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Don’t Try



I wish I could take credit for the two-word title that headlines this article, but it was used historically by an unlikely hero. Charles Bukowski (1920-1994), the “accidental” American author and poet had it written on his tombstone in Los Angeles. He wanted to reiterate something we need desperately to hear again in the age of sugar-sweet positivism. Sometimes success comes even to those who don’t try very hard. In fact – it comes to people who just don’t give a %#)&@.

Charles Bukowski’s advice? Don’t try.

This is the crux of another writer’s philosophical invective. Mark Manson wrote The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. It’s full of Bukowksi-inspired advice. Though I don’t see anything wrong with dropping an F-bomb here and there, I’ll replace his liberal use of f—k with duck so that I don’t offend anyone who might otherwise benefit from reading about how not to give one.

Manson took Bukowski’s advice to heart, and noticed that we give way too many ducks about things that shouldn’t matter to us. He says we’re a culture of trying too hard at too many things.

And I couldn’t agree more.

While we’re “staying positive,” and working toward world peace, raising our children, maintaining friendships, keeping ourselves selfie-ready at a moment’s notice – just in case, God Forbid – we are caught on our “bad” side for a social media posting, hitting the gym, eating only non-gluten, GMO-free, sugar-free, MSG-free, vegan, wild-catch tofu, meditating, fighting the good fight, and showing up to work every day so that we don’t end up living out of a card board box slurping the remnants of a super-sized soda someone leaves by a trash dumpster, we’re trying so ducking hard!

We stare in the mirror to say our “you’re so beautiful, you’re so handsome” affirmations. We work on our relationships, take workshops, go to therapy, keep working on our internal dialogue, etc. etc. etc. Everything we do now is one big TRY.

As Bukowski will tell you, trying really hard doesn’t bring success, and success doesn’t always bring happiness. He was an alcoholic recluse before he made it as a famous writer, and he continued to be after he made it. At book signings, he would berate his fans. Before he had any fans, he worked in a post office, hating his life, and turning to the bottle while he occasionally wrote a line of poetry or a short story, getting refused by publisher after publisher. You can’t even say he made it because he didn’t give up. He gave up (you could say, stopped giving a duck) long before a random publisher took a strange fancy to him years after he had submitted any work, and that was the one big break that gave him a writing career.

Manson points out in a discussion of Bukowski, that his greatest strength was that he didn’t try to hide his faults. In fact, he didn’t try at much of anything.

In October 1963, Bukowski told John William Corrington in a letter how someone once asked him,

“What do you do? How do you write, create?” To which, he replied: “You don’t try. That’s very important: ‘not’ to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It’s like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks you make a pet out of it.”

Why Seeking Happiness Too Hard May Cause Unhappiness

It turns out Bukowski’s philosophy is backed by science. Reaching for happiness is an admittance that you aren’t happy. The seeking of happiness, just like the avoidance of suffering, are the same acts of desperation. In an endless quest to get something or ditch something else, we don’t experience the purity of the moment we’re in.

In fact, the human brain is designed to want more – to create its own problems even when it doesn’t really have any. In fact, the minute we’ve solved one problem, we’ve just created another problem. Maybe you solve the problem of being overweight by going to the gym, but you’ve created another problem, as Manson puts it, “of sweating like a meth-head” when you go. The trick is to like the problems you have. You’ll always be trading one set in for another.

This is why someone can spend $106.5 million on Picasso’s Nude Green Leaves painting, and still feel empty inside. Their brains are going to find something else they “need” to be happy. Not that Picasso wasn’t a phenomenal artist, but if you’re biggest problem is deciding whether to purchase the Picasso or the Monet, you’re likely not going to be happy.

Is your constant pursuit of happiness making you unhappy?

Similarly, people with “real” problems will feel unhappy, but have you noticed that people with less – people who don’t give a duck – often seem free in ways we in the everyone-has-a-smart-phone-and-a-56-inch-flat-screen-in-their-living-room-world can’t fathom?

In the quiet world of Zen Buddhists, and quite possibly our great grandparents, for example, when they were having a bad day – a bad hair day, a bad traffic day, a bad thoughts day, a bad day plowing a field of cow dung – whatever, they’d likely think, “I’m having a crap day,” and that would be the end of it. In the modern world though, we’re micro-analyzing our own thoughts every moment. We feel anxious, and then we start to feel anxious about the anxious thoughts we’re having. “Damn, I’m such an idiot for still thinking that horrible thought.” “Oh, shoot, I just did it again!” You get the idea – an endless feedback loop of giving a duck starts to ruin your day even more than before you started trying to be happy.

In the same way, practicing endless affirmations, trying to be happy only means you seek something you don’t have. If you were already happy, you wouldn’t need to affirm anything, would you?

That relentless focus on trying to be happy only calls to mind all the things that make you unhappy. Whereas, people who just have a crap day and move on, they don’t keep focusing on the crap. And oddly, they are happy.  Crap still happens, as it will in life, but it hasn’t become the source of their future suffering.

Not Giving a Duck and Apathy

Not giving a duck about some things doesn’t mean you are apathetic and you have no goals. Let me explain the subtlety of this nuanced conundrum. Bukowksi’s misery (and alcoholism) isn’t what we’re supposed to emulate. His ability to succeed without trying so damned hard, is. We are also supposed to get, that he didn’t try to hide his misery or his alcoholism. When he was having a crap day, he didn’t plaster a fake smile on his face while he was dying inside. His poetry and his prose reflect this God-awful, but deliciously refreshing truth about him.

If you feel that something vital is missing from your life, yet lack the motivation or drive to go after it, you’re afflicted with apathy. Conversely, if you have always wanted to do something and everyone thinks you’d be crazy to move across the globe at the drop of a hat or quit your job to pursue something that makes you feel absolutely alive, and you just don’t give a duck what other people think – you’re starting to get it.

Aversion and Craving

The constant pursuit of happiness outside of yourself – when you finally make the cut on your sports team, you finally drop those extra few pounds, you finally get the man/woman you want, you finally drive the car you’ve always wanted, you finally live in the house you’ve always dreamed of – this constant pursuit of happiness is what the Buddhists call craving. It’s just as nasty as aversion if you really want to experience any sort of internal peace.

Aversion results from fear – fear of loss, fear of separation, sickness, death, etc. Craving is also the result of fear. It pulls us into dualistic experience in ever-more subtle ways. Attachment to material things (the endless pursuit of happiness) creates suffering because attachments are transient and therefore, loss is inevitable.

When we don’t give a duck, it’s like saying, you know, some days are going to suck, and some days aren’t and either way, that’s o.k.

Three problems—ignorance, clinging/attachment and aversion—are known as the Three Poisons, and a recognition of them forms the Second Noble Truth in Buddhism. Now, don’t start to beat yourself up if none of this makes sense. If you don’t feel enlightened just yet, who gives a duck. That’s o.k., too.

Bukowski had it figured out, though. Don’t try. At least not so hard. And certainly don’t give so many ducks about stuff that doesn’t really matter.

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