Category Archives: Personal Development

To Strive Or Not To Strive: Reflecting on Mark Manson’s “The Disease of More.”

A friend of mine from graduate school recently shared a blog post by Mark Manson titled, The Disease of More. I’ve enjoyed Manson in the past, so I gave it a read. As much as I feel it is generally more valuable to create new material to share, I think it might be beneficial for others to share my reactions to this piece (which are largely positive).

The article starts out with the following:

“Success is often the first step toward disaster. The idea of progress is often the enemy of progress.”

I immediately had a gut level reaction to the concept he was pointing to, and that has a lot to do with my experience participating in various online forums dedicated to the practice of different forms contemplative spiritual practice. Among contemplative types, there is a perennial argument between the developmental camp and the always-already-THAT camp. (I suppose it isn’t much different than the “salvation through works” vs “salvation through faith” camps within Christian traditions.) I have generally leaned more toward the developmental camp, given that there appears to be an undeniable progression of both skills development AND consciousness development that occurs over the lifespan, sometimes with or without deliberate effort. The idea that the only thing getting in one’s way is the drive to be better has at times created a near insurmountable roadblock to progress for many an aspiring yogi.

At the same time, I’ve also witnessed countless individuals discover, through practice, profound decreases in psychological suffering resulting from practice, which only briefly quells the powerful drive to suffer even LESS. From the perspective of the always-already-THAT camp, the drive to suffer less is itself a form of suffering. If the point of all this is to suffer less, why not abandon the drive to improve one’s self and simply be who you are already. “You are already enlightened. Just stop trying to get enlightened, and you’ll realize your true Self.”

As you’re reading this, I hope you’re starting to see how both of these concepts, or rather stances (as David Chapman would describe them in his online book, Meaningness), are incomplete. In both cases, what is being treated as a truth about reality would be better viewed as a way of looking, or a seeing that freesViews such as these can be an instruction, or method, which can be used to ever deepen (development camp) the experiential knowledge of how things truly are (always-already-THAT camp). In other words, I don’t believe it’s helpful to view either stance as being ontologically true, but that sometimes it may be helpful to view either or both as pragmatically true. When taken up as a way of seeing one’s self, life, or experience, either can lead to life transforming insight.

Without diving fully into the remaining contents of Manson’s article, it does appear he is using his chosen stance as a kind of method with regard to the man with whom he worked on this issue:

“What if there is no ‘next level?’ What if it’s just an idea you made up in your head? What if you’re already there and not only are you not recognizing it, but by constantly pursuing something more, you’re preventing yourself from appreciating it and enjoying where you are now?”

I don’t know if Mark understands his view as a being more of a method than a truth (I’d love the opportunity to ask him someday). If he does, I’d love it if he came out and said so. And maybe he has. My favorite professor in graduate school (R.I.P.), while education me and my fellow therapists-to-be, often told us he didn’t believe in magic. He believed in science, and for him that meant if something works, there should be a way to explain how and why it works. He took this a step further with his therapy clients, and made every effort to explain what he was doing with them and why, at every step. I was deeply inspired by his way of working with clients, and I do the same for the clients with whom I have the privilege to work. My insistence on both transparency and a pragmatic truth criterion is what inspired me to base much of my therapeutic approach on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). But I digress…

I suppose the point of this long and rambling post is the ideas I read in Mark’s post are only helpful in context. There are times when “stop trying so hard” is helpful, and times when it stunts growth. The development of wisdom requires the ability to determine which approach is more helpful at any given moment. So go, and be wiser. (Or perhaps you’re already wise enough. Stop trying… Just kidding.)

What is your experience of striving to grow? What happens for you when you relax that drive? Does it work in some conditions but not in others? I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic, especially those which differ from mine.

P.S. I mentioned a few posts back that I’m trying to get back into the swing of writing. I consider my writing skills to be pretty rusty lately, and I’m open to feedback in that area as well. In the interests of becoming evermore comfortable stepping into vulnerability, please feel free to share whatever constructive criticism you may have. Thank you!

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Affirmations: More Than Ego-stroking

This week I started doing an adapted version of the Five Minute Journal, which has been around for quite some time. (A Google search will quickly provide lots of templates you can use.) The one I’m using includes a few blank lines on which it asks me to write down daily affirmations, starting with “I am…” I’ve always found affirmations a bit cheesy, bringing to mind those SNL sketches with the Stewart Smalley character…

Stuart_Smalley

“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”

I’ve also always thought self affirmations have a narcissistic flavor to them, given the focus on talking up one’s qualities in a way that can lead to pathological over-inflation. “I am the best, strongest, most beautiful being in all the cosmos!”… or something like that. They are perhaps one of the most recognizable parts of the self-esteem movement that has produced paradoxical and unfortunate results. It turns out that if you tell someone they are special, without their having demonstrated mastery of any particular skill or quality, it can lead to confusion, depression, and in some cases a reduced willingness to practice difficult tasks (for fear of not performing well and losing the artificially high status imputed up on them). That is generally what comes to mind when I see the word “affirmations.”

At the same time, I appreciate a good challenge, and I value psychological and behavioral flexibility very highly. I’m willing to try new things to see if I can get results that are outside my expectations. So I did the damn affirmations for the last two days. Fortunately for me, my partner, and my children, it didn’t turn me into a narcissistic jerk (yet).

This morning, after writing in my Five Minute Journal (which included affirmations), I sent a text to my soon-to-be-wife. I planned for it to be the usual, “Good morning, I love you, have a good day,” sort of text, and those thoughts were included. However, I found that I was softly compelled to write affirmations to her as well. I reminded her she is capable, skillful, and worthy of the time and space she needs to learn her new job (among other things). Not that this is totally out of the ordinary, as I tend to be a pretty supportive and affirming person in general. Though, it occurred to me that practicing affirmations may not just be about pumping up one’s self esteem. It also makes it feel more natural and effortless to provide the same kind of love and support to others, which is the opposite of self-centered egotism.

Upon further reflection, this doesn’t surprise me at all. There is evidence to suggest that the more one is able to label, share, and accept their emotions, the better they are at recognizing and caring for the feelings of others. Likewise, self-compassion tends to lead toward greater compassion for others. In other words, it is difficult to see in someone else something one is unable to see in themselves.

Take the time to remind yourself of your accomplishments, your strengths, and your values. See if it helps you see the same in others. I think you’ll find, like I have, that it will be a wise use of five minutes each day.

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Doing Makes You Better

I remember reading a psychology textbook in college that described an experiment where one group of participants was asked to spend a period of time (several days or weeks, I think) trying to make one really great vase. Another group of participants was asked to produce as many vases as possible during the same period of time. At the end of the study, the vase made by the one-really-great-vase team was compared to one of the late state production vases of the other team, to determine which one was objectively better. The study found that the group who spent their time producing as many vases as possible produced a better quality vase than the other team.

This makes sense, doesn’t it? Imagine you wanted to be able to shoot the perfect free throw. It seems like common sense that your time would be better spent shooting as many free throws and possible, rather than theorizing the perfect approach and then giving it one try. “Practice makes perfect,” as they say. (Though, I’d think it’s more accurate to say practice makes proficient, but nit picking is unattractive, so…)

I promise I’ll get to my point…

In my last post, I shared that I haven’t posted to this blog in a long time, and that I wasn’t sure I really had anything important to say anymore. This morning, the thought crossed my mind, “Maybe you should write another post today.” My mind didn’t think of an interesting topic within a split second, and then that familiar sense of aversion arose. “You have nothing to say. No one will find it interesting unless it’s awesome, so you better plan something first.” So, instead of writing, I went straight to reading a popular self-improvement blog I used to read frequently. And while I was reading it, I recognized – again – that I was avoiding the very action that will lead to me being a better writer; the process that will allow me to actually have something important to say. And then I remembered the damn vase study…

Now here I am, again, producing another vase. It isn’t anywhere near perfect, but it’s a damn good start.

I’m finding that motivation is a lot like the classical virtues – courage, benevolence, loyalty, honesty, etc. The thing about the classical virtues is that the only way to develop them is to do them. To develop honesty, tell the truth. To develop courage, do something courageous. Motivation is no different. To develop motivation, do the thing for which you desire to develop motivation. To do otherwise (as my realtor friends use to say) is just “getting ready to get ready.”

On this very day, I encourage anyone who read this to do as I have done. If you are avoiding something because you’re afraid of not doing it perfect, or because you fear rejection, or you’re afraid to look stupid – do it anyway. If what you fear is failure, than you must practice, or you perpetually will fail by default (and I’m pretty sure that condition is fertile ground for depression and worry, which we could all do without).

 

P.S. If you hate this post, post a comment and tell me why. As I’ve heard Tim Ferris put it, failure is feedback.

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What comes next?

It has been a very long time since I’ve written any posts for this blog. I’ve been working full-time as a mental health counselor for the last two and a half years, and I’ve been using my free time to prioritize family life over creative projects. I’m not exactly sure what is motivating me to write this post. I used to always have a lot to say, mostly because I was a compulsive consumer of self-help literature for most of my twenties. Perhaps the reason I’m back on the blog is to see if, by pounding away at my keyboard, I discover whether or not I still have something to say outside of my personal and professional settings.

I  have been feeling a slight internal pressure to further develop my ability to help and influence others, and thereby also continue my growth as a human being. I’m occupying a strange and vulnerable place – knowing I want need to grow, and not knowing which direction to take. Allowing space for uncertainty and accepting the reality of risk is something I encourage my therapy clients to practice on a daily basis, so I’m not surprised to see that this move into vulnerability (and the aversion that comes with it) is a struggle for me as well.

There’s an inner voice that says, “Jackson, this is the most boring, unhelpful blog post ever written.” There may be some truth to that. However, I also know from experience that judgments hardly ever reflect a full picture of reality. Clinging to harsh evaluations rarely leads to anything helpful. Buying into negative judgments tends to move me out of vulnerability and into shame – the deeply felt belief that I’m not good enough to do this, that I have no right to want this, and that I should probably just fall in line and settle for what I know I deserve.

When I started writing this, I was not clear about the intention. The good news is that I seem to have found a reason through the writing process. This seemingly insignificant piece of writing is a clear rejection of the status quo of fitting in. It is a way to practice once again stepping into a life stance where my ideas are exposed and open to scrutiny. Whether or not I will be brave enough to continue this exploration is yet undetermined. I guess the record will speak for itself.

Here’s to the rejection of fear and the willingness to grow, despite the uncertainty of success and the risk of commitment.

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Yoga, Stress, and Learning to Drop It.

I’ve been practicing meditation for several years now. But, do to my body’s longstanding inflexibility, I have avoided practicing yoga as a compliment to my meditation and overall spiritual practice. I recently decided to give yoga the old college try.

Rather than flipping through the local Yellow Pages for nearby yoga studios, I did what any other late-twenties, moderately tech-savvy, do-it-yourselfer would do: search for a decent YouTube channel. It didn’t take long to find a few videos that appeared to match my skill-level (aka, complete beginner). So, for the last four weeks or so, I’ve been fumbling my way through 10-20 minute sequences 2-4 times per week. (Hey, I had to start somewhere.)

Each of the videos I’ve learned from end with a relaxation exercise in the savasana (“corpse”) pose. It’s basically a form of progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), which involves tensing the muscles in some area of the body for a few seconds and then relaxing them. It goes something like this:

“Lift up your right leg, contract your leg… drop.”

“Lift up your left leg, contract your leg… drop.”

“Lift up your hips, contract your buttocks… drop.”

“Lift up your arms, make fists… drop.”

“Lift up your chest, contract your upper-back… drop.”

… and so on, and so forth.

I assume that – as is the case with PMR – the purpose of contracting the muscles prior to relaxing them is to become aware of their location in the body, and also how they feel when contracted or relaxed. With awareness comes the potential for greater influence over these muscles, which means that one can learn to contract or relax muscles that they never knew they had. The result of this training in everyday life becomes quite clear when situations arise which we’ve learned to react with muscle tension rather than relaxation. In other words, it teaches us a lot about stress.

For example, during my commute home from work a few days ago, I looked into my rear-view mirror and noticed that the man driving behind me was driving close enough to my car to count the dust particles on my trunk. Being that this is a particularly dangerous situation to encounter, due to the risk of physical injury or property damage, I immediately tensed up. However, as soon as I noticed the tension in my body  – and thus, my mind – I was able to respond with a mental note to simply, “Drop it.” You know what? It worked.

A similar situation arose while I was entering my office building one morning last week. In the reflection of the glass doors ahead of me, I saw a woman walking toward the building fairly close behind me. Reflexively, I stopped as I opened the door in order to hold it for the oncoming pedestrian out of common courtesy. However, the woman slowed her pace as she neared the stairs, coming almost to a dead halt. Feeling kind of silly for stopping, I thought, “Whatever,” and allowed the door to close as I walked into the building. Yet again, along with the thought, “Whatever,” I felt my body tense up at the shoulders and in my gut. To my surprise, without any prior intentional planning for this particular scenario, the thought came – “Drop it.” And so, I dropped it. What a relief!

How often do we carry our stress around unnecessarily?  It reminds me of this story told in the tradition of Zen Buddhism:

“Two zen monks were travelling. They came to a ford of a stream that was running high, and the current was strong and frightening looking. An attractive young lady was standing at the ford, looking nervous. She clearly was afraid to cross, but had an important reason to go. Without a word, the older of the two monks lifted her in his arms and waded across the stream, and placed her safely on the far bank. The younger monk looked shocked at this action, but kept his silence for quite some number of miles as they continued their journey. Finally, he blurted out “You know that it is against the rules of our order to have any contact with women. How could you do that?”.

The older monk replied “I put her down when I reached the other side of the river. You, on the other hand, have been carrying her this whole way.”[1]

Driving home last week, even after the man in the red truck turned down a different street, I could have carried him all the way home, into my living room, or to my dining room table during dinner. Or, this I could have carried the woman at the door into my office building and to my desk, where she would stand motionless in my mind’s eye, making me wonder, “Why didn’t she just keep walking? Didn’t she see me holding the door?” I could be working with this frustrating woman all day! Of course, the man driving the red truck and the woman outside my office building were not the cause of my stress. The stress was a reaction produced by this very body and mind (aka, “Jackson”). From this perspective, guided by the insights arising from a very simple yoga practice, stress is quite simply, and most fundamentally, a bad habit. We carry stress around not because we have to, but because we’ve learned to.

That said, I think it’s true that there are innate human reflex-responses to stimuli perceived as threatening. This is built into the earliest, most basic structures of our brains.  We can’t help but react with fear in certain situations, and this is actually VERY helpful for us as a species. The sympathetic nervous system is a blessing when there is an actual threat.[2] But, how useful is this kind of response to, say, being stuck in traffic on the way to work, or when someone cuts in front of you in the check-out line at the grocery store? Probably not that useful.

When it comes to learning how to release stress and the reactive emotions that come along with it, it pays to pay attention to your body. Pay attention not just when you’re stressed, but also when you’re relaxed. Try alternating between the two within a few minutes, and notice the way the qualities of your mind (thinking, perception) in both states. This simple exercise can bring a rather unfortunate habitual pattern into light. This first step is crucial, for you can’t release something you don’t know is happening. In other words, you must know before you can let go.

[1] “Carrying the Woman” story borrowed from Taoist & Zen stories and Ramblings.

[2] One of my professors describes threats as, “lions, tigers, bears, muggers, buses, etc.” – situations that can actually harm you or someone you care about, but that we don’t run into everyday… save for buses, perhaps.

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Thoughts on Being Here Now.

As meditation practitioners, we often hear about the importance of present moment awareness. I want to offer a brief perspective that elaborates on one particular reason why present moment awareness is crucial to the process of awakening.

For anyone who is doing meditation for the purpose of gaining insight into the nature of reality, there tends to be a natural progression through certain stages. In the Vissudhimagga, and also in the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition of Theravada Buddhism, these stages are referred to as ñanas (or Knowledges). As each ñana is experienced, the meditator is accessing levels of mind that have not yet been penetrated (i.e. fully understood in light of the Three Characteristics of impermanence, emptiness, and unsatisfactoriness).

This means that at any given moment, a vipassana practitioner is experiencing precisely what needs to be worked with in order to make progress. Once the current experience is penetrated (or, “seen through”), new subtlties of experience are brought into awareness, and another ñana/stage is revealed.

My advice to any one who is reading this is to not ignore a single moment of phenomenal experience while meditating. Whatever is arising is likely to be a direct result of the one’s level of insight. Insight will continue to mature as the vipassana method is applied directly to the bare experience of the present moment.

“Be Here Now” does not have to refer to some peaceful, zoned out, super relaxed state of mind. True present moment awareness means becoming intimately aware of the characteristics of one’s experience to the point of gaining real insight. The result is freedom.

[This is a slightly edited version of a post that originally appeared on my Tricycle Community blog, March 4, 2009.]

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Being open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.

“Faith is a state of openness or trust. To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float. And the attitude of faith is the very opposite of clinging to belief, of holding on. In other words, a person who is fanatic in matters of religion, and clings to certain ideas about the nature of God and the universe, becomes a person who has no faith at all. Instead they are holding tight. But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.”

– Alan Watts On FAITH

This simple passage meant the world to me when I first read it nearly five years ago. Defining faith as trust was not a new idea for me, as that is how it is often conveyed within the Christian communities I took part in for most of my life. The difference between the faith I learned from the Church and the faith Alan Watts describes is not a matter of definition so much as it is about the object of one’s faith. In what (or in Whom) are we to place our trust?

In the Christian communities I was a part of, one’s faith was placed primarily in the Bible as Truth. Sure, it is God or Christ to which one is to have faith, but the Bible is the “word of God.” The Bible was that which all else is to be measured; the final authority. But this is inherently problematic, as it causes one to place their faith in a set of ideas. If one’s experience differs from that of the object of one’s faith, the object must be grasped against all adversity in order for faith to remain intact. When this happens, faith no longer feels like trust. In fact, it ends up feeling more like a burden (somebody say “Amen!”). I should say that Christianity is in no way the only religion of which dogmatic adherence to faith in ideas is commonplace.  Truth be told, all religious traditions have some type of dogmatic sect.

The kind of faith of which Watts endorsed – the faith of letting go – resonates strongly with the reason why I started this blog in the first place: to discover truth – however paradoxical it may turn out to be. Anyone who holds tightly to a set of beliefs long enough is sure to notice when they no longer stand up to serious reality testing. It is for this reason, I believe, that many young would-be-Bible scholars and ministers go off to Bible college only to lose their faith (i.e. apostatize) as soon as a year or two later. One is forced to take one of three routes: adhere, adapt, or abandon. Unfortunately for some, many religious communities are not all that flexible, making choice #2 (adapt) as equally damning as making choice #3 (abandon).*

To make choice #2 or #3 is to venture out in to the unknown. This isn’t all bad. For what was known is found via one’s experience to be untrue, which means the truth has yet to be discovered and lies within the unknown.  One casts off the security that is felt within the confines of dogmatism and legalism, trading bondage and safety for freedom and risk (sounds exciting, doesn’t it?). By casting one’s self in to the Void, they come to realize that they have everything to lose, with only the Truth to gain (you might recognize this as Stage Four of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth). From that point on, progress on the journey toward the discovery of Truth will occur only if one is willing to fully, completely let go. You must, as Watts says, “trust yourself to the water.”

And that’s the paradox of it all – if you hold on to anything, you will sink and drown. If you surrender, you will float and live. For me, surrendering started in the form of studying the world’s great spiritual traditions from their own perspective. In doing so, I discovered the teachings of the Buddha and of Lao Tzu and took up the practice of meditation. This path is the opposite of blind faith. In blind faith, one clings tightly to their sacred ideas and shuts their eyes tightly closed, so as not to see anything that might discredit the object of their clinging. The path of surrender, of giving one’s self to the Void, is one of letting go and keeping their eyes wide open – seeing everything, clinging to nothing.

Speaking of this process as a journey or quest for Truth is a useful metaphor, but it can also be misleading. Jack Kornfield writes, “We need to remember that where we are going is here – that any practice is simply a means to open our hearts to what is in front of us. Where we already are is the path an the goal.”** By opening our eyes and letting go we come to discover not some distant or hidden truth, but rather that which is ever already the case.

In conclusion, I encourage (or even challenge) each and every person who reads this to trust yourself to the water. “[B]ecome open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.”

*(This certainly isn’t the case for ALL communities of faith. Marylhurst University, my alma mater, is a fine example of a truly ecumenical/inter-religious communion of enquiring minds and hearts.)

** from After the Ecstacy, The Laundry.

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