Holding space is something we can do for ourselves and/or for others. It is the act of providing two things: a boundary, and room within the boundary. This is key for learning and growth, to have both space to explore and a boundary to that space.
In holding space for ourselves and others, our ability to do so usually comes down to the quality of our breathing. Short, shallow breaths mean that we literally cannot hold space within our bodies. This translates to a lack of space we are able to hold emotionally for ourselves and others.
Deep breathing if forced is not necessarily good for holding space. If you are forcing your breath, you are forcing other things, and that will be transmitted to people around you, who will respond by rebounding that force back on you.
Deep, easeful breathing is good. This happens naturally when we are in a positive, relaxed emotional space, feeling strong and confident in who we are. It can also be brought about by the practice of smooth breathing.
Try this: take a few deep breaths, and look out for the moment when the breath begins to become effortful, meaning it stops being easy. To take a small breath is easy. To take a deep breath is hard. At some point, there is a transition between ease and effort. Find this point. Then breathe in again, this time just below the point where tension arises and you have to start putting effort in to force the breath to expand more. When you get close to, but not actually to, the point of effort, slow down the inhale, and relax. This will naturally lead you to exhale. This is a way to begin the practice of smooth breathing. Try not to hold the breath at all, in any way, at any point in the process. If you get just one smooth breath, rejoice.
Practicing smooth breathing will allow you to take deeper breaths with less effort. This will allow you to hold more literal space inside your thoracic cavity, which will translate to greater ease of being in yourself and greater ease of being around other people.
Neuroscientists have recently been revisiting the role of the vestibular system (the inner ear canals that control our physical balance). More than just keeping our bodies upright, vestibular information (position/angle/movement of our head) connects to many different brain areas, including those involved in regulating emotions, spatial cognition, mental imagery, just to name a few.
This article shows how patients with vestibular system deficits (and ones who had surgery to remove related brain areas) have impairment in their mental imagery capabilities.
Einstein's big contribution to the world relied on his ability to mentally imagine how a light wave acted.
But there's more. Many psychiatric disorders are accompanied by vestibular system/balance disorders. It's also linked to clinical anxiety disorders, believe it or not.
All this to say, one thing you can do to improve your physical, emotional, and mental intelligence is: stimulate your vestibular system.
Do you stand or jump up and down on one leg sometimes just for healthy fun? Do you spin around like a little kid just to feel the dizziness? Do you juggle? Practice yoga balancing poses? All of these contribute to vestibular system functioning.
The vestibular system is our inner North star. It keeps us upright. If we take good care of it, we have a better shot at emotional regulation, and our mental energy can be freed up and spent on higher level thinking.
Thinking of the brain as a communication system (which more and more neuroscientists are doing) is useful in understanding what helps us get smarter and what doesn't.
What is a communication system?
It's a system that sends and receives signals. Like a radio, phone, or computer (but the brain deals with way more complex signals). In this post, I'll deal mostly with the receiving side.
The brain receives signals from the outside world, which get transmitted through our five external senses (taste, smell, touch, hearing, vision). It also receives signals from inside the body through what's called "interoception." These internal senses include proprioception (the ability to sense where our arms and legs are relative to the body), vestibular perception (in the inner ear, our sense of balance, i.e. movement and rotation in the head), and other sensations from the organs such as hunger, thirst, full bladder.
These signals can be more clear or less clear. They can be interfered with by noise. Noise is more than just annoying sounds. It's anything that interferes with a signal. Some examples of noise: spinning around in circles causes noisy vision and noisy balance; when we're at a party or crowded coffee shop, there are people chattering (audio noise), so it may be hard to hear the one person (the signal) we're trying to listen to; If we're on the internet, trying to do research or anything focused, there is noise pulling us in many different directions (to buy things, to read funny things, to watch funny videos, to watch people getting injured, etc.) Strobe lights are noise.
When there's too much noise, the brain reacts by numbing the senses that are responsive to it. For example we stop hearing certain sounds if they're constant in the background.
More and more, we are getting overloaded by what might be called 'global connectivity' noise. As we take in more and more information from the world and are immersed more in surround-sense entertainment, we become less sensitive to our own internal signals. I still have a flip phone, so global connectivity only cripples me like eighty-ish percent of my waking life.
What we really want is global connectivity within our own brains, as it so happens. Meaning we want for each of our brain regions to be able to send clear signals to many other brain regions. Our short term memory having strong ties to our long term memory, e.g., or the attention-control brain area being able to shut up the brain areas that we don't need to pay attention to at the moment.
Sensitivity increases connectivity, and numbness decreases connectivity. We have to be able to sense ourselves to be connected to ourselves, both 'spiritually' and neurally. Communication between brain networks requires them to both 'speak' and 'listen' to each other.
To increase our sensitivity, we can do two things: 1 - eliminate noise, and 2 - add noise (in a deliberate way) in order to overcome it.
Meditation is an attempt at #1. We sit in quiet and just listen to one signal (our breath, a spot in our body, a word like 'love'), filtering out any other noises (thoughts, feelings, sensations) that come up in us.
Mindfulness is another approach, where instead of filtering out the noise, we watch the noise as it naturally comes up and acknowledge it, let it be there, recognize that it may come again, and just get familiar with it. This actually leads to reduced noise because we're treating the noise as the signal. We get better at finding the truth in the chatter, the signals in the noise.
Both methods seem to lead to increased clarity.
As for #2, adding noise in a deliberate way, practicing Brain Body exercises (coordinating activity in the legs, hands, and mind simultaneously) is practice coordinating many actions at once. In other words, take separate signals, put them all together, create a jumble of noise, and then unify them all into one complex, multidimensional signal.
The key here is that we're combining activities which can honest-to-goodness be done at the same time in an integrated way. We can't combine texting with in-person conversation because those cannot be actually done at the same time. They draw too heavily on the same brain areas and interfere with each other, causing irreconcilable noise.
My prescription is this:
- If you're exposing yourself to noise unnecessarily, change your environment.
- If you've got noise coming from inside your head (which every single person does), observe it, get familiar, watch it change.
- If you want to get better at filtering out signal from noise, either meditate (either mindfulness or regular "focus on something" meditation), and/or practice Brain Body exercises, or both.
And finally, a warning. It's not always easy to tell signal from noise. Sometimes we just need to wait and observe life unfolding before we know what to do next.
In any given moment, our attention can be in one of three states: undirected, directed, or choicelessly aware.
Undirected attention is when we're not consciously trying to steer our attention in any specific direction, but it's moving seamlessly from fantasy about the future, to regret, to anxious thought, to happy thought, etc. Undirected attention is basically automatic associative thought patterns (e.g. yellow, banana, delicious, happy, monkeys, the jungle, interesting, movie about monkeys in the zoo, sad), and there's a brain network whose activity roughly corresponds to this kind of flowing process, called the Default Mode Network.
Directed attention, on the other hand, is when we're actively keeping our focus on something and not on other things. E.g. mixing milk and sugar into coffee, typing an email, folding origami (highly recommended brain activity), juggling, holding a yoga pose, meditating on your breath. Every second, our brains can be pulled in almost infinitely many directions, and in order not to, we have to engage our cognitive control, or focus. The brain network that gets activated in this state is called the Task Positive Network. When we do this, we are ignoring almost all of the input coming into our awareness, in favor of holding onto only a small chunk.
Finally, choiceless awareness is a combination of undirected and directed attention. It's a basic type of mindfulness, letting awareness flow from thought to feeling to observation to judgment to sensation back to thought, etc., all the while keeping our attention focused on the flowing motion itself, rather than on any specific stop along the way. It's not easy at first, and no matter how long you've practiced, there are still times when it's not easy because our lives and our minds are always changing. Sometimes we're feeling an intense emotion or just plain tired. That is also part of being human.
The first piece of good news is that we need strength in all three types of attention. The second is that practicing any type of meditation increases our capacity for both directed attention and choiceless awareness. To practice undirected attention, all we need is to get bored and do nothing (harder than it sounds).
Now the hard part (not as hard as most people think), actually practicing. More on that later. For now, I hope you enjoy using all three types of your truly amazing attention.
This post is on s simple article from Forbes (I know you've probably never heard of it, but they have good stuff sometimes). It's about how to handle stress, and you can read the whole thing here.
I will of course give you my take on it for the tl;dr folks.
First, and probably most important of all, the article starts off with a graph, which basically shows that some stress is good, and more than that is bad. The good kind of stress lasts for no longer than a few minutes. This is what our bodies have evolved to handle: threat, threat response, safety. When we are exposed to long-lasting stress, our brains start to shrink and our bodies start to malfunction.
The thing is, a lot of the long-lasting stress we feel is largely under our control. Not that we can always avoid stress, and in fact we wouldn't want to. Again, a little stress is good because it gets us to act, keeps our skills sharp, and inspires growth. But there are some things we do to prolong the stresses in our life.
For example, we ruminate (replay negative thoughts over and over in our heads, re-triggering the stress over and over without taking positive action to solve the problem). I am certainly guilty of this one. I practice mindfulness every day, and while it helps, I still ruminate sometimes. Other things we do to hold onto stress are similar: we maintain grudges, we focus on what our lives are lacking (rather than focusing on what's going right), etc.
So the article has 11 things you can do to lower your bad stress levels, and you might want to take a look at them all, but for now I'll just share the few I really like and think are most interesting.
1) Saying No. It's hard to say no to people, and when we say yes to doing things we really don't want to do, we raise our stress levels. Think of it this way: saying no is stressful, but it only lasts for a minute. Saying yes when you don't want to relieves pressure now but makes it build and build as time goes on.
2) Exercise. Of course, I would list this one. The interesting part (which is not in the article), is that the best exercise is for only a couple minutes, but done many times throughout the day. Most people sit all day, and then some of them do an hour-ish-long workout at the gym after work. They are not getting as much benefit as the few who stretch, squat, and do other quick, simple movements every 10 minutes or so. This, of course, requires courage because people will look at you, and you might interpret their looks as negative judgments. You are in fact being a leader and a good role model. Every time you take a tiny exercise break at the office, you might be inspiring others to do so too. You might even help them lower their stress levels if they follow your lead.
3) Mindfulness. It literally just takes asking yourself this question. "What do I notice right now?" Just ask that, and notice whatever you notice, whether it's what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch, or thoughts. Just see if you can be aware of the experience. Over time, this changes the whole stress mechanism in your brain. You will eventually respond differently to stress altogether. Mindfulness pays for itself after a few months of doing it for just a few minutes a day or whenever you think of it.
-----> Again, the article can be found here.
Be well, keep growing,
Here is the link to a guided meditation that I recorded. It is based on mindfulness and is meant to replete energy after any kind of workout or effort.
Try it out if you'd like and let me know how it goes.
We all have a relationship to this word "gratitude." For some, it reminds them of the upside of life and energizes them. For others, it is a signal of some kind of burden, unpaid debt, or just general anxiety (I was in this camp for many years). And on today of all days, it is brought to our attention, good or bad.
Research behind gratitude has mostly shown that consciously practicing it makes people more resilient to adversity, kinder to others, and more inspired to broaden and build in their lives. But there is a nuance to it, and this idea of gratitude can actually make people less happy, less resilient. What makes the difference?
It seems to all come down to a distinction between thinking and feeling. If we feel truly grateful, not indebted but freely given to, and we feel it as an emotion in our bodies, then it is beneficial. If, however, we are reminded (either by others or by our internal voice) that we should be grateful, and that we have a lot to be grateful for, but we don't feel it as an emotion, don't feel it in our bodies, then we are actually harmed, weakened, and less happy from it.
So I invite you to meet yourself where you are. If you naturally feel grateful today for whatever life has freely given you, do so and by all means share it with others. (By the way, research also shows that techniques such as gratitude journaling work better when they are spread out, rather than done every day, because it will become one of those Shoulds.)
If you feel right now that gratitude is not for you, then do yourself a favor and don't try to feel it. There is nothing wrong with NOT feeling grateful. It is far more important to let yourself be where you are right now than to have to feel something just because it's a certain day of the year.
Whatever you choose to do, see if you can allow yourself to be imperfect, yet whole. In other words, a real human.
If you're interested in reading further about gratitude research, to get some of the nuanced picture, click here.
If you're just joining us, last post I was talking about how beliefs run our lives through their influence on our actions and their influence on our interpretations of feedback from the external world. Here I will provide several more examples and elaborate on the concept.
First, I want to share one of the most interesting (and scientifically supported) examples of self-fulfilling mechanisms. The article I refer you to is called The Luck Factor. I highly recommend reading and re-reading this, since it's short and fascinating. I will describe some of it here without going into too much detail. The main thrust is that people who believe they are lucky end up acting in ways that bring them more of what they want in life, and that people who believe themselves unlucky tend to act in such a way that denies them access to what they want. The main mechanisms he refers to are what he calls "Chance Opportunities" and "Counter-factual Thinking."
Chance opportunities are those moments when life presents us with new options that we either take or leave, and which we'd do well to take (and learn from). Those who feel unlucky tend to miss out on these because they are focused on searching only for what they know they want, causing them to miss possibilities that are actually there in front of them. People who feel lucky, on the other hand, tend to be more relaxed (a common thread in the successful half of this whole self-fulfilling prophecy story), which makes them more likely to notice when something new is appealing, even if it doesn't have a neon sign in front to indicate it as the Next Big Thing. Not only are the "lucky" people more observant, allowing them to notice chance opportunities, but they tended to seek variety and so encountered more of them. They would walk home from work using different routes, go to new cafes and restaurants, talk to different people at parties (this part of the article is extra interesting).
(Side note: to link this discussion with Nassim Taleb and Antifragile, which I must, seeking variety in low-cost situations is a hallmark of antifragility. At worst, it leads to increased wisdom and robustness; at best, it leads to experiences of Striking It Big and the feeling of dominance over the universe.)
The other mechanism of finding more luck is "counter-factual thinking." It basically means thinking of what has not happened, what is counter to the facts of experience. People who tend to feel lucky explain unfortunate events thusly: "Wow, I'm so glad it was only this bad. It could have been so much worse." This causes them to bounce back, and even grow (antifragilely) more quickly because they don't waste as much time slumped in the aftermath. People who feel unlucky tend to explain misfortune as, "Of course, this always happens to me. I can't escape it." This causes them to stay stuck for longer in self-pity and helplessness, while simultaneously not learning as much from the experience.
And now, for the big picture. Let's go back to the example at the end of Self Fulfilling Mechanisms, Part 1, the Fear of Falling Off. When we find a high-value activity or skill that we want to practice for a long time, we are often struck with a fear of not being able to "stick with it." This fear, which arises subtly from the belief that we won't stick with it, stirs anxiety and causes us to avoid thoughts and images of practicing the thing, which makes us fill our minds and time with more "pressing" matters, and then we stop practicing for a while or altogether.
The way I suggested to overcome this is based on the following idea: If our beliefs cause us to take certain actions in line with those beliefs, and those actions bring about responses from the world that support our original belief, then what happens if we take the action which would sprout from the opposite belief? If, instead of believing that I'll never stick with it, what if I were to believe that it's impossible for me to stop practicing and, if anything, I'm scared I'll practice too much? What would I do in that case? For me, the answer is, I would make damn sure I never over-practiced, that I always stopped myself before I was ready to stop. For this particular belief (Falling Off), it makes sense from another framework, which I described in this post Part 1, about the Peak-end rule.
I think this idea of doing the action which follows from the opposite belief can work in general to reverse self-fulfilling mechanisms in our lives that we do not want to self-fulfill. In terms of The Luck Factor, seeking variety and using our imagination to think of how bad events could have been worse are two simple actions we can take that come from the belief of having good luck, and they actually lead to having good luck. This Opposite-Action Option (OAO) is by no means a perfect formula. It's more of a heuristic, a simple rule of thumb to try out and adjust when necessary.
An example that I have found works really well in teaching 8th graders has to do with beliefs about being heard and listened to. I forget where I learned it, but it is an amazing instance of opposite-action (OA) power. When my students are talking, and the noise level in the room rises, I become afraid that no one is listening to me and no one will hear me, and this is not just disconcerting because I think they need to hear what I have to say, but because not being heard is a deeply lonely and powerless feeling that I have had plenty of exposure to. My instinctive reaction to a loud room is not only to raise my own voice, but change my tone from that of calm confidence to that of irritation and sarcasm. And what does this do to the noise level in the room? In response to my voice, the students end up having to raise theirs in turn to be heard by the person sitting next to them. In this case, my belief that I won't be heard may be well founded, and that makes no difference. The difference is in my ACTION, which brings a response, which either supports or refutes my belief.
My new tactic is to smile, take a breath, and speak quietly to the students in the back, who are not looking at me. This action that makes sense for someone who believes that their voice and face are the only ones in the room. The reaction is fascinating in real time. The students in the front row look at me, straining a bit, curious about what I'm saying. The ones in middle seats quickly follow those in front, and then after a few seconds, the ones in the back do a double take, as everyone else is now silent and focused on my near-whisper. Sometimes, when it doesn't work so quickly, a student near the front will turn back and shout, "SHHHHH" or "SHUT UP," acting as my bull horn and saying what I so badly want to say but won't because I'm a Teacher and the image I present to my students is no accident. This then shifts my belief from, "No one will hear me" to "Everyone wants me to speak."
Along the same lines, but maybe more emotional, there's the belief that someone will not give me what I need from them. Then I approach them either with a repulsive intensity or characterize them in some way like, "I know you never [do this] but you should probably [do this [for me]]." If I indicate that there is a big emotional downside to them not doing what I'm asking, it will not go well. They will get anxious, will avoid thoughts relating to me, and will forget what I've asked them to do. Then they will have proved me correct. I will be incredulous at my accuracy of prediction and will never ask them to do anything for me again, until next time, when I do the exact same thing.
The opposite belief would be absolute confidence in compliance and care. What would I do in such a case? It's not so much what I'd say as how I'd say it (tone, facial expression, body language, which are hard to control), but maybe I'd start with, "Hey, how are you today? What's on your plate?"..."There's something I need to get done, do you think you could help me out with it? If not, I understand." These phrases are of course not powerful in themselves if they're being used as a trick to fool the other person into thinking that I'm warm to them. But with the intention of wondering if that person has the capacity to care about what I care about, and wanting to find out if they have the time and energy to help me out, I will be more likely to get them to help me. If I find out that they can't, I will be better equipped to find someone who can, and therefore more likely to get what I want.
I hope this has been at the very least interesting to read and inspiring to try out new ways of acting in life. Again, it is nuanced, and life is usually not-at-all obvious about what choices will bring us what we want. My invitation is to try small doses of new possibilities with high amounts of self-observation and awareness of how it feels and what results it brings. No result is all good or all bad, and both sides are useful. We want to be emotionally sensitive to the upsides of our new experiences, let ourselves feel the good, while also becoming more rationally sensitive to things which have not worked and which present new possibilities to try out next time. The only shortcut in life seems to be avoiding shortcuts and trusting that the complexity of the world will present what we seek, if we can just keep all of our senses open to perceiving and receiving it.
While the word "prophecy" might make some people think of Disney movies or gypsy psychics, most prophecies are made right behind our eyes. Meaning we make them, about our own lives, and we believe them because they're from a reliable source.
There is a certain type of prophecy called "self-fulfilling," meaning that the outcome is caused by the belief itself. The thing about self-fulfilling prophecies is that they almost always come true. In fact, the name "prophecy" is really the wrong word for what I'm talking about. These do not happen magically, but because of clear, logical mechanisms. Our belief (prophecy) causes us to take actions in line with that belief. The WAY we act creates a response and feedback from the outside world, which ends up supporting our belief, which strengthens the belief and gets us to repeat the same actions, ad absurdum nauseum via infinitum.
The rubber of our minds hits the road of reality where our beliefs spark actions. We use ours actions to test our beliefs, modifying both of them when they're wrong or unhealthy. The diagram is: Belief -> Action -> Feedback -> Adjustment -> New belief, and repeat. But this isn't always how it goes. Sometimes it's: Belief -> Action -> Feedback (supporting the belief) -> Same Action again, leading to the same outcome over and over and strengthening the belief each time. The missing step is Trying Something New.
A very simple example of self-fulfilling mechanisms: The Growth Mindset and Fixed Mindset, concepts introduced by psychologist Carol Dweck.
The Growth Mindset is the belief that I am growing, and that I can significantly improve my ability or intelligence through practice. If I have that belief about, say math, then if I am faced with a choice of whether or not to do math, I will more likely choose DO, which will cause me to practice mathematical thinking skills, which will improve my ability and intelligence around math. Growth Mindset -> More practice -> Improved Abilities -> Stronger Belief in ability to improve -> More practice, and so on. (By the way, the Growth Mindset is neuro-physiologically accurate: intelligence can be improved.) An additional layer is that just by being aware of the Growth Mindset, a kind of meta-self-fulfilling-prophecy takes hold. Not only do I become more likely to practice under normal circumstances, but I will be stronger in the face of bigger obstacles to my practice because I value it more highly.
The Fixed Mindset, on the other hand, is the belief that I cannot significantly improve my ability or intelligence. Let's say I think of myself as not a "math person." This will lead me to choose Not Math when given the choice, which will stop me from practicing mathematical thinking, which will leave me less equipped than those who did choose math, which will reinforce my belief that those people are "math people" and I simply am not. In mirror opposition to the meta-prophecy remark above, being unaware of my Fixed Mindset will stop me from attributing my lack of skill to lack of practice, further promoting my belief that it is something inherently ME that's causing this spiral of weakness.
Another example, that illustrates a sad but kind of beautiful human fragility. When we think we've found something "good for us," such as eating healthy, meditating, exercise, reading, playing music, writing, whatever it is, and we'd like to continue practicing this activity for a long time - the rest of our lives? - we often fall prey to another self-fulfilling mechanism. It is what I like to call the Fear of Falling Off, or the Fear of Being A Dirty Quitter. It's not just fear of giving up though, but the subtle, sometimes unconscious belief that we WILL FAIL JUST YOU WAIT. The mechanism here is similar to that of the Fixed Mindset, but not exactly.
Fear causes anxiety, a physical-emotional sensation of inhibiting tightness. When we feel anxiety, our normal response is to avoid that which is bringing it about. If the source is a thought, perhaps an image of practicing my growthful activity that I really want to keep practicing for a long time because it's good for me but that's a tall order - the rest of my life? - and I'm not sure if I can do it for that long because what if I get bored or lazy or just feel too weak so I lock myself to the couch and watch Netflix until my brain melts into the cushions and my my skin hardens like petrified wood, and what then WHAT THEN?, we tend to avoid such a thought. If we keep the image of us practicing out of our head, because of the anxiety it stirs in us, then we will be less likely to practice ever, at all, period, much less _____________. My fear about not "keeping up" with practice causes me to stop myself from imagining practice. I find ways to keep my mind occupied with other stuff so I never have the "time" to practice. And thus the prophecy fulfills itself.
The interesting thing about this example, and others, is what I believe to be the remedy. In a phrase, it might be described as "Do the opposite," as in, do the action that arises from the opposite belief. I will get into this more in Part 2, but for now, let's say: if you're afraid of getting bored, then consciously forbid yourself from practicing too often or for too long. Make it impossible to be bored by always leaving yourself wanting more. Stop during the peak moment of enjoyment, (or just after but that's a slippery slope), never allowing yourself to experience the feeling of "OK great, what's next?" or "Enjoyment Now < Enjoyment 2 minutes ago."
Here is a graph illustrating how too much practice leads us to quit. At the onset, we have an accelerating desire to keep practicing. The line is curving upward. As we approach the peak, we may feel at one with the activity (in Flow), and excited by our power. This is a great feeling, which also always ends. The peak of the curve is about that point, after which there is a rapid downward-acceleration of our desire to keep practicing, and if we push ourselves past that point, we will not want to practice again for a long time. This will fuel our anxiety about Falling Off and will cause us to self-fulfill in a glorious blaze of TV marathons.
This idea of leaving ourselves wanting more is one of those things that people have trouble with. That's partly because we confuse the future with the present: How skilled I am today seems like it represents how skilled I'll be in the future, but it really doesn't, and we forget that.
Leaving ourselves wanting more also goes against much of what we've been taught by our culture. "Push yourself," "Winners never quit," "Life isn't easy," "U-S-A, U-S-A!" These are exactly the types of messages that have made us scared of Falling Off in the first place. When we treat ourselves like machines, forcing ourselves to follow a time-dependent routine (such as 1-hour a day), rather than an energy dependent routine (such as "Practice when I'm excited, and stop while I'm still having fun), it tends to bring out how we are exactly the opposite of machines. That is, when we're forced to do something, we will usually find some way to undermine that force, even (especially) if that force is us.
If the belief that we MUST NOT QUIT (but prolly will) is what's causing us to involuntarily do so ("no time" or "it's boring"), then what happens if we do the opposite of our intuition? Instead of fighting so hard to hold on, what if we step on and step off so quickly that we don't give ourselves a chance to fall?
Warning: This post is not for everyone. Only continue reading if you're willing to stare directly into the parts of yourself that you do not like, even hate, and want to use them to grow. If you are not afraid of your imperfections, if you seek to change them in a sustainable way that doesn't harm yourself or others, I invite you to keep reading. All others will find what I have written below to be a waste of time. If you are already perfect and don't want to change how you think, feel, and act, then stop here.
We want to change things about ourselves. Whether it's our body, personality, or life story, there's who we are and there's who we want to be. Stronger, less fearful, more active, more expressive, less lazy, less picky, more tolerant, more "I got this," less paralyzed, more intelligent, more good looking, more bad ass, basically just different, and on top of that more happy, more authentic, and more alive.
So, great, let's do it.
What's that? You're not Ideal You yet? Still just You You?
Y'know what that means?
Congratulations, you're not a machine. You cannot be upgraded, repaired, returned, or refurbished. You and I are what science calls "Humans."
This means we are complex. Complexity means having many tiny interconnected parts that interact with each other to create what looks like a large whole. The thing is, the large whole only looks like a single thing, when it's actually a million tiny things bumping into each other. To make changes to a complex system, you can't just bend it with your hands.
Think of an ant colony. Let's say I want to get it to move in that direction, away from my back door and kitchen. Well, I can just step on the ants, the little parts, whenever I see them. I can spray an invisible line of toxic chemicals around my door and assume there'll be no unintended side effects. Or I can turn on the hose and just flood my back yard. Any simplistic antagonistic approach will work for a short period of time until the complex intelligence of the ant system overcomes my challenge, and they swarm all over my filthy stove again. Just hypothetically. This is an analogy.
We are more ant colony than we'd like to admit, and the approaches we take to improving ourselves often resemble trampling the parts of us we don't like whenever they show up, shooting chemicals into and at our bodies, and flooding our minds with feelings so intense we can't feel anything else. None of these truly changes us, gets our ants to move, makes us more who we want to be. So what are we missing?
I think it comes down to a misunderstanding. I believe I should be able to control all the tiny parts of me at once. Of course, none of us has this much control, and feeling this can lead to interpreting our situation as having NO control over ANY parts of us. This is the misunderstanding. We can control some parts sometimes. And therein lies the secret to change: control what you can when you can, and don't try to control what you can't when you can't.
The secret is that I don't have to control everything in order to make changes to the complex system I call "I." The more control I pretend to have, or think I "should" have, the less control I end up with. The more I embrace my lack of control over certain parts of me, and learn how to work with them on their terms, the more control I will actually have. This is essentially a corollary of Nassim Taleb's reasoning behind Antifragility. The more fake control we exert in complex situations, the less real control we have.
So back to the question: How in the name of goddamnitall do I get myself to be the me I want to be?
The answer is counter-intuitive. Step by step, the process I propose looks like this: 1) Try something, a new way of thinking or acting (i.e. be New You) for a little while, maybe a day or two. 2) Be as observant as possible about what step 1 feels like. Journal about it or tell a friend about it. 3) When you feel yourself starting to slip: Give yourself room to go back to being 200% Old You. 200%. 5) Trust that swinging back around to 200% Old You is good. You have not lost the war; you are just getting started. 6) As Old You fades in intensity, repeat step 1. Throughout this process, do NOT worry about trying to change yourself in other ways while working on this one. E.g. if you're changing your diet, don't also try to read more books, go out on more dates, or build your business. Slow and steady wins the race. Fast and furious crashes at the first turn.
A little explanation on the backfiring from step 3. Since we're made up of many little parts, when we try to change our whole selves, what's really happening is that some parts want to change, and other parts don't because they like how things are. When we start being New Me, those parts that don't want change will notice the changes and react. "Oh no you don't," is more or less what they'll say. At this point, the parts of us that DO want change will react back. "'Oh no I don't,' oh no you didn't," and then it's a tug of war between Old You and New You, between a gorilla and an animal balloon, respectively. How does an animal balloon get a gorilla to relax? It gives the gorilla room to be 200% gorilla.
Something to keep in mind during gorilla season is that the damage we do to ourselves by relapsing is smaller than the gains we've made by trying out the new changes. This is true of most self-destructive things that feel good. They take time to do damage, so intense but short bouts aren't as bad as long, steady habits. Relapse FEELS worse than it actually is for us, but when we resist the gorilla, it resists back, and that makes it go on for longer.
Many people I've told about this have a hard time with my answer. Give the gorilla what it wants, 200%? Doesn't that mean it'll rule you forever and you'll be lost? Only if you forget that life is long. When the gorilla senses that it's being pulled, it will go nuts; let it. Then it will slowly fade in intensity as it sees it's not fighting against anything. After a few days or a week, you will eventually have another chance to slip into your New You suit again. And then the cycle will repeat, with the gorilla being more intense than normal, and you letting it, and it calming down, and you trying again. The goal, if I'm not mistaken, is to have true freedom, the honest choice to be New You or Old You whenever it's advantageous to do so; to degrade our compulsion.
Many people will not understand what I've just written. This is OK. For those of you who do not believe that this is how personal transformation works, I hope you find a better way that works for you. I can only say that this has worked for me, and it makes sense to me why: I'm complex; I cannot control all parts of me; the parts that don't want me to change will exert influence over me when I try to make them change, hence "backfiring", the period of time after making progress toward New Me when I swing all the way around and become an even more intense version of Old Me.
What I believe more than anything about change is that I need to keep adjusting, to meet change with change, and above all stay open to the fact that I do not have control and that that is truly OK. I can work with that; what I can't work with is fake control, the feeling that I know what will happen, that I know what'll work and what won't work before trying them out, or that I can predict exactly who I'll be tomorrow. These are illusions that stop me from experiencing what's happening right now. They stop me from feeling human. They stop me from seeing future possibilities. New Me doesn't exist yet.
P.S. Here's an example of how I'm currently going through this.
I have had eczema since I was really young. It's bad, and I've rarely if ever met anyone equally afflicted. I have tried many remedies, and the best ones have worked for a while and then stopped working. After reading Antifragile, I was convinced to cut down on sugar, and to try periodic fasting. I'd never fasted before, and I was also at the same time changing my diet. I went for 2 weeks not eating any meat, dairy, sugar, or wheat/rice. AND I fasted twice, each for a day during that time period. My skin was better than it'd been in two years. And after two weeks of that New Me diet, what do you think happened?
One day, after easing off a little, eating at restaurants a couple times, I decided I'd try to fast again. I ate lunch, planning on it being my last meal for the day. When I got home, there was a big bag of cheese popcorn on top of the fridge, and I ate the whole thing. Then I went to a friend's house and ate half a pint of ice cream, several brownies, a few pieces of banana bread, and at 11 pm was about to order a burrito. My girlfriend stopped me, thankfully, as I wasn't capable of making that decision at that point. But the key was that I GAVE it to myself. I gifted the freedom to eat whatever I wanted, knowing full well that my skin would suffer again, because I was convinced that it was the long term right move. The three days after that were similar. I had thoughts of trying to stop myself, but then I had other thoughts of, "It's OK. This is just backfiring. I've made progress already, and this needs to happen now." I gave myself room to be as Old Me as necessary, without judgment. Four days later, I fasted again. I am still figuring out how to create a sustainable action plan. Every step I take provides me with more information, and gets me closer to finding the right path.
I believe that I will be successful if I can tolerate cycling between New Me and Old Me without getting stuck. That's where I'm at right now. This is by far not the last I will write on this topic.
I found myself the other day chopping some mushrooms. I've only recently, past three months or so, started to enjoy cooking, and this is largely due to my new practice of chopping everything first, rather than chop some, throw it in the pan, then rush to cut the rest so nothing burns and I'm eating in ten minutes, or die trying. By changing the order in which I do things, I've reduced the challenge from "Cook it fast" to "Have a good time and notice sensory details." Another way to put it is that I've turned cooking into an opportunity for mindfulness.
Mindfulness can be described in many ways. It's a state of being, a state of not doing, a way of using your attention, a kind of surrender, a skill, a meditation, acceptance of what is. I have more recently come to define it as the act of paying attention to my senses. Doing a kind of scan, "OK, what am I seeing, what am I hearing, how does my body feel?" I find that this is more concrete for me. The definition makes it easier to test whether I'm being mindful or not. I of course don't stay in this state for long, as my mind wanders into the stories behind what I'm sensing. "Oh, that's a tree. Trees are so old." "Oh that's a dog, I wonder what it's thinking." "I want ice cream!" The mind has endless energy to find something else.
One effective way of stopping the mind from being anywhere but here and (anywhen but now) is to participate in what is called Flow. Flow is another state of being, but slightly different from mindfulness. Flow is the experience of total engagement in an activity, with a loss of self consciousness and a distorted sense of time. It often happens when our skill level matches the challenge level of the activity we're doing. People who report experiencing flow more often also report being more satisfied with their lives in general. (I think the two main ways to increase happiness are to address the minute by minute experience and the big picture narrative. Flow is minute by minute, discovering and refining one's life purpose is the big narrative).
The good news is that it's not actually that difficult to create flow experiences. All it takes is: a clear goal, immediate feedback, and (breakable) rules. A few examples. Playing music: the goal is to make nice sounds, the feedback comes from the auditory senses, and the rules are roughly rhythm and melody. Reading: the goal is to process new ideas, the feedback comes from our thoughts, and the rules are grammar. Physical fitness: the goal is to get stronger/thinner/whateverer, the feedback comes from physical sensation in the muscles and joints, and the rules are whatever program one is following. When I was trying to be mindful in cooking, the goal was to enjoy myself, the feedback came from my feelings, and the rules were that I pay attention to how I felt and what I experienced.
The connection between mindfulness and flow, the reason I'm writing this post in the first place, is hard to detect. As far as I can tell, mindfulness can bring flow, and flow can bring mindfulness. Flow isn't always mindful, and mindfulness doesn't always create flow. So basically, they're not the same thing but can be done simultaneously, and also not.
Back to me chopping mushrooms. The other day when I was doing so, I had lapsed into my old state of doing, a rush from cut to cook to realize I forgot to put in oil to "Is it burning yet? It's burning isn't it!" Neither flow nor mindfulness. At this point, I had let some time go by, mid-cook snacking, more time than I had anticipated, and it became clear that I had more mushrooms than seconds to cut them. I started slicing left and right not straight, almost offing my thumb, when I paused. I could feel a familiar tightness of stomach that signaled to me I was Rushing. What happened to enjoying myself and taking in sensory details, bro? "I just DON'T HAVE THE TIME," when another thought entered my awareness. If I was too anxious to be mindful, then maybe I could change the activity. Instead of paying attention to my sensory experience, my new goal became to chop the mushrooms perfectly precisely in the exact amount of time it would take to do that, without letting myself wander into "ooh mushroom so soft" or mindless self-mutilation.
It was in this flexibility, changing the goal of the activity, that I was able to avoid hating myself. I went from, "How could I do this? To ME," to feeling like a Jedi Knight for a couple minutes.
The meal turned out horribly, since I had forgotten to take the chicken out of the fridge in the first place. I had to turn the stove off for a few minutes to wash and cut the chicken before doing that thing where you have to put the chicken under the already cooked vegetables, and it turned into more of a mushy stew than a stir fry.
When you have to make a decision in your life that will affect you emotionally, such as what school to go to, what city to live in, what job to take, what career to pursue, who to date or marry, what to name your child, what to name your pet, or what to name your website (I didn't sleep for 2 days), there are several techniques to make the choice clearer, and I'm going to describe a few that I have found work really well.
But first, an aside. There is a concept called "Stochastic Resonance", which might at first seem totally irrelevant but isn't, according to me. "Stochastic" is a fancy word for random, and resonance is when things that are alike vibrate together. (It's a term I first read in Nassim Taleb's Antifragile, a book that has changed my life for the infinite better.) Stochastic Resonance relates to understanding signals that are buried in noise. Like if you're trying to hear a specific frequency on a radio, and it's a very weak signal, when you add white noise, randomness, you will hear the signal you're looking for more clearly.
This applies to other domains as well, where you're looking for some kind of information in a bunch of other information, and when you inject random information into the whole system, you're more likely to find what you're looking for. Here's an example. If you're looking for a needle in a haystack, rather than combing gently and finely through the mess, it might help to just shine a bright light on the whole pile and start throwing it all up in the air, hoping for the needle to catch the light on its fall back to the floor.
Does it makes sense how this relates to making emotional life decisions? There is a signal, some information you want to have in order to make the right choice, but it's hidden among all the other stuff you want, don't want, regret, crave, have heard is good, used to care about, one day might care about, can't live without, can't put your thumb on, have never tried, have only tried alone, will never admit to having tried, etc. It's hard to determine what exactly is the best choice and the best reason for it. The techniques to follow could be called "Stochastic Emotional Resonance."
First, it's all about the question.
What question is it that we're trying to answer by making this decision? Is it, "How can I make my parents happy?" "How can I enjoy life more?" "Who do I care most about?" "What's wrong with me?" "What will other people think?" "Who cares what other people think?" "Why are other people thinking so much all the damn time?"
Our questions determine what answers we will find. If we're not sure what questions we're really asking, then we won't know why we make the decisions we make. Marilee Adams has created a nice quick tool for asking questions that can clarify what problem we're really looking to solve. It's called the Choice Map. It's an illustration that helps us see the distinction between two types of mindsets we have when solving problems and the questions that create them. Briefly, the Judger Mindset is when we get stuck in judgments and judgmental questions like, "Whose fault is this?" or "What's wrong with me/them?" These reduce our ability to find new solutions by assuming that how the world is now is how it will continue to be in the future. The Learner Mindset, on the other hand, is characterized by open-ended questions which focus on our power to make choices in the moment that can change our future. Learner questions include, "What's possible right now?" "What do I want for myself and others?" and "Who do I choose to be in this moment?" By spit-balling these into our thought processes, we can more clearly detect what we want. We don't even have to come up with concrete answers to the Learner questions. Just by asking them, we ignite exploratory processes in our brains that can bring unconscious solutions to us. The open-endedness and unpredictability (randomness) from the questions leads us to clearer emotional signals.
Of course, you can then make a list of the things you discover and compare the pros and cons of each choice, etc. This will give you some information, but big decisions are usually too complex to truly understand by listing things we consciously know about them. In the end, these decisions are made in our unconscious mind/body, which is a much more powerful processing machine than we can possibly understand. Which brings me to the second technique for injecting useful randomness into the decision making process.
Once we've asked yourself a bunch of Learner questions, many of which we haven't even answered because that's not necessarily the point, we can go for a vigorous walk in town or a run or some kind of exercise that will focus our energy and attention on things totally unrelated to the decision at hand. This can make the aspects of the decision that matter most bubble up to the surface amidst the bumping and pumping sensations we get from physical exertion. The body stores a lot of information within it, much more than we can hold in our conscious minds. When we shake it up the way it wants, it offers us signals in return.
*Bonus* For smaller decisions with two options, you can try flipping a coin with one option heads and the other tails. The experience of having the decision made by fate can sometimes make it clearer which one you want more. I often do this when deciding where to eat. I flip the coin, and if I'm not too excited about the result, I choose the other option. For decisions with 6 options, you can use a 6-sided die like this. You can write down which choices correspond to which numbers and, when you roll it, if you're not happy with the outcome, cross it off the list and repeat until you hit upon the number that you feel good about.
Thank you for reading. If you found this illuminating or refreshing, please share with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or just copy and paste it somewhere on your hard drive.