Subtraction | Less but Better

How we live each day matters more than what we do in our lives. There is nothing to achieve. There is nowhere to arrive.


It’s not uncommon for many of us (including myself at one point) looking to read as many books as possible in the hope of "acquiring knowledge" towards living a happy and fulfilled life. We strive towards reading 50, 100, or even more books in a year, and often times by reading multiple books at any given time. This has become quite a thing now. There’s no shortage of videos that purport to share strategies for reading as many books as possible by using every potential minute in our lives, so we can live the life we want.

Reading has become somewhat of a status symbol for many, so we can come across as "well-read/intelligent/worldly" to have an opinion about anything and everything (maybe even to feel superior to others), or whatever that means for us. For instance, we may undertake to read some popular classics even if they might not be an easy read, but we read them anyway, just so we can say we read them and/or mark it off in our somewhat arbitrary reading list.1

I picked reading books (text) here as an example, but it could apply to any form of media including visual (images), audio (via audiobooks/podcast) or video. Regardless of the medium, it’s all about knowledge acquisition. By the way, there is nothing wrong with wanting to learn more and stay curious about the world, as long as what we learn doesn’t get in the way of our living.

We are constantly acquiring knowledge for the purpose of "living a better life".2 This way, we are always preparing to live, but we never end up living our lives, because we are too caught up "in search of knowledge" by way of finding the next book we can read to "gather more insights." Paradoxically, in wanting to "live better", we don’t end up living at all.

We mistakenly think it’s more "knowledge" we need to live a good life. We don’t, despite what others (including formal education or the publishing industry) will have you believe. Life isn’t about learning, but unlearning, so we can get to the essence of who we are. The problem is we think we need to "know stuff." We don’t. Life is about subtraction, and not acquisition.

Do you think God designed you to be inadequate to begin with? Do you think He thought you needed more knowledge on this planet, because you were incomplete? The problem is we have learned from this world how to be and what to do to feel adequate (which is never-ending in and off itself, but we keep "learning to acquire"), and in the process we have forgotten who we are. In all of the "doing", we have forgotten to simply be.

Two kinds of intelligence

Contrary to what most believe, you don’t need to "know much" to live a good life. In fact, acquiring knowledge often gets in the way of true living.

The Persian poet Rumi talks about the two kinds of intelligence. The first kind is when you go to a formal school as a student to acquire information (translation: memorize facts and figures). You compete with others "to get ahead in life" with the implicit assumption that you aren’t enough and that you need things outside of you to complete you and justify your existence on this planet, but seeking external things (including knowledge) in life is a pointless pursuit at best.

The second kind of intelligence is about subtraction — when you don’t look outside of you, but rather within. The assumption is you are enough, meaning you have everything you need while the fountain of knowledge flows from within you, and not from the outside in. It’s about uncovering yourself like the layers of an onion to realize your true potential.

Rabindranath Tagore said:

A child is in his natural setting amidst the flowers and the songbirds [and not in the limited confines of a classroom]. There he may more easily express the hidden wealth of his individual endowment. True education is not pumped and crammed in from outward sources, but aids in bringing to the surface the infinite hoard of wisdom within.

Life isn’t about "doing (the right) things", but stopping to do the wrong ones we have acquired from this world. There is nothing wrong with learning as long as it doesn’t get in the way of our real growth. For instance, instead of striving to "be in the present", we must ask ourselves why we keep thinking about the past and future every day. Subtraction is about constantly letting go of yourself, so we can be who we really are. And, more often than not, it’s "knowledge in pursuit of living a good life" that gets in the way.

It’s not about "doing the right thing"

When we talk about wanting to improve our lives, it’s always about starting to "do the right thing" and never about stopping to do the wrong ones, even if the latter might be a more effective strategy for our improvement (particularly at the outset). In other words, we tend to think about ways to add to our lives in order to improve, rather than think about what we need to subtract (remove) from our lives to make it better. We falsely associate improvement or betterment with acquisition/accumulation.

For instance, when we want to be healthier, we set an arbitrary goal of losing x amount of body fat/weight3., and the first thing we do is we look to sign up for a club/gym membership, even though that’s the last thing we should be thinking of, because you can go to the gym all you want, but unless you stop eating unhealthy foods most of the time, you aren’t going to make any progress, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Here’s the bottom line. It’s not about starting to do the "right things", but stopping to do the wrong ones. Doing the right things will only help you (accelerate your progress) after you stop doing the wrong ones.

Here’s another example. We have abs (abdominal muscles). The reason we may not see it is because we have accumulated body fat over time from making poor food choices among other things.4 But, it’s not about "having a flat stomach" as much as it’s about not acquiring the body fat. It’s not about doing the right thing as much as it’s about not doing the wrong ones. Suffice it to say, you’ll make way more progress from stopping to do the wrong things than trying to do the right ones at the outset.

What you seek is who you are

We spend our lives looking for love, happiness, peace, joy, and harmony outside through people, places, things, events, so we can be okay inside, but those outer experiences can never solve our inner issues, even though they may give us the perception of doing so, ever so fleetingly. They are at best a short-term way to escape our lives. The question is what are we truly escaping from? Because, what gets in the way becomes the Way. But, we’d rather be comfortable living our lives in some form of implicit denial over the course of our lives (and suffer as a result) than having to go through the pain and discomfort (for a short while) to face what’s inside.

Contrary to what is generally believed, you don’t have to "do stuff" to be happy. And, it’s not a coincidence that the expression, be happy (not "do happy") itself tells you that happiness is a function of being, and not "doing." You don’t have to buy stuff to make you feel good about yourself. You don’t have to seek relationships to fill a void in your life. You don’t have to escape your work to enjoy life by going to faraway exotic places. You don’t have to use your work as a way to escape your life (troubled relationships or difficult family life anyone?). And the list goes on…

The truth is we don’t want any of this outer stuff. What we want is the feeling that we associate with these experiences. However, these feelings that we chase only last a short while, but we never learn. By the way, there is nothing wrong in doing/having any of those things, because what matters is the place you come from. These experiences inherently have no meaning in and off themselves, rather it’s the stories we tell ourselves about them, so we can feel okay inside. What we seek outside is who we are inside.

Here’s the thing. Just like we have abdominal muscles (covered by body fat over time), we are love, happiness, peace, joy, and harmony. The reason we don’t see any of it is because we have covered ourselves with various forms of fear (including insecurity, worry, anxiety, stress, burnout, depression, etc) that we have accumulated over the course of our lives. Furthermore, we have gotten so accustomed to this unnatural stuff in our lives that the language we use to describe it in our everyday vocabulary is one of accommodation to imply that it’s totally normal. It’s not. For instance, we talk about "managing our anxiety or stress." However, it’s not something to be "managed", but to be removed from your life. It’s the most unnatural thing in the world. It has to be, as it’s rooted in fear.

Rumi has said:

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.

You don’t have to seek happiness, love, or peace by way of seeking outer experiences in life. You have to work on removing your fears (from your past). When you work on removing all of the stuff that you have accumulated in your life, you will eventually find love, peace, happiness, joy, and harmony within. But you have to be ready, willing, and able to go through the pain of letting go of your past to get to peace, which is on the far side of suffering. Nothing is truly free. Everything costs something. It’s only when we stop protecting ourselves from the outside every day can we hope to be free inside someday.

Let go

We keep ourselves distracted long enough with outer experiences, so we don’t have to face what’s inside of us, as much as its unnatural for us to keep it all inside. For instance, we may do anything to not be alone by ourselves, even if that means spending time with others we’d rather not be with. Another instance is, we may find it challenging to do one thing at a time for more than a few minutes, much less sit alone in a room in silence. We’d rather be stimulated (by electricity) than to simply stay still. Think about the last time you mowed your lawn or washed your dishes or commuted to/from work without consuming media of any kind. It just doesn’t happen.

The truth is few of us have given ourselves the chance to make space to face ourselves, never mind have a shot at living from our true selves. We are scared, but nonetheless we keep it all inside. We go to great lengths to avoid facing it. All of this is resistance.

It’s almost funny how we resist that which has happened (in our past) or that which has yet to happen (in our future). Buddha was right — we are suffering. And, because we have gotten so used to this suffering (like fish who doesn’t know it’s in the water), we don’t know what’s it like to not suffer. We think the way we are living is totally normal (including those of us who are seemingly living "happy and peaceful lives"), but nothing about the way we are living is normal.

Think about how much of our daily lives is spent on thinking about our past or worrying about the future, particularly when we are doing "passive activities" like cleaning the dishes, taking the shower, folding laundry, etc. And that’s what keeps us from living in the present. We don’t have to actively work on "being in the moment." We need to stop living in the past or in the future in our minds.

When we are unable to let go of our past, we keep looking at our present through the lens of our past, and so we end up with a distorted view of the present at best. Most of us are living in our own subjective realities based on our past preferences rather than experiencing objective reality. Thanks in no small part to popular self-help authors telling readers to create their own (subjective) realities in the name of having "wealth/abundance/success" thereby implying that the objective reality isn’t good enough for us. It is. The only question is if we can elevate ourselves enough to experience it.

Stop trying to "make things happen"

One of the things we learn early in life is we think life is about getting something and being somewhere, and striving towards "making that happen." It’s not, lest we forget that none of it is under our control, and yet that doesn’t stop us from trying to make things outside to be a certain way. Inevitably, when that doesn’t happen, unhappiness ensues in its various forms.

This isn’t to say we rest on our laurels. Far from it. But, here’s the thing. There is nothing to achieve in life. There is nowhere to arrive. Every day is an opportunity for us to simply be (and do) our best. Whatever happens along the way will simply be a result of who we are implicitly, and not "what we do" explicitly. "Doing" is a result of being.

Acceptance is the only way forward. Resistance is futile. That means we experience everything in life without hoping or wanting things to be different (starting with the weather). In short, we stop resisting life by trying to "force things to happen", and have it go in particular direction. Instead, we trust life, that it has our best interest at heart, and all we have to do is stay open to the objective experience.

It’s only when we stop resisting life will we find ourselves free to wake up every day and be (and do) our best in whatever it is we do, because now, there is no expectation of having events in our lives to turn out a certain way. Doing the things we get to do every day is the reward in and off itself. And, it’s only when we are okay with however life unfolds, are we free to manage ourselves within the parameters of what’s available to us at any given time. That’s the first step on the path to true freedom.

Final thoughts

Life is about subtraction, and not acquisition or accumulation. We are (designed to be) complete. We don’t have to "do stuff" to feel adequate or to justify our existence by way of acquiring knowledge (to live a good life) or what have you. We have to unlearn who we have become during the course of our lives, so we can constantly let go of ourselves to become who we are truly capable of.

Despite what we may have heard or been led to believe, we don’t have to seek love, happiness, peace, joy, or harmony. We need to face our fears from our past, so we can let go and give ourselves a chance to experience all of it within at some point in our lives. All of it is on the far side of suffering, which is where we are now. We have to be ready, willing, and able to face the pain from our past, so we can hope to be free someday.

The goal of life isn’t to seek happiness, love, or peace, but to ask ourselves why aren’t we happy to begin with. Most of us are living in some form of fear by way of living in our past or future. The fact remains all of this unnatural stuff we have acquired in our lives is self-induced. Our unhappiness has little to do with the events in our lives, as much as we would like to believe otherwise.

  1. This isn’t to discount those who actually want to read these classics.

  2. What usually tends to happen is we tend to focus solely on completion.

  3. We already discussed why setting goals is limiting

  4. This is true for men, whereas women tend to accumulate body fat behind.

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