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?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letting Go of the Past

One of the greatest benefits I’ve gained from practicing mindfulness is a better understanding of how my mind works. After years of being held hostage by my thoughts and emotions, I’m finally able to take a step back and look at my mind from a (somewhat) objective point of view.

What I’ve noticed recently is that my mind typically functions like a broken record, but instead of replaying the same song over and over, it likes to keep me trapped in thoughts of the past. I constantly find myself replaying old memories in my head, ruminating on failed relationships, and wishing for days of old.

This has become especially clear to me since my breakup two months ago. While the initial sting of it has long since passed, my mind still loves to remind me of everything I used to have. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing. Sitting on a bus. Writing a blog post. Trying to help students with their English pronunciation. All it takes is a single thought, or even just a feeling, to send me spiraling down the rabbit hole of past memories.

As destructive as I’ve found worrying about the future to be, I think this habit of living in the past hurts me even more. Not only does it distract me from whatever I’m doing in the present moment, it also prevents me from putting all my energy towards creating a better future for myself.

I’m starting to wonder if my constant focus on the past is just a form of self-protection, because even if it hurts to think about the past – and it usually does – there’s a certainty in it that I can’t find in the future. I don’t know what’s going to happen, who I’m going to become, and if I’ll ever be as happy in the future as I was in the past. The past has basically become my comfort zone, and it’s easier to sit and dwell on old memories than take action towards something better. It’s easier to stagnate than to move on.

Solutions?

Noticing my fixation on the past hasn’t done much to stop it, but it has made me ask myself two important questions. The first is, “Does thinking about the past serve me in any way? Of course not! It may give me a hollow sense of pleasure at first (similar to the high I get from indulging in negativity or gossiping), but it never brings me more happiness in the long term.

That answer leads me to question number two: How can I stop living in the past? The obvious answer is to focus on the present moment. It’s impossible to live in the past when you’re fully present to the moment. However, being present to the moment is something I struggle to do with any consistency. It may be simple but it definitely isn’t easy.

The obvious answer is to focus on the present moment. It’s impossible to live in the past when you’re fully present to the moment. However, being present to the moment is something I struggle to do with any consistency. It may be simple but it definitely isn’t easy.

Another answer that comes to mind is using a combination of awareness (mindfulness) and patience, while also having strong boundaries when it comes to my thoughts. The first two are simple. It’s only through being mindful that I can catch myself dwelling on the past. And an integral part of mindfulness is showing patience and compassion towards myself. I’m only human after all, and the nature of the human mind is to focus on the past and future. Being mad at myself for having those thoughts only makes things worse.

But what about this whole “strong boundaries” thing? What I mean by that is having the discipline to look at the thoughts I’m indulging in and simply cutting out the ones that won’t bring me true happiness. That may sound a little forced, even harsh, but I think it’s the ultimate sign of self-respect and self-love. If I truly loved myself, would I dwell on the past? Nope. Instead, I would put all my mental energy towards enjoying the present moment and creating an awesome future for myself.

More importantly, though, having those strong boundaries requires a commitment to my own happiness. Thinking about the past is as addictive as any drug, and the only way to beat an addiction is to decide once and for all that it has no place in my life.

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To end this post, I’d like to share a Wayne Dyer quote that I recently stumbled upon. I think it perfectly sums up the mindset I’m trying to develop.

“Your past history and all of your hurts are no longer here in your physical reality. Don’t allow them to be here in your mind, muddying your present moments. Your life is like a play with several acts. Some of the characters who enter have short roles to play, others, much longer. But all are necessary, otherwise they wouldn’t be in the play. Embrace them all, and move on to the next act.”

Moving Forward

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Last week I had my first painful breakup in almost three years. Circumstances made the split inevitable, but it was shitty nonetheless.

I decided from the start that I would give myself one week to wallow in my emotions, and wallow is what it I did. It sucked. It hurt. Sleep didn’t come easy for me. But as the days went by, I could feel the worst of the emotions start to subside. My anger was replaced with sadness. Then my sadness started to feel more hollow, a sense of acceptance setting in underneath it.

Now a week has passed and the time for wallowing has ended. I’m still sad, of course, but I realize that this ending represents a new opportunity for me. Not necessarily an opportunity for new romance (that’s not even a thought in my head at this point), but for self-discovery and growth.

I guess the biggest mindfuck for me is that, throughout the relationship I maintained the belief that who I was hadn’t changed, that I was still that ultra-independent person, only to realize I was dead-wrong. And that’s the crazy thing about relationships: how they change you as a person. The way you think about the world shifts from an individual perspective to one that always includes the other person. No matter how independent you try to stay, making yourself vulnerable to someone for a long period of time eventually makes them an integral part of your reality. And when it ends, you’re left feeling like a part of you is gone.

The challenge I face now is not only one of accepting the reality of the situation, but also rebuilding myself. It’s relearning how to view the world from the lense of an individual instead of a part of a relationship. It’s figuring out how to incorporate all the ways I’ve changed during the relationship into a new, independent version of myself.

I’m fortunate in that this relationship changed me in a lot of positive ways. It helped me discover and embrace my creativity. It opened my mind to new ways of looking at the world. And, even though it hurts to think about, it brought me face to face with a lot of the unpleasant parts of myself, parts that I know I need to change if I want to be a happier person in the future.

So I sit here now, feeling as though I’m at the edge of a giant cliff. Past the edge is a whole lot of unknowns. It’s dark and frightening. But going back is not an option. What’s done is done, and trying to live in the past will only lead to pain and bitterness. My only choice is to jump into the unknown and have faith that everything will be alright.

It’s a scary situation, but I’m comforted by this quote from Joseph Campbell:

“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.”

Now it’s time to find my treasure.