The Paradox of Mindfulness

Photo: Lagos, Portugal
Photo: Lagos, Portugal

“In mindfulness one is not only restful and happy, but alert and awake. Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality.” 

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

It’s been a little over three years since I first heard about mindfulness and being present to the moment. It started with a chance reading of “The Power of Now,” and since finishing that book I’ve not only read several other books on the topic but tried to make mindfulness the basis of my life as well.

I was an emotional mess before I discovered mindfulness. While I had good days every now and then, anger and sadness were my primary emotional states. I was prone to bouts of rage (not so great when mixed with all the drinking I was doing in college), prolonged stretches of unexplainable sadness, and tons of social anxiety.

Those emotions weren’t the main issue, though. The real problem was that I had almost zero awareness of why I was feeling them. I could identify the surface level causes of my anger and sadness, such as a rude comment somebody made or a breakup I was going through, but that knowledge did nothing to stop the emotions from consuming me.

Practicing mindfulness and meditation has helped me learn to observe my thoughts and emotions from a distance, thus giving me the ability to understand why I’m feeling them. I’ve also noticed a change in the intensity of my emotions. Whereas in the past every little thing I felt seemed so visceral that it ended up dictating my actions, there is now a feeling of hollowness that pervades many of my negative emotions. I’m guessing this is a result of watching my thoughts and emotions come and go during meditation. The realization of their impermanence seems to have removed some of their power.

But despite these positive changes, I still find myself struggling to practice mindfulness consistently. Why is that?

I think a big part of it is fear. The idea of living in the present moment, or “not thinking,” is kind of a scary one. For as long as I can remember I’ve prided myself on my intelligence or, in other words, my ability to think.

So when I consider a life lived completely in a present moment, there’s a part of me that starts to freak out. Without the constant narrative in my head, would I still be intelligent? Would I still be able to think clearly and solve problems? Wouldn’t I end up a simple-minded idiot?

Taking a step back, I realize that those fears are just the ego trying to preserve itself. But even on a more concrete level, my own experiences with mindfulness serve to dispel those fears.

Being present to the moment has only ever improved my ability to think critically. For the longest time, I’ve confused the narrative in my head with productive thinking. But when I really look at it, the majority of my thoughts only distract me from whatever task I’m working on.

I see this most clearly when speaking in front of the classroom. When “thinking” in the traditional sense, I often find it difficult to focus on what I’m saying. My mind focuses on things like how I’m being perceived or made up stories about how bored my students must be while listening to me. But when I’m present to the moment, the words just seem to flow out of me. I’m more engaging, wittier, and more responsive to the needs of my students. In other words, I’m thinking a lot more clearly.

So I guess the paradox of mindfulness is that “not thinking” actually improves your ability to think. This is something I really want to keep in mind during those times when mindfulness seems a little too daunting.

Note: Some might not consider this accurate, but in this post  I equate the terms “mindfulness” and “being present.” 

Quote of the Week #20

Photo taken in Amorebieta, Spain (País Vasco)
Photo taken in Amorebieta, Spain (País Vasco)

Like most people, I have a tendency to take life really freaking seriously. This usually leads to a lot of stress over truly unimportant stuff. It may seem harsh, but thinking about the shortness of life has become one of my favorite ways to lighten up. Life is so short, the only logical thing to do is to enjoy as much of it as possible.

A Battle With Ambition – Freedom From Outcome Part 1

Note: This is the first of three posts on a concept I refer to as “freedom from outcome.” This post will serve as an introduction, while the other two will go more in depth on the concept. 

To Strive, or Not to Strive…

I’ve struggled with the idea of ambition for a long time. When I was growing up it always had mixed connotations depending on who I was talking to. Sometimes people would call someone overly ambitious as an insult. Other times ambition was praised. More often than not, it seemed like people judged based on what someone was ambitious about, with some ambitions being superior to others.

This ambiguity towards ambition has stuck with me in my adult life. At times I see my own ambitions as a source of pride. During others I view them as chains that will ultimately lead me to an unfulfilled life.  I’ve usually just erred on the side of having little ambition.

Despite the occasional desire for extravagant things, I’ve been able to convince myself that I don’t want too much out of life. All I really need is the ability to travel and have new experiences. Things like wealth and extreme success (in any area) just seem superfluous, like things that will only distract me from what really matters in life.

But do I truly not want a ton of money or amazing levels of success? Do I not want to explore the heights of what I can accomplish? Because deep down I see the potential I have to do great things and live a really amazing life.

My lack of ambition is starting to reveal its true identity: fear. It’s the fear of trying to get get these things and failing. It’s the fear that I don’t have what it takes to succeed. It’s the fear that I will become miserable by going after things like money and success.

But isn’t not thinking big out of fear just as damaging as expecting money and success to make me happy? Aren’t both situations just two sides of the same coin?

As someone who loves to read, especially about self-development and spirituality, I see that I’ve fallen into a mental trap. I’ve read tons of books about how true happiness is purely internal and I’ve bought into that idea. That’s not necessarily a problem by itself, but I’ve been using it as an excuse to not take any real action in my life. I reason away my stagnation by saying, “What’s the point of pursuing any challenging goals if it won’t make me happy in the end?”

This is bullshit logic though. Sure, happiness does ultimately come from inside, but if I were to truly take that to heart I would give up all my possessions and go live in a cave. Yeah…that’s never going to happen.

The truth of the matter is that I want A LOT of things. I want success. I want money. I want passion. I want adventure. I want to have my cake and eat it to.

Lessons From the Past

This situation reminds me of a lesson from the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu scripture that I read last summer.

The Gita takes the form of a narrative, with the young prince Arjuna as its protagonist. Arjuna is preparing for the Mahabharata war, in which he must fight against members of his own family. Unsure of how to proceed he asks his charioteer, Lord Krishna (an incarnated form of God), for guidance. The rest of the scripture offers wisdom in the form of Lord Krishna’s advice to Arjuna.

A large part of this advice centers around Arjuna’s conflicted feeling towards fighting his own family. In order to guide him toward the right course of action, Krishna introduces a few different concepts, namely the different paths to self-realization (enlightenment) and the role of dharma.

According to Krishna, there are three main paths to self-realization: karma yoga, bhakti yoga, and jnana yoga. I’m going to focus on the first and last paths. Karma yoga is essentially liberation through action, specifically action without attachment to results. Jnana yoga is liberation through wisdom and contemplation. It means renouncing all desires and action (think living in a cave).

There is no exact translation of Dharma in the English language, but it roughly translates to one’s personal duty, or “right action”. I liken it to the different roles we play in our lives, like that of a parent, teacher, doctor, or even a member of a community. Fulfilling your dharma means performing that duty to the best of your ability.

One must follow his or her dharma in order to reach self-realization. This is how dharma and the different types of yoga tie into together. Whether you choose karma yoga or jnana yoga depends on your dharma. The dharma of of young man who wants to live an active life would be different than that of an old man who wants to live a quiet life. Thus, the young man would take the path of karma yoga in order to achieve self-realization. The old man may be best suited retiring away from the material world in order to gain self-realization through wisdom and contemplation.

Concluding his advice, Krishna tells Arjuna that the best way to self-realization is through following his dharma as a warrior and fighting in the upcoming battle. In other words, he must take the path of karma yoga, taking action without being attached to the outcome.

How does this relate to my struggle with ambition? While I don’t necessarily believe in self-realization in the way it’s described in the Bhagavad Gita, I think it can be interpreted as the highest degree of fulfillment you can experience in life. From this perspective, the concepts of dharma and the different types of yoga offer a kind of guide for living a truly fulfilling life.

The attitude I spoke of above, in which I claim that happiness can only be found internally, is similar to jnana yoga. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with it, yet as a young man who enjoys living in the material world – not secluded on a mountain – it would make very little sense for me to follow that path towards happiness. Instead, my dharma would be that of someone who has material desires and wants to achieve success.

Maybe when I’m old and broken down I’ll find happiness through inaction. But at 24 years old, taking action is the only way to go.

Freedom from Outcome: Balancing Action and Desire

I’m starting to realize that happiness doesn’t come from not pursuing my ambitions, but from taking action towards them and enjoying the process. It’s a balance between inner and outer fulfillment.

This has been a great realization, but how do I manage to go after the things I desire without falling into the trap of basing my happiness on them?

This is where freedom from outcome, the main theme of this series of posts, comes into play. Freedom from outcome (or detachment from outcome) is a concept that I first came across in the Bhagavad Gita. However, I’ve noticed that it’s a core principle taught in almost all of the spiritual, philosophical, and self-help resources I’ve come across.

So what does is mean to be free from outcome?  It means taking action while simultaneously being unattached to the result of that action. On a deeper level, it means finding satisfaction in the process of taking action instead of the result that comes from it.

I truly believe that, if applied even a little bit, freedom from outcome is the solution to my own dilemma regarding ambition, and also a myriad of other problems that most of us face in our daily lives. These problems include stress and anxiety, creative blocks, and extreme emotional ups and downs.

In my next post I will go into detail on freedom from outcome, examining what it looks like, some of my favorite sources that encourage it, and the benefits it can have in our lives.

 

Living Intentionally

I’ve always enjoyed the feeling of achievement. There’s an undeniable satisfaction that comes from knowing you’ve put in the work to accomplish something, no matter how small it is. Hell, even as I write this, I feel damn good for get getting these words on paper.

I suppose the simplest way of experiencing the satisfaction of achievement is through goals. They are straight forward. Black and white. You always know when and how you accomplished them.

Yet despite how much I enjoy achievement, I’ve always been terrible at following through with goals. For as long as I can remember I’ve been setting goals and subsequently failing to achieve them. Everything from getting a six-pack to writing every day. Nothing ever seems to stick.

This isn’t a new story of course. Goals are something most people struggle with. I read a statistic that out of the 45% of Americans who make New Year’s resolutions, only 8% successfully achieve them. I’m not sure how accurate this is, but it doesn’t sound too far from the truth. I don’t think this is an American phenomenon either.

For a long time I attributed my inability to follow through on goals to my own laziness or lack of will power. This translated into me telling myself things like, “I can’t achieve my goals because I’m a lazy person” and “I don’t have enough will power to accomplish anything significant.” With this kind of negative self-talk, setting and working towards goals became less and less about the goals themselves and more about vindicating myself from those negative labels (which, ironically, I had self-applied). As you can imagine, this didn’t make sticking to my goals any easier. All it did was make the pain of failing so much greater. My failures to achieve my goals became indicators of my own inadequacies.

About a month ago, after years of dealing with this internal conflict, I decided to take a step back from goals all together. I didn’t really have a plan or even a time frame (it took a lot of effort to not make not setting goals a goal). I just knew that my current method of setting goals and working meticulously to achieve them wasn’t bringing me many positive results.

Upon making this decision, it felt as if a weight had been lifted off of me. What I had essentially done was give myself permission to not accomplish anything. No goals. No mission statements. No super-important tasks to get to outside of going to work. It was liberating.

The Conflict

Unfortunately, along with this feeling of liberation came a huge feeling of guilt, at least in the beginning. For the past three years all I had done was focus on improving myself, usually by way of setting goals and working towards them. While letting go of those goals felt good, I also felt as though I was letting myself down in some way. If I wasn’t working towards something, then how could I possibly be happy?

This internal conflict was, at its core, a symptom of my underlying belief structure, mainly in regards to how life is supposed to be lived. For simplicity’s sake I would characterize my normal way of thinking as “achievement-oriented.” I’ve always based my self-worth on what I could achieve, or at the very least what I was working towards. Going even deeper than that, I’ve always assumed that true happiness required struggling to overcome challenges, that I didn’t deserve to be happy unless I was working towards a bigger purpose in life and challenging myself every day.

Still, it was obvious that setting goals is not an effective strategy for me, regardless of the reason why. Yet my own happiness is still in many ways tied to achievement and the idea of working towards a purpose. It’s a paradox that I don’t see changing any time soon. So I came up with sort of a mental compromise.

Living Intentionally

What’s interesting is that in the month since I abandoned goal setting, I haven’t been any less productive. In fact, I’ve made more progress towards the life I want than I had in the several months prior to this change. I began meditating consistently. My diet improved notably. I’ve read more. I started this blog. Overall, I’m feeling a lot happier, which is most likely the result of constantly feeling as though I’m achieving something.

So how have I been able to be productive without any clear goals to work towards?

Simply put, instead of setting goals I just started focusing on what I wanted out of life. Not what I thought I should want, or what I thought I should accomplish. What I really WANTED. I started getting in touch with my core desires.

Waking up in the morning I didn’t think of my normal checklist for that day. I just paused and considered what I wanted my life to look like. To give you an example, some of the things I thought of included being more present to the moment, being more positive, filling my days with things I love doing, and creating an amazing blog.

I found that, by simply having what I wanted at the forefront of my mind throughout the day, I naturally started taking the actions that would bring me closer to those things. I began to live intentionally instead of in reaction to my environment.

Up and Down Cycle

For most of my life I repeated the same cycle of rapid progress and equally rapid burnout. I would be super consistent when it came to my goals, using every ounce of willpower I had in order to reach them…for a couple of weeks. Then, one day when the willpower just seemed to escape me, I would end up on the couch, binge-watching Netflix and hating myself. A few weeks later I would start the process over again, vowing that this time would be different, this time I would stick to my goals. On and on the cycle went.

While it’s only been about a month, I haven’t experienced any of those drastic motivational ups and downs. I might spend an hour or two watching Game of Thrones or catching up on some NBA highlights, but I don’t find myself binging on entertainment the way I used to. After a couple of hours of doing anything that doesn’t bring me closer to the life I want, I just get antsy and want to start taking action again.

I think what this really comes down to is allowing myself room to be imperfect. What I’ve found with goals is that they box me in to a specific result and a specific course of action. Maybe it’s just the rebellious kid in me, but being told I have to do something, even by myself, makes me really not want to do it. I think meditation is the most relevant example in this case. If you were to come up to me right now and ask me how I feel about meditation, you would only hear good things come out of my mouth. I freaking love meditation! Yet whenever I’ve set a goal for myself to do it every day, meditation and I stop being such close friends.

However, when I simply start my day by thinking about how much I want presence and positivity in my life, it seems only natural that I would meditate at some point. I go from begrudging it to looking forward to it. Now, after about 30 days of doing it, mediation just feels like a normal part of my life.

A lot of people would probably argue that the point of goals isn’t to have a rigid structure, but to give you a direction to head. That may be true but for whatever reason I have a hard time viewing goals in a healthy way. That’s just me though.

If I really analyze the past month, all I’ve done is simply make my goals a little less strict, a little less absolute. Either way I’m glad it’s working.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Beauty of Gratitude

Gratitude Desktop

 

I’ll be turning 24 at the end of this month. While I definitely don’t feel old, it’s startling to think about how fast time has gone by. It feels like only yesterday I was moving from California to North Carolina to begin my college career. Everything was so uncertain back then. I couldn’t even imagine a future beyond the huge transition in front of me. Now here I am six years later, living in a foreign country, still uncertain about the future but much more content with that uncertainty.

Looking back on the past 23 years, it’s not the struggles and the painful moments that stand out to me. Sure, they’re there for me to see, for me to reflect on. But they don’t hold my attention like they once did. Instead I’m enamored by the countless blessings in my life.

I was, and still am, spoiled like crazy by a loving family. I had a carefree college experience and partied to my hearts content. I felt deep and passionate love. I formed friendships that will probably last a lifetime. I traveled to foreign lands and I’m currently living it up in Spain, working a mere 12 hours per week while living comfortably.

The list goes on and on.

I don’t say all of this to brag or to make my life seem like it’s better than anyone else’s. I just feel like I have a lot of making up to do in the gratitude department. Despite the fact that my life has been nothing short of amazing, I was blind to it for the longest time.

I bitched. I moaned. I walked around with a “whoa is me” attitude, angry at the world because of everything I didn’t have. To be honest, I still act like that sometimes. Those aren’t my best moments and I’m determined to eradicate that kind of behavior from my life.

Since starting this blog, I’m beginning to see that so much of the beauty I’m searching for in life comes from gratitude. Regardless of what mood I’m in, when I pause and consciously choose to be grateful for everything around me, even for the mere fact that I’m alive and healthy, the world seems to radiate a whole new beauty.

It’s almost crazy how much my perspective can change in a matter of seconds. Seemingly boring moments become precious seconds. Packed, uncomfortable train rides turn into a enjoyable part of my journey abroad. Lonely nights become the foundation for a rock-solid inner peace. Like alchemy, gratitude has the power to turn every little thing, whether good or bad, into gold.

It’s not just about beauty though. For a long time I associated gratitude with softness. I saw it as one of those feel-good messages that couldn’t really help you achieve anything in life. But that’s not accurate at all.

I recently watch an episode of Gary Vaynerchuk’s ‘#AskGaryVee’ show where somebody asked him how he finds the motivation to work so hard every day (if you haven’t heard of him, Gary Vaynerchuk is a successful entrepreneur and a damn good motivational speaker). He basically said that gratitude is what fuels him; gratitude for everything he has and the fact that he is able go out and do what he loves every single day.

After hearing that I thought back to all the times in my life when I gave into laziness and apathy. The times I made excuse after excuse for why I wasn’t going after my dreams. It’s frustrating to admit, but those moments were really a failure on my part to be grateful for the fact that I was alive and healthy, that I already had everything I needed to go out and create the life I desired. I took each day, each blessing, each opportunity for granted. That’s a mistake I’m determined to never make again. I want to view every day for what it really is: a gift, wrapped up with a big beautiful bow on top.

So there it is. I’m making a commitment to gratitude. Not just to thinking about it, or even talking about it. I’m making a commitment to act on it. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. I look forward to sharing my progress with you.

Comment below and let me know how gratitude has played a role in your life!