Weird & Güd - You'll Know It Only Once You Arrive

But take this crude map anyway.

I enjoy research too much and I’m a shameless critic. Weird & Güd is the conjoining of those misanthropic qualities into something useful: recommendations and fascinations neatly packaged together for you every week, some hermit-ism required after all.

The Weird

You’re unloading groceries from your car, about to walk into your home but suddenly freeze at the sound of a shouting voice. You can’t quite understand what it’s saying, but you turn to locate the voice and see a man erratically running down the street shouting.

As he runs past your house, you realize he’s carrying a human skeleton with him. His voice is close enough for you to understand what he’s shouting:

Fucking flattery, success, money.
I just sit back and suck my thumb.

If you’re in LA or NYC, you’d shake your head and go back to unloading groceries. Just another PR stunt for 5 minutes of fame. If you’re in 15th century Japan, you’d probably also continue your task, but rather than shake your head at an attention-obsessed culture, you might consider, even if just for a minute, the man’s message about life’s impermanence.

After all, you didn’t watch the average influencer run by—you just saw the local holy madman and zen master, Ikkyū.

Shroud of Christ, 1908 — Kazimir Malevich, 

What’s the difference between the dirty, half-naked guy mumbling to himself on the corner and the dirty, half-naked guy mumbling to himself on the temple steps?

All madness is not created equal.

Divine madness (also delightfully termed crazy wisdom) is a spiritually-flavored form of unusual and outrageous behavior that’s been noted across major religions, from Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and more.

Divine madness isn’t just the old world’s way of explaining mental illness. While mental illness and afflictions like epilepsy have been attributed to the gods for most of human history, there is a marked difference between conventional crazy and crazy wisdom.

Figures said to have been divinely mad weren’t pitied or avoided, but respected. Some were made saints after death, like St. Procopius of Russia, who often slept naked on church steps.

When religion was the way we understood our world, madness caused by transcending to the highest peak of spirituality made perfect sense.

Not to be outdone by the Buddhists, the divinely mad in Sufism are called masts, which likely means intoxicated with God or simply overpowered. What could otherwise seem like routine mental illness is described by the well-known Indian spiritual teacher, Meher Baba:

Masts do not suffer from what may be called a disease.

They are in a state of mental disorder because their minds are overcome by such intense spiritual energies that are far too much for them, forcing them to lose contact with the world, shed normal human habits and customs, and civilized society and live in a state of spiritual splendor but physical squalor.

They are overcome by an agonizing love for God and are drowned in their ecstasy.

The Angel’s Message, 1905 — George Hillyard Swinstead

Whether it’s the Sufi masts, a Buddhist zen master, or a naked Russian saint, the belief in a level of enlightenment that drives one to act outside the norms of society stretches across culture and time.

The ancient Greeks also saw the role of divine madness in society. The cult of Dionysus set the stage for a temporary kind of divine madness—religious ecstasy.

In the confines of a cult ritual, Dionysus granted freedom from the self and society. Music and dance were more than just entertainment, but were powerful paths to the divine, that realm too vast and mysterious for humans to do anything more than blindly brush against.

This ritualized release, the momentary madness of transcending the banalities of societally restricted life, was seen by the Greeks as key to society’s health.

If not madness for the divine within the confines of ritual, then where?

The temporary debauchery and insanity were a spill-over valve, helping to stave off mass hysteria back in the everyday world.

In all cases of divine madness or momentary religious ecstasy, the common thread is transcendence—above the social norms and above the self.

What sets the raving Zen Buddhist and the raving influencer apart is the source of their strange behavior. While the influencer might break the same social norm as the holy fool, that action is usually in service of the self. The holy fool who sleeps naked on church steps or wanders alone through the countryside for years, eating only what is offered to them freely, acts in service of something beyond the self.

Self-transcendence isn’t a completely esoteric idea; psychologists from Maslow to Frankl have investigated what it means to move past yourself. Frankl described self-transcendence in a way that beautifully fits the life of the holy fool:

The essentially self-transcendent quality of human existence renders man a being reaching out beyond himself.

Attempts at scientifically measuring self-transcendence have made the unique experience of divine madness a little more understandable for our secular minds.

The Adult Self-Transcendence Inventory names 5 qualities that read like a profile of the holy fool:

  1. Self-knowledge and self-integration

  2. Peace of mind

  3. Non-attachment

  4. Self-transcendence

  5. Growth and presence in the here-and-now

Even more interesting is the outcome when these qualities aren’t joined by high self-directedness (a trait made up of qualities like responsibility, agency, and willpower) and high cooperativeness: psychotic tendencies.

While the average person is higher than the average psychiatric patient when it comes to these qualities of self-transcendence, without overall well-developed character traits, including self-directedness and cooperativeness, you have only the fool, none of the holy.

Hanshan, 9th-century poet and holy madman who was so reclusive he wrote his poems on rocks in the mountains and can’t even be proven to have existed.

Some parts of human life are beyond the reaches of the rational. We can measure and theorize about the deep love we feel for our child or the moment of perfect bliss when we know we’re exactly where we’re meant to be, but these are only the limited tools of limited beings.

The Zen poet Hanshan was said to answer people’s questions about Zen with nothing but hysterical laughter. Perhaps there is an understanding of this world so vast and true, that to touch it is to know only madness can explain it.

In fact, the best things we have come from madness.

Socrates, Phaedrus

The Güd

You may not have much money, but you have just as much attention to give as the next person. Your money isn’t always what everyone is after: news publications, advertisers, social media companies, musicians, me—your money is appreciated, but your attention is everything.

With your attention, money can come from elsewhere; without your attention, we don’t exist. [3 unread messages]. Everything wants your attention today, from the people in your life who’ve always desired it [Scam Likely calling], to the new companies who’ve crept into your daily life [BREAKING: Minor politician in place you’ve never heard of might have said something stupid…] and remind you to check in on your inbox that happens to be located in their product. [Someone you might know is using this app. Will this make you open it?]

You are wanted, even if it is just as a metric.

But there’s a cost to being so desirable; celebrities and CEOs have assistants and secretaries to block the incessant stream of demands for their attention—what do you have? [Are you enjoying this app that provides a constant sense of dread or insecurity? Rate us now!]

Our eyes and ears are what buy that celebrity’s 4th mansion. What do you get in return? [Is Khloe Kardashian’s Hair Style Offensive? Tell Us What You Think.]

Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.

—José Ortega y Gasset, Man and Crisis

Yayoi Kusama Accumulated Eyes are Singing

The ability to be constantly connected and give our attention away any time we aren’t asleep should come with a warning:

When your attention goes to one place, it doesn’t go to another.

Consumption requires attention, but creation requires vastly more attention.
The more we consume, the less we create. Once upon a time (i.e. pre-radio), people often entertained themselves with creation. Whether it was writing poetry or playing instruments, spare time often required you to entertain yourself.

Is a 30-minute break better spent consuming headlines and spats between strangers, or writing bad poetry about the speed of leaves falling from the trees?

We may be entertained every minute of the day we’re not occupied, but we’re consuming a product to solve a problem that might be our solution to a bigger problem.

Jan Tarasin - Self Portrait, 1978

Our attention can do a lot—it can spur creativity, it can ease a person’s pain, it can teach us something new, it can solve a problem.

The more attention we give to something, the more the outcome of that something will grow.

Give attention to your fears and they grow; give attention to your relationship and it grows; give attention to your creative work and it grows; give attention to what makes you anxious and that grows.

When it comes to the Olympics of attention, this is the realm where “flow” reigns. If you’ve heard of it, you probably know of it as the science behind being “in the zone.” There are lots of clichéd and woo-woo euphemisms for this state of mind; that’s what humans do when they collectively experience something they can’t quite understand or describe.

Today, the flow state is better understood; research has brought recognition to what once seemed like a random, mysterious experience. Flow is its own state of consciousness, apart from the mindset we use to go about daily life. When the right qualities come together, your brain reacts with an unusual change—part of it shuts down.

With your pre-frontal cortex going into temporary hibernation, all the qualities of flow appear, from the sense of time being warped, the hyper-speed of making decisions, the drop in stress and anxiety, the increase in creativity and pattern-recognition, and even the faded sense of self that’s usually reserved for deep meditation or special mushrooms.

Flow is the best part of your brain in overdrive; it yields the peak of your abilities.

When we’re amazed by an athlete’s superhuman movements, by the passion of a musician’s performance, by the genius of a creative entrepreneur, we’re really just appreciating the beauty of watching another human reach their peak through flow.

If you want to take your attention back and see what awaits at your peak, here are the basic ingredients for flow:

  • 90-120 minutes of focused, uninterrupted attention on a task is the minimum, with 4 hours on the high end.

  • Embrace the cycle: discomfort and frustration aren’t the obstacles to flow, but the door.

  • Choose a task that’s challenging; don’t try to paint the Mona Lisa, but don’t paint a color-by-numbers picture either. Flow is found in tasks that push you, but don’t break you.

  • Flow “triggers” are qualities that often lead to flow. Building as many of these qualities into the time and task you’re focusing on increases the chance you’ll find that peak performance state:

    • Passion/purpose

    • Complexity

    • Immediate feedback (like missing a throw in basketball)

    • Clear goals

    • Novelty (something unusual or new, either in the task or in doing the task. Today I decided to write as soon as I woke up instead of hours after my morning routine and breakfast. I never do this, so it’s a novel element to my usual work).

    • Unpredictability

    • Challenge

    • Creativity/pattern recognition

(To get deeper into the study of finding flow, start here).

Flow isn’t as black-and-white a state of mind as it sounds. Stepping away from your task is sometimes a crucial part of getting into the flow of that task.

Another activity—like taking a walk, cleaning, drawing, or reading—can all be great ways to remove your focus from the original task and come back with deeper focus after taking a break from it.

This is not a check your phone kind of break, but a carefully constructed attention shift, à la Kant taking his afternoon walk after hours of writing his manifesto of the universe.

You now own the recipe for flow, a remedy against the fractured attention of our modern lives that sucks our time away and sends us back to our day with less focus and more anxiety. There is no shortage of problems in our society, but those problems are only made worse by the environment that prevents us from focusing on them long enough to see solutions.

We react and recoil, react and recoil.

We’re selling our attention to the lowest bidder and losing the chance to see what that attention could do if we spent it on ourselves instead.

What can you do at the peak of your creativity and focus? Perhaps more than anything else, we owe it to the world to find out.

What I love most about flow is that it isn’t a privilege or a right—it’s an inalienable aspect of the human experience. That is, if you guard it. Flow is inextricably linked to attention: no attention, no flow. And why should we get to reach the peak of our performance if we can’t sacrifice an hour or two of dedicated attention to achieving it?

The cost of entry for touching the limits of your ability is your willingness to spend the attention that’s coveted by every company on yourself instead.

Today we carry around anti-flow devices everywhere we go. Setting aside the 90-120 minutes required to find enough focus to flow wasn’t as difficult when our phones didn’t ring with unknown numbers every hour and our apps didn’t ping with unimportant notifications every few minutes.

You might be more entertained than any generation before, but you are also the most attention-impoverished; we have never spent so much attention in so many places and gotten so little in return for it.

Can you create something interesting if you stop looking at it every 30 minutes to read a notification about something much less interesting?

Flow isn’t just about you, it’s about what you could offer the world: what problems in your profession could be solved; how competitive you could be; what art you could create; how fulfilled you could feel.

When you put your attention somewhere, does it pay dividends or disappear into a black hole?

Anaïs Nin, Mirages: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1939-1947

I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.

I sit alone at a desk biting my nails to bring you every edition of Spiritual Soap. Is it worth it? Don’t tell me, show me; share my work or donate to help keep me going.