Exploring the liminal between the art of being, living & thinking
Renee Chen · 小雨
Renee Chen · 小雨
Exploring the liminal between the art of being, living & thinking
Renee Chen · 小雨
Exploring the liminal between the art of being, living & thinking
Many things have aligned in my life in the past several years to bring me to this particular post. The most important of which is a merging of ideas from experiences I’ve had, conversations I’ve been a part of, books and articles I’ve consumed and careers I’ve chosen.
All of which at some point seemed totally unrelated to each other, a splatter of paint here and a splotch of paint there. And much like the initial stages of a piece of art, it was hard to imagine how all these random blobs of paint are meant to come together to create a cohesive masterpiece.
Not that I am close to signing off on this piece of art we call life (I think this might be one masterpiece best left unfinished), but for the first time, perhaps ever, I’m beginning to see what each speck of paint is and how it might contribute to the whole. I’m beginning to see how these once random, chaotic splatters and splotches fit together, and how they are foundational, fundamental to the progress of the painting. These initial “sketches” will inform all that comes thereafter.
This is the closest I’ve come to shaping and formulating guiding principles for what a fulfilling life means to me and how to approach it moving forward.
Below is a first stab at these life “philosophies,” of which there are eight. They encompass all that is most important to me. They are meant to be an outline for how to live and deal day-to-day, where and how I spend my time, with whom, my relation to others and the world around me and why I choose to do things a certain way. They are an outline waiting to be coated in all of the different paints, colors and flavors of life and existence.
For several years, I’d evaluate my values biannually and question what life and living meant to me. Much like how if someone is near-or-far-sighted, their eyes, in time, will come to settle at a certain prescription, my values eventually did, too. They’ve hardly changed in 5+ years but how they were reflected in my actions, choices, speech, etc. have, and that’s when I started to think about them more deeply.
Values are great, they help clarify what is most important, but unless they are written out in a specific, actionable, operational way, they’re kind of useless.
Freedom, connection, compassion, growth, creativity are all wonderful words, but these words carry so much meaning, too much meaning — meaning that differs from person to person, organization to organization — they mean nothing to me and my life unless I consider them within the context of me and my life.
And that’s when I came upon the word “principles,” a wondrous complement to “values.” There seems to be some debate on the interweb about which acts as the foundation for the other. I don’t think it really matters. The two are synergistic, and while I leveraged my values to come up with the below eight principles, these principles have come to feel like my fundamental life truths, lenses through which to speculate all future beliefs, behaviors and reasoning.
1. Seek freedom in commitment
Freedom as a concept is overrated, much like free will. Freedom, when misused or misapplied, often sacrifices long-term satisfaction for short-term pleasures.
Commitment, on the other hand, is underrated, more and more so in our time and society.
What we neglect to see is how much freedom, power and beauty exists in virtuous commitment. Because there is no such thing as pure, unequivocal freedom in the world and society we’ve built for ourselves, freedom must come from within. It means to be aware of our unique human desire to avoid suffering and pain, and to seek pleasure. To seek freedom in commitment means to live and act in accordance to that awareness — to think, speak and act from a place of understanding and equanimity.
When we are aware of and live in the freedom we possess within, it cannot be taken away or challenged by the external world. Instead, it allows us to approach the “limitations” or “commitments” of the outside world with abundance — with an open mind and an open heart.
Take for example, the decision to commit to a single person, if the two individuals are virtuous in their agreement to be monogamous, then there will be a revelation of the sheer amount of freedom (perhaps of time, energy, etc.) one actually comes to possess in such a commitment. One may need to sacrifice sexual exploration or emotional connection with a stranger, but what opens up instead is a whole new world of possibilities and freedoms that could only be experienced from the safety and comfort of a healthy, monogamous relationship.
Much like a diver at sea, knowing there is a boat he can return to above water allows the diver to explore more freely, to release fear and tension and enjoy the freedom he has in that moment. Without a boat for him to return to, he is held captive by primal instincts, by an overpowering desire to survive and he, unknowingly, confines himself to a finite world of possibilities.
Every single moment, we prioritize and decide what to give, what to take, what to compromise, sacrifice, obtain. For each thing, person, ideology or belief we give ourselves to, a door (or several) may close, but a new world of possibilities and exploration also opens. It is in these choices and new worlds where we must seek and capitalize on the freedom we have, to approach that freedom from a place of genuine curiosity, abundance and gratitude.
2. Expansion trumps growth
Do not mistake optimization for progress. Do not mistake progress for growth. Do not mistake growth for expansion. Do not grow for the sake of growing. Do not expand for the sake of expanding.
Where growth implies forward or upward mobility, expansion has no direction. Where growth is linear, expansion has no shape. It is all encompassing. Where growth is two-dimensional, expansion knows no bounds. It is always shifting and infinite; there is no end point or final destination. Where growth focuses on a singular part, feature, element, department or characteristic, expansion is holistic. Where growth is reductive, expansion is emergent. Where growth is limited to consumption of data, information, knowledge or intellectual understanding, expansion encompasses all of those in addition to wisdom gained from experience — it is knowledge strengthened and bolstered by felt experience.
We are responsible for our own expansion — it does not happen blindly but with great introspection, deliberation and discipline. An isolated, life-changing event may lead to a paradigm shift in perspective, a line from a book may inspire a new path, a stranger may trigger an unexplored emotion, but expansion only occurs when we, as a whole and complete system, embrace the entire experience, letting it permeate through every nook and cranny of our being — soul, heart, gut, body, mind, consciousness.
An expansive learning experience doesn’t just change how we eat, sleep, think, read, create or relate to another, it changes who we are, on a fundamental and visceral level.
Whomever it is, whatever, whenever, however, and wherever it comes, we remain open, aware and receptive of all potential opportunities, teachings and learnings.
3. Connect with compassion
To connect with someone is to communicate with and/or to simply sit or be with another. Communication involves body language, eye contact, facial expressions, listening and speaking.
To connect with compassion means to offer another a blank canvas, and allow them to paint it however they need or wish to in that moment. It means to be with them, to watch and observe them as they bring brush to canvas, not anticipating their next stroke or attempting to guess what it is they’re trying to present. There’s no need to evaluate what it is they’re putting on that canvas, or how to respond to it.
It means to put aside preconceived notions, stereotypes, assumptions, projections, so we can hold space for them to express themselves without inhibition. It means to notice our own body language, facial expressions, thoughts and to graciously, with equanimity, bring our attention back to their canvas whenever we catch ourselves floating away. It means seeing rather than perceiving. It means listening rather than hearing. It means inhaling rather than smelling. It means responding rather than reacting.
It’s fine to take a pause of silence once they’re done filling their canvas, if that’s what it takes to give them a thoughtful, considered response. It means to approach all people, situations and stories from a place of non-judgement and openness.
We recognize the lack of free will in our lives, choices, how everything we decide, do, say and think comes from a causal relationship involving our genetic dispositions, our upbringing, environment, education, interactions, etc.. This foundational truth underpins all beings (not just humans), and awareness of it is where compassion breeds. We are, as Sam Harris says, the totality of what brought us here.
Our behavior at any given point in time is the result of cumulative experiences and societal conditioning, whether in the direction of good or evil. To operate under this belief means to be kind, to be patient, to be grateful, to be aware of initial reactions and to bypass those reactions with considered responses. It means to search for love, to search for the light within and to offer positive energy into the universe, rather than fear or darkness.
4. Be abundant
There is more than enough time, space, love, energy, you, to go around multiple lifetimes. To live in scarcity is to live in fear, anxiety, darkness. It blocks us from reaching our full potential. To live in abundance is to live in love, possibility, light. It opens up new pathways that cannot otherwise exist.
On a macro level, abundance spans space, time, consciousness; on a micro level, it covers finances, food, things, health, thoughts, feelings, relationships, so on and so forth. To truly be(come) abundant takes effort and time — it may be easier to first adopt an intellectual understanding of the concept, to first and foremost, develop an “abundance mindset,” to give more than we take, to become aware of all of the times we feel, think or behave otherwise and to be gracious to ourselves when this occurs. It means taking a slow, gentle shift towards be(ing) abundant by asking ourselves the question, “What would this moment, this relationship, this conversation, this (blank) look like if I were acting out of a place of abundance?”
To be abundant means a full, unadulterated awareness of completion, compassion and love for all, including our selves.
5. With good intentions, repeatedly create
Per Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
Whoever said intentions matter is correct, but intentions aren’t worth a damn if they don’t lead to action. Actions are the tangible, measurable manifestations of freedom, energy, expansion, compassion, abundance. They are the measure of a life (well-)lived.
To create is to channel something abstract, intangible and invisible into a physical manifestation, via action. It is to transform one’s freedom, one’s light and love (or darkness and fear), one’s abundance and energy into something that can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, felt — into life, into art.
It is our role and responsibility as beings to create — to transfer and transform our energies into something new — and to do so over and over again. This may look different for each and everyone of us, but we do not live passively.
We create life, we create meaning, we create conversation, we create connection, we create music, we create art, we create business. But we do so with purity and goodness in our intentions — it extends into every action taken, every word expressed, every thought thought (eventually).
Intentions are different than motivations. Intentions are pure and selfless in nature, whereas motivations are often outward-seeking and ego-ic. That which is produced from good intentions serve all, whereas that which is produced by motivation too often serve only our selves.
On life and connection, we create it out of unconditional love rather than necessity. On music, art and the spoken word, we create it to energize and give, rather than to drain or take; (on the spoken word, the beneficial truth is given when silence is not an option, and when in doubt, choose fewer, carefully considered words rather than more, unconsidered words.) On business, we create a company or organization to serve all rather than our selves or a select few.
“With good intentions” means our creations are expended into the universe not to serve our selves, but to expand consciousness, compassion and the betterment of humanity, whether on a micro-or-macro scale. Any and all creations, whether of a life, a conversation, a blog post, an album, a website or an Instagram story, possesses purity in purpose.
6. Good enough is good enough
Too often, we find ourselves paralyzed by an ideal, an idea of perfection, so much so we can’t and don’t know where to start. Or we give up too soon when we realize we’ve strayed so far from the “perfect” or “ideal” we’d envisioned. Even if perfection were to exist, one could never reach it without taking that first step, without trying and failing and trying and failing.
We live in a time (and place) where there is too much choice in everything — from brands, restaurants, friends, romantic partners, cities to live in, career paths. We are optimized for optionality, and this may very well be one of the greatest inhibitors and evils of our time. It inhibits us from taking action, from taking that first step, and when we do work up enough courage to take those initial steps, we give up far too soon and switch to a different business or industry, move to another city, find a new romantic partner, book, so on and so forth.
We deprive ourselves of the freedoms and abundance that come from a commitment to one idea, one company, one person.
“Good enough is good enough” means an awareness and recognition of the un-necessity and limitations of perfection. It means having a bias towards action — to ship, publish, exhibit, launch, share when a creation is good enough. It means to find satisfaction and fulfillment in good enough. It means to evolve and expand with our actions and creations rather than shutting it down because it didn’t meet our initial expectations or ideals.
“Perfection” is finite, it has an end point. “Good enough” does not; it is infinite.
We live in the possibility of infinite evolution, expansion and good enough’s.
7. Life is a series of self-&-course corrections
An awareness of our tendency towards self-and-course (over)correction may lessen the extreme and often exaggerated back-and-forth swing in the pendulum of life. However, this is not to say we should strive to “live in moderation.” While the maxim possesses some truth, it fails to acknowledge the element of taking risks and the necessity of acting and creating with conviction if you believe in something.
We ought to be selective of what we do in moderation and what we choose to wholeheartedly and unabashedly pursue, commit to or invest in. Though some may consider our actions or creations extreme or unbalanced or crazy, it is only when we give ourselves wholly to something that we may elevate, expand, evolve and become something that cannot unfold under the safety net and comfort of “moderation.”
Perhaps the better approach is Oscar Wilde’s — “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
Knowing our lives is a series of corrections takes the pressure off of getting it “right,” especially when there is no “right” to begin with. That said, as humans, we often have a tendency to overcorrect when we’ve grown accustomed to a certain way of living, eating, breathing, working or loving. Something happens — a trigger of sorts — causing us to reexamine and reevaluate our lives, and too often, our pendulum swings too far in the opposite direction. We flip a full 180-degrees from the life we once had to a “new” life bearing little to no similarities to our previous one. After some time, we might find this “new” life unsustainable, as fun as it may have been, and the pendulum swing begins to contract, ebbing and floating somewhere closer to the middle.
Awareness of such a pattern is to be conscious of the decisions and choices we make in any given moment, to get ahead of impulsive and reactionary behavior, so we can self-or-course correct as a response rather than a reaction.
8. Embrace evolution & embody philosophy
We, as humans, with our minds, bodies, consciousness, are meaning-making machines. This is both a blessing and a curse. As Carl Sagan once said, “We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself,” what a fucking feat and honor that is!
We are here to create, why else have this body? We are here to create meaning, why else have this mind, our emotions, consciousness?
To embrace evolution is to embrace our bodies, to understand the fundamental wirings, networks and systems of why we are the way we are, why we feel the way we feel, why we think the thoughts we think. It means to become aware of and understand our primal nature, our humanity, how it interacts with the world we’ve created, so that we may learn to accept our selves as we are, appreciate our selves for what we are, and perhaps one day, transcend our selves. To understand our humanity through the lens of evolution is illuminating, clarifying and empowering.
To embody philosophy is to live in it, to create with it, to be it. We are, at present, the only species in the universe who can contemplate our own existence and what it means. What an incredible, beautiful question to ask even if there is no sufficient answer! Perhaps the beauty is precisely in there not being an answer.
Let philosophy underpin everything we do — it is what gives life, us, our actions and creations meaning.
What do the most notable and noteworthy creations have in common? How and why have they transcended space and time to move and touch generation after generation? They are buttressed by a grand philosophical question, idea or concept. From the Taj Mahal to da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” to Dali’s “Persistence of Memory,” from Beethoven’s 5th to The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” from Thoreau’s Walden to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and other such magnificent masterpieces, each creation asks a question or tells a story of the human condition, the potentiality of man, the mysteries of the universe.
So, let’s ask the big questions in all that we are, do and create. Let’s embody philosophy in our whole being — because what matters most is not having the answers, but asking the questions
While there is no “undo” or “eraser” tool in life, we do have the power to change our principles, beliefs, behaviors, selves. To come full circle with the painting metaphor from earlier, if you fuck up or decide you don’t like what you just created, you can always paint over it, and that, is what creates depth. Everyone’s blobs of paint (or “principles”) will look different—these eight are my mine, and with time, they’ll come together to frame a more complete picture of my life.
One of my favorite quotes from Steve Jobs goes like this:
You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
I haven’t a clue what the picture of my life will look like years from now. What I do know, is not long ago, all my canvas consisted of were a million, random specks. In the past couple of years, these random specks have slowly coalesced to form shapes and blobs. I don’t need to know how these shapes and blobs will come together to produce a picture, just that they will, and this, for me, is more than enough.