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The Simple Habit That Makes Life Worth Living
Anthony Bourdain, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and the pursuit of happiness.
This past weekend, I finally got myself to watch that documentary they made about Anthony Bourdain’s life.
It was the first time since his death that I’ve watched or read something to completion involving him. Trying to watch episodes of his show — knowing how his life ended — just didn’t feel right anymore. I felt like an intruder. It felt wrong.
But when I was younger, Bourdain was something of a hero to me. He was probably the only person I ever thought that I actually wanted to live like.
He was relatable, funny, smart, thoughtful, and he lived a dream life. He was the food guy on TV, but he wasn’t like the other food guys. He had an edge to him. Or at least, I thought he did.
I wanted to write like him, think like him, and be like him. I thought that doing that would make me something better than it was. Bourdain symbolized somewhere that I thought I wanted to reach.
Watching the documentary and reading a few other passages this week made me realize that this is no longer the case.
Success/happiness is fickle, and so is the pursuit of it.
People always say “It’s about the journey, not the destination” as a way to get others to appreciate moments more when they’re pursuing goals or encountering adversity.
In my journey through being a Jiu-Jitsu athlete, teacher, and writer, I’ve told myself this many times. In the past, this has made me feel less stressed out about my performances in matches, dealing with injuries, or investing in ideas that wouldn’t eventually pan out.
In terms of pursuing success and short-term happiness, it’s very important to think about your journey more than your destination. However, I think there’s a better way to think about this idea when we’re thinking about being more fulfilled and peaceful.
It’s not about the journey or the destination, it’s about right now.
The real journey is the internal journey to realize that you’ve already arrived at the destination.
Not everyone struggles with justifying and analyzing their existential predicament, but if you do, you must accept that no achievement will “make you happy”. I think Bourdain failed to do this.
You can’t win a match, meet a girl, go on an adventure, or make some money and expect to be at peace. The world is always going to be hell.
You must find another way to survive.
A lesson from Viktor Frankl.
This is the part where this article will get a bit dark — if it hasn’t already.
Viktor Frankl’s story is a dark one. He was a concentration camp survivor who lost his father, brother, mother, and wife to the Nazis. Each time he found ways to keep on living through pain, more was taken from him. He was stripped down and broken and dehumanized and forced to rebuild himself from a hell far greater than most of us will ever know.
And how did he do that?
This is what I have been thinking about a lot lately because I’ve been thinking a lot about permanence and identity.
What I’ve realized as an athlete who’s constantly striving to be the best he can be and a writer who’s constantly striving to put out his best work is that in all of the striving we do in life, there is always the possibility (and inevitability) of losing everything.
“Memento mori” — you will die. Everything in this life will fade and be taken from you, except for one thing. There’s one pesky part of the human experience that will stay with you until the moment that you die, and that’s your ability to suffer.
Having the ability to suffer is a core part of what makes us alive.
This is a dark idea, but it’s true in many ways. I also believe that if you can learn to live with and transcend that truth, you can reach the deepest sense of fulfillment that is possible within the human experience.
Thinking about overcoming suffering.
The darkest period of suffering that I experienced in my life was in late 2018 when I experienced an 11-month episode of a disorder called “depersonalization”.
Thanks to a pot-laced tootsie roll, chronic anxiety, and one other key component that I’ll touch on in a second, for nearly a year, I lived in a world that was disconnected from my body. I lived distant from my thoughts.
I thought the world was “unreal” in the worst way.
Even now, when I look back at pictures and memories from those days, there’s a part of me that struggles to see them as real. It struggles to see the pain I went through as mine. Even today — when I’m as fully connected to my mind and body as I think I can be, I still sometimes dissociate from memories of the past.
I recently read a chapter in a book called The Man Who Wasn’t There: Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self by Anil Ananthaswamy, that made me think about this time in my life again. The book is an analysis of what makes up “the self” on a neurological level, and it also talks about how different mental disorders can disrupt one’s sense of self.
The chapter on depersonalization made me sob. It was the first time ever that I had some inkling of an understanding of what I experienced several years ago. The chapter made me put the things that I’ve experienced into perspective a bit.
It made me reconsider the foundational role that the memories I have detached from have played on my psyche.
More importantly, it made me think deeply about the things that pulled me out of this period and the things that make me happy today.
Like Jiu-Jitsu, for example.
“Jiu-Jitsu saved my life.”
I often make fun of the people who say that “Jiu-Jitsu saved their lives”, but ironically, I guess Jiu-Jitsu saved mine.
At the very least, Jiu-Jitsu saved me from depersonalization in 2018.
The symptoms were leading me to do reckless things like drugs, hooking up, or drinking, smoking, and driving to a hook-up so that I could “feel something”. It was making me someone who I hated being — someone who was a mess.
But it wasn’t really Jiu-Jitsu that saved me, it was the flow states that working hard at Jiu-Jitsu gave me that helped me get back to reality.
This was, in hindsight, the main reason why I threw myself so deeply into Jiu-Jitsu when I was younger. But it was also the reason why I eventually threw myself so deeply into writing.
To put it bluntly: the flow states are really what I am after.
That’s why I like practicing the guitar — even if I’m no good. It’s why I like going for walks and bike rides. It’s why I love playing competitive sports — everything from Jiu-Jitsu to wrestling to wiffle ball to Spikeball before training.
I love doing things where I’m forced to be fully present in the activity.
I might say these things “make me happy”, but the truth is deeper than that. The real reason is that doing these things saves me from myself — or, as Anil Ananthaswamy eloquently put it in his book that I mentioned above, the damage that once happened within myself.
The key detail that taught me to be happy.
When I was suffering from depersonalization, I lost my ability to suffer fully because I was disconnected from reality.
But there’s something else that happened during this period of my life that made my experience with depersonalization so traumatic, and that I believe is the key to all of this.
During depersonalization, I experienced a severe and mysterious knee injury that impaired my ability to do Jiu-Jitsu. I had the knee injury before the depersonalization set in, and the effects of the disorder lasted until about 2 months after the injury was gone.
I think that if I was sent back into depersonalization today, I’d have different coping skills to get myself out of it, but at the time, I was a 20-year-old whose “sense of self” came from his ability to fight and grapple. My injury damaged my sense of self, and the experience with the pot tootsie roll sent me over the edge, where my “self” temporarily split from my body and mind.
But I came back.
Jiu-Jitsu brought me back. And sports give relief to so many people who struggle with depersonalization or anxiety of any other form.
It’s all about flow states. Flow states the key to making life whole and worth living.
“Control of consciousness determines the quality of life.”― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
It’s not love, it’s not a nice job, it’s not being popular or successful, it’s having flow every single day. That’s what makes life worth living.
It’s the flow state that I had while writing this article. The flow state I have while cooking pizza and going for a walk with someone I care about. The flow state I have on the mat after we slap hands to start training.
If there’s anything I’d tell my old hero Anthony Bourdain, it’d be to stop seeking adventure and start seeking flow states right where you are.
It maybe wouldn’t help, but I doubt it would hurt.
This article is a bit all over the place, but that’s kind of how life is.
In the beginning, we’re all achievement-oriented. We can talk about why some other day, but a lot of us never make it past this phase. Many people live their entire lives like they're walking through a grocery store, checking off experiences like items on a shopping list.
Then, we realize that achievement isn’t enough to be happy, but it’s also a requirement for survival. We struggle with the duality of peace and achievement. This makes us suffer more.
Then, we have to figure out how to transcend the suffering. This isn’t the Holy Bible or Man’s Search For Meaning — it’s my Friday newsletter — but I think that at the very least, I think this article should give you somewhere to start when it comes to transcending suffering.
Start by seeking flow states in your daily life by doing simple things, like cleaning your apartment, cooking with your loved ones, or playing your favorite sports.
Day-by-day, step-by-step, one thing at a time.
Today’s article was a bit different, but I really enjoyed writing it.
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