Living In The Real World As Water

Moving things into the real world, through these practices you begin to see who you really are before memory. To begin to live like a curious child who simply moves from experience to experience. Your adult knowledge and experience doesn’t magically go away, but there is no longer a need to cling onto it.

The self-help books and spiritual gurus, the philosophers and psychologists, the various religious leaders, they are like the various streams, rivers, ponds and hot springs. They are a part of the ocean, but can’t escape being the ocean itself. To rigidly attach to any ideology is to mistake the river for the ocean, simply because they are both water.

Formlessness is trusting that you are the ocean, and are both all of these concepts, and none of them. To be able to use concepts which are valuable and help develop your self-love and self-trust, without seeing them as separate or outside of you. All this without rigidly attaching to any ideology as “the answer”.

To be formless is to be who you were before rigid external beliefs began to rule your life. It is the most direct path to self-trust and the ultimate freedom.

Self-Trust is the ultimate goal of self-help

“The thing about meditation is…you become more and more you.” -David Lynch

Meditation is unnatural. Animals don’t do it, human babies certainly don’t do it instinctively. Yet, it is one of the most important practices in the modern world. This is not because of what meditation does, but because of what it un-does (that’s a word, right?).

Yes, Let Me Help You With That! 

I’ve written a few times on this blog about how it seems there are as many opinions for how to live as there are people. Between the various philosophers, psychologists, spiritual gurus and priests, it seems everyone has an opinion on what it means to live a good life. On any given day, you will likely receive conscious and subconscious advice from dozens of sources, whether it’s ads telling you how to dress, or a spiritual leader telling you how to pray.

This is why meditation exists. Animals don’t need to meditate because they simply are. They hunt, they make nests, they protect (or eat) their young. In the majority of the animal kingdom, there is no such thing as self-consciousness. Being overwhelmed by the bombardment of information and advice is a human function. Meditation then, is the process of shutting out the noise and being able to simply be, just as a child is.

Beyond Self-Help Exists Self-Trust

While conversation or influence skills can help you close deals or get a better job, self-trust must still be the dominant force. If you do not trust yourself while using some rapport building technique, it will be obvious in the interaction, and another hundred books or dozen live seminars will simply perpetuate the problem. You may practice such techniques the way a basketball player practices throwing balls into the net. If the basketball player didn’t trust in the skills he built, and tried to consciously throw a ball into a net at game time, he would likely never score a single point.

In this way, too much conscious effort comes from too much self-consciousness. Am I doing this right? Should I have practiced more? If instead of asking these questions, you simply trusted you’ll do the best you can, you’d be able to recognize if you did something wrong and adjust for next time. Meditation then is a practice to cut out the middle-man which asks “how am I doing while doing the thing” and instead simply lets you do the thing.

 Finding Peace In Non-Duality

It’s possible to hold both the thought “Should I have practiced more?” and “I’m ready for this.” at the same time. Meditation practice teaches self-trust through allowing whatever thoughts that arise to arise without resistance. Noticing your self-doubt puts you in the seat of the observer, you start to recognize that if you can see the self-doubt, it is separate from you. You start to notice that a part of you is always unaffected, no matter what goes on externally.

It’s possible to live as the “ego self” who has worries and insecurities and the “observer self” who isn’t concerned, at the same time. By recognizing that you are more than what you are currently observing, you start to develop a real self-trust. You can start to feel whole because you are no longer branding the “ego self” as something separate from you.

Through compassion and acceptance of this “ego self”, it becomes easier to truly know, love and trust yourself.

As long as survival is important, you’ll have anxiety

“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”
― Seneca

What’s really going on when you want to get started on a new task at work, ask someone out, try to get a new job or prepare for a presentation? It seems like whether the task is big or small, it’s often difficult to get started. It’s like there’s a hump that you need to get over before you can really get started on the task.

The Current Survival Objective

Survival is pretty much your most important instinct. It’s the one that keeps you from throwing yourself off a rooftop or walking into a busy road. If you’ve ever looked down the ledge from a high rooftop, you know what it feels like to fear death. If a friend gives you a small nudge from behind as you stand there, you’ll probably freak out, even if you know the safety of the guard rail will protect you.

Anxiety is works in a similar way, except for emotions or states you want to avoid. Not all anxiety is crippling of course. I like to look at it as survival objectives. If a task is new or risky for instance, your survival instinct will tell you that not doing it will be the safe and comfortable thing to do. For example:

“Don’t start that proposal, you’ve never done that before, maybe you’ll screw it up and people will think you don’t know what you’re doing.”

“What if she says no? You’ll feel ashamed and rejected, better to not ask her out.”

“Did you prepare for that speech enough yet? If you say something wrong or get lost in thought, an audience of a hundred people will see how stupid you are.”

Rewriting the Survival Objective

Think back to an instance where you really wanted to avoid doing something, such as starting the dishes. Perhaps the task was leering over you all day (as it is for me as I write this article!) and you just find that you have better things to do. Eventually you go to toss a plate in the sink but it’s too full, so you just decide to wash that plate right then and there. Since the water is already running and you already have the sponge in hand, you end up washing the rest of the dishes too, without any kind of resistance.

This resistance often comes from the conflict between your survival and your trying to accomplish every part of a situation. If you see an attractive member of the opposite sex, you don’t need to think of what to say, how to get their phone number, what kind of date you need to take them on to impress them, or how many dates you need to wait until you have sex or become exclusive. You just need to go say “Hi.”, just as you need to turn on the water and grab a sponge to do the dishes.

Anxiety That You Can Ignore

Essentially, if you can limit the process to something most simple, you can start to steer the automatic response away from survival via inaction to survival via the task at hand. Perhaps you’re afraid doing the dishes is boring and you have better things to do, so your instinct tells you to skip it in order to survive. Once you begin the task, the survival objective shifts to completing the task, and now your instincts are working with you.

See if you can notice times this has happened in your life, and if you can feel when your instincts shifted from avoiding a task to going at it full force. This is an anxiety you can ignore and instead focus on using a small amount of willpower to start to steer the survival objective towards helping you complete the task.

There is a profound new simplicity to life when you can notice this whole process go on, and decide to ignore it and take small actions to change its direction.

A tremendous breakthrough on the nature of boldness

“It is better by noble boldness to run the risk of being subject to half the evils we anticipate than to remain in cowardly listlessness for fear of what might happen.” – Herodotus

I’m going to open up with a claim that might be difficult to accept, but you’re bolder than you believe yourself to be. How could I know this without ever having met you? It’s because boldness is in the nature of humanity. Timidity and insecurity are learned behaviors, while boldness comes naturally to all of us.

A History of Boldness

Taking a step back, take a look at how we naturally and psychologically conceptualize those who are bold. The Alexander The Greats and Genghis Khans of the world. Even those who have committed great crimes are looked up to with some respect when they were seen as bold.

Great tyrants, socialites and kings the world over are seen in a positive light even when an ability to take bold action was their key trait. We secretly envy the playboy millionaire or world famous fashionista who can pass through life effortlessly just by their powerful presence. Perhaps we may openly mock them or disregard them as shallow, but this lifestyle still has incredibly seductive elements to it.

Faux Boldness 

 Allow me to pause for a moment to talk of what might turn many off the concept of boldness. Those who are quick to anger, or always powerfully provide an opinion on something, are not bold, but merely imitating the quality via a defense mechanism. Instinctively, we know the power of boldness. A teacher who seems uncertain of their material isn’t trusted to know what they’re talking about, regardless of how well they may know the material.

To this extent those who come off as overly loud are not bold, but we can easily detect that there is something… off about them. We know subconsciously that this behavior does not deserve respect, but to be on our own defensive, because something else is going on here. This is what is triggered inside of us by those who are pretending to be bold, but are merely making a lot of noise.

Finding Your Boldness

Contemplate for a moment an example where you’ve seen someone be bold in a way that you respect and another in a way in which has repulsed you. Consider what the differences are in each instance. Now consider a time you yourself have taken bold action and felt strong and assertive in doing it. Consider another example, where your strength was merely hiding some insecurity, and you did not feel powerful in the bold action you took.

The simple truth of boldness is that you will act bold naturally when you are not acting out of defensiveness or insecurity. When you are determined to act, act with your full strength. If you fail, further determined action will overcome any obstacle. Timidity and insecurity will drown you in a swamp that will be more and more difficult to come out of.

“Any mistakes you commit through audacity are easily corrected with more audacity. Everyone admires the bold; no one honors the timid.” – Law 28 | 48 Laws of Power – Robert Greene

Confessions of a professional self-helper

I could put one of dozens clever quotes at the top of this post that would set the mood for some great life lesson I want to talk about, but not today dear reader.

“If you are waiting for anything in order to live and love without holding back, then you suffer.” 
― David Deida

Alright, alright, one small quote will do.

A funny thing starts to happen when you gain when you develop an addiction to learning, though even that’s an odd concept isn’t it? There are certainly worse addictions, though most of those are more noticeably bad, which gives them a leg-up over this one.

Analysis Paralysis

I can tell you hundreds of things about human behavior, why this guy said this thing, what she meant by that statement, what this guy’s body language is saying, and certainly most of them I’ve confirmed in person too, beyond simply study.

At some point it reaches a peak where more doesn’t seem beneficial. Most of the world has gotten by just fine without learning all of these intricacies, they aren’t necessary for survival, yet they certainly help if you intend to thrive instead of simply survive.

Analysis Paralysis is the over-thinking and over-analyzing of situations, which I’m certain you can see how it could effect someone who has studied things to such depths.

Finding The Best Way

Tied to the above, a part of me always feels the need to figure out the best way to do something. Spending more time planning and looking for the best angles, and spending far too long trying to perfect a thing before beginning it. This is a lot less of a fun way to live.

Spoiler Alert: While there are more effective ways to do something, there is never a best way. You can waste a whole lot of time in this search. [With the exception of things that require technical skill, like a surgery or building a bridge, those need to be pretty spot on]

Moving Towards A Solution

This is a subject I’ve yet to find the perfect solution for. Wow, I actually wrote that! I wrote that I was looking for a perfect solution to no longer finding a perfect solution to things!

That live insight aside, I’ve come to appreciate a focus on practice. On seeing where I can take action on my goals in a way that might end up like a bit of a dorky fumble, but that at least gets me out of the state of planning for perfection.

I’ve done so by taking things a week at a time. By scheduling little things in a few growth areas, and seeing how I can eliminate time and activities which don’t line up to where I’d want to be a year from now. As they say, the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. It’s really difficult for me to intellectually accept taking things slowly, but I’m seeing how paralyzed process is much slower than baby steps.

I’ll certainly make future posts about the progress in this area.