How Do I Stay Mindful When the Present Isn’t Pleasant?

“If you notice any uncomfortable feelings while you’re trying to meditate, just invite them in”

Now why on earth would I want to do that?! That’s stupid. 

“Inviting discomfort is one way to learn how to stop fighting against them and accept them”

Well I don’t want to accept this – that makes me feel like I’m giving up. Plus, it’s just shitty. 

That was my thought process while listening to a guided meditation during a group session. Thankfully all of these thoughts stayed in my head – otherwise I would have disturbed a lot of people… and insulted the teacher.

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Photo by Carmine De Fazio on Unsplash

Sometimes, the present just sucks.

My last post gave us four reasons why we should try to live in the present moment. I pushed against the idea that mindfulness always leads to a special kind of calm – especially if you only meditate once, for example.

The little dialogue above demonstrated the personal resistance I had towards living in the present when the present becomes difficult. It’s normal to mentally check out of difficulty when we come across it because it’s normal to want to do the easier thing.

However, it isn’t always better for us. It can quickly lead to more stressful thinking patterns that make us feel worse. If I feel sad, it might be easier to start thinking about why I feel sad and what could have caused it and dig our way down that rabbit hole. Or I may try to distract myself and never address the thinking that consistently causes me to feel bad about something.

For example, you may begin to feel bad at school or work because you’re unknowingly comparing yourself to others. Even though it rests on a mistake.

You may become angry because you feel that you should be able to control something but with a bit more thinking, you’d find that most of it was out of your control.

And it goes on. How do we manage this?

How to stay mindful when the present isn’t pleasant

  1. Acknowledge it’ll feel uncomfortable 

You can say this aloud if you want. Negative emotional or physical feelings suck but we often begin our resistance here by refusing to admit that sometimes you’ll just feel uncomfortable.

It’s not always fair nor does it always have a grand lesson at the end. Acknowledging the discomfort is the first step to prevent our mind from running away from the uncomfortable.

This does not mean you’re giving in. It’s like observing a fact that’s simply happening.

“I’m in pain, yes but this does not mean I want to be in pain”

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Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash

2. Remove yourself from the story and remove judgement – make everything neutral

Toni Bernhard in, How to Live with Chronic Illness, teaches a skill that I’ve found simple but useful.

Stop judging the moment and just describe it.

If you’re in pain try saying “pain is happening” rather than “I am in so much pain”.

If you’re sad, try “Sadness is present” rather than “I am in the darkness again”.

If you’ve experienced disappointment, try “Disappointment is present” rather than “I was really let down by my friend”.

I’ve found this takes away some of the bite from the negative emotions that arise and reduce the suffering that we can easily add-on top of ourselves. It gives us the opportunity to watch the emotion rather than feed it with more negativity.

This isn’t lying to yourself.

3. Ask yourself these four questions (and another one at the end): 

To help halt stressful thoughts, it may be worthwhile to asking yourself these questions offered by Byron Katie:

  1. Is the thought true?
  2. Am I absolutely sure it is true?
  3. How do I feel when I think the thought?
  4. Who would I be without the thought?
  5. Then turn it around – what if something else is the case?

This helps us respond skillfully to stressful thoughts that make the pleasant moment uncomfortable. Let’s go through this together with an example:

My thought here is that I am incapable of creating good work so I should never try.

  1. Is the thought true?

Yes, I’m writing this right now and it’s terrible – so many mistakes!

2. Am I absolutely sure it is true?

Perhaps not – I have a bad habit of being a harsh critic who refuses to see the good. 

3. How do I feel when I think the thought?

I feel disappointed and angry. I’m trying my best to create high quality work but my efforts don’t pay off. I become angry because I seem to be wasting my time. 

4. Who would I be without the thought?

A person who creates without expectation. A person who tries their best because they believe that is the most useful way to stick to their own values. 

5. The turnaround – how can the story be changed?

Here, we change the story slightly just to see what other possibilities are out there. Then think of reasons why it might be true.

Now, what if I’m a person who creates helpful work and has the ability to get better if he keeps trying? 

  • My blog posts have improved from a few years ago and I’m more comfortable in my own voice. 
  • If I never try, I’ll never have the opportunity to improve. 
  • My academic writing is better than it was when I started. 

Will you always believe this turnaround? No. Sometimes you’ll need someone else to tell you these things. But it’s a start – and a reminder that the negative thought you have now isn’t the only possibility in the world.

4. Remember, it takes practice. 

I’ve written these pointers in the hopes that you’ll be able to live in the present even when it’s difficult. With time will come acceptance and a clearer mindset to make useful change happen.

Yet, it doesn’t all come instantly. I try to remind myself of points like this regularly because negative thinking, when times get tough, is a difficult habit to break out of.

We all have positive and negative thinking habits. This does not mean our ways of thinking are permanently broken.

And finally… 

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

(and shake it all about)


As always, thank you for reading!

My question for you is:

How do you handle unpleasant feelings? 

You can follow me on Twitter and Facebook for more updates!

If you liked this post, share it with others!

 

 

4 Actual Reasons Why We Should Live In The Present

Live in the present – be mindful – meditate – be grateful  and so on.

It’s great that “mindfulness” had enjoyed an explosion in popularity. You can now find colouring books and apps that will help you stay grounded in the present moment.

But with this rise in popularity comes over-saturation. We’re told to live in the present moment to reduce anxiety. To appreciate the world more.

Does this still hold much weight when we’re all told the same thing over and over again?

Mindfulness isn’t a cure – it’s a practice

Given the way it’s marketed, mindfulness practice can be seen as a cure.

Meditation, colouring books and the like are no silver bullet. It can be wonderful the first time we make a deliberate effort to calm down but there’s often little use in that if we do it once and move on the exact same why we were before hand.

There are many reasons to be stressed and rarely does it all come down to a lack of mindfulness. Job insecurity, long hours at work, lack of autonomy are all reasons. It’s difficult to say all you need to do is breathe for these problems to have little impact on your well being.

So this is why being mindful and grounding ourselves in the present moment need to be practiced regularly if the stresses of life are also regular. It won’t cure everything but it might make things a bit easier.

But why practice living in the present at all?

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Maybe she’s living in the present – Photo by Delaney Dawson on Unsplash

 

  1. We stop living in explanation

One of the main themes in The Obstacle is the Way is to take action.

Worry less, act more.

It is easy, when faced with a mundane problem, to spend the majority of your time thinking about what to do and all of the possible outcomes in the future.

Of course, there might be tens or hundreds of possible outcomes (if you think for long enough, I suppose) which all seem equally likely and catastrophic. Yes, we need to think about future consequences before acting. Doing otherwise would be foolish.

However, if that’s all we do then our minds become a theatre for worry rather than measured consideration of the future.

Indecisiveness is an easy way to never do what you enjoy.

When we live in the present with purpose, it’s easier to understand the challenges that we’re impacted by right now. From there, it’s easier to take intentional steps forward to making a solid decision.

We reduce the stress of feeling as though we have control over nothing by realising we can control the something in the present. No matter how small it is.

2. We stop thinking about whether “it’s fair”. 

Holiday writes:

“We aren’t content to deal with things as they happen. We have to dive endlessly into what everything “means”, whether something is “fair” or not, what’s “behind” this or that, and what everyone else is doing.

Then we wonder why we don’t have the energy to actually deal with our problems. Or we get ourselves so worked up and intimidated because of the overthinking, that if we’d just gotten to work we’d probably be done already”.

Maybe I’m hypocritical for talking about this because I have a bad habit of thinking about the fairness of my pain. It took me a year to agree with Nietzsche when he says people hate meaningless suffering more than suffering alone.

However, most problems aren’t existential. Even so, I’ve noticed that in the moments I’ve stopped thinking about whether it’s fair for me to be in pain, I’ve found a bit more peace. Maybe it just doesn’t matter but a problem to be dealt with.

Fairness does matter. However, when that’s all we think about while doing nothing but worrying about it, perhaps we’re causing more suffering than we need to.

So we bring ourselves to the present moment. How can we get past this obstacle and use it to become better?

3. We become better friends with ourselves

Practicing mindfulness and meditation regularly for the past four years or so has taught me a few things. The most important one is that thoughts pass and emotional states leave.

Emotions and thoughts are best thought of as “phases” rather than permanent states of being. Even in the large overall states of being like depression, personally, I’ve noticed that emotions aren’t constant. Even if I’m a bit less sad than a few hours ago – that’s a change. To me, it demonstrates that change is possible.

This is enough to keep slivers of hope around.

Because of this, we can remember that the hatred we have for ourselves based on the past or the future can leave when we return to the present. If the hatred continues in the present, we can try shifting our focus to starve our ego of attention or ride the wave and watch the emotion leave.

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Photo by Joshua Clay on Unsplash

4. It teaches acceptance

The present moment is not always pleasant. The present can suck just as much as thinking about the past can – not every moment grounds you in peace or happiness.

What if you’re in pain? What if all you can hear are sirens in the background while you’re stuck in traffic? There are many ways we can simply dislike where we are no matter how present we try to be.

To me, this is where a big mistake comes from in the marketing of mindfulness – the idea that mindfulness solves all stress.

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Sitting on rocks all the time is uncomfortable anyway – Photo by Daniel Mingook Kim on Unsplash 

I wish we focused more on acceptance. Plenty of the discomfort that comes from uncomfortable experiences is the mental resistance against it. Nancy Colier writes:

[…] as long as we are “checking out” on the moments that we don’t like, we are an extra step away from being able to change them.

We may not be able to change the sirens disturbing us on the drive home but we can begin to accept that it’s difficult to be there. Acceptance does not mean losing the will to change.

Living in the present helps us accept what is may not always be what we want. That can be painful and disappointing. But it’s a worthwhile realisation that will be forgotten and remembered again and again as we continue the practice.

And finally… 

Living in the present moment can be difficult. Sometimes it’s just better to escape into fantasy or light conversation.

But it’s also remarkably helpful. It can reduce stress and anxiety, help us act on problems rather than think about them endlessly.

Most importantly, it can help us practice acceptance. And with that comes more peace, more compassion and more engagement with our everyday lives.


As always, thank you for reading!

My question for you is:

Do you find it easy to live in the present?

You can follow me on Twitter and Facebook for more updates!

How to Love Yourself: Stay On Your Own Team

We all talk to ourselves in some form. It’s less weird than you think.

But I’m not interested in the times that we just recite a shopping list or wonder whether we’ve locked the back door properly.

What about the times you hate yourself?

The times you call yourself stupid, worthless, meaningless. The times when, if you said them to anyone on the street, you’d probably be punched in the face and the aggressor would be cheered on.

When you repeat these things to your friends, you’re probably told that you’re not stupid, worthless or whatever other mean word of choice you pick that day.

The problem is… they are just so believable in the moment.

Whatever caused these thoughts are probably still present. Negative thinking is just continuously being triggered and reinforced.

I didn’t go to the gym so I’m fat and worthless -> I’m still not going to the gym -> I’m even more fat and worthless.

Now, these thoughts are often completely untrue if you give yourself the chance to challenge them in a meaningful way.

Does missing a workout suck? Of course! Does it completely shatter your self-worth? No – the same way one workout probably doesn’t justify your whole existence.

You may be told to challenge these thoughts. It’s a valuable way to tackle negativity and if it works, keep at it. However, I’ve found something else to be useful.

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Photo by Papaioannou Kostas on Unsplash

Stay on your own team

Or “talk to yourself as you would a friend”.

If you had a team of people to help you out in life, think of how you’d assemble it.

Would you have a person who you can turn to for advice?

A person who makes you laugh?

A person who makes stellar banana and chocolate chip cake?

Even a person with a voice that’s like audible silk?

Now, what about yourself – where would you stand?

Of course, you’re the person moving forward because you’re not being carried all the time. However, even if you stand still or move backwards, remember that you’re on your own team.

It’s the best thing you can do for yourself. A good teammate wouldn’t tell you that you’re a piece of shit if you missed a basket (and mean it) or conceded a penalty. They’ll help you get back on your feet and move on again. I’m not sure why I mixed up two sports.

They’ll be encouraging rather than demoralising and realistic rather than endlessly pessimistic (there’s a difference).

This is where talking to yourself helps. You can imagine yourself as a separate member of the team you’ve assembled and help yourself with a reminder that the hateful things you’re saying about yourself aren’t true.

Even if you really believe it, you can use that as a way to improve your life regardless. As Ryan Holiday says – The Obstacle is the Way.

When you begin, it won’t be believable. With practise however, you’ll slowly begin to correct your outlook on your own self-worth and reduce the negative self-talk that doesn’t inspire helpful self-improvement.

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Photo by Daniel McCullough on Unsplash

How stay on your own team

A thought that flies in my head when I think of advice like this is that I don’t deserve to speak to myself so kindly. Because the things I say are true.

Well, that’s not true. They just often feel true. And feelings aren’t facts.

Do you need to deserve a helping hand to have one? Maybe not. If you can offer yourself that helping hand, it may be the most useful thing you do for your own mental health.

I’m not asking you to lie about yourself – that’s simply not believable. I’m not the greatest writer in the world so I won’t tell myself that. However what I can do is tell myself but I can improveFor example:

  • I’m a terrible swimmer … but I can get better with consistent practice.
  • I’m not a kind person… but I can do one kind thing a day to learn how to treat others better.
  • I’m not good at studying… but I can ask for help.
  • I’m worthless… but I can find or create my self-worth with time and patience.

I try to use the “But I can improve” correction because I find telling myself “no I’m a perfect swimmer!” empty. It doesn’t mean anything to me.

Reminding yourself that you’re a draft in progress is a smaller and more realistic step to take. And it’s possible to prove it to yourself!

  • Swimming: after not being able to swim a length without getting tired, I practised consistently and now can swim 1.5km without hating myself.
  • Kindness: years ago, I challenged myself to point out good things about people and now it’s a habit.
  • Studying: I took the time to ask for help and learn about better studying techniques, now I’ve done well academically throughout university.

Give yourself a chance

Really, this is all about giving yourself a chance. You’re a draft in progress and we all are. Sometimes your brain malfunctions and tells you falsehoods that you want to believe. Like any part of your body, it can just be faulty.

So remember, you’re on your own team. Try not to join the opposition – they aren’t as good-looking as you and don’t have nice cakes.


As always, thank you for reading!

My question for you is:

What stops you from treating yourself with compassion?

You can follow me on Twitter and Facebook for more updates!

It’s Important To Do the Things You Enjoy

It’s obvious. But it’s really important

You’re not bored, you’re not happy – you’re mindless.

One thing that I’ve said about being addicted to your phone is that it’s just a really bad habit but unfortunately, a really effective one.

A basic model of how habits are formed are the three Rs – Reminder, Routine, Reward. (I didn’t come up with this myself – Charles Duhigg is my best source). The easier these are to come about, the habit is much more likely to stick.

For our phones it’s this:

  • Reminder(s): notifications, the phone always being in arms reach, needing it for certain tasks (like alarms)
  • Routine(s): scrolling through social media, texting a friend, watching a video
  • Reward: The small pleasure centre in our brains reacting to some kind of approval.

The problem is that these rewards you gain from social media and watching videos may not be deeply satisfying. Instead, it’s just enough to stop you from getting extremely bored but not enough to entertain you significantly.

You’re hovering just above boredom but nowhere near happiness.

I fall victim to this all the time. I spend time doing things that don’t really interest me. They entertain me in the short-term but leave me feeling like rubbish quickly afterwards.

Given that I’m in pain a lot of the time and that impacts my concentration, I want to fill the time that I have with more enjoyment than superficial rubbish.

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Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

What do you really enjoy? 

All of this seems mighty obvious. To be happy, do things that make you happy.

However, it serves us well to actually think about what makes us happy then think about whether we actually follow through with that.

For example, we might want to think more often:

  • What are the things that make me happy in the short-term but guilty in the long-term?
  • What leaves me feeling really satisfied with myself?
  • Do I spend more time on things that are simply easy or do I challenge myself?
  • Am I doing the same thing over and over again?
  • How often do I end the day feeling satisfied?
  • How often do I start the day feeling encouraged by the plan I have set out?

These questions have helped me better understand what I actually enjoy rather than those activities that are simply easy to do. Rather than going to the path of least resistance, you spend more time carving out a life that you really want to live.

As a result, you may find that after answering these questions that finding happiness in your day requires a bit more self-discipline than you may have expected!

Being satisfied and happy isn’t simply a case of doing “whatever you want” because that can be quite difficult to judge. Rather, we need to think more deeply about the things that we enjoy, then experiment with ways to fill our time with more of it.

The benefit of this approach I’ve found is that it stops everything turning into an obligation. Rather, you want to do certain things because you’re confident that they’ll do good things for your mental health. For example, why would you miss a workout if you know you’ll feel good after and during it?

You wouldn’t. Exercising is something that has a much greater potential to make you happy than sitting down and eating Pringles like they’re going out of fashion. (I promise this does not come from personal experience…)

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Photo by Chris Brignola on Unsplash

Seneca writes that one of our biggest problems is that we “live as though we’ll live forever”, waste it on meaningless things then complain that life is too short.

Ok, but what if I don’t have the energy? 

What do you do when you want to do something you’ll enjoy but simply can’t because of something like chronic pain?

It’s easy to do the easiest thing (like watch videos mindlessly for hours) because you lack energy. So for me, all of these mindless activities tend to come in the evening after a day of being active in some way.

Here are two things I’ve found help:

  1. High energy and Low energy activities

Split the things you enjoy into high energy and low energy activities. For me, it goes like this:

High energy: Writing, reading non-fiction, exercising

Low energy: Reading fiction, calming yoga, Netflix

2. Don’t worry about it

Worrying about how you spend your time is likely to tire you out even more and make you feel extremely guilty. Sometimes, you just don’t have a lot of energy and you just want to watch videos for a while.

Set a good intention for yourself and enjoy the time you have.

It’s important but think about it, don’t worry about it.

When I was reminded of this concept, I began to feel guilty about how I spend my time (I’ve been like this for years). It’s because I turned the things I want to do into things I have to do.

If you don’t reach an obligation you feel bad.

If you make everything an obligation, you’re likely to feel bad because you can’t do everything.

Not everything is an obligation. Remind yourself of that when you find yourself saying “I should do this and should do that”.

So set out to fill more of your time with the things you enjoy doing. Be mindful of this intention because it is a helpful reminder that our time is often limited by things out of our control.

It sounds ominous but it’s true. Seneca writes that one of our biggest problems is that we “live as though we’ll live forever”, waste it on meaningless things then complain that life is too short.

Perhaps life isn’t too short. Regardless, let’s take the time to do things we enjoy.

If anything, we deserve it.


As always, thank you for reading!

My question for you is:

What do you enjoy and what do you want to do more of?

You can follow me on Twitter and Facebook for more updates!

(Happy 100th post to meeee!)

Here is why productivity doesn’t matter

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Photo by Neven Krcmarek on Unsplash

One question that has, for some reason, bothered me quite a lot is: what is productivity?

Throughout all the different personal development and productivity blogs I’ve read, I’ve learned a number of ways to be more productive. Eliminate distractions, exercise, don’t have long meetings and so on and so on.

However, I never really took time to understand what productivity is.

Perhaps this is because the first answer is quite mundane.

The ability to produce stuff.

It’s a keystone behind David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” system which has sold millions of copies and inspired a host of productivity blogs out there.

The more productive you are, the more stuff you produce or complete.

Is this helpful? Anyone can be extremely productive if you take this definition because you can complete a lot of small, relatively meaningless tasks and say you’ve had an extremely productive day every day. This is why answering a bunch of emails or cleaning the house might feel productive even though you’ve put off something more important.

Simply producing more stuff isn’t a helpful definition in a lot of contexts we’re now in. What about…

The ability to produce important stuff.

This is a bit more focused. If complete more important stuff you’re going to be more productive than the person who just completes a bunch of meaningless tasks, right? For example, if you decide not to answer a bunch of emails and instead write the important report or calculate the important calculation, then you’re producing more valuable stuff.

While we’re getting closer to a more usable definition, we’re not there yet. What happens if the tasks you’re working on aren’t important to you but rather someone else? Am I being unproductive because the ‘important’ goals aren’t important to me?

Possibly. But many of us will work for other people and on important tasks that do not completely align with our personal passions. It’s a normal part of a working life in whatever capacity. The importance of the task depends on the context but then we may want to think in more depth about the kind of context we find ourselves in the majority of the time.

We may think about productivity in personal terms – getting stuff done that’s important to you. Doing this might be quite drastic because we could find that we’re largely unproductive despite doing brilliantly at your job or studies. We do want to make distinction between business and personal productivity because not everyone is at the luxury of being able to quit their jobs and focus on things that are only important to them. But it’s a helpful tool when coming to think about your priorities and how you can ensure you’re focusing on them as much as you can.

However, I don’t want to keep on twisting and contorting the definition of productivity. Working on and creating things that are important to you whether that is in a personal or business sense. This discussion leaves us a more important question.

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Photo by Bram Naus on Unsplash

Does your productivity matter?

The simple definition of productivity – getting stuff done – is unhelpful. Thinking about getting stuff done in terms of their importance is much more helpful. Yet, the more I think about it, the less I think it actually matters.

In the short term, of course it matters. You don’t want to lose your job or fail university because you’re too busy watching videos on things that barely interest you. In the long term, I think the value of an action might be better judged by its ability to help you live with integrity or overall satisfaction.

Focusing on things that are important to you isn’t good simply because they are productive. Instead, it results in matching the things that matter to you and the actions you complete every day. In doing that, we live with greater presence and a movement away from chastising yourself for “not being productive enough” or “lazy” or “wasting time”.

If we judge something as a waste of time because it doesn’t help us live in line with our values instead of whether it is helping us be productive enough, it helps us do a few things.

First, we stop micro managing our time. Doing this helps us stray away from being overly critical of how we spend our time.

Second, it gets to the deeper cause of our disappointment. We can spend a day with a very difficult problem and not write a single word yet still feel like we’ve done something useful. We can spend a day writing rubbish all day, and feel remarkably unsatisfied with everything. It’s the lack of personal importance that seems to drive this disappointment.

Third, we think honestly about the bigger picture – and make steps towards them. My yearly integrity posts are an attempt to slow down and reassess what is really important to me and how I can mould my life and my days in that direction. Doing this places a useful urgency into my days.

So, if not productivity, what is important?

Seneca complains that

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it. Life is long if you know how to use it.

we say life is short yet treat it as though we will live forever. Regularly returning to important values instead of getting lost in thoughts about what is productive and what isn’t, I think, is more helpful overall.

Thinking about productivity is useful but should only come second to thinking about actions that help us live in accordance with our values.

To do this, we have to slow down and remember what is actually important rather than going so fast you’ve been running in the wrong direction for ages.

As always, thank you for reading.


 

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What Does ‘Improving Slowly’ Mean?

In the time that I’ve spent writing about various elements of improving slowly, I haven’t sat down with you and spoken about what it means. I hear the cries already.

“It’s bloody obvious! Rather than improve quickly – improve slowly!”

But I promise, there is more to it. I want to talk about the values of improving slowly and why they’re important.

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Photo by Cameron Kirby on Unsplash

The principles of slow self-improvement

Self-improvement is important to a lot of people. Especially to those who feel bad about their skill set and general abilities. Or to those who want to live happier and more fulfilling lives.

The literature is broad – much of it very good (and terrible, but we can ignore that for now). The experience of self-improvement is not spoken about as often as it could be. Largely because blogs and books tend to give advice (as my blog does too) without talking about what it’s like to actually live that advice.

I started my blog so I could do that but I feel that I’ve strayed from that (or never really started). So I’ve been thinking:

What are the principles of slow self-improvement?

When we challenge ourselves to go as quickly as possible (for whatever reason) it’s easy for that doubt to become more and more intense. It’s helpful to slow down, be mindful and enjoy the process of improving as much as we can.

This brings us to the first principle – We are working drafts

I explored this briefly in the last post on self-forgiveness. When we decide to improve certain things, we do so because we believe it could be better. However, it’s easy to slip into perfectionism without noticing. As a result, we might see how quickly we can learn something (in order to get rid of the deficiency quicker) or become overwhelmed by the task and never start.

There’s nothing wrong with learning quickly if we have the right foundation. If we start with the belief that we aren’t perfect and need to be, learning quickly will not solve that.

We take a mindful breath, assess our intentions and remember that we’re a work in progress. We always will be.

And that’s OK.

With this in mind, it becomes much easier to catch those harmful storylines which can often plague our thoughts.

“I’m not moving fast enough!”

“I’m not smart enough to learn this so quickly”

“I’m falling behind!”

And instead of focusing more on the improvement and being kind to ourselves in the process, it becomes much easier to lose ourselves in the storyline or give up when we realise that learning a language or writing a book isn’t as sexy as we first imagined.

Improving slowly is about improving with compassion.

Self-forgiveness is one facet of self-compassion. There are a many others. Small things such as:

  • Cultivating kinder thoughts towards yourself
  • Allowing yourself to relax
  • Appreciating how far you’ve come and your courage to keep going

In the journey of self-improvement and as a result improving the world, it helps to start from a foundation which isn’t infected with hate. Of course, this takes time – I struggle with it every day. But it’s a worthwhile struggle.

One day I’ll see myself in the same positive light that I see my friends and family. I hope the same for you.

Another important principle of slow self-improvement is a deeper adoption of helpful habits.

When we improve slowly, we spend more time with the habits we want to adopt. As a result, we’re far more likely to keep the habit than for it to be a fad.

For example, a study from University College London showed that it can take an average of to 66 days to form a habit rather than the conventional “21 day challenges”.

Next, we resist apathy and cynicism – and fight against it.

Apathy and cynicism are only around the corner and come knocking when we experience multiple setbacks. We must remember that we cannot give up on ourselves. Especially when it is most tempting. Simply remembering that we can be champions for ourselves is a helpful reminder to remain engaged with the world.

Even in the simplest form. There have been times when all I’ve done is reminded myself “I want to be engaged in my own story”. Then gone back to bed.

It can be difficult, but on reflection I’ve understood it as an act of compassion.

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Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash

Lastly, we become better one step at a time.

It is better to work with focus instead of attempting everything at once. To do this, we slow down, take a mindful breath, and take it step by step.

Conclusion

This journey of improving ourselves and adding value to the world is a life-long one. Our time is valuable but this doesn’t mean we try to complete things as fast as humanely possible.

I ask that we slow down. Savour our improvement and as a result develop a healthier relationship with setbacks and disappointments.

While we improve, we’ll experience many of our ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows.

And that’s more than OK.

Onward we go to improve ourselves and improve the world. With presence and mindfulness.

We improve slowly.

Here are the principles again:

  • We are working drafts
  • We improve with compassion
  • We spend a lot of time with positive habits
  • We resist apathy and cynicism – and fight against it
  • We become better one step at a time

As always, thank you for reading. If you found these principles helpful, please share! Let me know what you think of them below :)


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How to improve your life: self-forgiveness 101

Photo by pan xiaozhen on Unsplash

In my last post, Meditation is a Practice, I wrote about slowly inviting some compassion into the way you treat yourself when you lost focus. For a short while, I’ve been trying to introduce that into more areas and I want to share how that works.

It begins with a surprisingly difficult task.

Forgiving yourself.

I’m trying to lose weight. I’ve been successful in the most important aspect so far (weighing less, obviously) but it has happened a lot slower than I actually expected. I have messed up many many times. If I’m in a lot of pain, I might try to eat the experience away (even though it literally never works) then feel guilty:

I shouldn’t have done that

I’m never going to lose weight at this rate 

Despite knowing overeating doesn’t make me feel good nor is it particularly good for my health, it still happens. As a result, I begin to hurl insults my way without resistance. They are brutal and a lot of the time, I think they are true (even if they aren’t upon honest reflection). It makes me feel bad about the things that I haven’t achieved and dismiss the things that I have.

So I feel bad about everything I’ve done regardless of whether it is good or bad. Obviously, it isn’t very fair.

We are all working drafts

Inviting compassion is pretty difficult to start with. Believing what you say is another question – it’ll all seems fake. Forgiving yourself is an important tool because it emphasises to us that we’re all works in progress.

None of us will ever be perfect but we can all improve slowly. While we do that, we’ll make mistakes, fall off the track and sometimes even go backwards. But there is a cruel voice in our head encouraging hatred because of mistakes that are bound to happen anyway – it is unhelpful and harmful.

To quieten it, we forgive ourselves our mistakes and try again. When we make mistakes, it’s a decent signal that we’re stepping out of our comfort zone and challenging ourselves. That is the path to improving. Not playing it permanently safe and hoping you get things right all the time.

Self-forgiveness creates a healthier environment for us to work and create in. As mentioned earlier, it shines light on the idea that we’re all a working draft. With this mindset, we are more likely to challenge ourselves in the future because we accept the idea that mistakes happen and they are much less worse than we thought.

Rather than improving in an environment of hostility, we improve with compassion – it simply makes the whole journey more enjoyable. Imagine this:

You’re about 10 years old and you’ve been asked to talk in front of the class. You’re nervous and hate public speaking (like most people apparently). You’ve started speaking and make a big mistake – which of the following are you more likely to try again?

1. *laughter from the class* – you hear murmurs of “I’m better than him” or “that was really stupid”. After the class, no one talks to you.

2. Your class is patient. You see encouraging nods and smiles prodding you to continue. After the class, a few people you say well done for talking in front of everyone.

The second (I hope). Even if you don’t get over the mistake straight away, at least you know people don’t care that much about the mistake and those who spend their time criticising you over a human error aren’t worth your time.

I’m not expecting a ten-year-old to get this straight away. But the second environment is something you can create for yourself by slowly silencing the internal critic and forgiving yourself.

Does forgiveness make us complacent?

No.

In a study titled “Self-Compassion and Reactions to Self-Relevant Events: The Implications of Treating Oneself Kindly”, it was shown that it makes us see the world more accurately without all of the unnecessary harsh judgement. You actually become more accepting of criticism and see it as a chance to improve.

As a result, you can have more responsibility over your mistakes, fear failure less and continue working towards your goals with more drive.

Rather than hating ourselves for our mistakes (and implicitly assuming that we can’t get better because of them … even though we “should”) we begin to view ourselves in a more accurate light – a work in progress!

Rather than being welcomed by a growling dog who’s ready to bite every time you fall over, you’re greeted by a friend who helps you up and encourages you to try again.

Who is the only person in your life who is available 24/7 to provide you with care and kindness? You.

~Kristen Neff

Nor does it encourage ignoring mistakes.

When we forgive ourselves, it doesn’t mean that making mistakes is a good thing – rather, they are acceptable but they can worked on. There really is no point in hating ourselves for not being perfect – we’ll never reach that stage anyway.

How do you begin forgiving yourself? 

First, identify the lack of compassion then label it.

When you make a mistake, you might find yourself falling down the similar hole of self-criticism. If you notice the story beginning to play, label it as such.

“I am criticising myself for a mistake I made”

Then you can do one of two things. You can investigate it or let it be then watch it go. I prefer letting it be.

I found it helpful to say a few phrases to begin. My favourite is from our meditation friend, Joseph Goldstein “And simply begin again”.

• “Ok, I forgive myself for that, I’ll try better next time”

• “Mistakes are OK, I’ll try again next time”

• “I’m simply a work in progress – I can improve and I have improved before”

• “I’m improving slowly, not perfectly”

• “This criticism is unhelpful – mistakes happen. They aren’t permanent.”

We observe the initial frustration and notice it slowly melt away with the warmth of compassion. I will warn you, you’ll even make mistakes with forgiving yourself. You can forgive yourself for those too. It’ll become easier the more you practice. The more you practice, the more you can begin to enjoy your path to wherever you’re going.

I’ve said this many times – we’re all just a work in progress. We can improve slowly and improve with compassion.

“Will you call out, “I’ve got this,” and do your very best to be your very best?”

To do this, you forgive yourself for mistakes made in the past and get back to it. Think progress, not perfection.


As always, thank you for reading.

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References:

  • Barking Up the Wrong Tree – Eric Barker
    • For studies on self-compassion and forgiveness.
  • The Daily Stoic – Ryan Holiday
  • How to wake up – Toni Bernhard
    • For the method on identifying and assessing negative criticism.

Meditation is a Practice

“I can’t clear my mind – it just isn’t for me”

“My mind is too frantic to meditate properly”

When people talk to me about meditation, those are the most common sources of resistance I come across. To meditate correctly you need to be able to clear your mind and only focus on your breathing without interruption.

This is one of the biggest misconceptions about meditation.

It’s easy to imagine that the well-practised meditating monk can sit down and clear their minds without any problem. The belief is – for us to be able to meditate, we must do the same.

Mindfulness Meditation is a Practice.

First, let us understand mindfulness.

Toni Bernhard views it as paying attention with care. 

Not carefully paying attention. Paying attention with care.

The difference is slight but important. When you carefully pay attention, you spend your energy on making sure the object of your attention always stays that way.

When you pay attention with care, you begin to invite small amounts of compassion. Bernhard tells us, if you see a child run into the road, you don’t simply remark “A child in the road in front of a speeding car.” Your first instinct is to make sure that the child is OK because you care.

Mindfulness meditation is the practice of focusing on your breathing (or another anchor like sounds, your chest rising and falling etc) and separating yourself from your thoughts.

We try our best to notice when thoughts occur and bring ourselves back to our chosen anchor. And we do so with care. Without judgement.

Joseph Goldstein has a wonderfully simple phrase that helps us when our mind begins to wander.

“And Simply Begin Again”

It’s what minds do 

Our minds will always have thoughts flying through them! Always! They come and go. Meditation helps us appreciate that they leave instead of getting lost in the story line they present.

I’ve been meditating reasonably consistently for over four years and I can count on one hand the number of times that I’ve had this moment of complete clarity and an empty mind.

Even when this moment of complete peace does happen, it is interrupted by my wandering mind. And that’s fine. We softly bring our attention back to our anchor and continue. At the beginning, we might have to do this a lot. It’s also tempting to become angry at ourselves and determine we’re bad at this whole ‘meditating’ thing.

You’re not.

It’s what minds do. With practice, as we become better at paying attention with care, we will notice that it still happens.

From the perspective of mindfulness, it doesn’t matter what arises.

Joseph Goldstein

The important difference between the novice and the person with years of practice isn’t that they have the clearest mind in the world or that they are always in the present.

They know it’s OK to simply begin again. To refocus their attention to their anchor with the appreciation that thoughts come and go.

It’s OK to not have a completely clear mind when meditating. With practice, you’ll slowly learn to compassionately bring your attention back to the place you choose.

It’s something you continuously do.

You focus on your anchor. Have a thought wander into your attention. You notice it.

Then you simply begin again.

So you definitely can meditate if you want to. It’s a practice – over time, it’ll be easier to focus.

Your mind will wander – it’s what minds do. Pay attention to that with care. Then simply begin again.


Here’s more on meditation and mindfulness:


As always, thank you for reading.

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The Ten Thousand Joys and Ten Thousand Sorrows

At some point, we will all experience one of the ten thousand joys, and ten thousand sorrows.

Hearing of the “ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows” was important to me. It brought me back to one of the biggest aims I have for myself.

To be whole.

To be with emotional experiences rather than avoid them. To appreciate that sometimes, I’ll be sad, other times I’ll be happy. Neither of them will last forever and that’s OK.

We all experience a large variety of emotions. Whether that’s sadness or happiness. Anger or grief. Disappointment or excitement. A lot of the time, we try to resist the negative ones and prolong the positive ones. Underneath these experiences, we might have a small story building in our heads about how “this must end because it’s not fair” or “I wish this will last forever”.

These stories demonstrate a resistance to our emotions rather than an acceptance of them. I’ll demonstrate:

If I’m happy because I’m out with friends, I may begin to think to the future about how this night will have to end or why I don’t do it more often. The effects of this might not be obvious in the moment, but it can easily hit us at the end. We wanted it to last longer.

If I’m sad because I’m in pain, I might begin to grow angry at life. Why must I hurt so much? Why must this happen to me? I want it to hurry up and end. Unfortunately, this eagerness to avoid the emotions I’m currently experiencing prolongs it. I’m adding emotional suffering on top of physical suffering.


wholeness 1

I’ve been forced to be a bit more introspective and live with my thoughts a bit more because pain can leave me bed ridden for hours on end. The world is presenting me a great opportunity to be sad. One that is near impossible to refuse. The door is open and I’m already halfway in.

This is the usual part of the story where one might say that you fight against it and become happy again. The constant desire to be happy makes us more likely to resist more negative emotions rather than accept that they are only one of the ten thousand sorrows. Thankfully, we will also have ten thousand joys.

The constant desire to be happy can result in significant disappointment when it doesn’t happen. Sadness becomes an enemy rather than just an emotions that comes and goes with time. Often, I found that I would miss moments of happiness in fear of it being taken away.

When people go on to say that their life goal is to be happy, I’ve realised that it isn’t something I want to aim for.

I want to be emotionally whole.

It means to accept and acknowledge the wide range of emotions that we have. We’re allowed to be sad, angry, happy, loving, all sorts of things. I do not believe that we should think of these emotions in reference to happiness (And how they’re either not happiness or just an extended form of it) but rather, we can just accept them.

Because we’re going to experience them anyway.

Placing yourself in the position of a fighter is a helpful story to tell yourself when you’re in a bad place. You’re fighting against the negativity with positivity and good vibes. But what happens when that fails? Does that mean the sadness is winning and you’re failing?

I’m not sure. So it’s worthwhile to think about the story you tell yourself in a bit more detail. Do you really want to spend your time fighting against negativity with positivity? Is that a positive thing to do?

Rather, we might want to adopt the metaphor that we let the sadness in, warm it up with acceptance then see calm embrace the room.

In some sense, we’re lucky to be able to feel such a large range of emotions. In many ways, it shows us that we’re capable of caring about things instead of feeling complete and utter apathy either towards ourselves or towards the things that we want to care about.

I’ve  disliked apathy for a very long time. Primarily because there have been pockets in my life where I’ve experienced it for so long. Accepting the wide range of emotions that we have, helps soothe the negative emotions away and appreciate the positive ones. We give these emotions our attention rather than being passively consumed by it.

wholeness2

If you’re feeling sad, you can simply say “sadness is being experienced by me” or “sadness exists”.

If you’re feeling happy – “happiness exists… and I’m happy that it exists”

Separating yourself from the negative, even in your speech, can be the start no longer being overwhelmed by the emotion.

Separating yourself from the positive helps you acknowledge it and not let it pass without your attention.

Doing this really does help us move closer to the “goal” of appreciating the range of our ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows.

Striving to be happy is noble but I think, if taken too seriously, strips us from the richness other emotions can have.  To do this, we need to slow down and live our days with a bit more mindfulness.

So that is the quest for wholeness. It is difficult and does require practice – I’m certainly nowhere close. However simply reminding myself of this desire does have a calming effect on me. I hope it does for you too.

The quest for wholeness. It requires we pay a bit more attention to ourselves and how we’re feeling. We will be happy and we will be sad. We will be angry, and we will be excited. And that’s OK – they all pass and change with time.

Engaging life challenges us to be fully present and actively involved in our moment-to-moment experience, without clinging to joy and without resisting sorrow.

~ Toni Bernhard

As always, thank you for reading.


 

I will add – this certainly isn’t to say all negative emotions are good. Please do not misconstrue my message for that. I have nothing to say about the qualities of depression yet for I haven’t arranged my thoughts on it. I will some day and it’ll be here for you to read.

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I’m 22

It’s been a while since I last posted. I have reasons, many of them are bad. But I’m here now, and that’s what matters.

I’m also a month late (again) for my own birthday post. Some things just don’t change.

As usual, this is an integrity report. What do I care about and have I been living towards those values?

I started doing this after seeing Scott H Young write birthday posts and James Clear write integrity reports and combined them. I’m not creative, I just borrow a lot.

Living a life of integrity is incredibly important to me. One of the greatest sources of unhappiness I’ve found in my days is where my expectations and actions don’t match. Of course, expectations can and should be managed to be reasonable so you’re not perpetually unhappy. Perhaps then, it was a problem of expectations. Instead, living in line with values is important because they determine your actions and your expectations.

Living in accordance with my values is satisfying because they ask me how I can improve myself and contribute to the world positively. This doesn’t need to be through large political rallies – it can be something as simple as letting someone know they look nice in their shirt.

So I will ask:

  1. What are my values? Has anything changed?
  2. How am I living towards them?
  3. What can I do better?

create more consume less

What are my values? Has anything changed? 

Last year, I explained all of them in a bit of detail. If you’d like to read that, you can find it here.

Growth

  • Anything worth doing is worth doing well
  • Improve slowly with compassion
  • Exude grit in the face of adversity
  • Examine the world honestly

Well-being

  • Give myself permission to be content
  • Eat healthily and exercise
  • Take time to slow down, often
  • Make steps to becoming the person  I want to be

Compassion and Contribution

  • Make the world better for others
  • Contribute to the world rather than simply consume it
  • Speak with kindness and leave negative judgement behind

To summarise: Create more. Consume less. Add value.

I haven’t had much reason to make drastic changes to the values that I want to live by. However, there is something I’d like to add under the “compassion” category.

Forgive myself.

We have thousands of thoughts flying through our heads all the time. Unfortunately, many of them negative and those thoughts are the easiest to latch onto. They seem to identify us because they appear permanent and personal.

“I’m an idiot” “I’ll never be able to produce good work” “My body hates me so I hate my body”

While I try to be a good friend to others, I can’t say I do the same for myself. If my negative thoughts were said by a separate person, I’d think they were terrible. Why must I do it to myself?

So I want to exercise a bit more self-compassion. Forgive myself for mistakes, bad working days, displays of rudeness, whatever it is. If I want to care about the important, I think I would like to regard myself important. At least to me.

Am I living with integrity?

I’ve learned a significant amount from over the course of the past year.

How have I grown as a person?

From the time between 21 to 22, I have finished a Philosophy degree and started a Master’s degree.

The pain is still a big problem so when I think of being more “gritty” I suppose I can point to that. I’ve pushed through, reminded myself that I’m capable and continued. This isn’t to say that I just grit my teeth and endure the pain. That would be dishonest. Rather, I’ve taken it upon myself to learn more coping mechanisms to help me get through it. They aren’t all perfect (or positive) but it’s a useful step that I’m happy I’ve taken.

I’m most proud of learning how to swim. For the longest time, I was petrified of swimming. I was certain that I could drown even if my face was completely above water. The water was lava. Everything was lava.

And I looked stupid in speedos.

fishes drown

I ditched the speedos and picked up adult swimming lessons. I think, in part because I was truly determined to learn how to swim, I overcame my initial fears quite quickly. The water wasn’t lava, it just stung when you forgot to put goggles on. To my surprise, you don’t float as easily as instructors sometimes say but that’s the point of swimming, I suppose.

After many weeks of flailing around in the water, I swam a length (then told everyone about it) swam another two (and shouted it at anyone who would listen) and determined that I could finally swim.

I enjoy swimming a lot now and go regularly. I’m currently trying to swim a mile. But the real victory for me was taking a fear and figuring out how to get through it rather than ignoring it because I could.

I’m not even good. I’m just glad I can swim. We’re all capable of improvement in one way or another. I’ll be faster than Michael Phelps one day.

I can say I’ve been eating healthily and exercising. I’ve lost over 20kg, slipped up many times but improved slowly with compassion and appreciating that I’m a work in progress rather than the finished product. Believing otherwise will always create disappointment. I prefer to think of myself as a person capable of improving rather than a perfect human.

I’ve been growing in many ways. I’ve grown academically and in fitness. As a result, my well-being has generally improved in the long-term.

Compassion and contribution may be the most important set of values for me. If there’s anything for me to be remembered by, I’d rather it was a memory of helping others rather than “wow he could swim 5 miles”. Life’s too important to ignore others completely or make it harder for others.

One of my ways of contributing to others has been through my writing. This blog. My aim is to now write about ideas of practical significance, and thought-provoking but useful pieces. Despite my perpetual doubt in this area, a surprising number of people exclaim their enjoyment of my work and that it proves helpful. I have written some important pieces such as: Care About The Important, Intensely, You Are Stronger Than Your Pain, and Sisu – Developing mental toughness in the face of adversity.

I started meditating consistently again to enjoy some moments of peace and to help manage my pain. I volunteered briefly for Certitude – a charity helping people with learning disabilities. I have cut back drastically on negative judgement and definitely refrained from negative gossip as much as I can (even though it is wildly addictive). Instead, it’s lovely to praise people behind their backs – it always raises the mood of conversations.

What can I do better?

In the spirit of being kinder to myself, I will try not to be too harsh.

Last year, I said I want to write regularly, stay in for the long haul, be more proactive and continue meditating.

I haven’t written regularly. There have been far too many gaps in content because I spend too much time in my head expecting perfect posts then not posting at all. Or simply not writing for the blog.

It’s disappointing because I enjoy writing this blog and the content. It makes me even happier when I notice that my friends and readers enjoy the work too. The kind words are often etched into my mind because I’m so grateful for them. I’m not simply chasing more praise. I hope to create more consistently because it is much more satisfying than binging YouTube videos.

To achieve this, I think I need to stop expecting perfection or fearing the worst from readers. Some posts may miss the mark. Others may do extremely well. I’m not the best at judging that I’ve realised. I should heed my own advice and create without expectation.

On a slightly different note, there is definitely more space to make life better for other people. Whether that is participating in more charity events, donating to charity, offering help without being asked first, whatever it may be, there often is still a way to improve someone’s day.

Since I’ll be taking a leaving academia (without any intention of returning to do a PhD), I suppose I’ll be forced to be more proactive and stick to things for longer.

And that brings me to the end. I’m 22. I’ve grown in different ways and stalled in others. Reflecting on this has helped because it’s reminded me that I, along with everyone else, will keep on improving slowly.

As always, thanks for reading.


 

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