Burnout: The long shadow of idealism?

“Almost Once” – Brett Whiteley

In order to burn out, a person needs to have been on fire at one time

Ayala Pines

COVID-19 has shone an overdue light on the indispensability of workers that we often take for granted. Nurses, doctors, social workers, taxi drivers, cashiers, cleaners and many others. Whilst many of us have had to adjust to the comparatively mild inconveniences of working from home, these workers are often putting their health at risk to deliver essential services and care. As this emergency and lockdown continues, these workers will need access to comprehensive support to stave off and manage the effects from burnout. The term burnout is most commonly used with reference to those who exert significant “emotional labour” in their work, which refers to the requirement of managing emotions and feelings whilst dealing with people (i.e patients or customers) with the term becoming ubiquitous across not just healthcare but also professional services occupations.

Burnout, more than just exhaustion

A recent definition by Christina Maslach of the University of California, who originally coined the term and Michael Leiter, currently at Deakin University, provided a concept of burnout as: 

“…the index of dislocation between what people are and what they do. It represents an erosion of value, dignity, spirit and will – an erosion of the human soul. It is a malady that spreads gradually and continuously over time, pulling people into a downward spiral from which it is hard to recover.” 

For Maslach and Leiter there is a dislocation of what people are and what they do, causing a split where actions no longer reflect values. This split leads to a chasm of meaningless that in turn can become a downward spiral of rumination, self-doubt and eventually depression. The dislocation means that the underlying values that supported an initial devotion or idealism have shifted or dissolved, usually as the result of some perceived or actual failure or a head-on collision with a difficult occupational reality. 

What is interesting about the above is the inclusion of words such as values, spirit and soul. This definition by Maslach and Leiter alludes to the fact that burnout syndrome, cannot be viewed simply as exhaustion but as something related to existential loss of meaning and purpose. Viktor Frankl, the late psychiatrist, holocaust survivor and founder of Logotherapy could have the key to understanding why burnout is becoming more common. Frankl’s overarching philosophy of the “will to meaning” suggested that to avoid depression and existential despair, one had to authentically live out one’s underlying values by paying attention to what is meaningful. These values are not necessarily moral, but are related to a deeper sense of what attracts your attention, focus and sustained, conscious action; an integrated embodiment of an individual’s orientation toward and action within their framework of meaning.  

For Frankl, he believed that the decline in spiritual and religious life, what he referred to as the noetic dimension, had led to a vacuum of meaning which had been filled by a new kind of devotion to work and it is this devotion, which can sew the seed for burnout. In research published last year by Norbert Riethof and Petr Bob, in Frontiers of Psychiatry, the initial stage of burnout actually involves very intense experiences of meaningful life and work, a kind of idealism or devotion that by the end of the burnout process has been lost following a perceived failure to live up to impossibly high expectations. 

A bright burning candle casts a long shadow and the shadow of idealism appears to be burnout.

There is a counterintuitive element here, which is that burnout appears more likely to affect those that demonstrate a higher level of idealism in their work. Idealism can be a valuable trait for an individual and the organisation they work for as it motivates people to make a difference and go beyond what is asked of them. However, the resulting excitement elicited by this acute sense of meaning, can lead to excessive dedication (perfectionism), a lack of clinical or personal detachment and an obscuring of insight into the knowledge of one’s own limitations. A bright burning candle casts a long shadow and the shadow of idealism appears to be burnout.

Excitement and stress are two sides of the same coin with both of these emotions releasing the stress hormone cortisol, which the body uses to prepare for action. The secretions of these hormones build up over time and if behaviours and work practices aren’t changed, they can have a serious effect on physical and mental health leading to a potential breakdown and in the most extreme cases, suicide. In the United Kingdom a 2018 study found that the probability of doctor’s committing suicide was five times higher than the general population, with a significant factor being the pressure that doctor’s are under due to a lack of resources. 

The difficulty with the term “Burnout”

The trouble with managing burnout partly comes from the difficulty in its definition and diagnosis. In a recent survey of intensive care health professionals the overall number of those categorised as suffering from burnout ranged from 3% to 40% depending on how the syndrome was defined. Part of the difficulty of “diagnosing” burnout is due to its interaction with other mental health issues like depression, begging the question, how much is the term ‘burnout’ simply a socially acceptable label for someone actually suffering from depression? Some of the key descriptions of burnout; loss of enjoyment in things you used to find enjoyable (such as work), persistent fatigue, apathy and cynicism are actually key diagnostic criteria of the American Psychological Association for major depressive disorder. In addition to this, 2017 research in the Journal of Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, found that there was no distinction between the biological markers in the brain of those diagnosed with burnout compared to those diagnosed with major depressive disorder.

The ubiquity of the term ‘burnout’ leads to a number of issues. Overdiagnosis of the syndrome leads to a perceived normalisation of this as a necessary occupational hazard, resulting in acceptance and no urgency in developing the appropriate support frameworks. This resulting lack of support can lead to declining levels of work productivity, job satisfaction, employee engagement and increasing levels of stress and depression. Finally, it appears as though using the term is becoming a euphemistic veil for what is actually depression, something which could prevent someone seeking help due to a normalisation of this as a facet of professional life.

Beyond burnout

Mindfulness training has recently received a lot of attention from researchers and organisations as a technique for reducing physical and mental stress. Mindfulness meditation, leveraging present moment awareness, can help to create space between thoughts, emotions and actions. This “space” can help to improve cognitive empathy, otherwise known as detached concern, whilst learning to manage and not get caught up in emotional empathy, or taking on the emotional states of other people (patients, customers). This awareness can also provide an insight into an individual’s limits, informing them of when to take a step back and some time out, whilst also providing a positive perspective on purpose and achievements. The practice can act as a kind of ‘reset’ of the mind, a process that un-conceals values and brings awareness of actions, allowing a restoration of meaning through integration of both.

Beyond personal practices, a broader shift in how workplace mental health is dealt with, including the communication and support for those with occupationally specific depression could also have a significant impact. A comprehensive review of burnout treatments in 2010 found that a combination of personal and group interventions provided by organisations had the largest effect on managing burnout in individuals. This was partially due to a greater level of acknowledgement about burnout and its potential as an occupational hazard, in turn providing people with support and also an implied understanding that those suffering weren’t alone in how they were feeling.

Bringing it all together

The after-effects from the strain of this crisis are likely to be felt most acutely when the lives of most of us go back to normal. The present moment is a critical opportunity for us to re-evaluate the importance of these individuals, putting in place the proper resources and support to ensure that we protect those that are under so much strain at this time. By developing the adequate support structures for those in critical care industries, organisations can reduce the number of workers lost to burnout and workplace depression, in turn maintaining continuity of standards, care and service for those that rely on them.

A brief wrestle with Heidegger

The cover of “Being and Time” by Martin Heidegger

Thinking begins only when we have come to know that reason, glorified for centuries, is the stiff necked adversary of thought

Martin Heidegger

The desire of trying to discover and pin down a certain, unchanging truth, so that we may confidently stride forward without doubt seems wrong. We will never find certainty, as the ‘true’ way of being is something that never completely reveals itself. This truth is constantly shifting and changing depending on our relationship to it, existing in a mercurial relation to our being. The nature of ‘discovering’ truth is a process of unconcealing, stripping away the layers of mental and physical habits, social necessities and professional distraction in order to more closely experience that which we grasp toward, but which actually hums faintly, deep within us. Truth isn’t found by building, it is found by stripping away what we have already built around us and remembering that we are in fact a part of the world, not apart from the world.

Whilst we often grasp outwardly toward truth, the real nature of discovery is an inward process. A process of removing the noise so that the faint murmur of true Being within us can be allowed to be heard. For Heidigger, truth was not something to be arrived at, to be grasped with certainty, rather it was an ideal that guided us, an ideal that we could aim at, the resulting uncertainty requiring a leap of faith toward that horizon. The necessity of intuition are not lost for Heidigger, they are still critical to understanding in what direction we should aim. In some ways, reason and intuition will clash with one another, but intuition will often be the foundation, unknown to the conscious mind, on which reason builds its capability to grasp and manipulate the world around us for our own purposes. Our attention toward something in the world is drawn almost instantly by autonomic processes, that attention is then evaluated by intuitive emotional reactions long before our conscious, rational mind begins to evaluate the phenomena. Instinct and intuition serves the basis of our interest, with reason then manifesting the potential of that interest into something tangible, usable.

Moving away from the fatal shore

Artist: Kurun Warun

To deprive the Aborigines of their territory, therefore, was to condemn them to spiritual death – a destruction of their past, their future and their opportunities of transcendence.

Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding

We cling anxiously to the edge of this continent, terrified of what lurks within. A land of incomprehensible vastness and mystery, of lethal creatures, wilting heat and awe-inspiring weather. The ocean that we have collectively grasped toward since 1788, presents a symbol of potential salvation, promise of connection to the outside world, a respite from scorching sun and desolate dry, however even the ocean brings with it the threat of inundation along with apprehension of the other.

We are precariously placed on this rock, an experimental utopia with no anchor point either to the original people’s of this land, or to the people’s from which we are descended. It has been up to us to determine the values, dreams and myths that can unify us together and provide a guiding light, however these are still fledgling. By destroying the culture of the people that first called this place home, we have not only committed a spiritual murder of the indigenous population, we have also cut ourselves off from any sort of spiritual connection and knowledge of this place. By cutting ourselves off from the original people of this land we will never be free. We will always feel apprehensive, adrift and fearful, trembling in the face of imagined threats, of a foreign land that we do not really comprehend and often seems to us hostile and foreboding.

This anxious grip permeates our lives, driving us to seek control over whatever we can in order to reduce these existential feelings of isolation, loss and alienation. Without integrating the wisdom of the people who understand this land, without finally unifying around an inclusive, collective vision of Australia, we will always be a prisoner of our ignorance and resulting fear. To be a truly great nation we need to reconcile with our original sin, rehabilitating the spiritual essence and wisdom of one of the world’s oldest cultures into a collective and unifying vision of Australia, building a bridge to the past so that we can confidently navigate the future.

Diverting the river

Harold Fisk Map of The Mississippi River

To do the same thing over and over again is not only boredom: it is to be controlled by rather than to control what you do.

Heraclitus

Is there a core of you that has remained since you were a child? A definable essence that the rest of your conscious self has been built around? How much of what is you is just memory and how much of that memory is accurate? Why are some memories, despite seeming innocuous or unimportant, so vivid and recurring? 

It is memory that gives us a past. It allows us to use the information that we have gathered over time to help make decisions in the present, based on an imagined projection of the future. The problem is that the information we have gathered previously is rendered incomplete and our spectrum of decision making is often constrained by past actions, habits and bias, shaped by time, experience and culture. What determines our future is the result of decisions made in an amorphous present based on a vague impression of the past. 

This is why it is so difficult for people to change. Past thoughts and actions are like rivulets, carving tracks of thought and action, deepened by time, building banks of habit that become increasingly difficult to divert or overcome. To redirect the flow requires first a pause, and then conscious action to redirect the torrent onto new ground. At first this action will feel undirected, the water will splash over the new ground, some of it will be lost and because of the difficulty and resulting frustration, there will be the temptation to return to the old, established path. However over time, through repeated action, new channels will form, new attitudes and behaviours will slowly develop and new banks will become more firmly established as the new torrents of thought and action carve their paths deeper.

Our past selves and the memory of that self can be the thing that makes it so difficult to change direction. Often it is an external event that shocks us, forcing us to stop, drawing our attention to the beat of discontent that we have been trying to drown out through distractions, busyness and transient pleasures. Given that we have to divert our patterns of thought from their established riverbeds we need to take new actions consistently in order to build new pathways that can lead to a possibility of transformation over time.

Straddling Order and Chaos: Psychedelics and The Entropic Brain

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of the earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree

T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding

The exploration of the mind is the final frontier. We seem to have exhausted our horizontal expansion and so, we must look further inward and upward, to the deepest depths and the highest heights of our psychological experiences and wrestle with one of sciences greatest mysteries, the brain and our conscious experience.

Michael Pollan, in his bestselling book How To Change Your Mind looked to do just that. This book was a sweeping review of the history of psychedelics, charting their surprising history that began with their early embrace by the psychiatric community, their eventual demonisation in response to the counter culture of the 1960’s and their eventual rehabilitation by researchers at the end of the 20th Century. The book, whilst focusing on the history of the drugs and the authors own experiences also delves into the neuroscience behind these molecules, heavily referencing researchers at Imperial College London by the name of Robin Carhart-Harris and David Nutt, both of whom have been studying the effect of Psychedelics on the human brain.

Dr Carhart-Harris, is Head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London and in 2014 he laid out a theory called The Entropic Brain. Entropy is the level of uncertainty or surprise in a system, a high entropic system having a large degree of uncertainty/surprise, a low entropic system a smaller degree. There is a point of criticality in any entropic system where it is balanced between order and chaos and it appears from neuroimaging data that this point of ‘criticality’ in our own consciousness occurs in a more archaic or ‘primary’ state, a consciousness sitting below our normal waking experience. It appears as though our normal waking consciousness actively represses entropy, pushing the system into a more sub-critical state with less chaos and more rigidity. The paper focuses on how psychedelic states appear to return our conscious experiences to a more primary state, a state of greater entropy and connectivity, a less ‘repressive’ state.

The brain is a hierarchical system with consciousness being described by some as an emergent property resulting from the ‘self-organised criticality’ of the system, or in other words the brain being more than the sum of its parts, with consciousness emerging somehow from the interrelationship of neural structures. Carhart-Harris, with a background in psychoanalytic theory, discusses Freud’s theories of the ego & the id in the context of his entropic brain theory and proposes that the neural correlates of the ego have been found in something called the default mode network.

The functional centrality of the default mode network is not shared by other neural systems. Current research implies that the default mode network is the highest level of control in the brain. The default mode network serves as a conductor of the orchestra, the executive of total brain function, being relatively removed from sensory processing and predominantly engaged in higher-level, metacognitive tasks such as self-reflection, theory-of-mind (attributing mental states to yourself and others) as well as mental time travel (reflecting on the past, imagining the future). Essentially the default mode network is the centre for the creation of the narrative-self, what Freud described as the ego.

This narrative self is responsible for how we orient ourselves in the world, along with determining our goal directed activity that allows us to survive and thrive, what is called our normal state of consciousness or ‘waking/secondary consciousness’. It appears as though this state of awareness is responsible for filtering out the experiences that are superfluous to our survival, repressing more primary or entropic states, that are representative of what Freud called the id. This repression of entropy, it is proposed, is what allows us to focus on that which is immediately important for our evolutionary success, but it also blocks out many different states of consciousness that are lurking beneath our normal waking veneer.

The authors desire to integrate psychoanalytic theory into the study of mind is motivated by the gap in our scientific understanding of the unconscious, partly created by the consensus of cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychology focuses on the thoughts and subsequent actions of someone in mental distress, seeking to reduce maladaptive behaviour by creating tasks and coping mechanisms to redirect thoughts and action. The authors view is that whilst managing maladaptive thoughts and behaviours relating to mental distress via cognitive & behavioural psychology is very important, this approach only deals with the symptoms of a deeper, more intractable problem. The psychoanalytic viewpoint has been left behind by the scientific consensus of the psychology field, due to the previous inability to test these assumptions using the scientific method. The hope of Carhart-Harris et al. and others is that by examining the effects of psychedelics on the brains of both patients and ‘healthy normals’ we will be able to examine the unconscious mind and devise therapeutic methods to treat previously intractable psychological problems.

Based on neuroimaging, the administration of psychedelics appears to decouple the hippocampi region, the region responsible for the regulation of emotion and development of memory, from the Default Mode Network. This could mean that the brain is no longer repressing the signals emanating from the hippocampus, allowing access and insights into memories or emotions that we suppress or have forgotten. This hypothesis reflects the subjective reports of many people who have taken psychedelics, particularly in a therapeutic setting, reporting vivid childhood memories, forgotten traumas and visceral emotions. It is hoped that by gaining access to this deeper wellspring of mental life, and through the right integrative therapeutic approaches, this primary state can serve as the catalyst for individuals to engage with psychological issues at their source, rather than just their symptoms.

Depression is one of the most pressing of these psychological issues today. The SSRI drugs, which showed so much promise for its treatment when launched in the 1980’s do not work as well as they did and access to adequate mental health care is lacking for most. It is proposed that the hyperactivity of the default mode network (an overactive ego) leads to a narrow and intense introspection which is characteristic of depressive symptoms. An overactive ego leads to more introspective metacognitive tasks, leading to an over emphasis on maladaptive self-narrative and an increase in negative, rigid thinking characteristic of depression and anxiety. This rigid thinking and excessive order is characterised as the ‘tyrannical’ ego, an incessantly critical voice that obscures perspective, filtering out or repressing outside experience that could potentially break pathological patterns of thought. The authors discuss how mild depression may have been evolutionary adaptive, with it potentially being a form of reality testing that allowed us to successfully and efficiently navigate our ancestral environment. However, for those suffering from treatment resistant depression, it appears as though this potentially adaptive trait has become overactive, no longer serving the individual and potentially putting their lives in danger.

Extensive research has demonstrated the astounding positive results of psychedelic experiences in improving the psychological outlook of those diagnosed with terminal cancer and people struggling with addiction and treatment resistant depression. It appears that psychedelics break the neural patterns of thought that lead to excessive rigidity of thinking, ‘rebooting’ the mind through a return to a primary consciousness that increases connectivity between different parts of the brain and allows a kind of cognitive reset.


Psychedelic therapy could possibly be a major breakthrough in the enhancement of the existing efficacy of psychotherapeutic techniques. By silencing the ego, clients or patients of therapists may be able to feel emotions that have been previously unavailable to them, recollect and come to terms with long-forgotten memories and face down demons locked deeply away in their unconscious, gaining a new sense of perspective and laying new ‘tracks’ of thought. The narrative and explanation of the ego being located in the default mode network may yet prove to be to simple, however as neuroscience and our understanding of these compounds develop, the potential for significant breakthroughs in mental health treatment could be revolutionary.


Kaleidoscopic journey through light

Image: Fractal Geometric Patterns

“Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type… whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.”

William James

Yesterday I went to a workshop held by MIND, the European Foundation for Psychedelic Science. I have been interested in psychedelic states since having a profound experience of unitive consciousness whilst practicing transcendental meditation. That experience had such a significant effect that I have been investigating what happened to me ever since and as a result have been curious about altered states in consciousness in general.

The workshop was focused on creating hallucinogenic experiences through Flicker Induced Hallucination, using stroboscopic lamps. This phenomenon of hypnagogia induced through light has been scientifically documented since the early 19th century and the invention of this machine is entwined within the fabric of the renaissance of scientific research on psychedelic experience that has taken place over the last fifteen years.

I didn’t really have any expectations prior to the session, despite the fact that the other participants coming into the room after their own experience had this dazed, wide-eyed look of wonder on their face. The experience itself was one of the most awe-inspiring internal experiences of my life.

Lying down on the bed under the light head with my eyes closed, I expected to see blobs and swirls, the likes of which you see if you have accidentally looked directly at the sun and then immediately closed your eyes. What actually happened was extraordinary. When the lights first turned on I initially saw some vague red and purple blobs and then all of a sudden it was like I had been dropped into a kaleidoscope. I was seeing spinning, fractal, geometric shapes of amazing complexity, predominantly made up of crystalline-like diamonds and triangles, with incredible colours starting with tangerines and oranges before shifting to obsidian black and emerald greens. The shapes and the kaleidoscope were moving fast enough that I felt as though I were being propelled with increasing velocity through this fractal atmosphere, the planes and spirals and funnels enveloping me until it felt like I had broken free of the orbit of that world and was now floating in a misty blackness, surrounded by stars. I soon felt a physical sensation of falling back into my body, a similar feeling to when you are lying in bed and have that falling feeling that jolts you awake, and as I was falling the geometric, fractal shapes returned. As I was falling back into this geometric plane there was a bright, white light sitting at the apex of this visual storm and I had this urge to move toward it, a feeling as though I could move toward it, like I could will myself there despite the fact that I was stationary. That bright light felt like it was positioned at the point above and between my two eyes and reminded me of what many spiritual traditions refer to as “The Third Eye”. That sense of wanting to move toward that white light was probably the most profound during this intense experience.

What was incredible to me was the fact that these were simply white, strobe lights, rhythmically pulsing in front of my face and that was enough for my mind to project the most incredible visual complexity along with giving me a sense of motion into the infinite blackness created by my closed eyes. It gave me an insight into the scaffolding of our visual perceptions, how our brain has this innate sense of geometry that it uses as one of the building blocks for us to understand the physical world.

I had noticeable physical reactions to this experience. My heart was thumping from the intensity of the visual experience and my palms and fingertips were sweating. Throughout the experience my breath was deep and purposeful as I tried to breath my way through the anxiety generated by this powerful experience. There was a constant sense of mild fear that I was breathing through and trying to let go of, knowing that I wasn’t in any physical or mental danger; this feeling was mirrored by a feeling of exhilaration as I was propelled through this vast unknown.

The first session only went for three-and-a-half minutes, after which we had a pause and the instructor then placed some headphones over my ears and started playing some instrumental folk music. By the time the second session started my body was shaking, particularly my legs. I tried to calm the shaking by placing my hands on top of one another and resting them on my stomach, paying even closer attention to my breath, trying to let myself fall further into my body, allowing my weight to sink into the bed. The second session with the music was more relaxing than the first, partly due to the music and partly due to getting used to the experience; much of my shaking was partly a residual effect from the mild shock and intensity of the first session.

Once the experience was over I sat up and had a brief conversation with the instructor, my voice and hands were mildly shaking. I had a conversation with a couple of others who had been through the experience, whilst speaking to them I had physical jitteriness similar to when you drink too much coffee. Once I left the workshop, walking down the stairs I suddenly felt this rush of euphoria, which was accentuated as I walked into the cool, foggy, night air of Berlin, jumping on my bike and cycling at full-pelt through the empty streets toward home.

It was such an awe-inspiring experience that showed me for the second time this year, the first being my unitive experience through meditation, how many other realms there are available to us, and how through the right approaches, we can open the gate and ‘the world’ is completely transformed through the dissolution of our day-to-day perceptions.

The shadow of luck

Image: Brett Whiteley, Bondi 1978
But their minds were always closed,
And their hearts were held in fast suburban chains.
- Cold Chisel, Khe Sahn

There is a complacency of mind in Australia. A complacent sense that what has worked in the past will continue working indefinitely into the future. There is a sort of trembling fear that pervades much of the national psyche, an anxiousness that all the time spent and sacrifices made in the pursuit of wealth, status and comfort maybe won’t be reflected in a sense of contentment, calm and delayed joy. So many people have been led to believe that the ‘Australian Dream’ is the paradise to which people should aspire, as though it were a final destination, a foretold promised land, where in truth it is more like a trap. Be mindful of politicians extolling the virtues of certain lifestyles!

In truth the Australian Dream is a way of tying people down and making them good little taxpayers. In the pursuit of security and comfort we sacrifice autonomy. When we sacrifice autonomy we stop manifesting potential, with time creaking into psychological stasis as our vision becomes blinkered by an arbitrary goal defined by others.

We are told to enjoy life when we are old, once we have retired from ‘doing our bit’, when the generative power of new ideas, people and places has lost its generative force, when they have become the pleasant distractions from the monotony of retirement. As Australians we cling in anxious fear to our possessions and houses, desperately reminding ourselves and others that we ‘have made it’ whilst being terrified to step off the treadmill and think for ourselves. 

Buy a house, sure. But do it with your eyes open and do it after experiencing the world and analysing all the possibilities, don’t do it just because everyone else is doing it. Make sure that in trying to attain security you don’t smother your potential by becoming chained by debt and societal expectation. Politicians do not want a mobile workforce, mobility means a lower tax base, so beware of their endlessly repeated prognostications of ‘The Australian Dream’. Keep your eyes open and think for yourself.

Don’t be fooled by groupthink that buying a house is the only asset to bother considering or that assets of monetary value are the only ones worth pursuing. Invest in yourself through the education of life; make mistakes, read, write, paint, try and understand why you think and act the way you do, understand what motivates you so that your values and goals are the product of your truth and not someone else’s.

When the wave rolled back

Image: Alexander Calder

We were all but proud of our drunkenness, debauchery and bravado. I would not say we were wicked; they were all good young men, but they behaved wickedly, and I most of all. The chief thing was that I had come into my own money, and with that I threw myself into a life of pleasure, with all the impetuousness of youth, without restraint, under full sail.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

The passage above is from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and is the account of the elderly monk Zosima’s youth, recounted by the protagonist Alyosha. This passage struck me when I read it last night and I wrote the section down as the first thing I did this morning due to it reminding me so much of my own approach to life in my ‘youth’.

Over the past couple of weeks I have been increasingly thinking of past behaviour and how hedonic and aimless so much of it was and how all I was interested in over the course of many years was where I could find fun and pleasure. It is interesting to me that it is only recently, during the last couple of months, that my own opinion of my old life has so rapidly shifted, shifted to a point where I sometimes find it difficult to recognise the motivations of that old self.

“We were all but proud of our drunkenness, debauchery … they were all good young men, but they behaved wickedly, I most of all.”

This was what university and the emerging adulthood period of life was for me. There was a feeling of pride. A sense that what we were doing was right, smart even. That we knew we were ‘making the most of it’ by sewing wild oats and getting our kicks whilst we could, before it was too late.

I always thought when I was younger that I had to see and do as much as possible so as that I could stave of future regret and not have the chaotic mid-life catastrophe that eventually engulfed my father. I realise now how misplaced some of these notions were, how pursuing fun and distraction only drove a chasm in my own life, a void in which I lost a sense of meaning, purpose. My expediency regarding work and university led me to feel that whatever it was I was doing over those years didn’t really matter. There was no wisdom in the drunkenness, debauchery or hedonism but it did ultimately yield wisdom, wisdom of what not to do.

The move to Hong Kong was the apex and termination of this ultimately unsustainable trajectory. We went to Hong Kong out of boredom, chasing fun, status, money; and the pressure, heat and brightness of that fascinatingly strange place incinerated this old part of myself, revealing an old truth and an old vein of understanding that I had lost. During this painful process, one which is still unfurling, it was as though I rediscovered a part of myself which had been occluded by the fog off all that I had tried to distract myself with. I realise now that I was blinkered and blinded by the light reflecting off the wrong values, values which I had never really stopped to consciously consider.

What is likely true is that in desperately trying to not repeat the same mistakes as our parents we simply blunder on, smashing into things on the periphery of the tunnel vision that focuses so determinedly on avoiding their bad examples, instead creating our own.

The remedy for this appears to be living as truthfully as possible. Of not giving up the potential you know is within you simply because it is difficult and will jeopardise your security and comfort at that moment. Manifesting what you intuitively know to be right seems to me at this moment to be a bulwark against the future corruption of your psyche. The difficulty of course is finding that moment of clarity, a still moment when the fog has lifted and you can not only see, but know that truth. What this might mean is that in order to find it you first need to jump into that fog.

You could be happy

Artist unknown

The pursuit of happiness is one of the traditional rights of man; unfortunately, the achievement of happiness may turn out to be incompatible with another of man’s rights, namely liberty.

Aldous Huxley

You could be happy. Happy like a fucking donkey strapped to a cart. Satiated by a regular carrot, a scratch behind the ear, some hay and a bucket of water at the end of the day. Happy because you have submitted. Given up your responsibility in order to be bound to the yoke of someone else’s charge. Preferring to be bounded to something, anything, simply so you don’t have to wrestle with the freedom of your own independent thought and subsequent psychological storms. You could be happy. Happy as a lobotomised automaton, blinkered and clopping through life to the tempo of someone else’s rod.

Freedom doesn’t mean happiness, in fact it very likely means the opposite, particularly when it is first grasped. Newly found freedom can often be terrifying, as all the possibility of the world comes flooding in and you are made aware of all that you could be which you are not. Like the first moments when we wake up from sleep and are dazed, confused and vulnerable, freedom simply exposes you to all the potentialities of life, dazzling and overwhelming us. It takes a conscious focus to aim at that which you are interested and through that focus begin to build on that which sustains your interest as that is what brings meaning. Our interest determines what we value and by focusing on what we value we begin to breakdown the overwhelming vastness of the world’s potentialities into a world that reflects us, that we can mould into something that will allow us to manifest our own latent power. Freedom doesn’t mean happiness. However it allows us the capacity to make our own decisions that can harness our own potential in the pursuit of something that we value, that has meaning.

Finding the thread

Artist Unknown

Not a city that welcomes you with open arms, doesn’t really welcome you at all in fact. It makes you chase through layers of parties, graffiti, crumbling buildings, parks, confusion, beguiling you along the way, but keeping you off balance. The expectation of dropping into Berlin and riding the rail first go was naive. This isn’t Hong Kong. No welcoming fanfare and glittering carnival here. This is a city that you have to work for, a city you have to scratch around in the dust to find.