Personal Development

On Fear

When we experience fear, that is not a time when we would probably lounge about, smelling the roses, appreciating our blessings, savoring our relationships, and thinking positively, expansively about the future.

If fear is a set of physical sensations – muscles trembling, heart racing, hair standing on end – it is also a style of thinking that becomes more narrow, less open to subtlety, less curious, less trusting, less hopeful.

If we lived in a primordial jungle, and if we only had a minimal concept of “self,” and if our capacity for imagination were less active and powerful, then fear itself would be a simpler thing. We would feel fear only in response to physical threats – a tiger rushing toward us. The consequent change in the style of our thinking – the increased narrowness and urgency – the “tunnel vision,” so to speak – would help us focus on escaping the tiger.

As modern humans in a modern world, we still feel fear in response to physical threats, but we also feel fear in response to ether – pure thought, with no material form attached. Isn’t that remarkable? We can be afraid of something that we can’t physically point to and show anyone where it is.

Our self-concept is elaborate – we have an ego that includes but extends far beyond the physical self. We can feel fear if an idea threatens this ego – which is itself a mental construct, a set of ideas – just as if there were a physical thing that threatened our own physical self. A thought that challenges another thought can still terrify us like a charging tiger.

So we can sit down in a well-furnished room, being well-rested and well-fed, being free to come and go, free to lounge about and do nothing whatsoever, and as we do that nothing, we can still feel fear. We can watch a movie and feel fear. We can have a conversation and feel fear. We can go to sleep and have a nightmare. As far as our reality extends beyond the physical, into the world of imagination, fear can invade that space anytime.

But when fear arrives, we might have little awareness that we are in fact afraid, and we might have no understanding of why we would be afraid. When our ego is threatened by a particular idea, the threat itself might be invisible to our conscious mind. We might not see what part of our self-concept is threatened and we might not fathom why the offending idea would even be a threat to it. As we navigate the world, we can be the victim of inscrutable, unintelligible fear – fear that still has a cause but one which we do not perceive and so cannot reason about.

But when we feel fear in response to a specific idea – a possibility that we see before us – what happens next? What would happen if a magician put a concept in your mind, simply by describing it, and then waved a wand that made you less likely to see alternate possibilities, less open-minded, more agitated and so less inclined toward careful, dispassionate analysis? The concept that had been put there moments before the waving of the wand could turn from a possibility into a conviction. Fear is that wand. 

When an idea makes us afraid, it gains weight, it transforms from an abstraction into an experience. Our physical reaction now makes the idea feel like something. And that feeling gives the idea a kind of persistence, because once our heart has begun to race and our hair has begun to stand on end, we cannot easily force this process to stop. What might help us at this time is to realistically assess the likelihood of the outcome we fear, seeing it in the context of an infinity of other possibilities; what might help us is to reconsider how much of a threat this idea actually poses to us, and whether there something we’re clinging to that intensifies the sense of threat, something we could easily release; what might help us is to remember our strength, which means remembering not only our ability to fight but also remembering the advantages of our position, the good things we’ve had in life, the blessings bestowed upon us, including the blessing of optimism, our ability to imagine positive outcomes, and how this ability has served us.

But the nature of fear is to disrupt all of those pathways that would quiet fear. 

What happens? What happens when an idea enters the mind and causes fear, which in turn affects our thinking style, making us less able to consider alternate possibilities, all while the fear-causing idea remains seated in our field of view? What happens when fear gives us tunnel vision in such a way that the tunnel blocks out everything but the idea that caused the fear in the first place, now waiting for us at the tunnel’s end? Of course we focus more on the one possibility we are currently “seeing” in the distance and believe it even more, and this makes us ever more afraid. So we see that fear can create a cycle, where we are more likely to trust something that initially scared us. If this thought came into mind as one of many possibilities, it now becomes the only possibility we can see, so we might accept it as truth. Even if we later come to question it in calmer moments, we still retain the memory of its seeming so true.

From this, we can see the potential for co-opting fear as a tool of manipulation. If another person provides us with ideas that cause fear – and if that fear blinds us to other possibilities and makes us overly trusting of the fear-causing ideas themselves – then it will seem like this person is a source of truth. We may come to treat them as an authority even if they themselves are not threatening us. To win our respect, they need not say “I am going to come attack you if you don’t follow me.” They merely need to supply fantasies that threaten us, saying “I am going to warn you about others who will attack you, and I’ll tell you how they will do it.” It’s known that fear creates division and distrust, sabotaging cooperation – which renders a flock, or a populace less powerful – but it also creates an unflinching trust in the person who offered the fear because that person – even if a lair – comes to seem like an exemplar of truthfulness.

This dynamic can play out in our own minds, leading us to place overdue trust in the process of fear-driven ideation because that process seems to lead us towards things which we end up believing.

The process is harder to escape than it sounds, because sometimes fears are well-founded – and sometimes purveyors of fear can offer truth mixed in with fiction, in a proportion that may be difficult to know.

We cannot discount in a blanket way, any and every conclusion which comes from fear, or which causes fear, nor should we push ourselves to confront every fear and to bravely do everything that makes us afraid, because some of those things make us afraid for good reason. Sometimes we must make a choice about which fears to accept and which fears to fight.

But the best time to comb through our fears and decide how to respond to them is not when we are paralyzed by fear itself. If we’re lucky enough in our lives to have the opportunity and the wisdom to consciously reflect on our fears – bringing intention to the way we engage with them – we should take a moment to do something first, to set the stage for this reflection. We should take a moment to connect with our hearts as a first step, so that the decisions we make regarding fear can be guided not by fear itself, but by love and hope.

Meditation, Personal Development

Self-compassion is hard, and that’s not your fault!

If compassion is more than a general sense of kindness, more than an omnidirectional attitude of goodwill, then it means witnessing another person’s distress – an individual’s distress – being willing to learn the details, through our own presence and attention, about that person’s unique experience – and wishing for the alleviation of their suffering. But that’s not everything entirely. Compassion also involves a way of thinking about who or what is responsible for the suffering at hand. To be truly compassionate, we must acknowledge that the other person faced a difficult circumstance, one which challenged them and caused them pain – a circumstance which was at least partially outside their control. 

To understand what compassion really is, we might consider its opposite. Perhaps the cruel opposite of compassion would be to see a person in distress and to tell them, “It’s all your fault. You made it happen. You deserve it!”

To be compassionate requires a suspension of blame. When a person comes down with a rare and unexpected illness, of course, there’s no thought of accountability. But in other cases of distress – a failed romance, a lost job – the more we learn about the situation, the more we might notice how the person’s own behavior contributed to their suffering. If we feel strongly that they deserve the unpleasant outcome they got, if we think “they had it coming to them,” then we’re not being compassionate fully. We need to see and acknowledge the aspects of the situation that were out of that person’s control, like how their date behaved, or how their employer behaved, and even how they themselves behaved… due to uncontrollable circumstances like the personality traits that they never elected to have.

We can still have compassion for a thief, all while believing that the thief’s behavior warrants the prison sentence they got, but we might have to work to achieve this compassion. This compassion would come from zooming out and seeing that no one “deserves” the combination of circumstances that would lead them to steal. Even if they “did it,” they didn’t deserve the fate of being born into this world – an innocent infant – and somehow arriving at a life situation that would make them do it. The same is true of a person who suffers distress that seems purely internal, created by and within the self, like when someone is overwhelmed with anxiety, but with no psychiatric diagnosis to blame. An acquaintance might say – “You’re worrying too much – your troubles are all in your mind – you’re bringing this all on yourself,” but that’s not compassionate. To be compassionate requires beginning with the wish that they not suffer, then acknowledging that the mind is a difficult thing to operate, and it comes with no instruction manual – that to have trouble with one’s thoughts is natural and unavoidable, but that no one “deserves” to have this trouble.

If we take compassion, just as we hold it for other people, and if we apply it to our own selves, what happens next? 

Self-compassion might seem like a good and healthy thing to practice, but the attempt to practice it can create confusion and fear, for good reasons.

If self-compassion means having more than a general sense of kindness toward ourselves, more than a vague, nondescript goodwill directed inward, then it means acknowledging our own suffering, and wishing for the alleviation of that suffering. But it’s more than that. To be truly compassionate toward our own self, in the same way we would be compassionate towards another person, we must understand that we faced a difficult circumstance, one which challenged us and caused us pain – a circumstance which was at least partially outside our control.

That’s where it gets tricky. Even knowing all the details we know about the situation and how it came about, including through our own involvement, we must stop blaming ourselves, stop thinking we deserve it, if we’re going to be truly self-compassionate. When we say “It’s all my fault, I own this,” we’re not practicing self-compassion, just as if we said to someone else, you own what happened to you, this wouldn’t be very compassionate either.

But isn’t it supposed to be a good thing to take ownership, to have accountability for our actions, to accept blame where blame’s due? Isn’t it supposed to be a good thing to believe in our own agency, to believe we can change our situation for the better, and to always focus on doing that? Isn’t it supposed to be a good thing to look on the bright side, seeing potential and possibility in any situation, no matter how dark, rather than concentrating on that darkness and how it has dragged us down unavoidably?

Although self-compassion might sound like it should fit well with other attitudes that form a wholesome outlook on life – optimism, perseverance, responsibility – it may be difficult to reconcile with those others. Optimism asks us to see what’s promising in our circumstance, but self-compassion requires that we acknowledge forces outside of our control that hold us back. Perseverance means sticking with our struggle, believing we can get through it, tuning out our pain and cultivating resilience, but self-compassion means acknowledging our limits, accepting that those limits may have been reached. Responsibility means believing that we can control our fate, but self-compassion requires accepting that sometimes we can’t.

“Lord, grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” If there’s one quote that’s powerful enough to ease suffering, perhaps that’s the one. But what should a person do before they’ve been granted the “wisdom to know the difference?” How should we behave when we’re not sure – and can find no quick way of discovering – whether our current predicament is one of those things we can change, or one of those things we cannot?

We might feel we should withhold self-compassion until there’s clarity on this. If the situation is really in our control, then we should fight, we should be brave, we should believe ever more strongly in our own agency. Now might not be the time to tune into our suffering. Now might not be the time to reflect on the difficulty of our circumstances, and the random undeservedness of that difficulty.  

Of course, bravery does not require that we completely numb ourselves to our own pain; optimism does not require us to ignore our own hardships or to pretend our circumstances aren’t challenging; responsibility does not require us to deny that some failures were unavoidable; but each of these attitudes involves a choice of where to focus our attention, emphasizing some things and de-emphasizing others.

We might switch back and forth between these perspectives, so that they seem to fuse together, but we may struggle to blend them fully, because they may be incompatible at a microscopic level, in the way oil and water can be whipped together into a convincing emulsion, but never fully mix.

We can try out the lens of optimism, remember what it showed us, and try out the lens of self-compassion, remember what it showed us, and combine the images in our secondary imagination. But it is difficult to look through both lenses at the very same time – on the one hand seeing our agency and power to improve a situation while at the very same time accepting our powerlessness in the face of an adversity that caused us to suffer.

Among the positive attitudes mentioned, self-compassion may be the one that is the most challenging to our ego, because it means accepting that we have less agency over a situation than we would like to have, or than we feel obliged to believe we have. 

Let’s say we lost a tennis game. Losing caused us pain. Self-compassion would ask us to see how there were things outside our control that created this situation, but we may not be ready to admit them – we’d rather think that we had full agency over the game and we just blew it, in an isolated stroke of bad luck. We’d rather think that when we tell ourselves we’re “going to win” we can usually make that happen. We could observe that our opponent had been more skilled than us – but we might not want to admit this. We could observe that our practice routine hadn’t been as effective as we intended – but we might not want to admit this either. And we could accept that the loss really hurt us and we don’t like losing – but we’d rather maintain a self-image that we’re a good sport. Insomuch as self-compassion requires that we acknowledge what we couldn’t control in the situation, it actually requires giving up our ego attachments.

We might also fear where self-compassion leads. On the one hand, there’s the risk that self-compassion could devolve into self-pity, where we become consumed with the challenges we face, thinking of them as unfair and unjust, and feeling hopeless about our chances for improvement. Where is the line between self-compassion and self-pity? Because we can’t always see where that line falls, we might be afraid of moving in that general direction. No one likes a “whimp,” a “whiner,” or a “sore loser” and we don’t want to be one of those.

On the other hand, there’s the risk of self-indulgence, where we become too forgiving of our own bad behavior, in a way that invites more bad behavior. Why didn’t I do the dishes? I wasn’t feeling like it. No big deal. Why didn’t I pay my taxes? The paperwork was too tedious. No big deal. Why didn’t I win the tennis game? I didn’t really feel like practicing. But I forgive myself?

As children we are taught that certain things are unacceptable, like stealing. And it’s important that we maintain these learned boundaries as adults, now reinforced by reasons we fully comprehend. But what does it mean when we classify a behavior as “unacceptable”? It is a promise to ourselves that if we ever did that thing, we wouldn’t forgive ourselves. And the knowledge that we wouldn’t forgive ourselves then becomes a stopgap, keeping us from doing it if we’re ever tempted. And since we know this promise of non-forgiveness is a powerful stopgap, we might try to use it for other things that are less bad than stealing, but more tempting in our own lives — things we just really want to avoid. We might say that “giving up” is unacceptable — giving up on, say, an essay writing project, or a baking contest, or a business venture – “If I ever gave up, I’d never forgive myself.” Which is to say we’d never allow ourselves to have self-compassion regarding this broken promise and the pain that ensued. That pain would be ours, entirely “on us.”

The fear of self-compassion is that once we start forgiving this, forgiving that – if we can truly forgive ourselves for anything, or at least if we can take a loving stance toward ourselves in any situation, regardless of what happened, then we’d be giving up the boundaries – the electric fences – that keep us in order, keep us moving in the right direction down the straight and narrow path.

I was meditating this morning, but I wasn’t as committed to it as I could have been. You could say I didn’t take ownership over my meditation session. I reached far across the table in front of me to grab my phone a few times. There were no urgent events demanding my attention, but I lazily allowed myself to get caught up in unforced distractions, picking up my phone just because I was feeling “fidgety.” Afterwards, I felt bad about what had happened. You could say I “suffered” in an itty-bitty, forgettable sort of way, but still in a way.

Looking back on this, I could practice self-compassion. I could notice that concentration is hard for humans. In trying to meditate, I was trying to do something difficult. Efforts like this don’t always succeed and I was experiencing that difficulty. And hey, it wasn’t me who invented mobile phones and made them addictive.

But there’s a sense that I shouldn’t let myself off the hook. I should have “tried harder” because I am capable of better. Since I know my phone can be distracting, why didn’t I put it in another room? Why did I keep scrolling when I could have stopped? If I had just been more committed – not thinking I could “get away” with a sloppy approach and forget about it later – I might have had a better outcome.

So what should I do now? Should I have self-compassion, focusing on what a profound challenge concentration actually is, and seeing how my wavering in the face of that challenge was natural? Or should I have accountability, realizing I could have done better and should do better next time, no excuses? 

Fortunately, there’s a way I can take the perceived risks of self-compassion off the table.

I can see that although I “failed,” I still believe in the possibility of doing better – self-compassion isn’t going to take that optimism away.

I can see that although I “failed,” I’m still trying – I’m still in the game, still going to practice tomorrow morning, and the next – and self-compassion isn’t going to take that persistence away.

So if I’m afraid of self-compassion because I think it will make me lazy and self-pitying, I can completely take those risks off the table. But I have to work to take those risks off the table. I have to actually still be hoping, I have to actually still be trying. In doing those things with self-compassion, I can now do them with greater ease.

With its focus on things beyond our control, things which caused us to suffer unavoidably, self-compassion might seem contrary to optimism, which would have us look on the bright side, appreciating our agency and potential for improvement. But self-compassion can indeed engender optimism. Because once we acknowledge that our situation is challenging – yes, genuinely challenging for anyone – then we can stop feeling like “It’s all me – I’m just bad at this.” If it’s a truly hard situation then there’s hope for us. Then our failures don’t indicate that it’s only we who are inadequate. Our failures simply indicate that we’ve been facing a true test. So we can see our failures as events to be expected rather than as evidence that we’re not capable or competent and we never will be.

What’s the point of all this? It’s to show that being overly hard on ourselves is not just a character weakness and not just a bad habit that we can overcome by deciding not to do it. It’s the result of a philosophically deep tension between self-compassion and other virtues we might hold dear. There is a way to resolve that tension in part. But if you struggle with self-compassion, the first thing to realize is – self-compassion is hard – and if it’s hard for you, that’s because it’s hard in general – and that’s not your fault!

Meditation, Personal Development

Inner Luck

If someone turns to you and says “Imagine a chihuahua!” and you begin seeing – almost involuntarily seeing – those tiny paws, that wagging tail, the little smiling eyes looking fondly up at you – a whimper here, an excited shiver there – why do you ever stop imagining this? What saves you from the tragedy of death-by-thinking-of-a-chihuahua-for-too-long? 

If you were to imagine a chihuahua – right now, even – I bet you wouldn’t start with a plan. You wouldn’t decide precisely how long you’d give to this endeavor. No, you’d plunge into it without fear of death. It’s certain that you’d survive this chihuahua-fest, exiting at a reasonable time, well before dehydration ensued. Imagining a chihuahua is usually not fatal. But why not?

Our attention spans are growing ever-shorter as we writhe in an ever-thickening jungle of notifications and texts and emails and alerts – that’s a common complaint of our digital age. We seek quiet, away from our devices, to rekindle lost powers of concentration. But even if we succeed at unplugging all the things in our lives that beep, and even if we consider what the world was like before there were any things that beeped, we see an axiom of attention everywhere in effect: attention doesn’t last, and it never did. It’s fickle and fleeting, reliably so. We needn’t bother to contemplate the danger of focusing on a chihuahua and never changing focus, for that danger will never come to pass. And it never would have come to pass in any earlier era.

And so, as we lament our distractibility, it’s easy to forget the virtue thereof. It’s easy to ignore our reliance on distractibility – on a certain baseline level of inattention – to facilitate the multi-tasking that’s necessary for life. Being totally scatterbrained is a handicap indeed, but being a little bit scatterbrained? It helps us. Flightiness, in the right amount, ensures that we’ll periodically revisit the things that need our attention, rather than getting eternally stuck on one thing.

As we go about our lives, when we focus on one thing or another, we can expect that focus to be disrupted in time, from outside or from within, and that’s good. From outside, we may hear the rumble of an airplane overhead, a car alarm, a person’s laugh – good! From inside, we might get bored with one thought – good! Hungry – good! Tired – good! Or one thought might lead to another – a chihuahua to an Irish Wolfhound and then to our childhood Dachshund “Pepper,” and from there to a friend who shares that nickname – good!

But even when our focus isn’t lost to fatigue or redirected through free-association, eventually our mind will interrupt itself, asking “What am I doing right now? How long have I been doing this? What was I doing before this?” When these questions enter our consciousness, they give us a chance to refocus – to jump out of a “rabbit hole” of one thought and continue with other lines of thought that had been suspended. There are so many forces ready to “steal” our attention that we can rest assured it will be stolen eventually – and that’s good! It’s good because it lets us move on to the next thing. 

If the tragedy of death-by-thinking-of-a-chihuahua-for-too-long is so very improbable, what is the point of even considering it? 

The point is to uncover a source of gratitude in our lives that might be going unnoticed. We’ve just seen that the volatility of attention is – in some ways – lifesaving. It’s lifesaving because it prevents us from getting stuck. It frees us from monomania. But we can go further. We can notice how this volatility of attention sometimes results in a “beneficial landing,” so to speak, and we can take more time to appreciate these beneficial landings.

If we could scan the history of our personal attention, seeing a timeline of what we were focusing on at any moment in our life so far, we would indeed see many unfortunate attentional shifts. We’d find many unlucky occasions when we wanted or intended to sustain focus on one particular thing, but our focus got diverted to something else. Trying to work, started checking news. Trying to read, car alarm went off. These are the times when distractibility was a nuisance.

But we would also see a lot of fortunate events, when out of the blue, we remembered something we hoped we’d remember – a friend’s birthday just popped into mind. Or when our focus was suddenly diverted to an important task we had been ignoring. Or when our mind suddenly jumped out of a destructive spiral of thoughts – ruminating about some past failure, or catastrophizing about some future malady (death by chihuahua?) – and we were freed to move on, to focus on another thing, something better or more important. 

If we were freed, did we free ourselves? Or was this liberation a lucky thing that happened to us?

Assuming we had been completely lost in thought, then the sudden awareness of being lost – that’s a thing that happened to us. We had been considering the chihuahua and only the chihuahua. It was our brain – an object – that automatically, involuntarily raised the question “What am I doing?” We didn’t will that question to arise. And so it’s reasonable to classify that question’s emergence in our conscious awareness as an event that happened to us, rather than as an event that was made to happen by us. 

If you’re convinced that gratitude is health-giving, and you’re looking for more things to be grateful for, consider such events. Any time your attention is returned to you – any time your mind jumps out of a rabbit hole and lets you choose how to refocus – that’s a good thing that happened to you and it’s something you can be grateful for. Any time your attention lands on a topic that you wanted to invest in, that’s a good thing that happened to you and you’re “lucky” at that particular moment.

You might wonder why a person would want to look for gratitude here, at the microscopic level of attentional transitions, when there are so many things in the larger scale of our lives to be grateful for. One reason to look here is that attention shifts are simple, they’re real, and as they happen, they’re fresh, they’re recent, they’re new.

I am grateful for my life partner, and I feel fortunate when I think about our relationship. But there’s complexity in considering who I’ve become as a person in the twenty years since we met, who he has become as a person in all that time, and how our relationship has grown in all that time. I feel incredibly lucky for all that time, but it’s a luck that’s been evolving; it’s not a new, sudden, simple kind of luck. To contemplate it requires more than a moment.

On the other hand, if I’ve gotten lost scrolling through news reports – a bombing here, an oil spill there, one calamity after another with no end in sight – but if I suddenly remember to take a deep breath, then that breath is like a simple gift I’ve been given out of nowhere. A sudden blessing. The random shift in attention from bad news to calming breath – that’s a lucky occurrence, a good thing that happened to me just now, right this moment, newer than the news.

If we tune into the good luck that can be found in our involuntary attentional transitions, then we can sit down and do nothing – that’s to say, we can meditate – and feel really lucky all the while. When we try to focus on our breathing, and inevitably find ourselves getting lost in thought, that distraction might seem to be unfortunate. But when we realize that we’ve been thinking, this realization gives us a chance to return to breathing, and we can feel lucky for this chance. We can spend an hour and experience hundreds of such lucky events. Breathing, then thinking, then having the good luck to notice the thinking and now be able to return to breathing. Just sitting down with no goal at all, we can spend minutes or hours feeling we’ve been the beneficiary of good luck throughout. 

I put this idea into practice yesterday on an urban walk. I wanted to see if I could take a long walk through my neighborhood and stay connected to my breathing – inhale, exhale – while also absorbing the sights and sounds of the city, but not thinking about anything in particular. A thoughtless, observational walk, where I wasn’t ruminating or reminiscing or trying to plan my evening or mentally composing an essay as I was walking. Did this happen? Not a chance. There are too many things in the city that remind me of other things – I see a restaurant and remember my last meal there with a friend from out of town. I see a rosebush and remember the time I tried to photograph it. I’ve tried taking a meditative urban walk many times over the years and it’s never been as “meditative” as I had hoped.

But this time, whenever my attention landed on breathing – back where I had wanted it to stay – I made a point of saying, “Oh, I’m lucky. I’m noticing my breathing again – a good thing just happened!”

I could have said to myself “Breathing – that’s what I was supposed to be concentrating on all along.” I could have considered myself unlucky that I had been distracted for so long and that my concentration had been so poor. But by focusing instead on my good luck – the good luck of spontaneously, randomly remembering to breathe, even though so many other things clamored for my attention – I came to develop a sense of awe. This was just a simple walk through the city, and yet I was experiencing one lucky event after another. Was I maintaining my focus on breathing throughout the walk? Certainly not. But was I still experiencing good fortune, finding that my attention randomly, luckily landed on breathing, time after time? Yes!

If we take more time to appreciate the “beneficial landings” of our volatile, randomly moving attention, we can come to feel quite lucky, but why do this? What’s the value in cultivating the sense that we’re lucky? Well, it makes you feel good and it helps you think clearly. When you feel fearful and upset many times in a row, these occasions all blur together and you just come away feeling bad, frustrated, even confused. But if you think you’ve been lucky many times in a row, then all these moments seem to connect to each other – you remember them better – you can see their relatedness more clearly – and you come away feeling somewhat amazed that fortune has been on your side throughout. Taking a walk around a city, or just going about your day, you can have either experience, one of continuing mishap, or one of continuing good luck – depending on how you choose to interpret the many landings and repositionings that your attention constantly undergoes. Taking time to appreciate the beneficial landings is a reliable way to feel good.


How to enjoy meditation

A simple framework for meditation is to place your attention on your breathing, allowing thoughts to enter and leave your mind without engaging them. It sounds easy but it can be hard if you don’t have a procedure or rubric to follow. You might sit down and try to concentrate on breathing, only to find that thoughts are intrusive and seemingly irresistible. What’s a procedure that might bring structure and clarity to this endeavor?

A procedure for meditation could begin with the simplifying idea that while we meditate, there are only two attentional states we can be in:

  1. There is a breathing state, where our attention is focused on the sensations of our breath – the sound, the feel, the pace. 
  2. There is a thinking state, where our attention is focused on our thoughts – ideas, worries, images, memories, hopes, dreams.

In practice, these states will not be pure and exclusive. We are still breathing when we’re in the thinking state, of course, but our inhales and exhales are happening automatically and our attention is elsewhere. And we might still have an occasional thought while we’re in the breathing state, of course, but thoughts are not dominant. We can usually decide which state we’re in through intuition, or by taking stock of where our attention has been recently.

To meditate – that is, to increase our time in the breathing state and reduce our time in the thinking state – we could follow a procedure like this, starting as soon as we sit down:

  1. If we’re breathing, and we notice that we’re breathing, we keep breathing.
  2. If we’re thinking, and we notice that we’re thinking, we recognize this situation non-judgmentally – “That’s thinking” – and then we go back to breathing.

A flowchart for this process would look like this: there’s a breathing circle, with an arrow leading back to itself, and there’s a thinking circle, with an arrow leading to the breathing circle. Each of the two arrows represents the act of noticing what we’re doing and then moving somewhere based on that observation

Of course, our simplified flowchart of meditation omits the reality of distraction. A more complete chart would also include an arrow from breathing to thinking. That’s a transition we don’t intend to take, but one that often occurs: we were concentrating on our breath, but at some point we lost focus and our mind began to race.

Sometime later, we’ll realize what happened. This act of noticing our current state – this moment of self-witness – is important enough to be represented as its own state, a third one in a more thorough diagram. 

We could call this third state an “interrupt” state since it’s what happens when the mind stops itself – suddenly breaking its focus on the thing at hand and turning to the question “What am I doing right now?” We might be thinking, thinking, thinking, and then wham! The sequence is halted by an observation like “Oh! I’ve gotten sidetracked!”

But there’s good reason to label this state in a different way, seeing it as an opportunity for escape. It’s a chance we’re being offered – a chance to break away from what we’ve been doing. Without such chances for escape, given to us by own our minds, we’d be locked into the same activity forever, never returning from the depths of the “rabbit hole.”

Here is the fuller diagram of meditation as we’ve just described it, now with three states instead of two. There is a “distraction” arrow from “breathing” to “thinking.” But both “breathing” and “thinking” can give way to a moment of “escape,” when we notice what we’re doing and now have the opportunity to change course. Every time we reach this moment of “escape,” we try to return to breathing, no matter where we came from.

The word “gratitude” is written on the arrow from “escape” to “breathing.” This represents a way that mediation can be less stressful and more enjoyable.

Stressful? Yes, meditation can be stressful if we feel upset every time we notice that we’ve gotten distracted. That is why guidelines for meditation often suggest a non-judgemental attitude. When we notice we’ve been thinking, we are supposed to say “It’s OK. No big deal,” and return to breathing.

But there is a fine line between being non-judgmental and merely concealing a judgement we’ve already made. If we sit down for an hour, keep getting distracted, and keep telling ourself “It’s fine, it’s not so bad,” we’re likely to feel worn out. All of these attempts to cover up our negative feeling about the many distractions we’ve experienced – all of them take a toll. 

The inner monologue might go, “Distraction is fine. It happens all the time. It’s not the end of the world. I’m not going to judge it. I’m not going to feel upset that I just wasted ten minutes on mind-wandering… er… it’s not a ‘waste’… there’s no good or bad here… I was just getting carried away by a whirlwind of stressful thoughts while I was trying to meditate… not that there’s anything wrong with that!”

We can have compassion for our distracted self, the self who got caught up in all that dizzying mental activity. He or she sat down to meditate, but thoughts are tricky and troublesome, and that person faced a difficult challenge in taming them. That person was — and still is — trying to do something good, trying to meditate so they could feel calmer and more aware, so they could be more present for themselves and for others in their life, and that’s commendable.

Surely, there’s a way to practice such self-compassion without hanging on the difficulty we faced, crossing a line into self-pity, where we again feel bad that we’ve gotten distracted — how frustrating, how unfair that these thoughts encroached on our precious meditation space! But there is an altogether different way to respond to the realization that we’ve gotten distracted, and it’s simpler. Instead of focusing on the downside of what happened, and the difficulties we’ve faced, we can concentrate on the upside, and magnify it. The upside is that we’ve been given the opportunity to escape. The “interrupt” that jolted us out of the cycle of thought – that’s a blessing.

Instead of saying “I’ve been thinking, but that not so bad,” we can say “I’ve been given a chance to break free from thinking and return to breathing, and that’s good!” Even if we expect that we’ll get distracted again, just a few moments from now, it’s still good that we’ve escaped from the rabbit hole, we’ve gained a few conscious breaths, we’ve gained a bit more time in the “breathing” state.

By cultivating gratitude for the repeated opportunity to escape our thoughts, we can begin to enjoy meditation, because now every distraction sets the stage for a reward, a positive feeling. If we sit down for an hour, keep getting distracted, and keep feeling good that we were able to recover, then by the end we’ll have a reason to be proud.

Meditation is not typically associated with pride – it’s a thing we might do to break free from the trappings of pride – but why not allow a little bit of pride to help us get into the flow? If we’re learning to take advantage of the interrupts we’re given, if we’re learning to appreciate and value each “escape opportunity” that comes our way, and if we’re doing this in service of the larger goal of clarity and calm, that’s one of the best things we could be doing.

Acknowledgements: The ideas in this post come partly from tradition, partly from things I’ve been taught, partly from things I’ve read, and partly from my personal experiments and experiences, in a proportion that’s not fully knowable. I want to mention that my personal journey in developing a meditation practice has been aided by a course I took with Peg Baim at the Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, and by an interaction with Thomas Deneuville. Basically, this post is about what has helped me and what I hope might help you as well.

Meditation, Personal Development

How to concentrate on a task you hate

It’s easy to concentrate on a task we enjoy, but how can we sustain focus on a task we despise? 

We might wish for a better life, in which we’ve been so successful at manifesting our dreams that the only tasks confronting us now are joyful and exhilarating ones. But even those people who once yearned to be astronauts and ballet dancers and did become those very things… even they have to do things that aren’t fun, interesting, rewarding, or exciting. Practicing a jump for the thousandth time? There is tedium in the loftiest endeavors. 

Setting deadlines, establishing incentives, making public commitments, and cultivating grit – these are common strategies for getting through an onerous task. But such strategies assume that if we don’t like a task, then working on it will inevitably feel bad, so we need to force, persuade, or trick ourself into bearing that discomfort. 

The saying goes, “No pain, no gain,” but wouldn’t it be better if we could have “No pain, with gain?” To achieve this would require that our experience of working on an onerous task could be separated from our feelings about the task. Is there a way to make that separation happen, so that the experience could be positive even though the task itself might be anathema to us?

To find out, we need to look closely at the nature of concentration, and here, an analogy to physical balance is informative. When we see a person standing on one leg, or balancing on a tightrope, we know that their muscles are working – their stillness is an active sort. It may look as though the person has escaped the force of gravity but of course they are still subject to that force, constantly experiencing a pull this way and that. What keeps them in balance is the way they quickly respond to the beginnings of imbalance, applying the right countering force at the right time.

We could say that a person with good balance is always being slightly destabilized and always recovering. But because their destabilization remains inside a safe range where recovery can be quick, we don’t even bother to call it “destabilization.”  We just say that the person is keeping good balance throughout. But this language hides an observation that’s useful: balance is not about magic, it’s about recovery. Lots and lots of recoveries so fast and effortless we don’t even notice them.

Concentration is like this too. A person who exhibits good concentration is not a person who has magically escaped all distractions. We make a mistake if we think that good concentration must mean being in “the zone” where we lose awareness of everything but the task at hand. A person with good concentration might still hear a car alarm or see an incoming text message. They might still lose focus for a moment, wondering “What am I going to have for dinner tonight?” What defines good concentration is being able to quickly recover from each distraction. A person with poor concentration hears the car alarm, gets up to investigate, and exulting in their newfound freedom, they never return to the task at hand; a person with good concentration hears it, stops for a second, and gets back to work. Good concentration is good recovery, on repeat.

So if we want to be better at concentrating, especially at things we dislike, we need to understand what allows for good recovery from distraction, and what interferes with such recovery.

Let’s start with what’s obvious: loving what we’re doing allows for good recovery. If a task brings us pleasure, we’re drawn back to it because we want more of that pleasure. After we get distracted, and our attention later returns to the pleasurable task, we feel glad to be focusing on it again, excited to take the next step. We experience recovery as a boon.

Hating what we’re doing, of course, makes for poor recovery. If a task causes discomfort, we’re repelled from it because we don’t want to face more of that discomfort. After we get distracted, and our attention lands on the task once more, we might feel fear, or disgust, or guilt – a lump in our stomach – “Oh no, not this again!” We experience recovery as a loss.

Imagine how hard it would be to maintain physical balance – standing on one leg or walking a tightrope – if every time a muscle flexed to keep us stable, we felt a jolt of pain. And yet when we’re trying to concentrate on something we hate – that’s the situation we’re in. Every time we try to recover from a distraction, turning our focus back to the onerous task, we feel pain.

So if we want to concentrate on something we hate, we need to make recovery less painful and more pleasurable. But if we truly hate the task, how could returning to it ever be experienced as a positive thing?

I began thinking about this question earlier in my life, during a phase in my twenties when I had started a flurry of personal projects and couldn’t seem to bring any of them to closure. I was effective at my day job, never missing a deadline in my software engineering work, but it took a lot of willpower to maintain my punctual record there, and I couldn’t muster that same willpower in the absence of external pressure, working on my own creative endeavors. I went to see a psychologist, and she administered what seemed like a glorified questionnaire, and I answered enough questions the right way that I received a diagnosis of ADHD. For a moment, I thought this diagnosis was going to shed new light on my life and become a part of my identity. 

As I explained it to my therapist at a time, my mind was constantly going on tangents when I tried to focus. I couldn’t abandon these tangents because doing so was just too painful. I’d sit down to work on one project, like writing an essay on a Topic A, and as interesting as this project had been at the outset, my mind would soon invent something more exciting to pursue, another essay on Topic B, and I’d start thinking about this new thing, researching it, planning it out. When I tried to return to the original essay on Topic A, I’d experience a letdown, a loss of stimulation, and my mind would respond by inventing yet another essay on Topic C. To “give up” on a promising tangent felt like hell. So I was always trying to write a dozen essays and never finishing any of them. If only I had better willpower, and could bear the pain.

I took Adderall for a year and I learned something from it. Along with the energy and euphoria it created, Adderall seemed to function like a painkiller for me. With Adderall, I could concentrate better because I felt less pain when I returned to a task that wasn’t as exciting as a distraction I had begun to pursue. Adderall softened the blow of recovery, making it easier to “give up” on the tangent and continue the slog on the original task.

But when I saw that Adderall was giving me superhuman powers of concentration, I felt inclined to use those powers to work on the projects I most wanted to do rather than on the things I most needed to do. Since Adderall couldn’t help me choose between want and need, it didn’t help me become more organized in my life overall. That’s to say it didn’t help me choose the “right” or the “best” things to work on. And when I realized I had become dependent on it, and when one time there was a glitch in getting my prescription filled, I decided to give it up altogether. Many years later, I don’t believe I have ADHD, but I have struggled with concentration at various times in my life and those struggles have made me think a lot about how concentration works. If my diagnosis didn’t prove right in the end, it still left me with some insight into the nature of concentration that helped me later when I began to meditate. 

Meditation is basically the practice of concentration as an end in itself, independent from any specific goal. In meditation, every teacher will say, distraction is normal. We try to focus on our breathing but thoughts clamor for our attention. Instead of feeling frustrated that our mind has wandered, we are encouraged to take a non-judgmental attitude, observing our thoughts without engaging them – instead, letting them dissipate, like passing weather.

If we were to feel frustrated and upset every time our mind wandered during meditation, then this frustration would compound the distraction, making it even harder to return to our chosen point of focus. In a sense, the ideas of non-judgement, tolerance, and acceptance pave the way for better recovery.

But non-judgement is trickier than it sounds. A posture of non-judgement might conceal a judgment we’ve already made and don’t want to admit. In my early attempts at meditation, I would try to be non-judgemental about the distractions I experienced but I still wasn’t happy about them. The phrase “not that there’s anything wrong with that!” has comedic value because it pretends to be non-judgemental while at the same time implying: maybe there is something wrong with it, at least maybe there are people who think so. I would sit down to meditate, and my thoughts would race, and I’d keep telling myself, in effect, “It’s OK. It’s no big deal. It’s not the end of the world. I just lost ten minutes to mind-wandering – what a shame – not that there’s anything wrong with that!” Eventually, all of this concealed negativity would build up and I’d still feel quite frustrated by the end of a process that was supposed to lead to relaxation.

A key idea that helped me in my own meditation practice was to set equanimity aside and instead focus on the positive side of distraction. What positive side? The positive side was that I noticed I had gotten distracted. If I hadn’t noticed it, I’d still be stuck inside the distracting thought. But because my mind jumped out of that rabbit hole and asked the question “What am I doing right now?” I received an opportunity to observe my thoughts from a distance and bring my focus back to breathing. Now, thanks to this gift of this awareness, my meditation practice could continue. 

The idea here is to make recovery smoother by appreciating it. Instead of trying to soften our negative feelings about a distraction, we can turn our focus away from those negative feelings altogether, concentrating on positive feelings instead: gratitude for the recovery itself. Every time the mind wanders, this sets the stage for later noticing that it has wandered, feeling good that we’ve noticed it, and being thankful for the benefit therein. The benefit is the opportunity to go on with practice. In this way, meditation can be transformed from a series of frustrations into a series of fortunate events. What had been “Distraction. Bad that it happened! Distraction. Bad that it happened!” can become “Distraction. Good that I recovered! Distraction. Good that I recovered!”

But this is more than just a technique for meditation, it’s a framework for concentrating on any task. Whether we like a task or not, we can always see it as a way of practicing concentration. The details of a task, whatever they are, can become a substrate for this practice. We can approach the task as a kind of “meditation,” where we return our focus to the task every time we notice we’ve become distracted from it. We can improve these recoveries by appreciating them, by seeing them as beneficial events.

When we realize we’ve gotten distracted and we remember what we were trying to do, we can stop seeing this attention shift as unfortunate – “Oh no, a bad thing happened – I’m unlucky – now I have to work on this unpleasant thing again.” Instead we can see it as fortunate – “Oh yes, a good thing happened – I’m lucky – now I get to continue my concentration practice.” 

If we see our goal as the development of concentration itself, then we can feel grateful for each recovery. And we should feel grateful, because it’s these repeated recoveries that allow us to have agency in our lives, that allow us to proceed with the things we’ve decided to do. Our ability to recover from distraction is in some ways the basis of our “free will,” and there’s reason to feel thankful each time we get to exercise that will.

Still, when we really hate what we’re trying to do, the idea of treating the task as “concentration practice,” might not be motivating enough to overcome our internal resistance. Indeed, there’s more we can do to help ourselves focus, more we can do to smoothen our recoveries.

First, we need to identify the good in what we’re trying to do. We might detest the task – maybe we’re doing taxes, for example – but how does this thing benefit us? How does it benefit someone else? How does it benefit society? There must be a value in it somewhere, or else we wouldn’t be doing it at all. 

If we’re doing taxes, then at a minimum we’re preserving our financial and legal health. If we’re writing a difficult letter, it’s for communication, relationships, social health. If we’re sorting through a cluttered room, it’s for home upkeep, domestic health, peace of mind. If we’re doing a hopeless, vacuous project that we’ve been assigned to complete, maybe the benefit is only that we get to maintain our relationship with the person who asked us to do it; so again, the benefit could be relationships, social health? If we started doing it, there’s got to be a reason. Let’s find the pure, positive core of that reason.

Now, as part of the recovery from each distraction, we can visualize that positive core, and we can feel good that we have an opportunity to make a little more progress in its service.

Of course, it will be hard to keep a clear view of the benefit we’re working toward, because our mind will invent stories and arguments that devalue the goal itself and all our efforts to achieve it. These devaluing arguments will seem fascinating and persuasive in proportion to the annoyingness of the task. Our mind generates these arguments because we believe that if we can find proof that a task has no merit and no chance of success, we can get out of having to do it. These arguments intoxicate us, therefore, because they seem to offer an escape from pain.

If we’re doing taxes, some arguments might be: I’m not good at this. I can do it later, I can file an extension. I’m not going to get it right. I’m not in the mood right now so I won’t be as effective as I’d be later when I’m in a better mood. Taxes are unfair. I’m losing money that I deserve to keep. It’s taking too long – something’s wrong. I made the wrong choice to work on this now. The weather is beautiful today so it’s more valuable for me to go outside and enjoy it now than to keep working indoors.

Any time our mind generates these devaluing arguments, there’s a chance that they contain some truth. The weather might be great! But that doesn’t matter from the standpoint of concentration practice. We shouldn’t look deeper for the truth in these arguments nor should we try to refute them – both pathways are distractions. As soon as we get into a debate with ourselves about the value of what we’re doing – including whether now is the “right” time to do it – we’ve set ourselves up for the very pain that we’re hoping to escape.

Think about it, if you try to do something hard, and then someone tells you that this effort you’ve just made is a worthless waste, that hurts! And it hurts even more if it’s your own mind telling you that, because when you dispute the statement, you’re disputing yourself. When we find a task really unpleasant, it’s often right HERE, in the self-sabotaging vortex of fear-driven ideation that the pain actually resides.

What we learn to do in meditation – observing our thoughts and letting them pass – is precisely how we should handle all the colorful arguments our mind invents to devalue our goal. Any time a devaluing thought arises, we should say “That’s a devaluing idea, invented as an escape from pain,” and let it go on its way. If we do this, the pain itself may subside, because we will no longer be in conflict with ourself. If we go further and appreciate the good fortune of our recovery from distraction, the pain can give way to pleasure.

To spell this out, imagine your mind tells you: “This isn’t going well, you should stop working on it and here’s why.” 

Don’t get into an argument. Don’t say, “No, it’s really important that I keep doing this and here are all the reasons.” 

Just think of the idea “You should stop and here’s why” as a story, a fiction, a construct.

You can say, “Hello, Mr. Story. Thanks, but I don’t need your services to help me escape this pain right now.” 

This essay was almost lost to the devaluing story, “No one is going to read it.” That thought was “exciting” to me at one point because it seemed to offer a justification for stopping work and thereby gaining a free afternoon. But the reason these words are here is because I practiced what this essay itself is preaching.

In using meditation as a framework for concentrating on any difficult task, there’s one more lesson we can draw. Just like meditation often uses breathing as a primary focal point, we can use breathing – perhaps as a secondary focal point – when we’re trying to concentrate on a difficult task. Each time we recover from a distraction, a good way to manifest gratitude for our recovery is to tune in with our breathing: take a deep breath, maybe a few. The more we let ourselves breathe as we work, the better the work will feel. Often when we fear a task, it’s because the task leads to shallow, restricted breathing which makes us feel uncomfortable without knowing why.

In conclusion, concentration is like physical balance in that it depends on recovery. When we don’t like what we’re doing, it’s hard to recover from distractions, but the recovery gets easier if we take it as our goal to practice concentration itself. In that case, recovery allows our practice to continue, and we can feel grateful for that opportunity. To further support this gratitude for recovery, we can focus on the benefit of the task. To do this, we need to tune out all the stories our mind is inventing to devalue that benefit. These stories may fascinate us as they offer a way to escape the pain of working on the task, but we should not seek truth in them nor try to rebut them; instead we should let them dissipate as we would handle any thoughts that come up during meditation. If we do all this successfully, we can reach a point where it’s actually pleasurable to work on something that was painful and annoying. 

This is not going to happen with one simple shift in mindset. The pain of the difficult task will not be converted into pleasure in an instant, and we should not expect this. Rather, the pleasure gradually develops as we keep recovering and taking a moment to appreciate the good fortune of each recovery. As our focus stays more and more on this “good fortune” we begin to forget the “bad fortune” of having to work on the thing we don’t want to do. Little by little, it starts to feel better to work on it. If we tune out the devaluing stories, and bypass the inner conflict they would create, we can begin to appreciate the inherent benefit of doing the task. And before long, it’s done.

Personal Development

Is optimism better blind or guarded?

Blind optimism, if taken to an extreme, could lead a person to walk off a cliff, confident in a soft landing until the moment of impact. But we face many situations in life where there’s no existential risk, where the greatest risk is only the risk of disappointment. When the context is safe enough – when blind optimism carries no chance of fatality – should we embrace it, or should we still tamp it down?

If you’ve entered the lottery, you could imagine that you’re going to win, even letting yourself feel sure of it. Is that a good idea? Certainly, your confidence in a positive outcome gives you a benefit that’s independent of the outcome itself. No matter whether you win or lose, you’ve gained days or weeks of looking forward to being filthy rich. All of those happy expectations might be better for relieving stress than counseling and a daily therapeutic massage.

So why don’t we always take this benefit, letting ourselves be sure of positive outcomes and thereby cashing in on all those moments of pleasant anticipation that our confidence would create? Of course, we’re afraid of the letdown we’ll feel if our predictions turn out wrong. The higher we climb, so they say, the harder we fall.

A negative outcome would do more than confront us with the “loss” of what we expected. It would also force us to accept that our judgement had been incorrect, which if it kept happening, could damage our confidence. Most of us aren’t professional fortune tellers but we still pride ourselves on our ability to predict the future. A string of faulty predictions is a threat to our self-esteem.

One way to handle these risks is through pessimism. If we make it a habit to expect everything to go poorly, we get to be proved right some of the time – maybe most of the time. Occasionally, we get to be surprised by something that goes better than expected. But pure pessimism subjects us to corrosive gloom until the outcome is known. The condition of believing that everything is headed for disaster is a stressful condition to live in.

A typical compromise is to blend optimism with a bit of pessimism to create what we might call “guarded optimism.” This is when we hope for, and secretly expect a positive outcome, all the while reminding ourself that hopes can be dashed and maybe we won’t get what we want. Sometimes we might use a pessimist’s language  – “I’m going to fail the test” – but we’re actually expressing guarded optimism. We know we won’t fail, and actually, we expect we’re going to do pretty well because we’ve studied hard, but we still want to avoid disappointment in case we’ve misjudged our preparedness.

Guarded optimism keeps us from putting all our eggs in one basket, so to speak. In the lottery example, if we’re convinced we’ll win, then what would stop us from going on a premature spending spree and racking up debt that we can’t later repay? Reminding ourselves that we might not win is a safeguard to behavior that would seem foolish in retrospect. And if we’re communicating our expectations to others, guarded optimism seems fairer to them – a willful delusion is one thing if we keep it to ourselves, but entangling others in our delusions raises a host of moral questions.

But if we choose guarded optimism over blind optimism, do we really get the advantage we’re looking for? If things go wrong, will our disappointment really be softened in the way we hope? Certainly, when faced with a negative outcome, the guarded optimist can save face, reminding themself that they were aware of this possibility from the beginning. They never ignored the risk; the “guard” they maintained now protects them from the accusation of gullibility. They had reserved the right to say “I knew this could happen!” and now they get to say it. But is this privilege worth the cost?

In the lead-up to the outcome, guarded optimism puts us into a constant conflict with ourselves, where our hopes rise and we try to push them down, then they rise again and the cycle repeats. One voice says, “It’s going to go well,” and another voice reminds us “It might not.” Our investment of psychic energy in maintaining this dialogue might increase our attachment to the desired outcome, and increase our fear of the undesired one. Now that we’ve spent so much time debating what might happen, now that we’ve worked so hard to achieve the perfect balance of hope and doubt, we really want it to go well.

Is it possible that the path of blind, effortless, simple, absolute optimism might leave us less disappointed by a negative outcome than guarded optimism? As a blind optimist, although we didn’t get what we wanted, we benefited from the joy of anticipating something good without the struggle of maintaining our guard. We never contemplated a bad result, so when a bad result came, it came as a surprise rather than as a realization of what we’d been dreading.

Could philosophy ever conclude that one outlook is the best overall? It seems that each is best for a different situation. Approaching a cliff, we should have pessimism. Having entered the sweepstakes, guarded optimism. Getting ready to play a soccer game, blind optimism, because that’ll help us perform the best. Pondering the future of humanity? Let’s address that elsewhere.

But the most fitting outlook is not only determined by the situation, it also depends on our personal disposition. If we have great confidence in our ability to cope with disappointment, and if our self-worth isn’t tied up in the accuracy of our predictions – that’s to say, if we are very comfortable with being wrong – then it might be easier to be a blind optimist, and to avail of the advantages that come from positive expectations, as long as we don’t do this when we’re standing on a precipice.

Personal Development

Don’t focus on the outcome, focus on the income

If we’re looking for a kind of optimism that can be sustained in the face of repeated setbacks, then it should be an optimism that doesn’t make false promises, doesn’t assure us that things will turn out how we want. An optimism that isn’t a form of make believe, asking us to set aside what we know and to pretend that things are better than they are. But if an optimism isn’t sunny, what good is it? If it doesn’t involve positive expectations, how can it energize us?

We can find a more sustainable optimism, and one that’s still encouraging, if we focus on our own adaptive strength, our own ability to take whatever’s given to us and make something good out of it. Instead of expecting external reality to deliver positive outcomes — whether by chance or through our own pleading and prodding — we can focus on the future of our inner experiences. We can look forward to positive “incomes,” trusting that we’ll learn, grow, and find a step forward regardless of what happens.

In this parlance, an outcome is “what happens” outside the self — it’s how a situation turns out, how external events unfold. If you win the lottery, that’s an outcome.

Income is used here to mean an “inner outcome” or “inner return” or “inner reward” — it’s how we experience a situation, and how we learn or grow from it, or fail to do so.

In typical usage, income is a monetary thing, but here it’s the opposite. The way you feel about winning the lottery and how it affects your inner landscape — that’s the “income” of the lottery. If winning sends you into a spiral of consumption and puts you in conflict with friends and family, the “income” of the lottery could be negative. But losing the lottery could remind you that you already have enough money to go on a camping trip, and to do many of the other things on your bucket list, so it could have a positive income.

To find a version of optimism that doesn’t keep making false promises, we can shift our focus from outcome to income. Traditional optimism is about outcomes, but those fluctuate in ways that are totally outside our control or foresight. A more sustainable optimism would emphasize that we can discover a way to make a positive “income” out of most situations we face. That’s good news, because arguably, incomes are more important that outcomes. Our experiences are what we truly have in life — how we feel is more important than what happens outside us.

If it’s this easy to make optimism sustainable and to remove it from conflict with an uncooperative reality, just by changing the focal point from outcome to income, why don’t more people do this? Of course, the rephrasing is easy, the enactment is hard.

Outcomes are more tangible and more exciting than incomes. We can be excited about the outcome of winning the lottery. But even if we acknowledge that losing the lottery might have some educational benefits and might offer a chance for reflection — a positive “income,” so to speak — it’s really hard to be excited about that.

Focusing on outcomes helps us perform. If we’re playing a tennis game and we want to play well, we’ve got to concentrate on the outcome of winning. To find the motivation to do that, we need to believe we can win, even if our opponent is better than us. We need to have traditional, outcome-based optimism.

Outcomes often seem more important and urgent than incomes, contradicting a point that was made earlier. The outcome of a job interview might affect your future livelihood and ability to feed your family. You’re not looking to have a positive experience or grow as a person through the interview, you just need the work. Being optimistic about your inner experience of the interview process and what you could learn from it might seem superfluous.

The income of a situation might not be knowable in advance. It depends on the outcome happening first, and on our choosing a way to respond. Since we can’t see it or know what form the income might take, we might find it hard to look forward to.

We might also remember occasions when we struggled to adapt to a situation or discover any positive meaning in it. Hardships can make us stronger, but they can also make us weaker and there might not be any benefit — internal or external — that we can identify. Our perspective on a situation might be malleable, but not easily so, and not endlessly so. Therefore, the idea that we can discover a way to make a positive “income” out of any state of affairs might seem like wishful thinking. We might feel that the income is dictated by the outcome and not by us.

Finally, when we’re working to adapt to a new situation, we might find that the only way to feel good about where we are now is to imagine good things happening ahead. Sometimes we just need to practice blind optimism, judicious self-deception, irrational hope, an unfounded faith that external events will proceed in our favor, if we’re going to have any kind of positive inner experience in the present. Blind optimism, then, is a necessary tool. To draw a positive income from a situation that feels hopeless, looking within ourselves might not suffice; we might need to imagine and trust in positive future outcomes ahead.

So there are reasons why “Don’t focus on the outcome, focus on the income” is easier said than done. But why not be optimistic that, at least some of the time, we’ll be able to do it, and it’ll help us?

Personal Development

Sustainable Optimism

If optimism is the conviction that everything is going to work out as we hope, then it’s not sustainable. Not without willful ignorance. Sooner or later, a really bad thing will happen, and our confidence in positive outcomes will be shattered. If it takes a streak of good luck to persuade a person to be an optimist, but if a streak of bad luck could later convert them to pessimism, then their worldview is not their own – it’s being yanked around by happenstance. Any version of optimism that depends on how things turn out – or requires blindness to misfortune – is not sustainable optimism.

The traditional form of optimism – the expectation of positive outcomes – can be put to rest with a few basic observations about reality. We’re all going to die. Not only us, but everyone we’ve ever loved, indeed everyone we’ve ever met, and everyone they’ve ever met. Our species teeters on the verge of self-inflicted calamity including environmental disaster and nuclear annihilation. But even if those threats are resolved favorably, the sun is going to die sometime. It’ll expand into a red giant and destroy the earth – what’s left of the earth after our misadventures here.

A sustainable form of optimism must not require or assume that the future will unfold as we individuals, or as our species would want – because maybe it won’t. In the long term, it definitely won’t. We could colonize other planets but their suns will die too – it’s not looking great.

What’s a form of optimism that doesn’t depend on good things happening – on dreams coming true – on hard work bearing fruit – on virtue being recognized – or on coin flips turning out according to the bets we’ve placed? What’s a form of optimism that might be resilient to the argument that “This didn’t go well. And that didn’t go well. And that other thing didn’t go well either. See, I shouldn’t have expected success!”

A sustainable form of optimism might begin with the well-known quote that “It’s not what happens to you but how you react to it that matters.” That is to say, we can shape the future through our attitude to it – the perspective we choose to take. Unfortunately, when this concept is discussed, it often turns into an advertisement for traditional, unsustainable optimism. 

As evidence for the inspiring promise that we can shape our own future by how we view it, we are often presented with a rags-to-riches story where, for example, an individual battled cancer and a learning disability in their childhood, then suffered bankruptcy and depression in their early career, but because they decided to take a good attitude, they went on to achieve great success in business, becoming a bestselling author and well-known philanthropist. In other words, we are being shown an example of a good outcome and told that if only we do a certain thing – taking a positive attitude – we can have an outcome like that.

These stories conveniently omit the fact that there might be another person who battled cancer and a learning disability in their childhood, then suffered bankruptcy and depression in their early career, then decided to take a positive attitude and launched a promising new business, but got run over by a bus. They were so positive, but the bus didn’t care.

A sustainable form of optimism would not promise that our attitude can give us the external outcomes we want; rather it would focus on the way our attitude can give us better and more satisfying experiences. A truly inspiring story might be that there was a person who battled cancer and a learning disability in their childhood, then suffered bankruptcy and depression in their early career, then decided to take a positive attitude, and because of their newfound perspective, they felt calmer, happier, and more whole — they had better relationships and they were able to maintain a sense of inner peace throughout the rest of their life. Of course, it’s unlikely we’ll hear that story because inner peace, in the absence of external accomplishments that make us jealous, is not the kind of thing we tend to gossip about.

Still, if it turned out that inner peace were attainable through simple choices we could each make, that would be a cause for optimism, right? If we could find fulfillment in life not by achieving a specific outcome, but by learning to recognize and draw our attention to those sources of fulfillment that exist inside any situation we happen to face, that would be good news, wouldn’t it?

A sustainable form of optimism begins with the understanding that any situation can be seen from different vantage points. Each vantage point, if we adopt it, creates a specific way of experiencing the situation, and each way we experience a situation brings specific possibilities into view. One situation, two perspectives, two very different experiences with different paths forward.

Some perspectives are devaluing, which means they tend to diminish the worth or advantage we notice in a situation, and they tend to belittle the value of our own efforts and the significance of our prospects. Other perspectives are worthening or “envaluing,” which means they tend to draw our attention to what’s favorable in a situation, to what agency we can manifest there, and to what opportunities are available to us, not just to further our own interests, but to help others too.

Sustainable optimism is believing that in any situation, there’s meaning to be found – there’s an envaluing perspective to be discovered. Sustainable optimism is being confident we can find that envaluing perspective, no matter where we are or what happens. It’s to have faith that when the situation changes – because of an outcome positive or negative – there will be a new envaluing perspective, appropriate to the new situation, and we’ll be able to find it at the time. Sustainable optimism is the conviction that we can always discover meaning, hope, and a path forward – whether events unfold in the way we’re trying to steer them, or not.

Unsustainable optimism looks to future outcomes with the irrational confidence of a rosy-eyed fortune teller. Sustainable optimism looks to future experiences – the experiences we create by responding to outcomes through our chosen perspective – and it trusts we’ll be able to make positive experiences out of what’s given to us.

Now, it might be true that we start achieving better outcomes — we seem to have better “luck” — the better our attitude, the more we open ourselves to opportunity, but there’s no guarantee of anything. If we think of external reality as a dealmaker, we’ll someday feel cheated by a deal gone wrong. Optimism will seem foolish when unexpected and undeserved adversity first strikes. But we’ll be making a mistake if we look at what happens as a proof or refutation of the value of our outlook. That value is manifested in our inner experience. Did you feel better throughout a situation, did you have a better time because you held an envaluing perspective? That is proof enough.

Sustainable optimism should not ask you to deny what you see, but it should invite you to look further. A typical description of an optimist is someone who sees a glass as half full rather than half empty, but what if the glass just looks half empty to you and it’s a struggle to change that perception? Sustainable optimism would be to notice that the half-emptiness of the glass might have something worthwhile about it. Maybe it reminds you that you’ve been fortunate to consume so much of a delicious beverage already? Or maybe you hate the medicinal concoction that’s in the glass and the half-emptiness makes you glad there’s not so much left? If half-emptiness is a fixed perception, there is still the leeway to find an envaluing way of perceiving that perception.

Of course, sustainable optimism as just described might seem to place too much of a burden on the individual. After a severe hardship or even sometimes just a small frustration, a person might be too exhausted to find an envaluing perspective even if they believe that it’s there. If someone has just lost a loved one or suffered a frightening health setback, for example, it might seem unrealistic – even cruel – to expect them to handle that situation while also doing the work to find positive meaning in it.

So this is where a truly sustainable optimism must extend beyond the self. It must include the belief that in those moments when you cannot find or cannot hold an envaluing perspective, other people can help you do that.

Meditation, Personal Development

How to conquer negativity

If a person wants to experiment with a more positive perspective on life, they face a practical challenge. A positive perspective would mean fewer negative thoughts, but negative thoughts can be difficult to spot – they may be invisible unless you know where to look for them. If we’re hoping to alter these negative thoughts, we must find them where they’re occurring, but how? 

One important place to look for negativity is in what we might call the “automatic status check.” That is when the mind involuntarily asks “What am I doing right now?” An answer quickly follows: “I’m writing,” or “I’m walking,” or “I’m eating.” Throughout the day, we take stock of our situation, reminding ourselves of what we’re doing now, what we were doing earlier, and what we’ll be doing next. If we look closely at our responses to these involuntary status inquiries – if we examine the content of our “automatic status reports,” so to speak, we may find a negative trailer in tow. 

Instead of “I’m writing” we might report to ourself that “I’m writing BUT it’s taking forever and I’m not done.” Instead of “I’m walking” we might report that “I’m walking BUT it’s raining and I’m wet and uncomfortable.” Instead of “I’m eating” we might report that “I’m eating BUT the rice is burnt and I hate it.” The status reports we give to ourself throughout the day can be a major vector of negativity.

We can go a long way towards a positive mindset by shifting the content of our status reports to exclude the negative trailer. If we were to say “I’m writing” without the “BUT” that follows, we could see that we’re doing something good, something we want to do. Rather than failing at a task, we’re taking advantage of our good fortune to have the opportunity to do that task.

Meditation is a way to learn to notice these status checks as they happen, because meditation depends on them. When we sit down to meditate, we might intend to give our attention to breathing, but inevitably we get distracted by a sequence of thoughts. “I’m hungry… what am I going to have for lunch?… maybe I’ll go to that Thai place down the block… you know I’ve wanted to visit Bangkok for years now, maybe it’s time for a vacation?” At some point this chain of thought is interrupted by a status check: “What am I doing right now?” This status check is good fortune, because it allows us to notice that we’ve gotten distracted – “Oh! I’ve been thinking about going on vacation!” – which in turn allows us to remember that our intention was to concentrate on breathing. Now we have an opportunity to return to that.

In meditation, we can practice giving ourself a positive status report. When we notice we’ve gotten distracted, instead of saying “Oh! I’ve thinking about a vacation but I was trying to meditate and I’ve wasted so much time and this whole meditation thing is not going well,” we can say “Oh! I was thinking about vacation but now that I realize this, I can go back to breathing, which is good.”

The same practice can be done outside meditation, in the course of everyday life. The other morning, I was working on an essay — this very one. Whenever my mind asked “What am I doing right now?” the answer was “I’m writing BUT I’m not done – it’s taking forever and I’m behind where I want to be.” Moments later, the same question: “What am I doing right now?” My mind’s immediate response again included a fact followed by a devaluing interpretation. “I’m writing BUT it’s taking forever and I’m behind where I want to be.” Whenever I took stock of what I had been doing, my mind immediately injected a negative interpretation that condemned everything I had been doing. 

Later in the day, I went for a hike. Whenever my mind asked “What am I doing right now?” the answer was “I’m hiking BUT it’s not strenuous enough to give me the exercise I need.” And whenever my mind asked “What was I doing before this?” the answer was “I was writing BUT I got stuck and didn’t finish.”

To think of it though, this day was an amazing day. A full day when I could write and hike. What could be better? If this day could stress me out, this day when I had the freedom to do the things that are most meaningful and important to me in life, what hope of happiness could I ever have?

It might seem that if only I’d finished the essay and if only the hike had been sufficiently strenuous, then I’d have been satisfied. But of course, the responses to the status checks might then have been “I’m writing BUT the essay hasn’t turned out as well as I hoped,” and “I’m hiking BUT it’s a struggle and I’m out of shape.” There’s always a way to be unsatisfied.

I could see that the “cure” was not to change the reality of the situation – the cure was to change the responses I was giving myself during the status checks. In any situation, no matter how wonderful, yes, there’s a way to give a negative report, but the converse is also true, in any situation no matter how bad, there’s a way to give a positive report. So satisfaction really depends on what gets included and excluded from that report.

And here’s where things get fun. Since I’m a visual thinker, this report doesn’t need to be a verbal report, it can be a picture. And as a picture it doesn’t need to be a detailed image. It can be a generalized icon.

So I tried it. As I was writing, when I noticed the question enter my mind – “What am I doing right now?” I thought of an image like this:

Later, as I was hiking, when I noticed the question enter my mind “What am I doing right now,” I thought of an image like this:

What was I doing before?

What am I going to do next?

Wow, this is an amazing day!

Meditation, Personal Development

Freedom of memory

Within the inviolable confines of a person’s inner life, should a person feel free to remember the past in whatever way they choose? Do we as individuals possess complete freedom in how we employ the capacity of memory, or are we under an obligation to do our remembering in a specific way – with fairness, accuracy, thoroughness – even when we are remembering private events and even when we are doing that remembering in private? If our memories are truly “our own,” available for us to unpack and interpret however we like, why does the past so often become a burden, a source of sadness? Why do we not use our “freedom of memory” to create a vision of the past that inspires rather than depresses us?

It’s common to think that a person’s inner life is a walled fortress – exclusive, and beyond the jurisdiction of anything external. We can influence each other to think or feel a certain way – through conversation, argument, advertisement, seduction, aggression, or kindness – but we still cannot access or control each other’s experiences directly, and that has been a basic fact of the human situation from prehistory to date. But we do have expectations of each other, not only expectations about how we should behave in public, but yes, expectations about how we might conduct our inner lives, including the way we might remember the past.

To see this, consider a scenario involving a husband and wife. After five years of marriage, the wife passes away from a sudden illness. Does the husband have the “right” to reminisce about his wife in a selective way – picturing her in her earlier health, in happier times, without also focusing on the tragedy of her death? Of course he does, and this positive approach – appreciating the good of the past, and not lingering too much on the pain – is an option that his friends and family might hope he could take – if not now, then someday – on the path to healing.

Now consider a different husband and wife, where after five years of marriage, the wife passes away but in this case it is because the husband is a violent man and he killed her. From his jail cell, does this murderer have the “right” to reminisce about his wife in a selective way, taking pleasure in the memory of their earlier relationship – without also thinking of his heinous crime? The legal system might dictate that the man should spend the rest of his life in prison, but there are no laws that govern how he should use his memory. Confined by prison walls, he is still “free” to remember whatever he wants. That said, an image of this man in his cell, pleasantly recalling his honeymoon, untroubled by what happened later, is not an image of “justice.” We would want the murderer to remember his wife, but only in the context of acknowledging and feeling remorse for his crime. 

Now consider a third scenario, again a husband and wife, where after several years of happy marriage, in the fifth year they grew apart, quarreled endlessly, and divorced. Does the husband have the right to reminisce about the relationship selectively, without recalling the quarrels? If the two were to meet and jointly reminisce about their positive moments, and those alone, this could be a path to reviving the marriage. But if the husband only remembered the quarrels his wife had provoked without remembering the ones he himself had provoked, this would be gaslighting of the worst form. Selective memory seems acceptable here if it’s done fairly, if the selections are unbiased, but not otherwise.

The point of these examples is that while we might think that a person has absolute freedom over their inner life, including freedom of memory, we’re full of expectations about memory and how it should be used.  When we consider people in specific circumstances, we often have an idea of how those people should undertake the process of recollection. This intuitive sense of there being a right and a wrong way to remember affects our own process of remembering too. And that’s only natural. Memory may seem to be a private matter but to the extent we communicate about our memories and express the feelings they inspire, those memories have an impact beyond the self. 

Perhaps a reason why we are concerned with the accuracy of memory – why we are afraid of delusion, so to speak – is because we want to stay connected to other people. Shared memories bring us closer but when we remember things in completely different and contradictory ways, it drives us apart. If we felt free to alter our memories in whatever way we pleased, it would lead eventually to isolation. We could create a utopia of omissions and confabulations, yes, but then we wouldn’t understand each other and we wouldn’t understand ourselves – how we got to where we are.

I have a friend whose ability to focus on fun and positive things, while downplaying the “memory” of his obligations, might be leading him to debt and financial disaster. So there are good reasons why we should want to practice a kind of memory hygiene and why we might feel compelled to remember things in a way that seems honest and accurate, fair and comprehensive. But the burden we feel about memory, the constraints we place upon ourselves as remembering beings, can lead to a topsy-turvy situation. In our efforts to remember things “properly” we may become cut off from the aspects of the past that might help us the most.

We’re all seeking positive experiences in life, right? We all want good things to happen to us. And you’d think that the more positive experiences a person has had, the better off they’d be. Now, it’s to be expected that sad memories would make us sad: if something unfortunate occurs, and then passes, the pain of it can still be revived – that’s what memory is. But if a person is fortunate enough to repeatedly attain those good experiences that they hoped for, the net effect of all that goodness should be to put them in a happier state – doesn’t it seem like that? 

Yet we find that good things cause pain to recall as well. How is that? Why do happy memories make us cry? Why is it that these good experiences we’re seeking can turn into memories that drag us down, depress us, make us unhappy?

Of course it’s because the memory of a good thing creates a sense of loss if we don’t have that good thing anymore and if we see no prospect of regaining it. My mother told me the other day that when she thought of our old house with my stepdad and my brother living there, she felt such unbearable sadness that she didn’t know how to cope. And I understood. It’s because my stepdad and my brother passed away last year, 2022, and they’re not coming back. To think of that happier time in the old house when our family was intact makes the present time feel all the more empty for my mother, and for me. 

But I am trying to help my mother through this, so it’s my role to see things in a way that could be comforting. When she said this, and when I thought of those good times in the old house, one fact stood out to me: they were good. Those moments of family closeness were the kind of experience that everyone seeks. How can it be that having had those good experiences – decades of them – now creates anguish, consigns us to sadness and pain? Shouldn’t it be that the good things in our past actually help us and give us hope for the future? And wouldn’t our family members who have passed away want this much for us, that we could find consolation in our memories of them, and that the happy times of the past could benefit us now, rather than seeming to drag us down in our time of need?

I know that healing takes time – an indefinite amount – and I know that these few questions are no magical cure for grief. I tried to bring it up gently with my mother, that maybe there’s a way to open ourselves more to the good of the past without seeing so much of the darkness, but it will be hard and cannot be rushed. So I’d like to consider a situation that is much further in the past, where my own grief has had time to play out.

One of the happiest moments in my life was developing a fascination with theoretical computer science in college and eventually getting accepted into a PhD program in that subject, at MIT in 1998. That was twenty-five years ago. I had found my path. I had figured out who I wanted to be and what work I wanted to do. I would be joining a community of scholars and looking forward to a life of intellectual stimulation and discovery.

That was a “triumph” and you would think that having had this triumph should serve me well, giving me confidence about my future.  But when I remember that time in my life, I feel an obligation to be complete, to not cherry-pick the good moments. It seems pretty important to also remember that I dropped out after two years and the direction of my life changed. This brings up a sense of loss for what I could have had. Yes, things worked out pretty well in the end and I’ve had many blessings. Yes, I know how to take a positive view of my life and I’m able to feel good about where I am now. But there’s still a little bit of effort involved in maintaining a positive narrative. So many years after my life changed course, it can still feel like I am defending my choice to myself, and that’s tiring. 

What would be so wrong about my remembering that time in 1998 – when I got into grad school and was full of excitement and energy for my path forward – without bringing any attention to the fact that I dropped out in the year 2000? What would be so wrong about focusing only on that positive moment in 1998 and deriving joy and inspiration from it without feeling the need to consider the full picture of how my academic story ended? What would be so wrong about feeling that pride again without deciding immediately that it must be canceled out by the memory of what happened next? The point of this would not be to confabulate, it would not be to imagine that I had stayed in school. Rather, the point would be to stop thinking so much about what happened later and instead to appreciate the beginning as an isolated moment in time.

Of course, nothing would be wrong with doing this, because although we have expectations of ourselves regarding memory – we also have a “freedom of memory” that we don’t always avail ourselves of.

And why don’t we avail it? There is a fine line between remembering something in the solitude of one’s mind and rehearsing the way we might explain it to another person – for me, these are much the same. Perhaps I constrain my own reminiscence by my sense of what other people would understand if I were telling it to them. While thinking back to my excitement and joy in 1998 I might be tempted to share it aloud with someone else, though there might be no one in the room, but if there were, they’d say “So what happened next, how did it go?” and I’d then have to explain it. Even if I have no intent to actually voice my reminiscence, I might still feel I need to prepare that explanation, just in case. And this is interesting, because it means that my own understanding of myself is shaped by my idea of what other people would understand. 

There’s also a sense that I need to be complete in my recollection so the story will make sense to me. How did I get to where I am now? If I were to selectively focus on my joy in 1998 without also drawing any attention to my choice in 2000, it would be exceedingly difficult to understand why I’m not in a university right now doing research and teaching, but instead I’m a free agent… writing essays like this one, taking photographs, trying to make music.

Third, there may be a dynamic that’s similar to the “murderer” scenario from before, where although I committed no crime whatsoever in dropping out, I am still responsible for the outcome of the situation. There’s a feeling that I must own my role in it. The excitement of my grad-school entrance is not my “right” to feel anymore. I don’t “get” to enjoy that happiness anymore because it was I who “threw it all away.” So the story goes.

This tangle of thoughts surrounding past events and how I should recall them seems almost impossible to unravel at times. And this is where meditation has offered me a new option in the past year that I was never aware I had before. Meditation teaches me that I can let all of my inner narration quiet down and turn to silence – not being resolved or sorted out but simply being left to dissipate. In the context of meditation, we can direct our focus to a chosen object in memory, contemplating that one thing alone, and releasing all of the thoughts and mental chatter that it triggers.

If I’m remembering my life publicly, I should not omit all the negatives to create a story full of convenient holes, but meditation is a safe context in which to avail the freedom of memory, to use my memory in whatever way I might find healing.

Here is a meditation exercise I am using. First, I think of the good beginnings I’ve experienced in the course of my life so far. As I do this, I try to notice the “buts” that follow. It might go like this:

I got into grad school BUT I dropped out. I wrote a novel BUT I abandoned it. I started a startup BUT it failed. I released a music album BUT no one noticed. I wrote an essay BUT no one read it.

Next, I remove the buts:

I got into grad school. I wrote a novel. I started a startup. I released an album. I wrote an essay.

Finally, I see if it’s possible to savor the feelings of those beginnings, and to acknowledge I am the same person who had the passion and initiative to start all those things and I still have that passion and initiative. It makes me feel like myself again.

The value of an exercise like this is that it can help us reclaim the benefits of good things that have happened in our lives — the pleasures that have been obscured, the achievements that we are now disconnected from, the relationships that couldn’t continue. Instead of being burdened by the riches of the past, we can draw strength from those people, events and experiences. We can let them help us. This doesn’t make it unnecessary to think about the outcomes that didn’t go as we hoped – to examine and learn from those outcomes – but there is a time and place for that learning. If we can think of the beginnings without the outcomes for just a moment, we can see that there is more goodness in our past than we are appreciating, and there is more to be proud of than we are allowing for. It is within this pride, rather than in any regret which clouds it, where we can find the surest impetus to learn.

It is as if each of us is carrying a treasure chest of positive experiences, but it is heavy and it is closed, and it’s draining our strength. Our best experiences have turned into problems, their value has turned into a cost.

What we can do is set the chest down and open it and enjoy the sparkle of the jewels inside. Then with the chest lying on the floor, still open, we can walk forward, and keep walking, and notice that we don’t have to carry the chest. Magically, those jewels follow us wherever we go.