End of Apathy: Causes and transformation

Posted on 2017-03-24 By Joanna

The line between peace and apathy is often very thin. In fact, on the surface it is very easy to confuse one state with the other, and the interpretation of our experience - as to whether we experience peace or apathy, depends upon the lenses through which we decide to judge ourselves.

Peace is defined by feelings of being undisturbed, calm, composed, balanced, secure and patient.

Apathy is distinguished by not caring, feeling indifferent, neutral, unconcerned, emotionless and uninterested; from Greek - apathes “without suffering”

As we can see, both mental states are quite similar and it often might be a little bit challenging to distinguish one from the other. When we look at someone who is peaceful, they might appear relaxed and calm. If we look at someone who is apathetic, they will appear to us in a very similar manner. The difference separating these mental experiences seem to depend upon our own subjective experience and interpretations of it.

The experience of apathy closely resembles boredom. Nobody really likes to feel bored - when we are feeling bored, we don’t enjoy doing anything, nothing seems interesting. In fact, boredom and apathy might go hand in hand together as both are distinguished by the lack of interest, not being able to focus on anything and having difficulty with motivation.

But let’s go back to apathy and peace. Both, apathy and feeling peaceful are marked by a low arousal level - our body is calm, there is no sign of worries or troubles, we might feel as if the time got slowed down. Why then apathy causes so many struggles and prevents a person from having a pleasant time, whereas feeling peaceful is something that we enjoy?

Causes of apathy

There might be numerous causes of apathy, but if we just focus on how the apathy is experienced in the present moment, it’s quite easy to figure out potential causes. Of course, there might be physical influences, such as some illness or lacking nutrition, but let’s focus just on the psychological side of the problem.

Every mental state has its purpose: sadness as a way of grieving something we have lost, fear to indicate danger, happiness as a response to achievement or satisfaction. I heavily doubt that apathy doesn’t belong to this category.

Because apathy is marked by the low motivation and energy levels, lack of concern and lack of interest, there are thus two major causes of this state. We either lack novelty in our life, adventure or doing something challenging that will get our adrenaline running, or we have been experiencing too many feelings, giving away too much attention and too much concern so that our brain is simply tired and needs recovery.

Many people find it distressing to experience any negative mental state - anxiety, depression, sadness, anger. These are all undesired emotions in a society, as they indicate low productivity levels and low probability of finding a partner. It is no different in terms of apathy. It’s “wrong” to feel indifferent and lack concern, and hence most people feeling apathetic will sooner or later try to change it as it doesn’t provide them any source of satisfaction or pleasure. Thus, the mechanism for dealing with this feeling is precisely the same as in the case of dealing with other negative feelings such as sadness or anger - trying to get rid of it. We might blame ourselves for lacking interest or motivation, which only fuels apathy further and possibly breeds other negative feelings.

Because the society teaches us certain norms and standards, the moment we experience negative emotions, we start to think that there is something wrong with us and that something needs fixing. We must feel enthusiastic and happy again. This compulsion to get rid of negative emotions that many people in the Western society display isolates us even further from our emotional side.

When you hurt your hand, I doubt that you try to get rid of your hand - but rather, you wait for it to heal. In the same manner when we feel anxious or sad, waiting for our feeling (mental state) to heal will work precisely in the same manner as in the example of healing our hand. Of course, we might apply numbing agents - paracetamol for the physical pain or anti-depressants for the emotional pain, but these will not speed up the process of healing. On the other hand, feeling stuck with negative emotions can indicate other problems, but usually these feelings will go away on their own if we honour them and allow them to be. You might want to think of it as a circle - the emotion needs to pass through the whole circle representing processing of an emotion. If you disturb the process at some point by trying to get rid of it or changing it to something else, you might rob yourself of a chance to process the emotion which might sooner or later come back anyway.

The cure for apathy

The key element in the whole process is acceptance. We accept that our hand is hurt and it must heal. We accept that we are sad and we need time to process this feeling in order to feel other emotions again.

Therefore, one way to deal with apathy is to embrace it. The moment we accept our apathy, it will sooner or later turn into peace and eventually, into another emotion. Having feelings or lacking them when feeling apathetic has its purpose. Maybe we recently felt so many emotions that our brain simply got tired from feeling anything? Maybe we cared too much for things that didn’t need to be cared for and now we are simply tired of caring? Allow this state to be and honour it just like any other feeling or mental state.

Another way, if we feel that we have overstayed within the state of apathy, is to give us a little nudge. Try to create peace. What do you find relaxing and pleasant? Creating this condition automatically sets the apathy on the way of transforming it into peace. More intense ways involve simply getting ourselves to do something that will “wake us up”, such as going to a concert, travelling or maybe taking up some unusual hobby. However, it is much more respectful for ourselves to work on transforming apathy into peace, which can then provide us with an angle of experiencing other emotions and get us going again. Whether we decide to work on a state of peace or giving ourselves a metaphorical kick entirely depends on our situation and what we feel might work best. The key is to find out what’s causing our apathy and be gentle and understanding with ourselves.

How to cultivate peace

The basic fundamentals of peace include feeling relaxed, secure, patient and composed. You might want to imagine that this state will be certainly experienced by people practicing Buddhism. Feeling peaceful doesn’t necessarily mean feeling so loose that we can’t focus on anything, and neither it means not being concerned about anything at all. Rather, everything becomes easier, slower, perhaps nicer and most importantly, often more interesting.

When feeling peaceful, the amount of things we focus on reduces to what’s essential, and hence it’s easier to invest more focus onto one particular thing. Perhaps it’s even easier to care more than usual, since the amount of pressure and strain is removed and thus, we can care out of our freewill, for our own enjoyment or pleasure. Such is not the case with apathy when we don’t enjoy focusing on anything, we don’t care and don’t want to concern ourselves with anything at all because it doesn’t bring us any enjoyment or pleasure. We see everything that demands our attention and care as a strain and unnecessary pressure. Once again, this might be a proof that apathy is simply our brain’s way of relaxing after prolonged strain on our attention and concern.

So, listen to your apathy, try to find out why it’s there on the first place and convert it into peace, for peace brings the ability to let go, relax and reduce the amount of pressure. Peace is also an angle that can enable us to experience other emotions and eventually, makes it easier to experience new things and get us out of the rut of lacking motivation and having low energy. Honour your apathy just as you honour other mental states.