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June 2014

Post image for Fear is your mind at its dumbest

If you’re a normal person, you probably suffer about a hundred times as much from fearing bad outcomes as you do from the ones that do happen to come true.

And it’s unlikely that the sleepless night spent fearing a bombed job interview served as useful experience for when it did happen. It probably made it worse, and maybe even caused it to happen in the first place.

You probably didn’t notice that the 99 other things you feared that day never became real. If you had a ledger for all the fears in your life, and on the left you wrote down the what you feared would happen, and on the right you wrote down what actually happened, anybody reading it would laugh.

There are no real outcomes anyway. We worry so much about “ending up” in a particular bad way. But even the fears that do (more or less) come true have no finality about them, they’re just a new place from which to work for now. For all you know this new place sits on a better path than the result you had hoped for.

Was sadness and disappointment the final, permanent outcome of your rejected novel? Was it the end of happiness in your life? The “outcome” of any particular endeavor is just another middle chapter, just another starting point for something else. There’s nothing damning about the middle of any story, and unless you’re dead, you’re in the middle. (So I guess there is one true outcome, but there’s no uncertainty about whether it will happen, and it has the virtue of ending all your worries anyway.)

Everyone has a past riddled with bombed exams, awkward job interviews, bad dates, lost wallets, and birthdays with low turnouts, and few of those fears-come-true continue to cripple us today. Mostly they consist of an awful few minutes followed by an ordinary bad mood, maybe an inconvenient new errand to complete or a new parameter to work under, and some unpleasant rumination later on, if you choose to bother with that.

Of course, most of the unpleasant developments in life are the ones it didn’t occur to you to worry about anyway. They “blindside you at 4pm on an idle Tuesday,” as Mary Schmich put it in her famous column-turned-book. (The one about wearing sunscreen.)

When you decide you’ll walk into your moments of truth — your project launches, race days and blind dates — with an unconditional willingness to see what happens, fear doesn’t have much to do.

For some reason we interpret the presence of fear as a trustworthy reason to be tentative, to delay our arrival at a result. This gives fear time to make the unhappiest possibilities bigger in our minds, seemingly more worthy of respect. Yet fear is your mind at its dumbest and least articulate. All it knows how to do is shout “Get away!”  Read More

Post image for Two ways of viewing the world

There are two utterly different ways to view the world around you in any given moment. We can call them Inward and Outward.

An Inward orientation is noticing as much as you can of the moment. It means being receptive to what’s there, being interested in what’s there. Inwardness means you’re primarily observing — bringing the world into you.

An Outward orientation is applying your views and wishes to the moment, by adding your opinion to it, or trying to change something about it, or evaluating whether it’s probably good for you or bad for you. It means you’re seeing the world (or at least this instance of it) in terms of your interests, where it fits in your story. Outwardness means you’re primarily assessing and commentating — putting your interests out into the world.

Talking is an example of outwardness, listening is an example of inwardness.

Watching inwardly is simply observing. Watching outwardly is hoping.

Viewing the world outwardly will inevitably add anxiousness to our lives, because it keeps us looking to judge, modify, improve, comment on, approve of or disapprove of what we see. This creates a background of neediness to most moments, because we’re invested in seeing them change in a certain way, or stay the same in a certain way.

Viewing the world inwardly is simply doing your best to see what’s there before we make any judgments, to simply observe how it looks, feels, and sounds. All you’re applying to the moment is attention.

Neither is a strictly good or bad thing, and we need to employ both to some extent. An inward orientation has the virtue of reducing neediness and angst, because we’re refraining from making value judgments when not necessary. We need to adopt an outward orientation, however, to establish goals, make improvements, build a vision for our lives, or even just to assert things or ask for things.

But we do those outward things ultimately so that we have an easier time living inwardly later. Some unconscious part of us knows that real happiness and equanimity only come when we find ourselves completely inward towards the moment — completely receptive to how it is right now. Our brains know, on some level, that with certain goals achieved and certain arrangements made, it will be easier to do that.

It’s not unusual to work 50 straight weeks in an outward mode to be able to buy two weeks in a place that almost forces one to experience that time inwardly: a place with palm trees, pools, servants, drinks, or anything else that’s hard to find fault with or improve upon.  Read More

Post image for Effort alone isn’t enough

When you decide to become somebody who goes running three days a week, your first real test will probably be when one of your running days lands on a rainy day.

This is where the running newbie begins bargaining. He bumps the commitment to the next day, with a vow to give it an extra special effort. Then it rains that day too, and he’s essentially back to non-runner status until he decides to start again.

Meanwhile, to veteran runners it’s just another day, because they’re runners, not wanna-be runners.

But this creates a bit of a paradox when it comes to getting from beginner to veteran, in running or anything else. You want to develop enough discipline that you can run when you don’t particularly feel like it — but to do that, you have to run when you don’t particularly feel like it.

This is what makes major changes so difficult to pull off — every new pursuit seems to be at its most “uphill” at the beginning, when you have fewer skills and less confidence than you’re likely to have for the entire rest of the path (assuming you make it anywhere.)

The traditional approach is the “baby steps” philosophy, where each time, you do a little bit more than feels comfortable and natural to you, and gradually, what was once difficult and intimidating becomes manageable.

Most people who are already good at something will tell you that baby steps is how they got there. But this approach still takes a considerable level of discipline at the outset — you have to consistently draw more from yourself than feels natural. It requires you to find willpower every time you look for it, and doing that probably requires some unseen luck.

The real difference-maker

Two equally talented, equally motivated friends living in different cities decide on the same day to begin a running regimen. (Apologies for the running theme if it isn’t your thing — substitute anything you like.) A year later, Friend A has become an experienced runner, and Friend B has reverted to couch potato, and is about try to “get on the wagon” again. The difference was only that Friend B began his endeavor when his city was experiencing a brutal cold snap, and therefore much more willpower was required of him than was ever required of Friend A, in order to get to cruising altitude.

Meanwhile, both of them now believe B is just intrinsically lazy, and that A “has what it takes.” Both are unaware that circumstances ultimately made the difference in this case, because they had the same capacity for effort. Friend A goes on to run marathons. Friend B goes on to build a Blu-Ray collection.  Read More

Post image for In defense of the serious bucket list

Waking up is a wonderful experience when it’s a day you’re going to do something on your bucket list. An impending check-mark is what made a rainy morning feel like a sunny one when I opened my eyes in a downtown Sydney hostel four years ago.

It never occurred to me that I might actually fail at doing this task, given that it was hands-down the easiest item on my list, and that I’d set the entire day aside for it.

Every bucket list item, if it’s a half-serious list, comes down to an actual moment in time when you realize you’re in the midst of the thing. It’s never quite like you expected but there’s a wonderful consciousness that this is it — you made this one thing, if nothing else, real.

And sometimes it is transcendent. I’ll never forget seeing the Manhattan skyline come into view as my cab rose onto the Williamsburg Bridge, or the Student Loans clerk congratulating me over the phone when I made my last payment.

Not that these goals have to be difficult. My objective that day in Sydney was to simply see a movie by myself. There’s nothing at all hard about it, but it seemed like an important symbol of having graduated from the severe self-consciousness that made it seem unthinkable when I was a teenager.

I bought a ticket to see a 3D surfing documentary at the IMAX at Darling Harbour (which is the biggest cinema screen in the world) and when I went up to stand in line, I happened to run into six people I knew, even though I only knew about eight people in Australia. “How great is this?!” one of them said. “You can see the movie with us!”

Anyway, people have been asking whether I’ve abandoned my bucket list, because I took down the link on my nav bar above, and also because I still haven’t gone to see a movie by myself.

The list is still alive and well. It did need a major edit because it was starting to get crusty with goals that seem silly or unimportant to me now. (Eat a baguette in France?) Anyway, I did those edits and the list is up hereRead More

Post image for What inner peace actually is

If you’re someone who reads books or blogs about well-being or spirituality, one idea you’ll run into a lot is that there’s a background of peace or stillness behind everything, and attentive people can “tap into” it or “vibrate” with it or otherwise experience it.

This is enough to trip the BS-alarm of many people, because it suggests some kind of benevolence or personality behind the universe.

But in my experience there’s definitely something to this notion. I do find this “background peace” on a regular basis, and it doesn’t seem to matter much what’s going on in the foreground. When I’m upset or otherwise inattentive I won’t find it (or remember to look for it.) When I do locate it, it’s just as likely to be behind a busy street scene as a quiet park.

I think the “out-there” status of the peace-in-the-background idea is just another example of kookiness-by-association — many people who talk about it might also talk matter-of-factly about healing crystals and communion with trees, and so the skeptically-minded person sees it as more of the same. A lot of useful ideas probably get dismissed this way.

But there’s no reason to take it as a supernatural claim. It’s just a shift in our way of observing, similar to how we can shift between perceiving the plot of a novel and words printed on its pages.

I remember riding in a car somewhere with three friends, and two of them were in a heated argument. I could feel myself getting perturbed by the increasing anger and noise as they carried on. We’ve all had this kind of contagious chaos happen to us, by hearing a violent news story or the radio, or just being around vindictive people. Upset in the world around you tends to stir things up, correspondingly, inside you.

But then something shifted in my perception and I felt this link dissolve. I slipped back into tune with whatever peace or quiet was there before my friends started up, because it seemed to be still there behind the words and noise.

With this anecdote I’m not trying to describe some life-changing moment, just one example of hundreds or more, of touching this background peace. Sometimes it finds me by accident, but more often I find it because it occured to me at that moment to look for it.  Read More

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