Saturday, February 1, 2014

Zen and the Pointless Pursuit of Dopamine

Rats in a Corporate Controlled Maze, Seeking the Next Ball of Cheese

"Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun.
Now there's a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky.
Shine on you crazy diamond"
-Pink Floyd

The good news is that happiness via external gratification, can be pursued indefinitely, it can even be attained. The bad news is that it can in no way be sustained. By definition, it's a moving target. Yet, even at this late juncture in modern civilization, there is still literally no universal acknowledgement that the pursuit of happiness via the de facto consumption-oriented lifestyle, is totally futile, pointless, empty (and of course doomed).

The Founding Fathers were intelligent enough to prescribe the "pursuit of happiness", because they obviously knew that anyone who seeks happiness via career aspiration will never attain and sustain it. It's a moving target. It's a known fact that people who make $50k per year say they will be happy when they make $100k per year, those people in turn say they need $200k per year etc. etc.

Worse yet, happiness in our externally gratified society indicates contentment. Contentment indicates a state of fulfillment aka. capitulation aka. laziness. "What happened to you man, you used to be ambitious?".

The other eternally gratified definition of happiness is the exact opposite. It's not attainment, it's striving. Striving implies not having. Having implies wanting. Wanting requires a constant state of dissatisfaction i.e. the exact opposite of true happiness. 

Both of the above mutually exclusive forms of externally gratified "happiness" are totally elusive.

If you look around you right now and think of the people you know, who are truly "happy", you will invariably identify someone who is easy-going, amiable and/or generally satisfied with their lot in life. These people can look you straight in the eye and have a down to earth conversation rather than turning it into a broadcast monologue about the latest "thing", sporting event, or Kardashian episode. They're not afraid to ask questions and even wait for you to give an answer. They can sit still that long. 

Unfortunately, in this society, most people who say they are happy are in fact addicted to dopamine in some way shape or form. That addiction may be food, money, sports, television, booze, cigarettes, drugs, shopping, texting/Facebook, risky sex or all of the above.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Who We Are Now
Most people need some sort of addiction buffer so that they don't have to face the raw truth of the moment. They can't accept who they are now in the moment, and need "something" to dull the sensation. Our junk culture coming through our televisions from earliest childhood has programmed us to be something that we are not: A millionaire, a movie star, a pro athlete, a rock star etc. We are programmed to be dissatisfied with the status quo, from birth. Wanting, buying, getting, owning, going, seeing, eating, doing - but, at all costs, never just being. There is no profit in people just being.

Aside from destroying the planet...
The consumption oriented lifestyle is inherently pointless and futile. It's predicated upon dopamine flow which is invariably "temperamental" i.e. it has a diminishing marginal utility that is not just perceived, it's actually chemically based. This is all just commonsense of course, but here is what the literature states about dopamine-seeking:

"if you overindulge in the reward in question, for instance, less dopamine might be released when you obtain it: it's as if the body has subconsciously learnt that the prize is a dead certainty, and there’s no need for biochemical meddling to promote reward-seeking behavior. There’s evidence this might happen to rats and humans when they eat too many high-calorie foods."

"Dopamine actually flows much more readily when the rewards are intermittent"

Clearly intermittent small pleasures are still a very important part of an enjoyable life. However, when taken to the logical extreme, dopamine-tolerance requires ever-more consumption just to receive the same "hit", which is the point that many people have reached in their consumption-oriented "striving". Maxed out. 

Addicted to the Status Quo
Yet for all of this obvious and even well-known knowledge on the subject, the Borg-at-large in no way questions the status quo and its inherent vital addiction - the pointlessness, and the resulting emptiness of it all. The pursuit of external gratification is manufacturing people who are emotionally empty. However, the masses don't question it, because they are fundamentally addicted.   

Zen is the opposite of goal-oriented happiness
I will start by saying that I am by no means an expert on Zen philosophy. I still find the philosophical side to be very nebulous and mystical. However, I started meditating daily 8 years ago because for me it's not a philosophy, it's a physiological imperative. It's quieting the mind by replacing Beta Waves with Alpha Waves. Since I started meditating, my appetite for external gratification has declined in a straight line down. Over time, the deeper I am able to achieve mindful Zen, the less I seek external gratification. For those interested in the subject of meditation's physiological effects, I highly recommend the classic book: "The Relaxation Response"

Zen is Feeling the Moment, it's the Ultimate High
When Zen is at its best, one can truly feel like a kid again, because kids live in the moment - not in the past and not in the future. They see things as they are, in vivid colour. They don't so much see, as they feel - Zen is about feeling the moment.

Zen is the future of humanity. The Eastern cultures already know this, and I suspect that most ancient cultures were in a state of Zen constantly as they went about their daily routine.

Best Buy and McDonald's are the doomed past. 

The Idiocracy is dopamine-tolerant indeed...
the ultimate effects will be felt far and wide...