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.
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:
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.
“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