Getting the most joy out of life: A self-reflection practice

If you prefer to listen, here’s the podcast version of this post on iTunes and Soundcloud

Hi friends, this is a self-examination practice with ways that you can begin to maximize your growth as a human – including a life-ratio check in, like a path-tuning/awareness-inspiring blog. Because I think a lot of us are spending a lot of our lives not fully aware that our range is narrow and predictable. We are automating a lot of life and simply following a popular routine. It’s in part because of all the modern luxuries and social media stimuli that we find ourselves attached to – and how this removes us from a lot of our less desirable emotional experiences. I will talk about culture and how it acts as an organism, and I want you to reflect on your own habits as you read– whether or not you feel inside this organism, on the border, or outside of it. Just take mental notes – and see how it sits with you. It’s not wrong or right, so don’t judge where you fit in these as too much or too little. It’s more about making sure you are choosing according to what you want for your life and its sum– from a conscious and aware place. As usual, there are three parts – the what, why and how: the tools! This one’s dedicated to Rich and Aldana, and Rich – thank you for your donation.

Part 1: The What

Being partly somewhere else, all the time – as opposed to just sitting with yourself as you are, with the boredom, the anxiety, the vulnerability. By that I mean using a phone or clicking instead of interacting – anything that removes you from the place your physical body currently sits and removes you from a fully immersive in-person experience of your life. Avoiding discomfort is what drives most everything we do, in that most of the modern amenities of culture are designed to support us tuning out and soothing. If you think about it – plugging in is really just a way to not be alone with ourselves. Not to be bored, or worse – not to be tortured by thoughts of our own life and whether or not it measures up.

And because we don’t like discomfort, collectively our pastimes take over for the common moments we would have previously suffered: when we’re alone, we can be entertained. When we’re lonely, we can get a confidence boost. When we’re unoccupied in the elevator, we can read about the many important events in our important friend’s lives. Convenience is really just another word for enabling – we grow addicted to the input because it helps us avoid feeling vulnerable or tired or not important – think about online shopping, online tabloids, texting, twitter, Facebook, Tinder. All of this stimuli is a way to be something other than just where you are – it’s like ego food in that it engages the thinking brain – when it should be quiet, now it is still solving and quantifying. Which is part of the reason it makes us less happy, in the long term.

The soothing habit is an unconscious one – it’s like a kneejerk reaction to a lull in distraction, because to be always connected to something means you’re not alone, you’re not one place – and therefore you’re not vulnerable to all those present in your thinking body with silence kind of thoughts.

I want you to take a brief sec and just mentally go there now. Imagine yourself without a phone. Just you sitting on a bench on a street full of people walking by, and you don’t have any props. Not even a book. What does that feel like? Pretty uncomfortable right? In my mind I start to play with a button or examine my nails. Anything at all to show I’m not all here – I’m somewhere else. All the engaging with another virtual space is like putting on a shell complete with a pacifier. It’s a soothing mechanism that keeps us protected from the full gravity of our full present experience – because, well just like your bench told you: the present experience can make you feel unsure. It can feel like not enough. It can make you feel the impact of everything around you. In short, it requires you participate in ways that make you feel less protected and less numb to the outside world.

All the modern accoutrements designed by present day culture remove our connection to pain and keep us more stuck in thoughts. Machine-mode apps give endless streams of stimuli, similar to slot machines that dole out ego-boosts. Pings report news about celebs, friends, and likes to our posts – more ego-boosts. Chat apps put your solar system into your brain at all times. You can read every book twice as fast, or access limitless podcast content at all times, even while you watch something else. Platforms like Netflix give you every show and film so you can watch anything and any show, all the way through. Amazon lets you shop for anything with one click, without a second thought or an interaction with a human. Meds like Adderall and Xanax allow you to keep working and stop worrying. By using these amazing innovations, we avoid having patience, fatigue, anxiety, mental slowness, loneliness, boredom, insecurity, silence, emotional vulnerability, and appearance of weakness. All of this sounds like it’s a good thing – and in the moment, it likely feels like a good thing. Like an ice pack on a burn. It doesn’t make that discomfort go away, but it gives us something to do in the face of it. It’s a cultural move! We are all doing it. BUT HERE’S THE CATCH. 99% of us are doing it out of habit and without understanding how it’s distorting us. It’s a choice that’s unconscious, made out of convenience – and eventually simple routine. And why not, right? It’s fun to watch the same shows everyone else is watching and talk about them with everyone you meet at a party. There’s no apparent reason to stop.

I am not suggesting these are bad things that should not exist. Technology that connects us to others and convenience enhancing services are great things, and they all serve their purpose. What I invite you to examine is the trade off you are getting in your own life and whether or not it’s aligned with your true goals. Most don’t think of their social media use as a soothing mechanism: it’s just part of life the way everyone lives it. To stop participating seems antisocial, like you’re going to fall out of favor with society. Because to stop checking in and replying right away is somehow like unplugging from the world, right? My argument is no, it’s not – and in reality, very little changes when you create boundaries around technology. Even though it feels like you’re more connected, you’re less connected to your own experience of life.

Living via technology is like a projection of life – like watching a movie of dolphins instead of swimming with them. And here’s why that’s important: the depth of your engagement is vastly different when you are physically somewhere and when you are not. The sensory input that comes from sound, smell, and physical touch is a deeper and more powerful interaction. Imagine right now – someone you really like standing right in front of you. Now imagine that same person, but via FaceTime. These are two very disparate experiences. So when it comes to the superficial experiences becoming a majority of your time spent in a day, the difference comes down to your range of felt emotions. The depth of your experiences narrows, and with that – your life’s depth.  At the end of this life, you are but a ratio. You can translate your day today – where you spend it, how deep you go with it, into an overall ratio at the end of your lifetime. I want you to think about that right now: if not today, then yesterday. How does this ratio sit with you? Are you really getting to the meaty parts of yourself, as a human? Do you want to expand that range? Ask yourself, how much of my life did I choose to live and how much did I spend plugged into something else?

Part 2: The Why

A lot of the participation in unconscious cultural habits is biological – which is why I would relate digitally connected groups to an organism: when we are connected to others, we act as one. That’s because we are social beings and biologically, it’s encoded into our DNA to follow the group. At one point in time, our survival relied heavily on fitting into the group. For example, if someone is charismatic, we will more likely follow their beliefs and disregard our own knowledge. This is why cult leaders are all charismatic. We will also, by nature be more inclined to believe authority figures even if our own knowledge conflicts. Authority figures meaning anyone with perceived status – including government officials, celebrities, or anyone well-exposed in media. So without the influence of others, you would likely not use much of the media you currently consume. It’s a way to be a part of the collective organism and when you’re outside it, it feels like you’re disconnecting from “the right way to be social.”

So why would we choose to be more “in our bodies” and experience all the day-to-day pain? Is there any real benefit? What if you like your ego? Why would you want to be bored, vulnerable, reflective, or live without the numbing agents? Here’s the thing about experiences– when you feel them, you grow as a result of them. They change you and give you more capacities, moving forward. Pain and stress and conflict is how we grow. It is quite literally – the way we widen our scope as humans. To stay distracted throughout life makes you more shallow, like selective feeling or partial color blindness. And the lack of investment in how you feel means a lack of feedback about your own understanding of the world – and that understanding is vital to knowing who you are.  It’s like taking a walk somewhere and seeing it vs. deciding you don’t want to stray from your front yard. The former gives you new understanding of a part of the world you didn’t know existed before and your map gets wider. The next time, you will not only know where you’re going, you’ll be confident about it and can explore a bit further. Every time you go through a real experience with your mind squarely inside your body, you get stronger, happier, deeper. You can understand more about yourself and the world. You evolve in all directions. I mean you get smarter, more compassionate, and super powered! Like an enhanced version of you.

In contrast, when you avoid pain or try to resist and control your exposure to it, the hurt gets worse. When you hide from discomfort and try to ignore and numb it, it festers and grows more powerful in our fear of it– and over time, the sensitivity to it becomes a false truth that retards your growth and evolution overall. It’s the not-looking-at-it that makes that spot softer and that muscle never develops. And just like a muscle, areas of our self can also weaken without use – it creates a habit in that it catalyzes more of the same style of coping. Like becoming more and more fragile or less and less, you. And in the act of resisting, we create more pain – this is truly where the majority of the pain comes from. The fear and the lack of control. When we remove the internal dialogue around something, it’s not nearly as bad in our experience. Kind of like the the moment right before you get your ears pieced: the anticipation is the hard part, then afterwards you’re like, whatevs.

And this is not to say all pain is in this bucket. I know that some pain is too overwhelming and it feels life-threatening: when you feel so fragile that anything could shatter you or so in agony that you’d rather be in severe physical pain. It’s like sitting in a fire. In these situations, sometimes assistance like medication or therapy is necessary. And it’s not a copout – it’s you knowing yourself and trusting yourself enough to take the right steps. If that sounds like you, don’t second guess your mental health and definitely see a doctor.  Regardless of whether or not you require help to manage pain, know that everything passes. And though it feels really terrible, it doesn’t kill you. You move through it. And then the next time, it hurts the tiniest bit less and you’re a little bit more experienced in handling it. And the next time, a little less than that. Whether or not you can see it with your own eyes, you are always changing and growing. It takes great distance to have enough perspective on your life, so trust that change is inevitable when you move through difficult times.

Even if you’re a self-aware person, you cannot see much of what is going on inside yourself – including what truly motivates your decisions. That is because your survival mechanisms are so deeply engrained, you won’t be able to identify when fear is the underlying motivator. However – you can take apart your habits by examining your behavior and this is how you ultimately change. Once you step outside the inner sphere of emotions, you can take a highlighter to your behaviors and begin to understand how they work. It is like a manual workaround that you can apply that allows you to consciously decide what guides your life’s path. It starts when you realize you have a choice to make, at all. Which brings me to…

Part 3: The Tools

Tool 1: Convert Pain Into Growth

Most of the pain we feel comes from two things: grasping and fixating. The solution in that moment will come from recognizing that in yourself – what I call, “circling it,” and then spotting the underlying emotion that is motivating it. This is also when you can see that it’s a basic and childlike emotion that is understandable and something you can soothe. You can also be compassionate for yourself instead of suffering in the mental obsession. When we grasp or fixate, we create anxiety, but when we can see the true emotion, it becomes simpler and less powerful.

Just by enacting this exercise you will have slowed down the reaction process enough that you can change how you proceed. And further, you can change the pain into something that grows you. How? By changing your habituated reaction to anything different than you normally do.

So in the moment you’re finding yourself really upset about something – grab a journal and convert it into growth! Here are the questions I want to you answer:

Journal Exercise:

Look for two things: grasping and fixation. Ask yourself, am I clinging to something?

Am I fixating on something?

Describe the feeling in your body. What part of your body is the feeling coming from? What does it feel like? Is it tightness or heaviness?

Does it remind you of an emotion you’ve felt before? If so, what does it resemble?

What is your habituated reaction to this feeling – meaning, what do you want to do right now?

What can you choose to do that’s different? (Choose ANY kind of action that’s new.) For example, what would be an opposite response?

Last, choose to enact one of your new responses instead of doing what you normally do.

Tool 2: Mantra: Don’t Get Morbid

If you’re a Type-A person, you’re likely an over-reactor. I say that with love – I’m like you, too. It’s how you have stayed prepared for danger in the past and it’s also why you are good at what you do, now. But when it comes to your perception, it can cause you unnecessary harm. We all create beliefs and expectations to keep us operating safely: If this, then that. However, these beliefs are not truths, they are judgments and attempts to create order in the world – and we are truly the ones who make them more solid by imagining them. The expectations are what hurt us more than actual events.

Those who have a desire to control, tend to make things more major and dire – by default. We perceive things to be worse and more immovable then they really are. So a mantra to use when you’re in the moment of dread or worry about something to come is “Don’t get morbid.”  Remind yourself that everything is much more okay and fluid and flexible than you are making it in your mind. Maybe there’s nothing wrong, at all and everything is very right.

We anticipate the worst and then we experience it in our minds. It’s an overreaction to things that don’t exist – but we think we know better and that it makes us better prepared. Don’t get morbid – relax, step back and recognize you’re making it into something it’s not.

There’s a Buddhist quote that says, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the experts there are few.” And that’s because you slowly grow to believe you have control – that you know all, but that’s just a false perception. Maybe this is just another day that just is – like an animal killing another animal in the wild: it’s not good or bad, it’s life. Don’t lump any additional pain on top of that thing – remember, not everything has to mean something.

Tool 3: Hack Your Self-Lens (For Feelings of Intolerance for Yourself and Others)

This one’s for Rich!

How we relate to ourselves is shaped by how we coped, growing up. In part by what our parents told us was good and bad about us, with their responses to us. So if we blame ourselves or judge ourselves harshly or we do that to others, this is in part a method of control. An attempt to protect ourselves in the face of extreme vulnerability.

It all comes down to self-acceptance and compassion. If we did not learn to have compassion and acceptance for parts of ourselves and our feelings, we will learn to reject them – in ourselves and in the world. So if a parent was incapable of supporting you in the face of confusing or scary feelings, a child “manages” them by creating some kind of logic and rules.

It’s how we self-protect: we create some order – like rules and laws that we can point to. And this gives us a buffer: a logic to empower us to arrange things, that stays removed from the intense vulnerable spot. To blame is to assign fault and rules; to blame is to create the order. We strengthen our beliefs with logic and rationalizations: this further makes it separate from us and therefore much more manageable. It’s how we solidify and ground ourselves: we say that is wrong, that is right, this is why. It’s a way to make the extreme discomfort more manageable – a way of denying it. We create terms for ourselves so we can feel stable – where things make sense, where things are familiar, where we’re in the know and in control.

It might seem backwards to believe that anyone would prefer to feel blame even though it hurts – but the truth is, pain is much more manageable when it’s in your control. When we are right, we feel good and when we are wrong, we feel threatened and attacked. It’s a part of the survival mechanisms of our ego: we crave predictability and control. This is why we choose to be right rather than feel vulnerable.

When we blame ourselves or others or feel intolerance, it’s actually coming from the discomfort of extreme vulnerability. It’s not about what it’s about. Our labels for the pain are all made up.

When it hurts us the most is when we’re holding tight to a belief and refusing to let go: shutting down to the truth and retracting from what offers relief. Because life exists in the same way regardless of how we interpret it. Things can be seen in a thousand different ways – but when we try to create the rules, we shut down our access to what is outside us. We cannot relieve ourselves of the hurt when we refuse to look at what is causing it.

The good news is we can change how we feel in those moments: we can loosen our framework in the simple act of remembering we have a choice. It’s just noticing we are in the state of blame or self-intolerance and backing up far enough to recognize that we are grasping for security. We are holding onto a belief that separates us from possible solutions. Softening gives us access to real understanding and with that, relief and change. So if you are suffering from self-blame or harshly judging yourself, here is a journal exercise to use in that moment:

Journal Exercise

What are you blaming right now? What are you intolerant to – in yourself or something other?

What is the underlying feeling – beneath that title / explanation? Get super micro about how that feels. Where is it inside your body and what is the texture of that feeling?

What’s the underlying emotional ingredient? Can you circle the most potent and simple emotion at the bottom layer of that feeling? Spell out what that emotion comes from – what belief has created it?

Can you feel compassion and understand that emotion in yourself? Does that emotion seem logical?

Choose to accept it as it is and now write out some possible new responses you could have to this feeling that would replace your habituated reaction. It can be anything at all – as long as it’s new. Write at least 3 possible options and choose one of them.

In closing…

I want to thank my monthly sponsors – I have to give a shout out to Rich. Thank you so very much!

When you face up to things that make you feel awkward and instead examine them – when you look deeper into what is happening inside you, you can change your reaction. This is when we can undo our looped responses – when we try to fix things, fight with things, obsess about them for hours and weeks. This is when we can create a better life for ourselves and let things go.

To know thyself is truly the greatest gift you could ever get – it’s like a warm blanket of comfort that makes you feel grounded wherever you are. It’s where meaning deepens as does your enjoyment of your life. There’s a Buddhist monk who said, “Do everything as if it were the only thing that mattered, all the while knowing that it doesn’t matter at all.” It sounds contradictory, but it really means is get the most out of now and don’t let attachment rob you of the enjoyment of the experience.  What this approach is all about is cultivating an ability to stay floating atop the waves, not get swept down by them or waste years swimming away from them – all the while, missing the sunset. So think of this as an Emotional Floaties approach to life. It means you’re able to move through your experiences on top– with less suffering and experience greater joys.

“Real” in-person, non-distracted experiences give you greater depth and identity. If you made a choice based on the total sum of life and its worth, I think you would choose the bigger, brighter, deeper, more eventful approach to all of it. But I’ll invite you to ask yourself right now: Do you want the greatest joys if they come with suffering? Or would you choose the shallow middle that doesn’t change much at all? If you chose B, then I’ll also ask you – what’s the point? Isn’t it all just one long binge-watch of a show called “life”? I say, go for the rich life – because that’s where everything tastes better, the sun is brighter, and life in its totality expands beyond what you knew was possible.

Reading list:

Critical Thinking

When Things Fall Apart