Getting Unstuck

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“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

When I was 12, I learned how to sail at a YMCA camp on the Chesapeake Bay. We learned in these little boats called Sunfish designed for 1 or 2 people. After a week or so, I took a boat out for the first time without a counselor. It didn’t go that well.

It was a windy day and the water was a bit choppy. About 10 minutes into the short trip, I stopped moving. What happened was that the boat was caught “in irons.” This means the boat was headed into the wind, the sail was not catching any air, and the water stopped flowing over the rudder making steering impossible. Two options are available in this situation: wait for the wind to change direction, or push the sail and the rudder perpendicular to the wind.

The previous week I watched someone get popped in the head by a sail swinging across the boat. This is called tacking or coming about. So I did what any emotionally compromised kid with lack of confidence might do: nothing. Then I started to complain about being stuck as if the boat and the wind would apologize for hurting my feelings. I expected my experience to change just because I desired change. But I was unwilling to try something to change it. Eventually an instructor in a motorboat pulled up and hopped in my boat. He pushed the sail and the rudder, caught that magnificent breeze, and we flew across the water.

What I needed to learn that day, but wouldn’t apply it until decades later, was that nothing in my experience of life will change unless I do something different. I can’t feel or think my way into a different life in any way that is something more authentic than a really lucid delusion. I need to act differently in order to have a different life. The alternative is to be stuck, waiting for things to change all the while building a resentment that they are staying the same.

If we want things in life, we need to solve problems and do things in order to get them. Some methods work better than others. If we could each do one thing differently than the day before in order to change one aspect of our lives we want to improve, change is absolutely inevitable. If it doesn’t work, do something else. The one way to be stuck and stay stuck is to do nothing. A belief that the wind will catch your sail won’t get you moving. But moving the sail yourself will.

Sickness and the School

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I set out to write a post every day this year. Then I got a nasty flu bug. For a couple of weeks I have been foggy, tired, and unwilling to probe my mind for an idea worth writing about. That’s because whatever resources I might normally use to think and write have been sucked up by resting and exhaustion. As a result, I’ve missed a few weeks already.

If there is one theme on my mind these days it is what it looks like if I understand the primary function of my body and brain as survival. How I learn, love, and relate to others is rooted in my primary instinct to survive in this world. If sickness does anything, it sends one’s focus inward. I become less observant and less aware of the things around me. This is partially out of a conscious choice. I need to do things like rest to get my body well. But I also think it is more of an automatic defense mechanism that sets in motion. When I’m sick, I’m less aware of the world outside of my body.

The self as an idea our brains create as part of the most complex set of mechanisms that work for the survival of an animal species becomes most clear when the human system is in danger. Whether it’s a flu, a home invader, losing a job, or breaking up with a lover, the shift of focus inward is both automatic and sudden. Maslow understood this in his famous hierarchy of needs.

If we are considering learning, until we meet the basic survival needs of a student, we cannot expect much in the way of mastery of much of anything. The same goes for the general health and progress of a society. We cannot expect hungry and insecure people to make much progress because all of their resources are being used to see that they will simply stay alive. If we are to make progress as a society, we must feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and heal the sick. To expect more out of people such as these is to demand that they go against their nature which is an affordance the privileged never have to imagine in their lives.

Gravity and Death

Gravity is one of the most mysterious phenomena in the universe, and yet we know so much about it. Things are held to the surface of the earth not because of a force, but because the earth is much bigger than the stuff on it. Objects warp the space they are in and objects travel along the curves of that space towards the center of the bigger object. It’s like putting a marble in a funnel or what happens if a much larger person sits next to you on a mattress. The point is that our very presence as physical objects warps the space around us.

We all bend space and time physically and psychically in very tangible and literal ways. Our interactions with others warp their lives in both positive and negative ways. Love, anger, joy – these experiences with each other change our approach to the world and some people like David Bowie, Mother Theresa, or even Donald Trump seem to take up more space and maintain a stronger pull of this gravity around them. So when they die, the space left behind seems to be bigger.

When we die, we create a hole in space and time. Those ripples we have created in the experience of others and in the artifacts of our lives still exist. But the object people expect at the source of all of that stuff is no longer there. What’s left is the outline of a presence, a ghost, and that’s frightening. Often the strength of the relationship we have with that missing person determines the size of the hole in our lives.

I hold the idea that we do not exist in any form other than these ripples, artifacts, and memories after we die. I used to hold on to the idea of an eternal soul, but noy any more. There is no soul that meets God who will judge its fitness for a heavenly realm. We won’t meet past relatives, rock stars, and pets. After we die, we aren’t asleep, we won’t dream, and will never wake up.

Instead, we persist only as these waves dancing through space and time in the memories of others. I used to find this idea terrifying, empty, and horribly depressing. If I am not fundamentally a soul seeking its source in God, what purpose is there for living? But I failed to ask the question, Why do I need an ultimate purpose to be happy?

This isn’t to say I don’t have purposes. I have important functions in the world to my kids, my partner, parents, siblings, job, service, and even my dog. These are all relationships and roles I keep because they make me happy and I think I can help them be happier too. After all, for Epicurus, happiness was rooted in the pursuit of virtue and love through friendship.

Over the past year I have learned to live without a soul or an ultimate purpose. In the process I’ve realized just how important living is. What I do here and now determines the kind of ripples through space and time I will leave behind after I die. Will I contribute to the happiness of those I encounter, or will I participate in their suffering. Every choice I make is pregnant with the binary of happiness or suffering. Life has distilled into this one algorithm. It’s simple, but it’s not easy. It has given me the clearest way to determine my own happiness, and it works.

Lower Your Expectations, Increase Your Serenity

the moment you expect something its business not love

Lowering your expectations sounds like giving up. Expecting to achieve a certain level of competence in something or expecting someone to accomplish goals or responsibilities seems reasonable enough. The problem is when we have expectations of achievements or of others and we don’t communicate what the goals are, create a plan for how to reach them, or don’t have the consent of the parties involved. This problem intensifies when our own sense of usefulness or self-worth is fused with what we expect others to accomplish or be.

Collaborative expectations are the expression of goals to which more than one person has consented. Effective leaders who value worker satisfaction around a strong team-based environment are most suited to this approach. Feedback from all parties involved is continuous and cyclical in order that objectives and processes are clearly communicated and understood.

Peremptory expectations are essentially commands that pressure behaviors to accomplish objectives often combined with punishment and reward. Hierarchies that require a strict chain of command will operate most effectively here. Feedback that people know how to perform objectives in order to meet their expected goals is essential lest they misunderstand what they should be doing and fail to achieve goals because of lapses in communication.

Passive expectations are achievements or states desired of others where they are unaware of what’s going on. These are relationship killers. Without clear communication of desires and of outcomes, the image of how people should ideally behave around us will never resolve with how things actually are in the present moment. People will always fail us and we will resent everyone because we haven’t given people the opportunity to succeed.

The first step to managing our relationships with others is an honest evaluation of from where our expectations are coming and if what we expect from others is a good fit for the kind of relationship we have or want with them. If we are not on the same page with others and there is a mismatch of the kind of expectations we have for each other, problems will emerge.

The next step is the truth about all expectations we have of others: we cannot control people no matter how much we want to. I may have the idea that I ought to be able to control my kids, but the reality is that I cannot. With kids there is a time for peremptory expectations and the consequences and rewards that come with them. I might need to take a phone away if I catch them in a lie or might throw in a set of Pokemon cards for a job well done during a grade marking period. Most of the time I want them to make their own decisions and work with me on shared goals and expectations that they can own. I would rather us be more collaborative. What I try to avoid is a set of expectations based on an ideal picture I have of them that I fail to communicate. That sets them up for failure and I want to set them up for success. Moreover, if I base my self-worth or usefulness in their achievements, I now only set myself up for failure, I will stymie their growth in the process. My self-worth is my responsibility, their self-worth is theirs. Confusing this muddies the waters and creates problems where there should not be any.

Finally, no matter what, I cannot be so set on an ideal picture I have of others that no matter what I do to establish an expectation, they will fail. People cannot meet an ideal standard for the simple reason that they are not literally inside of our minds. The best they can do is come close to that picture. But if they do not meet that picture, the worst thing that any of us can do is resent them for it. It’s important to lower or change our expectations of others in order to give them the freedom to flourish on their own and to value the path they choose. Learning to adapt and change the image we have of others helps us to stay in the present, avoid resentment, and nourish the relationships we have.

Why “No Self” Makes Sense

Angel gets a soul.

With a soul, Angel is good. Without a soul, he is evil.

Descartes is most famous for rooting modern thought in doubt.* He knew on an intuitive level that the default position of thinking is belief. We tend to believe what we experience is true before we have any good reasons for those beliefs. As Michael Shermer argues, much of this happens in the inner workings of the brain and is in service to the brain’s primary function: keeping us alive. For example, if I see bushes rustling around and I fear a bear might jump out kill me so I take shelter, there’s no harm in that even if there’s no bear at all. I might hurt my pride and feel a little foolish, but I can move on with my day unharmed. But that same fear might save my life if there truly is a bear looking for some easy lunch.

Belief by default also applies to who or what we believe we are. I can perceive my body. I can see myself in a reflection, I can see other bodies and objects outside of my own, and my senses tell me that there are things in the world that are outside of whatever it is that is doing the thinking. But what I can’t see is the inner workings of my brain that is doing all of the thinking and interpreting of what comes through my senses. It only feels like there is something inside of my body that is separate from my body. That separate thing I believe I feel is what I call my “self.”

Here’s the kicker. Even though I feel something inside of me that I call a “self” it is nothing more than the neurons firing inside of my brain. There is nothing inside of me that is not part of my biology and there is nothing in science or anything we’ve observed in the history of humankind to support the claim that there is an immaterial substance controlling my thinking and my body. What we call the “self” is actually just a tool to help us survive. It’s a way I describe how all the parts of my body are integrated into one experience. But at base that’s all there is, contrary to the intuitive beliefs we grow up accepting usually without question.

Buddhists solved the self problem by advancing the idea of anatta or anatman or “not self.” It was an idea that flew in the face of the religious constructs around the Buddha at the time which can be found in the varied halls of Hinduism today. Much like the big Abrahamic religions, the religions of Hinduism find the self located in the atman which is the eternal substance that persists after the body dies and is then reincarnated if one is not fortunate enough to have experienced liberation from these earthly moorings. Buddhists got rid of that idea, which incidentally struck a blow to the oppressive caste system, and needed to replace it with a different schema.  After all, there still feels like there is some thing that working inside of this thing I call “me.” What we called “self” is functionally replaced with the series of causes and effects that happen in the body and its interaction with the world which includes the brain. These are called the five aggregates or skandhas. What I call the “self” is really an integrated process of understanding how all the things that work in my body interact with all the things that I experience in the world. But that is all there is. There is no soul commanding my body or brain.

The idea of there not being a soul or permanent self might seem inherently wrong to us because it does not feel right and gives us a lot of anxiety. After all, even in humor and popular culture, we throw around the idea that having no soul makes us inherently evil. The vampires on Buffy the Vampire Slayer find their seat of morality in a soul. Who would you rather be, the champion, soul-bearing Angel who becomes a great hero and gets the girl, or the soulless Angelus who kills not because he needs to suck your blood but just because it’s fun. If Dr. Jekyll has a soul, Mr. Hyde most definitely does not.  It is better to believe in a soul and not be evil, isn’t it? That just feels right. What I’ve learned in the past few years is it what I feel isn’t necessarily true. Another way of saying this is my feelings aren’t facts.

At one point the idea of there being no soul, or that I am not fundamentally some spiritually grounded entity desiring union with God, seemed counter-intuitive and simply wrong at best, or heretical and deserving of hell at worst. Then I decided to suspend my belief that any of those ideas are true. Once I bracketed the emotional attachment to the notion that I am some sort of special “soul” God loves and let the facts direct my intuition, those beliefs began to erode. Here’s the unexpected part – I started to become more satisfied with the world, with who “I” am, and less desiring of being “special.” There is no soul or “self.” This idea seems very reasonable to me now and is where my beliefs are now grounded. All that stuff that I call “me” is just the chemistry and energy in my body working to survive.

So what happens if instead of taking our beliefs as facts we table all those beliefs and then discover the truth based on the actual evidence that we have of our experience? This is a task that requires bravery. There is a risk to suspending beliefs that is rooted in the most basic survival mechanisms of the brain. If you are one who believes in a soul and is reading this, you probably feel the tension already. There is a ton of negative and counter-productive emotional and social baggage you can drop once you suspend that belief. I won’t get into that here, but if you stay tuned I will come back to it.

What if we all started the task of understanding the truth from Descartes’ place of doubt? What if we stopped believing in the things of our experience that don’t really have any foundations in evidence? What if we took a long pause from assuming our beliefs are true because of what feels right? Would you be willing to give up your beliefs in order to get closer to the truth?

*From another angle it can be said that it was actually Augustine who planted this idea long before Descartes.

Rules for a Happy Life: Sleep

My dog is a sleeping champion.

My dog is a sleeping champion.

I still need to work on how much I sleep. I average around 7 hours per night and that number is skewed by the occasional sleeping I do on the weekends to “catch up.” I need to be better with this part of my health because sleep and all around well-being are intimately connected. The body heals in every which way during a sleep cycle whether it is a sore knee to stress or feelings of melancholy.

You will find conflicting information on sleep. Some will say that sleeping 8 hours a night of unbroken sleep is a myth. Others argue that there is no such thing as “sleep debt” or that sleeping in is unhealthy. Still others will argue about sleep cycles and how deep your sleep is. By the end of an investigation about sleep you will probably feel guilty because you are apparently doing it all wrong no matter what your habits are.

So this is what works for me. My exercise is directly proportional to the quality of my sleep. I need to exhaust my body physically in order for me to sleep well. The time I spend on electronic screens affects when I actually fall asleep. I have no TV in my room and do not read in bed. But I will do that final online Internet surf before sleep. It does not help me relax and prevents me from falling asleep. I probably do it from an inherent fear of missing out (FOMO) problem I have always had. What I would actually miss is beyond me.

What it might tell me is that if FOMO is my biggest barrier to sleep, the problem I really have is my relationship to social connectedness. I have been divorced for over 4 years and live alone so perhaps it is the subconscious neurosis of aloneness even if I do not feel particularly lonely. Who knows what it is. The reason is essentially irrelevant at this point.

This goes back to brain messages that I can still fix. I am good about getting out of bed and getting into bed when I am on my regular work schedule. I get in bed no later than 10 and get out no later than 6:50. With that said, I need to leave the technology alone and ignore the urge to grab onto it at night. I have white noise to block the sounds from outside and to silence the nasty tinnitus I have in my left ear from drumming for several years. That is enough.

My mornings began to improve last year. I started to wake up at 6:15, have a cup of coffee, read the news in The Economist, do some sort of exercising (right now it’s pushups), and then get going with the other morning stuff. It has helped a lot. I just need to be a bit better at night. Right now I am nursing a painful kneecap so I am not running all that much and my goal of reading has helped because I am not turning on a TV. I know that when I run, I sleep much better.

What I need is better sleep to get my knee fixed so I can run so I can sleep better.

It’s really a very easy problem to solve. I just have to ignore the impulses in my brain telling me to stay awake since there is no real reason for it. When I turn off the light switch, I just need to turn off my brain as well. That’s just a choice and nothing more.

Part five of a series of Life Rules. See the explanation here.

Rules for a Happy Life: Exercise

Opening a doorWant to solve depression without drugs?

Me too.

So when I say exercise, it is different from just moving around when I get bored or feel like I need to get out of the house before I lose my damn mind. I mean work out. This is more than doing a few situps or pushups or walking on a treadmill for a half hour and feeling good about myself. Working out means I sweat hard, feel a little sore, and stop only after I have kept going a few minutes after I thought I had nothing left to give.

Last year I started tracking my activity as a way to tell me the truth about how much I am moving or sitting each day. I can rationalize that binge-watching all of Angel is working because my brain is doing something. My proclivity to self-delusion is that powerful. I Jedi mindtrick myself into sloth.

In the fall of 2014 I got this little Vivofit that Garmin makes to help me out. It tracked my steps, sleep, and the kind of movement I was making. It was cool because it was waterproof and I could leave it on all the time. The first thing I noticed is that I was a very stationary chap. Of course, last winter was way too cold to be thinking about going out for a brisk walk especially because I had gotten used to being sedentary. But I had a YMCA membership mainly so my kids and I would have something to do during the winter weekend months. Here’s the kicker: There is an exercise room with all of the treadmills, ellipticals, and weights literally 100 feet from the front door of my building. A couple of years ago, I went to the Y to workout for at least 30 minutes every day, but after I moved in 2014 that and all the rest of my good habits died off which is when I started to get sluggish and down. Moving is stressful, people. All of your routines get crushed under the anxiety of change and you have to find a way to get back into it. I did not.

So why didn’t I just hop across the street? It was anxiety pure and simple. I felt out of shape and I did not want to look out of shape in front of others because all of that self-talk nonsense was polluting my brain. Even after I started running I refused to go into that room. It’s absurd to me now, but back then it was a big ass wall I did not have the will to break through.

After I started running, I got a bad case of iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS) which meant my knees hurt like hell. I took about 2 1/2 weeks off but in that time I had to get my butt in that workout room to build up some strength in my hips and get on that treadmill to focus on form a bit. All I had to do was walk in the door and whatever fear or anxiety I had was gone the second I opened the door. Eventually my knees felt better and I started running outside again. I would go back to that room when I got tendonitis and now I am going back because winter decided to show up and I am not in the mood to run in that mess right now.

The reason I am telling you this little story is because if you have anxiety about exercise, about whether or not you can do it, if you will look foolish, if you will be sore afterwards, etc. just open the damn door! Of course you are going to be sore. Of course you might not look that great. The only people who look great working out are the people in the videos and even then, most of the time they are sweating and getting stinky and that is their job! If you are not looking somewhat constipated, sweating, and all around nasty while working out, you aren’t doing quite enough. This is all about effort.

Eventually my little tracker was not enough. Somewhere I went from a person who needed to track his activities who also runs to a runner who also tracks his activities. I got a Polar m400 because it can do both. I can get all of my GPS running data and track my activity during the day and night. It also has a heart monitor that I strap onto my chest. That’s where the real workouts began. In the gym, I focus not so much on speed or distance but on time and effort. I want to get my heart up and keep it in a solid “cardio” zone for most of my workout. I am 41 so my maximum heart rate is around 179 bpm. When I workout I am trying to get that up to a minimum of 150 for the duration and to peak it out to about 160-165. If I am outside and running a course with hills, that’s about what my body does so I want to replicate that effort inside. This means I am working out my heart and processing all of the sugar stores in my body. All those carbs I ate the day before are burning off and my fitness to run longer and faster improves.

Here’s the magic. When I work out like this, my mood instantly changes and I feel better about everything. My sleep improves and my quality of life gets more focused and supercharged. I wake up. My heart rate is like a natural drug and it is part of what I would like to call a totally drug-free solution for depression.

So if you are going to the gym and never see or feel results, check your heart rate. Pay attention to the effort your body is actually putting into the work. Then increase your effort regardless of how fit you are today. That’s what counts. Stop looking at the person who has been coming into the gym for 5 hours every day wearing matching gym clothes they got for Christmas and the cement mixer sized container of protein shake they have waiting for them. You’ll demotivate yourself and never want to come back. Put on your headphones and listen to yourself. Then work it out. That 30 minutes at least every other day will change your life. In a couple of weeks after you start, you will be amazed at where you can go.

But you gotta first, open the damn door.

Part four of a series of Life Rules. See the explanation here.