Discover more from living together, somehow
I have of late – but wherefore I know not –
on losing one's mojo for no good reason....
There must be one among my dozen or so readers who may have noticed I haven’t posted since the first of this month. The good news is I’ve just emerged from three weeks of flatness. The bad news is that I have just undergone same. Why has this happened, I wonder? What was its onset or cause, and how did it (just as mysteriously) disappear? One can be sad or melancholic for good reason, and many people suffer depressions for no good reason, so-called endogenous depression. And one may go through sudden or prolonged periods of frustration, disquiet, hardship, grief: in many ways we have just had a couple of years like this; in many ways we’re the lucky ones.
Yet I’ve been most struck with being struck with this set of feelings. As his audience, we know better than he did that Hamlet had good cause for his feelings, but as he says,
I have of late,—but wherefore I know not,—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises;
It’s the ‘wherefore I know not’ that interests me the most in what I’ve noticed of the March I’ve had (or what I’ve had of it). We know very well why we’re blue for good reason: grief at the death of a loved one is the clearest instance of this. But when we’re blue, for no reason we yet know, we’re not only struck and stuck, but have no good and clear way toward getting a hold of ourselves and wrestling ourselves back upright. That itself can be quite depressing.
Analytic traditions remind us of the limits of reason and ego control: so much of what deeply goes on, the deeper currents, are unconscious; some of these ebbs and flows are years and decades in the making, and recur as our psyches eddy around all kinds of attachments, responses, recognitions and meanings. How we were loved or not loved as we wished; how reality and other people fail to show up for some hide-and-seek game we realised only we were playing; failures of the world to see the value in what we saw value in; how we construe our investments and experiences. This all swirls around, popping up in our repetitions, the traps we keep setting for ourselves, the ways we keep acting although we know very well, &c &c.
At some other surface/level mostly occupied by sports psychologists, we have motivation, and the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. I’ve gone through cycles of seven years where the slow ebb of intrinsic motivation was compensated by the ways in which my ego carefully arranged extrinsic motivations to make me show up for the commitments I no longer wanted to show up for. I know how to ‘just to it’ or ‘do it anyway’, even when I don’t fucking feel like it. And I’ve been in situations where super ego punitively enforced the diligent application of effort where inspiration and passion had long abandoned the scene (I was still ‘committed’ to and showing up for routinely).
One can lose one’s motivations – intrinsic, extrinsic – for good reasons, and especially with the shift in circumstances: coming ‘back’ to work in the city after the two lockdown years of the pandemic, and going ‘back’ to the ordinary pattern of kids going to school and parents going to work… I’ve noticed profound shifts in my motivation(s), again informed by how this experience shifted my investments and meanings and value. Things are not as they were; how could one feel as one did? A lot of stuff from last decade, it now makes very little sense, and doesn’t seem worthwhile. So no, I don’t feel pumped about commuting into the city to teach students; of course when I get there, it’s fine and ordinary. But something changed, and I’ve changed with that. We’re many of us going through this now.
In fact, it’s extraordinary how much motivation just inherently fluctuates, when you notice it day to day, as I’ve been practising doing (through detailed note taking this last few months). Motivation might be like some supermood, analogous to El Nino and La Nina, superadded to the lunar and solar cycles of how we can tend to feel for a month or on any given day. It is as if an atmospheric system rolls in to our psyche and establishes a certain set cyclical pattern of conditions that pass, shift phases, become some other thing in a few years and months.
But wherefore I know not…
Jenny Offill’s Weather is the literary work I’ve read that best explores this: an atmosphere of mild depression setting in over the humdrum repetitions of day-to-day existence, and the contradictions of tending to the mundane everyday of parenting and privileged affluent life when you also know that conditions, ecologically speaking, are catastrophically fucked (but life for you is still middle class normal, for a while, for a long while, but for how long…. ?). Lots of people I know have been in the grip of this kind of mental weather, which is taking shape as midlife crises, profound alienation from work, and the sense that things aren’t right but can’t be righted with any kind of effort.
In such scenes we must try to be more generous with ourselves and the world, and more patient, though this is excruciatingly hard to do. At such times, even when they last for years, even when we’re feeling so flat we can barely get through what we need to in a given day, we must try to sit with the difficult energies and be patient, in the knowledge that, as weather, this too shall pass; and that it’s generative. Again, this is so much harder to do than say.
It's easy to succumb to melancholia, and the paralysing trap of depression proper. You can see Hamlet tarrying with the negative spiral of rumination:
…and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire,—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours….
Negativity also has its own comfort: much more than ambivalence, it’s stable and confirming, it confirms how we’re feeling and how the whole world seems when we’re feeling that way. We are of course missing the immediate love of sunshine on our faces when we’re feeling that way; which is why we insist there ain’t no sunshine – when we’re feeling that way. There is always sunshine; from our perspective (and especially in a cloudy city like this one), it is often, too often, just occluded by clouds.
The lure of Southern California; the eternal sunshine of a spotless mind. Let me know if you spot one. Could be melanoma; could be Marcuse.
The Mahayanists get insight into such weather systems by considering virya. In the Tibetan traditions I study, virya is one of the six paramitas: dana (generosity), shila (discipline), kshanti (patience); virya (exertion), samadhi (meditation), prajna (discerning wisdom). As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche gave it, “[o]ut of discipline comes patience… out of patience grows exertion, which is having a sense of joy in, and appreciation of, your livelihood and your practice” (194). Implicit in virya is that one should look back to one’s patience, and within patience, look at one’s aggression; the desire to aggress, and then look to the generous, patient development of awareness, leading to nonaggression. Yet within virya itself, the same Mahayanist tradition is more coy: as a kind of spark or drive (the Sanskrit is the shared root of virile and virility), the perceived problem or locus is to do with laziness, and actually a secret love of one’s own samsaric ways, a kind of enjoyment in (s)wallowing in the (s)whirlpool of passion, aggression, and ignorance.
I think there’s something we can add here though, and it’s an enigma. This was my lesson from this month. Virya has a mojo aspect: there’s something highly complex and beyond ego control going on here, which is analogous to having ‘form’ in anyone’s given activities. One cannot force form. In order to achieve it, effort is absolutely necessary: you need to go and do your hours, your reps, your Ks in order to have any possible chance of attaining it. Yet at some times, for no discernable reason, one comes into some excellent form, and this is a great, welcome, and usually objectively ‘undeserved’ gift (unless you’re part of some Theistic tradition in which form is dealt out as reward and removed as punishment). Conversely, everyone I’ve ever met goes through periods like the one I’ve just been to, where one’s form, one’s mojo, just abandons us. Kinda for good reason; kind of for no good reason. To me, experiencing this afresh reminds me of the profound enigmas of possessing a psyche conscious of itself, and its basic tendency to ebb and flow, to move and change, come and go. For one cannot throttle one’s mojo, it’s not just a utility to be exploited: mythology and history is rife with examples of Faustian pacts and deals with the devil here, from Robert Johnson to Lance Armstrong. You pay with your soul for deciding to game the mojo. For everyone else, we don’t get it on our terms. Sometimes we have it, sometimes we earned it but it’s still a gift; sometimes it abandons us, although we thought we were doing okay. There’s been a really interesting lesson in this for me this March.