My Introduction to Wood Carving

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Last month I started feeling a desire to escape the digital world and create something with my hands. Looking around on the internet for some hands-on hobbies, I found myself drawn to woodworking. Unfortunately, I realized pretty quickly that I neither had the requisite tools to get started or the money to buy them this summer. So I searched for something a little less costly that might give me the same kind of satisfaction. One day later, I had picked up the age-old craft of woodcarving. So far I’ve carved three pieces out of small blocks of basswood, and I’m currently working on my fourth.

Woodcarving is an interesting craft. When I first started I was using a small, three-blade pocket knife, and it took me a few hours to hack off just a couple of inches of wood. But there was something so satisfying about using only my hands and a blade to shape the wood into something other than a boring rectangle block – even if it was a slow process.

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I started off with the intention of carving my first block of wood into a simple egg, but soon found that my knife and the stubborn grain of the wood had other plans for my untrained hands. My first piece ended up looking somewhat like a spade, and even though I didn’t plan it, I’m quite happy with it.

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My second and third pieces – a fish and a sword, respectively – were a lot more intentional. I started off with a basic idea of what I wanted to create and was able to get pretty close to it. By the time I started the sword I had bought my first pair of actual wood carving knives (and gloves for protection), and boy did they make the process easier. Compared to my cheap pocket knife, the wood carving blades cut through the wood like butter.

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While I can’t say wood carving will be an all consuming passion for me, it’s definitely a hobby I want to dive into more deeply. I really love the idea of creating something beautiful and possibly useful with my own two hands. It gives a kind of satisfaction that I haven’t felt with other creative endeavors like writing or even photography.

Two Weeks of Simplicity

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About a month ago, I decided I needed to find some clarity in my life. Having moved back to California a little over a month before, my life was on autopilot, with my days basically consisting of work and Netflix binges. Not the stuff fulfilling lives are made off.

In order to find the clarity I was searching for, I made the decision to cut out most of the distractions that normally filled my days. Those included social media, Netflix (TV and movies in general), the internet, and music. I even committed to only drinking black coffee for a little extra challenge – not that I need any more of a challenge. While I wasn’t perfect at cutting everything out, it ended up being the most austere two weeks I had experienced since being grounded as a child. Fortunately, I gained a lot more from the experience than I ever did from any punishment, no matter how much I deserved it at the time.

From Emptiness to Fulfillment to Action

It wasn’t until I didn’t have a screen to distract me that I realized how much I was dependent on TV and social media for my entertainment. I’d even go so far as to say that I depended on those things to give me a sense of fulfillment in my daily life. Still, that realization did little to make my new found austerity any easier, at least not at first. I was at a complete loss for how to spend all of the free time I had just reacquired.

For the first few days, I resigned myself to just sitting in silence with my thoughts while I wasn’t at work or around my family. Not exactly the most thrilling activity. However, that solitude turned out to be exactly what I needed. As the days went by, I started to feel a sense of peace that I had never really experienced before. My thoughts slowed down. My impulsive desires stopped controlling my every action. The feeling of emptiness that I had been trying to fill with digital distractions started to fade away. I started to realize that I could be just as happy sitting in silence as I could hanging out with friends or watching Parks and Rec.

Along with a greater sense of peace and fulfillment, I also started to feel a genuine desire to take action in my life. Glancing up at my bookshelf one night, I saw the dusty, unread copy of “The Lord of the Rings” that I always planned on reading but never started. Almost without thinking, I grabbed the book off the shelf and dived in (I’m currently about 250 pages in and loving it). The next day, feeling a desire to make something with my hands, I decided to pick up the age-old craft of wood carving. I went out that evening and bought a pocket knife and some blocks of wood and got to carving. Since then I’ve carved three pieces and thoroughly enjoyed the process.

A Life of Simplicity

The feeling of peace that came from living with fewer distractions was pretty eye opening. However, cutting out all of the distractions in my life was pretty extreme, and definitely not sustainable. What’s interesting to me is, in the time since those two weeks ended, how quickly I’ve fallen back into the trap of letting all of those distractions dictate my life. This is especially true for social media. I’m now more aware of how often I check my phone for updates, likes, and friend requests, usually to the detriment of my own sense of inner peace.

My goal now is to start cultivating a life of intention and simplicity, though in a much more organic way than my forced austerity. I suppose it’s all about finding the right balance. Not deleting my social media, but limiting how much time I spend on it. Indulging in Netflix, but not letting it become part of my daily routine. And most importantly, giving myself some time every day to disconnect from the constant stream of distractions and connect with my own genuine desires.

 

 

 

 

 

Moving Away from Self-Reflection

Ever since I started this blog my writing has been primarily focused on analyzing the contents and workings of my mind, all with the end goal of becoming a happier and more fulfilled human being. I tried to explore all manner of concepts related to self-improvement, both in an attempt to share ideas that had helped me along my journey and to increase my own understanding of those concepts.

There has been a shift inside of me recently. For the first time since I started my journey of self-improvement 4 years ago, I’m no longer preoccupied with “fixing” myself. It’s not that I’ve all of sudden become the happy and fulfilled person I want to be. I still have plenty of things I want to change about myself, but spending my time thinking and writing about those things no longer feels useful. The truth of the matter is that I spent more time during the past four years talking about different ways to become a happier person than actually doing the things that would have made me happy.

Now I find myself motivated to simply do more of the things I love. I love to read. I love to write. I love to take and edit photos. I love to travel. So those are the things I’m going to start focusing on in this blog. Those are the things I’m going to document and describe. Sure, there will still be some self-reflection in my writing, but I want that reflection to be based on my actions and experiences, not just ideas I read in a book.

Sitting in the Confusion

Photo: Lagos, Portugal

I feel confused a lot. So much so that a friend recently gave me the nickname “confused tree,” the tree part being a reference to my tallness. What am I confused about? That’s easy: pretty much everything.

I’m confused about what I really want in life, who I am, how I feel, and what I should be doing. I’m confused about the world around me and about what my place in it should be. I’m confused about why I’m even confused in the first place. There’s so much confusion that sometimes it can feel overwhelming.

Here’s a thought. Maybe the problem isn’t the confusion itself, but how I perceive it. I’ve always looked at confusion as a negative thing. I mean, nobody wants to be confused. It’s not a great feeling. And there are few things that feel better than having a clear sense of direction in life.

But what if the confusion is a good thing? What if it’s something to be embraced, celebrated even? I’m not really sure where I’m going with this thought, but it has occurred to me lately that there is a sense of joy that can come from just sitting in the confusion. When everything around us tells us to find answers, maybe there’s more pleasure to be found in the never-ending stream of questions.

My Mind

My mind likes to tell me…

  • Something is missing in this moment
  • There’s something wrong
  • It’s time to panic
  • I’ll never figure things out
  • I can’t be happy until x, y, and z
  • I’m not good enough
  • The future is something to fear
  • The past is something to hold on to
  • The present is something to avoid

My mind likes to tell me all those things and so much more.

I used to take it seriously. I used to let its words dictate my every emotion. But now I’m learning to listen to my mind and just…laugh. Because my mind is like a perpetually paranoid and overdramatic friend. It’s not trying to hurt me – it’s actually doing its best to protect me – but usually it has no idea what the hell it’s talking about. So I listen, breathe, and laugh….

 

My Anchor

We all have a routine in our lives that helps us find peace and clarity, especially when the pressures of life start to bear down on us. For some, it’s a long shower, a walk in the park, a yoga session, or a little meditation. For others, it could be something more social like going to church or a support group. I discovered my own sacred routine about four years ago.

I got my first journal when I was 13 – a gift from my mom – and it mostly collected dust for the next few years. I saw very little use in self-reflection as a teenager, even if I desperately needed it at the time. And while I always had a knack for writing, putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) was usually reserved for school essays and the occasional failed attempt at writing fiction.

It wasn’t until seven years later, after returning home from a semester abroad in Madrid, that I started to see the value in journaling. I was going through a lot of mental and emotional changes at the time, and I increasingly felt like I had no one to talk to about it all. The blank pages of a Moleskin notebook I had bought months earlier started to look like the only place I could express all of the noise going on inside my head. So I grabbed the notebook and my favorite pen, found myself a quiet place, and sat down to write.

It felt quite awkward at first. How was one supposed to start a journal entry? Were all my thoughts even worth putting down on paper? Who was I even supposed to write to? What if someone saw my writing and thought I was crazy? Eventually, I was able to push past all of those doubts and just start writing.

I don’t remember at what point journaling went from a desperate experiment to a consistent routine. All I know is that writing in that notebook quickly started to feel as natural as eating or drinking. It was the first time I could express all of the thoughts in my head without the fear of being judged. I could rave and rant and contradict myself, all with the knowledge that my words were for me and me alone.

My journaling sessions are usually accompanied by some kind of caffeinated beverage.

I soon found that journaling was more than just a way for me to get things off my chest in a judgment-free environment. It became a way for me to truly understand myself. For years I had felt like a victim of my constantly fluctuating thoughts and emotions, with no way of understanding what was going on in my head. Journaling allowed me to put all of the confusion on paper, and from there I could start to make sense out it.

Fast-forward almost four years and you would be hard-pressed to find me anywhere without my journal close by. Journaling is so many things to me. It’s one of my greatest sources of comfort in times of distress. It’s the janitor for my mind, helping me get rid of all the clutter and put things in their correct place. It’s the place I get to feel fancy by practicing my cursive. It’s a running record of all the changes I experience over time. Most of all, though, it’s the ritual that keeps me grounded on a daily basis, and I don’t know what I would do without it.

Letting Go of Control

I’ve spent most of my life trying to control things. When I was younger I tried to control the external world around me. I needed situations to work out in a way that benefited me. I needed to be comfortable. I needed people to like me. Unfortunately, this need for control ended up causing me more stress than anything. The older I got, the more I realized I had very little control over the world around me.

When I got into self-improvement when I was 20, it was like a beacon of hope for me. Most of the content I read taught that our thoughts are what ultimately determine our happiness. While we may not be able to control our external circumstances, we could certainly control how we perceive them. In other words, we should focus on controlling our thoughts instead of trying to control the world around us.

I bought into this idea pretty quickly, seeing it as a way to escape the anguish I had experienced for most of my adolescent life, and I’ve spent the majority of the last four years trying to change how I perceive the world. The list of techniques I’ve tested out includes meditation, positivity challenges, repeating affirmations, and even a bit of delusional self-confidence at times. And I’d be lying if I said many of those things haven’t had a positive effect on my life; I’m happier than ever before, and every day I feel less and less like a victim of my external circumstances.

However, the knowledge that my thinking is what determines my happiness has been both a gift and a burden. What do I mean by burden? I guess the best way of putting it is that I now feel a ton of pressure to fix all of my negative thinking.

For example, let’s say a situation at work puts me in a crappy mood. Maybe my students are being disrespectful during class or a teacher forgets to tell me about a schedule change. Back in the day, I would put all of the blame for my crappy mood on the situation. But I know better now. It’s my thinking about the situation that is the real problem, so it’s now my responsibility to change my thinking if I want to be happy.

So maybe I try to reframe it in a positive way. “The challenge I’m facing right now is only going to make me stronger.” Or maybe I try to practice gratitude and focus on all of the things I have to be grateful for at that moment. At this point, I have an endless list of strategies in my head that I can cycle through to try and change my thoughts about the situation.

That sounds great, right? With all of those mental resources at my disposal, getting back to a positive emotional state should be nice and easy. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Yes, those strategies can be effective at times, but there are many times when no amount of mental yoga can change how I feel about a situation. And it’s in those moments that I really start to suffer.

Not only do I feel bad because of the negative emotions I’m experiencing, I start to feel like a failure because I know it’s my responsibility to choose my thoughts, and obviously I’m choosing the wrong ones. I essentially add guilt on top of an already crappy situation, not to mention all of the mental traffic I’m experiencing from the different strategies I’m using to change to my thoughts.

What’s the solution?

Last week, I read a book called “Clarity” by Jamie Smart. It had two very interesting assertions. The first is that all of our feelings are not caused by anything external, but by our thinking. Basically, we don’t experience situations, we experience our thoughts about situations. Okay, maybe that’s not that interesting; it’s pretty much what I’ve been talking about this whole post.

The second assertion, however, threw me for a loop. It’s the idea that happiness (or “clarity” as it’s called in the book) is our natural state, not something we have to actively work towards. My initial reaction to that was along the lines of, “Yeah right! If happiness is our natural state, then why am I not always in a good mood?”

The author goes on to explain that we all have a kind of psychological “immune system.” Just like our actual immune system heals us after we’ve been injured, our psychological immune system brings us back to our natural state of peace and happiness after we’ve confused our negative thinking for reality.

He uses babies as an example. Babies, like adults, have their emotional ups and downs. Their ups and downs may even be more extreme than most adults because they haven’t learned how to suppress their natural emotional reactions.

When they’re hungry, tired, or just scared, they cry and scream. Despite these emotional episodes, however, they always return to a calm and happy state. Smart claims that this inevitable recovery is our psychological immune system at work. It doesn’t necessarily stop us from experiencing negative thoughts (and thus negative emotions), but it always brings us back to center.

If that’s the case though, then why do so many of us spend the majority of our time unhappy? The answer is simple and paradoxical: we struggle so much to be happy because of our attempts to think (or achieve) our way to happiness. By trying to force ourselves to be happy we actually interfere with our psychological immune system, making it more difficult to return to our natural happy state.

How do we stop doing this?

Honestly, that’s where things get a little unclear in the book. Smart basically states that it’s less about knowing what to do, and more about understanding how our minds work. Once we have that understanding, we can intuitively stop interfering with the mind’s attempt to bring us back to clarity.

That doesn’t sound very concrete though, so here’s how I’ve put it into practice so far:

  1. As soon as I become aware of negative emotions like stress or anxiety, I remind myself that I’m only experiencing my thoughts and that my actual circumstances are not a threat to my happiness.
  2. From there, instead of trying to “fix” my thoughts like I normally would, I remind myself that feeling happy and at peace is my natural state, and I don’t have to do anything to get there. I just have to get out of my own way.
  3. This is where things get kind of weird. Reminding myself that I’m only experiencing my thinking and that happiness is my natural state doesn’t automatically put me in a better mood. But I’ve found that, if I just sit with my thoughts, observing them but not engaging with them or trying to change them, they usually subside after a few moments. However, as soon as I start trying to change my thoughts in order to feel better, things usually get worse. I guess it’s like that old Carl Jung quote, “What you resist persists.”

If I had to sum this whole thing up, I would describe it as letting go of the need to control our thoughts. When negative thoughts enter into our minds, we don’t have to try and change them or get rid of them. Instead, we can just become aware of them and leave them alone, trusting that they will eventually subside and we will return to our natural state of happiness.

It probably sounds a little bit crazy, but that has been my experience during this past week. To be honest, I’m still trying to sort it all out in my head, because if being happy is as simple as just allowing my mind to “reset” without trying to fix it, then that would make almost all of the self-improvement stuff I’ve learned in the past four years obsolete. It also opens up a whole Pandora’s box of questions around purpose and living a fulfilling life. Saying there’s a lot for me to explore around this topic is a massive understatement…

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To end this post, I’d like to share a Lao Tzu quote that I think meshes really well with the ideas discussed in this post. It’s a quote I’ve seen many times before, but it makes much more sense to me after reading “Clarity.”

“Do you have the patience to wait
Till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
Till the right action arises by itself?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Source of Strength

I want to share an essay that has helped me develop a much greater sense of inner peace. I first stumbled upon it on artofmanliness.com during my senior year of college, and I like to reread it whenever I find myself feeling overwhelmed by life. It’s called “The Majesty of Calmness.”

I really hope you can get some value from it.


“The Majesty of Calmness”
From Self Control, Its Kingship and Majesty, 1905 
By William George Jordan

Calmness is the rarest quality in human life. It is the poise of a great nature, in harmony with itself and its ideals. It is the moral atmosphere of a life self-reliant and self-controlled. Calmness is singleness of purpose, absolute confidence, and conscious power—ready to be focused in an instant to meet any crisis. The Sphinx is not a true type of calmness—petrifaction is not calmness; it is death, the silencing of all the energies; while no one lives his life more fully, more intensely and more consciously than the man who is calm.The Fatalist is not calm. He is the coward slave of his environment, hopelessly surrendering to his present condition, recklessly indifferent to his future. He accepts his life as a rudderless ship, drifting on the ocean of time. He has no compass, no chart, no known port to which he is sailing. His self-confessed inferiority to all nature is shown in his existence of constant surrender. It is not—calmness.The man who is calm has his course in life clearly marked on his chart. His hand is ever on the helm. Storm, fog, night, tempest, danger, hidden reefs— he is ever prepared and ready for them. He is made calm and serene by the realization that in these crises of his voyage he needs a clear mind and a cool head; that he has naught to do but to do each day the best he can by the light he has; that he will never flinch nor falter for a moment; that, though he may have to tack and leave his course for a time, he will never drift, he will get back into the true channel, he will keep ever headed toward his harbor. When he will reach it, how he will reach it matters not to him. He rests in calmness, knowing he has done his best. If his best seem to be overthrown or over-ruled, then he must still bow his head—in calmness. To no man is permitted to know the future of his life, the finality. God commits to man ever only new beginnings, new wisdom, and new days to use to the best of his knowledge.

Calmness comes ever from within. It is the peace and restfulness of the depths of our nature. The fury of storm and of wind agitate only the surface of the sea; they can penetrate only two or three hundred feet—below that is the calm, unruffled deep. To be ready for the great crises of life we must learn serenity in our daily living. Calmness is the crown of self-control.

When the worries and cares of the day fret you, and begin to wear upon you, and you chafe under the friction—be calm. Stop, rest for a moment, and let calmness and peace assert themselves. If you let these irritating outside influences get the better of you, you are confessing your inferiority to them, by permitting them to dominate you. Study the disturbing elements, each by itself, bring all the will-power of your nature to bear upon them, and you will find that they will, one by one, melt into nothingness, like vapors fading before the sun. The glow of calmness that will then pervade your mind, the tingling sensation of an inflow of new strength, may be to you the beginning of the revelation of the supreme calmness that is possible for you. Then, in some great hour of your life, when you stand face to face with some awful trial, when the structure of your ambition and life-work crumbles in a moment, you will be brave. You can then fold your arms calmly, look out undismayed and undaunted upon the ashes of your hope, upon the wreck of what you have faithfully built, and with brave heart and unfaltering voice you may say: “So let it be—I will build again.”

When the tongue of malice and slander, the persecution of inferiority, tempts you for just a moment to retaliate, when for an instant you forget yourself so far as to hunger for revenge—be calm. When the grey heron is pursued by its enemy, the eagle, it does not run to escape; it remains calm, takes a dignified stand, and waits quietly, facing the enemy unmoved. With the terrific force with which the eagle makes its attack, the boasted king of birds is often impaled and run through on the quiet, lance-like bill of the heron. The means that man takes to kill another’s character becomes suicide of his own

When man has developed the spirit of Calmness until it becomes so absolutely part of him that his very presence radiates it, he has made great progress in life. Calmness cannot be acquired of itself and by itself; it must come as the culmination of a series of virtues. What the world needs and what individuals need is a higher standard of living, a great realizing sense of the privilege and dignity of life, a higher and nobler conception of individuality.

With this great sense of calmness permeating an individual, man becomes able to retire more into himself, away from the noise, the confusion and strife of the world, which come to his ears only as faint, far-off rumblings, or as the tumult of the life of a city heard only as a buzzing hum by the man in a balloon.

The man who is calm does not selfishly isolate himself from the world, for he is intensely interested in all that concerns the welfare of humanity. His calmness is but a Holy of Holies into which he can retire from the world to get strength to live in the world. He realizes that the full glory of individuality, the crowning of his self-control is—the majesty of calmness.

 

To Be Seduced by Life…

It may sound weird, but I believe certain influences – people, books, ideas – come into our lives exactly when we need them. These influences can change us in ways we never imagined.

My first experience with this was when I read “The Power of Now” in the summer of 2013. That book helped lift me up from a sea of misery and unconsciousness. My next experience was barely six months later when I came across “The Alabaster Girl” by Zan Perrion. It’s this experience that I want to talk about here.

A Very Important Year

My senior year of college was a very interesting one for me. When I returned home from studying in Madrid three months earlier, I was consumed by wanderlust. But the reality of my last year as a student quickly pushed thoughts of travel and adventure to the back of my mind. Being a senior meant it was time convert those years of academic stress into a high-paying job, and most of my friends and peers seemed dedicated to that cause. Days into the first semester I was already hearing talk of job applications and potential interviews. The pressure was on.

That pressure did little to motivate me, though. Despite the urgent and practical nature of getting a good job, I felt absolutely zero passion for that goal. Actually, I felt the opposite of passion. Getting a typical job sounded like a straight bore.

At the time, I was convinced that my lack of enthusiasm for finding a job was just a sign of laziness, and there might have been some truth to that. The thought of sitting in an office and trying to focus for eight hours a day gave me the chills. However, my core problem was one of passion. Looking at all the jobs I could apply to, there wasn’t a single one that inspired the slightest bit of excitement in me. And in the back of my mind, I could feel the desire to see the world nagging at me.

The Spark that Lit the Fire

I read “The Alabaster Girl” about halfway through my senior year. Ironically, my motivations for reading it were not at all related to finding passion in my life. The author, Zan Perrion, was a well-known dating coach, and all I was expecting were some tips on how to meet women. What I found was something entirely different.

It’s hard to say what the book’s main theme is. It centers around the author’s profound love for women and seduction, but themes of beauty, passion, and the spirit of adventure are interwoven throughout. I guess you could describe it as a wise man’s musings on what it means to live a truly magical life. Women just happen to be the primary source of magic for the author.

While I did resonate with Perrion’s talk of romance and seduction, it was his views on beauty that really struck a chord with me. “Beauty needs a witness,” he repeats throughout the book, and in describing his worldview he paints a picture of a man entirely in love with life and all the beauty it has to offer.

I had never given beauty a second thought before reading that book. I could recognize it when I saw it (at least I thought so) but it wasn’t something I ever sought out. Maybe it was his flowery style of writing or just the conviction behind his words, but as I read I felt something awakening inside of me. It was what I felt during my time in Madrid, but hadn’t been able to identify. It was the desire for a life filled with beauty, passion, and adventure. The desire to be utterly seduced by life.

From there, I knew that going the typical job route was no longer an option. I wanted something out of life that a 9-5 could never give me, and I would do whatever it took to find it. Why not find a way to move back to Spain? Yeah, that seemed like a good enough plan.

Three years have passed since that decision, and I’m living in Spain like I wanted to. But I’d be lying if I said the desire for a life filled with beauty and passion was my prime motivator for the past couple of years. Somewhere along the way, that romantic vision got pushed to the back of my mind. I started, once again, to view life as a race to be won instead of a journey to be enjoyed. Achievement and success became my primary focuses. All this time abroad, surrounded by so much beauty, and I’ failed to truly appreciate it.

Adjusting My Sails

I want to reconnect with my desire to be seduced by life and all the beauty it has to offer.

How do I do this? Well, just like I mentioned in my post on true north principles, the most important thing I can do is commit to the vision that drove me abroad in the first place. That means slowing down and looking deep within, not letting my surface level desires for achievement and success distract me from my core desire for a life filled with beauty and passion.

I also want to start using this blog as a place to develop and share my vision. It’s time for “An Appetite for Beauty” to live up to its name.