“Let’s take the gauntlet and make goodness attractive in this so-called next millennium. That’s the real job that we have. I’m not talking about pollyannaish kind of stuff; I’m talking about down to earth actual goodness. People caring for each other in a myriad of ways rather than people knocking each other off all the time. I mean I don’t find that funny at all. What changes the world? The only thing that ever really changes the world is when somebody gets the idea that love can abound and can be shared.”
I hosted a small mindfulness seminar a couple of weeks ago, and on the mind of many there were questions about dealing with these unusual times we find ourselves living in. Questions about the toll of the disruption of the norm, about not being able to go out and do things, or, even more strongly, about not being able to meet with friends or family or mostly anyone in person. What answers can mindfulness and philosophy provide here?
First is to not beat ourselves up about it. Despite the common narrative, no one is squeezed out of the womb knowing exactly how to handle every single situation that comes at us. Resiliency is a practice, fostered and bolstered through mindfulness and philosophy. And even then it is no guarantee – I very much admit to having days feeling quite table flippy.* It’d be easy to relate to that as a loss or failure, but at the same time, thanks to my mindfulness practice for all these years, no table did I actually flip. It’s a bit like driving: when we start out, we have to pay attention to everything and it’s really taxing, but soon it becomes so second nature that we can even arrive at our destination with no memory of how we got there.** But when the unexpected happens, or we reach a bad road, or whatever, it, once again, takes all our attention and is taxing and difficult. Our prior experience and practice helps, but it’s still not automatic or easy. And so it is like that during these unusual times. It’s a new road. We have to work at it. The best part is that, just like driving, after this experience our new practice will make for smoother driving whenever something like it comes our way again.
Which dovetails a bit into the second point, which is to consider this: that we’ve been relying, inadvertently, on some crutches. Again, not in a pejorative way – nothing productive comes from beating ourselves up – but simply to look at where we may have been reliant on externalities to supply distraction, or meaning, or normalcy, or interest, or excitement, or joy, or etc. To the point where, in a way, we’ve become addicted to it, and with all of those gone we’re now suffering from a double whammy of both withdrawal and emptiness/lack of stimuli. It’s similar-ish to the ideas of dopamine detox I’ve seen floating about (learning to wean ourselves from the immediate/always/already available distraction of our phones/media/etc). Because of the ease of distraction and etc through happenings and friends, it is often a matter that we never having learned how to generate for ourselves and/or, more profoundly, how to just be with ourselves. And this pandemic forced the immediate removal of our/those usual crutches. Like before, this leaves us with an opportunity, the opportunity to practice and build up our internal sense of self and begin to generate on our own, which is great in its own right and even better is that when we get back to our activities, friends, and more, we will enter them more fully and they will be even fuller and more powerful experiences for us. The double bonus part here is also that, even while we begin to practice, the very act of knowing and naming this unease and strain and feeling of loss, and recognizing it’s just a result of our crutches no longer being there, can do wonders to keep ourselves from sliding things into the realm of suffering.
Which, again, dovetails a bit into the last point, which is to recognize the role that agency plays. As I’ve written about in previous posts, agency is one of our prime desires. And nothing kaiboshes our feeling of agency more than when not one, not two, not three, but multitudes of our ‘normals’ get cut off… further compounded with many unknowns, especially including how little we knew about COVID itself when this was just starting. Having a lack of agency can drive us completely batty and have us do some very unproductive (and harmful) things to try to get it back. Here, again, just knowing that’s what’s at play can be a great salve. If we find ourselves going spare, we can check in and talk to our calculating selves to say, “I know my agency feels thwarted. I understand.”
By being mindful of all of the above we can center ourselves and let our turbulent waters become still. And from that place of stillness we can create, striving forward with possibility and peace of mind.
* Less, I think, from the disruptions and more so from the inequities, discrimination, and power plays that this pandemic put into stark relief…
** Which, to be clear, is maybe not the best state to fully slip in to. Being present while operating several tons of metal is recommended!
As there often is, there is another angle from which we can view our persistent unproductive behaviors. While looking for the payoff is great for finding the hidden addiction or attachment that keeps us clinging to the unproductiveness, and therefore great to open a path for us to unhook ourselves from it, sometimes we need just a bit more nudge to actually do it. After all, it may be unproductive, but we’re used to it and we’ve survived this long (or so says our calculating self), so it’s just easier to go along, right?
In those moments, we can get present to the cost.
And not just the cost in the unproductive results that we may already see and know, but the deeper costs that, like the payoff, is often hidden from our view. The costs that cut deep to the core of what we truly want, costs that sap us and our experience of life: our vitality, our enjoyment of life, our connection and rapport with others, our well-being, our peace of mind, our health, our satisfaction, our self-expression, our fulfilment, or a myriad of other things we become numb to.
Once we open our mindfulness and let ourselves become present to these costs, the balance shifts. The calculating self begins to see that some of these are threats even to itself, and, even more so, our central and authentic selves gain succor and the strength to assert itself and say, “We are done with that now.”
And lo, we regain our agency and step forward to re-write our history going forward. The already automatic ways of being and behaving begins to be interrupted, open to our creation towards that which is productive and that fills us with delight and peace and love.
Best of all, as we continue to put that into motion, soon that becomes our already, always, automatic, replacing our shackled downward spirals with ones that we can change anytime and that aligns us towards prosperity for ourselves and those around us.
Often, when there’s something in our lives that isn’t working, or isn’t working as well as we like it to – including our own behaviour and patterns – we try to dig deep and look for the why. We look for what is it that has it be this way, or has me be this way?
And that can be valuable! Especially if we’ve gotten some lessons or coaching or experience into the deep workings of who we are (hint: until we’ve done this work, it’s rarely at all what we think it is). But often figuring out the what or the why doesn’t produce the results we want it to. We have an explanation, but it doesn’t help us in the moment to cease or alter it. It’s like that thing about how knowing how to lose weight and actually losing weight are two very different things.
But a more fruitful path is often to forgo the why and instead look at what is keeping it in place? What are we getting from it being this way such that we, surreptitiously, derail ourselves? What are we actually committed to, no matter what we may profess?
Put another way, what’s the payoff?
Given we keep doing what we are doing even when we say we don’t want to or don’t like the result, there’s gotta be something we’re getting out of it, something we’ve become, in a way, addicted to. Almost always there’s a lot of juice there. One of the most prime payoffs is simply that we get to be right. Oh do we ever get such a rush from being right!* And that same kind of rush follows into many other things that often are our payoffs: validating ourselves, dominating others or controlling the situation, gain some sort of position or perceived advantage, or just plain old we get to, in our minds, win.
And so even if what we are doing is unproductive in 98% of all other areas, we get stuck. Because, just like the rats who will cross electric fields and ignore food to get that pellet of cocaine, we so want that payoff.
When we get present to the payoff we get to see the groove that has been keeping us hemmed in and, even if we’ve been saying we’re trying to turn the wheel, guiding us down those unproductive paths. And now that we see it, we gain access to making a choice. For as charged as the payoff may be, it’s usually cheap, shallow, and unfulfilling, gone in a flash and leaving us with our mess.
We can give up that shoddy payoff to gain freedom, possibility, and results that our authentic self truly desires.
* Which makes sense in many ways. To our survival-based calculating self, Being right = not being eaten by a tiger. So we get a neurological reward for being right.
“Aside from the animals, there are nearly a thousand abstract signs and shapes we cannot interpret and also several negative hand stencils, as they are known by art historians. These are the paintings that most interest me. They were created by pressing one hand with fingers splayed against the wall of the cave and then blowing pigment, leaving the area around the hand painted. Similar hand stencils have been found in caves around the world from Indonesia to Spain to Australia to the Americas to Africa. We have found these memories of hands from 15,000 or 30,000, or even 40,000 years ago.
These hand stencils remind us of how different life was in the distant past. Amputations, likely from frostbite, are common in Europe and so you often see negative hand stencils with three or four fingers. And life was short and difficult. As many as a quarter of women died in childbirth. Around 50% of children died before the age of five.
But they also remind us that the humans of the past were as human as we are, their hands indistinguishable from ours. These communities hunted and gathered and there were no large caloric surpluses so every healthy person would’ve had to contribute to the acquisition of food and water.
And yet somehow, they still made time to create art, almost as if art isn’t optional for humans.”
— John Green
(which was animated into this amazing video by Kurzgesagt)
You are whole and complete
You always have been
And you always will be
You may not experience it
And you may sometimes take actions that don’t reflect it
But it doesn’t change the truth of who and what you are
There are just barriers to your experiencing it
Welcome to the New Year
Whole and Complete
We are always piercing things together to form a reality. Everything we experience, whether personally or through stories or through both passive and active observation becomes fodder for our automatic, unconscious, reality-deducing machinery. We piece together all these bits of information and draw inferences, see cause and effect* and craft a strong sense of what things are.
This includes things that people can be or can become. Even if we are not it right now, or don’t use it right now, and maybe don’t even see ourselves ever becoming it, we know it and know how it operates.
So that in that moment when we become it, all that ‘knowing’ comes to the fore, because our mind grabs what it already ‘knows’ as a predictor for how to behave and, thus, as the way to succeed.
And there are many moments like that in our life, where we weren’t something and suddenly now we are: student, employee, citizen, on our own, driver, homeowner, significant other, spouse, parent… if it can be a label, it can be an it.
When that proverbial light switch flips and we find ourselves – suddenly! – in that new situation with that new label, being that it, we end up acting out just like things were done before.
Even if they’re not productive. Even if they’re not helpful. Even if they don’t represent the best expression of who we can be.
But we do it because that’s reality. It is how it is.
And then we laugh (or recoil) and say, “I’m just like my parents,” or we later say, “I understand what they were saying now.”
Except that it’s not really that way at all. Instead, it is just that we’ve fallen into it by the virtue of not being aware of not being aware. Instead we’re asleep with no agency, just repeating the past, ad nauseum.**
Bringing mindfulness to the situation (even years later) lets us interrupt that cycle and interject ourselves into the now of our it so that we regain our agency and choice. We allow ourselves to be informed by what came before without needing to become it. We get to think about things complexly, rope in our other experiences, and create.
By bringing our central selves to the fore, we can truly make it our own.
* I’m sure it goes without saying that we see cause and effect supremely often where no such relationship exists… yet we form our realities as though it is so.
** It’s important to get how insidiously powerful and prevalent this is, how much we become subsumed into that already always knowing to become the thing, that it, forever being perpetuated into the future. We don’t even get to have our own experiences. The experiences of others we’ve gleaned over the years are instantly our moment-by-moment experience of that it, shaping our behavior, actions, and experience going forward in a cycle.
“Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.”
— Joan Didion
Often, we find ourselves trapped within a game. A game that we didn’t choose.
A game that we, mostly, are never even aware that we are playing.
Yet we play it and play it hard, every day, every moment of every day, in a vain hope to ‘win’.
So that we can look good to others.
So that we can appear tough, talented, intelligent, sophisticated, successful, big, powerful, capable, prosperous, neat, independent, influential, cool, manly or womanly…
All so that can be thought of well by others, looked upon with accepting eyes, and, ultimately, we hope, be worthy of love and belonging.
The funny thing is, that all this effort and energy and time lost and impediments to our self-expression and freedom and joy is only there because we’re each jockeying for position against each other.
The stakes are there only because we are ongoingly creating the stakes with others around us.
We all feel the subconscious need to play the game only because we’re already all subconsciously playing it.
If we all just gave it up, there’d be no need to win.
If we all noticed what we’re doing, and stopped creating the stakes, there’d be no need to even play the game.
We could just be.
Wow, it turns out that the Kurt Vonnegut quote I posted on last Tuesday’s philosophy post was, indeed, an actual quote by Kurt Vonnegut! (There’s so many miss-attributed or just plain fabricated quotes out there, one never can quite be sure…) Even better, here’s a reading of the whole letter in which it was contained by none other than Gandalf himself, Sir Ian McKellen!