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Little Secret, Big Life

I just got back from Las Vegas a few days ago.  My wife was there for the annual International Lingerie Show – a show which, despite its provocative-sounding title, is just another boring trade show.  I didn’t even bother visiting it myself, although I have once or twice in previous years.  Once, I happened to catch a glimpse of Penn Jillette checking out a sex swing with his girlfriend.  (By which I mean he was looking and asking the vendor questions, not actually trying it out.  That would’ve been awkward, to say the least.)

Apparently this year I missed a similar glimpse of Bunny Ranch brothel proprietor and HBO reality star Dennis Hof.  Leslie ran into him and started to say hello, because she mistook him for a vendors’ sales rep.  That was awkward.  She didn’t realize where she’d “known” him from (i.e. television) until some time later.

But during the entire trade show, I was back at the house we rented for the week, working on Python 2.5, setuptools, and other OSAF stuff.  During the evenings that we didn’t go to any theatre shows (like Avenue Q), I worked on new software for this blog, and on expanding my experiments with controlling attention, while occasionally being completely sidetracked by Python 3000 discussions, especially ones having to do with generic functions and overloading.

I can’t say I made a lot of progress on any of those things, though, except that I did finish the basic blogging tools I set out to create, and I learned that attention can be used to help manage pain very effectively.  Not by directing my attention away from the pain, as one might expect, but rather, directing attention towards the pain.  Perceiving it with acceptance leads to its passing – the pain sort of goes out of the pain.  Better still, muscular pains begin to evaporate as you focus on them, because your body begins to move and unbend, finding new positions and shifting the balance of your weight distribution to adjust.  If you don’t consciously do it, but just focus your attention and allow your body to do it instead, it works quite well.

But that’s not the secret I want to share with you tonight; at best it’s only a very tiny piece of the puzzle.

On Thursday evening Leslie and I went to Barnes & Noble in Vegas.  She went to get a book to read on the plane back, and I went because I don’t usually pass up opportunities to go to bookstores.  I was wandering around in the self-help section, noticing how many of the books I saw were books I already had, when all of a sudden a title popped out at me: Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life.

Boy was I mad.  That was the title I wanted to use for one of my (yet-to-be-written) books, and now somebody had already gone and used it.  It was 8.5“x11“ format, too, just like I had envisioned my book of that title to be.  Bastards, I thought.  I’ll bet they didn’t even do it justice.

I took it off the shelf and started flipping through it, and discovered it was even worse than I thought: it was in fact pretty much exactly the book I’d envisioned writing, right down to some of the exercises being similar.  Okay, I’d have laid it out and edited it differently, and there were of course lots of differences in style.  There were even some things that I’d have to grudgingly admit they did better than what I’d had in mind to do.

Bastards.  I wanted to write that book.

Oh well.

So what else could I do?  Naturally, I bought the book to read on the plane ride home.

Originally, my reason for doing this was that the book’s authors had included quite a bit of scientific backing for their premises, including clinical research and use of the material in therapy.  I hadn’t known there was a school of therapy based on this attention stuff, so I was very curious to find out more about the neurology and psychology of things.

As it turns out, though, you can also learn a lot from reading somebody else’s version of a book you planned to write, even the parts that say the same things you intended to say yourself.

I’m not going to spoil the book for you by getting into the details of what it says.  As with the book I’d wanted to write, it’s best taken one step at a time.  What I will tell you, however, is what happened to me after I read it, and the new understandings I came to over the weekend.

The first thing that happened is I became horribly depressed, which was pretty unexpected since the book was mainly just amplifying themes that I’ve written about here over and over again: you can get whatever you want if you’re willing to accept the costs, you don’t have to “catch up” or “win” or solve all your problems in order to begin living the life you want, and so on.

What was different was that the book made it quite clear that in order to do those things, you have to give up on the idea of “winning” altogether.  Beause to win, there has to be something to struggle against, and as soon as you struggle, you’ve already lost.  What you resist, will continue to exist, because your brain can’t process negatives.

And the thing that I found depressing about this, was the realization that I could actually stop struggling with life, and still get everything I want.

Now, you’re probably thinking that I’m a complete idiot to be depressed with that.  But the thing is, I still had “something to prove” to myself, if not to others.  By winning my struggles with myself, I would seem to be achieving something, and perhaps most importantly, I would retroactively justify all the effort I’ve put in thus far.  Obviously, if I had to do all that struggling, it must have been really hard, and it’s therefore okay that I didn’t succeed any sooner.

But here this book was, telling me that I could just stop struggling and “walk away from the battlefield” to go live my life.  In some ways, this was not unlike what I wrote about in Falling Behind, Rising Above, or what Carol Keefe wrote about in How to Get What You Want in Life with the Money You Already Have.  But in those writings, there was always a sense that this was a way of going forward, of conquering your obstacles by avoiding certain psychological traps.

What was different was that I realized for the first time that goals are actually meaningless.  All the things I’ve been struggling with and chasing after, they’re not going to actually make any difference to my life at all.  I knew that it was better to go after long term goals, precisely because of that whole “journey vs. destination” thing, but now I realized that the journey really is all you get.  The journey isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.

And for most of Saturday at least, that was really, really depressing, because mostly my life has been about destinations.  It has been about getting places and doing things, with my actual living being something that mostly happened when I didn’t have other plans, or that happened as a side effect of being on my way to a goal.

In the end, though, Leslie convinced me that nothing had really changed: life is and was what it already was, and reading the book didn’t change what life is.  All that changed is that now I had an opportunity to fully appreciate and accept how it is.  And if I didn’t accept it, it still wasn’t going to change life.

And together we read this section from the book’s chapter on Willingness:

Willingness is:

  • Holding your pain as you would hold a delicate flower in your hand
  • Embracing your pain as you would embrace a crying child
  • Sitting with your pain the way you would sit with a person who has a serious illness
  • Looking at your pain the way you would look at an incredible painting
  • Walking with your pain the way you would walk while carrying a sobbing infant
  • Honoring your pain the way you would honor a friend by listening
  • Inhaling your pain the way you would take a deep breath
  • Abandoning the war with pain like a soldier who puts down his weapons to walk home
  • Getting with your pain like drinking a glass of pure water
  • Carrying your pain the way you carry a picture in your wallet

And you know, every place it says “pain”, you can also substitute “self”, or “life”, or “surroundings” or “family”, or really just about any word you want, and it still means the exact same thing.

In fact, this morning I realized something more: a little secret to living a big life.  In many self-help books, you are told that avoiding pain reduces your ability to feel pleasure.  But I have never before seen an explanation of why that is.

This morning, I became aware that I had been avoiding stress by not looking too closely at a particular messy area of the house.  And when I expanded my attention to embrace that mess and stress, when I held it in my mind as I would “embrace a crying child”, I found two things.  First, that what I was embracing was me.  And second, that the part of me that felt bad about the mess, was precisely the part of me that wanted it to look good.  By detaching from it, I was literally detaching myself from the values that I held.

I realized for the first time why Barbara Sher’s book Wishcraft so strongly emphasizes a technique called “Hard Times”, where you focus on thoroughly expressing your negative feelings about something: it gets you in touch with the part of you that cares about what you’re doing!

To disconnect from pain is to disconnect from joy.  Not because of some mystic unity of opposites (as some self-help books seem to imply), but rather because your emotions respond to the perceived gap between what you want and what you care about having.  You can’t turn off this gap-measurement system, so when you disconnect from pain, all you’re really doing is deciding not to care about the thing that’s important to you.

And that means that success in that area now becomes less meaningful as well, and much less motivating.  Indeed, so many of the things I’ve struggled with have only been motivating to me as potential examples of how well I can struggle and overcome the obstacles they represented.  No wonder I’ve had trouble with setting goals that are personally meaningful!

For example, I haven’t really wanted the house to be clean or to be healthy and fit, as much I’ve wanted to “solve” housecleaning and fitness.  These are not the same thing at all.  “Solving” the problem of housecleaning is an intellectual exercise that provides detachment from the frustration and ugliness and imperfection of the real-life situation.  Actually cleaning house is something you can only joyfully do out of your love for the beauty or cleanliness or whatever you actually value in it.  Unlike problem-solving, it is not a destination, but a journey.  It will never be finished, ever. And nothing else worth caring about in life will be, either.

So, every thing that you shut out of your life, every thing that you avoid caring about because it’s stressful or depressing or scary, that thing is actually a part of you. A lost, abandoned part, left far away from home.  And if you are willing to accept it as it currently is, without demanding that it be something else, then you can welcome it back now, with love.  And you will be bigger.  And your life will be bigger.  And it will hurt a little, like the hurt when feeling returns to a hand or foot that had gone numb from cold or loss of circulation.  But you will feel more alive, and you will truly be alive.

Join the discussion
  • Hello Phillip,

    Very insightful post.

    Also, I wanted to thank you for your blog. It is very inspiring and honest. Your posts give me plenty to think about! Keep up the good work.

  • I, too, like the post.
    But Job remains the ultimate pain/joy story for me.
    As a junior officer in the Navy, I had a 22-month experience where, if I were to do the unthinkable, it would have occurred.
    Job is about perspective, which seems so easily lost.

  • Wow, this is one of the very best things you have ever posted.

    It is really, really good.

    A while ago, I gave up the ideas of:

    * “Life has to be Fair, and Life will start being Fair when I am outrageously happy.”
    * “I deserve much more.”
    * “Everyone I ever met and Everyone I will ever meet, they all must proclaim and will proclaim that [My life is an absolute success].”

    And those stupid ideas are very good things to give up.

    But I am only now clearly seeing that:

    * “Now is the time to Kick Butt, and help the people around you to Kick Butt.”
    * “Always Kick Butt, and always help the people around you to Kick Butt.”
    * “Continue to Kick Butt, until the day you drop dead.”
    * “Do this, even though you feel you don’t know how.”
    * “Do this, even though you can’t even guess how to start feeling like you know how.”
    * “Do this, and you Will be Kicking Butt, despite evidence to the contrary.”

    I think this is similar to what you are expressing in this post, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I was mistaken.

  • Well, my point was more that even if you do those things, sometimes in life the butt that gets kicked is your own. If you try to pretend that it won’t happen, hasn’t happened, or that it doesn’t matter, then you are also cutting yourself off from what matters to you.

    However, if you can “go for it” while fully understanding that you *can* fail, and you *can* be hurt, then you can keep going even if bad things happen. And more to the point, you will experience your full self at all moments, not just the ones when things are going well.

  • Phil,

    Since months I follow your quest for taking command of your own life and making the best out of it, with growing respect and thankfulness for your sharing it with the blogging world – and all of us anonymous free-riders who don’t give back as we should.

    Maybe I finally have something to give back today. Just a tiny piece of information. Just a pointer, to be honest, and I didn’t even dig up the target myself. Another friendly blogger did: Some days ago, Jarno Virtaanen pointed his readers to the work of Stanford psychologist Carol S. Dweck, in this posting: http://tinyurl.com/jx9r3

    Jarno’s posting is a wonderful summary which I won’t repeat here, but let me say that Carol Dweck seems to have found the true epicenter of self-development and, ultimately, success: What she calls the “growth mindset”, and which boils down to the belief that change is at all possible. That your self is not a rigid structure, carved in stone once and for all, but a set of building blocks that can be re-arranged over and over again, with some (not all, but quite a number of them) being even capable of being stretched, remodelled, sometimes refurbished beyound recocgnition.

    This view in itself is not new in any way (see e.g. Hermann Hesse’s novel “Steppenwolf”), but Carol Dweck presents empirical proof that having this “growth mindset” is the most prominent and necessary (in an absolute, sine-qua-non sense) condition to achieve self-improvement, and almost anything in life!

    And, on the flip side, that resignating, falling into the “fixed mindset” trap, believing that “It’s just the way I am, I can’t do anything about it anyway” is the 100% sure-fire recipe for failure, whatever it is that you still pretend to yourself you strive for. Because this negative belief kills your motivation for learning and hard work, without which success is impossible. With the added bonus that as soon as failure indeed happens, as it necessarily must, your inner cynic gets to say “What did you expect! I told you!” What a perfect evil meme that is, reproducing itself by dragging people into deadlock and stagnation since ages. And what a devastating influence parents, teachers, and leaders have who pass on their own sad fixed mindset to children, students, and subordinates.

    Your blog (plus many of the books and other materials you recommended or mentioned in passing) already brought many eye-openers to me. Thank you. This is Carol Dweck’s book: http://tinyurl.com/mb8gy

    Regards, Thilo



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Cover photo of "A Minute To Unlimit You" by PJ Eby
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