The following post was originally published on my "Mental Health for Humans" blog. I've reworked it, mostly in terms of its format, for this site, but it's more or less a replication of the original post.
"Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense." -- The Buddha
I have been constricted by others' dogma at times in my life, as have many of us. When seeking answers to a personal problem, one is almost guaranteed to encounter other opinions and perspectives that conflict with one's own sense of what ought to be done. The conflict can be subtle enough as to go undetected; and, to one who is vulnerable and in pain, the urge to be soothed by another's message can overwhelm one's intrinsic sense of guidance. I don't mean to paint a picture with too broad a brushstroke here, but I am warning, I suppose, against falling into the trap of guru-ism at one's own expense.
I encourage anyone who seeks my input to employ guerrilla tactics, so to speak, when seeking solutions to their problems. (Most of the time, I don't put it that way, but sometimes I do.) Why? It's all too easy for many people to be drawn in to another person's dogma and lose sight of their own ability to construct solutions that make honor their own beliefs and ways of being. There are a lot of magnetic people in the world whose messages can feel like a catch-all problem solver to the desperate solution seeker.
Of course, people turn to others for help, and that's well and good. But there needs to come a point in which the seeker detaches from the advice-giver, or the expert, in order to evaluate what has been learned, to filter out anything that doesn't jive with inner sensibilities, and proceed into a decision—or, as the case may be, other avenues of exploration. In other words, the seeker has to be the one to regroup and make the change in their life. No guru or dogma can do it for them.
There is so much information available about basically any idea in the world. Just as our physical health is aided by a diet of nutritious food, so is our spiritual health aided by dynamic learning: The more we learn, the more we have available within to help ourselves.
What I would say, then, is to allow yourself to investigate the things that hold your interest. Learn about them. Read about them. Talk to like-minded people about them. Teach other people about them. Draw connections between the things you're learning and the things you've learned, and allow them to spur you onward toward new explorations. By pursuing your interests thus, you will be creating a rich psychological framework for yourself; you will be cultivating your inner world, and developing it as your most precious resource.
Moreover, this practice of cultivating your knowledge from a variety of sources gives you a better chance of being flexible and considerate in your thinking, and better-able, thus, to tackle the inevitable problems of your life with dexterity. After all, many times we must only look at something from a different perspective in order to see the way forward.
But it all comes down to you. These are my words, and my way of looking at things. If what I just wrote doesn't make any sense to you, and even if it does, keep searching. I think that, for many folks, especially in a world as nuanced, and as full of disparate information, ideas, and cultures as ours, it can be helpful to draw inspiration from a variety of sources, and to then employ guerrilla tactics (so to speak) in problem-solving.
James Altucher, a man I've never met and likely never will, just changed my life for the better -- again.
For those who aren't familiar, Altucher, among other things, is the author of Choose Yourself, which is probably one of the most practical, accessible, and useful "self-help" books ever written. He also regularly contributes blog posts and articles on his website, as well as on Quora and Medium. And he has a great podcast.
I've been enjoying and benefiting from Altucher's work for a couple years or so, but, until this morning, I hadn't read any of his articles in a few months. Life has been unusually hectic lately, what with a visit home for the holidays, moving to a new town, getting a new puppy, and hiring and training two new employees at work.
Taken at face value, none of that that sounds particularly noteworthy, but to me, they have signaled near-complete disruption. Everything has changed, from where I go grocery shopping to how I spend my time at work to how much (how little, actually) I've been sleeping to how much dog pee I have to clean up off the floor.
All these changes have converged on my life and taken a taken a swift and hard toll on my well-being. I'm a person who needs a fair amount of maintenance, upkeep, and recharge time in order to be well; and since I haven't been able to maintain, keep up with myself, or take the time to recharge, I have not been especially well.
What does that mean? It means I've been anxious, angry, and frazzled more often than not, which, in turn, means that I've been lousy company, both to others and to myself. It's no fun, no good, and completely unsustainable when you can't stand yourself. It's a pathway to destruction and misery.
I've traveled that path before, and I want no part of it again.
What I lost sight of is the fact that I can do things -- simple, quick, and easy things -- that cultivate health and happiness in my life. Moreover, I lost sight of the fact that the linchpin of my happiness is my relationship with myself.
James Altucher's work wasn't my introduction to that lesson, and his work isn't my sole means of remembering and practicing it; but that does not diminish the fact that his work has been and continues to be of profound use to me -- just like it was this morning with his latest article.
Thank you, James.
One of the reasons for my month-plus hiatus from this site is that we moved from our apartment in Fort Collins to a condo in Loveland. The process of moving was brutal, naturally; but it was a good move, you know? For one thing, the rental market in northern Colorado is getting both expensive and volatile, meaning we couldn't really predict what our new monthly rent would be—and whether we could reasonably afford it—once our current lease expired in May.
I'll miss Fort Collins, but I'm happy with our newfound modicum of stability where monthly expenditures are concerned. Plus, the place is really nice, and was basically "turn-key." It's all worked out very well, and I'm glad for it.
One of the other perks of our new digs is that both of us are now much closer to work. A shorter commute equals fewer dollars spent on gas and vehicle upkeep, fewer particles of vaporized dinosaur sludge getting spewed into the atmosphere, and hours of our lives back each and every week. For me, my old 45 or 50 minute commute (each way) has been reduced to about 25 or 30 minutes. That time adds up very quickly, and I'm grateful to have it back.
I'm still not used to it, though. A year and a half of commuting from my old place in FoCo to my office in Greeley has programmed my sense of the duration of my commute accordingly. So when I rolled up to campus this morning having only been driving my car for a half hour, my arrival felt strange, sudden, and jarring.
And then I noticed the reaction that prompted me to write this article: I felt sadness.
Okay, yes, there have been benefits to my longer commute. It's given me the chance to listen to, and stay current on, a number of excellent podcasts; and it's afforded me some alone time, which I both enjoy and need in certain doses.
However, all things considered, my feeling of sadness is almost completely illogical. It isn't as if I'm altogether losing any of the perks of the commute: I'll still have my podcasts, and I'll still have my alone time. So what gives?
I think it's just a matter of conditioning, plain and simple. Here I had this well-established, highly reinforced, inexorable routine that was, in sum, less than ideal: While it kept me employed and provided some immediate psychological benefits, its expenditures of time and money were, according to my values and circumstances, too steep.
But it was my commute. It was what I was used to. On some deep, irrational, animal level, I was attached to my commute, I was in control of my commute, and it didn't matter a whit that it wasn't all that great for me.
To my way of thinking, those deep-brain, subconscious, "animal" sensibilities offset my more rational self—the piece that may have, if left to its own devices, demanded a lifestyle change much sooner—and conspired to keep me in a state of benign, unthinking acceptance of the commute.
Of course, the stakes of all this were and are fairly low, insofar as we're not talking about behavior that was actively harming my or another's well-being. But it's easy, perhaps, for one to extrapolate the process I underwent to behaviors with altogether more serious pitfalls and ramifications. Food for thought there, maybe.
For my part, that moment of sadness didn't linger too terribly long. But it demonstrated to me the power of habit, and the trickiness and unreliability of our emotional feedback system when we try to change.
I felt "off" this morning as I walked into my office. My mind-chatter was chaotic, noisy, and persuasive, and I couldn't concentrate or think clearly, let alone relax. Ironically, one of the things on my mind was an upcoming presentation I am giving on self-care.
By the time I sat down at my desk, I knew I needed to take a few moments and figure out a way to center myself. I thought of writing something here—like a "process" blog or something—but when nothing came to me, I turned to my old Mental Health for Humans archives for assistance. Lo and behold, I found a link to a great little article entitled, "7 Way to Train the Self-Care Habit," by Elisha Goldstien, Ph.D. (on Twitter @Mindful_Living).
So that was a boon—and a helpful one: I immediately felt grounded, and much of that pesky mind-chatter fell away. Then my phone's notification asked for my attention: knock knock knock. My master's Alma Mater, the College of Community and Public Affairs at Binghamton University (Twitter: @BinghamtonCCPA) had just tweeted a new faculty blog post entitled, "How Do You Practice Self Care?"
And with that, I had everything I needed to take care of myself.
Sometimes it's hard for me to remember that I'm not an island unto myself—that I am, in fact, dependent upon other people and other resources outside myself (including ideas). I suspect many of us struggle in similar fashion. Individualism carries a certain allure, a certain air of romance. But, like most ideas taken to their extreme, individualism can drive a wedge between us and the world of which we are a part, and with which we are interdependent.
It feels good to have reconnected, and to remember that the connection is a thing to maintain; i.e., it is an ongoing process—and that that's okay!
Thanks for reading.
Well I had some sort of an insight a little while ago listening to “Sugaree” out on the UC patio – the one at the West entrance to the building. I noticed myself having these anticipatory visceral responses to a particular passage in the song. I’ve heard the song, and indeed the version in question, many times, and am, therefore, rather intimately familiar with it in a very detailed way. As a result of this, I think I was on a bit of autopilot as I listened to it. In other words, despite the fact that my ostensible intention had been to put in my headphones and listen to this song—I had even sat down at a picnic table as to devote my attention to listening—my mind only obeyed in a half-assed kind of way—enough, perhaps, to trick me into thinking I was carrying out my stated intention of listening to the song.
Anyway, this moment of affective and, ultimately, superficial response caught my attention and interest, hence this little note. I’m not sure what to make of it. Certainly I am, generally speaking, distracted; and I am certainly distractable as a general rule, particularly by the myriad goings-on inside my mind. Part of this is quite simply my nature, I suppose, but part of it is the fact that I have miles to go, figuratively speaking, in my mind-training, i.e., meditative practice. In other words, my “monkey mind” is as-yet untrained.
Regardless of the reasons why, or, rather, of the factors inducing this occurrence (for there are surely many, to say nothing of the fact that an exploration of them at this time is beside the point of this note), it did indeed occur, and just barely did I notice it. I suppose if I hadn’t consciously noticed and caught it in the web of my attention it likely would have persisted in its own way, manifesting only in a vague sense of dissatisfaction, the origins of which I may or may not have had the wherewithal or inclination to pursue. As it is, I am glad I noticed it.
I am interested in attention and focus. The experience of pure listening, to continue with the present example—deep and focused listening—is a wonderful experience, and one that I suppose I used to pursue more fervently than I do now. I suppose I have found it simpler and altogether more pleasant to “let myself be” to a certain extent, and certainly to a greater extent than I used to do: I was my own hell-hound for too many years, and I still am on occasion. If that is hell (and it can be), then heaven is the experience of fully “being in” an action such as listening—and there is something especially sublime about listening in this manner to music. Music, after all, is a language beyond language. It speaks directly to our heart, plays with our mind, and soothes our troubled souls.