Sometimes when I am napping or day-dreaming, my mind creates little stories, similar to the kind of stories you inhale when reading a book. Visually they are a fuzzy representation of words on a page, as though I am reading and creating those words simultaneously, without any conscious control. The stories are stripped of any real colour or depth, they are more just vignettes of type and page, auto-dictating out into the dark edges of my semi-sleep. The dialogue in these stories, held by this twilight of consciousness, flows so effortlessly, but can never be caught when fully awake. Slipperier then a normal dream, these little scenes disperse as soon as my eyes open.
These twilight moments between sleep and wake have been happening more recently, a factor of the amount of time I have on my hands, an abundance that will soon be at an end. When working we spend so long aching for time, aching for the thing we don’t have, so that we can invest in activities that reflect who we ‘truly are’. How many people say, “If only I had the time I would do X,” but they never take the steps to make the time for the thing they want, and when the time does present itself, often it is wasted; shredded into pieces of confetti by Instagram, Netflix, social obligations.
I think the reason why people don’t take the action required to get what they say they want, is because time scares people. Time opens a window to the self-referential part of your mind, the part that likes to daydream, make little stories. Time allows this part of our mind to stomp around and peer over our shoulder, second-guessing every thought or action. Time provides the space for you to try something new, to make decisions and mistakes, mistakes which can foster learning, but can also diminish your own sense of competence and confidence. When time presents itself we try to fill it, as though its emptiness might let in some unknown horror, and by filling it, often we waste it. We talk of ‘doing time’ or ‘serving time’, we dread moments where our control of time is taken away from us. And so instead we scurry around in busyness, frittering away sequences of moments that could be used to cultivate a deeper sense of well-being.
I am one of those people who always preferred to be moving, busying myself as a way of deflecting a deeper psychological malaise that was illuminated by stillness. The last 12 months have been the first time where I really allowed myself to slow down, observe and smell the roses, and even then a significant part of me, that incessant voice at the back of the head, had to be dragged kicking and screaming into this period of calm. It wasn’t really until I passed the halfway mark of this time away that I finally let go.
My experience of time as a result has changed. My threshold for boredom has significantly lowered as my general state of arousal/excitement has also lowered. I feel healthier, whilst also being less stressed. However, I have noticed that despite my significantly reduced levels of stimulation, my overall, subjective experience of stress hasn’t fallen that much. This has been an interesting aspect of this period, that despite all of this time available to do whatever I wish to do, the subjective experience of day-to-day stress, whilst lower, is only slightly so.
It has made me realise how much this stress reaction is just a part of me and that it requires a channel into some outward physical activity before it is redirected internally as rumination and worry. The fact that the level of stress hasn’t changed much and that it has essentially shifted its shape is a good lesson for future times of stress. That it is a part of me, that it needs to be managed by practicing techniques like mindfulness and that it isn’t going to go way by making big sweeping changes. I have also noticed at this time how being cut off from people, exacerbates this stress. My mind seems to think that it likes to be alone, which is true at times, but the truth is that I am almost always happier in and following (most) social engagements. This kind of misguided, short-term view of what I think I want, feels a bit like the reluctance of going to the gym, only to feel so much better once you have gone.
I feel as though I have been on the run for the last twelve months or so. I can see now that part of the reason for my running was a fear of the success I had enjoyed at work; fear that this would lock me into who that successful person was forever. There was a sense of guilt about this success, as though it had come too easy. In truth it was a shallow kind of success built on a wobbly foundation of gritted teeth and a blinkered focus. Whatever it was, the time for self-sabotage is over and whatever happens next, there won’t be the same freedom of time to simply cast it away. Perhaps that is what is really needed, constraint of time, so that you are freed from the worst impulses of your own ego.
I think and compare, see with a feeling eye, feel with a seeing hand.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Have you ever had a ‘feeling’ about something? Or felt a deep understanding or affinity for a piece of music or art that you couldn’t quite explain? A lot of our intuitive and emotional reactions to experiences are like weather patterns in our bodies and minds, unconscious, willful, with a significant impact on how we consciously pay attention to the world. So many of our phrases for emotions; ‘they rose within me’, ‘I lost control, ‘I was swept away’, speak to a sense of these processes having a will of their own and one that has more of an impact on our conscious thought than we realise.
Over the last ten years there has been an exponential increase in the amount of research into something called ‘embodied cognition’. Embodied cognition is a way of conceptualising how we think and make decisions, a shift away from the predominant, and restrictive, way of viewing thought as only specific to the brain, expanding to incorporate a framework that includes the significance of the body. The dominant view of cognitive science, and therefore of psychology more broadly, is that cognitive processing only takes part in the brain and is devoid of the bodily processes of sensory input and control. The movement of embodied cognition is a way of viewing thinking, in a way that is grounded not only in the biology of the brain, but also in the feedback we receive from bodily sensations in relation to our actions, in our connection to nature and the influence of our social environment.
The importance of serotonin in understanding ‘thinking’
When considering how thinking is shaped not only by our brain, but by our body, it is important to consider the role of serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that transmits signals between neurons in the central nervous system, and is critical to the regulation of virtually all brain function. Dysregulation of serotonin function has been implicated in major depressive disorder along with other mental illnesses, with most antidepressant drugs working by increasing the amount of serotonin in the brain. It is difficult to find a human behaviour that is not modulated by serotonin, with it responsible for regulating mood and emotional responses, perception, attention and memory, along with our attitudes to rewards like food and sex.
The interesting thing about serotonin is that the vast majority of it is found outside of the brain. In fact up to 90% of all serotonin in the body is found in the gut, and this network is so extensive that scientists have referred to the gut as the “second-brain”. Often used phrases “I feel it in my gut” or “I have butterflies” in my stomach are not superstitious nonsense, but a critical factor in what drives our cognition. That intuitive feeling of ‘something’s not right’, a feeling that we can’t explain but which we ‘feel’, may have a significant amount to do with the distribution of serotonin in the digestive system.
This hypothesis is supported by research conducted on mice in 2017, which discovered that serotonin played a key role in behavioural and cognitive flexibility, something the researchers called ‘reversal learning’. Reversal learning can be thought of as the ability to change a course of action, when something in the environment changes, i.e when something no longer feels right. An example of this process malfunctioning, would be someone with low serotonin levels who is unable to adjust their ways of thinking after being made redundant. This inflexibility leads them to ruminate over and over on the fact they were made redundant, leading to a spiral of negative thinking and self criticism. Someone with higher serotonin levels may have had more flexibility in their response and instead of ruminating, re-framed the way they view the situation, taking a new course of action like volunteering their time, or re-enrolling at university.
Of course our analytical reasoning and conceptual development happens in the most highly evolved parts of the brain, but they are built on a foundation of non-verbal, intuitive processes that begin in the body.
The Four E’s of Cognition
Embodied – The body
Historically the body has been viewed as unimportant to the understanding of the mind, even as an impediment to this understanding. Religious ideas of the body as something base, even sinister; with its many temptations being a barrier to salvation, have been common across many religions and philosophical thought for thousands of years. The French philosopher René Descartes was so suspect of any physical experiences, including that of his own body, he decided the only thing we could be sure of are our thoughts. For most of Western philosophical history the body has been something to be overcome, to be tamed by the mind, as though it were separate from the body.
Without the body we would be unable to think. The brain is our seat of conscious experience, however the vast majority of what the brain does and processes is occluded from our conscious awareness. The amount of information that our body takes in from our broader environment, is the input that the brain uses to conceptualise an understanding of the world and to ignite actions within it. Our appetites for food and sex, what draws our attention, our emotional responses, all of these take place from within the body via a complex network of sensory inputs, neurotransmitter chemicals and hormones, long before our rational mind interprets these experiences.
Our bodies then can be seen as the seat of intuition, of our understanding, whilst our mind is the centre of our intellect, of our knowing. A sense of understanding in this context is our visceral, non-verbal intuition of something that we have sensed, without applying a consciousness judgement of how this fits in with our existing knowledge. An example of this is a mother responding to her child’s cries in a specific way as she understands what the needs of the child are, without necessarily knowing what these needs are. Our sense of knowing then grows out of an initial understanding of the problem. After tending to the child, over time the mother develops a knowledge of what a particular cry entails and so develops more of a conscious response.
The opposite of this is the practice of a physical skill, something like playing the piano. At first, there is a requirement to consciously attend to each specific element of this skill, a sustained focus on which key represents what note, on how these keys combine to create a chord and how these chords create a tune. Over time as this skill is continually practiced, these actions become more natural, and with increasing proficiency the action of playing the piano becomes more and more devoid of conscious attention, in fact conscious attention may even disrupt the ‘flow’ of playing. At this point the skill of playing the piano has essentially become embodied, and it is as though the body is almost channelling the music that has been learned through conscious practice.
Embedded – The environment
The materialist view of the brain is that it must be explainable by the principles of nature. This view is extended by those proponents of embodied cognition, stating that cognition is embedded and shaped by the environment in which we grew up and live. In connection to the above point, our cognition is shaped by the natural environment we are faced with, and what the sensory input of our bodies gleans from this environment. An example of this is how the cognition of two people, one in Iceland and one in Thailand, are likely to be very different based on their experiences of navigating their environments. The skills required to be learnt, and therefore the ways of thinking that need to be utilised in order to develop these skills.
We are often able to remember more effectively by using our bodies and parts of our surrounding environment to ‘offload’ storage and simplify the processing required. Essentially we map our memories onto elements in the environment, with those elements serving to remind us of what we need to remember when we see them again. Simple examples of this relate to something that psychologists call context effects, which involved experiments relating to test performance of college students. These experiments showed that those who took the test in their regular, weekly lecture hall performed better than those who took the test in a new venue. It is believed that visual cues in the regular lecture hall provided memory cues for specific information that had been learned throughout the semester, aiding recall.
Essentially this is an example of the representation of knowledge in symbolic form. We imbue meaning onto parts of our environment, almost unconsciously, and this allows us to build sophisticated structures of references and understanding. Out of its context a clock in a lecture hall is just an object, however within the context of a lecture hall, during class, the clock may serve as a reminder to a student of a particular piece of information, jogging their memory.
Extended – The Social World
Our cognition does not develop in a vacuum, or a ‘black box’ as the arch priest of behavioural psychology, B.F.Skinner referred to the brain. Our cognition is shaped by the social environments we inhabit, in fact it is almost dependent on the social environment we exist within. The social environment and our cognition are reciprocal exchanges between us and the groups we are a part of. Our ways of thinking are shaped by family members, educational institutions, work, friends, sexual partners; sculpted by the millions of gestures, actions, words and emotions of the individuals we spend our time with.
The discovery of mirror neurons by Giacomo Rizzolatti and Laila Craighero in 2004 was a major breakthrough in neuroscience. This finding represented a paradigm shift for our understanding of cognition and in particular the understanding of the mechanisms for empathy, imitation and language. The paper showed that mirror neurons in the brain ‘fire’ in the same way for an observer of an action, as though the observer had performed the action themselves. This finding was empirical evidence for a statement by the French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty who stated, whilst talking about the reciprocal nature of communication, that “it is as if the other person’s intentions inhabited my body and mine his”.
The implication of this finding was that it showed how fundamental empathy is to our ability to learn and think via the imitation of others in our social environment. Something that is also critical for language development and production. Without empathy, we are unable to understand another person’s emotional state, meaning that we are unable to develop lasting social relationships. Without the ability to imitate than we would never have been able to learn from one another. A child learns to walk and talk not by thinking abstractly about the concept of language or movement, but by attempting to be like those they hear and see around them.
Enacted – Our actions
An interesting way of thinking about how our thinking is enacted and how action supports thinking is by understanding gestures when we talk. In multiple studies, gestures have been shown to aid in the recall of information, particularly detailed visual memory, or memory about particular locations. The way that gesture can aid in the recall of working memory then helps in the production of speech itself.
We think as much with our hands as we do with our minds. So often when we are stuck for a word, we gesticulate wildly with a hand, almost as though we were physically grasping for the word that escapes us. This notion of grasping is critical to understanding how action and thinking are symbiotically linked. The German’s have a word for all meaningful, goal-directed activity called Handeln, which relates to an individual acting in the world, but also refers to more abstract notions of mental thought. This word of course is derived from where we get the word hand from and relates to our ability to manipulate our environment, to acquire things, including acquiring concepts, which is why we say we have “grasped” something once we understand it.
Much of the purpose of our thinking is to put thoughts into action. One of the key benefits of cognitive behavioural therapy, still the dominant form of psychotherapy sanctioned by most Western health systems and governments, focuses on how your actions can shape your patterns of thought. Clinical depression is often preceded by a life event that leads to a period of withdrawal, isolation and inactivity, and the premise of behavioural therapy is that new ways of thinking can be ‘enacted’ by changing patterns of behaviour. These patterns of behaviour, remove the individual from their isolation, exposing them to activities that bring enjoyment and connection with other people. This activity removes the self-directed gaze of rumination, bringing us back into embodied movement and an extension beyond ourselves back into the social and outside world. The feedback from these actions are what allows us to update our mental representations of what we understand to be the world and how the world works, whilst also enabling us to develop patterns of thinking that emanate from these new frames of reference.
Bringing it all together
The brain is not a black box pulling the levers on the rest of the body. The brain is the conductor of an orchestra, a body of instruments whose reverberations are influenced by the actions within the environment around them. The brain is our seat of conscious experience and where all our high level reasoning and abstraction takes place, however these mental parts of us that we rightly celebrate do not take place in a vacuum. Our ability to reason is critically dependent on the intuitive, unconscious and non-verbal understanding that comes from the body and its entanglement with the wider world. We appear to often have an intuitive understanding of something long before we develop conscious knowledge and it is critical to remember that this knowledge is built on this foundation of unconscious processes. A hyper-rational way of thinking that ignores intuition is a half-blind way of looking at the world, one that only values abstractions over the importance of context. The embodied cognition movement has major implications for how we view the world and is a promising avenue for developing a more holistic understanding of the mind, an understanding that is built from the body.
“This was the point, that I blindly believed then that through some miracle, some external circumstance, all this would suddenly extend, expand; suddenly a horizon of appropriate activity would present itself, beneficent, beautiful, and, above all, quite ready made, and thus I would suddenly step forth under God’s heaven all but on a white horse and wreathed in laurels. A secondary role was incomprehensible to me… Either hero or mud, there was no in between. And that is what ruined me, because in the mud I comforted myself with being a hero.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground
The Russian Novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) is widely viewed as one of the greatest writers of all time and one of the greatest psychologists in world literature. His novels, including Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov and Notes from Underground deeply explore themes of psychology, philosophy, religion, literature and family, shining a light into the darkest depths of the human heart, whilst also gazing up in awe at our capability, despite everything, for transcendence through our love for each other. For Dostoevsky the good life was a kind of embodied, reciprocal exchange, with this reciprocity between self and other, being the foundation for grasping any kind of truth or understanding.
The passage above refers to a sense of superiority. A retreat into grandiose and delusional fantasy, a fantasy whose carriage is a warped kind of rationalism. A vision in a vacuum, dissolving on contact with reality and experience. The anti-hero of the novel holds a preference for the perfect conception of himself, over a potentially stained one in reality. A fixed conception that results in a fear of life and so a retreat from it. A burrowing into a solitary invention, one in which he is the hero, or will soon be. The abyss between his flawed self-conception and the inconvenience of reality, is filled with a despairing envy and hatred of those he encounters, as they represent a hammer to the mirror of his intellectual invention. Unwilling to let go and accept the contradictions and hypocrisies that are involved in living, this individual festers like a bad seed, his potential growth cut off by an unwillingness to expose himself to the fertiliser of experience.
The narrator of Notes from Underground is a disheveled, shambolic, and completely isolated individual, who views himself as a kind of messiah, someone who, if only the right moment would present itself, would be able to demonstrate his genius. Of course there is no such moment, and the narrator’s fixed, warped notion of himself, leads to a belief that the world should present itself to him “beneficent, beautiful, and, above all, quite ready made”, rather than presenting himself to the world in all the messy reality that entails.
For Dostoevsky, so much of his writing dealt with the dangers of pride and the limits of rationalism. Whether it is Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, calculating the personal and moral necessity of the murder of his landlord, the cold and calculating Ivan in The Brother’s Karamazov, or his unnamed anti-hero in Notes From Underground, a detached, cold and prideful way of thinking that carved the world up into fragments and calculated each step out of context with the reality, was persistently shown by Dostoevsky as being a pernicious and ultimately disastrous way to live. Richard Pevear in the foreword to his translation of Notes From Underground reflects on Dostoevsky’s writing as a whole that;
“The one quality his negative characters share…is inner fixity, a sort of death-in-life…. Inner movement, on the other hand, is always a condition of spiritual good, though it may also be a source of suffering, division, disharmony in this life. What moves may also rise.”
Pevear refers to ‘inner fixity’ like a kind of narrow mindedness, or blindness, resulting in a spiritual ‘death-in-life’ or the death of potential. In these books we live in the minds of his characters and are shown, through their examples, the catastrophe’s that await us when we let narcissistic pride prevent us from connecting with others. Dostoevsky was very sceptical that we would be able to think our way to a better world and was vehemently against the utopian ideals of the day, including both capitalism and socialism. In The Brothers Karamazov, he captured the utopian thinking of socialism at that time, saying that the socialists wished, “…not to go from earth to heaven, but to bring heaven down to earth”, prophesying that this would lead to disaster. Referring to capitalism, consumerism and the increasing isolation he believed this was causing he said;
“For he is accustomed to relying only on himself, he has separated his unit from the whole, he has accustomed his soul to not believing in peoples help, in people or in mankind, and now only trembles, lest his money and his acquired privileges perish.”
These warnings relate to how the development and over reliance on a kind of wobbly rationalism, stripped from history and context, with a blank slate, a year zero, the projection of a new kind of reality ‘free’ from the constraints of the past would ultimately lead to further division and death. This solitary focus on our own idea of the world, or of our blinkered, solo pursuit of material possessions ultimately would isolate us, disconnecting us from each other and life. Redemption for Dostoevsky’s characters came through an authentic, even vulnerable embrace of life, a dialectical exchange where a kind of embodied (not just intellectual) truth is mutually constituted by the interaction between self and other.
What does Dostoevsky have to do with a growth mindset? Well, Carol Dweck, a Stanford Psychologist, renowned for her work into “mindset”, motivation and how people succeed defined a growth mindset as a belief that our capacity is not fixed and that we can develop our abilities and skills over time. Dweck showed in her research that our fixed conceptions of ourselves had to be constantly updated and transformed by the growth that comes from experience and the insights it yields.
Some of her most impactful research, which investigated praise and its impact on motivation amongst fifth-grade students, showed that those praised for effort started to value learning opportunities, whilst those praised for intelligence were more interested in demonstrating their existing ability rather than stretching to improve. Dweck showed that the reinforcement of an existing way of thinking or viewing your own abilities as fixed can have a detrimental effect over time, leading to stagnation, frustration and a loss of potential.
Growth often involves stretching beyond your existing potential, which often means discomfort and effort. But as Dweck mentions in a revisiting of her initial publication, effort without actual learning is pointless. It is not simply about encouraging effort or resilience but also the encouragement of developing a personal insight into what works, a repertoire of techniques and strategies to learn and grow. In other words, a willingness to fail, which gives you the opportunity to update your understanding of what works by testing your concepts against reality and using this insight to transform skills and understanding. A fear of failure can often lead to the restriction of experience and develop into a kind of perfectionism that over time, if coupled with a fixed-mindset can become restrictive. Dweck, herself a recovering perfectionist, stated in a talk at The School of Life a number of years ago that, “I had to start shrinking my world in order to maintain [perfection].”
The shrinking of the world to match the conception you hold of yourself, as opposed to transforming your conceptions to match the world, would have been a thread of thought that Dostoevsky would have admonished. What is interesting about Dweck’s personal insight along with her extensive research is how it shows that in order to even maintain our abilities we need to keep challenging ourselves and pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone. A fear of looking foolish or ridiculous, leads to a retreat from experience and a constriction of action. A true growth mindset appears to involve a willingness of being the fool before becoming the master.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“My view of Hong Kong is that it is a spectacular place on the surface, full of fun and excitement; but when you look at the city more closely all you see is an edifice, a facade constructed on a shifting sand of money, corruption and exploitation. Increasingly I look around me when I am out at night in the ‘expat part’ of Hong Kong and am repulsed by the unthinking swilling, gorging and cackling of the people around me, and of course by my own participation in this. It feels to me like we are in the middle of a decadent party, inside an enormous mansion, whilst the city outside is burning to the ground.”
I wrote these words at the end of May of this year, just as the first mass protests had begun and a month before I left the city. The decision for my wife and I leaving was made weeks before the outbreak of the protests, however the synchronistic nature of our leaving and the protests commencing is still something that I think about each day. Whilst our decision to leave Hong Kong was independent of the protests that began to take place, they were related to some of the issues that the protesters are citing, although related from a completely different perspective.
The increasing “Mainlandisation” of Hong Kong was narrowing the options available to my wife and I, making it fairly clear that our professional future in Hong Kong, if we had stayed, would have been a fairly constrained one. One of the other difficulties was the social tension within the office and in the city as a whole which we could clearly feel soon after we had arrived. This tension and the deterioration of social harmony in the office I was a part of steadily became worse as time went on and was almost unbearable by the time we left in May 2019. This tension finally found it’s release when the government tried to force through it’s extradition law and the initial unrest against this has now morphed into a demand for self-determination, anger against deteriorating social conditions represented by inaccessibility to decent housing, schooling free from mainland influence and declining economic prospects for those outside of the international educated elite.
Exploitation has been the modus operandi of Hong Kong since the British turned the barren island of fishing villages into a fortress of trade to interface with China. An exploitation that began with the British, has been perpetuated by the tycoons that now act as lords in a modern feudal enterprise. These tycoons, who have been blessed by the mainland Chinese Government to continue with their oligopolies have been conspicuously silent in their response to the protests, wary of upsetting Beijing or the Hong Kong citizens that they rely on to keep their money wheels turning.
It is no wonder that all Hong Kong needed for this pressure to finally release was a spark, and in the end the hapless government would be the one to light it. The people of Hong Kong have seen the light of what a society based if not on western values than at least on western principles of free speech and separation of government powers can be, and they won’t be pulled into the abyss of an authoritarian system whose legitimacy is held up by the increasing wealth and material freedom of its citizens. How this ends is anyone’s guess, however the comparisons to the various suppressions of the Soviet Union and mainland China are probably inaccurate. Beijing’s hands are tied for multiple reasons; firstly, the risk of using force could actually re-ignite and fan the flames of a previously flickering pro-independence movement. Secondly, the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act, which treats Hong Kong as a separate trading entity from the mainland is an enormous stick that the US is able to wield in the event of any escalation of China’s response. Thirdly, Beijing will not be able to ‘disappear’ the relevant agitators like they did after Tiananmen Square given the nature of relative openness of Hong Kong society in comparison to the mainland in 1989 as well as the fact that the Hong Kong legal system, despite its flaws, is not an extension of the Chinese Communist Party.
I am hoping for a peaceful end to the protests and the concession of the government to the protesters demands for more self-determination and greater access to adequate housing and economic opportunities. Hong Kong was and always will be a part of China, however as demonstrated by the protests over the last three months, once people have been given a taste of freedom, they fight tooth and nail to maintain it, something that is likely to become more and more prevalent as the year 2047 looms closer on the horizon. For the protesters, who despite the limited prospect of success are risking life, limb and future prospects by bravely demonstrating their opposition to the direction Hong Kong is going in I wish godspeed and hope they can manifest their own philosophy of this “Water Revolution” by being “strong like ice, fluid like water, to gather like dew and disperse like mist.”
This process of the good life is not, I am convinced, a life for the faint-hearted. It involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one’s potentialities. It involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life.
Bounded. Meaning requires us to have some sort of boundary or bond in order that we can wrestle and fight against them. In lieu of a deeper meaning in life the bondage of duty ties us to a purpose that suppresses the devil’s of our darker nature. This bondage attracts and focuses the minds attention, quieting that incessant voice that is so fixated on sabotaging noble plans made in faith. The bounding of time allows us to enjoy the free time that we do have for ourselves. Remove the bondage of our time and we wander aimlessly through the desert of our thoughts. Removing our bonds we escape the tyranny of drudgery only to find ourselves lost in freedom. In our dreary doing we can rail against the yoke of our necessity, whilst dreaming of a utopia of creativity and autonomy. We can feel righteous in our rejection of the herd, rejection of bondage, walking off with our head held high into the gloriously imagined future, free to craft a life that doesn’t require us to give up our dignity. As soon as we are confronted with this wide expanse of time we find that instead of relishing the innumerable possibilities, we are paralysed by them and those brightly lit uplands of our imagined future begin to be obscured by the brewing storm of our flailing ego.
The only cure for this to to struggle against the ego that wishes for the path of least resistance, for expediency! To remember there is a reason why so few people break from the herd, namely because it carries risk and difficulty, the difficulty that comes with fighting the devil in your mind, the devil that always takes the opposing view to any notions you might have of carving your own path, of truly living. Our inability to consciously live without distracting ourselves with soul sapping work and mindless amusements is a learned habit of existence that becomes very difficult to break. There is a comfort in giving up our agency and following the herd as it occupies our minds and absolves us of the need to take conscious action in our own lives, something which is a precarious and perennial balancing act. After years of conditioning from a school and employment system that is still predominantly based on the industrial revolution, it is no wonder that it is so difficult for people to live with true intention, despite all the modern conveniences that theoretically allow us to do so. To be able to create an independent, sustainable identity that is strong enough to withstand the buffeting winds of societal expectation and egotistical self-sabotage, to live a life of meaning and integrated truth, to be your own person, not anybody else’s, is the ultimate acheivement.