Filtering by Tag: self-help

Yesterday I Got a Dog

And that’s why I neglected to post something.

But it feels good — not only to have a dog, but to take action. Indeed, ever since I returned from Burning Man I’ve been pulling the trigger on a lot of ideas.

Getting a dog is something I’d been thinking about for a few years, but I was afraid of the commitment, responsibility, and severe reduction in freedom. I weighed the pros of added happiness against the cons of added constraints. Then I realized I’d been thinking about this all wrong.

The commitment, the responsibility, the restrictions on my freedom — all these are also positives. Perhaps I need more commitment and more responsibility and less freedom. Perhaps these challenges will build character and actually serve as development tools. Perhaps avoiding them has only contributed to my stagnancy, and to take these hurdles head-on will only accelerate all I wished to accomplish when I had only myself to consider.

Anyway, the truth is I just wanted a bundle of joy for companionship, to love and to be loved by.

But I also welcome the life that is now in my hands.

Go Alone

Recently I was talking to someone who was telling me that she felt a bit stifled her first two times at Burning Man, since her group of friends could never agree on where to go. This reminded me of one of the most life-enhancing habits I picked up over the last few years: to always go alone.

Sure, you can invite people to tag along, but don’t depend on them and don’t over-adjust your plans to accommodate them; this is your journey and they’re a privileged guest. If you’re always relying on companions to do things, you’ll never explore beyond your weakest link: the person who wants to do the least. Furthermore, you’re always making compromises, whether waiting on people, deciding on what to do in what order, how you’re getting there, when you’re leaving, who’s hungry when, etc.

This last weekend, I went to a beach party and offered people rides. I was happy to do a nice thing for people, but the experience reminded me of why I like to do things alone. With everyone having different ideas for when they could leave, when they wanted to return, etc., I found myself making considerations I’ve gotten used to no longer making. Within an hour at the beach, people kept wanting to gauge when I might be ready to go home, and all I could say is I don’t know because I’m not thinking about it…I’ll leave when I feel like it, whenever that might be. I started to feel like I was being annoyingly fickle because I’d be getting ready to leave, but then the chilly weather warmed up and the music got good, and suddenly I wanted to stay. At the end of the day, that’s my own problem…while I’ve gotten much better at saying no and not trying to please people, there’s still room for improvement.

When you do things alone, there’s never any discussion and you’re always exactly where you want to be, so you’re never bored. After all, if you were, you’d simply move on to the next thing. Any desire you have, you do on a whim without consideration. There’s never any need to make plans. You’re living in the moment. You’re present.

Plus, your world opens up not only because you’re not hindered by others, but also because now you’re far more likely to meet new people, people whose interests and level of adventurousness — not to mention level of independence — align with yours.

One of my best trips was back in May, when I went to South Africa by myself. To enter a continent I’d never been to before — one that felt from my perspective to be a remote and relatively dangerous part of the world — was already stepping outside of my comfort zone, which is part of the reason I knew I needed to do it. But then to do it alone…well, I made so many new friends from all over the world.

When I arrive in Burning Man next week, my modus operandi will be the same as last year: I might “go out” with a group every now and then, but the moment our interests don’t align, I’m off on my own.

When In Doubt, Clean

Sometimes, like today, I lack the energy or mood to get anything of consequence done. It might be one of those helpless days when you feel despair for whatever reason: guilt from over-indulgence of any kind, anxiety from time wasted or feeling unproductive, etc.

The first thing I do — and am doing now — is remind myself that I’ve felt this way many times before, and every single one of these times, eventually, was followed by times of excitement, energy, productivity, and happiness. Therefore, it is natural to have down moments, so don’t get sucked into the fear that this is your lot in life. This too shall pass.

The second thing I might do is will myself to the gym to exercise, knowing that this is an immediate and guaranteed mood-booster. However, since I worked out yesterday and like to have at least one rest day, I’m skipping over this step right now.

Instead, I’m doing the third thing I normally do, which is to clean my apartment. Unless it’s one of those deep cleans you might give your bathroom or kitchen every once in awhile to restore them to a shiny condition, the surface-level cleaning I’m talking about requires very little enthusiasm and energy on my part. I can still feel despair and aimlessness while doing laundry, folding clothes, making my bed, washing dishes, putting conspicuous clutter back in its place.

And once all this is done, my mood may very well not be lifted at all. But at least I’ve now gotten something done. And when I wake up the following morning to a brand new day with new possibilities, at least now the less useful part of me of the previous day has gifted this new butterfly with a clean slate from which to operate.

An Unexpected Lesson from Over-tipping

As I wrote in a post about a week ago, I’ve begun a practice in over-tipping — meaning that I now tip more than I normally would have; more than what previously felt “comfortable.” My initial objective was to foster an attitude of abundance, but I’m beginning to notice another positive result.

By charging myself a premium on convenience (e.g.: having someone serve me food rather than cooking it myself), I’m simultaneously making myself more aware of what a luxury it really is and further incentivizing myself to be less lazy and not outsource my personal responsibilities.

Not that there’s anything wrong with treating yourself. But it’s healthy to be conscious of the fact that having people serve you in various manners neither is a given nor is natural outside the context of capitalism (or some other arbitrary, socially constructed hierarchy).

On the contrary, the natural (and ideal) way to live is to serve yourself. Using meals as an example, it’s healthier because you have full knowledge of and control over what goes into your body; the skill makes you a more informed, well-rounded person; and the self-reliance builds character and gives you a sense of accomplishment.

Of course, I’m typing all of this while I enjoy a six-dollar cappuccino ($4 + $2 tip) lovingly served by my local coffee shop. But at least my 50% gratuity indeed represents exactly that: gratitude. And the total amount hurts just enough — after all, $6 could easily have been an entire meal at a fast food place — for me to treat both this cappuccino and the writing session it has fueled with the respect they deserve.

Treat Everything as Destiny

Yesterday afternoon, I headed out of my door to drive to a much-anticipated meeting in Brooklyn. However, upon reaching my car, I discovered that my front passenger side tire was completely flat from a nail puncture. I now had to deal with this problem, and it meant I would no longer be making my appointment.

I could have been annoyed. I could have replayed the events leading up to this in my head, to consider how it might have been avoided. Instead, I cheerfully treated it as destiny and went on with my day.

Whether or not any given event is truly destined is irrelevant. You can’t prove it one way or the other. But either way, what’s happening is what is — there’s no changing the present moment — so you may as well consider it destined to be. It’ll save you a lot of stress.

Maybe “The Universe” didn’t want me to make that event. Maybe “The Universe” has something better in store. Even if not, the fact that now my day has veered into an entirely unexpected direction in and of itself is cause for celebration, as therein lies adventure and discovery.

If You Want to Change Who You Are, Change How You Look

For 36 years of my life I was a boy. That’s because, with a small stature and boyish face, I looked like a boy. Therefore, I felt like a boy. Therefore, I acted like a boy.

Then I grew a beard. It started out as a curious experiment, but it surprised me. It grew to be thick and salt-and-peppery, the greys on my chin revealing age and signifying wisdom.

Now, for the first time in my life, I looked like a man. Therefore, I felt like a man. Therefore, I acted like a man. Therefore, I was a man.

This is especially enjoyable as an actor, to get to put on a new “costume” in real life and play that character. You don’t even have to perform, because when you look the part, you just become that character. You are the part.

In two weeks I’m going to Burning Man, and I’m going to try an entirely new look that I would never have even thought to try before. Who knows, maybe it’ll stick. Either way, I’ll learn something new about myself — what I am and never thought I could be, or just simply what I’m not and now know for sure.

The Purpose of Meditation

Meditation suffers from a lack of clear and simple understanding for what it is exactly you’re trying to achieve with the practice. With my (limited) experience in reading books on the topic, doing an 8-day silent meditation retreat, and becoming an almost-daily meditator, here is the purpose of meditation as I have come to understand it (so far):

The Buddha was essentially a hacker who, like Neo in The Matrix, hacked the program — known as the mind — that controls the illusion of our universe. He figured out that our thoughts are the root of all suffering. That’s because when you’re thinking:

  • you’re likely regretting a past event that no longer exists, can’t be changed, and of which your memory is inaccurate anyway, or…

  • you’re anxious about a future event that also does not (yet) exist, and likely won’t exist as you imagine anyway since the future is uncertain, or…

  • perhaps you’re ruminating on an unpleasant relationship with someone, imagining what they’re thinking about you when in fact they’re probably not thinking about you at all since people are too self-involved, and so this entire drama is unfolding entirely within the confines of your mind, or…

  • you’re swept up in a shortlist of other thoughts, all just as equally useless.

Thus, the suffering caused by our minds is needless, since thoughts are empty and meaningless (because they only exist in our head). Therefore, if one could train their mind to control their thoughts, they could end their suffering.

And that is the purpose of meditation: an exercise in mind control that, when practiced consistently over time, gradually conditions you to stave off your unproductive thought patterns. You do this by directing your attention to the present moment, the here-and-now, what is actually real before you — during meditation most commonly the breath (or another “anchor” of your preference).

As you focus on your anchor, you observe the constant influx of thoughts rushing into your mind; they’ll never stop — your mind is always latching onto something — so there’s no need to try and not think. But what you do is notice the thoughts and recognize them for what they are: just thoughts. (Contrast this from what normally happens, which is that you get absorbed by your thoughts and become unaware that you’re just thinking and disconnected from the present moment.) You simply recognize the thought, perhaps categorize it (“past thought”, “future thought”, “sound in the room”, “sensation on the skin”, etc.), and gently return to your breath or other anchor.

When practiced over the long-term, you begin to grow intimately familiar with the workings of your mind (what are the most persistent thoughts running through your head, etc.). You get better and better at immediately catching yourself in a thought before you’ve gotten consumed by it — even when not meditating — and so you can easily redirect your focus to the present moment (your driving, the music, whatever’s happening now), since you understand that to get seduced by the temptation to engage in the drama of your thought is an empty and useless endeavor that can only lead to suffering.

According to the Buddha, the different steps to enlightenment are achieved by this practice. My understanding is the first step is when you’ve practiced long enough to truly internalize the idea that whatever thought pops into your mind is nothing but a thought without any effort, and I hear that this early step is totally achievable by even a casual meditator over time (though mileage may vary).

The reason this makes you calmer, more at peace, less reactive, etc. is because the thoughts that cause emotions, expectations, anxiety, etc. no longer have control over you, and so — like Neo casually observing with detached curiosity the bullets flying past him at the end of The Matrix — you simply disengage from the threat of thoughts, rendering them impotent.

Plus, the present moment is a happy place, filled with excitement and wonder and discovery if you pay attention. Try, for instance, taking the time to savor every forkful of your yummy lunch, rather than scarfing it down while your mind is elsewhere. Now you’re savoring life.

Interestingly enough, one of the later (perhaps the last?) steps to enlightenment is the realization that your sense of self, or ego, is also an illusion — that instead “you”, like everything, are just part of the universe and one of its infinite ways of expressing itself. I’m guessing this level of enlightenment usually can only be achieved — if at all — by a monastic who dedicates their every waking hour to meditation and all forms of “mindfulness” (i.e., staying present with whatever it is you’re doing and what’s happening around you). That or an intense psychedelic experience.

I have found the practice of meditation to be directly applicable to every area of my life. Not only am I quicker to stop myself from getting involved in a thought pattern — a boon for an overthinker like me — but the patience and focus it takes to maintain attention on something as mundane and monotonous as the breath has strengthened my discipline in all things I wish to achieve.

How Playing 1-Minute Speed Chess Improved My Game and, By Extension, My Life

One of the few assets the smartphone has brought to my life, since I first got one around 2012, is reconnecting me with the game of chess.

As the son of immigrants from the former Soviet Union — a nation steeped in the game — chess played a large role in my childhood. I studied it, played in tournaments, even took my commitment so far as to remain a virgin through high school.

And while I was relatively good (by no means a prodigy, but nevertheless a formidable opponent), the way I conducted my game was revealing of my flaws as a thinker (and, by extension, a liver of life) — namely, that I was stifled by a fear of risk.

Ever the perfectionist, when time allowed for it I would not make a move until I was absolutely satisfied that it was the best move I could make — or at least that it wasn’t a wrong move. My thought processes were marred by indecision and inaction, and ultimately my moves were often simply just safe.

When the iPhone presented an opportunity to pick this game up again in adulthood (with an app I could now play anytime I wanted, with anyone in the world), it became my main form of procrastination. But since one game could take forever if not limited by a clock, I quickly whittled down my preferred format to the shortest game you could play: 1-minute*.

Now I could squeeze in a game or two even while waiting on line at the post office. Which means I play a lot. In fact, I’ve now logged so many games in the past 7 years — exponentially more than in all my time playing as a kid, since back then I was limited by the need for an available board and an available opponent — that the sheer volume alone is one obvious cause for my improved playing. My brain’s memory now has such a large variety of moves and strategies and positions to call upon when I find myself in familiar territory.

But another major reason for my advancement is how the 1-minute constraint has affected my behavior.

(On the one hand it does make you form bad habits for sure: sometimes you make wild moves just to psych out your opponent and stump them long enough for their clock to run out — moves that in any other context would represent fatal blunders. Plus, growing accustomed to this pace makes you needlessly and dangerously impatient when playing non-speed chess with those who prefer to take their time.)

But — especially for an overthinker like me — there is a highly beneficial flipside. With time unrelentingly against me (every second literally counts), I am forced to rely on my gut instincts. Rather than picking the absolute best move, I make the move that feels best. And often I’m right and I surprise myself. Moreover, often it’s a better move than I would have made using the slow-thinking, non-intuitive (not to mention fearful, defensive, and self-preserving) part of my brain’s processor. Thus, I’ve grown more confident in my intuition and learned that I can depend on it.

I also have become far more adept at predicting my opponent’s next move, since responding right away can give me a real edge on the time. (Whereas in normal play there’s no special urgency in considering your opponent’s move before they’ve made it.) In essence, I’m using my opponent’s clock to make my move, rather than my own. Again, I am amazed at how good I’ve become at anticipating what they’ll do. I even tried a new feature that allows me to commit to my next move ahead of time so that my response is instantaneous, which I’m sure causes many players to wonder if I’m using some sort of cheat code.

Most important of all, these exercises in relying on intuition, committing to decisions, taking calculated risks — all with full confidence — have translated to every aspect of my real life. Expect nothing, but trust in yourself and have faith.

After all, worst case, even if I fail — even in real life — I can always play again.

*Really a maximum of 2 minutes, since each player gets 1 minute on the clock.

If You Want to Practice Mindfulness and Letting Go of Expectations, Try Shooting a Timelapse

I recently filmed a timelapse of the sunrise and I never felt more present.

Indeed, taking the time to watch and enjoy a sunrise alone is the epitome of mindfulness. But I discovered that shooting a timelapse on top of that adds a level of patience and hyper-focus that, I believe, heightens the experience.

Never before had I observed so closely the gradual changes in light or the movement of clouds. My constant adjustments to the exposure made me intimately aware of how slowly or quickly the atmosphere illuminated at different phases.

I also watched the changing sky with an unprecedented sense of excitement. As clouds formed magnificent shapes and rays of sunlight pierced through their openings, I delighted in how my next shot might turn out.

And yet, because I had predefined the parameters of each shot (one every 60 seconds), I had relinquished control over which frame of time would be captured. Moreover, I risked the likely possibility that not a single weather event would arrive to decorate the sky (and timelapses are relatively dull without constant changes in the scenery to indicate the passage of time).

But I had taken the effort to bring my camera out there and so committed myself to the next 5-6 hours at minimum (any less and not only would I miss the full range of transformation from day to night, but the resulting video would be so short as to end in an unsatisfying flash).

Ultimately, I learned that, like all things in life, it’s not the final product that matters so much as the process. I thought I had set out to create a cool video, but what I really did was get my ass out of bed at 4:30am…to closely watch the full sunrise from complete darkness, to gradations of magenta and orange, to the fiery sphere itself, to the bright blue sky…with no rush to leave.

I’ve orbited that thing 38 times to date, yet somehow this was the first time I offered her my full attention. But not the last.

A Practice in Over-tipping

Beginning a week ago around the time I started this blog, I decided to also commence a practice in over-tipping. I haven’t established the parameters for what this means yet, other than to give more than I normally would. And that’s really all that matters. Any life-improving endeavor only ever requires “more” than what feels comfortable to have its intended impact.

And that’s exactly my aim — to have an impact on myself. Although it feels nice to be generous, for me generosity is a secondary consideration. I’m also not looking to be treated with any special reverence, and indeed I haven’t been since starting this. Instead, it has everything to do with approaching the world with a sense of abundance.

My thinking is, ‘Maybe if I, in some small way, treat money as if it’s no object, then it will become less of an object.’ I may not be monetarily wealthy by most Americans’ standards, but if to some degree I behave and live like I am…what’s the difference?

So we’ll see what happens by the end of the year. If my added expenditures go unnoticed as hoped, then I will consider this experiment a success and look for more ways to open my pockets and more (seemingly precious) parts of myself, material or not, with the growing understanding that there is no scarcity, only abundance.

(If, on the other hand, the account books are looking tight come December, then it’s back to 20%.)

I Love Doing (My) Dishes

I have a dishwasher at home and I don’t even use it. I don’t find it all that convenient, since it still requires me to rinse dishes, carefully load them, and measure out detergent. Seems to me like that’s already most of the work of just doing them by hand.

Besides, as someone who lives alone, I rarely have enough dishes to warrant such a large draw on resources. And what if I need a dish or utensil or tool immediately and not after the hour or so that it takes to complete the cycle?

Plus, using a dishwasher robs me of that Zen-like sense of calm I get from washing the dishes myself. It’s one of those mindless, repetitive actions — like taking a shower or driving a car — that puts me in a relaxed, meditative state. And better yet, by the time I’m done there are no more dishes and my apartment is cleaner, so order has actually been restored in exchange for my meditation. Win-win.

In that sense, washing dishes also appeals to my love of efficiency. I recall an old roommate once giving me flak for only having done half the dishes after a party since I was waiting for the ones on the rack to finish drying before continuing.

“Why don’t you just dry them with a towel?” he suggested.

“Why would I waste a single ounce of effort on something that time will do for me for free?”

Indeed, time is our most precious resource, and I look for those rare opportunities when I can let it work for, rather than against, me. To that end, my usual routine is washing my last meal’s dishes while cooking my next. That way I’m neither just standing there and waiting for my food to be done nor am I in any particular rush, so I can let the food cook at exactly the delicious, less-than-hurried pace needed to complete the dishes.

Dish washing is also a great way to jump-start a more ambitious project that actually does put a drain on my limited mental energy. The dishes are an easy, low-hanging assignment to complete for a quick win. Yes, in a sense it’s a form of procrastination, but only ten minutes of it and now my getting-things-done momentum has begun, my mind is a little quieter, and the apartment is less cluttered — always an asset when taking on the big things.

Lastly, doing dishes puts a final bow on that feeling of accomplishment in having prepared myself a healthful meal: I cooked, I nourished myself with my delectable creation, and I cleaned up after myself. Like a real-life adult…like the ones you see in the movies.

But don’t ask me to do your dishes — you’re on your own.

My Daily Blogging Experiment So far

It’s been about a week since I started this daily blog, and so far my hopes for the impact of this new habit are being fulfilled.

I can’t tell you how therapeutic it is for a perfectionist like me to look at a blank screen every day and know that he has to fill it with something — anything — no matter what. Even if it’s not perfect. Because it definitely won’t be. There are so many creative projects that I drag out or delay because my vision for the finished product puts too much pressure on even beginning.

On the other hand, with this exercise I pretty much start with little idea of where I’ll end up, and so it’s more about the process. And yet I do strive to write coherently and to create something worth reading, so there is still a discipline involved.

I’m also getting to learn what’s on my mind and what my views of the world might be, since I am forced to upload my consciousness on a constant basis. Over time, I’m excited to see what comes up as I am left to scrape the far recesses of my thoughts to mine for new material.

Not least of all, it will be great to see my writing improve in both quality and efficiency as I gradually dwindle down this unending production line to its most necessary components.

I'm Starting a Daily Blog

Beginning today, I’m starting a daily blog. I’ve decided that this is where it will live, and any longer-form, more polished writing I might do on any given day will instead appear on Medium with a link from here.

There will be no overarching theme to my posts; the only criterion is that they be one a day, every single day. But I suspect topics will range anywhere from general musings, to commentary on my experiences, to self-help. We’ll see — I’m excited to discover what develops.

And speaking of self-help, that’s exactly the foremost purpose of this entire exercise. It’s not for you; it’s for me. (But then, aren’t these things always?) I will certainly put effort in making it entertaining and informative, but ultimately it will serve as a new habit that will impact my life in many ways.