Atomic Problems

How tiny pains can lead to real suffering

Ryder Carroll
6 min readSep 5, 2022
Image by Philippe Dehaye

Let me to begin by introducing you to the concept of the Zen Bag. The Zen Bag only tolerates the ideal. The ideal tooth brush, sunglasses, notebook, pen and so on. It’s a collection of essential objects, but it also represents a personal exploration into defining what is essential.

A zen bag is a collection of material totems representing the immaterial values of its curator. My notebook represents the responsibly I have to regularly reflect on my life. My toothbrush represents my commitment to linguistic hygiene, the pen, my power to create the story of my life, and so on. Little did I know that a disposable four-dollar brush would become a centerpiece of my collection.

A month before Covid, I got my last haircut. I’d frequented a barbershop that was a love letter to a bygone era. It was appointed with oxidized brass fixtures, cracked Parisian tile, massive smoked-stained mirrors, coiffed curios in glass cases, and a cadre of heavily tattooed barbers.

As I was paying, I noticed that they were selling round hand brushes. These were compact, lite, black, and symmetrical, a perfect fit for my Dopp kit. I’d never given brushes much thought until I put this one to work for the first time. It felt like getting a scalp massage by a hundred strong little fingers. It elevated an unremarkable daily activity into something, dare I say, pleasurable…until it broke.

The brush was made from cheap plastic. It had two pieces, the brush body, and the strap. The strap snapped into two holes via two complimentary nodes at either end of the strap. Once in a while, one side would pop out, rendering the brush cumbersome to use. The problem however was just small enough for me not to muster the motivation to do something about it. That’s how this little inconvenience slowly chipped away at my wellbeing each morning…for months.

I once was told that you get what you tolerate. One morning I found myself standing half naked, half awake, half groomed, fully livid, glaring at this broken brush in my hand wondering why I had tolerated it for so long.

First the rationalizing began. I thought to myself that the brush was helping me practice embracing discomfort, patience, detachment, to be less reactionary, and so on. Of course, none of that was true, and the excuses quickly gave way to self-judgment.

Why had I let this stupid thing erode my wellbeing for so long? Why had I tolerated it taking up more and more real estate in my mind? Why was I so lazy etc. etc.

I’ve dedicated my life to understanding what it means to live intentionally. I’ve amassed countless hours of practice and an arsenal of tools toward that end. Yet there I stood, holding in my hand a small insignificant object that had managed to circumvent all my hard-won knowledge and training, and blindside me with a low-key existential reckoning.

My initial instinct was to simply throw it out and get a new brush. Problem solved, right? Maybe. I couldn’t help but feel that by throwing out this useless brush, I may actually deprive me of something truly valuable.

It occurred to me that without this brush, I’d likely forget this whole experience, and with it, the insight it granted me. I didn’t want to forget. This left me with another option, one that I had avoided all this time: to take the time to fix the dammed thing!

Every time it had broken, this option has occurred to me, only to be dismissed because I was busy. Each time I put it off though, it took a little more energy, a little more attention, did a little more damage. Looking back, it felt like something ugly in my mind was keeping score.

Ultimately, all it required to turn this long nagging source of frustration into a consistent source of joy, was a spot of glue, five minutes of time, and a low-key existential meltdown. In other words, a perfect addition to my zen bag, where it continue to serves as both a trophy and reminder.

As a trophy, it celebrates the victory of choosing curiosity over self judgment. Yes, judgment had come up. That wicked little thing that had been keeping score, had accumulated a lot of compelling evidence to feel bad about. In the end though, curiosity overcame my inner critic. I chose to slow down and learn, rather than power through by throwing it all away. In return, I won an invaluable artifact that serves as constant reminder of something I can’t afford to forget.

Viktor Frankl once said that, “a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber.”

Given enough time, even the most atomic troubles can eventually take up a lot of space in our minds, and by extension, our lives. Each small unattended pain— directly and indirectly— continues to deplete our energy, making us ever more vulnerable and reactionary, which allows pain to compound.

You know how when one thing goes wrong, it often feels like a lot of other things randomly start going wrong? For example, your boss makes you fill in on your day off and on that very same day you also get a parking ticket, and have a big fight with your partner. This is often attributed to simply a bad day, or bad luck. I would argue there is very little spookiness involved. If there is something to be blamed, it would be a defunct evolution strategy.

When one thing goes wrong, we tend to activate survival mode. In that mode, our negativity bias tends to increase while our patience and objectivity decrease. In other words, it’s not that many bad things are randomly happening to us, we’re simply operating from a reactionary state that often triggers a chain of negative events, like some hellish Rube Goldberg Machine.

Having to go in on your day off, causes frustration. That frustration distracts you from reading the “No parking” sign. The resulting ticket dials up frustration to anger. Communicating from a place of anger can quickly turn a harmless conversation into an ugly argument.

Author James Clear provides a sobering example of the power of compounding effects: If a plane from LA bound for NYC is just a slight 3.5 degrees off course, it will eventually land in DC — hundreds of miles away from its intended destination. Similarly, the slightest pain can shift our actions, and attention just enough to eventually lead to true suffering.

Though pain can’t be avoided we do our best to try. We numb, distract, or fool ourselves to escape feeling pain. Of course, we’re just offsetting the problem. As long as it remains unattended to, pain continues to hurt us over and over again. That’s how little but persistent pains begin to cause a lot of damage. That’s how pain becomes suffering.

Suffering is a choice. It’s choosing to allow ourselves to get hurt over and over again by something we have the power to change. The more psychical or psychological pain we experience though, the more preoccupied we become with our own survival. The harder we try to survive, the more reactionary we become. Reacting is choosing the same thing over and over again. That’s how so many of us suffer, we’re choosing pain, over and over again, often without even knowing it.

Luckily, no matter what the situation may be, there is always something we can change: the way we choose to respond. Just as unintentional reactions can shift our choices toward suffering, intentional responses have the power to shift our choices away from suffering. The trick is to remember that we have the power to choose, so we can remain vigilant about responding to our challenges over and over again.

What better way to remind us of our power to choose than an object we use every day? For me, it’s a simple plastic brush. For you, it may be a coffee mug, a yoga mat, jewelry. Whatever it is, I hope it fits in your Zen Bag, because we all need to keep that reminder top of mind wherever we may go.



Ryder Carroll

Creator of the Bullet Journal®. NYT Best-selling author and digital product designer, living in Brooklyn, NY.