A Balanced Diet for the Starving Soul

Of the few things I can say I like about myself, my curiosity is one. I have always loved to learn, and I am excited by new topics and tidbits from history to philosophy, math, and science.

When a new question occurs to me, I hold onto it and excitement fills my chest knowing what comes next, feverish searching through Google web and image results, skimming Wikipedia pages, adding books to my Goodreads TBR. I am excited to learn to grow to become more whole and free and aware. I love to stretch my mind and consider new facts and concepts, but I’m not good at making it happen every day, and I’m not good at recognizing the difference between knowing things and understanding things. I’m not good at keeping my curiosity alive.

I admit, this only occurred to me yesterday when I saw this comic by Austin Kleon—an inspiring author I admire greatly—came scrolling up my Instagram feed.

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Yep, that’s me. I check the news first thing when I wake up too. I don’t think about what I want to know, what I need and should know, to grow as a person. I don’t think of all the wonders of the world and wonder at the way they work and how they came to be. I wake up, and I want to know what new drama has unfolded in the petty politics we humans have made for ourselves.

Not that I don’t think learning is important. I consider myself a smart person and I even think of myself as a curious one too, but Austin’s comic reminded me that learning, real learning, has not been a priority in my life. I am learning Spanish. I am learning new math. I have my flashcards on geography, state flags, and the anatomy of the eye all on my phone, but it’s not really learning, and it isn’t healthy.

And not that I don’t think current events, politics, and even pop culture are important. You have to know the world around you to navigate it, and you have to navigate it to live and find your happiness, but sometimes it all feels like a play put on the stage, and I’m following the story. It’s a good one, but I want to know what happens backstage and how the script materialized and how I might write my own one day.

The drive to know, to learn, and to discover can easily be tricked. Humans love novelty. We love to discover things and make things. We like to be smart. Social media, TV, tech companies, and advertisements all exploit your curiosity. They make you feel like you are learning and growing wiser while your soul dies of malnutrition.

My phone beeps pleasantly for breaking news and trending topics. It glows cool blue from the side of my bed, enticing me with promises to tell me all I need to know to make polite conversation and bond in mutual anger, outrage, and anxiety at work. I pick it up and scroll. I learn things. I know things. I am in the now in the know. My mind is happy, but not healthy.

Too much of anything is bad for you. A balanced and varied diet has always proven the healthiest.

All your knowledge should not come in the form of 140 character tweets, or sensational images on the news, or click-bait headlines on Facebook. You should know more than what happened yesterday, and you should look further than your own city, country, and conventional beliefs. Your day should be more than breaking news, and your mind should have more to live on than what bring in rating and advertising money. When you are starving can eat rocks and feel full, but you’re still dying.

Mindfulness is key. Become aware for where your information comes from and what kind of information you are consuming. Ask yourself how much time you devote to learning and if you are really learning anything at all. Your day should be more than breaking news, and your mind should have more to live on than what brings high ratings and cash from advertisers.

A starving person can eat rocks and feel better, but it won’t stop death from coming.

I want to study something. I want depth and context. I want to get frustrated by the work of understanding.  I want to stay curious and to feed my soul something good.

Just like the body feels hunger when it needs food, and thirst when it needs water, the mind feels curiosity when it is parched and starving. And like good eating habits, or remembering to drink the right amount of water every day, it takes mindfulness and willingness to forget, fail, and start again for long-term happiness and health. You have to bring learning into your life from something that happens passively and by accident to something you make time for because it’s critical to your well being.

I want to change my diet and learn to keep my soul alive.

I’m not sure yet what that means for me. I’m not sure yet how to do that with my schedule and limited resources, but maybe I can start by picking one or three things every morning that I want to know. I can ask a few questions about how the universe runs and how humans came to be who we are. I can start the day with burning curiosity over anything I choose from trivial to monumental and make time during the day to find answers, not just to know, but to understand.

“It is simply this: do not tire, never lose interest, never grow indifferent—lose your invaluable curiosity and you let yourself die. It’s as simple as that.”

― Tove Jansson, Fair Play


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Featured photo is by Lacie Slezak and available freely on Unsplash


Radical Doubt

I often get a little obsessed with things I read, especially when it’s related to philosophy. For awhile now I have been thinking a lot about Descartes’ Method of Radical Doubt and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.

The Method of Radical Doubt is a process where a person doubts their own beliefs to test whether those beliefs are actually true. It’s a means of defeating skepticism on it own ground. I was drawn to the idea because I tend to be the type of person who doubts everything unless shown absolute proof or I’m presented with well thought out logic behind an argument.

I like to audit my own beliefs every so often to just make sure I haven’t fallen into the trap of blindly following another’s beliefs or prejudices.

The first rule was never to accept anything as true unless I recognized it to be evidently such: that is, carefully to avoid precipitation and prejudgment, and to include nothing in my conclusions unless it presented itself so clearly and distinctly to my mind that there was no occasion to doubt it.

– René Descartes, “Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking Truth in the Field of Science”; translated by Laurence J. Lafl

Descartes himself tried to establish doubt in three areas:

The first is Perceptual Illusion. What if everything we perceive is wrong? The idea that I cannot trust my own senses is a hard pill to swallow, but an interesting one none the less. How can we be sure that we are seeing, or hearing, or feeling, things as they really are. Descartes argues that it is wise to, at least at first, doubt every bit of sensory knowledge we take in until we can be sure that our perceptions are correct. Remember, things may not always be as they seem.

The next is the Dream Problem. This is the one that really messed with my head! The Dream Problem is related to the Perceptual Illusion in that, if my own dreams feel real, how can I be sure that the world I am experiencing (perceiving, sensing) is real. How do I know that everything around me isn’t just a fabrication of my own imagination?

It’s sort of like the movie “The Matrix”. Every one could be hooked up to a machine that is stimulating your brain in such a way as to make you think you are in a real world. The brain is where all of our perceptions come from, right? So it would be possible to get a person to see, taste, hear, feel, or smell something that isn’t really there. I do believe that I am really doing the things I am doing and that the world around me is real, but thinking about this problem has made me realize that I can’t actually prove that belief to be true. Freaky!

Lastly, the Deceiving God. Descartes raises more doubts by asking us to entertain a radical belief different from one of our own treasured beliefs. The example given is a religious one and because I am not religious it was hard for me to understand at first. What if there is an omnipotent god, but that deity devotes its full attention to deceiving me?

He doesn’t mean that God would force me to believe something that was false, which I find a more interesting prospect, but that anytime I think I believe something for sure, God could choose to change the world in such a way that my belief becomes false. He seems to suggest that even if we could distinguish dream from reality we could experience reality as if it were a dream. If that is true then it is possible to doubt everything you come to believe.

Descartes did offer alternative versions for those religious devout who couldn’t stomach the idea that God would do such a thing. One was that there is a sort of demon who relentlessly tortures you with your own error, or, and more interesting, I actually deceive myself. The latter is interesting because I believe that our own mind’s often work against us in was we can’t perceive and I imagine it is possible for your own brain to deceive you.

In the alternatives the point is still the same, that it is possible for every belief you hold to be false.

After reading all that it might seem like nothing can ever be thought to be true and you might be ready to panic but Descartes was able to assert one fact, one truth, though all of this doubting. He concluded that the very act of doubting, and thinking about doubt, meant he was a thinking thing, and if he was a thing, that meant that he existed.

Cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am.

So whenever I get weirded out by these thoughts that every thing I think I know about the world, and about myself, might be nothing but a dream or clever deception, I hold on to the one thing I know to be true.

I know that I am real.