I don’t buy all the stuff they talk about in “The Secret”, but I am starting to believe more and more that we create our own realities. To what extent, I don’t know. And certainly we would be remiss to strive after mansions and money like “The Secret” encourages us to. But I have started to experience the truth that we are what we think.
It’s a different way to go through life from what I’m used to. The old behavior pattern is to simply react to things. Oftentimes things are pleasant enough, but then I think back to high school and realize what a drag it was. At the same time, I can see that if I had gone through the ordeal with a different mindset, or with greater mental discipline, rather, things would have gone a lot smoother in terms of difficult emotions and situations.
Life being what it is, though, I don’t need high school to try things out. Things are challenging enough as they are. We’re still always trying to do things, and circumstances continue to be less than ideal. I guess we’ll never be short of situations that test our power to control our own minds.
We are currently dealing with a possible move, perhaps out of the country. We have limited financial resources which will rapidly dwindle while we seek opportunities. While make up our minds as to whether to stay or go, money is being spent on just living. If we go, a large percentage of those resources will get burned up in transportation costs. We don’t know what we’re going to, exactly- that’s part of the whole point, to shake things up, to “escape” from our island “prison”. Yes, I know escape is a bad strategy, and that it’s a joke to call this place prison. However, at least half of this duo seems to subscribe to this view.
And if we stay? The reactionary mind says “more of the same”, but that’s exactly what neither of us want. And so, according to the science of mind (does it make me a “Secret” fan to use that term? Because I’m not- I have a problem with the movie’s lack of ethics), I have to think differently to get a different result staying here. Even if we don’t end up leaving, I can and will do something meaningful here.
This is again one of those intangible things, but I feel more prepared to accept whatever happens. I’m not so tied to this place that I can’t leave, but I also am not eager to leave at any cost. I find the idea of going to a certain country thousands of miles away very enticing, after all, it’s been a while since I’ve really taken a good trip, and this would be a good one to a place I’ve never been. Living and working on a real, functioning farm. And I will be somewhat disappointed if we don’t make it there, or if it doesn’t work out. But my thoughts are there already. I feel like we’ve already left. I think we’re going to make it.
At the very beginning of 2011, due to health, financial, and experimental reasons (but mostly because I was pissed I made myself sick from drinking one day), I decided I would give up alcohol for the remainder of the year. It wasn’t a strong resolution, it was one I made with the intention to drink at my earliest desire. But somehow, the desire never came for months and months. There was never the slightest urge to consume any beer, wine, awamori, anything, until almost 6 months later. I was amused by the incredulous reactions of others when I told them I wasn’t going to drink for a year. Some thought I had gotten in trouble with my wife for drinking too much, and that she had forced me to give up alcohol, which was not the reason at all.
Leading up to an alcohol free 2011 was the year 2010, when for the first time in my life, I started drinking regularly. By regularly, I mean almost every day. Sometimes one drink, sometimes three. It was like I had been doing it all my life. For someone who rarely drank in college and could count the number of times he got drunk on on hand, or perhaps even just a few fingers, something had changed. I was amused that I now seemed to want to drink, enjoyed drinking, and didn’t feel too bad the next day. I felt like a man, dammit!
But by the time I came around to making the alcohol-free year resolution, I could see that I was actually developing a rather unhealthy relationship with alcohol. I wasn’t an alcoholic and doubt I could become one- I like having energy during the day and being hung over is just not worth any of the tradeoffs that alcohol offers. It’s a built-in defense mechanism that I’m sure most people have. But even though alcohol wasn’t having a really visible negative effect on my life, I was, after all, still going to work every day and meeting my responsibilities, I could see that it was an escape. From what? From the drudgery of the 9-5 routine, from living on a small island with little intellectual stimulation (thank god for books and the internet). Nothing exciting, just the same old things that drive many to drink. I was starting to see why it is said that foreigners who stay in Okinawa are either alcoholic or some kind of “nut”, whether it be of the health, fitness, or martial arts variety. There’s not much middle ground for lifestyles, it would seem. Alcohol seems much more sinister when it’s cast as the villain keeping me on the island, away from greener pastures that are calling. It seemed very possible that alcohol was the thing allowing me to ignore the part of me that really wanted to get out of Okinawa, however nice a place it might be.
The reader may notice something, however, namely the fact that we are still in the year 2011. It’s July, and the year is only slightly more than half over. Why am I writing about a year without alcohol if I haven’t actually gone a year without drinking yet? The answer is that my year without alcohol has already come to an end. Yep, I had some Japanese plum wine and half a bottle of cheap French wine from the convenience store when we went up north a few days ago. I drank last night, too, and am feeling it this morning. There was nothing earth-shattering about going back to drinking. I didn’t feel an irresistible urge to drink, it was a conscious choice made without much deliberation, which is how I thought it would go when I first decided not to drink. Only I thought it would be a week before I started drinking again as opposed to 6-plus months. But judging from my slight grogginess this morning, I just may go back to abstinence once more.
Relapse. When negotiating the pitfalls of the mind, things are a lot less clear than picking your way across a hazardous landscape. Things rise suddenly and unexpectedly from the subconscious. We’re caught off guard, we lose our balance. And suddenly we find ourselves stuck in a trap of anger, hurt, or self-loathing, and sometimes all of the above. Days, weeks, months, even years after we’ve picked ourselves up and continued on, we fall back in the same trap.
It’s because we can’t see the trap, don’t know it’s even there. Some people, if they become stuck too long or fall too many times, may finally open their eyes and see the big hole they’re sitting in. They may then be able to go around it in the future. Others might become stuck in one hole, and be forced to find a way out. The experience should teach them how to stay out of that hole in the future. The holes of the mind are kind of like black holes- we can’t see them, but we know they’re there by the effects they have on matter around them. So, the blind spots of the mind may become apparent when we notice their effect on how we manifest our realities. Relationships may suffer. We may be unhappy. The world can seem set against us. It makes sense, then, to study the terrain of our minds so that we can better navigate it. To make our way to our destination instead of getting stuck. Because getting lost in the mind can be the same thing as losing it.
As for ‘relapse’, I’ve had one. Nothing major, just a sudden and unobserved slip into that negative mindset, or putting on the ‘shit tinted glasses’ (as opposed to rose tinted), if you will. The mind does something strange in those instances, where you feel like you would do anything to escape from the present situation. It drives people to say and do foolish things. It drives people to drink, and worse. Like depression, it’s something you fall into and see no way out of, though thankfully it doesn’t usually last as long as a bout of depression- I was over it by dinnertime.
After my “selfish emotions” were triggered, I recalled “not thinking or acting from selfish impulses”, and there was again that feeling of “how could I forget”. I’ve taken a Vipassana* course to learn to meditate, and feel that what we learned there has a strong correlation to being able to function from a better place than from selfish impulses. Selfish, or “bad”, emotions have a physical component. It’s kind of hard to describe how this feels as it’s not always a discrete feeling. It could be a feeling of constriction or sickness in the pit of the stomach or the chest. It could be more in the head or throat. But it’s a generally toxic feeling, and one that can ruin your day. I can better observe these sensations now, whereas before I would have just been the feelings. Being able to detach from the feelings, even for a few seconds, has in turn allowed me to match these sensations with their emotional component. That way, if I’m thinking that a certain so-and-so is a bitch, for example, I can notice that tightness in my chest and throat and realize that I’m thinking from the “selfish” part of me. Invariably, this selfish part of oneself is wrong. You thus realize that you’re doing something that you don’t really want to be doing at that moment.
Being selfish means cutting ourselves off from the people and things around us, and operating as if only we mattered. When only we matter, things that go wrong are always taken personally. We get a sense of outrage, then those selfish feelings come up under the guise of “self-protection”. So, those toxic emotions are fundamentally selfish.
Keep in mind that repressing these selfish emotions is not a good approach to coping- I have tried that for about two seconds and know that it does not work at all and in fact would make things much worse had I really tried to do it. Awareness is the key here. Now that I can be aware of what is happening in my being, I can shift my thoughts somehow. Actually, the shift seems to happen almost automatically when you realize you are operating from the “selfish place”. The shift is one from a mind fogged with negativity to a clear mind. It’s like coming up for air. The body relaxes when the mind does. Amazing stuff.
Controlling the emotions has become very important for me as I get older and see more clearly the consequences lack of control can have in real life. Always flying off the handle at things imagined, or having a mindset that is constantly judging people, tends to ensure that you will be a lonely person. I don’t have the talent or inclination to manipulate people into being friends; I expect a true friend to accept who I am. At the same time, being an asshole means that you might repel someone who has the potential to be a real friend. To be fair, and maybe it’s a holdover from this selfish mindset I’m trying to get over, I do think that a lot of people ARE assholes in a similar way. I mean, I believe we usually all have some good deep down unless we’re that lost, but it seems to be the norm rather than the exception that people are judgmental. For me, though, it was becoming more of a problem, so I’ve been forced to deal with it.
*Vipassana is a meditation technique that focuses on cultivating awareness. It’s ten days of meditation nd you take a vow of silence for those ten days. You don’t even make eye contact with anybody. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
The first entry under the ‘Supercool’ section of this blog is, indeed, supercool. It’s a video of Lloyd Kahn using his friend’s zipline. In this case, the zipline serves a function beyond providing fun and thrills- it is his friend’s method of traversing the river to get to and from home. At the same time, this zipline provides plenty of fodder for the imagination and your sense of adventure and mystery- just check out the passage through the trees! Watching this video instantly set me to dreaming.
I came across Lloyd’s seminal work “Shelter” after first discovering natural building through the book “The Hand Sculpted House: A Practical and Philosophical Guide to Building a Cob Cottage”, an excellent tome on cob building and living in general which had completely and irreversibly blown my mind. “Shelter” then caused my ideas about creating a home to undergo another sort of transformation. Dreams turned into reality feature prominently in Lloyd’s books, and I saw the seemingly infinite ways in which a home may be manifested. He shows example after example of people turning using their desire and will to make their visions real, each doing it differently but with their own hands. There’s enough inspiration in this book to last several lifetimes, being as it is a collection of ingenious and in-tune ways to shelter oneself on the planet. There are buildings from traditions around the world, many of which are still in use today or could be used. There’s earth building, tipis, timber framing, log cabins, reed houses, mobile shelter, and much, much more. Even conventional building methods like stick framing are included. The emphasis is on owner-built homes of all shapes and sizes, which makes you realize that you can build your own home, too. I can’t recommend this work highly enough. “Homework” and “Builders of the Pacific Coast” are sequels to Shelter and are equally valuable and fascinating in their own right. I own all three books and they are a treasured part of my book collection. The books affect our sense of what’s possible, and even if we will never build some of the more jaw-dropping houses, there are plenty of ideas that could surely lead to being able to come up with a design that’s right for the individual. For me, his books are far more exciting than any of the grand industrial architectural “marvels” that we tend to see. Each house in any of Lloyd’s books is a gem, and has that spark of divine light in it.
Since Lloyd Kahn is a cool guy, we’ll also feature this video on his thoughts of home, centered around his actual home. For those hearing about Lloyd and his work for the first time, get ready to get in touch with a part of yourself you may have forgotten. His books offer very valuable stuff for knowing what it is to be human and to live on the earth.
Yesterday I wrote a little about the art of conflict resolution in our personal lives. Later on, I got to put a few things into practice as one of those sticky situations emerged. Without going into the details, it was a situation where I felt the other party was being petty and ridiculous.
Given my somewhat combative personality, I had two choices. One was to confront the person and tell them exactly how they were being ridiculous, listing each behavior they had undertook and how it supports the assertion that they were being extremely small-minded, petty, and just a general all-around jerk. In other words, I could become petty myself and turn the petty situation into a huge, heated argument. The other was to somehow rise above the situation.
Having plenty of experiential evidence to indicate that the first approach would result in an explosion where both parties would be left smarting and angry, perhaps for several days, and also being in a rather good mood that I didn’t wish ruined, I did not pick this first option. After the initial sinking feeling of “here we go again”, I decided not to do anything at all for the time being. What to do, what to do, I kept thinking to myself. It’s amazing how emotions can get out of control so quickly. Somehow I got a break this time, because though I felt the normal impulse to lash out and attack, the urge was surprisingly weak. I suppose it has something to do with knowing that it wouldn’t work, and not wanting to bring that ugliness about. Or maybe I’ve just become resigned to the reality of these situations. Whatever the reason, I could calm down enough to think. I decided I would back down from this confrontation as it was really not worth it. I would bite the bullet and take the actions necessary to avoid confrontation, which in this case meant the simple act of washing a few dishes which should not have been mine to wash (told you it was petty). And I realized that it felt better to be the bigger person here.
After making yesterday’s post containing mention of the book “How to Live Quietly”, I went back and read a little. One line stood out and and stayed with me throughout this whole ordeal. From the ‘Family Peace‘ section:
“When our selfish emotions are allowed to come to the surface, we can sense them in all their horror, and by refusing to act, to speak or to think from them, we open our hearts and our minds for better things to come in, and they always come.”
I kept repeating in my mind the part about “refusing to act, to speak or to think from [our selfish emotions].” And by golly, it worked this time, because it felt like I could identify my selfish emotions! And as I thought to instances in the past, I saw again how even when I use say, NVC techniques, I am often speaking from the selfish part of myself. This means that in those instances, I may be using language that is nonviolent and may even think that I am being nonviolent, but my intentions are to win some sort of ego battle and are therefore actually violent (hey, nobody’s perfect). It goes to show that “fake it ’til you make it” is a sound approach, because that’s exactly what I’ve been doing! Thankfully, I am now starting to get a clear idea of the kind of mindset I really want to cultivate.
Writing in my journal helped me see how I had once again fallen into the trap of negative thinking. My thoughts toward the other party had been negative, not only during the course of this situation, but for a good long time. The negativity had also escalated in the last few days. I didn’t dwell on my own bad habit too much, after all we are human and don’t like to see our own faults. But it’s certainly a terrible thing I was doing. Such negativity surely must be felt by the other person, if not via some sort of psychic means, then through body language and facial expressions. While externally not in the wrong, I had to admit that internally, I was very much the wrongdoer.
I think this realization was a large part of the reason a real change in my thinking has taken place in the last 24 hours. I’m not sure how much I can do to convey something so subjective to the reader- how can you tell if I’ve really changed? Plus, it’s only been about 12 hours since this happened- I’m almost sure there will be relapses to the old way of thinking. But I feel like I can say that something has really changed, I have been able to steer my thoughts from negative to positive or neutral all morning, something that I haven’t ever done in this way before. Half the battle towards getting to this point is to be aware of your thoughts. Since I woke up this morning, I have been checking myself when I notice those negative thought patterns- passing judgment on the behavior of others, overthinking their personality flaws, replaying bitter arguments from the past, etc. Just plain ugly stuff- makes me feel like I’ve been walking around with a head full of garbage on my shoulders. I notice it, and realize those thoughts come from what Call calls the “selfish emotions”. And I am able to operate from a nonjudgmental part of the mind- sorry, but I can’t tell you what that actually is or how to get there at this point! Perhaps later on, if and when it becomes more clear. I do think it’s something that we each have to do for ourselves, though.
I don’t mean to make it sound like I’ve had an epiphany. I think it’s more like I’ve reached a turning point. After all, I have been practicing, albeit on and off. If nothing else, this is proof to me of the things various people have said about the power of the mind and of our thoughts. Today, I feel fresh and like I am making progress in life, even though I must look like the same person. Funny how that works.
A little tip for those who struggle with emotions as I do- welcome those times when you wish that conflict would just go away. You know, those times when it seems like you can barely function in your life because something is eating at you. Those are the best times for change, because you can’t ignore what is happening and are forced to face it. If you can turn this energy inward, real change is possible.
Why is it so hard for us to see our own faults? Imagine if we could- everyone would just self-correct, wouldn’t they? We would have a lot more peace and harmony. The corrupt policitians in charge of all our countries would actually work for our interests, and they would have the freedom to do so because evil corporations wouldn’t be evil. In the meantime, we could have our disagreements still, but we wouldn’t have arguments where the central logic behind the argument would be “It’s all your fault!” Because in truth, usually both parties are at fault.
But nooooo… that’s not how things work. We are not logical creatures, and most of us do not see clearly- that goes for men as well as women. We get an emotion of being wronged, or we perceive that someone has slighted us, and the average mind attached to those emotions will go out of its way to bend reality to the emotion, which may or may not be valid. Arguments start, more feelings get hurt. Things can escalate to the point where the idea of committing an act of violence becomes very attractive. What an absolutely miserable way to live (can you tell I am married).
And yet, here we are. The bright side is that there are ways to work issues out in a sane manner, one that can soothe feelings and actually resolve issues without falling into the pit of heated confrontation. It would seem that just having the intention to discuss issues with peaceful intentions may be enough, and certainly this may sometimes be the case. But I find that it’s all too easy to fall back into a more belligerent mindset if one’s peaceful approach is rejected or met with harshness. It certainly helps to be aware that this is often what can happen. It also enables you to have a backup plan- will you continue with the peaceful approach, and how? What if things start getting heated up- what are the ways you can diffuse the situation? If worse comes to worst, it’s probably better to just walk away than to have an explosion.
There are actually many techniques to help people resolve issues. The one I first became aware of is Nonviolent Communication (NVC). One of the core techniques of NVC is the use of the “I” statement to air grievances. With the “I” statement, you have “I am worried when you come home late and don’t call beforehand to let me know.” Contrast this with “You’re such a bastard, think it’s okay to just walk through the door an hour late? Don’t you have the decency to at least call and let me know?” Surprisingly, the differences between the two statements are not always obvious to people. The first is non-confrontational and focuses on your own reactions to a person’s behavior. The second statement is attacking and accusatory, which means the party being addressed is very likely to become defensive and even lash back.
NVC does feel a bit simplistic and artificial when you first come across it- an NVC instructor lectured at one of our psychology clases one time and most of the class seemed to be groaning during the presentation as the instructor and his wife acted out various scenarios contrasting NVC and “traditional” methods of argument. Hokey though it was, I could see how the techniques could be helpful. I personally believe that NVC can be a good conflict resolution tool and have tried it with varying results. One thing is that NVC tends to be much more effective if both sides are aware of and make use of the techniques.
I also believe in the truth behind the statement that “attitude is everything”. While it might not be everything, attitude is so important that we might as well treat it that way (and I need to constantly remind myself of that fact). While it can be important to help others see your side of an issue, I think it’s much more important that we work on self-development. A really excellent, straightforward resource is Annie Payson Call’s “How to Live Quietly“. It’s short, to the point, and it puts the responsibility for our thoughts and feelings squarely in our own hands. Despite being old and somewhat obscure, it is really far superior to most of the self-help books out there. And it’s free from the link above.
Finally, changing ingrained behaviors takes a lot of practice and persistence. Our negative emotions tend to rise up against our will in the heat of the moment, and learning to subdue them takes time. Our best intentions may be frustrated time and again before we start to feel that we are able to discuss issues in the peaceful manner we have in mind. Fortunately, the more people who engage in this type of communication, the more it is likely to spread. If enough of us have the courage to honestly face our feelings and deal with them, we might yet live in a world where it won’t be quite so painful to admit to our faults.