When I look around it seems like everyone is focused on addition. Our American obsession is to add things to our lives: a bigger house, a better job, a hotter boyfriend or girlfriend, and constantly chasing a boat-load of green paper. From the moment we wake up, we scramble to pull things into our lives; adding that dream vacation, a nicer car, or even 1,000 more friends on Facebook for more social affirmation. Turn on the TV and they’re hard-selling you addition: the new, improved diet pill (losing weight is adding to our self-image), a dating site to attract your perfect mate, or the seminar to teach you to become a millionaire. We even say “I wish I could add an hour to my day,” so we could add more to our to-do list, of course. Our national mantra is: look better, dress nicer, be wealthier, achieve more, and even have a better head of hair (ok, I wish I could add that one.)
Do you see what I’m getting at? It’s all about addition: attract, gain, possess, increase, achieve, augment, enlarge - better, more, more, MORE. Our motors are running 24-7 to pull everything possible into our lives, like junkies who need that next fix.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t have these things in your life, and certainly wanting to make money to support your family or be in better shape are noble pursuits, but the unconscious craving for addition leaves us surprisingly empty.
No wonder why, as a country, we’re exhausted, stressed, depressed, addicted, angry, hopeless, and overwhelmed like never before. But we try to self-medicate by adding drugs, booze, sex, work, and more shiny new things, and when that doesn’t work, little pills from our doctor.
Why doesn’t addition make us happy like we think it should? Constant addition brings self-judgment, always making us feel like we’re not only failing, but failures as human beings, incomplete and inadequate. We compare ourselves to others, but that’s a comparison we’ll never win. Addition brings us constant desire, attachment to outcomes, and therefore suffering. The more we get, the less value it has. So we try to add even more to make up for it. That’s like trying to multiply bigger and bigger numbers by zero, but expecting a different outcome.
But how many things in our lives are actually subtraction?
What might we deduct from our whole? We can start small by subtracting some possessions we don’t need, donating clothes to charity or cleaning out the garage. We can subtract some time from our never-ending To Do list and spend it with loved ones, or even with a complete stranger who needs company. We can subtract a little from our bank accounts and give it to someone who needs food or doesn’t have a place to live, or subtract some of our energy and volunteer. Any of these things will make you feel richer because when you give, instantly there is more value to what is left in your life.
I would say love is subtraction, because we are giving of ourselves to others. So too, then, are empathy, compromise, and compassion. We can endeavor to subtract from our egos, to shed our fears, deduct from our endless well of anger. We can place a minus sign in front of our stereotypes, our prejudices, and, so importantly, subtract those images of perfection in our minds that we reach for, thinking they will make us whole. I promise you – none of that can be achieved through addition. Try subtraction.
It will feel uncomfortable at first – your reptilian brain is so addicted to addition that you may hear a little voice whispering: “I need to start doing yoga. I really need to meditate every morning. I should be more appreciative of what I have.” Get rid of that mental junk, too – you’re only trying to add subtraction, and that is more of the same. You need to let go of addition, first, for this process to work, or at least be conscious of it.
So right now, give yourself 5 minutes and turn your motor of addition off, which has been running so long you probably don’t even hear it rumbling anymore. Give yourself permission out loud: it’s ok to stop. Be still. Let go of worrying about your ‘to do’ list, your bills, the house, the car, the perfect body, the perfect spouse, the perfect job, more money money MONEY. My God, give yourself a little break! The world is already spinning fast enough, you don’t need to try and speed it up more. "But things aren’t perfect," you say, and "I'll relax when I just get this next thing done?" Guess what? They never will be perfect. So just stop, breathe, and release it all. Subtract.
When you stop clawing for more in your life you’ll begin to feel acceptance. It will dawn on you that you already have everything you need. You have life, breath – the gift of self-perpetuation to grant you another moment. And another. You’ll start to surrender the idea that you have control over things – believe me, you don’t. Once you make room in your life, the universe will give you everything you want and need. Wish nothing more. Try to go nowhere. THIS is your life. Yesterday is over – it’s only a memory, and tomorrow doesn’t exist yet – it’s just a concept.
"But Norm," you may be saying, "all those things I’m adding will GIVE me a better life, they'll BRING me happiness!" Bullshit. You’ve just become a master at fooling yourself that this is why you were put here on earth. What you’re looking for with all that addition isn’t the material thing itself, but the feeling you think it will give you. It won’t, or that feeling will be very short lived, fading out quickly and leaving you ravenous to fill that void. I promise, you can find that pure feeling much easier elsewhere.
With practice and patience, subtraction in your life will yield amazing results. Once that motor turns off, the anxiety in you chest will slowly ease. That nagging voice in your head will get weaker. You’ll sleep better, feel more clear and calm, and actually notice you’re breathing deeply. Your mind will work better, like a computer that’s trash bin and cache have finally been emptied after way too long. A sense of peace will filter down into your life as you realize that everything and everyone is connected. What’s truly important will glow – family, friends, laughter, helping others, enjoying the ride. “Why didn’t I see this before?” you’ll ask, smiling because you’re finally in on the cosmic joke.
I’m not telling you NOT to work hard, hustle, or enjoy nice things. Not at all. Enjoy the hell out of them – buy a helicopter made of gold and wipe your bum with 50-dollar bills if you want. Just make sure you are their master, not the other way around. Like the philosopher Frederick Nietzsche said, “That which you possess, possesses you.” Or, another way of looking at it:
Don’t love things that aren’t alive, because they'll never love you back.
How do I know this? Because my life has turned from addition to subtraction, too. A few years ago I was an addition junky – the big, beautiful house, two luxury cars, seven TV’s (including one in the bathroom), so much material crap that I needed two storage sheds to hold the overflow, and a business that kept me hustling from sunup to sundown trying to pay for it all. I used to go shopping every day and fill my cart just to buy something, then bring it all home only to decide I didn’t like it, and go back the next day to return it. Who does that? This dipshit!
The feeling I really loved was sharing time with good friends but I couldn’t relax and do that anymore, I was too busy juggling chainsaws trying to maintain it all. I stressed more and smiled less, so I kept adding things to fill that void: work, money, women, superficial friends, more women, food, alcohol, and more food. I was running as fast as I could but getting nowhere, trying to drag 1,000 anchors with me.
I gave it all up – ALL of it. I sold the house, sold the cars, and sold the seven TV’s. I stopped being a workaholic, stopped buying stuff, and gave up the wom…well, I gave up most of it. What I didn’t sell I donated to charity in the biggest karmic garage sale of all time. I even cut some people out of my life who were toxic.
After shedding all of my possessions I moved down to Costa Rica, to a little seaside village called Tamarindo, to live in perfect stillness among palm trees and monkeys and that beautiful beach, where I would chase my life’s dream of writing a book.
I knew it was a solution, but at first it still felt alien. I was like the guy with one foot on the dock and one on the boat. As the boat pulled away I got stretched until I was doing a split and ripped my pants and had to decide. So I jumped on the boat, and my life changed, forever.
That was two years ago and I’m still trying to practice subtraction – to let go of my ego, my fear, my judgment, my desires. It’s a life long journey that I’ll never get perfect, but do you know what? The less I have, the less I want. Seriously – you could hand me a million dollars or the keys to a brand new BMW right now and I’d say “no thank you,” because I really don’t give a shit. From the outside looking in, those things just look like anchors to me. I have everything I need – a few changes of clothes that fit into one duffel bag, more than enough food, I get to sleep indoors (most nights,) and, most importantly, I am free to share my prayer for the world, my writing, with all of my wonderful friends, new and old. By creating so much space in my life I’m ready to receive the most amazing experiences and warmest, most wonderful people – all of YOU, and I have no desire to add anything that will jeopardize that. I’ve grown to accept life, to embrace detachment from outcomes, to slow down. I’m open to everything but want nothing.
Please understand that I’m not trying to be preachy, because no one likes “that” guy, and I’m not trying to sell you anything. I only wanted to share the concept of subtraction with you because I think it will enrich your life, as it has mine. If you love this advice and it helps you, just buy me a beer some day down the road (which I will gladly subtract from the bottle.)
Well, I’ve taken enough of your precious time, so I’ll leave you with this: it’s easy to be all about addition, to worship the bling. I understand that better than anyone. Believe it or not, it’s also easy to do what I did – to give it all up and start from zero. I’m certainly not encouraging you to sell all your possessions and drop out of society and move to the beach, too. That was my true path, and you’ll find your own, I promise. But I do know that the most important journey in life, for all of us, is to find that perfect compromise between addition and subtraction, our equal sign, for that is where we’ll balance the equation of our happiness.