Archive for the ‘what makes us tick’ Category

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Every time I head into my annual thinking session I have an idea of what I want to think about. And every time I end up thinking about something else. But as I go over my notes, that something else always turns out to be exactly the topic that has been in some way on my mind for months. And that topic always a continuation of the chain that by now has spanned quite a few years. This year was no exception. Just like the last year, my mind wandered off to an unplanned territory, only to come back with conclusions that made the puzzle more complete.

Two years ago I said that I have figured out the intricate building blocks of the puzzle that I had been facing for years every time I would take a hard look at my life. I talked about living every moment as the ultimate goal, willpower and procrastination being two sides of the same token and self-respect as the cornerstone of happiness. Every single conclusion I reached back then is still correct. Yet, something has been missing from the picture. Something fundamental. Last year’s No Limits idea ventured into that territory, but did not go deep enough. Yes, breaking through one’s limits is extremely important. Yes, earning self-respect is a must. Yes, truly living every moment is the goal. But what is the cause of the eternal inner struggle? Why is there a fight going on inside me, to begin with? Who am I struggling against? I can declare (and rightfully so) procrastination to be rooted in fear, but where does this fear come from? Those and dozens of similar questions remained unanswered.

Until now.

I don’t know how scientific what is about to follow is. I have no formal education in psychology and, despite a decent number of good books, I have recently read on the subject, I’m far from being an expert. I don’t even have a goal of becoming one. I’m only concerned with figuring out what makes me tick and applying that knowledge to reach that elusive, yet very real, state of true living. Scientifically sound or not, my conclusions are based on my observations of my own actions, thoughts and behaviors. As long as they offer plausible explanations and don’t contradict facts, that’s all I need.

So here’s my newest theory or rather, the newest state of my multi-year “what makes me tick?” journey. This is a distilled summary of it, since there’s too much content to cram into a single post. If you have been following my blog, you know that I’ve been puzzled for years by some questions. I’ve just listed some of them, but there are more. Why, despite having strong abilities, I so often slip into the swamp of procrastination instead of putting them to use? Why do I even have to face the absurd idea of wasting time on something pointless instead of doing what I think needs to be done? Why, being a free man in a free country, am I so obsessed with a concept of liberation and awakening? Liberation from what? What are those bursts of life that I experience from time to time, that make my regular existence look like a gray shadow of what living my life can be? And so on and so forth.

At some point, I came to the conclusion that the struggle was imaginary. My mind, I reasoned, just deals with multiple options and tends to choose those that offer instant gratification. Piece of cake. Could be ended with a single decisive resolution. Several hundreds resolutions later I was still finding myself staring into the dark luring surface of the procrastination swamp way too often. As it turned out, the struggle has been very real. Snapping my fingers, no matter, how resolutely won’t end it.  But the conditions causing it can be healed — once they are understood.

We are born wired for freedom. That freedom is expressed in two aspects. One, our ability to imagine anything. Too, our ability to choose to go after anything we imagine. Our ideas may be wrong, our choices may be horrible, but we do have those two innate abilities that are cornerstones of our day-to-day existence.

And so we imagine and choose, and act. And when I think about things I like to do and things I want to accomplish, the most logical step in the world is, as Nike likes to remind us, just do it. But I don’t always follow that clean logic and when I do, it often involves a great deal of that inexplicable inner struggle. However, it wasn’t always like this. There was time, not too long ago, when I was getting some very noteworthy things done, things that made me proud and prompted me to set even more ambitious goals. And that gradual change is the key to understanding what happened.

Despite the convenience of perceiving my mind as a single entity, what I call I is, in reality, a thin layer of consciousness on top of a deep ocean of subconscious. The scientists have been debating for years what exactly subconscious is and even how to call it (unconscious is considered a more accurate term these days), but there is no denying the simple fact that the vast majority of our brain activity happens without any discernible involvement of I. Be it processing of millions of signals from my sensory organs, driving a car or instantaneous translation of written text into mental images, my brain is always busy with myriad of things that I’m not aware of. And that part of my mind by its very definition operates without direct control of my conscious. It has its own priorities and constantly uses them to make decisions. It leads a very busy life, trying to protect me from real and imaginary dangers and get me through my day unharmed, and, preferably, fed. And it is neither fully aware, nor particularity interested in the goals and ambitions of my consciousness. It probably views the conscious as a spoiled child who can afford to play with his toys, thanks to the safety provided by a busy adult.

My subconscious learns and evolves throughout my life, just like my conscious does. But unlike its conscious counterpart, which may decide to hurl myself down a steep ski trail or get into a fight for a cause it considers worthy, subconscious does not get excited by a challenge. What it cares about is protection and maintenance. And if it senses danger in the path chosen by the conscious, it is not inclined to cooperate — unless it has been conditioned to accept that kind of a path. On its own, it always chooses the path of least resistance. Yet, it can be trained, condition and directed. This is where my mistake has been all these years.

At some point, the gap between by conscious and subconscious started to grow. And instead of working with my subconscious and training it to trust the judgement of my conscious, I began to fight it. Concerned about my well-being, it began fighting back — and winning. Every time my conscious, tired of fighting,  would look away, the subconscious, left on its own, would find a way to get me busy with safe, easy and even mildly pleasurable activities. As a result, over time it has been taken over my day to day existence. Occasionally, my conscious would wake up, thinking about the goals it has wanted to achieve, scream in horror at the sight of the ticking clock and lack of progress, and try to go after its goals — only to face the growing resistance of my subconscious that over years has become accustomed to full freedom.

Then, my conscious would spent countless days in futile attempts to overcome the power of my subconscious and its growing control of my actions and thoughts. What’s worse, the conscious, frustrated by the meager results of its attempts, has been understandably harsh in its judgement, creating over time a very strong feeling of dissatisfaction with myself. And that’s where a vicious cycle got formed. The dissatisfaction was being fed into the subconscious regularly, which eventually has internalized it, turning it into an even deeper feeling of guilt and unworthiness that eventually started to permeate my entire existence. And, as a cherry on the top, my subconscious learned to dismiss the goals set by my conscious. From its point of view, those goals were bringing nothing but trouble. The conditioning took place, but it was negative. No wonder that my life has become such a mess.

This is exactly what that endless struggle of two souls has been all about. It’s been one, rather confused, soul in a constant and futile fight with itself. My consciousness against my subconscious. This path path has been a road to ever deepening misery.

But there is another path. I used to be on it, without understanding, years ago. The path of positive conditioning. The path of consistent conscious efforts that turn into robust and powerful subconscious patterns. The path that relies on and reinforces a virtuous cycle instead of a vicious one. It is fairly easy to get on that path. And — despite what years of negative experience are screaming to me now — it shouldn’t be too hard to stay on it. After all, my subconscious is eager to work together, especially now that I understand the nature of that struggle. How do I know? Well, every rhymed verse I’ve ever written has been a product of joint work of my conscious and subconscious. And had it not been on board, I would not have concluded Two Souls with these lines five years ago:

I am the one who wins the fight
The winner takes it all.
And in a swamp or in a flight
At last I will be whole.

No limits

It’s been another year. Ten minutes after writing this sentence I found myself looking for a smooth way to continue. When you post once a year, it’s easy to focus on eloquent salutations. But that’s not why I’m here. The reason I keep coming back, now for the fifth year in a row, is to share things I have realized. For me, a key part of life is discovery of what it actually means to live, and these posts, regardless of their frequency, are mileposts on that road. And as it happens, since the last post I’ve come quite a distance. So hello everyone, hope everything is well, and let’s cut straight to the chase. This post is going to be long enough already.

The puzzle I wrote about last year is still there. In fact, it has evolved significantly. More pieces have been identified and placed into their right spots. But on the way something unexpected has happened — the puzzle has grown in complexity. It felt like exploring a solid object and suddenly discovering that it’s made of molecules, which in turn are made of atoms, which in turn are made of particles. While realization like this means more exploration, it also leads to re-evaluation of some pieces. What looked for years like a monolithic unit suddenly becomes a fluffy imaginary concept. Take limits for example.

The title of this post sounds a line straight from that 90s techno song. It has to be a metaphor, right? Our life is full of limits. We experience them every day. They are everywhere. We are limited in many, many ways, whether we like it or not. Or are we?

First of all, what’s a limit? There are multiple definitions, but the most basic one, to quote Oxfod Dictionary, is “a point or level beyond which something does not or may not extend or pass”. When we think or talk about our life, that something is our thoughts and actions. We refer to a limit to outline their possible range, to draw a border between we consider possible and what we believe is outside our reach. I’m too tired to work on this, I think I’ve just reached my limit… I won’t able to run that fast, that would be really beyond my limit… I have to stay realistic, I know my limits… We think and say phrases like this all the time. In fact, more often than not we don’t even bother articulating the existence of a limit — we simply know it’s there. And why shouldn’t we? Aren’t we indeed limited? We can’t outrace a train, can’t move a 10-ton rock and certainly can’t breath underwater. Yes, it’s possible to push our limits, but there’s a limit on how we can push them.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Everything. As always, the devil is hiding in the fine print.

Let’s start with the obvious: this is not about physical limits. Actually, I would argue that even physical limits are only convenient mental models, but there is no way to do this convincingly without turning this post into a five-page essay, delving into psychology, physics and philosophy (and believe me, I’ve tried — this is the fifth time I’m re-writing this text). So for the purposes of this post, let’s put physical limits aside, at least for now, and take a closer look at things that exist inside our mind.

Consider a limit that we all so well familiar with: speed limit. It’s posted wherever we drive and it’s rather specific. Yet, doesn’t pass a simple test against the dictionary definition. True, any speed limit sign speaks of a specific point. But we all know that we can go faster than it and in fact, many of us do. Going beyond it can bring some benefits (getting faster to our destination) and quite a few potential problems, ranging from minor (a ticket) to major (injury or death). So we choose not to go faster than that number, or at least exceed it without speeding like a car on a NASCAR track. But should we choose to, we can go faster, much faster, actually. Moreover, police and ambulance do it routinely. Same can be said about most points we mentally mark as limits: they prompt us to slow down, to stay below a certain level. But they don’t really mark a border beyond which we physically cannot go.

Now let’s leave the physical world for a moment and dive into something more abstract. Imagine an infinite plane, like the one they use in math books and on covers of SciFi magazines. It is unlimited, isn’t it? It stretches from infinity to infinity, after all. True. But only as long as you look at two dimensions. Its thickness is as limited as something can be — it’s plain zero. When it comes to the third dimension, an infinite plane is more limited than a sheet of paper. And yet when we think of it, we think of what makes it infinite, not limited.

Same applies to our lives. Limited as we appear to be in our physical characteristics — including the number of moments we get to live — we are truly, literally limitless when it comes to the ways to apply our capabilities. We can set an infinite number of goals, find an infinite number of way to spend our moments and consider infinite range of options when making a choice. We can be limitless — if we choose to. But most of the time we don’t. We set mental lines not to be crossed, not even to be approached — and call them our limits. Yet whatever we are limiting with these boundaries, they exists only in our mind. Moreover, these internal limits rarely even approach the true extent of our physical or mental capabilities.

We are all born free. Weak, vulnerable, helpless, but free. At that point we are not aware of consequences of our actions — and of ourselves, for that matter — and as such we cannot restrict them. It’s a very strange freedom, freedom of complete ignorance, and it doesn’t mean much because true freedom implies purposeful action. But in that state we don’t limit ourselves — just ask any parent.

As we grow up, we discover things we like and dislike. We learn to desire the former and to avoid the latter. And in order to avoid everything unpleasant, we begin reducing the extent of our actions and even thoughts. We have to. Otherwise we’d be falling off balconies and sticking our hands into fireplaces all the time. And so we create mental lines not to be crossed and internalize some of them to the degree that they become fully subconscious.

Many of these limits are necessary, since they keep us and others safe. They are also good for channeling our efforts to achieve a better outcome (more about this in another post). But many — way too many — limits are created out of different shades of fear and guilt. We want to avoid risk, potential humiliation, physical harm, frustration, rejection. Be it public speaking, learning a new skill, changing a job, asking out someone we like, taking on a challenging task, moving to a new town, standing up to a bully or expressing ourselves honestly, so often we choose to play it safe. And we do it over and over, and over again. What makes these choices fully justified to ourselves? Our own creations. Limits.

Yet unlike laws of physics they exist only in our imagination. Gravity is real. Our limit in defying it is not. That’s why people have walked the Moon and why we can enjoy close up pictures of Pluto. A limit is a boundary beyond which we think we cannot go in a chosen action. But actions are only means to accomplishing goals. And if you look at it this way, most of our so called limits disappear immediately. Or rather, they become irrelevant. You can actually outrace a train — if you get on a plane (though some try using their legs for that). You can move a 10-ton rock — all it takes is a bulldozer (or a clever use of levers). And yes, you can breath underwater — it’s called scuba diving. This all sounds like a no brainer, but how often have you hit a “limit” just because you thought of an action and not of the desired outcome?

And just like the zero-thick infinite surface we can be limitless. We’d still have to deal with laws of physics, biology and social norms. But they should only determine our options, not prevent us from accomplishing our goals. Because the alternative to being limitless is to be limited — in a few or in many ways. This is how most of us spend our lives. Bound by mental uncrossable lines, created by our imagination or learned from others. Giving up when we think we can’t go further, without realizing that there are more ways to achieve the goal. Or worse, not even trying because there is a dark wall looming somewhere down the road. And so we make limits real by not trying to go beyond or around them. Yet, they are not a real unless we make them to. That’s how I used to live. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Not only there is a way to feel limitless — there’s is a way to be limitless.

And the most important part of it is that as great as it sounds, becoming limitless is not the ultimate goal. It is only a step. A step into a state that makes everything else possible. It’s a foundation of life as it can be. As it should be. It is only the beginning.

Counting the Moments

Posted: September 29, 2012 in September 28, what makes us tick
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When people talk about traditions they typically mean rituals established by someone many generations ago. While I respect (most) traditions of this sort, to me another kind of traditions is way more important — traditions, established by me and by those I care about. Which is why I’m writing my September 28th post, even though I’m not back yet from my self-imposed hiatus. When you do something for three years in a row, it’s a tradition.

As usual on this date, I’ve spent some time thinking — maybe a bit harder than usual — about my favorite L-word. And as usual I realized something. Don’t expect a revelation. What you are about to read is as trivial as it gets when it comes to statements about life. What makes it special for me is that now I understand it deeper than I ever have. A warning: don’t read this if you’re easily depressed. I mean it. Just stop reading right here.

Do you ever get this feeling of moments being wasted as your life passes by? It passes right in front of your eyes, in all its glory and complexity — and you can’t help, but feel that these seconds are being thrown away. You can feel your body getting older with every passing moment, you can sense opportunities being ignored, risks not taken, life not lived. There are life experts around you telling you that life is too precious to be wasted, encouraging you to live it, screaming at you about planning it, establishing bold goals, going after them with everything you’ve got, taking charge, blah, blah, blah. But what do they know? They are people just like you, and their clock is ticking just as steadily. All you know is that you have a limited number of moments in this world and you’re just not using them right. And it sucks big time.

So you just think about something else. You choose not to think about that unstoppable timer. You pretend to forget. In fact, you do forget — until next time. But there always is that next time. And you know what it is? Slavery. We’re being held hostage to our fears. Fear of not using our time wisely. Fear of wasting our life. Fear of leaving this world eventually. And this is so wrong.

It’s wrong because it actually doesn’t matter how many moments we get. Well, it sort of does, but not in the way we usually think about it. These moments are not infinite anyway. Yes, I will run out of them at some point. But precisely because of this it is so dumb to waste any one of them worrying about running out of them eventually. It may happen in 40 years or in 5 hours. Who knows. And who cares? What matters is not how many moments I have left in the bank. What matters is how I spend them. Every single one of them. As it turns out, life is not about how many. It’s about how. Instead of counting the moments I should be living them.

Just like any statement about life these are just words. But once it sinks in, all of a sudden you realize that these words bring you closer to something all us want and only few truly achieve — freedom.

Have you ever wondered if you’re a person of integrity? I’ve got good news for you: yes, you are. Always have been. Only it is likely not what you thought integrity was.

Integrity is consistency of actions and values. But despite of what you think your values are, real values are those that get manifested in actions, not the ones manifested in thoughts. If you wish to be strong, but act as a weakling, your true value is not strength, no matter how much you like to think of it. Your true value is weakness. You always stay true to your values. You may just not like them — the same way you can dislike your height, voice or color of your eyes. Yet, they are always there, defining everything you do.

But here’s the catch. Once you truly realize that your actions are the only manifestation of your values you have a choice. You can continue acting the same way you’ve always acted or start acting in accordance to the values you thought were yours. In the first case, you will continue longing for imaginary integrity based on phantom values, while slowly hating yourself and making endless Monday resolutions. In the second case, you will eventually get to the point where you’re proud of your true values — and yourself. That choice — and consistent non-stop adherence to it — is the only true test of your true values.

You always have integrity. But it can be either automatic mindless integrity by submission or conscious integrity by choice. And that choice is the foundation of every other choice you make in life.

Generally I adopt new tech very quickly. If something makes my life more convenient and is reasonably priced, I start using it right away. The most notable exception to this rule has been ebook reading. Although using ebooks and carrying an entire library with you beats paper books hands down when it comes to convenience, there is still something very special about reading a paper book. It’s the feel of holding it in your hands, turning its pages, feeling the texture of the paper. Ebooks don’t give you that. They are too impersonal. At least this has been the case for me until very recently.

But suddenly everything has changed. I’ve discovered an advantage of ebook that paper books cannot match. And it has nothing to with convenience. Try this: take any book and read a few pages of it on your phone. Not your Kindle. Phone. If you haven’t done this before, it may feel awkward at first. The pages are just too small and have enough room only for a few sentences on that screen. But that’s the point.

The small screen makes you see the text for what it really is. Meaningless words cannot hide anymore behind their more meaningful neighbours. If the text is full of fluff, your eye, trained for years to glance over it, no longer has this option. You are forced to read it — or turn the tiny pages so frequently that the process becomes tedious very soon. Every sentence, every word that’s been included into the text to hide its lack of clarity or substance is visible now. The text stands naked in front of you and has no place to hide.

A small screen shows the you integrity of the book — or lack thereof. It’s that quality that some of us seek in people and only few of us are lucky to discover. This quality is rare and not everyone wants to find it — or even deal with it — but those who do, know what I mean. Not many many books would pass the text of a small screen. Some well known titles would fail it miserably, while others, less famous and promoted, may show depth and clarity that may be overlooked easily in a larger format. And once you find a book like this, you’re in for a treat.

Wish it was that easy with people.

Are Dreams Real?

Posted: February 29, 2012 in Unmaskd Tales, what makes us tick

A man stopped by the house of the world famous sage Puram Bam. Nobody answered his confident knock, so he opened the door and found the sage looking thoughtfully at two masks he held in his hands.
“I didn’t come for help, sage” the man said. “I’m not one of those who need you to tell them how to live their life. But I came to ask you a question.”
Puram Bam said nothing. He only set the masks on the small table in front of him. One mask was sad. Another one was smiling.
“You and others like you preach people to go after their dreams,” said the man. “I say it’s rubbish. Dreams are like smoke. They are not real. Blow at them — and they are gone. But they don’t let you see the real world, where you have to work to pay for your food and your home. You know that. So my question to you is, why do you keep telling people that nonsense?”
Puram Bam rocked in his chair.
“Are you sure dreams are unreal?” he asked. “You are in my dream now.”
The man laughed loudly.
“Spare me this nonsense, old man,” he said. “Leave that I-dream-the-world talk to the weak souls who are afraid of the real world. I don’t care for it.”
“And yet you’re living it,” said Puram Bam. “You call this a house, but for many years it had existed only in my mind. I dreamt of having a bungalow like this, with these white walls, and this fireplace, and these books, and even these two masks. I dreamt of becoming someone to whom some people would come for advice, while many would come to laugh at my words. It was only my dream, but over the years I made it a part of the real world. Yet it is still my dream and you’re standing in the middle of it.”
“Fine,” said the man. His voice was quieter now. “I see your point. But you knew what you wanted. Those who come to you don’t. That’s why they come. Why confuse them?”
“Do you know what you want?” asked Puram Bam.
“I want to have a good life,” said the man.”I have seventy, maybe eighty years in this world and I don’t want to spend them chasing after some nonsense. I work ten hours a day, but my job pays well. It gives me enough money to buy what I need, to live where I want and to entertain myself when I rest. I’m not an artist or a philosopher and I don’t have big ambitions. I only want to make enough to have a decent living. So why would I ever sweat myself making some dream come true, when my job gives me all I need?”
Puram Bam looked at two masks in front of him, as if choosing which one to put on his face.
“You’ve been sweating yourself to make a dream come true all your life,” he said.
“Rubbish!” said the man. “I’ve just told you–”
“Listen or leave.”
The man went silent.
“You’ve been sweating yourself to make a dream come true all your life,” Puram Bam repeated. “Not one dream. Many dreams. Just like all of us. Every part of the world you live in was someone’s dream once. The streets you walk, the books you read, the bread you buy, the laws you obey, the money you spend, even the words you speak — all of this had been born in someone’s mind before it was made real. The place where you work ten hours a day didn’t exist before someone’s mind created it. The world of people is nothing but dreams that came true. Some of these dreams are horrible, they are dreams of blood and pain, but they too, are someone’s dreams made real. So the answer to your question is simple. You spend your life making some dreams come true. You may as well choose your own dream.”
“But I don’t have a dream,” said the man. His voice was very quiet now.
“Everyone has a dream,” said Puram Bam. “Only most people forget it when they grow up.”
He stood up, walked to the fireplace and hung the masks on each side of it.
One mask was smiling. Another one was sad.

Do People Change?

A man came to see the world famous sage Puram Bam. He found the sage in his small bungalow, reading a thick black book.
“Oh wise sage,” he said. “I need your help!”
“Do you?” asked Puram Bam, his eyes on the thick black book.
“I don’t know how to live my life anymore!” said the man. “I know that I’m capable of great things and yet everything I’ve ever accomplished has been mediocre at best! I dream of glory, but my existence is dull. I set out to achieve brilliant things, but I settle too soon. I’m always busy, yet so little gets done. I get richer, but feel poorer. My face smiles, but my soul cries. I’m suffocating! I feel that I’m not living the life I was created to live.”
“Do you?” asked Puram Bam, his eyes still on the thick black book.
“I need your advice,” said the man. “How should I live my life without feeling that I’m wasting my years? You’re so wise. Please help me!”
Puram Bam looked up.
“You’re a smart man,” he said. “You already know the answer. People don’t change.”
And he returned to reading his thick book.
The man’s face became red like a ripe tomato. He stood up.
“I see,” he said. “Thank you for sharing your wisdom, sage.”
And then he left. Now his face was white as stone. And there was cold fire in his eyes that hadn’t been there before.
Years passed.
One day the same man appeared at Puram Bam’s door again. He looked at Puram Bam who was reading a thin white book. He smiled.
“I came to thank you,” he said.
“Did you?” said Puram Bam, his eyes on the thin white book.
“You probably don’t remember me, but years ago you said I would never accomplish anything. I’ve proved you wrong.”
“Have you?” asked Puram Bam, his eyes still on the thin white book.
“Yes,” said the man. “Yes, I have. When I left your house I was angry. Angry at you, angry at myself, angry at the entire world. But soon I realized that anger would not get me far. I wanted to show you and myself that I could change. And so I stopped doing what didn’t matter, and I let go things that meant nothing to my soul, and I started to work harder than I had ever worked in my life. And every time I was about to give up or settle for a mediocre result or let go my dreams, I heard your words ringing in my ears. People Don’t Change. But they do! I’m living proof of that. I have accomplished great things, I do what I love and I no longer feel that I’m wasting my time. Now I’m living the life I’ve always felt I was created for. I’m living every moment of it and this is the best feeling in the world! And I feel like I’m just getting started. So I came here to thank you and tell you that you were wrong about me.”
“Was I?” asked Puram Bam.
He looked up from his book and said, “Squash a caterpillar — and it will never become a butterfly. Yet it is born to be one. People don’t change.”
And he went back to reading his thin white book.