The more we feel better, the more sensitive we become to feeling bad

When first introducing a new habit into your routine, a whole host of difficult feelings arise.

Soreness, frustration, exhaustion, disgust, guilt, to name a few.

But if you push through your initial discomfort, could be weeks, could be months, eventually, the pendulum swings. You reach the point where you not only feel better when you perform that habit, but you feel worse when you don’t. Your brain and body learn that it’s actually harder to not do something than it is to do it.

This is the ideal place to be. Once you build a rich context of meaning and reward around a particular habit, the goal is for it to become physically, emotionally and spiritually painful not to do it.

That’s been my experience with every kind of habit, from journaling to meditation to exercise to not eating sugar to composing music to communicating with people.

Life is better with the habit than without it.

Vilhauer’s outstanding book on forward directed therapy talks this process of anticipating our positive future. She reminds us that the more we start to feel better, the more sensitive we will become to feeling bad.

For example, let’s say someone decides to cut alcohol out of their diet. Within a few months, they start feeling lighter and healthier and happier. They can’t believe they didn’t stop their habit earlier. Then about a year goes by, One day they decide to crack open an ice cold bottle of beer for old time’s sake.

And all of the sudden, that drink tastes like shit. Within minutes, their teeth start tingling and their head starts pounding. They can’t even finish the entire drink, so they throw it away and go brush their teeth to get the taste out of their mouth.

This is exactly what we want. To feel so much better that we’ve become profoundly sensitive to feeling bad. It’s not a dig against alcohol, as that is a wonderful thing for many people.

But when it comes to our habits, it’s not question of making the time to do something. Everybody knows that nobody has time for anything.

Only when the actual pain of not doing something exceeds the imagined pain of doing it, do we train ourselves to take action for the better.

Are you willing to stick with your new habit long enough where not doing it feels worse? 

There is nothing wrong with us because there is nothing wrong

What’s the right path?

How do we avoid picking the wrong one?

And if we do, can we switch along the way?

We need to stop asking these kinds of questions. Because there’s no such thing is the right path.

In the micro, the right decision is the one we make, and in the macro, the right path is the one we take. Besides, which path we take is less important than why we choose to take it, what we carry with us, whom we pick to travel with, how we talk to ourselves along the way, what we learn and become in the process, and how fulfilled we feel by the time we arrive.

In my twenties, my career satisfaction was restricted to a single scenario. There was only one version of my professional identity, and any detour from that path was not only wrong, but stupid and futile. According to me, at least.

Until my thirties, when life started showing me that the landscape of these strange detours was actually quite breathtaking. And in many cases, more rewarding than the original path to which my naïve heart was so zealously fixed.

Reminds me of a lovely mantra from an old spiritual advisor of mine:

There is nothing wrong with you because there is nothing wrong.

We westerners struggle with this brand of thinking, since our obsession with right or wrong, good or bad, win or lose, borders on the pathological. Schools condition us for the first sixteen years of our lives that there is a right path, and if we’re not on it, god help us.

But that kind of thinking has zero relationship with reality. There are as many paths as there are people not to take them. And it’s time we stopped putting so much damn pressure on ourselves.

Miller once wrote that life itself is a voyage of discovery, and that we take the path in order to eventually become that path himself.

Now there’s a compelling image. Relaxing one’s sense of separation. Someone becomes so completely present and integrated in their reality that it no longer matter if the walker chooses the path or if the path chooses the walker, because they’re on in the same.

What if your professional journey could be forever altered and intentionally molded to fit anything that excites and feeds your soul?

Humanity isn’t perfect, but it’s all we’ve got

My friend is a professional trivia writer and host.

Partly because he’s a lover of knowledge, patterns and history, but also because he loves bringing people together to make memories.

In fact, the way he builds programs is by reverse engineering fun. Eli starts from the memorable user experience that he wants to create, and works his backwards from there.

What types of answers would create strong emotional responses?
What topics and themes would be enjoyable for a particular group of people?
What questions would motivate their commitment to playing the game fully?
How could the overall experience not only be fun, but also create memories that bonded the group together and gave them stories to tell for years to come?

Clearly, writing trivia is has little to do with collecting facts and everything to do with connecting people. In fact, most games are like that. Whatever we think is the big thing is really just a vehicle for something bigger. Something more human.

Whether it’s going to sporting events, gambling at the casino, attending church, going out to dinner, what’s the thing behind the thing that keeps us coming back? Other people. We are the reasons for everything we do.

Like my old friend used to say, at a certain point you stop caring about what’s on the table, and focus on who’s sitting around it.

Humanity isn’t perfect, but it’s all we’ve got.

It’s time to crack open the illusion that we’re separate from each other. It’s time to stop pretending that we aren’t the reason we’re here. In a world that’s constantly trying to isolate us from each other, we need to tap into our reserves of social course.

Rollo coined this term in the sixties, defining social courage as the courage to relate to other human beings, the capacity to risk one’s self in the hope of achieving meaningful intimacy, in relationships that, over time, demand increasing openness.

It’s scary stuff. Rollo reminds us that the risk is inescapable. We cannot know at the outset how the relationship will affect us. Like a chemical mixture, if one of us is changed, both of us will be.

Will we grow in actualization, or will it destroy us? It’s hard to tell. But the one thing we can be certain of, the psychologist says, is that if we let ourselves fully into the relationship for good or evil, we will not come out unaffected.

In a world that’s trying its damndest to keep us disconnected from each other, perhaps this is the real game.

Connecting with others is far from trivial, it’s monumental.

Which of your favorite things is really just a vehicle for bringing people together?

There is no supposed to be, there is only what is

Most of us are looking at some part of our life and saying, this isn’t where that’s supposed to be. It’s a disheartening moment that comes for us all.

Whether it’s our relationship, our career, our health, whatever, nothing cuts us deeper than the aching distance between expectation and reality.

But we need to understand, this is not a failure of our life, it’s a failure of our language. Because regardless of where we find ourselves, there is no supposed to be, there is only what is.

One favorite movie of mine comes to mind, about a day in the life of two geeky convenience store clerks. Sick of hearing his best friend complain about how things didn’t turn out the way he thought, here’s what he says:

You have this inability to improve your situation in life. You sit there and blame life for dealing a cruddy hand, never once accepting the responsibility for the way your situation is. If you hate this job and the people, and the fact that you have to come in on your day off, then quit. There are other jobs, and they pay better money. You’re bound to be qualified for at least one of them. What’s stopping you? But you’re comfortable. This is a life of convenience for you, and any attempt to change that would shatter the pathetic microcosm you’ve fashioned for yourself. I’m satisfied with my situation, and you don’t hear me bitching. You, on the other hand, have been bitching all day.

We should all be so lucky to have a friend like that. Someone who will lovingly tell is that there is no supposed to be, there is only what is, and if we don’t like it, then we have the power to change it.

Think of it as a public service. Living a fulfilling life contributes to the general state of human happiness. By creating satisfaction for ourselves, we help increase the net flourishing of vitality in the world. It’s not like we have to achieve the mood disorder of constant and impenetrable happiness, but as citizens of the world, we owe it not only to ourselves, but to others, particularly our loved ones, to work on our happiness. It’s one of the highest forms of generosity.

Neruda wrote in his famous poem, you are the result of yourself. That always resonated with me as a rallying cry for taking responsibility for our own fulfillment. Because rather than benchmarking happiness by other people’s definitions, we can actually forge our own path.

It all depends on the way we talk to ourselves about ourselves. We have to use language that orients ourselves to reality, even if that reality doesn’t always cooperate with our dreams.

Next time you start bemoaning how a part of your life isn’t where it’s supposed to be, trust that your chance at happiness is not swiftly evaporating. Know that you have the power to turn it all around.

Think about which bad habits need to be replaced by healthier ones.

And use that tension to help catapult your life into its next chapter. 

What story will restore you with the vigor you need to thrive in life?

The slower we go, the faster we get there

How long will this take?

It will take as long as it takes.

Sounds like one of those super unsatisfying aphorisms our parents would say in the car on a long road trip. Not exactly reassuring when you’re ten years old, sitting in the back seat of the station wagon, waiting for something interesting to happen.

And yet, this is precisely the speed at which most things occur. No matter how good our intentions, there’s typically nothing we can do to hurry the process. Even if there is, doing so only adds a layer of stress to the journey that isn’t worth it anyway.

Buddhists say that the biggest mistakes we make, the biggest risks we take, all come from mindless hurrying. In fact, when we are inconvenienced, it probably means we are being asked to slow down.

Moving to a huge city helped me realize this. Manhattan forced me to stop hurrying and scrambling so damn much, ironically enough. Because contrary to popular conditioning, it is possible for someone to move towards their goal without pushing or confronting or struggling or hurrying. You simply have to accept that pressure is a choice and opt out of the chaos as often as you can.

Rand, in one of her many speeches, paints a devastating picture of hurrying:

I’ve watched these people here for twenty years and I’ve seen the change. They used to rush through here and it was wonderful to watch, it was the hurry of men who knew where they were going and were eager to get there. Now they’re hurrying because they are afraid. It’s not purpose that drives them, it’s fear. They are not going anywhere, they’re escaping. I don’t think they know what it is they want to escape. They don’t look at one another. They jerk when brushed against. They smile too much, but it’s an ugly kind of smiling. It’s not joy, it’s pleading.

How long will this take? It will take as long as it takes.

If we wanted to do our nervous systems a favor, we would learn to accept that everything takes longer than we think it will, chill the fuck out, and try to enjoy the ride.

It’s one of those absurd paradoxes of the universe. The slower we go, the faster we get there. The greater our hurry to arrive where we want to be, the longer it will take.

My friend once attended a meditation retreat lead by someone she referred to as, the slowest person she ever met. Everything that monk did was easy, calm and relaxed. There wasn’t a hurry for miles.

And the irony, she laughed, is that the guy was working on his sixtieth book at the time. The man had had more books than birthdays, and yet, not a hurried bone in his body.

Because everything took as long as it took. 

Does this really take too long, or does it just not matter to you?

Nothing shocks me but electricity

We live in a puritanical society where everyone is offended over irrelevancies.

And it’s not a passive habit, either. People are vigilantly on the lookout for something to be slighted by. Always looking around every corner for what the world is doing to them, rather than doing for them.

Hell, some people are offended when others are not offended by what they’re offended about. It’s the infinite regression of fragility.

Lukianoff explains in his timely book about the coddling of our minds that many of these claims about injustice are usually cognitive distortions. It’s actually not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance.

Shakespeare’s words are fitting here, for there is nothing either good or bad but our thinking that makes it so.

Imagine someone at your office lashes out at you, claiming to be offended by your words. Their feelings are valid and real, but it’s also possible that they simply disagree with you.

Something else to consider is, people who claim to be offended are often putting on a show for the tribe. It’s quite possible they feel that they have to act offended, so that they’re not judged along with you for saying what you said and excommunicated from the group.

Here’s the final thing.

Just because someone feels they are offended, doesn’t make them right. They simply have an opinion, as do you, which is extremely subjective and not sufficient evidence of absolute truth.

In sum, we all need to chill the hell out and learn to take a more generous view of other people.

Because that’s what we would want them to do for us.

That means searching for nuance in their behavior before grabbing a pitchfork and taking to the streets.

That means assuming the best of other people because we probably lack full context.

That means seeing everyone as good until proven otherwise, in the hopes that our belief will encourage them reveal their better selves.

That means trusting that what people are saying is not designed to personally torture you.

That means respecting people’s choices and opinions their own prerogative and not a personal affront to our way of doing things.

Setting these kinds of boundaries is extremely difficult. It requires restraint, compassion, curiosity and imagination, which is probably why it’s so rare. Not being offended is a lot of work.

My first boss at my first job used to have a great mantra that comes to mind:

Nothing shocks me but electricity.

He actually died from a lightning strike, but hey, we all make mistakes in life.

In a world where there always seems to be plenty to be offended about, let’s not make things harder on ourselves than they already are. 

What if the fact that someone offended you is part of the point they’re trying to make?

The higher we are carried on the wings of joy

Seinfeld asked the crucial question.

What fun is life if you’re not making jokes all the time?

The zen master of comedy was not doing a koan, merely stating a fact. Joy is the reason we are here. Humor is not only our best way of accepting our humanity, but also our best survival tool.

Unlike other species, we can use it as a weapon to stave off bitterness and despair in even the darkest of times.

My mantra for this is, he who laughs, lasts.

The downside to this philosophy is, the higher we are carried on the wings of joy, the more people will start to resent us. It’s the strangest thing, but those who laugh easily are obvious targets of other people’s envy.

Reminds me of a grumpy coworker from my first job. She used to send me private chat messages on a daily basis, telling me to stop laughing so loudly because she was under a lot of stress and it was inconsiderate of me to have so much joy at work.

Clearly, this woman was in more dire need of a good crying laugh than anyone in history. Despite my attempts to lasso her with a joke and a smile, teasing her back from whatever far off fields she galloped through all day, joy could get no hold on her.

Carlin is another zen master who comes to mind. In his postmortem comedy album, recorded the day before the worst terrorist attack on our country’s soil, the comedian did perhaps the greatest rant on the topic of joy:

The only thing I care about is fun. That’s all I want. A good show. Philosophers ask, why are we here? And I tell them, I’m here for the fun. What else could it be? I’m not here to grow crops, build bridges and atone for my sins. I’m certainly not here to worry and suffer and sweat. I’m here to see the show. To me, the world is one big theatrical production, a long running show, a big round ball revolving around a big brown sun, and they give you a free ticket, and there is no second show. It’s all fun. What is there to care about besides your friends and family and being in love? Being crazy in love and eating a hot dog. Nothing else matters. It’s all little shit. The rest of it is all little shit. And the more you think it matters, the more power you give it, the more power you give it, the more it takes control of you, the more it tastes control, the less fun you have, the more you find yourself running around the shopping mall, trying to find a red dust buster in a salad shooter, trying to find a sale and use your credit card to get some extra miles so you can go on vacation with the rest of the people who aren’t having any fun.

In a world where nothing matters, laughter is the lever that we use to pry ourselves back to joy, wonder and meaning.

He who laughs, lasts. 

Do you accept that the jokes that the universe plays on hapless human creatures are cruel, but also funny?

Stopping the bouncing ball of your mind

My old office manager was the kind of person who was either hurt, sick, or recovering from being hurt or sick.

The bouncy ball of her mind never seemed to rattle to a stop. Despite her attempts to hang onto the reins, her brain raced out of control, and often times it made her body run right off the tracks with it.

And it’s not like she wasn’t suffering from some strange pseudo medical condition. It’s just that her brain was driven extra fast by these added pressures and needs and impulses, all of which she seemed to create for herself.

But the story she told us was, she thrived on chaos. Which, admittedly, works as a compelling soundbite and clever punchline, but it also made us wonder if she was creating all these problems unconsciously, and contributing to a turbulent energy that was impossible to sustain long term.

Basically, she needed to take a chill pill. Not in that cheesy eighties kind of way. Chill pills are actually something people used to make at home centuries ago.

There’s this great housekeeping book from the late eighteen hundreds that has home medicines and remedies, one of which is literally called the chill pill. At that time, the recipe in the book was a remedy for the chills associated with high fevers.

To make it, simply mixes two drachms of sulphur quinine, one grain of arsenious acid, one grain of strychnia and one drachm of powdered capsicum. Take three times a day to relieve suffering.

If only calming ourselves down was that simple. No wonder there is no shortage of antistress powders and supplements that will balance our calcium intake with natural elements like water soluble magnesium absorption. I drink that stuff nightly for years, but it didn’t really make me any calmer, it mostly just gave me diarrhea.

Truth is, if we want to pump the brakes on our racing brain, we need to shift both our intention, attention and operation. We need to take full responsibility for our inability to chill, and we need to make a concerted effort through weekly, daily and hourly measures to think, act and be in ways that support calmness.

Otherwise we’re all going to be either hurt, sick, or recovering from being hurt or sick.

Winwood beautifully sang about it in his number one eighties hit, when you’re born to run, it’s so hard to just slow down.

It’s true for workaholics, that’s for sure. When we slow down and relax, we worry that we’ll be seen as a slacker or incompetent. Better stay in motion at all costs, right?

You don’t have to be addicted to your work to know that such a strategy works for a while, but not forever.

Eventually, our bodies will illuminate the check engine light, and if we don’t pull over to a rest stop and chill, they will putter out in the middle of rush hour traffic and put our lives in serious danger.

Do you know how to flip the calmness switch and stop the bouncy ball of your mind?

You could kill yourself and get nowhere

Although there is no intrinsic meaning in the universe, it’s not particularly helpful for me to believe that it’s pointless to try and construct my own meaning as a substitute.

While still honoring and indulging in the nihilistic parts of myself, my main approach to life is to be existentialist in nature, using the combination of my creativity, my awareness and my agency to make the meaning my soul requires to not destroy itself.

To cheat the cheater, as my favorite psychotherapist says, adopting an indomitable attitude towards existence.

This mindset isn’t just philosophy, it’s actually been highly useful to me on a daily, practical level. Particularly while working at soul sucking jobs whose corporate mission is far from idealistic.

Spending eight hours a day creating mediocre digital advertisements that persuade millions of people buy more pointless shit they don’t need? Not exactly making the world a better place here.

But that’s when it helps to maintain an existentialist bent.

Instead of killing yourself for a job that would replace you in a week if you died, you treat that work as a shrine to the money that fuels your art, which actually does make the world a better place.

Instead of drowning in the nauseous sense of existential dread that capitalism creates, you make use of the measure of freedom you possess, which allows you to create a fulfilling life that provides you a sense of stability.

Nepo, my favorite poet, says that poet’s labor is to struggle with the meaninglessness and silence of the world until he can force it to mean.

Doesn’t sound too bad, actually. Because when you really trust your imaginative resources, you realize just how much you can thrive by doing as little as necessary and as much as possible.

You can employ you creative gifts not only the work itself, but also in buttressing the work with an attitude that keeps meaning afloat in the face of the void.

What philosophical system provides you with the most useful story to tell yourself ?

Six months later, three hundred people have a job

Henson, in creating his beloved puppet characters, believed that many of his creations were artisanal.

Not in the hipster way of being bespoke, painstakingly produced small batch items. Rather, in the hippie way of the art not being a pitch for anything, it was simply the thing itself. It was everything the artist wanted it to be.

This framing of the work we do is important. It need not apply to everything we make, because we all do what we have to do to pay the bills.

But there is a certain sanctity to the creative process that we have to keep to ourselves. In a world where so many beautiful things get bastardized within in an inch of their lives, and in a world where art’s purity doesn’t always survive the cruel bite of capitalist sensationalism, we owe it to ourselves to approach certain projects with an artisanal spirit.

My friend is a successful showrunner for cable television. He produces three to five new programs every year, and probably pitches ten times that amount to networks along the way.

One of the most terrifying things he ever said to me was:

Television is a strange world, you have an idea at four in the morning, and then six months later, three hundred people have a job.

Yikes. Who needs that kind of pressure to create? Having that many people’s livelihood hinging on some weird idea floating around inside my brain, it sounds awful.

But my friend loves it and does well at it, so that makes me happy.

The lesson is, each of us has to strike a unique balance between art and commerce. As someone whose job, career, income and identity came directly from his art for so many years, I’m no longer interested in burdening my art with the responsibility to do anything beyond creating joy and release.

This is for me. If it makes money, makes a difference, makes people employed, that’s a nice bonus.

But making art, driven by a gift that I feel this internal spiritual pressure to express, is a daily practice of unfolding transcendence in my life. That’s enough for me. 

Are you complicating the purity of your creative enjoyment?

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