Problems

Attention and mindfulness in facing them

Life is mostly an endless series of problems to solve. Easy, insurmountable, hard, chronic, unsolved and complex are a few quotidian adjectives attached to them. Problems are, by their very nature, impartial, impersonal and affect every creature. They predate and may very well outlive humanity. “Problem” is also a human construct, a noise we make. We cast them into an arbitrary mold in defining them.

Final Problem

The gaming industry has in its clutches the attention of a quarter of the world’s population. Can you imagine an incredibly boring level in a video game with no problem to solve? That sounds ridiculous. It simply cannot be their modus operandi to make hundreds of billions in annual revenue; to captivate, engage, and retain an audience.

Whether the problems at various levels of a game are concocted or mimic real-life is beside the point. Should the game of existence we call life be any different?

… In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
There’s a land that’s fair and bright,
Where the handouts grow on bushes
And you sleep out every night
Where the boxcars all are empty
And the sun shines every day
On the birds and the bees
And the cigarette trees
The lemonade springs
Where the bluebird sings
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains …

Song by Harry McClintock

The Lure

More often than not, the mind is captured by irrational thought that there should be no more problems. Expectations set automatically in defining how life should be. It should be nothing but rosy. If not rosy, comfortable. Things are set in motion to achieve that express outcome by some combination of the self-propelling, motivation from family and friends, and the society at large.

  • If only I can make a few dollars more, …
  • Once we get past this complication, this predicament …
  • If we somehow survive this pandemic …

Tacit is the assumption that once we overcome those, we will avoid all future ones. Turn the corner, and things will improve. Improve, they must. Right?

Improve, they might. There are no guarantees, but there is always the lure; a carrot dangled perhaps by evolutionary selection to make us get off our behinds. I wonder if our brains have conjured up this trick to shore up, conserve resources, and focus on solving the problems that demand our immediate attention. Most need not believe in a Shangri-la from here on, but to some, belief in it’s existence can make them delusional.

But we ought to know better. When does life magically cease to dole out new problems? The question is rhetorical. But a surprising answer lurks.

Attitude

Problems can cause tremendous suffering if we let them. Our minds may be delusional when we not mindful of their nature. We are confounded and stymied. Sometimes they inspire us, even spur us into taking action. At other times, wallow in self-doubt, self-pity, and defeat. Bask in the glory of their conquest, their aftermath. Or in self-deceit, complacent in our abilities to tackle them. They generate a broad spectrum of emotions that are consequential to our psychological well being.

It’s not that problems by themselves possess these superpowers. It is our attitude and disposition in encountering them that confers them such superpowers. We need adjustment in our mindset.

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Google Image Search for “Gordian Knot”. Credits to unknown image source.

Gordian Knot

Legend has it that Alexander the Great, confronted with the challenge of untying the Gordian Knot, struggled unsuccessfully to disentangle it. The declaration of an oracle was this person was destined to rule all of Asia. Nevertheless, he found a novel solution. He sliced it with his sword since no restrictions existed on unraveling it.

Unfortunately, not all Gordian knots of life can be solved. Insurmountable or intractable problems exist. Terminal cancer diagnosis, natural disasters, injustice, oppression, being born into chaos in a failed state, trafficked, and other hellscape of horrors humanity often finds itself in.

The hyperbolic discounting of longer time horizon problems such as climate crisis or super-intelligent overlords taking over humanity are baffling conundrums.

Insight

A problem is the manifestation of the constant state of flux of all underlying phenomena. What must our attitude be in recognizing them as such and dealing with them?

If one is brooding, lost in discursive thought over the enormity of their situation or an emergency, whatever it may be, breaking that spell requires mindfulness to come online. It can come to rescue, free one from bondage and help to take stock of the situation.

Once the spell is broken the following conceptual framing can help.

It is impossible to get rid of all problems and simultaneously avoid new ones from arising. No living person has managed that. We must, therefore, give up that irrational notion. Both conceptually, that it is possible and psychologically, in our expectation. What then, is the recourse? We must learn to get comfortable with them, accept and embrace them as our friends for life. This attitude adjustment can bring equanimity amid their presence.

Insurmountable personal or societal problems are tricky. Blunting the dart of suffering by being compassionate can help alleviate suffering. Intractable problems, upon gaining traction can become doorways to self-discovery. Or the discovery of new(er) laws of nature. They often require deeper insights. History may bring forth brave souls that may help us overcome. In doing so, uncover deeper, much richer fabric of reality or human flourishing.

Wisdom

After all, the moment we overcome all our problems is a moment after our passing. Any belief in paradise, a Shangri-La, is precisely that — a belief we harbor when we are still alive, meeting new problems. Problems never stop appearing. We stop short.

Bring a problem-free person. And I will show you a corpse.

©️ Venkat Kaushik 2020. All Rights Reserved.

Written by

Physicist | Mindfulness | Poetic Naturalist | Philosophy, Science & Tech, Culture, Humanism | vimuktimarga.org | @higgsmass

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