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.

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…

~

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?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dragon Ball Z and Conquering Negativity

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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.

 

 

A New Mantra: Think Less, Do More

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I’m an overthinker.

This wasn’t so much of a problem when my life only consisted of school or a typical 9-5 job. The predictable structure of school and work allowed me to make decisions on autopilot. My goals were clear – get good grades, provide great customer service, etc. – and I knew how to accomplish them. There was very little ambiguity back then.

Things are quite different now. I still have some routine in my job as a teaching assistant, but my goals are much grander than they used to be. For the first time in my life, I don’t know the best way to achieve them all. I don’t even know if I can achieve them.

My mind is filled with endless what-ifs and worst-case scenarios. Should I write about this topic or that topic? Should I make a video about something even though I’m not an expert on it? What’s the best way to express my point of view? What if I publish this and people hate it? What if people misinterpret what I’m trying to say?

So many questions. So many paths in front of me. But all of these thoughts leave me frozen, scared to make a decision at all.

That’s why I’ve developed a new mantra for myself:

Think less, do more. 

This mantra is both a call to action and a reminder to stay present to the moment.

The simple truth is that working towards my goals will be a long process of trial and error. No matter how much thinking I do, the only way for me to discover the right way to do things is by taking action.

Only through action will I achieve anything I desire.

Only through action will I escape the whirlwind of anxiety and doubt inside my head.

 

 

 

Quote of the Week #32

Photo: Zarautz, Spain
Photo: Zarautz, Spain

Since 2013 I’ve had a list of personal dreams and goals that I review (almost) every morning. I read somewhere that keeping a list like that would help bring me closer to what I wanted to accomplish. But the results have been pretty sparse over the past few years.

The reason: I didn’t follow up on those aspirations with action. I had a vision, but I didn’t put in the work necessary to make it real.

Someone who does a great job at describing the ideal balance between vision and action is entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk. One of his notorious maxims is, “clouds and dirt.” Clouds represent the vision, and dirt represents the hard work it takes to achieve it.

Interestingly, he doesn’t describe it as finding a middle-way between the clouds and the dirt. For him, the middle represents people who neither take the right actions or have a strong vision. What he counsels is living simultaneously in both the clouds and the dirt, having a ridiculously powerful vision and a ridiculously strong work ethic to back it up.

 

Quote of the Week #31

Begin

I think this ancient poet’s words, while simple, contain three powerful lessons about achieving success:

  1. Begin – Like a lot of people, I have dreams and goals but don’t know exactly how to accomplish them. I’m learning that the only way to learn is to just get started.
  2. Be Bold – Beginning takes a lot of courage. So does continuing when things get tough. When I read about anyone who has achieved their definition of success, boldness in the face of challenges is one thing they all have in common.
  3. Venture to be Wise – I put emphasis on “venture” because wisdom seems to come from realizing you don’t have it all figured out. So this part of the quote might be interpreted as, “embrace each day as a learning experience.” And the best way to learn is to start taking action.