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December 25 – Self Improvement

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This topic is a nice segue from yesterday’s ‘Make your Bed’ theme.  As I spoke about in that piece…it’s nice to make your bed, in order to 1, have a tidy bed, and 2, lead you into the rest of your day…which is shaped by the tidy bed.  Well, why does it matter if your bed is made? Why does it matter if you’re building momentum throughout the day, and compounding your experiences in a positive matter? Why improve thyself?  

Well, because it beats the alternatives.  That is a simple and avoiding answer to the question.  However, it’s actually very true and very practical to consider.  So what is the alternative.  You could say that the alternative is not to improve.  This would be considered a static life, defined by inertia.  What could be more probable though…and this would be the opposite of self improvement…would be self degradation or decay.  Thinking about those options, self improvement really does beat the alternatives.  Part of why I make some of the choices I make is simply because it’s better than sitting around doing nothing.  If you consider exercise, not even taking into account all of the health benefits it provides, it’s simply better than sitting on the couch (not improving, static). Or, it’s better than sitting on the couch and drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana (degradation, decay).

Another way to think about this ‘beating the alternative’ idea is that…life is hard.  It’s chaotic, it’s suffering. If you’re not dealing with something adverse, it’s probably right around the corner.  By simply ‘keeping yourself busy’ with positive behaviors and an upward mobility, you concern yourself less with the difficulties that life delivers.  You certainly don’t avoid all of the difficulties. But you mitigate them. You are stronger in the face of those challenges. And your just less aware of many of them, because you’re busy with keeping busy.  This sounds uneducated and full of avoidance. That may be in a sense. It still beats the alternatives.

Beyond the idea of ‘just because’, the next step of comprehension on the topic of self improvement for me, is in a very deep and meaningful place.  Let’s begin with the idea that you have a given amount of time here on the planet. Within that time, you have the potential to affect and influence a certain amount of people in a wide span of ways.  You have the ability to affect this place…this environment in that given amount of time as well. And, you are allowed a beautiful and extraordinarily staggering ability to shape your very own physical body…as well as your soul.  Those responsibilities are immense and far reaching. Do not take it for granted.

When you improve yourself, in a way that’s more novelty, or in a powerful and purposeful way…you truly improve the world around you.  You really do make the world a better place. It spreads to your family and friends…your coworkers and boss…your social media connections, and their followers.  Your potential influence is hard to comprehend especially considering our ability to reach globally, directly through the phone in our pocket. Your children model their behavior after you, your family becomes more comfortable and secure knowing that you’re moving in a positive direction, your community can look to you for help or guidance…and you can see how the interconnected webs can effectively spread throughout our planet.  This is also true if you’re on a downward spiral. Your negative energy has swift and distant reaches too…except you’re adding chaos to the mix. You’re contributing to the world in a sinful, immoral, and nefarious manner. The ramifications of living this way span from bad to extremely tragic and horrifying. You don’t want to be there. You want to be making progress…improving.

This perspective, of subscribing to an upward trajectory in order to improve the world…is even your responsibility.  The evolutionary path is being trodden by you and your sword. You are actually breaking the path, and setting the course for all others.  You’re responsible for how others break the path…how they brandish their sword. It’s all on you.

With all of that pressure…with all of the adversity you face on top of that…you’re still able to stand tall, and continue on the path of self improvement.  It’s an amazing feat. And you should be stoked as hell to be there.

I wish you the best.  

Oh, and Merry Christmas!

emailsig

December 24 – Make your Bed

 

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Recommended by Admiral William McRaven at the 2014 University of Texas at Austin Commencement Address…making your bed is a simple task that everyone should do upon waking.  What I like and really connect to about this idea, is not the literal task and timing of making the actual bed…but the idea that doing one small task really well…leads to doing other tasks really well.      This is the case with so many things in life. You can build momentum off of your behavior, and use it to carry yourself into your subsequent experiences.

When you make your bed…and make it really well by the way…not simply throwing it together, but being really mindful, and making sure that it’s just right…you walk away and into your day with a sense of pride and accomplishment.  Yes, the task you just completed was small and somewhat trivial. However, you’ve checked off an item on you list, and you’ve done it with integrity. This little piece of success will now shape how you approach the rest of your day.  You’ll carry yourself with a bit more confidence and pride. You’ll be holding your chin up a bit more. You’ll show more of a sense of happiness, and will positively influence those around you. You’ll approach other situations with optimism and hope, knowing that adversity can be taken care of with the right approach.  And when you come back to that bed, after a full and rich, hard-fought day, you’ll feel so appreciative that it’s there for you…so crisp, comfortable, and inviting.

I like to compare this idea of making the bed to people’s choices of right and wrong.  This speaks to the compounding effect or the ‘contagious’ element of our decisions and behaviors.  When we make the right choice (you could say…when we choose good over evil, or when we choose not to sin), we get that small sense of pride and integrity similar to that of which we feel after having made our bed.  That behavior shapes us, and carries us into what comes next. When we approach our next choice, we have that background and foundation of good, correct, right, positive…and that helps us stay on the right side of things.  We have a tendency then, to continue making the correct choice and the right moral decision. The opposite is true as well though. It’s easy to see how when we start making the wrong choice…the lazy, uneducated, selfish, short-term thinking type of choice…we tend to continue making poor choices.  It’s momentum in the wrong direction, and it’s hard to stop…never mind turning back in the other direction.

We are so very fortunate though, that we can change.  We can be forgiven.  Tomorrow is a new start, and another chance to correct your path.  If your bed is scattered when you get to it tonight, you can still make it up perfectly in the morning.  Now, if you’ve burned a bunch of bridges, your road trip will take longer. You’ll have to mend some wounds that were created in the past. And it will be challenging to create that positive momentum again.  But…you get one chance at this life. This is it…right now. I’m rooting for you. Make your bed. Make it well. Do it with integrity. See what happens.

emailsig

December 23 – Language

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We tend to forget as we age…but in order to progress within our thoughts…in order to articulate what’s going on upstairs…and synthesize the actual development and progress of our own ideas…we need to continue to progress through the language that we use.  

I’m not saying that you should continue to read and write so that you can impress those around you with your stellar vocabulary.  It is very intriguing though to understand that even your very thoughts stem from the language available to you. If that source of language is limited, dated, or depleted…undeveloped…well so will your thoughts, decisions, values, and experiences.  I, myself will continue on an unending quest to use language, mostly through my writing, in order to gain insight and perspective into all that I can learn, develop, and construct.

I highly recommend that if you aren’t doing any writing…you pick up a pen, or open up a document in your computer, and get to it.  Using writing (and language) allows to form your own judgments and values. It encourages you to find the correct words and articulation, so that you can most effectively represent your thoughts.  One way that writing is superior to just thinking, is that you have a tangible record or your previous thoughts. And since you’ve effectively structured those thoughts into complete sentences and paragraphs, you’ve built a foundation for yourself that you can always access.  Not only can you look back to it if you so choose, the exercise of bringing it out of your mind, and bringing closure to your thoughts on the paper, opens up space for you to bring in new ideas…and those will effectively build on what you’ve written about previously.

Let’s assume that you are not a writer.  You are having extraordinary thoughts and ideas pass through you all of the time.  You are wondering things about your existence and that of your family’s and friends, very often.  Your own values are being questioned and challenged and confronted almost every day….usually every day.  Writing gives you a starting point. It gives you a place to journey through your values, and then solidify some of them along the way.  Writing out what you stand for (which begins simply with writing out what you’re thinking) is so incredibly powerful. You’ll notice patterns in your thinking…you’ll discover hypocrisy within your thinking.  And you’ll be able to synthesize many of your thoughts as you realize their inter-connectivity.

It leads to you having a robust intellectual framework….one that vitality streams from.  When I think of an individual with a unique and meaningful perspective…but one that allows thoughts and ideas to come and go without a deliberate confrontation…I see unfortunate un-reached potential.  We each have an unreal ability to use the language we have at our disposal to appropriately shape who are. Yes, we can do that simply by speaking, but the words and ideas are lost easily.  They are almost consumed.  With writing though, we go through more of a production, where we create that vital, new information.  We produce more of an evergreen structure that we can bring with us on the path.  

Start thinking about language more.  Consider how it was never a dedicated group of individuals that sat down and planned and created it.  It’s been an ongoing cultural production for a very very long time. It’s a living organism. Part of it regularly dies and is left behind.  Part of it is being created right now as you read this…by millions of people having conversations…and by writing. You are part of that ongoing development of language.  

So… what’s your story?

emailsig

December 22 – Honesty

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If you are not honest with yourself and others…it seems that you are choosing to prolong your inevitable confrontation with the present moment.  You’re kicking it down the road. And by choosing dishonesty, you’re certainly choosing a new road to travel on. Not a newly constructed road, but one that’s muddy, one that’s crumbling apart.  And when you see that little can of truth in your path again, pleading with you to open it up and deal with it…your tendency will be to look around if anyone’s watching, and kick it further down the road, prolonging the inevitable once more.  To add to the adversity, you’ll want to hide that can from others…or dealing with that can of truth will affect your present experience…and you don’t want to deal with that either. Therefore, your inclination will to choose dishonesty again…in other areas.  Avoiding the truth, or lying, has a negative compounding effect. You don’t want to be on that path. And by the way, others can see that you’re on that road. If they’re weak and destructive, they’ll want to join you, magnifying your reach. They’ll help you dig your hole.  If they’re wise though, and headed toward light and purpose, they’ll avoid you. They’ll choose to spend less time around you, acknowledging your negative influence on them.

Choosing honesty and truth can be very challenging.  For most experiences within your day, truth is a given…it’s your default.  It’s practical and efficient to use the truth, as it allows us to communicate and function within our social environment.  But for other experiences, you certainly have to ‘work through’ how to identify, engage with, and interact with using the truth…or not.  

Your wife asks, ‘Do I look good in this dress?’

You walk out of a deli with change in your pocket, and a homeless person asks, ‘do you have any change to spare?’

You ask yourself, ‘am I going to follow through with that same New Year’s resolution this year?’

Let’s think about the second question there…dealing with the homeless person.  How would you respond? Most of us would either say yes, and simply give that person the change…or we’d say, ‘no, sorry’ and keep walking.  Well technically, that would be a lie. We actually do have some change…we probably can spare it…but we say that we don’t. What’s happening here is partly that we really just don’t want to take the time to get at the real truth.  We don’t want to stop and have a conversation with this person. We have other stuff to do! But more of what is happening here, is that we don’t want to deal with the adversity and chaos that the truth in this engagement will actually bring.  So, we use a dishonest reply.

You might say, ‘it doesn’t matter…they’re not getting the money, and they don’t need to know the real reason.’  I’d highly encourage you to think deeply about this response. I’d encourage you to think about the subtle and/or strong effect that response will have on the homeless person…on your child…on you.  Again, this is more difficult, but I think it brings much more value to your perspective.

The real and honest answer to this person’s request for your change is probably, ‘yes, I do have money to spare, but I don’t want to give it to you.  Also, I don’t like you coming so close to me and my young son…because you’re dirty and you might be dangerous.’  As you’re reading this, you’re probably thinking, ‘wow, that sounds harsh.’ I urge you to consider and accept that you may identify with these harsh feelings.  It’s not a fun place to go, but it’s helpful to realize the truth within your ability to classify, judge, determine, or label. The awareness found here is the foundation for honesty and truth.  You may not identify with it.  If you would have a different opinion to the individual asking for money…that’s great.  But it’s still wise to find that edge of where we are wrestling with truth or falsities. If we can come out of that with an honest response, more power to us.  

Maybe the most effective response to this person, considering all of the variables and consequences:  honesty, your schedule, the presence of your young child, etc. would be one in which you use a kind, succinct, and honest remark.  Maybe something like, ‘I do have change, but I’m going to put it toward my child’s future. Sorry!’ Maybe that’s too much information?  Maybe you’re not actually ‘sorry’? You see, finding the truth of this moment, and actually delivering it, can be very challenging. Do what you can to get there though.  Find that truth and balance it with the rest of your experience. Don’t lie. You’ll discover a more meaningful and enjoyable road to come.

emailsig

December 21 – Purpose

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We’re not just going to give half measures to our parenting efforts are we?  We’re not only going to discover ourselves in cubicle life, monotonously grinding out 8 hour days for someone else company are we?  For someone else who discovered more of a purpose? We’re not going to have ideas and desires…and then sit and wait and wish and wonder about them.  We’re definitely not going to lose sight of our health, an element that is fundamental to our functioning…are we? Are we going to mosey on through life, taking the circumstances as they come, watching our life happen to us?  

No.  No we’re not going to accept that.  We know that our efforts and engagements make a difference.  We know that being mindful about our abilities and passions is so crucial to our development.  We know that creating paths on the back of that self awareness will lead us to great discoveries of purpose and meaning.  This isn’t a deep and foggy and complex structure that individuals only find through higher order thinking and application.  This is ground level, dirt under the nails, blue collar ‘meaning of life’ stuff. It’s scratching and clawing…it’s gritty and grimy….experiential over theoretical.  

Look, it’s way more reasonable that instead of thinking through the ‘meaning of life’ with graduate level science and philosophy, that you create true purpose with your here and now actions…through your motor skills.  I’m not opposed at all to searching for intellectual truths through studying the works of others. I certainly do a lot of reading myself. But before doing that, we can take a more direct route to a life of purpose. And it’s not going to be easy.  A life of purpose isn’t one that’s more simple. It’s practicing self-awareness and considering your weaknesses. It means taking on more responsibility, and working harder. It entails ‘follow-through’. And it means that you willingly take on more adversity in your life.   I’m reminded of a song lyric by the Milk Carton Kids here. In their ‘Ash and Clay’ song, they sing:

‘I know we want what’s best for us – I know it has to come at a price.’

Creating a purposeful life seems to call for sacrifice.  You’re giving up what would be easy for you right now… to make life meaningful for you and/or others now, or in the future.  It’s easy to see why someone sitting home avoiding challenge and responsibility, would feel, ‘what’s the purpose to all of this?  There doesn’t seem to be much meaning.’  It’s also easy to see how they might just be unaware of what they could be doing.  We can’t necessarily blame that person…unless they knowingly avoid doing the right thing…and then complain about their situation.  That’s just a losing mentality. But it may be, that this individual fell into a funk. That happens to me all the time. And it’s amazing what a little encouragement, or a blessing, or a card, a hug…a small piece of motivation…it’s amazing what that can do for an individual in that funk.  And to think…what kind of purpose it would create for a person to take the initiative with that encouragement…and deliver it.  

emailsig

December 20 – Mindfulness

 

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I attribute Mindfulness and/or meditation to a good amount of the progress I’ve made in the last couple of years or so.  It certainly plays it’s part. It’s very easy to see how fast-paced and chaotic modern society can be. It’s very common to be swept up in the sway of all that.  Think of how many people you know are on, or have been on, medication for anxiety. It’s a staggering percentage of our population. Therefore, there’s a great need for mindfulness, and a return of simplicity and calm within daily life.  We’ve seen yoga become part of that return, as it’s gained huge popularity recently. But that’s just a piece of mindfulness…and one that’s typically practiced with a group outside the home. We can also be practicing mindfulness on our own, with any particular breath…in any moment.  

If you’re looking to learn more about mindfulness, and how to implement it into your daily life, I highly recommend finding any books on the topic by Thich Nhat Hanh.  He’s a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, and a prolific writer within this theme. His writing is very accessible and practical. Get to the library and grab a few of his books.  He is the expert.

I have two analogies for meditation, and they work for mindfulness as well.  The first is that practicing mindfulness is like a cleanse for the mind. Just as we need to eat pure and nutritious foods, and similar to how we benefit from a periodic cleanse in our diet to keep our bodies healthy, we need to hold clarified and focused thoughts to keep a healthy mind.  The other comparison that I find helpful is more ‘techy’: Practicing mindfulness is like executing a computer defragmentation and disk clean-up on your mind. It allows your brain to systematically determine and place your thoughts in files and folders. It efficiently gets rid of those old cookies and files that are slowing things down.  It frees up bandwidth, and makes space for new exploration. I like this analogy because it somewhat ‘ranks’ our files (our thoughts and experiences) and places them accordingly. So many of us need practice with this.

I’ll rush into my house, many thoughts and plans on my mind.  I’ll have ideas of what I want to get to. Maybe it’s writing or catching up on emails.  But then I see a pile of dishes in the sink. ‘Oh crap,’ I think. A little more anxiety is added to my experience.  It becomes a negative weight on my mind. The dishes become an obstacle in the way of what I wanted to be doing.  I rush through the dishes as fast as I can, thinking about the emails, the writing, some laundry I have to do, how I should replace these cabinets soon, what I should do with my daughter today, what should be for dinner tonight…a lot of thoughts, and a lot of disregard for the dishes.  When I live like this, there is no arrival at a fulfilled moment. There is no contentment. I feel that I can just get there, if I rush some more. No. I can get there by slowing down, taking a breath, practicing mindfulness.

By giving my own experience the gratitude it deserves, I can gain such a different and more positive perspective…even on something that seems so trivial, like the dishes.  By calmly focusing on the dishes, and on the actual experience of washing them, I can achieve a content state of mind right now. That rushing feeling, and fleeting hope that I’ll get there has really transformed.  I can take a slow, deep breath, and get there now. One tip that I learned from Thich Nhat Hanh that helps me whenever I’m doing the dishes, taking a shower, brushing my teeth, etc. is to consider the water I’m getting through my faucet.  Appreciate the fact that it began as rain in the mountains, and it trickled down into brooks and streams, and then into places that we could gather it and use it in our homes. This allows me to focus in on, and be mindful of my direct experience.  Even within a technologically advanced and protected home, I can appreciate my connection to nature. I can cleanse my mind of the unnecessary chaos. And I can appreciate this moment, here and now.

Don’t allow mindfulness to sound fluffy, soft, and ineffective.  It’s a powerful, direct, and evidence-based practice for helping people with depression, anxiety, and stress.  It doesn’t have the side-effects of medication. Mindfulness allows you to approach more experiences with strong, open arms.  With time, you’ll be able to laugh off or flick away those negative intruding thoughts. You’ll feel like a beast within your head…that nothing can sway you…that you’re a pillar of your own choosing…and you’re carrying your own sword.  You’re not one that gets caught up in the webs of pessimism and havoc. You’re cutting through…discovering order, meaning, peace, and well-being.

emailsig

December 19 – Balance

 

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Being really successful within one single element is good…until it’s not anymore.  Being totally committed to crushing it at work is awesome…until it starts to weigh on the family.  Heavily relying on your partner can feel good to the both of you…until it doesn’t anymore. Becoming a valuable and contributing individual within society calls for a good amount of balance.  It actually demands attention in a wide variety of areas. As we’ve become more and more sophisticated over time, we’ve broadened the scope and focus of individuals. We’ve developed a multitude of areas to become sophisticated within.  And we’ve raised the bar over time, putting pressure on humans to grow and to contribute within that greater expanse.

I remember the feeling, as a young, insecure, unbalanced high school aged kid.  I looked to some folks around me…the ones that were successful in one particular area.  Then, I’d see them making positive strides in another area. It made me bitter…and resentful.  I thought, they don’t deserve another boost.  That’s what I deserve.  I need that boost.’  But those folks did deserve it.  They had worked hard at moving the needle in a lot of areas within their life.  They had put effort into creating a well-balanced machine…and that provided them a prepared and opportune position to achieve competence in the subsequent arenas.  I saw it as luck…coming to those that didn’t need it. It was like the 1 percenters getting a tax break. Well, sitting around and thinking and complaining about what I deserve is just so unbecoming and gross.  

I wasn’t moving any of my needles in the right direction.  I didn’t create any balance. I was pushing most of them in the wrong direction.  And I certainly didn’t have one in particular that I could lean on.  I really see the significance of that now. I think of the quote that Jon Krakauer wrote in his Into the Wild book.  He said, ‘Happiness [is] only real when shared.’  This line reveals the necessity of balance in our lives as the social creatures that we are.  It says that achievement and success is a piece of your purpose.  It asks, ‘what else do you have going on?’  

I have a strong notion that we let too many pieces of ourselves go undeveloped.  We all contain multitudes of desire and ability. Biologically, we all have untapped segments of genes and parts of our brains.  The way to turn those on, is to put yourself in new experiences that were drawn out of you by intrigue and passion. Krakauer also wrote,

‘The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. If you want to get more out of life, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy. But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty.’

To stay in your lane…to stay narrow…is to maintain instability.  To explore, find balance, and development within a variety of interests and structures…is homeostasis.  Don’t create a state of inertia for yourself. Keep moving as many needles as possible. Find a balance.

emailsig