Modern life is one of intellectual burden.
Most of our jobs revolve around intellectual effort—creativity and analysis, thinking our way through complex problems. The modern human being has been reduced almost completely to its mind: We strategize, weigh variables, form opinions, and rarely leave the boundaries of our skulls.
We live almost entirely in our manufactured selves.
Not the selves we were born with, but the illusory selves that we’ve constructed over a lifetime of intellectual effort.
The problem with these manufactured selves is that they believe thinking is the cure to every problem. Every moment of emotional flux is treated as a moment to criticize and figure out. The irony is that emotional problems can’t be solved by intellectual effort—it’s like trying to tie water in a knot.
Happiness—by which I mean sustainable inner peace—comes not from adding one more brick to the manufactured self. It comes from learning how to deconstruct it.
What it feels like to deconstruct the manufactured self
- Neutrality. Over time, we train our minds to judge everything as either “good” or “bad.” This was once useful from a survival perspective: Distinguishing edible foods from poisonous foods, or predator sounds from prey sounds, was a matter of life or death. But outside of a survival context, there’s very little that’s objectively good or bad. Cultural associations tempt us to think otherwise, and our minds get very good at making confident judgments—judgments that are proof of our manufactured selves. Deconstructing the manufactured self is the absence of value judgments. Nothing is absolutely good or bad; everything simply is.
- Emptiness. The Buddhist concept of “emptiness” sounds negative at first. It makes it seem like nothing means anything, and therefore that nothing is worth pursuing. But “emptiness” should be a liberating idea. At the core, it means that nothing has any essential qualities, that everything we see is a product of conditions in constant flux. It applies directly to the idea of a manufactured self: You are not the qualities that you’ve grown into.
- Intellectual serenity. Deconstructing the manufactured self leads to less mental obsession. Rather than judging every moment as it passes, you simply watch the moments pass, watch your emotions arise and fade away, watch the rhythms of your manufactured self without feeling defined by them. It has a lot in common with the idea of a “flow state.” In a flow state, you’re not anguishing over every decision, you’re making decisions based on instinct and confidence. And you’re not judging the outcomes of your decisions as absolutely good or bad.
How to deconstruct your manufactured self
The wrong way to do it is to apply more intellectual effort—looking for answers in self-help books, higher productivity, “better” habits. Those things can all be helpful in various ways, but they don’t address the fundamental issue of manufactured stress.
Deconstructing the manufactured self is a reflective process:
- Realization. Embrace the notion that your judging self is manufactured. Take steps to put distance between you and your manufactured self (meditation is a useful way to do this, but is not the end of the story).
- Observation. Watch your manufactured self at work. Watch the way it takes external inputs and creates internal experiences—positive, negative, stressful, boastful, etc.
- Delegation. The burdens you face day-to-day are burdens you can delegate, or outsource, to your manufactured self. Whatever you’re going through—positive or negative—has no essential value, does not define you, does not extend beyond the boundaries of the manufactured self.
The manufactured self is a bit of a heady concept, partly because nothing in our day-to-day lives encourages us to step away from it. In fact, there’s an economic incentive for companies and brands to get us hooked on the restless judgments our manufactured selves make. You can break the cycle—it starts with letting go.