A man lives in the woods removed from society. He pays no taxes, has perfect freedom of speech, can practice his religion as he likes, and nobody tells him what he can and cannot do.
Is this man free? Despite the liberty in his external life he suffers daily over the thought of his lost loved ones. He's angry at something his ex-wife said ten years ago. He hates himself for quitting his job.
In the Western world, especially the United States, we place a premium on liberty and freedom. Yet so many people are unhappy. So many people with the OPTION to do literally whatever they can imagine remain in the same deepening groove of a mediocre job, an sexless marriage, dreams unfulfilled for 20 years.
A woman is serving a lifetime prison sentence in a Middle Eastern dungeon for charges we would consider frivolous. She is chained to the wall and whipped daily. She has virtually no freedom in her external world. And yet she remains blissful in most moments because in her mind she is free. Her jailers may eventually take her life, but they cannot take her mind and her forgiveness of her abusers.
Who is free, the man or woman? Freedom is tied more tightly with state of mind than life situation.
The mind can steal your happiness and the mind can liberate you. Every one of us has allowed our mind to limit our freedom despite what is happening with our bodies. The body is of course only a shell, a vehicle for whatever soul/awareness that inhabits it (that's the real you).
As I've argued, your life situation can have great influence over your mood, and often it's more sane to change your situation than to force your mind to bend. But you will be well off remembering that you have a choice, if not the power, to realize complete freedom.
How do we make ourselves so free that our very existence is an act of rebellion? Above all, watch your thoughts. The solution to all problems begins with identifying the problem. These exist as negative thoughts: you're pissed at your boss, your partner, your kid. You're sad that you lost something, broke something, hurt someone. You're kicking yourself that you didn't tell someone you were in love with them.
Whatever the heavy thought, recognize it. Don't judge the emotion or the thought. Just recognize it. Then let it go if you can.
Issue new operating instructions. What works best? Positivity. I can start this new habit, I can talk to that hot barista, I love my life, even though my roommate is a filthy savage.
And the best way to help these new attitudes stick? Get emotional. Use your anger, your excitement, your sadness to tell yourself how it's going to be from now on.
My grandfather loved to tell the story of how he quit smoking one day long before I was born. He went cold turkey and never touched another cigarette. His method? He told himself, "who is in charge, me or the cigarette?"
That might be overly simplistic, but the principle stands. You are in charge of your freedom. Create it.
What is purpose?
Is it some destiny we're fated to achieve? That's doubtful, given the number of people toiling away in bullshit jobs.
For those who have dedicated themselves to finding their purpose, where should they look? Is our purpose preordained, to be discovered under a rock, or behind a tree? This is the conventional wisdom brought on by stories of six year olds who just always wanted to heal people, then went on to medical school.
But what if there is no preset path for us? It's entirely possible that the universe has no plan for us because it is not self-aware or omnipotent. It's scary to think that we are not 'meant' to do anything.
One option is to collapse in despair and succumb to nihilism. Those sampling that buffet for any length of time will find it nauseating.
What to do?
The only reasonable option for those that don't believe in fate or a higher power is to give the finger to nihilism and create beauty despite the futility.
We must create our own meaning. We must generate our own passion. Get your ass excited about something. Try new things until you find one that fires you up every single morning.
Fail until you find it. Fail again. Fail until you are so sick of doing the work of finding your purpose that all you want to do is go back to your paper-shuffling/sales-targeting/rock-breaking job that will pay you just enough so you can watch a movie and have a few drinks on the weekend.
Then say "fuck that" and try again. You are not alone, and you can do this.
Your thoughts manifest reality.
Consider the story of two twins born with the same degenerative disease that left each unable to walk at age 20. One fell into despair and died two years later. The other rejected self pity and led a full life. Did their minds create their fates?
Why is is that so many seniors die soon after they lose their beloved spouse of 40 years? Do they give up?
You've heard of post-traumatic stress disorder, where traumatic events continue to afflict a person. But there is a phenomenon called post-traumatic growth, in which the same events lift a person to new heights of resilience. Why leads one airline crash victim to fall apart and the other into noble purpose? No doubt brain chemistry is part of the answer, but how much credit belongs to our choice of thoughts? The great majority, in my experience.
But what happens when we can't change our thoughts?
When I left a career that was no longer right for me I wandered for a year along deepening mental grooves, panicked about money, lacking identity, fearful I would never find purpose. I tried but could not change my thoughts. Exasperated, I changed my actions, and the negativity evaporated. I learned that the thought-reality connection works in both directions.
A psychologist wrote a beautiful magazine article about a woman who came to see her. Her husband had become unhappy and listless. He put all of his energy into a job he hated and at home watched TV all night. This woman convinced her skeptical husband to see this psychologist, who gave him one task: when you park your car at work tomorrow, take a winding route to the front door.
On Monday morning, instead of making a bee-line to the office, he walked around his car, turned left, walked two cars up, turned again, and walked forward in an arc to the door. He tried small variations on this route for the next few days. After a week the wife returned to the psychologist.
"What did you do to him?" she asked. "He's a completely different person!"
At home he was funny, thoughtful, and gave up TV.
The smallest act can be the catalyst for great change.
These last few weeks my major project has led me into a routine and life has turned grey around the edges. Today I'm exploring the city, far from any familiar grooves.
If you find yourself in a grey space, do something new. Playing banjo in your underwear in the bathroom could lead you to something great.
Where does creativity come from? Is beautiful work the fruit of methodical, superior thinking, and grit? Or does it spring effortlessly from some bottomless source, through us, if only we relax enough to let it?
Who cares? Does creativity matter? If you said, 'yes, of course', then you are fortunate. For too much of my life I labeled creativity as a frivolous luxury, the domain of those with too much time on their hands. Written on the surface of my subconscious I saw: 'artist = slacker'.
But I was just jealous.
I approached every task as, well, a task; a puzzle to be solved, a nut to be cracked. One day a friend of a friend said he "felt sorry for fools with no creativity." He was referring to the suited up 9 to 5 types, not knowing I mingled in those ranks. I fumed in silence and labeled him a slacker, at the same time admiring his ceaseless enthusiasm in his work and life.
Over time I lost joy in my own work while taking pride in a reputation as a 'ruthless taskmaster.' I annihilated to-do lists and generated reams of work that wanted to be good, but that lacked... spark. Lifeless progeny.
Ruthless taskmaster lost its appeal.
I thought back on the rare times in my life that I was excited, inspired, and lost in a pursuit. I thought about the time I was compelled to throw a fundraiser concert, to write a sci-fi short story, to start playing piano again, for no apparent reason.
That work didn't feel like work, and the results had life in them. I created.
Almost without exception those who create great work credit the same cosmic soup for their brilliance. This inexhaustible wellspring has a will of its own, a desire to manifest itself. The artist sees himself as nothing but a midwife for genius.
Creativity belongs not only to painters, writers, and musicians. We're all born with it. You can apply it anywhere -- all you have to do is trust the soup.
(Credit to Steven Pressfield's book Do The Work for the inspiration)
Three weeks ago my mother died.
Strange, but I feel guilty because I'm not a wreck. When I've lost people I love in the past I've gone to pieces. Did I not love and care for my mom? Did we have a strained relationship?
No, nothing like that. She was one of my closest friends, a model parent who shaped my good character in ways that I will only begin to understand in the years to follow her death.
I would say that I'm in shock or denial, except that the pain is too vivid. Still, I thought I would be a catastrophe. I saw myself taking a month off work to inhabit the couch in filthy sweatpants, descending into an alcohol soaked, inconsolable depression.
The pain is deep and comes regularly but through all of this I've been able to dip into a well of peace that I've never accessed in past tragedies.
"So what's different?" I keep asking myself, since that morning I watched the life leave her face.
My best guess? Surrender. In the face of the inevitable and unalterable, I learned how to surrender. My mom was deemed terminal six weeks before her death, and in years past I could not have accepted this. I would have harried and harangued the doctors for better care and pushed my mom to fight harder. I would have stabbed and kicked and buried the sorrow. I might have bargained with a higher power and taken out my anger on my brother.
But that seemed pointless. For three years my mom fought cancer as best she could but she lost the day the doctor gave her the news. The death of hope. I chose to have deep conversations at her bedside, to read to her and comfort her, not to be a pain in the ass. Why worsen a death sentence?
I'm surprised by how I'm handling this tragedy. Far from becoming the whiskey-soaked zombie I expected, I found strength in the sorrow.
How did I come to surrender? I've been working very hard over the last two years to change my life by changing my thoughts (another mom lesson). I've delved deep into a meditation regimen. I work to be mindful of my thoughts, feelings, and my body all day. And I try to see that negative thoughts can self-perpetuate if you don't see them for what they are -- just passing storm clouds. There's an unspeakable beauty and peace in accepting reality without adding layers of redundant suffering. This suffering is almost always the lies we tell ourselves.
The loss still hurts like hell, but I'm not making it worse by resisting the reality. When I asked my mom if she had any life lessons to share it was this:
"Surrender. Let go and enjoy life."
I'm starting to understand, mom.
The strangest thing happened to me a few months ago. For the first time in my life I became consistently happy.
Since 18 I've known that I suffer from depression, but until I stepped out of it I didn't realize how it had been affecting me, and how severely. These last 6 months I've been walking around in a euphoric daze. I keep waiting for the crash, but it never comes.
People tell me odd things like, "you're beautiful, and "you're coming into your power." I'm not always sure what they mean, but by Zeus, I agree with them.
So how did I get here? It's been a gradual and winding path, but let me chart it for you.
Don't mind the weather
"The best tool I've found to fight depression," the stranger began, "is to realize that thoughts are like the weather. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. Think of it like storm clouds -- they pass, and they don't mean anything."
And he's right. I knew intuitively that this attitude was the key to beating this horrible affliction, but I still had trouble letting go of a lot of things from a troubled past.
The biggest by far was a girl. Not just any girl, but the only human being in the world that ever understood me. I lost her and couldn't get over that. So I decided to see her again.
That meeting went over like a gas leak in a fireworks factory.
The short version is that she stormed out of the restaurant, then for 20 minutes we yelled at each other in a parking lot.
But it was my most cathartic experience. Picture a steel cable running between her and I. For two years after our breakup I was tethered to her, and when you're linked to someone like this it's impossible not to think about her 50 times a day.
After that evening's shouting and crying was done, I could see the cable starting to fray and snap in places. It's not severed but it sure as hell isn't pulling on me like it used to.
I've made my peace with this woman and have been able to move on with my life, not just in relationships but in all my endeavours.
Don't take life too seriously; you'll never get out alive
This happened in March, around the same time I had a serious setback with my business; I lost a big contract that was supposed to be a done deal.
Naturally, I went out and got 20 sheets to the wind. Pissed up like a pro. I was angry.
But you know what? The next day I woke up and realized,
"Holy shit, if I take this work so seriously, it will kill me."
So I treated it as a passing storm cloud, exactly what it was. A blip on the radar. A stone I kicked off my path.
I've decided to do nothing, except for fun. It's an adventure, this life, not a damned serious chore full of false tragedy like depression would have you believe.
Depression is a disease, like reality TV
This whole change coincided with another major life decision: the one to get myself on some pills. No pharmaceuticals, but a natural supplement called 5-HTP. I resisted this for more than 10 years.
"Depression happens because you have real issues in your life or your past, and you can't work through them if you're drugged up."
What a crock pot of shit. The real escapism is depression. That's the false reality.
I still feel sad, angry, and depressed some days. I haven't lost the capacity for a full range of emotion. In fact, I'm now working with a full toolbox. To those negative emotions I've added joy, humour, wonder, mindfulness.
I no longer define myself as "a sensitive soul who suffers from depression." Why would I want to?
Do mind your mind
The last sea-change I made was taking my meditation seriously. I got myself a life shifting book called 'The Mindful Way Through Depression' that expands on this idea of thoughts as passing clouds, and gives you the tools to live that philosophy.
Now, when I sit on the subway every morning, I just watch people, and it's my favourite part of the day.
Go out and get yourself a new paradigm because you CAN beat depression. Don't waste ten years, like me.
The sooner the better.
"There are no limits, only plateaus."
- Bruce Lee
I’ve become aware of how angry I am in the last few days. I’ve been dreaming of conflict, and it’s seeping into my work. It occupies my mental landscape. It is this plateau’s obstacle and it stands in my way like a hate-filled monster. I have no doubt that I will best it, not through conflict or domination, but with surrender. The monster is just a frightened kid.
The monster is my dad. He left ten years ago, and I haven’t seen since. A third of my life without a father. I just looked into the abyss.
The rage and pain that hibernates somewhere south of my heart is the memory of him dissolving our family. I haven’t had the tools to deal with this tragedy for ten years. It’s only the last week that I feel I need to reach out. It’s painful that it will have to be me to make the first move, but I expect nothing from him. I am twice the man at half his age.
A son needs his father, maybe even more in his 30’s. In my 30s I will start a business, launch a writing career, and probably start a family. It sure would help to talk to someone who’s walked the road.
I can’t brush this aside any longer, I’m starting to look like him. I don’t want to hear that one day he died, and wonder what I missed because I clung to pride.
I’m terrified -- the surest sign to turn and face this.
"Offer no resistance... In this way, you become invulnerable."
- Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
"They're all gonna laugh at you!"
- Adam Sandler
I'm your ego, and I want what's best for you. With me you're never wrong, never need to say sorry, never need to take an uncomfortable risk. If someone hurts you, I'll make them sorry. You may be a bundle of flaws, kid, but I'll help you put on a show. Fool them all.
Ego probably helped our ancestors survive the jungle, but it serves no purpose in a global community that's trying to rapidly evolve beyond war, hate, and suffering.
Vulnerability kills the ego, and with it the illusion that we are separate or alone. Walls between people crumble when we speak openly about our fears and insecurities.
We liberate ourselves when we stop fighting internal battles, turn to face our pain, and surrender to it.
In this way we transcend our suffering and become invulnerable.
Three weeks ago I put self-employment on hold to get back into a salaried job. I traded a relaxed 10 minute bike commute to a cozy coffee shop for an hour long, trench warfare-style slog through the gauntlet of Toronto's subway system at rush hour, complete with three transfers, including one at the city's busiest station.
The hollow faces of my sleep starved brothers and sisters-in-arms, the unconscious rushing, getting body checked without a 'sorry' might have robbed me of my spirit by now. But somehow those 60 minutes have become the best of my day. Why?
Because I have treated the time as an opportunity.
An opportunity to practice mindfulness. Humans have not evolved to deal with the trauma of racing through underground tubes toward a cubicle before sunrise. My commute is objectively unpleasant. Yet I have found peace in the bedlam through practicing mindfulness. Quieting my mind. Listening.
This peace shows that, even in unpleasant situations, I can be mindful. And If I can do it in chaos, I can do it throughout the less stressful parts of my day.
Knowing this makes me smile.
When I was a kid I used to delay trips to the bathroom because it meant putting 'fun' on hold. As an adult I tend to jam my schedule so tight I can't find time to eat. Sitting idle is a sin, says the world outside.
Line-ups, traffic. Waiting for an important call. These are annoying, but there's a far more crushing brand of waiting: getting stuck. Life stuck.
I want to finish my book, launch my business, finally learn to play Hotel California on guitar. But my last chapter was flat; my business model is flawed; my fingers won't cooperate.
Challenges visited each of my projects all at once this past summer, landing on top of a layer of family and personal worries, and I got stuck. I fell into a funk.
For weeks I made little progress on my goals. I forced myself to keep going and beat myself up when I couldn't find the strength. The funk worsened. I had no choice but to take a vacation and to fire my inner slave-driver (he still loiters in the background.)
"Difficulties in your life do not come to destroy you, but to help you realize your hidden potential and power." - Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam
In this unwanted rest period I learned there is value in getting stuck.
Ever notice that when waiting at a red light you're more aware of your surroundings than when driving?
Standing still lets us look around. When we look around we can see what's working and what is not in our lives. In this mindful place we can see opportunities and truths we would normally miss.
In my "waiting place" I learned to ask for help. I learned to stop forcing. And I learned to be kinder to myself. These lessons helped move my projects back on track.
"Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you." - Rainer Maria Rilke
Challenges will come, and some will stop you in your tracks. You can thrash around in this waiting place or you can treat it as a welcomed chance to look around.
Have you been stuck? Let me hear your story in the comments section below.