Peace and the compulsion to do / by Michael Sloyer

My eternal feeling of existential angst. An intense desire to create meaning, connect with other humans, feel productive, validated, and most of all just plain happy. Even when I experience true feelings of contentment and peace, like during a mediation or after a long run, my initial response is often to think, what should I “do” with this positive feeling? How can I channel it into a greater good? How can I convey it to others? Should I write it down in my journal? Should I write a blog post about it for all the world to see?

Why do I feel so compelled to do something? Why can’t I just be at peace with being at peace?

I have a number of hypotheses.

1) I feel insecure about the authenticity of my feelings and emotions. Without concrete evidence that they existed, might they never have existed at all?

2) I am seeking validation from the external world. Like it or not, it feels good to be thought of as “introspective” or “spiritual.”

3) I see it as my chance to give back to the world. A selfish guy has to take advantage of his fleeting feelings of selflessness.

4) I fear uselessness and wasted time (with the corollary that I am addicted to production). If everything is a means to an end, then it is never a waste of time.

5) Or maybe the answer is just grounded in biology and neurology. After all, the part of the brain responsible for these good feelings also happens to be the part of the brain responsible for our species ultrasocial propensities.

And to be clear, this compulsion to do and to share is not wrong. The intention behind it is so pure. So genuine. So generous. It comes from such a good place within the heart. And feeling at peace can create wonderful calls to action. I personally find myself with a desire to reconnect with friends and family with whom I have shared deeply meaningful experiences in the past. I find myself thinking more creatively about big ideas, about interesting photography projects, blog ideas, or charitable endeavors I might want to pursue. I often think about gifts I can give to other people or something I have been meaning to do for the benefit of someone else.  All really positive stuff.

But the reality is that this desire to take action can take away from the wonder and singularity of the moment. As Buddha teaches, desire creates suffering. By definition, not being at peace about being at peace is not being at peace.

And the good news is that, like all of our compulsions, this one can be tamed. I am personally not very good at it, but on a handful of occasions (yes, 5 or less), I have been able to just be with my peace. It goes something like this: “Wow I am really content with the way things are this very moment. All is right in the world. And it is ok that all is right in the world. I don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to produce. I don’t have to tell anyone. I don’t have to write it down. I have nothing to prove.”

And inevitably, in a matter of seconds (or maybe a minute if I am really lucky), this feeling of total contentment will fade. And inevitably, I will scratch the itch of my compulsion to do, to write, and to tell. But I will be ok with that. Because all it takes is a glimpse to know that these fleeting moments of peace are worth the hardships that come with the journey of discovering them.