Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Musings of a Philosophical Bear: On Loving Reality

I'm a dreamer by nature. I can easily get caught up in my thoughts, thinking about all the things I'm going to do someday, never really getting anything done. I sometimes have full conversations with myself, anticipating a real confrontation, avoiding the real conversation that needed to happen. I've even found myself angry at people for things they've said to me in my head. Mind you, I only imagined the things they said to me, but the mind can be so powerful that our false emotions seem real. I can have some very firm ideas about what someone else should be, what they should say, how they should treat me, and I get disappointed with them when they fail to meet my expectations. My powerful imagination comes in handy as a writer, but in the real world I punish myself by getting into thought loops, gaming out my life and forgetting to live it. I was embarrassed by this for years but then I came to realize that it's something we all do in our own way. We all live our lives in our head. It's not something we can completely escape from but if we come to identify those times when we let our thoughts take over our lives we may be able to get more of the things we want out of life instead of just dreaming about them. 

We do it every morning when we wake up; we start thinking about what we’re going to do. Our plans are just thoughts about the way we think our day should go down… but they're just thoughts. We have the power to set the tone for the rest of the day by thinking about it in positive terms but we often think about all the bad things that could happen, preparing ourselves for the worst and often getting it. We don't know what's really going to happen, but we think we do. Have you ever just gotten up in the morning and focused on what's right in front of you? It's important that we make plans, we need those plans to keep moving forward, but we don't have to close ourselves off to alternate possibilities. We could instead use them as a guide, understanding the limits of our imagination, taking our day as it comes, thinking about what might happen next all the while knowing the limits of planning.

When we fear failure of some important task, we procrastinate and make the problem even worse. What we fear is not failure, but the thought of failure. What actually happens is never as bad as our thoughts about it. When failure actually happens, we don't have nearly as many negative emotions about it as when we’re dreading it happening. Most of the discomfort we experience is in our imagination. We react to those thoughts as if they were real. We often have to learn how to distrust our own thoughts when they are limiting us. We can keep a journal to externalize our thoughts and examine them later, or we can ask people we trust to give us perspective. At some point we have to come to a realization that our thoughts are not reality. They are simply our impression of it, and often a poor perception simply because we almost never pay attention to it.

For example, we have lots of fears about going to the gym that keep us from working out. All of them are real to us in the moment, but there are times when we need to stop believing our fears and start living in the moment. We're just going to the gym; it's not going to kill us. We don't have to do anything we don't want to do or can't do and if we remember the last experience of going to the gym we'll remember that we can do exactly what we did last time. We can end up talking ourselves out of going to the gym and forming good habits out of fears we can't even fully express. Sometime it's feeling like a fool, barely lifting half of what the other guys in the gym (conspicuously large and out of shape), feeling like everyone there is looking at you and judging you for even trying. Those are thoughts of your own creation. The reality is that no one gives a shit about who's there unless you're on their station. If they're working out hard they don't have enough energy to waste paying you any attention.

When we start a new habit, we're motivated by the fantasy of what our life will be like when we've been doing it for years. We imagine that if we write everyday somewhere down the line there will be book contracts, if we eat better we imagine fitting into smaller sized clothes or looking hot coming out of them, we fast forward through all the work needed to get to our goal all the time forgetting none of that’s real. When the reality of the habit is in front of us; the food plan makes us hungry, the workouts are painful, the writing is slow and tedious… it never matches up with our fantasy. It’s harder, sloppier, and less idealized when we only think of those habits as a means to an end. And so we quit. We can do unpleasant things for a while, but sooner or later we have to find motivations for doing them that are intrinsic to the activity itself.

I'm convinced that the key to making real change is mindfulness. When you eat, are you paying attention to the food or is your mind somewhere else? When you talk to someone, are you focused on what they’re saying, or thinking of what you’re going to say next? Mindless eating is the first step on a long road to obesity. The fastest way to destroy a relationship is by not listening. I found the key to my visits to the gym more frequent was to ritualize packing my bag. It wasn't something I did intentionally at first, but I believe focusing on the here and now crowds out the negative thoughts that can sabotage our goals. When I'm getting ready for the gym, I'm not thinking about my fears, loathing the muscle soreness that will come later, or the imaginary judgmental glares of the muscle freaks. I'm just packing my bag. I don't need to think about anything else and I found that I did this intuitively because it worked for me. After talking to a friend who had trouble making it to the gym because of his fears I started doing it intentionally and it works like a charm.

My gym bag ritual starts with the shirt. I pick one to wear to the gym and one to change into after my shower. I fold them side by side on my bed. I do the same for the shorts, socks and underwear. I check my bag for soap, deodorant, shampoo, hair pick, gym keys, lock, and supplements. I put my clothes into a clean plastic grocery bag and pack an extra one for my wet clothes when I'm done. I get into my gym clothes and pack my phone in a sandwich bag, place my headphones and keys around my neck and grab a bottle of cold water out of the fridge on the way out the door. It works for me because of the amount of detail I put into packing. I don't have time to think of the reasons why I don't want to go through with my workout if I'm focusing on washing and folding clothes. I find my time at the gym is even better because I can be confident that I'll have everything I need because I gave it the proper amount of time and energy to make sure I have all the tools I need to have a successful workout. All those negative thoughts never did a thing but slow me down. As I go through the motions of getting ready I gain momentum to get out the door. Going to the gym is not something I obsess about anymore, it's just something I do, just like washing the clothes or brushing my teeth, except it makes me feel really good about myself.

We spend way too much time thinking about what we're going to do rather than just going through the motions of doing it. The fantasies of what we're going to do take up most of our time and energy, and they are not usually all that helpful. They cause us to fear, to procrastinate, to become angry, and disappointed, and to quit. When I used to get lost in my worrying about going to the gym I had to stop myself and ask "has all this worrying really been working for me?" I didn't even need to answer. I just had to figure out what the alternative was. For me, the alternative to worrying is not being unprepared, it's about detail focused planning. Woody Allen once famously said that 80 percent of success is just showing up. It's true about the gym and it's true about our lives. We need to stop living in our heads and actually show up to our own lives. We don't go to the gym by thinking about going to the gym, and we don't live by thinking about our lives. 

Instead of doing the thing that hasn't been working for you, try this instead. Let go of the fantasy you have about what you're going to do, or what you're going to look like, and start paying attention to this actual moment. See it for what it is, see yourself for who you are, not what you’d like you to be. Accept it and accept yourself exactly as you are. But don't stop there. Move through the day practicing this, seeing things as they are, taking time to notice the details, appreciating the little things, staying out of your head. Show up for your own life. Look at things like you were a little kid again. Marvel at how the world works without you having to worry about it. Do your work without thinking about your fears of failure or what might happen in the future or how hard this work is. Just do it, without judgment or commentary and observe as you do it. Stay in the present moment.

Do you want to exercise, meditate, or eat better? Don't make plans. You already know what to do. And if you don't, you know how to find out. So just do it. Stay in the present moment, seeing it for what it is and not how it measures up to your expectations of what it should be. Don't think about how it will be hard in the future or how long it will take to master or how much television you could be watching. But take it as it is and try to enjoy that feeling of being present while you have this new experience. Let your new habit be a celebration of being alive. Be happy you're alive and conscious enough to make the choices you've made. Going to the gym isn't easy, but when seen in this way, it isn't a burden but a privilege. It's a privilege to have the money to afford a gym membership, to have the physical and mental health to be able to go and to live in a time and place where gyms exist. Be happy you are there, even as you sweat and burn huff and puff; be happy that you get to work out.

Make sure to appreciate the body you have right now. After all it's gotten you far in life. You are after all still breathing. Make sure to celebrate what you have right now and honor your body by treating it well. See other people for what they are and accept them without judgment, strangers included, warts and all. Fantasize all you want and enjoy them for what they are, but don't confuse the fantasy with reality. This present reality is all there is. We've got to learn to love it.

We all go through our lives almost on autopilot, our minds generally elsewhere, occupied with other thoughts as we float through the real world like ghosts. We sit at our computer, having a cup of coffee, eating a snack, reading an article all the while not even paying attention to where we are and what we're doing. We're always occupied by our thoughts, moving through the world like zombies, taking very little time to appreciate our surroundings and our place in them. Well it's time to wake up and live intentionally.

If we want to make some improvements, I suggest we practice occupying the current moment every possible chance we get. Inhabit it, by really being in it, fully experiencing all our senses in everyday ordinary actions. Whatever you’re doing at this moment isn't an insignificant thing to be rushed through to get to the next thing. You're alive. You're conscious. Do you ever stop to think how much of an incredible being you are? Of all the mysteries of the universe, consciousness must be the deepest of all, and yet every day we take it for granted. Use it. Be aware of your observations. Really think about what you’re reading, contemplate where you’re sitting, feel the air you're breathing and be amazed and grateful for your consciousness. Be here now.

As you wash a dish, instead of having your mind elsewhere, instead of rushing through it, give that task a little space. Be there, with that task. Feel how your body feels standing in front of the sink. See the water, the dish, the food residue you’re washing off. See the light in the kitchen, hear the sounds of the refrigerator and the passing cars outside, notice the stain from the spilled drops of coffee on the counter. It’s a thing of wonder, a thing to behold with the same weight as we behold all of life, sex, and death. It is a mystery that we experience anything at all. It is a blessing. Be grateful for it.

Imagine you have a month to live. What would each moment be worth to you then? Each bite of food would be one of your last. Each sip of coffee, each trip to the kitchen, each step on the grass, each conversation with your friend, each moment of your live would be more valuable. You're probably going to live longer than a month, but who really knows? Your time is limited. Each moment is precious and contains wonders within wonders. Every action you take, no matter how little… give it weight. Put some space around it. Start it intentionally with the express purpose to be mindful, to inhabit each action fully, to notice with all your senses the entire moment. When the action is done, don’t just rush to the next one, but take half a second to appreciate what you just experienced. Then move to the next with equal weight and space. Even if this practice doesn't get you into the gym, or make you want to eat less, or help you overcome your fears, it will make you love your life a little more.

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