at home in... w| Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

Look Closer, Learn More, #GetAtHome In This World

Tag: not being at home

Ways We Are Not ‘at home’ 5: Misunderstanding Life’s Connections

Like the proverbial fish that can’t realize it is swimming in water, we tend to overlook the matrix of life we are in.
At best, the same way we often think of ourselves as minds separate from (but within) bodies, we also think of ourselves as selves separate from (and only just within) surroundings.

For one, this surfaces in “environmental” issues.

The “I” in “The Environment”

“The environment” is often talked about as if it were an issue for some “green” freaks only.

In fact, what we are talking of is not even, truly, an environment in the sense of something that surrounds an individual, however.
Rather, it runs right through us and, to considerable extent, it is us.

Really, where would you want to draw the lines?

Really, where would you want to draw the lines?

With every breath we take, every drop we drink, and every morsel we eat, we take in a part of our environment.

Whether we freeze, are hot, or feel comfortable, whether that is because of the weather or because of air conditioning or clothing, it is part and parcel of our relation with our environment.

Even “our” bodies are oftentimes really “environment”, given the extent to which we are not just ourselves but bacteria and other critters on the skin, the microbiota of the gut, and so much more.

Our thinking, too, is very much shaped by our(selves with our) environment.

Elements of danger or disorganization easily make us edgy, whereas green views (even when they are just posters on the wall, better still when we walk through them) calm us and make us more creative and relaxed, and even get us to heal faster.

Physically as well as psychologically, there are intimate connections.

The “I” in the We

There is yet another “environment” we tend to overlook (and see as separate from the natural-biological): society and culture (which include politics, economics, and technology).

Who we are, what we take to be normal, how a life should unfold according to our assumptions, is largely not something we have actually thought about and decided for ourselves.
It is what we have, explicitly but more often implicitly, soaked up as individuals who have grown up in and with our families and peers and general social context.

Running among the Ramps

Running among the Ramps, for the synergies between sports and foraging and food…

Here, we have come to speak a lot about “connections” when it comes to connected technology and social networks.

As much as diets and fitness and environmental issues may be discussed on those social networks, alongside LOLcatz and gossip and general self-presentation, these are but additional examples of the gap we build up (and get built) between ourselves and the environments we are (also) parts of.

Fitness training just serves for weight control when it should really be about our functioning and usefulness in the world.

Diets take the luxury of being in a position where we can decide what we want to eat (rather than having to be happy we have anything to eat) and push it to the extreme rather than serve as joyful, flavorful and healthful celebrations of life.

Environmental issues get discussed as issues of an “other” outside of us, in our control in a way they aren’t, supposedly not influencing our lives the way they truly are.

Doing, and Doing Better – The Ultimate Gap?

The biggest gap that separates us from truly being at home in this world lies, perhaps, in the missing realization of the way(s) we can and must be changing things in order to live better.

Again, a lot of talk about it can be found; lots of advice are being given and purport to be about just that.

Life hacking, self-development, personal growth. There is a plethora of talk – but too much of it is not quite real, and even more misses that we are not talking about something that is just in talk and attitude and world view.

The secret to a better life is not The Secret…

The realization of our connections, and their shaping for better lives, has to be in the reality of how we live, the nitty-gritty daily routines and habits and ways of living.

What you eat, how you learn and grow bodily-mentally, and how you can keep yourself from getting misled into more mindfucks that just want to sell you on certain products and ideologies, that’s where we need to change things for better.

As connected beings, we need to do so in ways that fit in with what makes for a good life, as a part of life in this world – and not just imagining that all the connections that mattered were those provided by the internet…

Beijing's China National Library

Ways We Are Not ‘at home’ 4: Be(com)ing More than a Body

All too often, we misunderstand and fail to accept that we are bodies-with-minds, not (at least, for all that we can know scientifically) souls temporarily inhabiting bodily vehicles.

On the Hong Kong Trail (Dragon's Back)

On the Hong Kong Trail (Dragon’s Back): Notice how even our physical practices often are, or become, about things other than the body. Good looks (according to social conventions), physical self-mastery, exploration and adventure,…

It isn’t only a way we are not ‘at home’ that we misunderstand our bodily being/being bodies, however.

Strangely, at the same time at which we seem to overemphasize the mind, we also tend not to be quite ‘at home’ with our peculiar, human, mental faculties and consciousness.

We often give in to urges and comfort and assume that we are – and can only be – as we have come to be. Nothing to do about it.

In fact, it is often presented as a good thing, not least after only too many ideologies wanted to create (what they considered) the perfect human being (and subject to the ideology); it had come to be the pinnacle suggested by self-realization: “Just be yourself!”

As human beings, however, we can be more, do good, and become better – or at the very least, we are free to try for better.

In a world that mainly runs on instinct and urges, we alone are conscious to such an extent that we can aim higher.

Of course, we usually misunderstand and even refuse to learn about the ways our conscious minds are wont to be tricked and trick themselves in a myriad ways, just because that rejection of the truth feels better.

We are likely to believe that we have understood and approached perfection, or at least become sufficiently good and also fixed in our psychology, so that there isn’t much to be done – or indeed, that needs doing – anymore.

Language learning materialsOr we believe that we weren’t all that good at the learning we had to do at school, and promptly think that we don’t have anything more that we could and would want to learn.

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” even codifies the idea into some kind of folk wisdom. It is not great wisdom, however, so much as it is a cop-out.

It is all the more lame an excuse if you look at neurobiological research, which is making it pretty clear that we are constantly learning; our brains are changing with every experience we have, making new memories, strengthening old – or new – habits, increasing the store of knowledge we have.

So, we can still learn more – including about the ways we often get tricked and trick ourselves, the ways we feel good about learning but don’t learn quite as effectively as we could, and so much more.
And, staying mentally active like that has even been shown to keep some of the deterioration that may come with age at bay, at least somewhat. (And being physically active also helps.)

We can learn to know more and be better human beings – and we do not even need to go for the world-changing success that finds so much popularity nowadays (in yet another instance of the #1 way we’re not “at home,” Seeing and Seeking Only the Outstanding), but we can do quite enough just aiming to become better at being human:

Get yourself into new situations, and if you are not totally closed off to new experiences and ways of seeing things, you will learn something new.

Even just (just?!) reading a novel can expand your sense of self – let you “Becom[e] a Vampire Without Being Bitten” – and get you to consider new perspectives; in books and with blogs and videos, there would be a lot to learn – first of all, perhaps, to deal with all the distractions that prey on our monkey minds for their own purposes and to use the ‘social media life’ for our growth instead.

Beijing's China National Library

There are lots of other possibilities for learning and growing, too.

As with all adventure, what it takes mainly is the attitude to go and do… and if it’s not learning you want to do, do something for others, and you can also learn and be more than just the bodily self and its urges.

Approach life with a humanist attitude, thinking that you can learn more and become a better person, and you probably can.

You are more than you are, anyways, in all the different roles you play ecologically and socially, but don’t just stay there, passively…

You are a human being. Live like it.

Ways We Are Not ‘at home’ 3: Not Being the Bodies We Are…

It is one of the great things about us that we have such a rich life of the mind.

Sure, we may be misled by it, ending up fighting over ideologies when we’d really much rather get along, falling victim to stories we tell ourselves of how life is, other people were, and we ourselves are… “You’re Not So Smart” (both book and podcast) is an excellent resource on that.

But, we can also learn. Beyond the abilities of all other animals, we can imagine, anticipate, ponder, and study things.

In thinking about ourselves and our minds, however, we keep talking of “our bodies” as something separate from the brain, and completely different from the mind.

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Ways We Are Not ‘At Home’ 2: Buying Rather than Being

Sure, there are nice things out there.
We all probably have some things we dream of having. And even if it isn’t things we are dreaming of so much as experiences, money seems equally as necessary for that, too.

Beyond the essentials, however, we don’t really need much in order to live well, and we don’t need to be able to buy in order to live better, so much as we need to be.


I have a particular problem with the notion of “not buying things but experiences” as good gear can help be a lot more active and for a lot longer than a fast-bought “adventure”. It just depends on whether you use it that way or not, so you can consider the cost-per-use.

This misunderstanding may easily be the most problematic way we are not truly at home in our lives, for it is simultaneously the easiest to break, and the hardest.

It is so very easy to break because all it takes is for us to decide we have enough, get up, and get going.

We just need to explore more, of our surroundings, of life, of the world, and we can discover more.

It works both physically, by moving and getting fitter and developing new physical skills and capabilities. And it works psychologically, by exploring new landscapes out there or of the mind, learning and studying and putting the knowledge gained to use.
Both interact with and positively contribute to each other…

But it is also the hardest to break.

All those easy things that we could do and that would make us be more and live better are just too many things to easily decide what to try and find what will really satisfy – and they all require that we ourselves take our lives and learning in our hands, even as the potential result seems unclear and may be a long time away.

The next great experience, meanwhile, seems just the swipe of a credit card away, and with guaranteed immediate results, and the next new product that promises to be so much better than the one that came before, and promises to make our life so much better, also just awaits (and gets pushed on us with a lot of promising marketing)…

It is the most noticeable – once you stop to think about it, anyways – how strongly we get immersed into the customer’s approach to life if you look at all the great and anti-materialist advice columns that tell you to “Buy Experiences, Not Things!”
True, there is a lot to be said for experiences and for putting “experientialism” over consumerism – but a consumerist anti-materialism (that may not even be against a true materialism but itself an expression only of a shopper’s attitude to a cheap life that makes life itself cheap) isn’t *it*, either.

To get around this, two approaches may be recommendable:

One, keep a diary. Write down what product has lured you, what you expect and why you want it, and if you end up getting it, also note when it frustrates you and doesn’t turn out quite that good. It may help the next time you’re tempted to change your life by shopping.

Also write down what you’ve done beyond shopping and what that has done for you. Chances are, especially with the effect of memory coming in, experiences turn out even better.

Above all, however, make a habit of active living. Preferably, not just a shopping habit but one of things you do for yourself and to make your life more interesting.

Go for walks, try out new things in the kitchen, see more, stop and smell the roses – or plant some…

Ways We’re Not ‘At Home’ 1: Seeing and Seeking Only the Outstanding

Sure, we all have places we’re familiar with, life situations we don’t think much about, circumstances in which we feel comfortable.
Even (if not especially) in such familiar circumstances, however, we often remain on the surface, skimming over things like tourists rather than delving deeply and making ourselves at home.

One way this is happening, especially now that we could learn more and go deeply, but are driven to the extreme and superficial, is by only noticing the extraordinary and seeing only the outstanding.

Case in point for the power of the non-familiar sight to excite - and remain superficial: Views from the plane, here over the United Arab Emirates

Case in point for the power of the non-familiar sight to excite – and remain superficial: Views from the plane, here over the United Arab Emirates

It is only natural that we should react to novel things more strongly than to things we are used to.

Adaptation to the familiar keeps us from expending too much energy on that which we already know; novelty-seeking makes us aware of that which has changed and could present a danger or an opportunity.

No animal needs to see every individual tree in a forest anew every day, but the one that has started fruiting or been marked by a potential mate or competitor is interesting. Likewise, we don’t have to notice every single thing around us.

Our problem, however, is that we will often notice only the novel even when it would do us good to see what we have.

We notice the new functional food making great promises but overlook the real food we have always seen but never learned to appreciate and prefer (even as there would still be a hundred new ways we could prepare it).
We notice the new gadget we hadn’t seen before (and don’t have), but overlook the gadgets we have, feel familiar with, but don’t much play around with anymore just because they feel old (even as they would still offer many more functions we never learned to use to their full potential).

Even, and perhaps most obviously, in places we have grown up and lived all our lives, we often notice only those things that obviously change, but never deviate from our habitual routes, never stop to look anew and learn more about these places, and never notice how much we actually don’t know about them.

Ask yourself this:

Do you know all the fruits and vegetables in the market you usually go to? Do you know how to prepare them well?
Where you often go, have you ever taken *this* road rather than that road you usually take?
When was the last time you picked up a book to learn more about the world that surrounds you, or picked up a tool/toy you own and looked at more of its functions or possible uses?

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