“The world is a mental hospital” … but we can escape

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

Blazing a trail through the darkness with words 

I met Gaël Blanchemain on one of those days when darkness so enshrouds your life that the very notion of light seems impossible. Bleak is a word that comes to mind. Besieged by a dozen different devils, I felt adrift in the blackness. I have endured my share of challenging times, as we all do, but for some reason this particular set of life circumstances felt insurmountable.

Pain and suffering has a way of pushing us to seek out solutions, anything to make sense of the sometimes unbearable weight of being human. And so I turned to old books, I turned back to the discipline of Zazen, and I also turned to those who are fellow travellers on the path. And that’s where I met Gaël Blanchemain, a young man who is building something new and incredible, one word at a time.

Gaël has walked very different paths in life: from a Buddhist monk to a commercial engineer. He’s now on a mission to promote new lifestyles that enable balance and prosperity without damaging the environment. He is building an online community of light at www.gr0wing.com

I caught up with Gaël recently to chat about life, writing, and … waking up.

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CB: It’s good to talk with you Gaël. Congratulations on your recent marriage and your move to the U.S. It’s been a year of change for you. Tell us where the idea for ‘gr0wing’ came from and what you hope to accomplish.

GB: Thanks, I’m glad you invited me. You’re right, this last year has been a radical shift for me, and I expect this change to bring many others. Getting married is definitely a step forward for a loner like me, but I know who I’m committed to; Vilma (my wife) is well worth the transition

When it comes to my blog, gr0wing.com, I started this project to promote life improvement paths. I believe we can make huge differences on a personal and global level right now, the only thing we need are concrete examples to draw inspiration from.

What’s happening in the world is without any precedent: ecological threats, technological breakthroughs. This millennium feels like a washing machine in tumbling mode, everybody’s lost. As humans, it’s legitimate to doubt our capacity to build a brighter future on a personal scale, let alone a global one, and most of us believe that the existing system is broken: politically, economically and even spiritually. What can we do? Where to start?

The mainstream media keep hammering obsolete messages from the 20th century: get a well paid 9 to 5 job, buy a house, silence your anxiety with medication and follow the government’s recommendations. It doesn’t work, even conventional minds are aware of this. New solutions must be found and change will only occur outside the control of our corrupt institutions, in other words: we have to make things happen. We’ve entered a DIY paradigm.

The challenge I’m taking up with gr0wing is to explore alternative lifestyles and promote them so that everyone can put them to use, and the great news is there are thousands of creative people at work who already implement winning strategies. These people can be labeled minimalists, urban monks or conscious earthlings, what they have in common is the way they modified their daily habits to beat current threats. For example, the minimalism movement is about de-cluttering one’s life of the excess material goods in order to get out of debt and focus on life’s real values: spirituality, social life, education. Those whom I call conscious beings are reinventing modern habitats and community life by designing low-impact houses and eco-villages. Urban monks on their end leverage meditation and technology to live a conscious life and make a difference in the city.

All those collective trends are an organic response to global challenges, I know that these lifestyles work and I want everyone to get a chance to benefit from them. Gr0wing represents this commitment.

CB: You walked away from the safety and prestige of the corporate world to take a risk on chasing a dream and helping people in new ways. It hasn’t been an easy road. What has this experience taught you so far?

My experience in the corporate world was successful and promising in terms of career, but I’ve always been more interested in having a positive impact than making big sales. When the start up I was working for went bankrupt, I had a choice between accepting good positions in other businesses and growing financially or following what my heart was telling me. I chose the second option: trying to share the best of what I’ve learned on my blog and connect with like-minded people.

So far I can say that it’s been extremely challenging: freedom comes at a high cost, both financially and tremendous amount of work, as well as moments of doubt. By giving up your day job, you abandon more than a monthly payroll. There are no more weekends, no more colleagues to blame for your unhappiness, no more conventional refuges like an apartment and a daily routine. The freewheeling lifestyle implies a mixture of self-reliance and humility (lots of friends have helped me). It’s the hard way …

On the bright side, I’ve gained the chance to develop faster than I ever did, just because of the above: I learned a lot on the real reasons that had kept me trapped in institutions. I feel I’m waking up from an age of darkness with a chance to finally take responsibility for my life and really make a difference. Paradoxically, I’ve also learned that I can’t do it on my own, I need connections, feedback, support, that seems to be the only way to grow.

My hunch is that these difficulties will not stop given the scale of my ambitions. It’s only a start for me, but I’ve already learned a lot and I’m grateful for that.

CB: Suffering is part of the human condition. How does ‘becoming aware’ help one deal with rejection, frustration and challenging times?  

I think your question contains its answer: rejection, frustration, challenging times are not a curse, they are part of human condition and an opportunity for growth. For some obscure reason, we fear change, even when we know for sure that it leads to improvement. The main challenges we meet are the expression of this fear of change.

As a Buddhist, I was taught that there is no way around suffering aside from fully accepting it. It’s not just a philosophical trick, it really works, but our tendency toward avoidance is so deeply rooted that we need to refresh that awareness constantly: we suffer, that’s a part of our humanity. Suffering is not a punishment, it is information, and it points towards freedom. Awareness is the tool that transforms pain into an ally.

CB: We met when I discovered some of your writing and we went on to share about our challenges and our shared interest in following a new path. As a writer, it’s my goal to connect with other people in some way. Tell us how your project has allowed you to reach people all over the world, perhaps in some unexpected ways.

When I started gr0wing, I had no expectations in terms of direct feedback. I had no idea who was going to respond to my post (especially the first ones which were particularly bad), but I received messages from all over the planet: India, Norway, France, the U.S., Latin America, you name it.

In many cases, readers would tell me about problems I was not aware of: lots of young Indian people trapped in arranged marriages, even a pregnant mom trying to find ways to meditate. I also received encouragement from guys living a very conventional life who now use gr0wing as a source of tips to change their daily habits.

In many cases, I couldn’t really help; all I could do was send supportive emails, so you can imagine how humbling that was! But that’s also how I understood that humans have more in common than we think, otherwise how could a French dude’s blog help an Indian guy? I can’t explain how it functions, but I’m happy to see the Internet’s magic at work.

Another funny thing: many blogger training programs recommend writing for a targeted audience … I had to accept that mine is too broad to apply this strategy and I still don’t know what I’m doing in this area. Might be useful for those who wonder whom they should write for.

CB: Writers and artists often seek out meditation as way to enhance creativity, quiet the self-doubt, and stay focused. But then real life gets in the way and I doubt that my efforts are leading anywhere but in circles. How do you keep walking the path when the rest of the world seems to be so insanely focused on immediate gratification?  

The world at large is a mental hospital, and the consumerist lifestyle promoted all over the planet is a dead-end.

Seeking instant gratification makes you like a lab rat that gets a shot of cocaine each time it pushes a button. How far will that take you? It’s easy to imagine as we’re surrounded by worrisome examples of this neurotic behavior. No wonder depression has reached epidemic levels.

Conversely, meditation leverages deep functions of the mind, slowly over time. It’s a journey that transforms your values, your behavior, even your body, but it sure doesn’t provide overnight results. That’s why I think it’s a safe approach to keep worldly ambitions and spiritual ones apart from each other. Meditation doesn’t necessarily stimulate productivity, but it makes you aware, and mindfulness is probably the only thing we need regardless our projects and dreams. You just need to keep doing it no matter what, and trust the process.

CB: Do you have any specific exercises or tips for writers and artists to help spark and nurture creativity? 

Yes, keep your knife to the grindstone until you wear it out, and then get another stone!

Endurance pays off, and I like this quote from Picasso: “Inspiration exists, but it must find you working.”

Also, don’t repress unexpected spurts of ideas: it doesn’t matter if you get them while on the toilet seat or in the middle of the night, write them down! I use Evernote, but if a moleskin notebook of a table cloth works for you, go ahead.

Last thing: ship it. You can expect to be booed often, and the ratio of good vs. bad work might well be 1/10, but your creativity muscle will grow all the bigger as you dare publishing your work and exposing yourself. Don’t be shy, even Da Vinci’s work was mostly bad, but the good pieces were worth the showing.

CB: Spiritual teachers tell us to nourish our bodies with good food, our minds with good books. What are some of the best books you’ve read in the past year? 

I picked three books in different areas:

Louis-Ferdinand Celine: Journey to the End of the Night.
A jewel that I re-read recently, not for the faint of heart but wonderfully written. I don’t endorse Celine’s world view, though.

Pema Chodron: When things fall apart.
The book is packed with genuine spiritual advice from a Tibetan Buddhist nun, everything can be applied right now, whether you know anything about this spirituality or not. As the title suggests, it’s a powerful kit to step out of the darkest depressions.

On the more positive side: Seth Godin: Linchpin – Are you indispensable?
Seth Godin dares to lay out the harsh realities of our new economy and proposes another way for artists to attract an audience and make a difference with their art. I find his work both visionary and practical at the same time.

CB: Anything else you’d like to share with us, Gaël?   

Yes … if you’re creating something or if you’re planning to do so, I hope you’re conscious that your unique contribution matters, I hope no doubt or self-criticism will get in your way, I have high expectations of you.

Lastly, if you could read this interview until the end without falling asleep, chances are we have something in common … so reach out to me, I’ll be glad to connect.

(cb forrest is at work on two new books, developing a creative writing workshop for women at risk in our society, and sometimes staring at a white wall.)