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The Connection Mode

Another week, another blog post. Let’s see if I can keep this up…

As explained in my previous blog post, I've been reticent to write about the coronavirus pandemic over the past few months for a couple of reasons. First, so much has been written about the crisis and its implications, and so much more is unknown, that I didn’t want to be yet another voice adding to what is already an overwhelming amount of information (and, as Jules Evans notes, can so easily turn into another culture war).

The other reason I haven’t written much about our current crisis is that, for me at least, it’s been a time to slow down, not be more productive. In my book, The Happiness Problem: Expecting Better in an Uncertain World, I wrote about how our personal and social lives are inherently uncertain and insecure. The book was published towards the end of 2019, but I could never have predicted we’d be witnessing a world in crisis just a few months after. And yet here we are. Instead of taking this opportunity to spread the book’s message as if it was now gospel, it seemed more appropriate to take the current crisis to heart, take pause and respond by doing things a bit differently.

So, here's what I'd like to do: I'm hoping to write some more personal blog posts over the next few weeks – less about what "we" should be all thinking and doing over this time, and more about what I've been up to and reflecting on. I'll try and keep it from being too narcissistic. In fact, if I do my job right, you'll probably think much less of me by the end of it.

What I've been spending most of my time thinking about over this time is connection. By that, I don't necessarily mean being in contact with people or myself or nature. I mean connection-as-the-opposite-of-control. Future blog posts will be about my experiments in letting go of control and embracing connection. But, for now, I'll try and explain what I'm on about...

At the end of my 20s, I became aware that I had two different modes of being. And I still do. Some days, I wake up with a to-do list already in my head, wanting to just get through my interactions with people rather than being present with them, and noramlly getting to sleep having failed to meet some of my expectations. The positive side of this way of being is I get stuff done. Let's call it the "doing mode" (thanks Eric Fromm). Eventually, I do achieve most of my tasks – though there are always more – and most people seem to like me – or at least, haven't got to really know me yet.

I used to think life was a matter of perfecting this doing mode. The days when I'd managed to break down my tasks into managable chunks and efficiently achieve them all felt great – that feeling of making progress, getting somewhere, moving forwards. This was best in states of flow – where I was completely absorbed in the activity at hand, whether that be writing, playing sport or listened to music. Other doing mode hacks included getting wise to goals that were and were not good for me. I didn't understand why people spent so much of their lives working on status and security goals, like going on a fancy holiday or having a big house. I felt much better when I spent my time with friends or learning a new skill. Happiness, to me, seemed largely a matter of doing stuff well.

Okay, so thats one mode. But there are other days when I wake up in a very different place. I don't jump out of bed and instantly start to get stuff done. Instead, things seem slower, more still and much more vivid. I'm more aware of being alive, in a breathing, moving body (thanks body). I can get a sense of the multiple possibilities of the day – even with my full to-do list, I still don't know what's going to happen. I have no idea what I'll see in the people I meet. This mode of being rarely lasts long. The compulsion to get stuff done takes over soon enough, normally because something stressful comes along and I enter into doing/survival mode. But, for however long this more beuatiful way of being, I feel more connected to myself, others and the world. There's a heightened sense of reality – a realness to everything. The things in my life aren't just there to be used, overcome or ignored. They are there because they are the things that make up life – they have some significance or relevance in themselves. Let's call this the "being mode".

Except, this distinction between being and doing isn't quite right. It's true that I'm more concenred with getting stuff done in the doing mode and that I see things more as they are in the being mode. But, it's not as if I never stop while in the former and I'm entirely passive in the latter. Instead, I've come to think of the difference of one of control, on the one hand, and connection, on the other.

In "control mode" (previously the "doing mode"), I want to make sure things are exactly to my liking – to have all the things I want and avoid all the things I dislike. The consequences of not doing so seem bad – "I should get up", "I should have done these task by now", "I should be nice to this person", and so on. The consequences of failing to do what I should aren't exactlhy clear, but they definitely don't seem to be an option.

In contrast, in "connection mode" (previously the "being mode"), things may not be to my liking, but that's just what I've got to play with. There is a kind of acceptance there as to how things are, and more flexibility over how I can – not should! – respond. Unexpectedly, I might find a new soluation to the task I'm working on, or even realise there's a more important task to be working on instead. I'm more present in interaction, less anxious about what the other person thinks about me and more attentive to what we both feel. When connected to the world in this way, things seem neither certain nor stable, but I'm able to respond to these changes in surprisingly creative ways.

Alright, this is already a long post, so I'm going to leave it there. In future posts, I'll write more about this distinction between contorl and connection – what impact it's had on my life, why I find it so hard to let go of contorl – or be in connection – and what I think about some of the its wider implications for society, humanity and the planet. All in good time...

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