- 00:00:00 — Opening
- 00:21:52 — Zeitgeist reflector
- 00:36:36 — Lazy adoption of mainstream paradigms
- 00:52:07 — The (new) path of least resistance
- 01:17:13 — Body work
Hello, everyone. I am Ithaka. And this is Sponge, a podcast where we absorb elements from the world to form a perspective of our own and find beauty.
The theme for today’s episode is this: The biggest step toward taking the path of least resistance is deciding to acknowledge what that path is for oneself at a given moment, without automatically accepting the norms of one’s surroundings. That is what I absorbed while reading “The Burnout Society” by Han Byung-Chul.
The book was written in German, with the original title “Müdigkeitsgesellschaft.” I read the Korean translation of it, with the title “피로사회.” These two titles are basically literal dictionary translations of each other.
What is interesting is that the English title contains the word “burnout” instead of “fatigue” or “tiredness.” I would say that burnout is related to fatigue and tiredness but isn’t the same thing. But, “burnout” is what the English translator chose, and that word is in the title.
This is a very short book. You could read through it in one sitting, in an hour or two. But if you are looking to understand the text in a way that you can apply something to your specific situation, it is worth re-reading over long periods of time—by which I mean, many years—and/or reading slowly so that you can think about it and digest it. And for that purpose, as well as because the book is so short, I think it’s best that you… actually read the book to understand what the book says.
As always, this episode of Sponge will not be about the book itself, it will be about what I absorbed—the perspective. And, in that process, hopefully, we’ll also cover some beauty. So, I will only read some paragraphs from Wikipedia, as a summary, and then move on to the part about what I absorbed as a result of the book, which isn’t really what’s in the book or about the book.
Despite the summary, again, I strongly, strongly suggest that you read the book. The author, Mr. Han, said in a commencement speech from 2022 that he writes his text in such a way that every single line compels the reader to underline it. So, in the end, every part of the book contains its core message, and it’s like… I actually think that whoever wrote these paragraphs in Wikipedia did a good job summarizing a text so dense and short.
Another reason I will read from Wikipedia is that I didn’t read the text in English, not fully. I read the Korean version. And with the title, “The Burnout Society,” already containing a word that… to me, it’s a strange translation choice. Burnout, by now, means something very specific. It is a specific type of fatigue/tiredness. Not only that, toward the end of the book, Mr. Han talks about the different types of fatigue or tiredness, one of which isn’t necessarily undesirable. But when you replace the word fatigue or tiredness with the word burnout, that lack of undesirability, or even the potential desirability of a certain type of fatigue or tiredness makes no sense, because I don’t think there is any kind of burnout that is ever not undesirable or desirable.
We’ll look at what the English translator decided to do with that later section of the book. But, mainly what I talk about will be based on what I absorbed from the Korean version. Mr. Han writes in German, and he was born in Korea and speaks Korean fluently. I will stick to what I absorbed from the Korean version, which also contained some of the original German words to aid understanding.
Anyway, thank gods for Wikipedia. Quote, ”Much of Han’s writing is characterized by an underlying concern with the situation encountered by human subjects in the fast-paced, technologically-driven state of late capitalism. The situation is explored in its various facets through his books: sexuality, mental health (particularly burnout, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), violence, freedom, technology, and popular culture.
“In The Burnout Society, Han characterizes today’s society as a pathological landscape of neuronal disorders such as depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, borderline personality and burnout. He claims that they are not “infections” but “infarcts”, which are not caused by the negativity of people’s immunology, but by an excess of positivity. According to Han, driven by the demand to persevere and not to fail, as well as by the ambition of efficiency, we become committers and sacrificers at the same time and enter a swirl of demarcation, self-exploitation and collapse. [Quote within quote] “When production is immaterial, everyone already owns the means of production, him- or herself. The neoliberal system is no longer a class system in the proper sense. It does not consist of classes that display mutual antagonism. This is what accounts for the system’s stability.”[End of quote within quote.]
“Han argues that subjects become self-exploiters: [Quote within quote] “Today, everyone is an auto-exploiting labourer in his or her own enterprise. People are now master and slave in one. Even class struggle has transformed into an inner struggle against oneself.”[End of quote within quote.] The individual has become what Han calls “the achievement-subject”; the individual does not believe they are subjugated “subjects” but rather “projects: Always refashioning and reinventing ourselves” which “amounts to a form of compulsion and constraint—indeed, to a “more efficient kind of subjectivation and subjugation.” As a project deeming itself free of external and alien limitations, the “I” subjugates itself to internal limitations and self-constraints, which are taking the form of compulsive achievement and optimization.”
This book was published in 2010. And the Korean translation, according to our beloved Wikipedia, was published in 2011. I remember getting the book not long after it was published, in Korean. So, maybe I read it in 2011, maybe I read it sometime in 2012. But definitely no later than 2015.
And I recall that, during and after I read the book for the first time, I was pleasantly shocked. What Mr. Han was talking about made so much sense, and it almost exactly described the situation in which I found myself. Back then, I was very much intent on staying on the “right track,” right as defined by the society around me, as well as myself, who, even as I thought I was struggling against said society, was very much not imaginative enough to think of anything other than what everyone else was talking about.
And in the word “society,” I include the Korean society but also the US society, because by that time, I was already living in the United States, but also, I have always been able to speak Korean, never forgot the language, never lost touch with the culture entirely. So I was influenced by both, in addition to all the other cultures around me, including the German culture, probably. I went to Kindergarten, elementary school, and a couple of years of Gymnasium in Germany, and although that was only for six years, I think spending my early years there probably continued to influence me, and probably still influences me in some way.
Speaking of different cultures—I’m not even sure there is a point in distinguishing the country of origin when talking about something like “society,” anymore, because, in the 2010s, by then, we were already well on our way to a global society. Not as much as now, the year 2023, but even back in 2010, we already kind of knew, no matter where we lived, what the global mainstream culture pushed as the norm. We knew the images that it pushed as being desirable. And I was very much part of that global mainstream… ladder-climbing activity, in that I studied for twelve miserable years at school, no, sixteen miserable years, getting an “education”—in very big air quotes—that did absolutely nothing, in order to get jobs at places that, in my opinion, contribute absolutely nothing to society or even individuals, except maybe the individuals who own such companies. And even that is a “maybe.” And I knew the stupidity of the system where I was in, back then. And yet, I was still there, because… I don’t even know why, except that I wasn’t as imaginative as I wished I were. I don’t know if there was a true “because,” a truly justifiable reason, except my own reluctance to face my fears.
Anyway, I spent close to two decades on that so-called right track. And during parts of those two decades, I participated in the system for sheer survival. I mentioned in episode 18, what I saw at one of the schools that I attended. I saw children being beaten to the point of collapsing. Not beaten by another child, no. I saw them being beaten by teachers, while the other teachers looked on. And one of the ways in which I could protect myself was to ace the exams. Really, it was as simple as that, which only multiplied my disgust for those so-called teachers. They couldn’t touch me if I studied well and I made it clear that my parents would not just stand by if they dared to beat the shit out of me, unlike the children who, unfortunately, either their parents didn’t care or they were too busy to be around, and their grades suffered, and so those so-called disgusting teachers could claim that they were beating those children up so they could study better—which is fucking nonsense. It’s fucking outrageous nonsense.
But so, during that time, I participated in the machine that consists of slaves against masters, so that I would be a slave who wasn’t beaten. I knew very well, back then, that I couldn’t escape the system. Oh, I knew of people who went to alternative schools and such, but I was neither brave enough nor imaginative enough. Also, anytime there is a system, and something else is called the alternative, it requires from the participants in the alternative route an inordinate amount of resources, an unfair amount of resources, to take that path. So, this wasn’t just about me. It was about the whole family and just how much it would take us to get out of the system.
If I were to cut some slack, for myself, now, in hindsight—then I would add that I was too young and not knowledgable enough about the variety of reality in the greater world. Even as I saw myself as the slave who was struggling against the masters, I was thoroughly brainwashed and thus could not see myself as not being a slave.
Thus I was a slave. That was the biggest reason—that I saw myself as not being able to escape the system. And here, just in case, I’ll mention—we’re talking about slave and master in the philosophical sense here, although, if fully grown-up men can beat up fourteen-year-old children, I don’t know if it’s purely philosophical anymore. It sounded and looked and felt pretty literally slavish to me, to keep children dressed in uniforms, stop them from leaving, control what they do at what time of the day, and beat them up.
Anyway, I knew I was a slave back then, whether literal or philosophical, I just didn’t know the words for it. And many years later, Mr. Han and other philosophers gave me the words.
And after those years of schooling, I wasn’t truly a slave anymore, in the sense that, perhaps I could’ve run from the system, if I had truly wanted to. But I think partly, by then, the desire to run was beaten out of me, in the figurative sense, for a long while. No one had beaten me, physically, but I just… I couldn’t imagine anymore how to run. So, while getting my Bachelor’s degree and afterward, while working in the corporate world for a short while, and even after getting out of the corporate world, I think I was what Mr. Han describes as the “achievement subject”—the one who is both slave and master. As in, I was still a slave—I just thought I was free or freer because I had become my own slavedriver.
And 2011 or 2012, when I read this book for the first time, was when I was in that transition phase of going from slave-against-master to a slave-and-master. As I mentioned earlier, this book was such a pleasant shock. Mr. Han knew exactly what he was talking about.
But the thing is, now in the year 2023, when I look back… That pleasant shock… was wrong. Back then, I thought I wasn’t a slave anymore. But I was smack in the middle of being a slave-as-master, slave as her own slavedriver—as an achievement subject, a project.
So, what I call “a pleasant shock” was actually me being delusional. I thought, after reading this book for the first time, that I was pleasantly shocked because I was neither slave-against-master nor slave-as-master. But in reality, I was pleasantly shocked because I was so deeply brainwashed as a slave, that even when I was slave as well as master, I couldn’t even see it.
I thought I was taking good care of myself. At least way more than when I was struggling against the masters. And that was probably true. I mean, no one could stop me from leaving. No one could make me stay. That was a really important element for me, that ability to leave, and it still is.
But think about it. Think about how much my focus was still outward. I was still so terrified from the years of the slave struggling against the masters, that I prioritized my needs from those years. I still functioned from the need to protect myself. It hadn’t stopped since the slavedrivers left and I became my own slavedriver. What I called “taking care of myself” in the year 2011/2012 and what I still called it not that long ago, say, early 2023, like, just a month ago, was merely me doing both what a slave would do and what a master would do.
My personal story aside, I think this book could bring pleasant shocks to many people in many different circumstances. What this book says has a lot of insight. We gotta remember that it was published in 2010.
In contrast to then, we know, now, in the year 2023, what burnout is, what fatigue is, what tiredness is—probably because of various media like this book. Because, there is reality, and then there is how reality is framed. People don’t just spontaneously all start using the same vocabulary. Someone adopts a set of vocabulary and another person adopts it, that spreads, and some such sets of vocabularies, after a certain point, become the Zeitgeist.
Nowadays, type in anything on Youtube, and burnout will be mentioned at least tangentially. Same with fatigue and tiredness of various kinds. The video doesn’t necessarily have to be about psychology or self-care. It could be a Youtuber with two million subscribers declaring that they’re leaving Youtube, because they’re burned out. Or a tech worker sharing their story because they’re chronically fatigued. Or a new parent, or an old parent, or children, for gods’ sake, are constantly tired, and no wonder, because there is so much stuff out there, so much hustle, so much productivity craze. But at least everyone is aware of it, more or less.
This is very different from how it used to be twenty years ago. I distinctly remember from my childhood that, in the late 20th century, there used to be this… disbelief about people being psychologically and mentally overwhelmed. There still used to be this belief from the 19th century or the early 20th century, that physical labor is the only kind of labor that can cause fatigue and tiredness. There was even the belief that the mind and body are entirely separate entities, not just for the convenience of description and understanding, but truly so. Truly, I got the sense that a huge chunk of various societies in various countries treated humans like machines with replaceable software, meaning, replaceable souls.
Even up to 2012, maybe because there was so much unfounded optimism until the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007/2008, and in its aftermath, such unfounded optimism still lingered, I don’t think there was a mainstream understanding of psychological and mental burnout. Of the fatigue of the entire economy. Of the tiredness of the entirety of the mainstream culture that humanity had built up to that point.
So, when this book came out, I got the sense that it was early. Or rather, it was very timely. It appeared just right at the time when the global culture was opening its eyes to this… mirage that is the capitalist utopia, and this book and perhaps similar media provided the right set of paradigms, and along with it, a set of vocabulary.
Such a utopia cannot be sustained. And yet, in so many countries, pension plans are still, to this day, built as a pyramid scheme. The entire world economy, to this day, more or less, is still built as a pyramid scheme, more or less. We still talk about year-to-year growth, so unless the bottom multiplies, everything collapses. But the bottom cannot multiply indefinitely.
And at least, in 2023, we know that. Even as some people talk about going to the moon or Mars—and, I have nothing against going to other planets or wherever, it’s just that, the context in which they talk about going to other planets is that they think that we should keep feeding the pyramid scheme. As in, instead of getting rid of a pyramid scheme that makes no sense, altogether, not right away but at least slowly and gradually, what they’re advocating is simply continuing more of the same thing that led to all kinds of scarcity problems in the physical world as well as mental fatigue/tiredness/burnout.
But at least, in 2023, I don’t get the sense that very many people like the idea of continued pyramid schemes. Many of us who are now in the… say, 20 to 40 age bracket, we will not reap the benefits of social security and other pension plans. The bottom does not exist. What we have under us, or what will come after us, cannot be properly called the bottom, because it is smaller than us. And that in and of itself—the fact that the bottom is smaller than the layer above it—isn’t wrong. It isn’t morally wrong. In fact, if we were to talk about morals, I would argue that it is morally right, because, just how much larger can the bottom become without destroying everything around it? At some point there’s got to be one generation that doesn’t expand. Otherwise, if there were a million people in one generation and there need to be three million people in the next generation, and in the next, there need to be nine million people, and after that, 27 million people, really, how long can this go on? Even if we go to Mars, we will fill Mars with the next pyramid scheme, and the bottom of that will one day give in.
But. Right around that time, 2010, when the book was originally published in German, and 2011/2012, when I read it in Korean, I don’t think the mainstream culture was thinking about these problems as much as it is doing so now. It’s amazing, actually. It should’ve been obvious from the beginning that pyramid schemes cannot be sustained, but I guess the people who claim that they’re doing things for reproduction, the future generations, and the continued existence of humanity don’t truly actually care about those things.
Yeah, I still distinctly remember that gilded unfounded optimism, and I don’t think it was merely because I was young, back then. I think it truly was a case where… I was living in the last years of people believing in the dreams of utopias built on pyramid schemes. And I was sensing that it couldn’t continue like that. My own personal situation aside, that much, I could tell. In my personal life, I was delusional enough that I didn’t even notice that I was still a slave; but the world as a whole? It couldn’t continue on like that.
Another interesting story here, which connects the personal and the societal dimensions, somewhat, is this. At one of my corporate jobs—this was, I think it was 2012–older people were coming back to work. You know, people who had already retired were coming back as freelancers. It was because their 401(k)s had tanked so badly that they needed the cash. And this was… more than ten years ago. Even then, even as I was being a slave, I thought, “ooh, I cannot rely on a job, or a retirement plan, or on anything else, for that matter.” The era in which you worked for 30, 40 years and then peacefully retired because the economy continues to reliably expand? That era was gone. The era in which you could buy a house and a car and a second car and pay for your kids’ tuition by working 30, 40 years and then never again—that was gone. It could never be sustained, and finally it was proving unsustainable in an undeniable way.
At any rate, recently, in late 2022/early 2023, someone suggested that I read this book again. And then, in March 2023, dark things happened in my life, and this long-planned episode about this book got delayed. And I read the book yet again.
What I found was astonishing. I think over the past many years, I probably read this book at least 10 times. And each time the book was surprising, for different reasons. Roughly, I can divide my life as well as my reaction to this book into three stages.
Stage one is around the year 2011/2012, when I first read the book. As I said, I was pleasantly shocked. The book felt so right, so timely, so true—and yet, I was still a slave who didn’t know who was a slave.
Oddly enough, April 2012 was when I decided that I was gonna write. Right when I was still in that slave mindset, I started writing. I don’t know why. One day, I was watching a TV show and decided “Oh, I wanna write something like that. A story.” Maybe it was me, unconsciously transitioning to stage two of my life.
Speaking of which. Stage two probably began sometime between 2012 and 2019. I cannot pinpoint it, exactly. And it lasted until early March 2023. When I read this book again in late 2022/early 2023, right before stage two ended, I thought the book did not apply to me anymore. By then, I thought had gotten out of both the slave-against-master system and the slave-as-master system, only, I couldn’t leave those systems behind in a consistent manner. As in, I knew what it was like not to be a slave. I knew the bliss of the flow state, total absorption, living in the love of what I do. But I returned to the slave system from time to time, because of my own lazy thinking. I will elaborate on this point in the next section. This lazy thinking part is why the book was still surprising. The point, for now, is that I thought escaping the slave mindset was a matter of figuring out a way toward consistency.
And then came stage three. This was during and after dark stuff happened in March 2023. I re-read this book again, and it was again shocking, in a completely different way. It was because now, finally, I could see that even in stage two, it wasn’t a matter of consistency that was the issue. There was still so much resistance. And only now, I think I am starting to see that, which is why I am standing at the beginning of the path of least resistance.
Lazy adoption of mainstream paradigms
Before we get to the path of least resistance, let’s talk about my lazy stage first. And before that, a reminder. Please leave a review and/or rating where you listen to this podcast, so that other Thursday’s children can find it.
So. While you do that, first:
The second stage. The one where I thought the book didn’t apply to me anymore, because I had already experienced leaving the slave system—both the slave-against-master system and the slave-as-master system. I was so confident of this, because I had experienced the flow state.
Those early writing years started in April 2012, and lasted until late 2019 or so. Those seven years. Wow. I don’t know if it was because I was a blissfully ignorant newbie, or because I was truly experiencing joy like a kid, or if it was pure chance… or maybe it was because I wasn’t publishing then, I didn’t have podcasts, I didn’t have steady blogs, so there was nothing external. It was just me writing. That might have played a role.
At any rate, I don’t know what the exact reason was. But during those years, when I was in flow state, there was no time, there was no me. There was pure love. Pure story. I disappeared. I was in the present. It was beautiful. And so, in the later part of the second stage, between late 2019 and early March 2023, my goal was to always go back to that state. Yes, I knew that I occasionally returned to the slave system, of thinking that I had to do more more more, new new new, and I fell into the death spiral of marketing research and whatnot, but I also thought I had experienced leaving the system. Because, in flow state, there is no slave. There is no master. There is just love. So, I figured, it was as simple as returning to that flow state.
I thought that all I needed was to be careful that I didn’t fall into the trap of lazy thinking. That was why the book was surprising when I re-read it in the later years of stage two—because at that point in time, it seemed that I was adopting its paradigm even though I didn’t need to.
See, related to this, there is an interesting post in the interwebs, titled, “How technology changes the way we understand ourselves.” I keep referring to this post in various situations, because it’s free, anyone with an internet connection can access it, and also, it’s so… it rings true.
The very first sentence of this post is, quote, “Human beings have always tried to understand themselves by comparison with the leading technologies of the time.” End quote.
Thus, when clockwork mechanisms began making their appearance, Descartes and Denis Diderot in the 17th and 18th centuries, respectively, compared the human body to a clockwork.
Meanwhile, quote, ”With the rise of steam power and new forms of hydraulic technology, clockwork metaphors increasingly give way to hydraulic imagery. The human body is now conceived as a system of tubes and chambers filled with incompressible fluids. It has often been pointed out that Sigmund Freud’s model of human psychology is based on hydraulics, with libido conceived as an incompressible fluid, channelled within the subterranean tubes of the mind. Just as a steam engine might explode if excessive pressure was not safely released, so the human psyche was at risk of excessive libidinous forces with potentially destructive consequences (!).” End quote.
And then, in the early 21st century, we’re here comparing ourselves to “information processing machines.” Quote, “We talk of human beings as ‘hard-wired’, ‘suffering from information overload’, ‘programmed for failure’, ‘needing a reboot.’ It is commonplace to take the computer concepts of software and hardware and apply them to our own humanity. Our hardware (often dismissively referred to as wetware) is the physical stuff of our brains – nerve cells, connections, neurotransmitter chemicals. Our software is the information that somehow resides in our brains – memories, perceptions, emotions, thoughts.” End quote.
The most recent iteration of this idea that humans try to understand themselves by comparison with the leading technologies of the time is the phrase, “Don’t be an NPC.” NPC stands for “non-player character.” It is, quote from Wikipedia, “any character in a game that is not controlled by a player.” End quote.
Basically, this phrase is used to point out to people that they should take charge of their lives. Instead of being an NPC of your own life, you should, well, play your own character. Don’t just believe something that someone else says, and don’t just do what you’re told to do. Don’t be a mindless drone.
Now, although the book “The Burnout Society” does not make direct comparisons between humans and the latest technology, I bring up this idea that humans compare themselves to the latest technology because I could imagine that if a person weren’t familiar with a term like NPC, or if a person weren’t familiar with information processing machines, they may very well remain in the era of Freud, and continue to compare themselves to steam engines. And that is sort of what happened to me, with this book, in stage two.
The first time I read it, it was so timely and I was right in the middle of what the author was describing, but didn’t even know it. I didn’t even know I was still a slave. I didn’t know that the very reason this book probably rang so true and was so pleasantly shocking was because I was a slave.
And during stage two, I re-read it and the reason it was shocking was that I thought, I was using the paradigm that applied to Stage One Me. And I thought that was why I was stuck with the lack of consistency of the flow state. I thought it was like me not updating my paradigm, like me sticking to the Freudian hydraulics metaphors, when I should’ve moved on to the information processing system analogy. I thought if I altogether abandoned this paradigm of slave systems that “The Burnout Society” points out, then I could be free, more consistently.
As recently as January 27, 2023, I published an episode on my Korean podcast saying something to that effect: that I realized that I don’t need to be a slave, so long as I don’t fall into the trap of lazy thinking of adopting old paradigms that don’t apply to me anymore.
I thought I knew what Mr. Han meant when he was talking about the desirable kind of fatigue or tiredness, near the end of his book. I mean, this isn’t a self-help book, so it’s not like he’s trying to give the readers a solution to their life, or anything like that, but he gives us a pointer, a general direction in which to look. And I thought I was already going in that direction—only, I needed to add the consistency.
What Mr. Han talks about near the end of the book is Mr. Handke’s idea of tiredness. So, see, okay. I am using Scribd… or Scribd? I never know how they say their name. Anyway, I’m using Scribd to access the English version of “The Burnout Society.” The English translator chose to use “burnout” in the title, but used “tiredness” for Mr. Handke’s reference.
Quote, “Handke’s tiredness is not “I-tiredness”; it is not the tiredness of an exhausted ego. He calls it “we-tiredness.” I am not tired “of you,” as he puts it, but rather I am tired “with you”: “Thus we sat—in my recollection always out of doors in the afternoon sun—savoring our common tiredness whether or not we were talking. … A cloud of tiredness, an ethereal tiredness, held us together then.” End quote.
Mr. Han also says, quote, “Tiredness that inspires is tiredness of negative potency, namely of not-to. The Sabbath, too—a word that originally meant stopping [aufhören]—is a day of not-to; speaking with Heidegger, it is a day free of all in-order-to, of all care. It is a matter of interval [Zwischenzeit]. After He created it, God declared the Seventh Day holy. That is, the day of in-order-to is not sacred, but rather the day of not-to, a day on which the use of the useless proves possible. It is a day of tiredness. The interval is a time without work, a time of, and for, play [Spielzeit]; it also differs from Heidegger’s definition of time, which is essentially a matter of care and work. Handke describes this interval as a time of peace. Tiredness is disarming. In the long, slow gaze of the tired person, resolution [Entschlossenheit] yields to a state of calm. The interval, inbetween time, is a period of in-difference as friendliness.” End quote.
And I thought… I thought I understood what this meant. Until a month ago, I actually thought I understood what it meant. I thought it simply meant the flow state that I knew I had experienced, that I knew I could return to, if only I wasn’t distracted by the slave paradigm that I wasn’t part of anymore, and especially if I wasn’t distracted by the external environment—namely, hustle culture, productivity gurus, and the more more more, new new new chants. I thought that I didn’t have consistency because I was easily distracted, because the productivity gurus were so loud, because I was thinking lazily, or more like, not thinking at all.
But now, in hindsight, after March 2023, I am realizing that just a couple of months ago, even then, I was still in the slave mindset. The problem wasn’t one of consistency, according to my theory now. In fact, in hindsight, stage one and stage two are quite similar, in that both of them are based on resistance.
And this resistance—perhaps this is at the core of all slave systems and similar human states.
The (new) path of least resistance
And now, stage three. Now, I think I am finally at the beginning of the path of least resistance. I think I am finally actually seeing what Mr. Handke meant by the we-tiredness. The biggest step toward taking the path of least resistance is deciding to acknowledge what that path is for oneself at a given moment, without automatically accepting the norms of one’s surroundings.
From Wikipedia, quote, “The path of least resistance is the physical or metaphorical pathway that provides the least resistance to forward motion by a given object or entity, among a set of alternative paths.” End quote.
In stage one, I was definitely accepting the norms of my surroundings, because I… I basically didn’t have much choice, or so I thought. It wasn’t like I was gonna run away from school, which was supposed to be mandatory education. And I was either too young or stupid or fearful to think about practical steps through which I might take non-standard paths, or seemingly non-standard paths.
In stage two, I thought I was doing alternative things, and I was, superficially. I was writing, I made job-related decisions that went against every common sense. I didn’t want the promotion, I didn’t want to be like my boss or boss’s boss in twenty years, it sounded and looked terrible, it sounded and looked like the very definition of a nightmare. And sometimes, during stage two, I experienced true bliss because of those decisions I made; thanks to those decisions, I could enter flow state with no one else bothering me.
But, I’m saying, even stage two wasn’t the path of least resistance. Even during that stage, right up until early March 2023, I was focused on resistance. Was it as a slave? Against the master? Against myself? I don’t know. Was it as some other entity? Because it’s not only slaves who resist. One might argue that nature itself operates, to some extent, from resistance. When we turn on the heaters in winter, we resist the cold. That’s not because we’re slaves. At least I wouldn’t see it that way. And some resistance like that is fine. I think it is even desirable, when the reason for resistance comes from within. When I feel cold and I feel the need or want to turn on the heater, then not only does it ensure my survival, but also, possibly, my comfort, my sense of well-being, and thus it would affect what I produce, or, heck, not produce. I could just as well sit comfortably in my warm room and enjoy the warmth, without any ulterior motives.
But when the reason for resistance comes from without, or when it occurs because what is within is completely ignored—then I think it could lead to problems.
The reason for resistance coming from without: this would be when someone were to tell another person that they must heat their house during winter, regardless of whether this person feels cold or not. In that case, the resistance against winter would occur due to someone else demanding it, even when the actual person who will experience the effects of the heater may… maybe they’re into ice baths. I don’t know. Why not? But some other person who thinks they’re master suddenly treats this ice bath lover like a slave to heating systems.
And the reason for resistance coming not from without, but while ignoring what is within, would be if a person were to set a heating schedule, regardless of how they feel at any given moment. As crazy as that sounds, that was exactly what I was doing, at times, during stage two. And also, I think this is what the greater society is doing. That is why the terms burnout, fatigue, and tiredness are so widely used. It’s because we don’t listen to our internal selves to decide whether we want the heater on or off; we rely too much on what has to be, not according to any external master, but the master that we are to ourselves. The pre-set schedules that we have for ourselves. The expectations that we have for ourselves. Not to say that schedules or budgets or long-term plans don’t have value, but I think we as a society are by now at the peak of the ridiculousness of this phenomenon—this reason for resistance occurring while completely ignoring what is within—and that is why burnout, fatigue, and tiredness have floated to the conscious Zeitgeist, instead of remaining buried in the subconscious.
And so, basically what I am trying to do in stage three is to listen to my body to decide whether I want the heater on or off. When it’s cold, instead of listening to someone else’s demand to turn on the heater, or instead of following my past self’s demands, or future self’s demands, can I listen to my present self’s actual state of the body to make the decision?
Somewhat terrifyingly, I suck at this. I don’t know how it is with other people who’ve grown used to the hustle mindset—the control-your-own destiny, work hard, create more, produce new stuff mindset—but I am actually, terrifyingly, terrible at noticing what I need and want on a moment to moment basis.
And, to be clear, the path of least resistance has nothing to do with choosing the easier path in the absolute sense. The path of least resistance is different for each individual, and probably also, different for an individual depending on where they are in life, or who they are.
See, when I was in stage one, stage one seemed the easiest, even when I said I hated it. And the same with stage two. Stage two seemed the easiest.
Only after dark things happened this past March did my path of least resistance change, and that is because I am not the same person as I was only a month, two months ago. March was a transition phase. I was searching for answers. Various… weird corners of Youtube. Psychology, medicine, physics, spirituality, religion, all kinds of things, I was looking up, watching, reading… Because I could see: my path of least resistance couldn’t be the same anymore.
See, even with the problems during stages one and two, even so, those paths of least resistance were valid for me, back then. Only now, at stage three, have they become irrelvant.
And this relativity in relevancy is the same for everyone. This relativity applies when comparing person to person, and also a person in their past present future. Even when a person looks like they’re doing weird, difficult stuff, they’re probably doing it because, to them, it’s the path of least resistance. Even when it looks like they’re resisting a lot.
This is when fiction is so helpful to see a concept like this.
In fiction, we have a character. That character, no matter who they are, always must take the path of least resistance, otherwise, it will feel fake to the reader. The challenge is that the path of least resistance, in the non-physical, metaphorical world, is not that obvious to external observers. The great thing with fiction, especially the written fiction format, is that we can get into the head of a character. Thus, the writer can provide all the necessary contexts to set up the character just so that whatever they do is the path of least resistance.
By this, I mean that, the path of least resistance isn’t lying around on a couch and lazily eating chips while watching TV. Not necessarily. For some people, that would be the path of least resistance, sure. Some characters are like that. However, we all know of those hero characters. Ya know, they can’t stay out of other people’s business and must save the planet? As annoyed as I am by superhero movies, there really are characters like that. There are real people like that. For them, sitting on a couch and eating potato chips would be akin to torture. Believe it or not, we don’t all dream of sipping Martini at a tropical beach, surrounded by half-naked or actually-naked attractive men and women. What the hell is a superhero supposed to do on a tropical beach, surrounded by such people? Just continue sipping Martini? For what? Why? How is that supposed to not cause resistance?
A superhero character would leave that beach and also leave that couch to do something. That is what they’re built to do. If they were to listen to their internal self, then they would go save the world or die trying. They wouldn’t wait for the ok signal of their master. They wouldn’t set up a schedule for saving the world, and when the bomb goes off on a Wednesday but they didn’t plan to save the world until Thursday, decline to help.
Well, such things could happen in real life, if we had superheroes, but there’s a reason such things don’t happen in fiction. It’s because fiction is entirely selfish, both for the writer and for the reader, and we don’t want people who are slaves, in fiction, in the philosophical sense. Even disguised as superheroes, we don’t want such characters. Or rather, if that’s the case, then the story has to be about the superhero overcoming their philosophical slavishness. And when there are stories about actual slavery, literal slavery beyond the philosophical sense, we always get a hero who fights against the master, both the external one and the internal one. Because that is the truest, most genuine, most selfish, and therefore beautiful storyline that a person can follow. That is the truest path of least resistance.
And by “selfish,” I mean it as the utmost compliment. I think if I had stopped pretending to be so not selfish and had been more selfish, I would be a lot more in touch with my moment-to-moment self, instead of being so distracted by past self or future self.
Anyway, all this to say, the path of least resistance isn’t one thing. It isn’t necessarily the state in which we spend the least physical energy. For some freak reason, we are all who we are. Call it free will, call it destiny, call it genes—whatever the reason, we each need what we need and want what we want. And thus, the path of least resistance cannot be the same for two people. No one has the exact identical path of least resistance.
And it took me so long, so very long to even notice the resistance in me. I thought because I was resisting the master, I knew I was resisting, at the conscious level. But now I’m realizing, this isn’t about slave or master at all. In that regard, what I talked about in the Korean podcast still holds. That whole slave paradigm, I think we live in an era where it is soon to be over, at least gradually.
And by “over,” I don’t mean that slave systems will vanish entirely. Even today, there are literal slaveries in parts of the world. And hustle culture shows us that there are many slaves as masters. Voluntary slaves, voluntary masters. But the general Zeitgeist, I believe, could be moving away from the slave paradigm altogether.
I think this way, because, say, before the 90s, the internet didn’t exist at all. We were each born in a tiny corner of the world, and most of us grew up there and died there. Some of the more enterprising humans may have moved to the big city or may have moved out of the big city, but most of us did what we were supposed to do, based on the officials in that hometown, or our parents, or the church, or the church-equivalent religious institution. And that was all. We multiplied so that more children could grow up and do the exact same thing, and we called that sometimes love, sometimes duty, sometimes nature. Often, at the societal level, it was a pyramid scheme.
Then from the 90s to the 2000s, we lived in the era of mass media. This was the era of multi-platinum albums, big TV networks, everything focused on the center, and so on and so forth. In this era, sure, those at the top of the pyramid of the mass media culture could reach many millions and billions of people, but the rest of us? It was more of the same thing. Sure, we could go travel to places and feel, for a short time, as if we were going places—but in the end, only very few people could reach the top of any ladder. This was also the period in which the last remnants of the idea of a stable job died.
And now, since the 2010s and in the 2020s? I don’t think anybody believes in the idea of a stable job. If there still are people, anywhere on this planet, who believe in that mirage, I am sorry. I am sorry because soon your mirage will vanish, and all there will be left is a vast desert without a single oasis. Even in countries where something akin to stable jobs still exist, they won’t be there for long—because, global culture. That’s what we have now. What happens in one corner of the world cannot be quarantined from the rest of the world.
But, despite the lack of stability, does that mean that we’re doomed? No. Not at all. And yeah, hustle culture and the productivity craze are still strong, but are we doomed? No. Nope.
See, I think now we really could have a million ladders for a million people, instead of one ladder for a million people, so that those million ladders don’t even function as ladders anymore. There is no need to climb to the top of anything, because this is the beginning of the era in which we can all just be whoever we want to be, or need to be. At least the technology is either there, or coming.
There was never another era, before this one, in which someone like me—which is, hey, a nobody—could put something like this episode out there and total strangers like you could hear it.
There was never another era, before this one, in which someone like me could set up a Buy Me a Coffee page and then actually strangers visit the page and buy me coffee? What the heck?
I mean, it’s small scale, but if hustle culture and the productivity craze get anything right, then it’s the fact that we live in an amazingly beautiful era. I think it is splendid. If only we don’t fall into the trap of the slave system mindset, if only we can somehow stop hustling for the sake of hustling, and simply do what we want to do—and I get that some folks will then go on to do what appears to be hustling, which is perfectly splendid—but I’m saying, there are many others who are miserable because they feel obliged to feel the hustle craze. But I’m saying, that isn’t sustainable anyway. How many hustlers does the world need? How many people who uploaded to Tiktok 10 times every day does the world need, especially when some of those Tiktokers don’t even enjoy it? What is the point?
At least for me, especially after March, there is no point. Now, it’s for more reasons than what I mentioned in episode 25, “Every-other-Thursday’s child has far to go.” Far more reasons than what I talked about there. Back then, it was more because pyramid schemes don’t make sense. Just do the simple math.
But now, it’s a lot more personal. Directing my focus outward, instead of on my own path of least resistance, was why I couldn’t write fiction for such a long time. Fiction is written with the body, and I was basically losing my knowledge of how to pay attention to my moment-to-moment self. No wonder I couldn’t write fiction in the last many months of stage two.
I had this idea of being the best version of myself, or being the self who does what my past self planned to do, or being the self who would go on to be my future self. But I’m saying, all of that suddenly appeared so pointless. And they are pointless, because none of them exist without my moment-to-moment self. That very idea of being the best at anything—that itself is such a slave-as-master paradigm. We don’t have to be the best at anything, not even at being ourselves. We simply need to be. And ironically, only thereby might we ever be whatever it means to be the best version of ourselves.
At this point, I am wondering if I should have delayed this episode even more. I don’t know if this is still too fresh for me to talk about. But I feel quite… reborn since late March/early April or so, so… consider this episode a snapshot of my excited stage three state. Any episode of Sponge is a snapshot. Most things are.
But not fiction. At least not to me. And the weird crazy thing about eternity is that, it can only be accessed by staying in the moment. And perhaps this sounds too… philosophical or spiritual, but really, I think this is the first time I am experiencing this with my body. I had heard such sentiments or statements before, but they never meant anything to me, at a deeper level. Now they do. And I think this being, this ability to be, is what Mr. Handke is referring to, and what Mr. Han is referring to, near the end of “The Burnout Society.”
There is fatigue and tiredness from being slave. Then there is the pure bliss of inward-focused being, which also eventually leads to fatigue and tiredness, but of a different kind. Of a fulfilled and fulfilling kind. Of a total presence in the moment kind.
And for that, I believe what I need to do is this: less thought, more feeling, and more body. My opinion of thinking is at an all-time low. I see its value, but I think in general it is very much overvalued in the greater culture. And now, with research coming out on how the emotion, the feeling, basically is the body, I am more inclined to pay attention to that path. And that topic, by the way, of feelings basically being the body, will need to be a different episode, because this episode is already getting pretty long.
For now, the point is that… from personal experience, thinking is heavily overrated. And by thinking, I mean anything theoretical, such as me thinking that if I plan certain things, tomorrow, I will actually do them. Of course, such plans aren’t worthless. However, when tomorrow comes and becomes today, and I, in the moment-to-moment, find myself sick, then what should I do? Or when I realize that what I planned the day before isn’t what I want anymore, what should I do?
And perhaps it’s difficult to decide on an answer when this happens only once. Also, if it only happens once, then perhaps the answer doesn’t even matter.
But over time. If I keep ignoring the feelings of my moment-to-moment self, based on thoughts from my past self or about my past self, or thoughts about my future self, what happens, what did happen in my case—is that, well, practically speaking, I cannot write fiction anymore, the way I could. There is no flow state anymore, not even the momentary ones that I experienced in stage two.
But more broadly, which might be of more use to folks who don’t write fiction, is that, what happened is, I stayed a slave. Slave against master, slave as master, it doesn’t matter. I stayed a slave, and I wasn’t even a good master. Neither was I a good slave.
I was so utterly incapable of noticing things in the moment. More and more, as stage two exacerbated. That might be why in the early years of stage two, I could write fiction, but toward its end, I could not.
So, back to the body idea. Toward the end of stage two, I have already been spending a significant amount of time on my body. I think this is similar to how I started writing at the end of stage one/beginning of stage two? It’s always that… my deepest core knows before my conscious self ever notices anything. The core knows everything. And yet, so far, I was mostly ignoring it. Even as I was writing, I was ignoring it unless I was in flow state. So now, I am trying to be more conscious about it. Pull the stuff that was in the subconscious to the surface. Apparently there is a name for this, too. Something along the lines of subconscious cleansing. It’s a thing.
The way I understand it, at least it makes more sense than the hustle culture, bullshit positivity crap. See, the reason I don’t like that culture is that it always misses the other half. When you’re trying to be positive all the time, you know what that is? It’s resisting negativity. It’s pointless. And the thing with resistance is that, it comes from fear.
So, what the positivity zealots actually are is that they’re fearful of negativity. They have a lot of suppressed emotions, in my opinion.
Oh, here, here’s an anecdote.
One time, many years ago, I was at a spa. It was the type of spa where you were supposed to leave your shoes at the entrance, because, you know, people walk around barefooted after the spa, taking a shower, taking a bath, after the sauna, whatever.
But this one woman comes waltzing in one day, with her boots on. And the employee who works there asks her to remove her shoes, and she says she would do it, but she doesn’t. She just keeps crossing the wooden floor, which everyone else is walking on barefooted, with her boots.
And then in front of a locker, she starts talking with another woman. And they talk so loudly. So fucking loudly. And it’s a spa, so, you know, it kinda rings. Their voices and their laughter ring and echo in all directions.
Finally, one of the guests asked her to keep it down.
And this idiot who walked in with the boots, she still talks so loudly that I can hear it from the neighboring aisle of lockers. This idiot says, “What’s wrong with her? Who doesn’t like the sound of laughter?”
The likes of her are what I mean when I talk about positivity bullshitters. There is no positivity in this person. She is a menace to society. She thinks if she laughs, everyone around her should bow and kneel in front of her, or something. Imagine how much pent-up fear lives inside her, if she can’t even be bothered to take off her shoes at a spa. Is it because her feet are particularly smelly? Why can’t she follow the rules that everyone else follows? She’s certainly not gonna walk into the actual spa, the sauna, with her boots on. How much resistance was built up inside her about following rules or just in general, having common sense, for her to be so blindly stupid?
So, yeah, positivity, and people needing to appreciate that you’re happy, just by default, I really do not like those concepts. They get thoroughly abused. So often. Why should I care that this woman is happy about herself for waltzing into the spa with her boots on and then threatening to destroy everyone else’s eardrums by letting her loud voice ring and echo in the locker room? You can psychoanalyze me on that resistance, my resistance to blind so-called positivity. But, like, in your own private time. Please don’t send me your psychoanalysis.
Anyway, unlike the positivity bullshittery or delusional utopian visions based on ever-expanding pyramid schemes, what I like about the idea of subconscious cleansing is—at least, as far as I understand it—that its point is not to ignore the supposedly bad things.
In fact, the point that is emphasized often is that good and bad are mere illusions. The point is to let go of the resistance and also, the obsession. Or so they say. And I think it makes more sense than the more popular stuff.
It goes something like this. So, I have a lot of resistance built up against writing fiction now. And it turns out, now it’s bleeding into something like Sponge as well. Once I sit down and write, I can write. But the resistance against sitting down. Wow. Amazing. I think this has to do with how my writing self feels neglected, because I don’t listen to her anymore. Like, she dealt with me when she thought I was busy fighting against the external master, and for years, she and I rejoiced, together, in the glory that is the flow state, with quite remarkable consistency. But now she’s like… “Dude, you’re not truly paying attention to me anyway. I thought you were over the slave phase, but you’re still only pretending. I’m out.”
And my stage two self would not have admitted that. My stage two self would have thought, oh, maybe I will try to get motivated by watching this motivation video, or I will alternate between stories to keep myself interested, things like that. Toward the end of stage two, I got better in that I started taking care of my body more, but even then, there was always this… ulterior motive. I didn’t really care about my core self, and I think she knew. And I ignored all her fears. All her resistances. I tried to cover it up with whatever the latest hustle culture said, such as a better productivity system, or finding new retailers, or adding new formats to the stories, whatever. But I wasn’t listening to her.
Now, what I am trying to do is listen to her. Which means, the body work continues, but in connection with my emotions. I think this will be what makes the difference, in this stage three of my life. Admitting that my emotions get priority over anything else.
There was too much conditional self-love going on, and that isn’t even self-love. But it pretended to be, and did a great job to disguise my self-loathing. And I think the main reason, truly, was that I wasn’t even recognizing the resistance inside me.
And… The practical applications of what I am trying to do will take some time to show their effects. All I know now is that the biggest step toward taking the path of least resistance is deciding to acknowledge what that path is for oneself at a given moment, without automatically accepting the norms of one’s surroundings. And in March, I did the latest iteration of that.
And added to that, what I know now is that I am immensely interested in the connection between body and feeling. I am less interested than ever before in my thoughts. And I am interested in action and reaction, as well as the circulation of energy.
Yes, that is the big-picture image that I have now: the circulation of energy. And at a more specific level, action and reaction.
I think I was always missing a puzzle in stages one and two, not only because I was in the slave system, but also because I was ignoring half of me, even as I was abhorring the mainstream positivity culture. Even in this early part of stage three, I am still so. I think I wasn’t really looking at myself, really listening to my core, and still am terrible at it. And the fact that I cannot stay in the moment-to-moment present is a clear manifestation of that state of mine.
For example, I have this fear of receiving. It’s kinda outrageous. And the thing is, everything is action-reaction, so my fear of receiving also ends up creating a fear of giving.
It’s like this: I always doubt why anybody would give me anything. So, when someone gives me something I get somewhat suspicious, and also I feel a lot of obligation—a pressure to neutralize this action-reaction. And I only realized this consciously in March 2023. And it’s because before then, I was suppressing these fears, but now I’m trying to pull them up to the surface.
This is why it took me so long to create a donation page. It is still so weird to me that people visit that page, that Buy Me a Coffee page. And even more bizarre that they actually send money. It’s crazy.
But at least now I recognize that, which means that now I can think, or rather, feel my way toward a reaction that isn’t suspicion, but rather, to just say thank you and accept what you’re giving me, if it’s good. And in this case, with Buy Me a Coffee, it’s good, because in the physical realm, it is contributing to my continued existence, and in the spiritual realm, it is allowing me to practice receiving, which will allow me to practice giving, because what do you think I’m gonna do after you give me money? Do more of what you gave me the money for—which is this podcast, my Korean podcast, the blogs, my fiction, the newsletters, and so on and so forth.
Yeah, I think I wasn’t genuinely giving to the world, because I couldn’t receive. There has been too much fear, instead of love. Fear in the form of impatience, anger, and self-loathing. And literally… until a month ago… wow, if I had heard something like this, then I would’ve gone “Wha…?” But now I am saying these things. So. Interesting stuff happens if you live long enough.
Yeah. What an episode. Eh… yeah, I recommend this book, “The Burnout Society.” It is short, and it is so… current, still, so long after its publication. So, it’s ideal for reading over long periods of time, multiple times, and seeing how you react.
I… bought my first meditation cushion a couple of days ago. Amazon is supposed to deliver it today, as I am preparing this script. It is 5 pm, and the app says it’s gonna arrive before 10 pm, and I am so impatient. Because, I have meditated before, but only on and off. But in the past week or so, as I was trying to look at more of the repressed resistance/fear inside me, I needed to meditate more, and my butt is starting to hurt. And, I didn’t even know that these meditation cushions existed. I mean, when you go to yoga class or something, you just sit for a few minutes to sit in silence, and that’s it. And strangely, on Youtube—or not so strangely, because Youtube’s algorithm is incredibly smart and helpful—I watched a video about calming down the amygdala on Youtube, and in it, there was a mention of how you’re supposed to sit on top of something, while you meditate, so you can keep your spine straight and sit for longer, so on and so forth.
And then, three? Or two days ago, a friend sends me a picture of his meditation cushion. So I was like… Oh, okay, signal received. I’ll get a meditation cushion.
And so, now I am waiting for my meditation cushion. Everyone who bought me a coffee on Buy Me a Coffee so far—this is one of the things I am buying with the money you gave me. I actually don’t drink that much coffee anymore, because my body… I don’t know what’s happening to it. It perceives everything acutely these days, and that also applies to caffeine. So I don’t drink that much coffee anymore, but I like the name of Buy Me a Coffee. The site name is that, so, even though it allows me to switch the thing that is bought—like, it allows me to change it to buy me a pizza or buy me a book—even so, I mean, I can’t change the site name. The coffee is gonna be mentioned there anyway. So, I am keeping it as you buying me a cup of coffee, on that page, but what I actually bought with what you gave me so far is this meditation cushion.
Thank you so much, to those who donated on that page. Also, thank you to everyone who is listening. In one way or another, your money and attention are being spent on my continued existence so I can create more of what you like. This stage three me is gonna be a healthy Ithaka. Much connected to her core. Letting go of resistance and such.
And, last note, before we finish this episode. One image that might help those who’re interested in similar topics is that… this really helped me. Think of it as waves. All of the world’s feelings are waves. And what we deem as positive or negative are merely two sides of the waves—the upper part and the lower part. We cannot experience the waves without experiencing both sides. To live is to experience the waves in their entirety. Ignoring one side, resisting against one side, is futile. This also, strangely, connects to episode “She is the air he breaths.”
Let us go to the low place so we can embrace love, as well as everything that comes with it, in its entirety. Let us gladly sink and drown. “So come, flood over me like water.”
And that is all for this episode. Thank you for listening.
If you liked this episode of Sponge, please share it with a human.
You can find a link to the full transcript in the show notes. Also, visit ithakaonmymind.com to find out more about everything else I do, besides Sponge.
Stay true, everybody.
- “The Burnout Society” by Han Byung-Chul
- Han Byung-Chul
- Philosopher, Culture Theorist Byung-Chul Han’s Commencement Speech
- Ep. 18, “Freeze-blue glaciers for your burning-hot wound.”
- from Aim Dreaming: [Ep. 41] 피로사회: 그 너머의, 숨 쉬듯 하는 사랑
- “How technology changes the way we understand ourselves.”
- Path of least resistance
- My Buy Me a Coffee page
- Episode 25, “Every-other-Thursday’s child has far to go.”
- Episode 26, “She is the air he breaths.”
- Jupiter Sands – Rising Sun
- Ace – Confluence
- Yotam Agam – Detox 741 Hz
- Buddha Kid – Vacuum
- Downtown Binary – Offworld
Everything I do is organized here:
© 2023 Ithaka O.