The legend of the ancient wanderer Siddhartha Gautama leaving home is a familiar one.
Born to a king and a queen in the 6th century, this prince was raised in a world of abundance and luxury, shielded from the everyday suffering found in the world around him.1
It took multiple chariot rides outside of his personal bubble for him to finally be exposed to the real world and all of its inconveniences: old age, illness, and death among them.
When he compared this stark new exposure to his own comfortable life, he realized that much of what had been good so far had been so only in the short-term and that there really wasn’t a way to escape the inevitable suffering. Acknowledging this, he left this life behind.
His journey took him away from pleasure towards the other extreme of deprival and then back to a middle way involving a lot of meditating until he eventually awoke as the Buddha.
Today, much of the world is at least vaguely familiar with his teachings. Even if his particular strain of thought isn’t their main exposure, they have at least tasted parts of other similar eastern philosophies that broadly encourage a life of experiencing, self-discovery, and being.
This, of course, is in sharp contrast to the predominant cultural force of modernity, especially in the west which, driven by capitalism and productivity, prefers moving, evolving, and doing.
It’s a dichotomy that exists both in our global consciousness as well as in our individual lives, and it’s increasingly asking us the crucial question: Is it better to simply be or continue to do?
The answer, naturally, depends on the person asking the question, but it does appear that for most people some combination of the two makes a lot more sense than a singular choice.
But how do we reconcile these seemingly opposing forces and the way they drive us?
Interconnecting the Different Modules
The concept of modularity has been applied from biology to art to technology, but it generally refers to how a system’s many components relate to each other in order to allow functioning.
In the human brain, for example, some scientists suggest that we have different modules operating, each with their own purpose. Some of them are biased towards a particular goal in one direction, while others in a different direction. Collectively, they take care of our needs.2
That said, there can be and often are conflicts that arise. Not all systems are made equally effective, and not all components of a brain are in complete agreement with what to do next.
There is still debate about how hard-wired these modules are and how much they can change, but the analogy is useful nonetheless to understand how our mind works.
When many of us first think of the dichotomy between being and doing, we separate them before realizing that, actually, being comes before doing and that if it’s reconciled in an orderly way then the doing takes care of itself. After all, even a life of being does something.
In fact, when many of us think of a life of doing, we think of a struggle, a life of pushing. And this is true precisely because the modules, on some level, are fighting against each other.
Sometimes, it’s doubt stopping you from moving forward; other times, you’re simply exerting effort towards something you don’t care about deep down and you haven’t realized it yet.
Many of the problems we think of as issues relating to doing are actually solved at the level of being where, rather than enduring and winning the struggle, the aim should be to reconcile the goals of the competing modules so that they interconnect with each other.
In a way, we all have more than one mind directing action in the brain. To be an effective doer, you have to synchronize these minds so that they can co-exist rather than fight.
This means developing the self-awareness to trace the root of surface-level conflicts.
The Transaction Cost of Decisions
When you have a synchronized-sense-of-being, the action mostly takes care of itself. You don’t need to fight and you don’t need to push; you just need to let things happen.
That said, even things that happen by themselves can be slowed down and even halted if there is excessive friction in the way. The movement is only as smooth as the path it walks.
In any economy, you have a network of institutions that interact with one another. In general, the lower the transaction cost between the nodes of the network, the more economic growth we are likely to see because information is passed quicker and with less friction.
For example, the transaction cost of using credit between two entities is commonly lower than using cash due to the added efficiency enabled by better technology. It not only saves time, which allows more to happen, but it also encourages more spending in that time.3
Similarly, in your own life, the different events or tasks or responsibilities you have can be thought of as nodes, and if the links between these nodes are connected in a way that carries a high transaction cost, then the transition will be slowed and things will soon halt.
This is why basic routine and planning and organization are so useful when it comes to following through with whatever it is your synchronized-sense-of-being leads you to do.
Any extra decision you have to actively think about before you start doing something takes you out of the flow that is established by being someone who moves in a coherent direction.
This doesn’t just apply to big decisions like how to spend your time or deciding what is worthy as a pursuit but also to small ones like your environment and your information diet.
The lower the transaction cost of moving from one space in your life to another, the more flow you will engage and the more you will be able to both experience and accomplish.
All You Need to Know
Some people see the process of being as nothing more than relaxation and introspection and leisure; others see the process of doing as only characterized by ambition and struggle.
These extremes exist, but for most people, they don’t have much to say. They don’t speak to the happy middle that arises between them, one that is more accessible than is assumed.
At its core, if you focus on synchronizing your being by interconnecting the different modular goals of your mind, then you can get to a place where doing becomes both enjoyable and flow-oriented. Rather than having the modules compete, you do the work to reconcile them.
Many conflicts of the mind that show up on the surface reflect deeper problems that can be addressed with self-awareness and self-knowledge. Once they are, a new world opens up.
The work lays itself out and the effort self-directs. Even so, however, it isn’t much help unless the friction between the different nodes of responsibility in your life is reduced down.
The cumulative transaction cost of each decision you face determines how smoothly you are able to travel the path that is open for you. If you can plan and organize yourself and your environment accordingly, then you can learn to be and do at the same time.
The less you have to think in-between the different spaces in your life, the more effectively you can operate within them. The more you arrange for flow, the more you will find.
Different people have different innate preferences, but luckily this process is available to all.
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