Thursday, September 1, 2011

using a weakness to overcome it

Over the past 24 hours I realized a much better way to overcome a bad habit or other sort of weakness.

This can work for things like procrastination, messiness, habitual lateness, disorganization, and various temptations like facebooking all the time.

Perhaps you've heard stories of some OCD-type whose kitchen is meticulously organized. All the tupperware is sorted by size and shape immediately upon coming out of the dishwasher. Forks stacked neatly in their compartment. Condiments lined up precisely to the edge of the shelf. When the interviewer asks why he's done this, the guy says it's because he's lazy.

To the rest of us, it barely makes sense. Lazy people don't regularly wash their dishes, much less stack them punctually in any sort of meaningful order. But the guy meant he didn't want to have to expend time when looking for something.

That is, he determined he was bad at wanting to put in the effort to find just the right item, and so he was compensating for it.


I've just moved into a new room in Cambridge, MA. It's beautiful and spacious, but I know I have a problem with disorganization, so I've been extra diligent about giving each item a home and putting it back there as soon as I'm done with it. I struggle with staying tidy.

As a result, the room is spotless.

Being a minimalist (on account of formerly being a packrat) helps too.

I had the audacity to peek into a housemate's room and it may as well have been the scene of a localized tornado. Clothes, wrappers, dishes everywhere. Papers haphazard, bed unmade, floor barely visible. This is what I feel like my room would be like if I don't work at it. If anyone asked, I'd say that I'm typically a slob and have problems with organization, and I know they'd laugh and think me sarcastic.

But no. I'm simply embracing the fact that I've previously been a slob and I know that I need to work hard to fight it.

People who feel that they are good at resisting temptation are shown to be likely to cave sooner than those who are aware that they need to remain on guard. 
That's the principle I'm getting at here. If you (1) admit to yourself and (2) decide to actively guard against some particular temptation or bad habit, you will probably be much better off in the long run. Of course, some things like dieting should be approached with caution lest you develop anorexia, and it's important not to let such self-guarding degenerate into an undermined self-esteem, but generally the principle is helpful.

So give it a try. If you find you're often late to things, admit to yourself that you need to work on your punctuality, and find ways to compensate for it. That's all.
What I am not saying is that you need to cure yourself of the defect. Oh no. Maybe later you can do that. But for now, at this juncture, just note that you need to find strategies to deal with it.
After a while, you may still feel that you always run the risk of being sorta late to stuff, but looking at your track record you'll notice it's been a long time since you actually were.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

You are the CEO

You're your own CEO. But you're not the world's micromanager.

You get to pick your responses to what goes on around you, to the weather, to news from your family, to how poorly your waiter delivered upon your order. You don't HAVE to hate blustry, rainy days, after all!

I like to find people who enjoy things I don't like. The kid who enjoys that blustry, rainy day is on to something! She has no more control over the weather than I do, but instead of resigning herself to misery and complaining about the cold, she's actively celebrating it. Which would you rather do?

Here's an experiment for you. Don't worry, it'll take less than a minute, so you can do it right now. There's three parts:
  1. Neutral. Close your eyes. For one breath check out the feelings in your torso, for another breath check out your face. Fine.
  2. Miserable. Now make the most unhappy, pissy expression you can! Woo! Maybe try anger, or rage, or just whatever your favorite rap artist is inspiring today. Hold it, and using the next two breaths check out how your torso and your face feel. You may notice a tightening in the belly, or a shift in your chest. 
  3. Happy. Put a big ol' genuine smile on your face. The kind that makes the corners of your eyes crinkle. Smile like you mean it. Ok, now check out how your torso and face feel. 
Which would you like to feel more often? 

Not very original of me, I know. Ha! But when you get to control your own reactions to things, wouldn't you want to practice picking the fun one, train yourself to go for the one that makes you feel good?

We get almost no control over the world outside of our bodies, so that's not a good source of happy feelings. Let's take advantage of what we do get to adjust, and stop looking for reasons why we should be miserable.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

i like listening to music

So many people list as a hobby "listening to music". Me too! But how often do we really do it? I mean, yeah, there's music on in the background almost wherever I go, even at the law office. It's nice most of the time, and I find it pleasant. But I wouldn't say that this qualifies as "listening to music".

When is the last time you found yourself doing just that, and nothing else? Just sitting down or laying back, listening to music? It's really quite enjoyable -- of course it is, this is why we all list it as a hobby. Why don't we do it more? During our leisure time, shouldn't we be doing things that are really awesome?

It's like eating. How many of us say, "Gosh, I love food!" or more specifically "I love chocolate!" or "Blood oranges are my favorite." or "Avocados are delicious!" These foods are so good! But so often, when we eat them, we are also doing other things. We are also reading the internet, or playing on our phones, or watching tv, or driving, or whatever.

Food is SOOOOOOO good! Let's just take that tiny tiny bit of time it takes to place it in our mouths, chew, and swallow, and not do anything else then.

Really, it's not a humongous commitment. The rewards are fantastic. And it also counts as a meditation.

Last night I decided that I was denying myself too much great enjoyment, and it was time to indulge in the Good Things in Life. I turned out the lights, put on my nice headphones, and listened to the entirety of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. I really got into it, experiencing the themes, the individual notes, the harmonies, the quality of each sound, the composition as a whole, the grace and poignancy of the violin, etc.

It was great! It was intense! It was something I might look back at and remember as a really great evening. Otherwise I might have just been surfing the internet or playing a game, not really doing much of note. I don't get that much leisure time, so I'm going to make good use of it!

Monday, February 28, 2011

let's not assume misery

Lately I've been noticing more how people assume that I'm unhappy in my situation. Not because I seem miserable (I hope!) but because apparently the default is that certain activities must be unpleasant.

"Brussels sprouts?! Oh that sounds like an awful breakfast your bf made you!"

Nothing really must be unpleasant! And I'd like to think I've come some distance toward being able to do more and more things without being miersable about them.

For example, this morning at work (which I love going to!) I mentioned that I had been studying all weekend for the MPRE, which is a part of the bar exam. It's not as challenging as the rest of the bar, but preparing for it did dominate my weekend. One of my co-workers said something like, "Oh, that must have been a chore! It'll all be over soon."

How do I respond to this? It was certainly intense, but it wasn't a chore. In fact, I sort of got into it and even told my boyfriend how much I was enjoying getting back into study mode. I don't mind the reading and having 5 more days of it is neither too long nor too short a time for delving into the task.

I'm sure Donna at work was just being nice, but it was sort of awkward for me.

I left the office an hour early to keep working on bar stuff, and ran into my lovely flatmate and fellow Buddhist, L. I mentioned how I got out early and she commented on how great it must have felt to be able to get up from my desk and say, "Well, I'm outta here!"

No, hahaha, no no no, I like being at work! Going from one interesting task (work) to another (driving) to a third (changing out of business attire) to a fourth (prepping for the MPRE) does not mean I am fleeing one thing or dreading another. It is just life! And it is not unpleasant!

When you are a kid at summer camp, every activity is an activity. There is wake-up, breakfast, cabin cleaning, crafts, athletics, lunch, etc. Cabin cleaning is just one more activity. It's just another part of the day. it's not necessarily awful or a punishment or the worst thing on the schedule. Sometimes it's down-right fun! :)

My bf posted on his facebook about how, despite landing a $1000 fenderbender and having his house robbed 10 days ago, he's having a really fantastic 2011 so far. Smilie-face.

Hooray! :D Happiness! [Maybe I am part of that fantasticness...?]

But instead, the comments started coming in about how that sounds miserable and how awful that all seems, and how sorry people were. Or how they wondered if he was being sarcastic.

He was not being sarcastic; he was being genuinely joyful despite these unanticipated events. And all these well-meaning people were saying "sorry" for him in his cheery optimism, condolences for his high spirits!

I know, I know. "But they mean well..." Yeah, they do. All these people. Sometimes I just announce things ("I went to the store and saw a lot of milk!" or "There are two clouds in the sky and they look fluffy!" or "I put this blue candy in my mouth and it was very sour!") and quite frequently my ex would say with full sympathy, "It's not easy being you, is it."

Eh? I am observing! I am not complaining!

Hahahaha. Ok. This whole post is sort of a complaint I guess, so now I am complaining. There. :P But really, my feelings at most amount to frustration. They edge closer to confusion, mainly at how best to respond to all these things.

Do I have to scamper about saying gleefully, "I love my work! I love being at work! It is my joy and I look forward to the rest of my career in this same avenue! Also I left an hour early today."? No, haha, then the assumption might be that I am miserable because I am no longer at the office.

Dear readers, do you have any suggestions?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

happiness is boring?

With some frequency I hear, "Why would you want to be happy all the time? That'd be boring."

As if!

Let's go romp in the woods!

When people ask what I want to do with my life, I often say that I have a goal of long-term happiness. Then without fail, unless the other person has explored some eastern concepts (like Buddhism or yoga), I will be informed that this is a silly goal because happiness is dull. And furthermore, that happiness cannot exist without sadness, by which to compare it and recognize that it is happiness.

Let's clear some stuff up!

Where is the bore?
What is boringness, dullness? This is when we aren't stimulated enough by what's already before us, so we want something else instead. It means we aren't satisfied with what's there. To me, it seems clear that this is the very definition of unhappiness, this dissatisfaction.

Therefore, to be happy, long-term happy, we would be in a non-boring situation. Otherwise we wouldn't be happy with what we have.

Hahaha, but this is the silly way of explaining things. It is logical and it is true, but really, it's too clinical.

Happiness is AWESOME! It's being exuberant and mellow, alert and calm, vibrant and at peace. AND IT IS FUN! Happy people enjoy life more than miserable people: fact!

Dang, when I get really happy, nearly anything will entertain me, music makes me want to dance, the sky looks beautiful -- and I mean beautiful -- no matter what the weather or time of day, and no occurence large or small will get me down.

Not boring at all!

It's a feeling where adventures are possible -- and in fact everything becomes an adventure, even going to the grocery store! Even getting a glass of water. Even just sitting there and breathing.


Prerequisite of misery?
Do I need to have suffered in order to appreciate this? Good heavens I sure hope not! Two points:

1. Happiness is not a state of mind in which one is really comparing. It's a state of here-and-now. When you're happy, you're not moping over your past misfortunes -- that would be called "moping". Doesn't sound like a good time!

2. We've all suffered to some extent, though, haven't we? And we all also experience happiness, so I guess if there is a prerequisite then we've all already fulfilled it. So, who cares. Kids can be perfectly happy drawing treasure maps and then hiding treasures under the chair and then finding them again by using the map! Hooray! Do they need to have gone through trauma in order to enjoy these little adventures? I may be wrong, but I don't really think so. I'm not sure what makes adults so different, beyond being older.

I'm not 100% certain on this point, only 99% certain. But something about the assumption of a need for prior suffering sure troubles me.

Having suffered, I guess I've crossed whatever low bar there was and I don't care anymore. We've all crossed it, we've all crossed over, we're all in the door now. We are HERE. This is where happiness lives, and we are all present.


Let's relax into this joyful, quirky, strange, laughable, surprising life we have, and feel happy with the chance to experience it!

Friday, January 28, 2011

open to change

They don't "follow" rules here. It's rather comofrting.

My new haircut, Katy's new haircut

A week ago I put about everything I own into my car and moved up to Rhode Island, from North Carolina, stopping overnight in New Jersey at the delightful home of darling friend Katy.

Now I'm sitting at the kitchen table of my new home, with my new flatmate, in a new city, a new state, with a new bank, a new haircut, a new internship and experiencing a new culture.

They say that Rhode Island has a lot of corruption. That's probably an overstatement, but there is a laxity that seems to be threaded through everything. Rules aren't followed the same way here. Driving, for example, is a bargaining game. If there is only barely room for one car on the road (what with parked cars on both sides and severe snow banks), you negotiate who gets to go through the narrow spots first. Stop signs are a suggestion, but a suggestion even for the streets that don't face them. Signalling? Optional. Turning left on a red light? Ok now and then. There's a lot of casual finger waving from the steering wheel. None of it so far has been the least bit grumpy.

I got a new bank account today, and, after some 90 minutes of chitchat and paperwork, my Banking Representative® introduced me to the branch manager. He said to make sure I be aware of and take advantage of all the benefits of my new account. I asked about waiving fees for international money transfers, which wasn't listed. He looked down, thought about it, and said ok. He said if I find I have those fees, to talk to him and he'd get them reversed.

Of course, I had just opened a lot of interesting accounts with them, but still, it's this attitude.

I went to a full-service laundromat today with my bag of dirties, asking about their fluff-n-fold service. They told me the deal, and said it was a busy day so it wouldn't be ready til noon tomorrow.
"Ah, noon?" I asked, just to confirm.
"You want it a sooner time? We can do that if you need it a certain time in the morning?" The owners squinted at me congenially, proposing.
"Noon?" I countered.
"Yeah, noontime, we'll have it ready then."

Yes, these places want my business. Yes, they want to appear friendly and welcoming. But I get the impression at the coffee shops, on the phone with the guy who runs the parking lot I use, with the waitresses and the neighbours and the grocery store check-out clerks that there is a more flexible attitude here.

The banking rep lady even took me back behind the tellers, past the area with the safe, down into the staff-only basement, so I could use the small, strange ladies' room!

A year ago I think this would have driven me crazy.

Everything is sort of lax, slightly unpredictable, up for renegotiation. Where are the guarantees? The commitments? Will pedestrians retreat to the sidewalks or stay on the streets? Why didn't that car look before reversing right in front of me? Will I get kicked out if my flatmate's landlord finds out I'm subletting the spare bedroom? And all these promised favors, will they be retracted?

The truth is, of course, that nothing is ever guaranteed. We never really know what's going to happen next, to us or to others. Every single day things happen that remind me that I have no guarantees.

I actively look for these things. It's sort of a little inside joke I have with the universe. Every single day it proves to me that I am not in control by presenting to me something I couldn't have predicted.

I think sometimes in the back of our minds we assume that certain things are, well, certain. Almost as if we were in control of this place. Heck, I can't even fully control when I finally throw back the sheets and decide to climb out of bed instead of lazing about with my iPhone.

So, every day I keep an eye out for stuff that happens that demonstrates that I'm not in control. Stuff that sort of surprises me. Some religious types might call it "proof that God exists" or that S/He is running this place instead of me.

Some days it's a bizarre piece of litter on the sidewalk -- a child's sundress on a fence, clean and pressed, in the middle of winter. Other days it's an email from an unexpected source, or a strange sound filling the parking lot.

Sometimes it's the sudden absence of a familiar item or routine occurence. 

We are always out of control, and frankly, it's pretty great.

Especially in a place like Rhode Island where it seems it's expected that there's going to be some of the unexpected. I'm going to try to relax, shrug, and wave my neighbor in the car next to me through the intersection.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

1000 Awesome Things?

A friend recently suggested I submit something to

Even stinging cuts can be awesome.

I really like Neil. I saw his TED Talks video and found I really agree with his philosophy and was touched by his story.

But something about the website/concept doesn't sit that well with me. Some of the things are sort of selfish. Virtually all of them involve gratification. 

What I find inspiring is being able to take delight in things that Neil would probably NOT consider awesome.

Suppose you are having a really shitty day because a ton of dirty snow got in your car and you had to sit in it and your butt got all cold and wet, and etc etc. 

I'd love to see someone describe how THIS is still awesome. And I mean AWESOME.

Because ideally we'd be able to experience the world where everything was awesome, right? Not just the things we already think are cool, because that's easy. That's like just skipping to dessert and pronouncing cake to be where it's at. 

I say Brussles sprouts are just as tasty, even if they are a little burnt.


Then sometimes I think (because clearly I have thought about this website quite a bit) that maybe I have to start relishing even the "good" things in life more, if I have such hang-ups over them / this website!

ahaha, nah, I enjoy the shit out of life. :)

So, I decided to submit something not "obviously" awesome. 

Life cannot be a game of hopscotch, jumping from gratification to gratification. The entire experience of being alive can be blissful, and our preferences for the smell of coffee over the smell of boiled cabbage lead us to frown when we're over the stew pot.

My submission: "humdrum overcast days"
Those days that at first glance make you go "bleh" ... but they don't have to. One on such day in college a friend said he loved this sort of weather, and I thought, "Awesome!"

Ok, at first I thought, "Are you nuts?!" but then I realized that if I could enjoy overcast days as much as brilliant sunshine-y days, I'd be a much happier person.

So often we only seek out things we already consider pleasurable. In their absence we flounder, miserable, searching for the next whiff of coffee or perfect-nacho-off-someone-else's-plate. Not everything is immediately jubilant, but it doesn't mean we can't come to appreciate -- nay, REVEL -- in all the other details, too.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

breaking bad habits

Maybe you have resolved to start, stop, or alter a habit in 2011. Sometimes it's stopping a habit that is the hardest, but if you can narrow down the exact moments when action is critical, the whole process is much easier. (You can modify these steps to form a new habit, too.)

NOTE: If you are dealing with a habit that involves addictive or illegal substances, or anything with physical withdrawal symptoms, you should also have a read through the book The Addiction Solution and follow its guide.

Ok so anyway, if you are just trying to stop obsessive thoughts over a love interest, or snacking in front of the TV, or playing computer games so much, stuff like that, here's a guide to reaching your goal sooner.

  1. Firmly decide that you want to break the habit.
  2. Whenever you find yourself about to do the thing, remember that you decided not to do it.

That's it!

Oh ho, if only we could all just do things so simply! Wouldn't that be great? Actually, with some practice you can definitely get better at this stuff. Let's look at these two parts separately.

Firmly decide that you want to break the habit

Each word here matters. It's a decision, a conscious decision. Imagine life with the habit, and life without the habit. Imagine a situation where you typically do the thing, and consider that one day you may instead not do it. Is this something you want?

Hmmmm... if you're like me, at this stage, even this stage, a little whisper of doubt creeps in and says, "Actually, I sort of like this bad habit for some reason." Well, tough. You need to decide this before you start. Make up your mind. Think about your long-term future, think about your ideal lifestyle, think about your best version of your Self. Still want to have the habit?

You need to want to change. This is when you do your research on what is good or bad, your soul-searching. Now, in your philosopher's armchair, not later when faced with the temptation itself. Some part of you wants to change. Focus on that part.

Decide firmly. And to break the habit, not merely put it aside for a while.

Not easy! But again: much MUCH easier now than when the thing is right in front of you.

I recommend taking 10 minutes right now on this. Set a timer so you don't "waste" any extra precious internet-surfing time (I know how it is...). For the first 5 minutes, just clear your mind. I have a meditation guide explaining what I mean by this, but maybe you have your own method. Then take 5 minutes and really focus on this decision. Take as much time as you need, but I find a timer helps me get started and focused.

Whenever you find yourself about to do the thing, remember that you decided not to do it.

So, if you normally come home and go straight to the bad-habit computer game, this means coming home and then remembering you were not going to go to the game anymore. And then not playing it.

What do you do instead? Saying yes is so much easier than saying no, so figure out beforehand that you will be saying yes to some other activity -- instead of thinking about this as saying no to the game. You can be saying yes to a better future, or you can be saying yes to watching youtube videos. It's going to be a lot easier to have prepared activities in mind, mostly things you generally enjoy doing.

Come up with a bunch of things you'll be saying yes to, both philosophical and concrete. Come up with a bunch of replacement activities, both fun things and productive ones.

And now, it's time to practice. You've already firmly decided you want to break this habit, remember. Remember this because you're about to face the toughest part of breaking the habit.

In reality, there are very few pivotal moments in this whole thing. It's the moments at which you decide to do the activity or not. Included in this is those moments where you realize you're doing the thing, and you either continue or you stop. These are the only moments you need to worry about, and the only ones you really need to prepare for. So the idea is to practice facing these moments when you're of solid mind and strong desire, so that when you face them in reality you'll be better off.

Take another 10 minute chunk of time. Again, spend the first 3-5 minutes just clearing your mind. It's going to be important to focus. For the remainder imagine a future situation in which you normally do the habit, and then imagine yourself not doing it (by doing something else instead). As often as necessary, go through the first exercise of re-affirming your desire to change this habit and all the reasons for doing so.

Again, this might be pretty tough! That slimy thought of "actually I don't mind this habit that much" may come back to strangle your will with its fat, greasy fingers. But keep deciding, and keep practicing, and brush those tempting hands away. Of course it's hard. You would have broken this habit long ago, otherwise. But it's easier to decide now during practice than during the real thing.

And so, next time you are actually faced with the decision, go through your plan. Reiterate to yourself the reasons for stopping, and recall your firm decision to stop. Then do a different activity instead of the habitual one.

Remember: just like how in practice you can fail and falter a few times and that's ok, the same thing goes for real life. Don't give up just because you didn't do it perfectly the first time. That's fine, it's all fine, everything is fine, just keep practicing and following through will be easier and easier!

Have you tried this and found it successful? Any tips to make it even more effective! Please leave a comment letting me know!