The Pursuit of Excellence Practical steps toward happiness

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.

21Nov/120

The Waiting Place

I hate waiting. I'd rather be doing.

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?

Can't stop the funk

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.

14Aug/122

Lowered Expectations

I am a productivity fanatic.

I get up early and after a healthy breakfast and some meditation I'll write down my ten long term goals and a long to-do list for the day. I try to apply the 80/20 principle to everything I do and schedule every half hour of my day. Push, push, push.

Overloaded vehicle
Overloaded

In the last 12 months I've been ambitious. I ran an election campaign--eight 80 hour weeks of intense, emotional work. I moved apartments, ended a long-term relationship, and left a good job to finally start a business. It's been long days of networking, business plans, and chasing investors.

At the same time I decided to start a writing career. I wrote a 65,000 word first draft of my book in six weeks and since January have been re-writing the second draft while attending a weekly writing workshop and applying for grants.

I started this website and freelance writing. I punish my body at CrossFit 4 times a week, have been teaching myself to play guitar, and reading voraciously while keeping a full social calendar.

The result? I'm badly burnt out.

Golf Wisdom

For months I've been asking myself why I can't keep up the pace; why I haven't hit my goals already. Every time I've slept in, skipped the gym, and just didn't feel like working I've berated myself about it. I'd tap thatWith that much stress, getting started again was murder. And so the cycle continued...

My turning point came a few weeks ago while interviewing a former PGA champ for a magazine article about golf tips.

"Bring down your expectations and your game will improve," he said. When golfers stress about sinking the putt they miss the shot. 'Relax and enjoy' was his advice.

Could I lower my expectations and enjoy more success?

Ongoing debate

Last week I came across an article at Lifehack asking Is it Time to Let Go of Productivity? It was a response to Leo Babauta's zenhabits article Toss Productivity Out advocating tossing goals in favour of working on what you enjoy in the moment.

"It is better to travel well than to arrive at the right destination"
- Arthur C. Custance

The authors disagreed on the recipe for success but I was relieved to know that others have also been a victim of productivity.

The ideal balance of productivity and letting go will differ for everyone, but after my own failed experiment with hyper-productivity I don't have much of a choice but to give the alternative a shot; to relax. To simplify. After all, I'm not a machine.

Do you need to lower your expectations? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Original images at ForkParty and DonkeyTs

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.

3May/120

The Pursuit of Excellence

SoldierLifelong learning. Physical and mental fitness. Honesty, integrity, and compassion.

If these ideas get your motor running, chances are you're familiar with the pursuit of excellence.

The pursuit is a challenging one. Excellence asks that you sacrifice--by waking up earlier, studying longer, and training harder. It asks that you plumb the depths of your soul to battle your most vicious demons. And it asks you to hold yourself to a higher moral code than those around you, even when it may cost your life.

But the reward is nothing less than becoming your best self.

To the ancient Greeks, there was no higher aim. They called this special type of excellence areté. The concept is beautifully captured in one of my favourite novels, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

"The hero of the Odyssey is a great fighter, a wily schemer, a ready speaker, a man of stout heart and broad wisdom who knows that he must endure without too much complaining what the gods send; and he can both build and sail a boat, drive a furrow as straight as anyone, beat a young braggart at throwing the discus, challenge the Pheacian youth at boxing, wrestling or running; flay, skin, cut up and cook an ox, and be moved to tears by a song. He is in fact an excellent all-rounder; he has surpassing areté."

Areté is seen in men and women of great accomplishment, like Aristotle and Leonardo Da Vinci. But you don't need to be a Renaissance Man to know areté.

"A man can do all things if he will."
- Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472)

All you need is to cultivate a sense of duty. Not to others, but to yourself. You must believe with burning passion in the value of excellence and work relentlessly to become the man or woman you know you can be.

Vitruvian rockerIf the pursuit requires such hard work, why bother? Isn't it better to relax and enjoy life? Watch some TV? Take the day off?

Maybe. That's a choice we're all free to make for ourselves. But in the pursuit of excellence you will find much greater rewards, like happiness, fulfillment, and peace.

And there is something greater than personal fulfillment at stake. The world suffers from an excellence deficit. Greed and incompetence has led the global economy into turmoil. Ignorance and fear still divide our human family. Building a better society requires that a critical mass of men and women decide to become their best selves. It's worth fighting for.

"The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there."
- Robert Persig

The altruistic argument will not appeal to everyone, and that's ok. We're all walking various paths at times in our lives, and no matter where they lead, we learn something valuable along the way. If you are ready, please join me; the world needs you.

But no matter where you are don't forget to enjoy this beautiful life however you can.

12Mar/121

The Momentum Principle

"An object in motion stays in motion" - Sir Isaac Newton (paraphrased... badly)

The other day I had a welcomed realization: this has been a strangely productive week.  Monday through Friday I made it to the gym, wrote thousands of words, made some great connections; even squeezed in a few guitar practice sessions.  If only I could make this a habit.

Pool balls in motion

Let's just ignore friction for now.

Well, why couldn't I?  From whence comes such efficiency?  Good sleep? Hard work? Luck?

I'm sure it was a combination of things, but I give most of the credit to the momentum principle:  I got myself moving Monday morning, and never stopped.

Like a ship or a train, once something's in motion, it's easier to keep going.  Effective humans seem always to be moving.  For them, one success leads to another.

"What saves a man is to take a step.  Then another step."  - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The opposite is also true.  If I step out of my positive routine even for a few days, I have a very hard time getting back in motion.

Losing momentum is discouraging.  My focus fades and I become unsure how to move toward my goals.  Sometimes I want to wash my hands of them entirely.  But there is a cure: to take a step, even when you don't feel like it.

What about Bob?

Baby steps onto the elevator...

Do anything healthy. Go outside, have a walk, call a friend, cook.  Then take another step.  It's amazing how easily something small can break the spell.

I was in a momentumless rut this morning.  But I took a step by going to the gym.  It did the trick, and I managed to salvage my day.

Sometimes the only cure for lack of motivation is rest.  Rest is important!  But there's a difference between relaxing after a hard day, and running out of momentum.  You should be able to feel the difference, but if you can't, ask yourself:

"Did I do something that brought me closer to my goals today?"  If you can answer yes, you're already generating momentum.

Build on it.

Filed under: Self-discipline 1 Comment