The Pursuit of Excellence Practical steps toward happiness

11Mar/150

New acts, new thought

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.

15Oct/130

Depression Lies

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

depressionThe first change came after I read a seemingly innocuous comment made in a comment thread, buried in a now forgotten post on a social media site.

"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.

That sucked.

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.

19Feb/130

Mindfulness in Chaos

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.

Subway tunnelThe 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.

2Oct/120

A Window to the Unconscious

Couple sleepingLate last night I was awakened by my ex coming into my bedroom. We've been apart for over a year, so in the dark I thought it was an intruder.

But as she got closer I could see it was someone I had loved. At the edge of my bed she asked,

"Can I just lay beside you tonight?"

"Of course you can, sweetie," I told her. And we were together again, at least for a while.

It was just a dream but it felt much more real. Although she wasn't physically present, she was truly 'there', if only in spirit.

It's not often that I have vivid dreamlike experiences, but I welcome each one. Dreaming is a window into another realm, whether it's the unconscious mind, or a plane of existence that science has yet to understand. Our reality is so much larger than the waking, conscious moments that we invest so much of our time and energy fussing over. Pyschologists say around 90 percent of all mental activity is unconscious: our desires, our fears, our creativity lives here.

It would be a tragedy to go through life leaving this vast and beautiful terrain unexplored. Although last night's experience was just a dream, it was also a healing experience. It reminded me that, even though lovers be lost, love shall not.

We all dream, every night, about once every 90 minutes. We don't always remember our dreams, but there are ways to improve our dream recall:

1.Have clear intentions

Before falling asleep, tell yourself with conviction that you will remember your dreams on waking.

2.Schedule your sleep

We are more likely to remember our dreams if we get enough sleep. Try for at least 8 hours. And, since we dream every 90 minutes, you can set your alarm to wake you up in hour and a half multiples, either 4.5, 6, 7.5 or 9 hours after going to bed.

3. Keep a dream journal

I keep a notepad by my bed and as soon as I wake up, I write down anything I can remember. If nothing comes, I simply write, "Don't remember." The key to success is to get into the habit of doing it every morning. Even if you wake in the dead of night, writing a few words down will improve your recall when the sun's up.

4. The dream diet

Eating certain foods before bed may improve dream recall: cheese, bananas, apple/orange juice. Vitamin B-6 and Tryptophan may have the same effect.

What is your experience with dreaming and the unconscious? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments, below.

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28May/120

Welcome your Demons

Original image from http://www.justdesktopwallpapers.com/desktop_wallpaper/704/1280x1024/star_wars_darth_vader.html
(Don't) let the hate flow through you

As Buddha sat meditating under the Bodhi tree for his final push toward Enlightenment, the demon Mara launched a fierce attempt to prevent him from arriving.

The demon assailed him with visions of beautiful women but each time Buddha simply responded, “I see you, Mara,” and remained focused on his purpose.  Finally, Mara retreated in defeat.

Mara represents all of those behaviours that keep us from realizing our excellence.  In this story he’s a symbol for destructive emotions like craving, greed, anger, and boredom.

We can respond to Mara in three ways.  The first is to give in: act with hatred or become attached to material possessions.  Try it and you will find that this strategy leads only to unhappiness.

The second is to fight Mara, which is what I’ve been doing for years, unsuccessfully.  I’ve tried to repress my anger, pull myself out of sadness by my bootstraps, or even ignore these emotions when they come. I wanted to take the shortcut to higher consciousness. But the battle cannot be won this way.

Mara must be faced with acceptance.  Welcome Mara and you take away his power.

I first heard the Mara story in Tara Brach’s book, Radical Acceptance, a great read for those who seek greater peace.  Even after the Buddha reached Enlightenment, she writes, the demon continued to test him.

“Instead of driving him away, however, the Buddha would calmly acknowledge the demon’s presence saying, “I see you, Mara.”  He would then invite him for tea and serve him as an honored guest… Mara would stay for awhile and then go, but throughout, the Buddha remained free and undisturbed.”

Original image from http://www.40daydetox.com/40-days-its-physiological-psychological-and-spiritual-significance-day-35/gautama_buddha_bodhi_tree/

Just ignore those watery tarts

We cannot avoid negative emotions, but when we let go of our resistance to them and accept them as a part of life, we can be free of them.  This may seem counterintuitive, but it works.  At times I move through my acting angry, fearful, or sad without being aware of it.  But when I do finally key in—when I acknowledge Mara, those emotions start to lose their power over me.

I will leave you with a mantra that helps when I struggle with negative emotions:

“I welcome the opportunity (even if painful) that my minute to minute experience offers me to become aware of the addictions I must reprogram to be liberated from my robot-like emotional patterns.” - The Twelve Pathways to Higher Consciousness by Ken Keyes Jr.

I hope it also brings you peace.

23Apr/120

Are your thoughts holding you back?

Lance Armstrong

Believed cancer could not stop him

If my mind was a person, we probably wouldn't be friends.  Over the years it's told me I will never be wealthy, or happy.  That I can't quit smoking, or find a better job.  It's told me to give up on my dreams because they're too big, and it's told me to feel sorry for myself when I face challenges.

Because I trusted my mind, I believed everything it told me.  That was a mistake.

From childhood we all collect beliefs about the world, ones that either serve us or hurt us.  These beliefs literally create our reality, and can be especially dangerous when we are unaware of their effect on us.

Limiting beliefs keep us from our greatness

But I have good news: once you see them, you can pull them out by the roots.

Stephen Hawking

Beat serious limiting beliefs

When I was younger I had a terrible fear of speaking to new people.  My limiting belief was that I'd say something stupid, and be harshly judged for it.  Eventually I became so fed up with how it affected my life that I forced new operating instructions into my mind: that what I have to say is important, and that if other people don't like it, that's their problem.

I pushed myself to talk and it worked out great!  I no longer have trouble speaking to new people. In fact, I've noticed how many other people have a hard time speaking to me as a stranger, and because of my past experience I can empathize with them and help them open up.

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can't--you're right.” - Henry Ford

Your mind is only a tool that can be used to help or hurt; it is not in charge.  'You' are in charge.  Your being, your soul is in charge.  If you want something from life, don't let limiting beliefs block you from getting it.  You can turn your mind into a friend, but you have to give it clear expectations.

Now go out and get what you want.

Filed under: Goals, Psychology No Comments
26Mar/120

Go With Your Gut

Malcolm Gladwell drew me into his recent besteller about intuition, Blink, by opening with a story of art forgery.  In 1983, he wrote, a man approached the Getty Museum with a marble statue dating from the sixth century BC, a piece he was willing to part with for $10 million.

Greek Statue

What a phony!

Naturally the museum did its homework, and recruited a renowned geologist to scrutinize the statue with electron microscopes and X-rays.  Everything, including the paperwork, seemed to check out.  The excitement at the Getty, however, faded quickly.

One by one, experts of Greek sculpture cried, 'fake.'  Nervous museum lawyers began to dig deeper, and slowly uncovered evidence of a skillful forgery.  The investigation was inconclusive despite the experts' unanimity: the Getty bought a fake.

In almost every case, the observers made up their minds seconds after laying eyes on the piece.  Their reason for doubt? "Intuitive Repulsion."  The naked Greek looked too... 'fresh'.  Gladwell argues that everyone is born with this 'sixth sense:' the ability to 'know' something without rational thinking.

Intuition (is) perception via the unconscious
- Carl Jung

I'm inspired by the idea that our capacity for decision making--and for understanding the world around us--is much larger than we're often told.  Do we each possess an enormous, untapped potential?

Sarah Palin
Intuition... not just for crackpots anymore

In a world more comfortable with logic and the scientific method, the idea of "going with your gut" suffers a minor image problem.  Blink has been thoroughly criticized.

Intuition is often portrayed as mysterious and mystical--the domain of prophets and crackpots.  But neuroscience has repeatedly challenged that view, and those who swear by intuition can now cite scientific evidence.  I'll let you intuit my stance.

Whatever your position, you probably know what intuition feels like.  You may have said, "Something is wrong," or, "it just felt right, joining the circus."  It may have helped you to nix a toxic friendship, or to make a smart financial move.

Successful entrepreneurs often cite intuition as their most powerful tool.

Many know that some of the best decisions they make are the deals they pass on.  After traveling across India, Steve Jobs remarked that, “The main thing I’ve learned is intuition."

Steve Jobs
This is actually Steve's meditation pose

Why does intuition make good leaders?  In part, because they use it to make good decisions quickly.  They know what needs to be done without a paralyzing study or long scientific analysis.

If, like me, you weren't born with strong intuition, you probably want to know if it can be nurtured.  Studies says, yes, probably.  Past knowledge and experience boosts intuition.  A Greek art expert can intuitively spot a fake only because she's looked at more than a few statues.  It follows that intuition can grow over time.  But how?

With all skills, practice helps.  Our intuition is strongest when our minds are free of clutter and we're relaxed.  Meditation, day dreaming, walking, music; all of these help us hear that inner voice.  Practice mental de-cluttering.  And trust your intuition.  It may not always be right, but often is, and it will develop over time.

As it does, you'll gain a skill that will help you get more out of this beautiful life.

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27Feb/120

Forgive Yourself… Forgive Others

When I was 7, my mom took away my favourite Lego set as a punishment for something.  I was always getting in trouble, something I haven't grown out of.  In the process, the toy fell to the ground and was smashed to bits.  It was the end of the world.

Lego GuitarI was so angry that I barricaded the door to my bedroom with clothes and stuffed animals, and went to work hatching a plan to get revenge: to break something of hers.

I woke up the next morning and saw my barricade.  I felt silly.  My tantrum hadn't solved anything.  It was only a stupid toy, and I let go of the anger immediately.  Unconsciously, I forgave her.

Kids seem to have a knack for letting go, a talent we lose as we get older.  Don't ask me why this is.

Forgiving others

All of us have been wronged in the past, and it will likely happen again.  As adults, we have to be mindful of how we respond if we want to avoid becoming bitter old scrooges.

"He who is devoid of the power to forgive, is devoid of the power to love."
- Martin Luther King Jr.

Why forgive?  Most obvious are the tangible benefits: lower blood pressure, less anxiety, and less risk of abusing alcohol and drugs.

More importantly anger, resentment, and desire for revenge keeps you stuck in the past.  Hanging onto these feelings hurt YOU most.  Withholding forgiveness actually gives the person that hurt you power over you.  Do you want that?  The best revenge, as they say, is living well, and in part that means moving on.

Negative emotions can be used as fuel to grow.  The period after a breakup, for example, is an incredible chance to become a better person.   Through forgiveness you can find greater peace.

"The weak can never forgive.  Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong."
- Mahatma Gandhi

Arab and Jewish Boys

Forgive or Relive

Forgiving others is hard!  Depending on the offense, and the person that hurt you, it can seem impossible.  Forgiveness can't be forced.  You can't 'will' yourself to forgive or forget.

What you can do is have the courage to face the pain.  Mourning the loss or tending your wounds is a great start.

Recognizing that everyone is basically good at their core can help.  I'm convinced nobody hurts others because they're evil, but out of ignorance.  This doesn't mean I excuse the behaviour, or even forget about it.  I just let it go.

Forgiving Yourself

Many people carry around a lot of guilt.  But aside from pointing out when we've done something wrong, guilt is a useless emotion.

Hanging on to guilt prevents us from loving ourselves, which kills our chance at happiness, prevents us from loving others and reaching our potential, and keeps us stressed.

"Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future."
- Paul Boese

Consider forgiving yourself.  You're not perfect, and no matter how much you strive for excellence, you never will be.  Mistakes are inevitable.  Learn from them, then let go and move on.

Your future self will thank you.

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