masturbated life (issue 7)

This is The Ordinary, my attempt to notice the unexpected joy, value, and rigor of ordinary things. New subscribers, welcome!

What you can expect from me (almost) every Friday:

  1. A very ordinary quote

  2. A roundup of very ordinary reads

  3. A brief and very ordinary note

  4. A very ordinary visual

- Ammar


An Ordinary Quote:

“The first rule is: Face reality. Good survivors aren’t immune to fear. They know what’s happening, and it does ‘scare the living shit out of’ them. It’s all a question of what you do next.”

Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales

Some Ordinary Reads:

“If You’re Busy, You’re Doing Something Wrong” (blog): Professor Cal Newport reviewed the research and discovered that elite performers have a much more relaxed approach to their craft. The difference: time spent in hard work versus hard-to-do work.

“You and Your Research” (paper/talk): A mentor of mine often references this talk as a primary influence on how he chooses to teach his students. Scientist Richard Hamming spoke about solving hard problems: “One of the characteristics of successful scientists is having courage. Once you get your courage up and believe that you can do important problems, then you can.”

“Creative Selection” (book): Ken Kocienda dives deep into his experiences with Apple’s design team. My favorite part: the nitty gritty of designing the iPhone keyboard. “Whatever it was, the concrete and specific modifications we chose to make led to the actions items that justified making the next demo. Repeat, then repeat again. Doing this over and over again set our projects on the slow path to accumulating positive change.”

An Ordinary Note:

I desire so much from life. More of the pleasant, less of the painful. The more pleasant I make my surroundings, the more it hurts when pain finds its way in. I become goal oriented in this way. What can I do to gain the pleasures I seek?

The older I get, the easier it is to follow this algorithm. I categorize feelings and experiences into words, ideas, thoughts, concepts, morals, actions to take, judgments to make, decisions on whether this belongs in my pleasure cocoon or banished away into the unknown abyss of things I don’t like.

I avoid the unspoken language and texture of my circumstances. The speed at which this happens leads to a masturbated life.

A Masturbated Life

The story of life is told by the nature of sound. Remove the stream of Netflix piped into the AirPod ear, hear the subtle nature of silence as you take out the trash, and become aware of the world of sound that does not take the form of human language.

The world is communicating your own nature back at you. You don’t have to try so hard to get the things you want. Just pay attention. Maybe you’ll realize you don’t really need all that much. Maybe you’ll realize you’re stronger than you thought.

But this morning sucks, and all I see are dishes that need cleaning, a temperamental boss that needs assuaging, a nuisance of an itch that needs scratching. I do not like how I feel about this. My chest tightens, my breath weakens until I induce a panic within myself. I cause my nervous system to fly into action, because the idea of sitting in my stress is too painful.

And so I clean. Well, kinda. I produce clanging pots, crashing glasses, a nightmarish orchestra of grotesque sounds that escalates and climaxes much like something else. I type off a tense email to a teammate, my thumbs rapidly producing anger-panic symbols. I hit Send, and I finally let out a postcoital breath.

Learning from Sound

We move through our experiences as if they are burdens in the way of our desires and our troubles. We jack ourselves off, work up a masturbatory frenzy, and that is what we consider problem-solving and being goal-oriented.

But imagine cutting the impulses to hear and feel the atmosphere.

The sink and the washer are full. Smeared leftovers, chunks of dinner. I have avoided cleaning for days, unloading for days. This is an ordinary circumstance. This is an ordinary place. There is a causal mechanism at play.

I have been preoccupied by thoughts and upcoming tasks, work and personal, and I have thus permitted the sink to overflow, the washer to sit idly clean. I have grown anxious by my own preoccupation, and so a small ordinary and humorous problem has inflated into a big Herculean trial.

Aware of the circumstances, I take a deep, slow breath in and begin to clean. The soap brush scrubs against metal, against the innards of glass and ceramic, each gesture producing a different tone — some deep and hollow, some bright and trebled. I place a cleaned frying pan on the rack, some scuffed dishes in the washer. As I pay my dues to my atmosphere, I also pay respects to myself. As much as the kitchen needed a gentle cleaning, so did I. It’s something to smile at.

The Power of a Daily Practice

The ordinary uncovers subtlety, grace, and the small crucial details. Never mind the spiritual dimension of the ordinary, which I am still exploring and understanding. I can begin to observe and work with the ordinary with a few simple but difficult practices.

With these practices, I begin to perform better, produce creative visions, and feel a deeper connection, beyond status and material possession and skills and words.

What is a daily practice? Up to you.

I choose meditation, movement, and art. Sitting, stretching, exploring space. Sketching, drawing, writing. Cleaning, watering, organizing. Almost nothing in this daily practice will see the light of day. These are disposable, impermanent productions. That is their power, they are for me and my craft. There is no goal, no climax.

An Ordinary Visual:

From complexity scientist Pasquale Cirillo, the “Fence Paradox”: