I welcome you warmly to my second blog entry.
Two days ago, I blogged about change and a reader suggested that I should write another article on this topic; I thought this was a great idea! What I didn’t initially know was that: the more I think about change and ways to deal with it the more complex and diffuse my thoughts would become; it quickly turned into a very existential questioning process. Now I’m reconstructing my thoughts and bringing it all together. The result might serve as an approach of self-discovery.
Without a destination, there’s no favorable wind.
I remember I was hardly bored when I was a kid. There was always something mystical waiting to be tried or figured out. I never ran out of adventurous ideas; I also never ran out of motivation. If there was anything I ran out of, it was energy – until the next day after a good night of sleep! I believe this applies to most people. Do you remember how great it felt to explore the woods with grandpa for the very first time? Or that trip to this awesome adventure playground? I do remember and these memories are surely among my best ones! Fast forward.
How is it now? Are we still feeling that magic? At this stage, most of us take each day as it comes; we have a job, carry out our duty kinda half-heartedly and live each day with a general lack of motivation accompanied by that dizzy feeling of slight disorientation; I had lived my life in this state of half-sleep for many years.
Many people, including myself, pursue a career, take degree courses, climb up the greasy pole. Here a little certificate; there a little promotion. A few lucky ones even happen to like what they do for a living. Altogether, it doesn’t sound too bad, right? In fact, our standard of living and our new level of security are higher than ever before.
What has changed since our childhood? How come we now live unfulfilling lives despite the presence of our awesome professional and educational long-term goals? Are these even our goals or are these just our ideas of what our society expects us do do? Did the richness of safety possibly come at the cost of the richness of ideas and the burning inner fire? Is our “adult attitude” maybe the problem? Is that aforementioned exchange irreversible? I’m certain it is reversible, and I’m also sure that the reversal of this mind-set is key to reanimating our adventurous spirit and finding true life fulfillment.
The meaningful ideas and desires that are worth pursuing and capable of igniting our bones are not to be searched-for; they are already there waiting to be perceived. They are hidden; trapped behind bars and walls that are made of mortar of fear and anxiety. Right now, your topmost desires are rotting in the abysmal prison of your subconscious.
Now who is that awful turnkey?
Well, it’s you. Your mind is both the constructor and the guard of the cell holding your big ideas captive. Of course, you wouldn’t do that consciously. Why would anyone do this anyway? Your subconscious does this for you with great pleasure, because big ideas induce change and change is uncertain and uncertainty is uncomfortable. As so often in life, the problem originates from your experiences during your socialization over the years of growing up. Values and beliefs are, in fact, as contagious as a virus. Nowadays, a “normal” (What’s normal again?) Western citizen quickly adopts a painstaking and ridiculous safety culture; every risk of every venture must be eliminated in advance; an endeavor mustn’t be uncomfortable at any point; everything must be perfectly planned.
We litereally tend to slip into a state of analysis paralysis before we actually make the first step, and we tend to stay in this state until it’s either too late or we come to the conclusion that it’s too risky, and then we ditch the idea. This examplary change-inducing idea could stand for anything (business ideas, holiday plans, doing exercises,…). The fear of loss just trumped the desire to gain. How pitiful. So what has been happening since our childhood is literally a gradual weighting shift from one end of the spectrum (desire to gain) to the other extremum (fear of loss).
What could be the reason for this shift?
From my point of view, the reason lies in a synergistic interplay between multiple factors (duh.), most prominently our tendency to choose the path of least resistance and the way we process negative experiences and thoughts. I’m really not a fan of Freudian psychology, but there is something about his theory of defense mechanisms which is hard to deny.
We often tend to simply block out negative thoughts and push them deeply into the abyss of our subconscious; it’s just the way of least resistance; there’s no more comfortable way to cope with something inconvenient, and to get rid of a cognitive dissonance – at least temporarily.
By “negative thoughts” I mean everything that doesn’t match with our self- and worldview, our ideas and theories of how the world is supposed to be and work; everything that doesn’t quite fit into our stencil of what reality means such as uncomfortable “truths” (I really dislike that word, because it implies objectivity. I believe there’s no such thing as objectivity; more on that topic in a future entry.) like “We are going to die anyway.”, negative mindsets and beliefs á la “I’m not good enough.” or “I’m a loser.”, memories of traumatic experiences such as accidents or being a victim of crime, inconvenient current affairs like an existential crisis or financial problems or angst-inducing future problems that you are already capable of anticipating.
Now why did I italicise the word temporarily? Well, this is where the trouble begins. Of course, this mechanism is by no means a perfect solution. It’s flawed, very flawed in the long run. All of these thoughts and fears do not magically disappear, if you just block them out, but rather keep lurking at the bottom of said abyss, out of your range of awareness, constantly ready to wreck havoc. This mechanism only works until a) the suppressed anticipation becomes your reality making it impossible to ignore it any longer or b) you reached your individual capacity of cognitions you can suppress at any point of time.
Please, imagine a sweet little town next to a reservoir dam; now imagine how the levee breaks. Quite destructive imagination, isn’t it? So suppressed fears only remain unproblematic until something triggers and elevates them to your consciousness.
What is that “something” and how is it connected with your deep desires?
To say it in George Addair’s words:
Cutting it short: your deepest wishes are often that little “something”. That one thing which is always between you and your object of desire is the fear of loss, discomfort and failure; it interferes with your decision-making process resulting in you shying away from your goal. (Again!) Your fears become an insuperable hurdle; the walls of the cell burying all of your wishes alive.
Once bitten, twice shy.
Fears are by no means “evil”. They are actually supposed to be a guidance, holding us back from what’s bad for us – grounded on our instincts and the experience of real regularities. Therefore many fears are totally valid and also vital for life, e.g., avoiding an approaching car or being highly alert upon noticing some rustling behind you. Without these automatized mechanisms and their analogous mode of action we could hardly survive. This is literally the basis of our common sense.
However, sadly there are just as many irrational fears fueled by social and medial influences, cognitive bias and faulty reasoning: alleged beauty/fitness/educational/professional standards lead to surreal expectations towards the world and yourself; they create self-doubts and destructive beliefs á la “I can’t do this!” or “I’m not good/beautiful/smart/fit/successful enough!”. These fears prevent us from exploiting our full potential by blighting every single idea and desire the moment it arises.
A silver lining on the horizon
Alright, is there a quick fix to this problem? Is there an exit to that vicious circle of negative mindsets? The good news: there is a solution; the bad news: it’s neither quick nor easy. It is, in fact, among the toughest challenges you’ll ever face in your life, but it’s also among the most important ones. What’s the alternative anyway? Yielding to fear and doubt until you die of apathy!? No, thanks. There is something true about Nietzsche’s words: “The worst enemy you can meet will always be yourself.”. In order to break free, you have to break these mental barriers of yours down; you gotta liberate your ideas by utterly crushing that mortar made of fear.
Breaking the levee
How do you dive into the unconscious depths of mind in order to unhide the hidden? The trick is you neither dive anywhere nor unhide anything. Remember: your mind is still that dickish turnkey! Instead, you put the cart before the horse. What you want to do is let the hidden unveil itself. Adhering to the prison analogy, you want to induce a jailbreak. No worries, your incarcerated desires will be fantastic accomplices. They will do the hardest part of the work themselves, because there is nothing they want more than getting out of there.
Your job couldn’t be simpler. You just have to distract the turnkey alias yourself. For that to happen, you gotta draw your mind’s attention from introspection right to the present situation. For example, you could focus on your breathing. By focussing I mean acknowledging your breath, not thinking about it or even assessing it like “Uuuuh. Sometimes I breathe louder than usual.”. After a moment of doing this, the magic begins to happen: while your conscious mind is distracted, your suppressed thoughts seize the opportunity to come up. Peu à peu; one thought after another.
Now you gotta be very careful. Your mind will, of course, immediately try to catch the break-aways and comfort you with the usual rationalizations, e.g. “You can’t do this anyway!”, “It doesn’t matter!”, “It’s not worth it!”, “It’s too late!” and so on! Do not let this happen; you have to stay highly focussed on the present situation! The idea is to let these thoughts just pop up; do not chase them for now. Let them appear, acknowledge them and then let them go again. The same counts for every following thought. Always fight to keep your focus on the present. It’s tough, but this is your job during this release operation after all!
Your most fundamental beliefs and hopes constitute a large portion of the emerging thoughts; you might even be surprised by some of them as they possibly never have reached your consciousness before. If you feel like that’s it and there are no further thoughts to arise, you should grab a notebook and a pen ASAP and write down as much as you can remember (human memory sucks!). By doing this you literally create a list featuring the most meaningful objects you crave in life and also your biggest fears that have been setting bounds to you for way too long.
Repeat these sessions on a regular basis, weekly or even daily; make a habit of it, the most important one. By the way, congratulations! Now you know the most basic concept of mindful meditation and one of its many purposes. No esoterism, no cross-legged sitting, no Indian music and no hocus-pocus needed; just mindfulness and focus.
Clearing up the mess
Obviously this is not the end of the story. Depending on the dimensions of the flood of your emerging thoughts, that whole process might leave you quite dispersed and overwhelmed. Frankly speaking, the meditation was still the easiest part. What follows is where it’s at and also the reason why these thoughts were suppressed in the first place: the necessity of confrontation.
Now you have to do the really dirty job; you have to face up to your fears, expose them as irrational and conquer them. You have to gain the experience that things do not tend to turn out as negative as you expect; that you are stronger than any of these fears lying between you and your object of desire. Expect many adrenaline and dopamine rushes while you’re at it; some people even get addicted to this.
Remember Earhart’s words: “The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity!”. I also strongly believe Newton’s inertia law also applies to human motivation!
A Tale of A Spoilt Brat
Let me tell you a little anecdote about the first time my levee broke apart. I grew up in the cozy, safe bosom of my family and never really had to get my hands dirty as a kid or youth. Like most youths, I spent my afternoons at sports clubs or in my room in front of entertainment electronics. One of these days, my 4 year old niece came into my room and begged me to go hiking with her; it was her birthday wish. The weather was fantastic. Of course, vain John said no; I considered myself too good for such a plebeian endeavor. Pfft.
However, when it came to my knowledge that she weeped bitterly throughout her entire birthday, I reflected a lot about my behavior and even more about my general comfort-seeking and passive attitude. I realized how I was always comforting myself with excuses and holding myself back from exploring the world. I was literally trapped in inactivity. Whenever I took a look in the mirror, all I saw was a master of self-deception; a safety and comfort-fetishist. Eventually the cognitive dissonance became unbearable and some switch flipped; I made a decision which I would never have dreamed of before.
At the age of 18, right during schooltime, I spontaneously decided to sell my laptop, TV and gaming console in order to afford a round trip to Matrei, East Tyrol, some mountaineering equipment, a night stop and enough groceries for two days; I suddenly felt the urge to go mountain climbing on my own!
This imprinting experience definitely deserves its own entry! What I want to add now is that since then I haven’t redeveloped the habit of watching TV or playing computer games; instead I have been spending a lot of time in the wild and I also take my nephew and my niece into the nature on a regular basis.
Putting it all together
Not until you faced up to and conquered your fears, you are able to meet your true desires successively! Not until you left behind your own cell built of mortar of fear, you are able to be free and really enjoy the sweet nectar of life to the fullest.
Now is the right time to grab your writing utensils, adjourn to a silent place, adopt a comfortable and calm position, close your eyes, draw your attention to your breath in the present moment and let your thoughts freely flow with the streaming quality of a river.
What do you perceive? How do you feel? Which unfulfilled dreams come up? Which fears show up? How do these things interrelate? What are you going to do?
If you absolutely do not feel like meditating, you could alternatively jot down your dreams in a dream journal and analyze them, as your dreams are also constituted of your deepest desires, fears and ideas for the most part. This is a habit which I firmly believe in, since it provides me with valuable self-awareness and genuine insights which serve as an indispensable guideline for my long-term orientation.
Feel free to share your insights, experiences and also your feedback in the comment section. By the way, the description above is far from an encompassing explanation of meditation; if you want to educate yourself further, you can start for example with this wikiHow article: http://www.wikihow.com/Meditate-Without-a-Master.
Take care, friendos.