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?”