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Davis Keene·February 8, 2024

As people, we try our best to do the things we love. It's our duty to fulfill our desires and ambitions, to love and care for others, and to make use of the time we have left. This is why any sort of mental or physical obstacle feels so terrible; it prevents us from being happy and carrying out our purpose.

I write this from my bed amid my third bout of COVID-19, two more than I ever expected to participate in, feeling shockingly sad that I can't perform basic functions that give me pleasure. Reading makes my head hurt, working makes me nauseous, I can't see my friends, and it seems the only thing I can manage to do is consume content on social media and order delivery from UberEats. Living with a roommate makes it doubly challenging to leave my room (out of respect and consideration for our shared space), and New York City has picked the only few days in winter when I shouldn't leave the house to have a faux Spring. At least I can finally have my windows open throughout the day.

Sickness is a hindrance, an all too common one in people's lives that ranges from mild to armageddon. As a hindrance, it is a distraction on our path to fulfillment. As Confucius said, "A healthy man wants a thousand things, a sick man only wants one."

The study of medicine has been around for just about as long as humankind; the constant fight between humans and invisible forces too small to see but too powerful to ignore. It's incredible just how much of my life I owe to this practice. It is also in the field of medicine that we see some of the most prominent examples of resilience, in both people and in pathogens. A testament to either side's evolutionary desire to survive and reproduce, or maybe just to simply exist.

A hindrance is anything that prevents us from following our optimal policy. They come in all shapes and sizes and span all walks of life. They affect everyone differently, they elicit different reactions from people, and they are treated in unique ways. To name a few:

  • Procrastination
  • Addiction
  • Sicknesses
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Preoccupation
  • Forgetfulness
  • Fear
  • Ignorance

The most universal basic phenomenon to all people is Death. The second is dealing with hindrances. Buddhists believed in this too, and identified five core Hindrances1 that impede enlightenment:

  • Sensual desire
  • Sloth and torpor
  • Ill-will
  • Restlessness and remorse
  • Doubt

They claim that it is these hindrances that affect our ability to meditate and to operate mindfully in our lives. Overcoming them is essential, in Buddhism, to deepening mediation and progressing on the path to spiritual enlightenment. While I'm not a Buddhist, I strongly believe that we should be mindful of the things that hold us back.

How you deal with impediments is ultimately how you perform in life. Stafford Beer famously said, "The purpose of a system is what it does... [there is] no point in claiming that the purpose of a system is what it consistently fails to do2."

If you define your purpose as something concrete, and let hindrances get in your way, you are no longer giving yourself the agency to carry out your purpose. Life is Unpredictable, many things can (and do) happen to change your outcomes. Focusing on the unchangeable (and failing to change it) blinds us to the power we have to transform what's within our reach.

I used to create things with very little idea of whether or not I was creating something "good". When I first began writing code or making yo-yos, I would perform some set amount of research to wield the tools necessary for creation (learning Python basics, learning CAD principles, etc.), and then fall forward until I had something I was proud of. Today, I find myself creating less under my own personal brand, as I am my own harshest critic. What blog posts will I cringe at in 6 months? What code will I be embarrassed to have written in a year? Can I publish things to the world knowing they aren't perfect, and that they are reflections of my own imperfect worldview?

Confidence, or lack thereof, is a hindrance that I'm trying to overcome. It won't happen in a day, but it happens one step at a time. Maybe this blog post is a step in the right direction; something that I created, knowing it isn't perfect, but I decided to publish it anyway. We deal with hindrances in two ways: through preventative care, and through reactive care. To nurture the part of myself that yearns to build things, I will leave this post up as a vulnerable example of self-expression. As for my COVID, I think I'll go and make a cup of lemon-ginger tea before bed. That ought to help a bit.

1 The The Five Hindrances in Buddhism all have "antidotes", that once you're acquainted with can strengthen your meditation.

2 From "Diagnosing the system for organizations". Thinking of the self as a complex system is strange since we spend so much time studying emergent behaviors in groups of people, but we can learn something from it.