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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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…
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?”
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.
Last month my roommates reintroduced me to Dragon Ball Z, a show I enjoyed as a kid but hadn’t watched in more than a decade. Feeling nostalgic, I decided to take a trip down memory lane and watch the series from the beginning. I’m already 75 episodes in (please don’t judge) and it’s clear that 24-year old me is an even bigger fan of the show than 10-year-old me was.
One of the main things I love about it is its core theme of good vs. evil. I know that’s a theme in most stories, but there’s something about the way Dragon Ball Z portrays it that really resonates with me.
Goku, the protagonist of the show, is one of the most pure-hearted characters I’ve ever seen. He faces every treacherous villain with an underlying attitude of compassion, mercy, and optimism. And despite being one of the strongest people on the planet and a natural born warrior, he always seems reluctant to fight.
Watching Goku in action got me thinking about the battle between good and evil that goes on inside all of us. I don’t mean good and evil in the moralistic sense, but more in terms of our happiness. There are certain thoughts that encourage well-being and those that promote the opposite. In each moment we have to choose which ones we will let control our emotions and actions.
It’s fear, anger, hatred, selfishness, narcissism, insecurity, envy, and jealousy versus….love, empathy, compassion, gratitude, altruism, genuine confidence, patience, peace, and joy. You could say it’s the battle between our egos and our higher-selves. The worst of us against the best of us.
For most of my early life, my ego won those internal battles decisively. Honestly, they were hardly even battles most of the time. My ego was in complete control and negativity seemed to be my natural state. I had no idea there was any other way to live.
Things have changed in the last few years. Through mindfulness and meditation, I’ve become more aware of my ego and its negative tendencies. It no longer automatically controls my every action like it once did. But that increased awareness hasn’t eliminated my ego and its negative effects from my life. If anything, it has made the “good vs. evil” metaphor all the more accurate for me.
Every day my ego struggles to take back control. It wants to find fault in every situation. It wants to indulge in anger and fear. It wants to win arguments at the cost of relationships. My ego hardly ever wins when I’m at my best. I can observe those negative thoughts inside my head and simply push them aside. But when I’m at my worst, well, it often gets the upper hand.
Some might say that viewing the ego as an enemy to be defeated isn’t very healthy, and there’s definitely some truth to that. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that awareness and compassion are the best antidotes for the ego’s negativity. “Attacking” the ego in an aggressive way can only serve to strengthen it.
However, there is something inspirational in the concept of good battling evil, the light overpowering the darkness. That kind of imagery reminds me that we have a choice to make in every moment: we can let our egos run the show or give the power to our higher selves. But making the right choice requires discipline. The ego will fight back like the most ferocious enemy we’ve ever encountered. That’s why it can seem like a battle at times.
I think this applies to our external lives as well. All around the world we are seeing a rise in ego-driven behaviors. There is so much fear and hatred getting thrown around that it can often feel like a hopeless situation. But it doesn’t have to be. We can view ourselves almost as warriors, choosing daily to fight back against all the negativity. This doesn’t necessarily mean fighting in a physical sense, but fighting back with our attitudes. It means looking at all the fear and hatred and rising above it, showing compassion for others, and, as Gary Vaynerchuk puts it, making positivity louder.
Of course, it all starts with the battle within ourselves.
I know personally it seems unwinnable at times. The ego is an incredibly persistent foe. But I won’t give up. I won’t let myself slide back into a world of negativity. I’ll keep fighting, and letting even silly things like a cartoon character inspire me to try even harder. I know my efforts will eventually pay off.