The Foundation for All Progress

We have all experienced it.  You are doing great, everything is clicking right along.  Your scales are perfect, all the way up and down the horn.  You are in tune practically all the time.  Your lessons are  filled with praise, and you performances are well reviewed every time.

Then suddenly you stop growing.

People call it a lot of things, “hitting the wall” or “stuck in a rut” or “writer’s block”.  But I think there is a more accurate name for the phenomenon that helps us to see the solution more clearly:

Self-hate.

Success is a two-edged sword.  One the one hand the benefits are clear, the praise and the playing and the external reward for our practice is important and helps justify all that work.  But perhaps the pitfalls are not so clear.

When we are doing well, slowly inside of us an expectation develops.  “I’m on fire, I’m the best and I can practice as fast as I want from now on and get better at MY super-fast pace instead of slowing down like the rest of these ‘humans’.”  To quote Admiral Ackbar:

IT’S A TRAP!!!!

As you do well, this pride will overtake you, and you will ignore the kind of practice that surely got you to be successful in the first place.  You will become impatient, take on more than you can chew, and eventually have to crash in order to be humbled appropriately again.  That crash may even be so hard as to cause you to quit the thing you love most forever.

Skip that.

The desire to sound good at all times and be accepted by the public is fine, but it cannot be the criteria you use to determine whether you are worthy of your own love or not.  I see it so often, and it is the greatest tragedy of our era of art.  Our generation of artists seems to believe that without this hate, and this doubt, and this general hurtful striving that great art cannot be had.

We are told the stories of Beethoven, and Picasso, and all the “suffering artists” of the past.  We are raised with expectation that art must hurt, otherwise it means nothing.  Here is a hint, this is garbage.

My favorite artists are not those who are hurt by their art, but rather those who use their art to further their love for themselves, for their community, and for their spirit.  Take Coltrane, take Maynard James Keenan, take anyone with a smile on their face dangit!!!!!

You needn’t suffer to play well, and in fact it hurts your practice.

If you hate yourself, and the way that you play, you will rush through material before it is done.  You will ignore deep-seated issues in order to protect you ego.  You will play tensely, and not be able to practice for long periods of time because of the strain it places on your whole being.  You will reach beyond what you are capable of doing to try and “catch up” to the greats.

In short, hate will cause you to stagnate. (see how cleverly that rhymes so you will remember it?  Boy I’m cool!)

But if you practice with love for yourself, you will be patient with the material and slow it down, perhaps even shortening the exercise or admitting which part you are struggling with and focusing on it.  You will make it to the those few practices which are most necessary, and be okay with them sounding “bad”.  You will be able to relax, and thereby practice indefinitely, building that superhuman “endurance” that the greats sometimes seem to acquire through force of will.  They don’t.  You will be honest about where you stand and be able to take those small steps forward that are the basis of all progress in all fields.

You cannot do calculus without being able to do algebra.  Even in math the principle is clear!  Those who hate themselves will see the wrong answer as an indication that they are a bad person and will give up.  Those who practice with love for themselves will see the wrong answer and know that it is not the end of all time.  They will see through it to the causes, and know truly what to do to fix it.  They will even be able to ask for help, knowing that they are not weak and stupid to do so!

It is through love that all progress occurs, in all endeavors. Therefore it is not what you practice that is important, but that you practice from a love for yourself. You must know that this can be done, and not wait until tomorrow to do it. Do it now! You will have plenty of time to hate yourself later 😉

While you practice, you accept who you are.

You can only move forward from where you stand.


” I’m Cured “

I recently had a lesson with my mentor, Dr. Ray Smith.  It has been a while, seeing as I dropped out of the Y on a Gatsby-inspired whim without telling anyone.  That was 2 years ago… my how time flies.

This being the first lesson in a while, I brought Ray up to speed.  I told him all about how I have been trying to get away from music. How I have been a botany major the past few years.  I told him all about how I can’t get it out of me, and how all day I think about how much time biology is stealing from music.

He told me a story (as he often does to illustrate a principle.).  His younger brother is a trumpet player that used to play in the big band that Ray now teaches but ended up quitting the horn and going into ‘real’ business.  A few years after he quit, Ray asked him if he would come play with the band for old time’s sake.

His brother said “Nah, I’m cured.”

Art can feel like that.  It can feel like you are ill, and pursuing a dead dream out of sickness.  It can feel like you are hurting those around you by pursuing it, and that you aren’t contributing to the global good by doing what you are doing.

If no one has, let me be the first to tell you.

Your art is important.

The folks on this earth who feel the hurt of having quit and the wish that they hadn’t are limitless.  They are an ocean of pain, and regret, and cubicles.  If you are dogged and determined but feel that you are doing no one good, feel that way no more.  You are helping these people by living their dream.  You are helping these people by teaching them what you have learned. Their scars and wounds have only one healer…

YOU!

Those who do not know about the pain of losing their art also need your help.  They need you in the car as they drive to work.  They need you when they get there and their building is nice to look at.  They need you when they hang pictures in their rooms and their offices so they can have something to see while they think.  They need you to remind them that life is beautiful.

If you feel that your practice has not helped anyone, feel that way no more.  Go out, show your paintings to people.  Play on the street if you must.  The world has a heart, I promise, and they are just waiting to show it to you (if not their wallet).

Once, Brice and I were playing on the street in the bay area, and a man put forty dollars in the case.  He said he used to be a trumpet player, and seeing us play really gave him hope for music.  Me, and Brice, who will tell you that we were nothing special those days.  Most folks didn’t even take notice, but every once in a while a pair would come up to us and talk or an old musician would show his colors.

Life needs you to pursue your art.  It is why doctors do what they do, to give you just a few more days to do so if they can.  That is their art, to give you more time to do yours.  One day, you will need them to give you that time, but right now you have it.  In fact, THEY need YOU to go do it right now!  Otherwise, when the time comes they will have no life to save! You will have already died, years ago having left your dream.

I am not here to tell you not to quit.  If you feel like it, go ahead.  But do not quit because you feel that you aren’t needed.

You are.


Fear, and those other “Bad” Feelings

We are all afraid, but some are more so than others.  Sometimes people are so afraid it causes them to be unable to do things that most of us see as being totally normal.

A Harvard student cannot board a plane.  Her fear is too great.  So she chooses to sign up for a three-day marathon session with her cognitive behavior specialist to try and get on a plane to see her family.  Close to the end of the session, he suggests that she do some exercises to simulate the physiological feelings she will have at the airport.

To her surprise (but not his) this causes her to actually THINK some of the thoughts that cause those responses.  He tells her the following:

“We shouldn’t be running from those thoughts, but rather going out and trying to find them”

This, from a scientist.

I cried at that very moment, and the camera shifted to her and she was crying.  I cried because I identify so strongly with that sentiment, and how it has alleviated a great deal of fear from my life, and no one I know personally has ever told me not to run from my thoughts.  It was so nice to hear that I wasn’t alone in my approach, even if only from the TV.

She cried, I think because she felt the fear fully in that moment, and took that first odd step in not fighting it.  But rather, as her therapist told her to, allowed it to come and diminish on its own.

To once again quote Dune:

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

You are your thoughts.  And in order to not be self-destructive or self-violent, you cannot fight them.  Nor can you run from them (if they are you, how will you ever escape?).  These are options that yield no positive result.

Perhaps instead we can embrace them, like a mother caring for a crying child, and say to them “I am here for you.” and permit them to do what they need to do to be okay.  As we would care for a close friend in need, or a family member.

The fact is that these feelings are closer to us than that, closer to us than any of our friends or family, and to ignore them, fight them, and hate them is only to hate the self.

Once, the Dalai Llama was asked by a ‘westerner’ how he deals with self-hate.  It was the first time he had ever heard the phrase, and he responded “How could you hate yourself?”

You love yourself.  Everything you do, you do out of love for the future and past you. Sometimes you feel flustered, and frustrated at yourself, but this is not hate.  This is you, wishing like a parent for your future self, for a better life for your child.  Sometimes our love, while well intended, cannot succeed in its course because it is violent.

Do not be violent toward yourself.  What good could ever come of that?  Learn to love your fears, and your anger, and even your hate when it arises.  To do so is to love yourself, and even the smallest step in that direction is incredibly important. Because learning to live with yourself in this way, you will one day be able to get on the plane, and go home to see your family.  You will learn to just go over and talk to her, and finally go after that perfect job, and keep after your art.

You will do these things out of love, and not out of expectation.  You will do these things thinking only of the path, and not of the destination.  It will make taking those small steps OK, because you are in no hurry.

You are already in love.


A Surprising Struggle to Get Smaller.

I’m a minimalist.  I caught on to the idea of living smaller and getting rid of the extra stuff in my life.  Meaning mostly that anything that I don’t need to make music needs to go.   I have limiting beliefs about this, but I notice that the smaller I get the more those around me fight against it.

If it weren’t a problem enough to “fight” against yourself to cut things from your life, one thing you  find as you go against the grain (in any endeavor) is those closest to you say and do things to ACTIVELY stop you.  These are people you love, who love you, who cannot stand the idea of you doing something “risky” or “abnormal”.  They do not want to see you hurt, which is good, but they haven’t thought it through.

People tend to think that you would enjoy their lives.  It is human to not use empathy.  We assume that everyone sees the world as we do, and find it difficult to imagine other ways of living.  We also find flaws in other lifestyles to justify why we did things the way we did.

The implications here are strong.  No one has an unbiased view of your life.  Everyone around you is viewing you through the lens of their experience. Unless they have results that your want, you must  ignore them.  As Scott Wilson says “Don’t take professional advice from amateurs”.  My parents, my aunts and uncles, my siblings, my friends and co-students are all amateur Josh Birches.  I am the only professional full-time employee at Josh-co.  Therefore, my direction for life is solely the product of my idea of how things aught to be and the sum of life experiences THAT ONLY I LIVED!

Others mean well, but they don’t have access to the information you are using to choose your life.

When you strike out you are threatening the way of life they have worked hard to obtain.  Imagine that you spent you entire 50 years on earth trying to make money to raise a family, and some kid comes along and won’t shut up about how having kids and a mortgage is total slavery.  You wouldn’t drop your life and agree with the prick.  You would fight.  Hard.  You would justify everything, and learn to see your life in a better light just to prove to yourself that you made the right call.

The kid, and his stupid ideas about minimalism, are causing you a great deal of cognitive dissonance.  It is easy to see, using empathy, why others wouldn’t take kindly to you changing your life, pursuing your dreams, etc.   They didn’t, and it truly hurts them to watch you try.

It is the same phenomenon when you watch someone younger than you play.  You hope they sound bad, even if them sounding good doesn’t hurt you.  You listen without empathy or sympathy.  You listen with hate, impatience, and think only of the future where you tell all your friends how he sucks compared to you, and how important experience is compared to talent.

All garbage.  You could have chosen to enjoy that moment and lift up a fellow musician.  Instead, you chose to feel like trash, and that IN NO WAY MADE THE KID SOUND WORSE!  It serves no purpose to stand in other people’s way.  “The one who says it is impossible should not interfere with the one who is doing it”.

This is your life, and it really doesn’t matter what other people think.  They will tell you not to double, they will tell you need more than 300 square feet to live and have a family, they will constantly highball the costs of life to convince you that 20,000 a year is simply not enough (when a great many billions get by with less). They will scream that you need a degree, and a life that impacts everyone on earth, and published papers in order to matter.

They are wrong.  You are right.

Ignore them.


Controling Yourself Indirectly (and NOT Aggressively).

I have a problem.  I inherited a tendency toward social chameleon-ism from my parents.  Some of my friends share this quality, but those that don’t give me mixed “reviews”.

“Josh, you are passive aggressive.”

“Josh, you are just plain aggressive.”

“Josh, you don’t talk much do you?”

“Josh, how did you get to be so nice?”

“Josh, SHUT THE HELL UP!”

I don’t act consistently with everyone, partly under the belief that different people need different things, but also under the realization that I care what my friends think of me.  (My acquaintances anyway, my close friends usually see the guy I like to call “the real me” but I also happen to think that there usually isn’t a real you… only the you in the moment.)

So I regret and whine about the problem because of it’s “self-centered nature”  but how can a mere mortal like me go about changing something so deeply integrated into my psyche as this?

The answer probably won’t surprise you very much if you have been reading my posts, but I know how important it is and sometimes it is difficult to see just HOW important in certain areas of life.

Like waking up.

I recently got rid of my bed, and now sleep on a mat on the floor (minimalism can make you do crazy things).  I don’t notice any painful difference actually, in fact I can tell you scientifically that being on the mat allows me to wake up more consistently, a problem I have had my whole life, and keeps me from turning around at night.

Also I have placed my alarm clock ABOVE me, which means that I MUST STAND UP TO GET TO IT.  Also I have placed my coffee maker in my room and I have set it to brew automatically 5 minutes before my alarm goes off.

All this to try to get to school on time (I still don’t go, and we will talk about why.)  I have woken up, on time, consistently, for about a week now.  As per the recommendations of Leo (zenhabits.net)  I am going to wake up five minutes earlier next week, and keep doing so until I reach my desired time (I don’t know what time that is… I don’t make goals.)

But what have I really done here?  Why didn’t I just “try harder” to wake up earlier, set my alarm for five and “just deal”?

Because rapid change never lasts.  I am tired of the up and down swing of sleep schedule, and I would like that variable out of my life.  So I am going for:

PASSIVE

INCREMENTAL

SUSTAINABLE CHANGE!

This is huge.  Rome wasn’t built in a day.  If Zeus had just handed Romulus the plans for the finished thing and said “Get it done by Thursday” Romulus would have killed himself. 

We overwhelm ourselves to points outside our natural capacity just to meet expectation.  This is not sustainable, and leads to a fair deal of crashing.  Stop crashing, it is a waste of energy (which you only have a limited amount of). 

In order to do this, you must become aware of what is stopping you from making a desirable habit change, and deal with it SYSTEMATICALLY and with automation where-ever possible.

These barriers can be huge.  When I had a bed, there were a lot of passive environmental conditions that would keep me in it.  It was comfy, easy to get back into even if I got up, and it was right by my alarm clock so I could just ask future Josh for “five more minutes” (which is an intuitive understand YOUR OWN MIND HAS OF INCREMENTAL BEHAVIORAL CHANGE!)

Future Josh would usually shrug, sigh, and say “alright, but this is the last time”.  He was wrong.  I am waaaaaaaay more powerful than that guy, and more handsome and convincing.  So I removed those passive barriers by getting rid of the bed.  This type of change requires NO SUSTAINED EFFORT and these are the things you should do before you make a habitual change (which is much harder because of the aforementioned sustained effort.)

Place your alarm clock away from you.  Make breakfast at night and put it into the fridge.  Set up your instrument and place in on a stand in your room.  Set your homepage to Google docs instead of just Google.

There are so many LITTLE areas that you can remove passive barriers from, and it is interesting to see which ones are really holding you back once you get rid of them.  In fact, it is down right funny to see what stupid stuff Past You couldn’t get over to get out of bed.

Aside though, from removing things (which is the first step to making anything better, in my opinion).  You can take your new knowledge of the human condition and apply it to ADDING PASSIVE BARRIERS TO BEHAVIORS YOU DON’T WANT.

People who successfully quit smoking routinely throw away full packs of cigarettes.  Why?  Because they know if they smoke the whole pack, it will be easy to just go get another one.  But if they throw the pack away, now they have two choices.  Bum one, or buy a new pack.

Both of these actions have passive barriers, requiring effort to sustain.  It takes a little willpower to throw a pack away, or soak it, or get over how ‘wasteful’ it is (I still crack open a Mt. Dew every once in a while, and then pour it down the drain because IT IS A 25 CENT CAN OF SUGAR WATER YOU IDIOTS!!!!! IT HAS PRACTICALLY NO VALUE AND THE CAN NEEDS TO BE RECYCLED!!!!!) but the results are huge.

Once they get down to a few cigarettes every once in a while, kicking the habit altogether gets a great deal easier.  Instead of actively working not to smoke (unsustainable) they actively work to set up an environment where smoking is now the active process, with multiple steps, that goes against the social current, and costs money every time you do it.

Totally passive, incremental, and sustainable.

It is important to realize that these behaviors are habitually accomplished for me in and of themselves.  I do not recommend going gung-ho today and getting rid of your bed.  I DO recommend creating a habit of removing material objects from your life and creating space, having an exit plan for every object in your collection, and having a system for the necessities

But definitely START SMALL.

Habits are just like Rome, and you can’t be a retarded Zeus.  Tell Romulus to lay one brick today.  If he does that for 7 days in a row, tell him to lay two on the 8th.  Too slow for you?  Look at how many bricks you laid last year, and realize that usually, you didn’t even lay seven before you got pissed off, overwhelmed, angry at yourself, and quit.

Be nice to Romulus, and keep track of what works for him.

I use google docs, but you could use excel, or a white board, or anything really, the tools do not matter so much as the principle behind them.  Track Romulus like a wolf.  You will find I think that he, like most people, doesn’t respond well to being yelled at and forced to do things he doesn’t want to.

Now, how do these ideas apply to psychological change?  Can you really just set up a different environment that makes being a social chameleon more difficult?  Yes, but that environment is an internal one.

The mind is like a garden, as a great saxophonist once said “You can grow whatever you want in your garden”.  This is so true that it makes me cry just typing it.  Every religious text on earth mentions that faith is like a seed, and that good thoughts are like trees.  The Buddha realized the paths to enlightenment sitting under a tree!  Christ bled for all sins in a garden!  There are more examples with which I am not intimately familiar!

Using this analogy, we can create the internal circumstances necessary to ‘cultivate’  the feelings and patterns we want in our life, and remove the nutrients in our mental soil that weeds seem to like.  When you meditate, and have achieved a fair but ‘imperfect’ amount of presence, you will see it I think.

When you are relaxed and focused like that, your thoughts can become painfully clear.  That which is usually in the background now screams at you, and you may find yourself saying “This is what I think all day? No wonder I feel like shit!”.

It is important not to judge Past You for your current mental circumstances.  After all, he/she was only doing what they thought would make them happy.  They were just wrong, not stupid or incompetent or hateful.  Just wrong, which is no sin. Judging them now would do no good in fixing the problem, so why bother?

There is truly only one thing you can do to weed your mental garden.  Be aware of it.  Sit, and just notice your thoughts going by.  Every once in a while, you will think something that you like, and that brings you peace, and your whole body will tell you that THIS is what you need to carry with you.

And you may try to, without presence for a while.  And you then realize that you have taken a plant out of the garden before it was strong enough to re-root.

Let your good plants grow for a while, and then take them with you when you leave the garden.  You needn’t garden all day, but ignoring the garden will most certainly lead to trouble.

All good things come to pass through sustainable effort, and whatever it takes to start setting up the small circumstances necessary to go back to your garden, well I would do that first… before all else in your financial, emotional, and practical life.  It is the greatest gift I have ever been given, even though I have ignored it for a large part of my life.

You can sit, and garden, and that is just about all you need to feel real peace.  Even if it is only for a moment a day, you can give this great gift to yourself.  You are beautiful, and I am truly glad that you read this.


Getting to It, Especially if you Suck.

So I have been noticing a rather large problem among the people I know.  Including myself.  It is a big one, and all of us go through it at one point or another (especially when we are adults).  In fact, it is the number one reason that idiots think that children are smarter than adults (they really aren’t, I can prove it if you want to talk to some of the children I know.)  But children are apparently better at skill acquisition for one large reason.  They don’t care at all that people are watching them.  They suck at everything, and they know it, and they just don’t care.  Then, magically after trying stupidly for years, they acquire a small set of skills that they are decent at, and therefore proud of.  At this point, everything is ruined, because now the kid CARES THAT PEOPLE ARE WATCHING!  Before, when the kid didn’t care, it would go out and do the activities that it sucked at until one day it became good at them.

This child-like quality is enviable, until you realize that you can have it without having to revert to being a total moron.  I discussed gaining momentum in a previous post, but this barrier to behavioral change is the one that is the most prominent for a lot of reasons, and thereby deserves its own post. 1) Sucking makes it feel like you are socially unworthy to do whatever activity you are trying to do.  Social pressure is a huge barrier, and anyone that says they are immune is a total liar.  So let’s address it, instead of letting it rule our lives for the rest of time.  I am going to use skateboarding as the example.  I started skating about 3 weeks ago, and I notice that I start boarding easier if I do it in my basement, or in my own town.  Anywhere but the park, which is where I aught to be if I am gonna get good.

How can I get future Josh to the park?  As usual, by taking a multiple-pronged approach.  Firstly, meditation and presence allow us to identify “socially driven” thoughts AS THEY OCCUR and therefore allows us to do a kind of weeding that would normally not get done (because you aren’t there when the weeds are… fancy that.)  So as usual my first prong is to use presence to identify my barriers, and occasionally totally remove them if they are irrational.

My second prong is to USE SOCIAL PRESSURE TO GET ME TO THE PARK.  I tell my friends that I want to go, and then they start to tell me to go, and now the force that was keeping me from doing something that I like is helping me do it.  I particularly like when this pressure is real-life, but facebook and the cell phone work just as well.  In fact, sometimes better because the ignition for the target behavior can come at any time, even when I am not around my peers who board.  This is huge, because I care more about what my friends think of me when I don’t board than how strangers do if I do, I can easily overcome the desire to not embarrass myself and just go to the freakin park.(Children do this essentially non-stop btw)

The third thing I do (which is it’s own post altogether) is NOT CARE ABOUT THE RESULTS OF THE ACTIVITY.  If you are goal oriented, you will stop doing the activity when you don’t achieve your goals.  OR you will the change the goal, which totally defeats the purpose of having goals in the first place.  Stop expecting things to happen.  Just get on the board.  If you aren’t on the board, I guarantee nothing will happen.  If you are and you “need” to ollie in order to justify the activity, then I will venture a guess that you will not be on the board for very long.  In fact, I can also predict with pretty much perfect accuracy that if you continue to board, you will definitely learn to hate it.  Because it feels like school, which the most goal-oriented of goal-oriented activities (and why no one remembers any of the stupid things they learn at school, because goals are stupid and ineffective.)

So, to review, the first reason we don’t do things because we suck at them is we fear judgement.  To overcome this, be present, use social pressure to your advantage, and stay process oriented.  The second reason sucking causes us to not even start a desired behavior is because we generally feel that having fun comes from being good at something, and if you aren’t good you cannot have fun.  This is a lie, and I can’t wait for you to go meditate it out, I am just going to force-feed you the answer here.  Children, who suck at everything, have garbage loads of fun doing everything.  There brain is essentially just a stupid version of yours, so why, with the same brain, have you learned to hate doing things?  It’s a complicated question, with an even more complicated answer, but a really easy solution.

Stop trying to have fun.  There is no “fun” organ.  You can’t tell yourself to have fun like you tell your right arm to catch a ball, or tell your fingers to type.  Instead, “having fun” is an action that is ELICITED INDIRECTLY FROM YOUR MENTAL CIRCUMSTANCES.  You cannot control most of your mental activities, but there is one you can learn to, all the time, 24-7.  Presence.  If you turn presence on, all the time, you can learn from there to bring the circumstances into reality that make fun happen, and thereby have fun doing the things you want to learn to do.

I can already hear the nay-sayers.  “But idiot! You cannot have fun all the time!” (I already mentioned that children pretty much do, and they do it doing anything, but let’s hear this guy out.) “Fun is something that only happens every once is a while, and you can’t control when it happens, and you certainly can’t LEARN to allow it to happen on it’s own! Are you retarded?”.  No.  I am not.  I can prove that adults do this with a different emotional construct, and they do it naturally and effectively and permanently just like children having fun.

They worry.  You and I worry all day, without trying, and without thinking about it, and without WORRYING ABOUT THE RESULTS OF WORRYING!  We follow the technical definition of mastery for worry.  We are expert worriers.  And lo and behold, just being good at worrying DOES NOT MAKE IT FUN!  Good does not equal fun.  Only fun equals fun.  Which is a relief, because that means you can learn to enjoy any activity (including worrying in my opinion, but I wouldn’t try that for to long, people might start to judge you 😉 )

Damn, I was hoping this post didn’t boil all the way down to presence.  But that’s what goal-less writing is all about.  I hope that was informative.

 


Gaining Meaningful Momentum (and How to Stop it When You Need to)

“Boredom is … a vital problem for the moralist, since at least half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it.” -Bertrand Russell

We are creatures of habit.  This is true in our love lives, our diets, our jobs, our emotional states… heck, even when we feel like going to bathroom runs on habit.  Many people lament this.  They think to themselves “If only I didn’t do things habitually, I could quit doing all this bad stuff on auto pilot!”  But this is incorrect.  A great deal of good comes from being able to use our tendency toward habit to our advantage.  In fact, every great thing done can be reduced to the daily habits that brought it into being.  So it is not worthwhile to whine about our habit nature, instead we must embrace it and learn how habits are made and broken in order to bring about positive change in our lives.  Let’s take an example.  Recently I have started blogging, and I have already formed habits related to this activity.  One is that my paragraphs are huge and difficult to read, another is that I often feel that I “should” blog even though there are literally no negative consequences for not doing it.  Weird right?  What approaches could I take to solve these problems without using a goal centered approach?

First, for paragraphing I could start chunking smaller ideas together as opposed to taking the entirety of a literary idea and using each sentence in the paragraph to back up the main point.  This behavior is what I like to think of as “vestigial”, left over from another activity that I used to do, but now apply where it doesn’t belong.  A prominent example in my life would be when I first moved back into my parent’s house for real.  Every depressing thought and feeling I used to have in high school CAME FLOODING BACK for no good reason after about a month or so of being back.  I went manically depressed, until I realized… “That guy doesn’t live here anymore”.  In fact, he doesn’t live anywhere anymore.  He is, for all intense and purposes, dead and remembered fondly.  “Past Josh” for those that watch “How I Met Your Mother”.  In that case, as well as the paragraphing one, insight into why I was doing a behavior led to it changing.  I felt like crap because that is how I used to live here, and I type in huge paragraphs because that is how academic papers are written.  Knowing that allowed me to just get over it and think/act (thinking and feeling are acting… I promise) differently and reduce my suffering.  You would be surprised how many undesirable behaviors can be changed this way.

However, those behaviors were easy to change because they didn’t fulfill any real human “needs” that I had.  Vestigial behaviors are easy to change.  You just become present to them, think about why you do them and BAM, take life up a notch.  If behaviors fulfill needs, or heaven forbid create NEW NEEDS that need to be filled (drugs can do this, so can destructive relationship behaviors) then it can be more difficult to change them.  One way that works well for me is still to firstly determine the real, deep, human need that is being fulfilled by the behavior I want to change.  Boredom is a big one.  The desire to be socially accepted is another that I have to tackle quite frequently (this one is a trip, and we all deal with it, some of us much more than others).  Since it is unlikely that I am going to stop desiring being accepted, or be able to sit in a blank room all day and not feel bored (this is actually a thing to work toward if you are a minimalist… which I am if that isn’t clear yet.) then I take a new approach.  Instead of removing the ultimate trigger to the behavior, I replace the behavior with a new positive one that fills that same need at the same time that the old behavior occurs. For example, I used to play mafia wars.  That game is retarded.  I stopped by realizing that I did it because I was bored, then when I was bored after that I would do anything else that I felt good about that fulfilled that need.  This took time, and energy, and patience, but now I don’t play that stupid game anymore.

The mafia wars thing also taught me another lesson.  That sometimes you can remove a behavior’s ability to fulfill a need, and thereby make it less powerful and easy to change. Before I stopped playing that game, I found a program online that would play it for me.  That’s right.  You read correctly.  My computer would play a game for me.  A game…  For me.  Games, which are for fun, which computers can’t have.  Anyway, that decision (as irrational as it was… I learned later that no one is rational at all anyway, so that didn’t matter) allowed me to stop playing for a long time, which was key because then I never played just out of habit.  What I did start doing was managing the computer program out of habit, but then it slowly dawned on my what a huge waste that was and I stopped.  But the program took some of the sting away by removing the ultimate cause of the behavior: “for mindless fun”.  It turns out my need for efficiency is greater than my need to not be bored… go figure (robot alert).

So those two things work great for me for behaviors that I know are a waste and I can’t really remove the ultimate causes for… but what if the behavior creates its own ultimate cause?  Drinking too much soda, for example.  OK, let’s examine this action for  moment.  Why do people drink soda to start with?  That is different for everyone, but a lot of it has to do with the way we are raised I think.  People who grow up around soda drinkers tend to also drink soda. This was certainly my case.  When I was going to Snow College, I drank about 6 or 7 Mountain Dews a day.  It was so bad, that I eventually wore down my teethes resistance to acidity and gave my self pretty considerable acid reflux.  I don’t lament it though, or blame myself, I had no idea at the time it was having such a negative impact.  When the time came though, it was really hard to give up.  It felt like there was this new driving need in my life “the need for mountain dew”  right up there with “the need to be accepted by peers”.  This need was self-created, that is the first realization.  I drank it because I had created this need, and because I created I could also un-create it.  This knowledge is key.  You aren’t a product of your past habits, they are the product of a past you.  “Past Josh” had screwed me over, now it is up to “Present Josh” to deal with the cards he has been dealt.  Other than the aforementioned ways, one thing that helps when dealing with a powerful addiction is to take it one step at a time.  Go from 7 Dews, to 4 Dews, to a Dew a day, then every other day, until it is weak enough to just kick altogether.  Another thing that is huge is to take on a new behavior that you value more that the current one.  For me, this was Drum and Bugle Corps.  It is impossible to march and drink soda all the time.  The summer of ’09, I had one MD, and the next day I felt like such trash that I almost developed a residual sickness to the beverage.  Corps stayed, Dew went.  It was easy choice when put into that perspective.

Presence has a lot to do with it.  Before you do the behavior, take a quick second to take a deep breathe in and a deep breathe out.  When you pause and listen to the moment, you can sometimes see how silly what you are about to do is, and how it is not the way you want to live your life anymore.  This is the method for behavioral change I recommend the most, because presence will not only allow you to change behaviors you already know are causing you and others suffering, but will also point you in the next direction you need to go in to reduce the general suffering of your life.  That is how I build momentum for activities, like the one I am doing now.

When I sat down to write this, I had a thought.  “I should blog”.  Then, that thought turned into a feeling: self-evaluation and judgement.  Then, because I just happened to be there to recognize that I feeling, I remember that I do this for fun.  I have few readers, and I don’t advertise.  My blogs are about stuff that care deeply about.  This is just an enjoyable activity, and I was adding a behavior to this that literally served no function.  This realization allowed me to pull my favorite trick out, “Just write once sentence, write the title”  So I did. Then I wrote the rest of this all in one sitting.  Why?  Because I freakin love to write.  That is how I write poems too.  I often just think of the last rhyming couplet, and then write the poem backwards from the end.  Two lines turns into four, which turns into two stanzas until I am done.  This is also how tunes are written.  And academic papers.  “Just write the thesis.” or “Just work on the conclusion for 5 minutes”  the work is a self-reinforcing behavior because it is fun, but starting it is not.  Momentum is an important concept for behavior change, and starting it can be just as difficult as stopping it.  But just as necessary!  Many of the ideas I mentioned earlier can be used in reverse to gain momentum.

Sometimes it is difficult to start a process that is goal oriented because the goal fulfills a different need than the process.  Many musicians start playing to become famous and soon realize that while you are practicing, no one is paying any attention to you at all.  This goes against the natural order of things, and will not last long.  For me, music these days is a way to communicate with my friends and one of the ways I reach the present moment and the peace that is there.  The process of practice fulfills these needs, and therefore is not difficult to start or maintain.  If you are progress oriented, it is difficult to improve because you can become easily frustrated with how slowly improvement comes.  Change the reason you play, and you will play more often (and achieve those old nasty goals, even though you don’t care about them any more… you are too busy having a great time!).  Real quickly, while I am thinking about it, the two blogs I learned most of this stuff from are zenhabits.net and Ramit Sethi’s blog: IWTYTBR.

Often though, there are behaviors we have such an adverse reaction to even THINKING about doing that we are blocked significantly from doing them, even if we are truly motivated to get them done.  Applying for jobs, going to the gym, starting a diet, all these are great examples. But I have a better one.  “Mitch, you have no idea how hard it is to quit smoking.  Yes I do.  It is as hard as it is to start flossing” -Mitch Hedburg (who died on April Fool’s day… weird right?).  Flossing is stupid.  And it used to be that all my cavities were in between my teeth, because I never flossed.  This is irrational.  It costs a lot of money to not floss, and almost no money or time to do so.  But literally everyone hates it.  How do you stop hating it? You turn it into a habit.  How?  Floss just one tooth.  That’s it.  Every night, or morning (whenever you brush most often, try to link those behaviors) floss one tooth.  If you continue flossing that is a bonus.   But you are required to floss the one.  Do this every night, and you will pretty surprised to find how quickly you manifest the whole behavior.  Starting a behavior that you “need” to do by chopping it into digestible chunks is an essential practice in my book, and one I would not be able to live without.  I am positive I have known this intuitively my whole life, but being present to it has made me happier and more productive than I have ever been before.  That’s it! You are the gardener, go get rid of some weeds and plant some neat flowers!  They all start from seed!

“Though we all know what boredom is, most normal adults do not experience sheer boredom very often. We are stressed, rushed, and worried, but we are seldom purely bored–in part because we are so stressed, rushed, and worried. Time without anything we must attend to usually feels like a breather, not like a monotony. To get a feel for what sheer boredom is like, we must hearken back to childhood. Children and adolescents are frequently bored, so bored they can hardly even stand it. Their perfectly normal developmental need for constant stimulation, for exploring and ongoing learning, is often thwarted in a world of long trips, rainy afternoons, and study halls. In childhood, boredom can be excruciating, like a chronic spiritual headache, or a powerful thirst with no beverage to be had. It can hurt so bad that the poor kid feels like yelling out loud, or throwing something noisy at a wall. Extreme boredom is arguably a form of pain.” -Martha Stout