I believe gnawing and uncomfortable sensations (nihilism, restlessness, etc) that one may not quite understand how to resolve are a manifestation of poorly understood desires, and there are concrete practices one can develop to help understand and resolve these sensations. We’ve come to associate certain sensations in our stomach with the idea of hunger because they are resolved by putting certain types of objects into our mouth and chewing. What if we didn’t know about food — how would we understand “hunger”? What does this say about a complex sensation like “anxiety”?
The human mind can be thought of as a machine that produces and satisfies desires. We become familiar with these desires from birth. When we exit the womb we don’t yet know how to breathe, but it is likely that we already desire to. It appears as though the mere exposure to air is sufficient to make the newborn aware that “breathing in” is an option available to it, and that upon doing so it comes to realize that this breathing thing satisfies some gnawing feeling (a desire for air). This is the mind’s first exposure to a “satisfaction lever” — an affordance for desire-satisfaction. As the mind matures it becomes aware of (produces!) new desires for itself: mother, food, stimulus, friends, approval, status, money, expression, meaning, etc. We create habits, both “good” and “bad”, that create their own desires. Pulling satisfaction levers gives us access to objects of desire — the things that can be taken from outside the organism and brought in — which temporarily satisfy some desire.
This may feel strange, but it seems that there is no a priori relationship between the sensations of desire and the corresponding objects that satisfy them. From our point of view, it feels intuitive that the hunger sensation in the stomach would logically be related to a desire for food. But as we can see with children, they often have little sense of when they are hungry or thirsty or sleepy and often adults must force some levers upon them — often in response to crankiness or general antisocial behavior on the part of the child. Over many repetitions, as the sensations of desire present themselves and are then followed by their satisfaction with a familiar pattern of objects — available through the pulling of satisfaction levers — the mind makes the association stronger and stronger until it just “is”. It is hard to imagine alternative manifestations of the feeling of hunger.
As the mind matures and continues to manufacture new desires, we must continue to seek the satisfaction levers that satiate them. Without a parent paying attention to our whining and offering us potential levers, we must seek them out on our own. This becomes especially tricky with desires that only rear their heads every once in awhile rather than on a daily basis. The ability to satisfy feelings of having low energy with exercise is a non-intuitive one, but once a habit is established the lever becomes one we can easily reach for because we know it’s there. However, often minds find themselves experiencing frustrating sensations that they don’t associate with obvious levers. Feelings described with words such as anxiety, restlessness, ennui, or nihilism may fall into this category. To expect to reason from the raw sensations to the corresponding action which would satisfy them seems exceptionally difficult. A more bountiful approach is to find some potential satisfaction levers to pull and pay attention to what happens to these ill-defined sensations.
Furthermore, there seems to be a capacity where we can seek out new levers, even if it is not clear what they may be for. Sometimes we accidentally pull a lever that gives us some unexpected feeling of relief or pleasure. This seems to be the satisfaction of a desire that one was not aware of or could not previously articulate. This is an important feeling. When this happens, one can take note of the relationship and begin building a list of “non-obvious satisfaction levers”. Then, periodically, one can scan this list. By allowing the mind to imagine pulling on one of these levers, it can feel out whether at that time it would satisfy some hidden, poorly understood desire. At the same time, by starting to map which levers satisfy which kinds of feelings, we are able to better understand and describe these amorphous feelings of desire.
Some ideas for satisfaction levers that may relate to complex, hard to describe desires:
- Cultivating presence and mindfulness: paying attention to the moment on a purely physical level rather than to thoughts and ideas generated
- Creating objects: anything from abstract art to software to social experiences
- Destroying objects: getting rid of stuff, tearing something down into its parts for potential reuse, clearing away or reorganizing space
- Taking physical or social risks: seeking out unfamiliar manifestations of fear