Productivity versus Pleasure

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Disclaimer: This post, as far as I know, has nothing to do with tango.

During the Distance I’ve been working to improve my memory and my upper back flexibility, and to decrease self-violence and workaholism.

This post is about the latter.

What is self-violence? It’s my no-nonsense term for bad habits. When I started to emerge from anorexia many years ago, I watched myself re-direct all that cruel discipline from eating to running and then to working.

When I wrote last year that smoking is unattractive because it’s self-hate, to be fair I also turned that around on myself, asking if there are things I do that are hateful and violent toward myself. I recognized that I had a number of self-directed behaviors –quantitatively less hazardous than smoking– but qualitatively the same: expressions of aggression and bad faith.

Well aware that bad habits rarely yield to willpower or discipline, I began with observation of myself and others. I saw many behaviors like reaching for a cigarette, reaching for the cell phone, for the beer or wine glass, I reach to endless un- and re-braid my hair. I sensed that this reaching was a reaching out of the intolerable present. I challenged myself not only to tolerate the present, but to find its delights: things to look at and wonder about.

At the same time, I am keenly aware of my general disinterest in the present. So many things to worry, plan, and design.

Work is one of my most obnoxious areas of self-violence. I work until my eyes water and I can’t see, and often beyond that point. On things with no deadlines. I do not know why I do this, but I do know that when I stop, I don’t know what to do.

A friend rather brutally mentioned that attractive women are the ones who are really good at pleasure.

I sent him a scathing message about pathologizing people without giving actionable instructions and went immediately to work investigating my relationship to pleasure.

The first thing I learned is that my relationship to work presumes that completion is the main pleasure in life. My overwork is often a drive to finish something. This finish fetish is utterly arbitrary. Usually there’s no urgency, and most things get better with more time (and sleep). I practiced: stopping when it’s not done yet.

I looked around for other pleasures: Food is my favorite, and eating is an activity from which I’ve banished everything and everyone distracting. Only the view is allowed to stay, so that I can concentrate. Repairing things is a newly-recognized pleasure. Reading is slowly creeping back into my life after the trauma of the academic avalanche. Of course I already know that writing is the greatest pleasure for me, the activity in which I feel that every part of me can participate.

So I was repairing something and listening to Tim Ferriss’ interview with Elizabeth Gilbert. (If you don’t know Elizabeth Gilbert, stop reading and watch this 10 minute video which is one of the most transformative things on the interweb.) Gilbert talks about two coaches, Martha Beck and Byron Katie, both of whom teach radical honesty with yourself. In Beck’s “integrity cleanse”, you set a timer to go off every 30 minutes and ask yourself if you’re being honest with the people you’re dealing with. (In order to find such truths, Byron Katie points out that you need to get around both culture and trauma.)

I set the timer to ask myself am I doing the thing I really want to be doing right now?

Because I know that the work will all get done. It’s a matter of the order and the rhythm and will I give myself a break when I need one or cruelly and for no reason drive right through my physical and other needs?

Tim also interviewed the very honest Marina Popova, author of a wonderful site about “reading, writing, and the thinking in between”. She talks about the conflict between “productivity and presence” or “mistaking the doing for the being”. I thought this could also be a failure to distinguish between performance and pleasure.

Today I managed to put down the repair job before it was done, but a little too late. I forgot to keep checking the weather. One of my pleasures (and breaks) is a short sunbath every day. For much of the day it’s too hot, so I have to keep checking the wind.  At first in the tropics, every day feels the same: hot and bright. I began to realize that the seemingly constant blue sky is not the right focus of attention: the wind makes a big difference. It can cool, it can blow the food off your fork, it blows in the smell of the pigs next door, it brings rain… I’ve learned to constantly re-adjust my day to micro-weather changes.

I checked the temperature at 13:30 and then got engrossed and didn’t move until 16:00. (My timer was off…) But at 16:00 the clouds start to come up from the mountains and take the sun away. To miss a moment in the sun on Hawai’i for something that really did not need to be done today – if at all. Sad, actually.

I also learned about the sunrise. I wake up at 05:30 for it now. And at 17:30 I walk to the beach.  The glamorous sunset side of the island sends coral clouds which turn the water pink. The Pacific as a date is one who never disappoints, always bringing something splendid to share, soothing my feet, a good listener who takes away my disappointments with every receding wave.

As I’m savoring my last week here, I’m really pushing myself on this question of presence. I don’t expect myself to empty my mind, because thinking is beautiful too. But I want to arrest those moments in which I find myself thinking so loudly that I miss the changing colors in the sky.

The answer came from an unexpected place… A few weeks ago wading at sunset I looked left to a spectacular and –even for Hawai’s diverse array of cloud formations– unusual assemblage. Pink stripes crossed horizontally with queues of small grey clouds marching along them, the sky behind quite periwinkle. As I don’t take my phone to the beach, I resigned myself to record this evening in paint and asked for access to the painting studio where I was kindly advised to begin with a layer of Naples yellow.

Despite my many years in art school, I have nothing to say with painting, and besides am not good at it. Nevertheless I adore the sensualities of oil painting:  the feeling of the brush in the paint, and the slowness of drying, which demands attentive collaboration with whatever has gone on before.

With no fantasy of producing a “good” painting, I set about documenting that sunset. It was about clear layers and I would paint it that way. I drew pink stripes, then painted in the vast periwinkle sky and some blue grey water. Then waited for that to dry, which takes more than a week. Now I return to add the clouds and the white edges of the waves.  In the intervening weeks I had noted that clouds can look like anything, sharp-edged or diffuse, dark grey, bright white, or a mixture, and absolutely any jagged or puffy shape. I set about on a phalanx of clouds and waves running at 30 degrees from the horizon line.

And immediately caught myself “working”, producing rather than just enjoying the feeling of the brush moving through the paint. I also caught my will overriding my intuition, and I witnessed the consequences of producing rather than intuiting. Adding a bit more grey to each cloud, I came to one which actually looked perfect, and watched myself industrially darken it. I realized that painting is a micro-practice of exactly that nexus which I want to shift, empowering listening and trust against the will and force of brutal productivity.

The painting is terrible, but the practice is superlative because I can be so aware of when I miss the pleasure in an unnecessary rush of routine, and when I run roughshod over my intuition.

And who cares about making a good painting anyway? I do struggle to understand what it means to be an artist. Among other things, I believe that making art is first of all a dimension of humanity, an entitlement of all, not subject to any external criteria at all. And this is a great beauty to be seen in some non-professional dancers, that they are fully absorbed in the doing of it, not in the measurable value.


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