65: Zen & the Art of Not Giving Two Shits

‘Letting go’ is a pretty well known spiritual or ‘Eastern’ concept. But is it really possible to incorporate this ancient philosophy into our crazy modern day world?

“I couldn’t give two shits” is a pretty weird expression. I mean, why anyone would want to give any number of shits towards anything is beyond me. As if some grand shit giving presentation is the pinnacle of all meaning.

Not giving a fuck is another way of putting it. But I prefer the sheer perplexity of using ‘not giving two shits’.

People often say, including me several times on this blog and podcast, the key to being happy and peaceful in life is to tear off the masks we wear and just be ourselves. In other words, to stop giving two shits about who everyone else wants us to be and just be our true, authentic selves.

The word ‘authentic’, though, has apparently now been added to the list of buzzwords and clichés in the personal development world, which means we can no longer use it or run the risk of being forever castigated. I, on the other hand, couldn’t give two shits about this (see what I did there?) as I actually like the word authentic. It’s in the dictionary like all the other words and I happen to feel it illustrates my point quite well.

Maybe I’ve learned to not give two shits about this stuff now, but it’s definitely not always been that way. I spent a large portion of my life giving two shits about everything. In fact, I gave more than two shits. I would go around giving as many shits as I could about every shitting aspect of life.

To put it another way, I was a serial shit giver. And it was very tiring.

I’d give shits about what every person thought of me, where I was going in life, what people thought about where I was going in life, how much money I was earning, how much I’d achieved, big life things, small everyday things and just about everything in my existence.

The weird thing was that, on the outside, I attempted to portray someone who was super laid back and didn’t give two shits about anything. I’m not sure how successful I was at that, but underneath I was desperately bothered about everything. Shits were secretly given in all areas and directions.

What this created was an almost constant state of inner turmoil, worry, panic and anxiety about whether all this stuff I gave two shits about was actually going to work out. Regardless of what happened, I would keep on making up more stuff to give a shit about and was never able to actually sit back and just be at peace with everything.

The Search for Meaning

After a while, this gets very tiring. It’s like trying to balance all these spinning plates and not allowing any of them to even slightly wobble for fear that life will disintegrate and never be the same again.

We all do this to some extent, though. Some may try to spin more plates than others, but we all have at least a few that we give two shits about.

It all comes down to our natural human instinct to derive meaning from our lives. We desperately want all this ‘existing’ we do to mean something. And so we look for this everywhere and anywhere we can. Unfortunately for many of our unsuspecting minds and souls, that includes attaching meaning to a lot of what could be otherwise seen as seemingly irrelevant stuff.

That promotion at work you’re dying to get only means something because we have decided to attach meaning to it. The business succeeding only means something because we attach meaning to it. Even our families only mean something to us because we attach meaning to it.

In other words, we give two shits because we decide, whether consciously or subconsciously, that something is worth giving two shits about.

Of course, that’s not to say attaching meaning to things is neither good nor bad. Many would argue that giving two shits about one’s family is a pretty good thing to give two shits about.

But it’s pretty powerful and enlightening to understand that somewhere along the line with all the things we give two shits about there was a decision made on some level to actually start giving two shits about that thing. Because when we understand that there was a decision made, we open ourselves up to the potential for making another decision to then detach that meaning.

I suppose this is a posh way of saying that meaning doesn’t have to be dictated to us by society if we don’t want it to. We can decide what really matters to us in every aspect of life. It brings about a new version of an age old question: To give two shits or to not give two shits?

Better Serving Meaning

As I said, it’s not that attaching meaning to anything, everything or nothing is inherently good or bad. But understanding the concept allows us to evaluate whether attaching meaning to a particular ‘thing’ is actually serving us in the most optimal way.

Take your trip to the local coffee shop for your Friday mid-morning treat of a chocolate covered croissant, for example. You’ve been stressing out at the office all week and now you get to enjoy that heavenly French bakery taste to just ease that stress a slight amount. Only, you get to the counter to discover a very apologetic manager explaining how he made an error with the orders and so no croissants were delivered today.

This just isn’t acceptable. You give the manager a bit of an ear bashing, which if you’re British, like me, comes out sounding more like a gritted teeth apology. But you leave the shop, realise it’s just a fucking croissant and get over it. You detached the meaning you had originally placed on it and decided you actually don’t give two shits.

It’s pretty easy to let go of the meaning in a situation like this, so let’s look a little bit deeper and consider why you spent that whole week stressed at work in the first place. More than likely, it was stuff like deadlines, meetings, pressure from the boss, etc. In other words, the desire to both progress (get promoted) and not regress (get fired).

In the grand scheme of things, though, does it really matter? In my experience, most people want to be ‘successful’, but also lead peaceful and joyful lives as well. So does it serve us to attach so much importance and meaning to things like this?

Something I used to do was get so wrapped up in all the shit going on in life that I forgot to see the bigger picture. When I zoomed out and took a bird’s eye view of my life, I could see that all the stuff I worried about and was attaching so much meaning to didn’t actually matter that much.

Yes, I want to progress, achieve things and make an impact in the world. But at the expense of my own inner peace and happiness? No chance. Because that, ironically, is the main thing I actually give two shits about!

So choosing to take a zoomed out view of our lives and breaking that attachment of meaning we have in so many areas, even the ‘important things’, can actually serve us so much better in the long run.

The Judgement Stumbling Block

Many of us like the idea of this. It all sounds so wonderfully zen and idealistic to stop ourselves giving two shits about as much as possible. But when it comes to applying the principle, it gets a little trickier.

It’s like “oh, wait, you mean I have to actually stop giving two shits about this and that?” Well, no, not really. Nobody has to do anything. That’s kind of the point. You can choose to give two shits or not.

A huge stumbling block in all this, however, tends to be the fear of judgement. Or more specifically, the fear of not receiving the judgement we would like.

When I first became exposed to the idea of just not giving two shits about many of the things I used to give all the shits about, it sounded amazing. Then I thought about what everyone else would think if I were to actually follow through and do it. And it scared the hell out of me.

What would ‘they’ think if I didn’t hold down a secure job? What would ‘they’ think if it all went wrong and I couldn’t afford to live in a particular area anymore? What would ‘they’ think if I stopped caring about many of the things ‘they’ seemed to care about so much?

Truth is, unless you’re a sociopath, it’s impossible not to care what people think. We have a mammalian brain that’s largely responsible for us seeking out connection and not wanting us to do anything to risk being exiled from the various ‘tribes’ in our lives.

So not wanting to be judged negatively is a subconscious desire of the brain in order to maintain a place in a tribe and, therefore, keep us safe. But simply being aware of this can help us appreciate that breaking free from a tribe and ‘going it alone’ is no longer such a big risk to survival, as it would have been at certain points in history.

Finding new ‘tribes’ of people who are aligned with what we, as individuals, want is a much better way to go. This way, we satisfy the subconscious ‘tribe seeking’ part of the brain while still self-actualising and living in line with how we want to live.

So receiving judgement we don’t want from others happens. But the judgement belongs to that person, not us. It’s theirs, not ours. And we get to decide whether we want to react to that judgement in a way that serves them and their beliefs, or us and our desires.

It will be a work in progress. But simply understanding this concept was hugely powerful for me and my ability to start giving fewer shits in life.

The Shit Giving Paradox

The irony in all this is what I’ve found to be a kind of ‘shit giving paradox’. It seems that the fewer shits we give about something, the happier and more content with it, and life in general, we are.

I suppose this is just one way the universe likes to kick us in the balls. We can spend all our lives giving so many shits about so much stuff in life and still have all this inner turmoil and frustration.

Surely, if you care so much about anything and everything, then you deserve to experience success, contentment, joy and fulfilment in return. It’s not impossible, of course. Many people throughout history have done just fine without reading my ramble here, or something similar.

But, from personal experience and seeing it with others, working towards giving fewer shits about all the stuff we believe to be so important in life appears to be a master stroke of zen-ness.

After all, life is way too short to fill it with giving shits about so many different things.

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