My former thesis supervisor is one of the few people I have met in my life that truly enjoys solitude. The last time I spoke to her was back in 2015. Recently I dropped her an email to see how she is doing and if she is up for a chat. The next day I visited her on my good old university campus.
The faculty of humanities consists of a very colorful bunch of people. For two years I studied religion and ritual, and I was confronted with very bookish professors to fieldwork enthousiasts that tell stories about how they spent time researching indigenous cultures of Indonesia and tribes in South-America.
Contentment in solitude
My former thesis supervisor (and associate professor and lecturer) is somewhere in between bookish and outgoing. She had done her fair share of traveling but once told me that she never goes on vacation because she doesn’t really feel the need. In one of the many conversations we had she also made clear that she doesn’t need a vibrant social life – not even an intimate relationship (even though she has been married before) – since she’s perfectly happy in solitude.
Back in 2014 when I was crafting my masterthesis, I discovered that she practices meditation. This isn’t surprising because she is an expert on India; the place where Hinduism and Buddhism come from. At the time I was only at the beginning of my journey for a better and more stable life, so I couldn’t really comprehend why this woman was so content in solitude. That year I still partied every weekend, drank a lot, ‘dated’ a lot (you know, ‘the picking up at some bar’ kind of dating) and I had a lot of ‘friends’ (i.e. drinking buddies).
Living in peak moments
Surprisingly, this woman never touched alcohol in her life. How is this possible for a Dutch woman living in carnaval-celebrating South? Well, she never had the urge. Unsursprisingly, her sobriety has been questioned by many people throughout the years. Being in her late fifties, she has gotten used to these confrontations. Nevertheless, we had our conversations about topics like alcohol, drug usage and partying, during which she enlightened me on something profound and life changing.
The human experience is a journey of highs and lows. What sets my former thesis supervisor apart from the majority of people is that she doesn’t really look for these highs. Let’s face it. The majority of people lives in a string of pleasurable peaks. Vacations, music festivals, drinking nights, romances or buying that expensive car (or even a boat) all cause this temporary rush of dopamine which fades away after a while, leaving us feeling empty and unfulfilled. ‘Why always pursuing those peaks?’ she asked. Relflecting on my own behavior I found this to be a very good question, which stuck with me the years after.
When we always pursue life’s supposed highlights we not only spend a great deal of our time in the future; we also don’t enjoy the non-peak moments which are probably 99% of our lives. While I’m typing this I’m sitting on my balcony. Next to me there’s a teapot filled with raspberry tea and the glass I’m drinking it from, accompanied by a warm morning sun, birds chirping, distant traffic sounds and people passing by. When I pay good attention I can’t believe the aliveness of this all. Yet, because our minds are occupied with daily concerns, we hardly pay any attention to what’s happening in the present moment. Isn’t it a waste not to fully enjoy the now instead of closing ourselves off from it by directing our attention to past and future events?
The less I began to pursue the peaks, the less I seemed to need them. I can remember a time when I needed to binge drink once a week, needed that trip far a way and needed at least one additional short trip abroad. Why? Because life felt incredibly empty when I didn’t do these things. External pleasure dictated my mood. The Stoics teach us that external pleasure is beyond our control and, therefore, unreliable. How could I’ve ever imagined a life without frequent travel, without partying and even without alcohol?
Seeing my former thesis supervisor after many years I realize that I’ve grown more towards a lifestyle that doesn’t focus on peaks, but rather on flatness. Flatness doesn’t sound exciting and, for a part, that is true. Not having the excitement of binge drinking with friends during a night out, or going to a music festival, or doing some other wild things, surely brings about feelings of nostalgia and loneliness sometimes. However, sacrificing this 1% of my lifetime drastically enhances the other 99%. In my case, flatness brought me closer to a state of eudaimonia or inner peace.
Me pursuing less peaks didn’t happen overnight. It’s a gradual process that happens over years. It isn’t so much aversion that led to me cutting back on ‘chasing the high’. It’s the growing appreciation for the ordinary day-to-day events. Besides, I save a lot of time and energy to spend on things that truly matter to me, like this project. Instead of filling my inner emptiness with quick fixes of pleasure, I actually listen to it, being receptive to the creativity that unfolds from it.
Exchanging pleasure for peace?
By all means: flatness does not equal mediocrity. Furthermore, I believe that flatness can be a great vessel to escape the collective mediocrity of a pleasure seeking herd that is stuck in the cycle of highs and lows. Is there anything wrong with that? Not necessarily. But how much more peaceful would our lives be if we cut out the peaks, the perpetual chase of those peaks and the emptiness we experience when we aren’t ‘peaking’?
I admit that life’s highs and lows are intense, possibly pleasurable and memorable. They not only brought me joy, they have also shaped my life and my personality. Is it worth it to give those up in exchange for overall wellbeing? So far, for me it is.
Thank you for reading,