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There May Be A “Need” In What We Don’t Like Doing

Had lunch with Des a while ago and he blew my mind again. That’s what older brothers are for I suppose.

“You may need to do some of the things that you don’t like doing, which you don’t have a compelling reason NOT to do, because you’ll very likely find that doing them helps to meet a need that you don’t know even exists.”

There are countless examples of me getting an unknown need met or uncovering the existence of a need simply by doing something new. Teaching Group Cycling classes is a great example of this. Before I started teaching, I enjoyed taking the classes because they were a good workout, fun and a challenge. But teaching is very different. You do get a good workout and it is a challenge, but it’s very different from taking a class. It is an experience all of its own. When you are in front of people you are performing. There is anxiety and exhilaration, thoughts and rituals, and a rush that cannot be described or experiences simply as a participant. When the glass goes well, you feel like a rock star or someone who is very cool and the center of attention. When class goes poorly, you feel like an incompetent idiot and kind of want to run and hide. There’s a lot of mental gymnastics going on to keep the whole thing going, which is a skill that I wouldn’t have anticipated needing on order to be an instructor.

The point is, teaching a group fitness class is a lot of fun, but it isn’t like anything I have ever done before or do often, and it isn’t anything like what I thought it would be. While it was something I wanted to do, there were a lot of times at the beginning that I didn’t like it very much and thought about quitting. However, it was a goal that I set for myself so I followed through on it over time I came to realize that I enjoyed it, was getting better at it and that by continuing to do it, I was becoming more powerful than I would have been had I simply packed it in.

And that was Des’ lesson. It’s easy to do the stuff we like to do because you tend to like doing the things we are good at. While you will continue to benefit from doing these things, you’ll make bigger steps forward in your personal development, and in uncovering what you actually like and need to do, by doing more things we don’t like doing.

So when you are faced with a difficult or unwelcome task that doesn’t present any real risk to you, attack it with all of your passion. Superficially it may not represent anything that matters to you, but once you start to do it, you’ll likely find tackling the task is a lot more rewarding than passing on it or even completing a task that you are highly proficient at.

Emotions Are Not Thoughts

I spent a lot of my life miserable until my dad told me to stop mistaking my emotions for thinking. 10 years I had no difficultly accepting Des’ claim that spontaneous emotions exist to let us know that something significant is happening, that we’ve picked up on something important or that our conscious attention is needed on something. Emotions are a window into our the unconscious mind and what they bring forth in our awareness is the immediate representation of the quality of dissonance between the world we are perceiving and the world we are predicting.

The human brain is very effective at processing and storing information. This processing capacity allows it to compare present sensory and perceptive input against years of stored experience. Any input that matches a stored memory can trigger an emotional release and what that release is depends on your emotional state when the initial memory was encoded and stored - matching on a negative experience will mostly likely trigger a negative emotional response. It is very effective at bringing forward distant memories and aiding in our survival; given we are still alive, doing what we did last time will likely result in the same thing.

This useful system that has one major draw back, it is also triggered by the perception of something not just the sensation of it - those with a fear of clowns can trigger an anxiety attack by just thinking about clowns. This characteristic of emotions makes it very easy to create a feedback loop and when paired with the belief that emotions are thinking, led to a lot of my misery. Imagine you think about a clown and start to get a little anxious. If you tend to mistake emotions as thoughts, you will believe that there is an actual physical reason to feel anxious. As you look for the reason why, you will undoubtedly think about clowns which will cause more anxiety. The cycle will continue until the anxiety dissipates.

The realization that feelings are not thoughts stops this cycle because it gives us a chance to engage or talk back to the emotion. Once we are able to figure out where the emotion came from we are then able to determine the true value of the information that it is giving us. In the case of the clown loop, we’d be able to say I feel anxious because I am thinking about a clown instead of believing that I feel anxious because there is a good reason to feel anxious.

Emotions are not thoughts, they are real and they contain valuable information but they are not the same thing as thinking.

I Didn’t Earn This Privilege

The world can be a hard and tough place, but not so much here. There’s a good chance that if you are reading this you are one of the lucky few on the planet who have it good, who have it really good. Look around you and consider all that you have. You’re sitting on a chair in a room in front of your computer. You have enough time to be on the Internet reading NON-ESSENTIAL information, you’re not stuck working in a factory, living in a slum eating barely enough food to keep your body going and drinking water that comes from a stream that doubles as a toilet.

You have it really good by virtue of where you were born. Even the poorest person in your region has it better than most of the worlds population because social services exist to ensure that those born in a privileged country do not go hungry, without clothes or without human rights. And if you are willing to work, you have the opportunity to do really well and make enough money to buy nice things and improve your standard of living. All because of where you were born.

I forget this often and my brother is very good at reminding me that most of the opportunities I have living in Canada are a result of living in Canada and have very little to do with me as a person. I am not innately deserving of privilege, I was born into it; or more accurately, I wasn’t born into poverty and a complete lack of opportunity. It didn’t have anything to do with me. I am no more deserving of anything than anyone else on the planet yet I get to eat good food and sleep soundly while billions of others go without because of where they were born.

I didn’t earn any of it.

Stimulus -> Response? No It’s Stimulus -> Moment -> Response

Des once told me that there is a moment between stimulus and response and how we use that moment will determine what type of people we are and the quality of choices that we make. He said that once you realize that there is a period of time, you can then work to expand it and make more logical decisions instead of emotional reactions. That was a few years ago. It made logical sense at the time but it making practical sense has been long time in coming.

Well, yesterday I caught myself almost getting angry and in the moment when I realized the rage was building, I stopped and asked myself the question “why are you getting angry about this?” I was boiling water for tea and left the kettle in the kitchen. When I came back a few minutes later, I didn’t realize that someone had used the water and just turned the kettle on again to make sure the water was hot. If you didn’t know, it’s better for kettles if they have water in them when they are on. Nothing bad happened but I was told that you need to make sure there is water in the kettle before you turn it on.

I don’t know why, but having someone tell me this really got under my skin. It bothered me so much that I actually took the moment to try and figure out why it bothered me. My internal reaction was so strong that my initial guess what that I felt that someone was attacking me personally and unjustly. I asked myself what I was afraid of and why the words “you need to run it with water in it because it’ll break otherwise” caused such a visceral response. As I talked myself through it I realized that my interpretation of the sentence was what was causing the problem. I heard a lot of stuff that wasn’t said and I had started to react to that. I made assumptions about what the person was implying and didn’t stick with just the facts.

The fact was, I ran the kettle with very little water in it and that will ruin a kettle.

What I took out of the comment “you need to run it with water in it because it’ll break otherwise” was a negative value judgement about me and my intelligence. The person was saying that I didn’t know how to use a kettle, that I was too stupid to figure it out and that I always did that type of thing. I don’t think my response would have been out of line if I had actually been told that I was stupid but, that wasn’t what was said. The other person stated a fact because they saw me doing something that didn’t make any sense. Which is fair because they hadn’t seen the other person slip in and use the water while I was out of the room.

What was odd about yesterday was how quickly I stopped the anger from building and tracked down its source. Normally the reaction takes hold and I’m left to let it run its course, only to figure it out later. This time I KNEW the rage feeling wasn’t appropriate so I checked out of the process and took a moment to identify what I was feeling, why I usually feel that way and how I took what was said to me as I did.

It was kind of cool because I stopped the emotional reaction dead in its tracks. It’s one of the first times that I’ve been able to grab hold of it mid process, engage it and take corrective actions to stop it from continuing. I’m also very happy to have identified my reactive tendency towards taking neutral comments as criticisms. Taken together, it’s a big step forward in my awareness of what is going on unconsciously in my brain.

Des was right about the existence of that moment of time, now I start to work on lengthening it.

I Hear Voices, They Tell Me It Is Called Thinking

One of the worst things I ever heard happened during my last year at university when I was 24. I was living with Tony and Beth, a couple, in a two-bedroom apartment and had fallen asleep on the couch. The lights were off and the sleep function of the TV had turned it off so I was in almost complete darkness. Tony has a great sense of humor. He will say almost anything and make it funny.

Initially I thought he was playing a joke on me because I was woken up to hear someone saying “you are a loser, you will never make anything out of your life, you’re worthless.” It was dark, so when I sat up and turned around to tell him to piss off, it took me a while to notice that I was alone. In fact, I could still hear the voice telling me that I was a failure as it dawned on me that there wasn’t anyone else in the room. I was completely alone and all I could hear was this voice reminding me of my shortcomings as a human being and my complete lack of worth as a person.

It was rather disturbing to realize that the voice was coming from inside my head. First off, what it was saying bothered me because I felt that it was probably true. Secondly, why am I hearing voices and finally, why is the voice telling me that I am so pathetic? I sat their scared and angry until I was fully awake. Once I calmed down I went to bed and hoped I would sleep it off.

The next morning was very different. The voice was still there but it wasn’t telling me that I was useless. Instead it was telling me that I needed to get up, that I needed to go to school, that last night I had woken up last night hearing a weird voice dictating negativity at me, that I needed to do laundry, etc…. It seemed to be saying all the things that I was thinking. I dressed, ate breakfast and left to catch a bus to school. I recall feeling kind of weird, that I was out of place somehow. It wasn’t a bad feeling other than making me feel a little uneasy, but things weren’t wrong.

Looking back now I know exactly what was happening. I had an experience that would lead to an epiphany and one that created an awareness of who I was and why I was the way I was. The voice had been there for a long time. I’m not entirely sure just how long, but it years, probably since 12 or 13. That night was the first time that I became aware that it existed. Up until them it would do its thing without me even being aware that it was there. Becoming aware of the voice was the experience.

The voice is an internal monolog that is the literal representation of my immediate emotional state. It allows you to think literally about an emotional experience. In many ways it allows you to engage your emotions in a logical way because it makes them something that you can think about in tangible terms - it’s hard to capture the essence of grief on paper unless you have the vocabulary to describe what the experience is like, once you do, you can reference the feelings with words that will allow you some access to the emotion itself.

I say that the voice had been there since I was 12 or 13 because that was the first time I started to feel shame. In order to manufacture shame, you need to have some understanding that you are an individual within a community of other individuals. This type of abstract thought does not develop until 12 or 13 years of age. I may be wrong with this, but so far no one I’ve talked to about this recalls hearing the voice before their mid to late teens and most become aware of it in their early twenties.

Leading up to that night when I heard the voice, I had been playing around with mediation. I had never been very good at it because my mind was always very active and all over the place. Any time I felt that I was getting close to having a meditative experience I would be drawn away from it by some thought. It never made sense to me how I could think something when my eyes were closed and it was quiet. Up until that point I believed that I thought in images and not in words - it’s weird to write this now because of course I can think in words, but back then I didn’t realize it was the case. After I heard the voice, the source of my distraction was obvious, random words or phrase would pop into my head or I would begin to narrate my immediate emotional state e.g. “I want to go to a rave” or “oh, this is starting to feel like I’m mediating” or “I want to have sex with my girlfriend.” You can’t achieve nirvana with all that stuff floating around in your head.

Anyway, that day at school was interesting. I noticed that the voice would paint a darker picture of what was really going on. It would put a negative spin on stuff that happened, particularly when it dealt with other people; it seemed to come alive when I was interacting with other people. Usually making guess about what people thought about my actions or about me. It threw out a lot of judgment and hearing it made me think that maybe this was why I felt lousy around people most of the time. In fact, it didn’t seem to ever say anything that was positive, at best it was neutral, but mostly it was just negative.

Over the next few weeks, while the experience was still fresh in my mind, I paid a lot of attention to what it said and how it made me feel. The strangest part was how easily I would accept the conclusions or observations that it drew. To not do so felt completely pointless because the voice was coming from me. If I didn’t accept what it said, it would mean that I was wrong or that there was some part of me that was trying to sabotage my fortune. There was definitely a relationship between what the voice said and how I felt, but the relationship was a two way interaction - sometimes the voice would say something that would make me feel bad, other times I would feel bad and the voice would say something about it. It seemed that it would either dictate how I should feel or it would observe what I was feeling.

The experience faded and after a while I stopped thinking about it. I accepted that the voice was there and that there wasn’t very much that I could do to stop it. In time, however, I learned to talk back to it and to question it. After a lot of work it became easy to discredit it. I realized that since it came from me, it knew exactly as much as I did, so it didn’t have any special powers. Once it became evident to me that it was a reflection of my immediate emotional state and that that was within my control, what the voice said must also be under my control, if not completely, at least in terms of tone. For a while, it became something that was there that I tired to ignore and not let affect me. I think it took about 5 or 6 years before it stopped making me feel anything.

About 2 years ago, I was having pho with my brother and he started talking to me about sociobiology / evolutionary psychology. When I mentioned the voice and the experience that I had years before it was cause for us to stop and reflect on the reason for the voice. The part of evolutionary psychology I like is the fact that if a trait exists within an individual, there is a survival reason for it. The challenge was for us to come up with the survival reason for it. It turned out that he has the voice as well and that it does basically the same thing for him that it does for me. He gained power over it the same way I did, by challenging it and the observations it comes up with.

Not that there are any hard and true answers with things like this, but we came to the conclusion that the natural tendency towards the negative interpretation of others perceptions of us makes us work harder to gain their approval because if we have the approval of others in our social group, we will be able to remain part of that group and will have an improved chance of surviving. It’s an antiquated approach because all you need to survive in today’s society is money, but with millions of years of evolution behind it, getting rid of this trait isn’t going to happen any time soon. If you are able to isolate the voice and observe it without reacting to what it is saying, you will find that it does alert you to a lot of odd things. When something isn’t right, this is usually the first way you’ll realize it. It will say something that lets you know that something is going on or that you feel a particular way about something.

At worst you are not aware of the voice as it dictates negative observation and social pessimism un-molested into your conscious awareness making you feel guilt and shame. Maybe it isn’t that bad. Maybe you realize that it is there and that you have learned to ignore it, remaining more or less unaffected by it. Or maybe you are lucky and you have challenged the voice and found out that it is full of crap most of the time. Maybe you have found out what it is good for and are able to use it as a perceptive tool to help you uncover the truth of the world. I’m somewhere between ignoring it and knowing what it’s good for but every now and then I still have to tell myself to wise up and stop reacting to what the voices inside my head are saying.

Stop Thinking About Cuteness

I was having Pho with Des today and he told me about an article he read. The article was about a movie the blogger had watched was particularly disturbing. When he went to bed that night, he was having trouble falling asleep because he couldn’t stop thinking about what he had seen. He asked his girlfriend if she ever had trouble falling asleep because she couldn’t let go of a thought. She said not any more because she plays the cuteness game.

The cuteness game starts by thinking of something cute and then trying to think of something that is even cuter. Then try to think of something that is cuter still, and so on. The game ends when you fall asleep.

It is immaterial that cuteness is subjective, all that matters is that you try to think of something that is cuter and cuter and cuter. The point is, when you’re thinking of cute things you’re not able to think about the creepy movie you saw.

I laughed when he told me, then he told me what Sarah said, she plays the size game. Same sort of thing, pick something and then think of something that is smaller or bigger than it, then continue in that direction. Not that you need an example, but a bread box is bigger than a loaf of bread which is bigger than a jar of peanut butter which is larger than a salted cracker, etc…. Again the game ends when you fall asleep.

I laughed even louder at that game because the whole idea of it is so profoundly simple that I feel like a moron for not thinking of it myself. Up until today I worked to silence my mind when I found myself thinking things I didn’t like. It had never occurred to me to just think of something else. I liken this to a bad smell. When faced with a bad smell you have two choices, you can try to get rid of the smell or you can try to cover over the smell with a better smell. Which one do you think is easier? It works the same way with thinking. You’ll have an easier time thinking about a litter of puppies playing than you will of turning your thinking off. Thinking is natural, not thinking isn’t.

We can control our thoughts and so we should take an active role in what we allow ourselves to think. There will be times when you will need to worry about something, to make sure you have addressed all of the known knowns, but at some point you will start to over think it, triggering a feedback loop that keeps you worrying about it. Even if you did leave the stove on, so what? You cook with it, it’s designed to be on. Make the decision about what you are going to do about it and start trying to think of three things that are cuter than a kitten. Smile and go back to living outside your head.

The Discipline High - Part Two

After I wrote The Discipline High - Part One I ended up talking to my brother about it. The discussion moved very quickly from does it exist to what it is?

Initially I had thought that I had somehow been able to create something out of nothing by fostering a positive feeling by NOT eating. It seemed a reasonable assumption because I do feel a sense of pride / accomplishment whenever I’m able to eat appropriately. The truth is, during bike season, I don’t need to be very mindful of what I eat because I’m very active - eating a box of cookies is excessive, but so is riding for 4 hours. In fact, some have said that I don’t really have a choice BUT to eat a box of cookies because I may utilize more than 2000 calories in a day in just exercise (the average 300 gram box of cookies has a little over 1200 calories). I need recovery sugar and while cookies do not supply you with dextrose or maltodextrin, the two sugars that replenish and boost muscle glycogen the most efficiently, they do contain sucrose with will help refill drained muscles and they taste pretty good. It’s a very bad idea to diet during the season because you may be denying your body the energy it needs to fully recover, which will result in an over trained state which will hurt your performance.

The discipline high only comes into play in the off season, between November and mid April because I scale back my activity dramatically. I do more resistance training to build muscle and strength, and this activity requires a lot less energy than riding; my estimate is about half the energy. Since my activity level decreases dramatically in the off season, I have to watch what I eat a lot more closely. When I mentioned this to Des, our understand about the source of the high became obvious. Why do I try to build muscle? Some of it is to help my cycling, some of it is to make moving around easier, some of it is to make my activities easier, and some of it is to have a body that looks nice. But having a strong core is very different from having a wash board stomach. A strong core allows you to drive more power to the legs by having a solid foundation from which to move so less energy is absorbed by movement of the upper body. Having a 6-pack is not necessary for this. I could have a strong core even with 20 percent body fat (many power lifters are just like this). The fact is, during the off season when weight gain can be an issue, I diet to keep the weight off and stay lean.

So my desire to have 6-pack abs is fueled by something other than athletic performance. It comes down to the motivation for wanting them and what they represent to me. First off, I have associated leanness with beauty, youth, and vitality because most lean people do have a look of vitality that is attractive and young looking. I have this association so it’s reasonable to assume that my desire to have them stems from my desire to be viewed as attractive and youthful with a lot of energy. Given that I’m pretty modest about my body, I’m not actively seeking other peoples approval or recognition for looking a particular way. But I feel that if I remain lean and well muscled, I have done everything that I can to remain attractive and young. In the event that my body ever becomes a deciding factor in anything, and I can’t ever see that happening, I have the peace of mind knowing that I have done my best. Wash board abs represent my knowledge about fitness and the human body and the level of hard work that I’m capable of. I regard them as a window into my brain and my personality and not something to be looked at as nice. I think they look good because they reveal who I am and not because they appeal to some primal urge.

What does this have to do with the discipline high? Well, I think the discipline high is just another form of delayed gratification; in this case, social recognition for achieving something that requires a lot of effort. I know that answer is a lot less appealing than my “something out of nothing” hypothesis but this explination is a lot more reasonable and I like its compatibility with evolutionary psychology. Only the social survive.

What You Actually See When You Are Part Of The Other Crowd

Today I turn 34. I am happy about this because last St. Patrick’s day I realized that I was part of the other crowd. I think my exact phrasing was “I’m no longer one of the people who matters, I’m just an old guy.”

I had gone to the bar with some of the people I worked with. One of them was a girl I had been on a couple of dates with and I had hoped having a few drinks together would be enough to loosen us up and spark some sort of chemistry. She’s a really smart girl but the conversation always seemed laboured. Anyway, my brother was in town visiting his friend Clif and they had ended up at the same bar. Des and clif are older than me and all of us felt the same “we don’t belong here” feeling. We left fairly quickly after we realized that everyone there was a lot younger than us. It was a very difficult moment for me because I had been sensing that I was becoming an old guy for a while - I hadn’t sent a single text message, I didn’t have a myspace page and I didn’t enjoy getting drunk at a bar any more.

On the way home they asked me what was going on and I told them that today, I was old.

I didn’t get the girl either, there was no chemistry.

But what I did get was better. I got my peace of mind about who I was. I was forced to accepted that my looks were fading fast and that my youth was gone. It was tough that night and the next day, I was pretty depressed - it wasn’t a “turning 30″ depression because it lingered through the next day until I stopped by my brother and sister in law’s place. When I talked to Des about how I was feeling and about the lack of chemistry with the girl he let me know that I am a reflector, that I tend to go into conversations as a blank slate and take on the mood of the other person. If they are engaging or open, I will follow suit, if they are closed and withdrawn, that’s how I will be. The end result is that how I feel during a conversation is basically how the other person feels during the conversation. I hadn’t noticed this until he brought it up, but once he said it out loud, it was obvious that it had been that way all along.

That was a year ago yesterday and I regard that day as the start of the best year of my life so far because once I realized that my youth was gone I became free to just be whatever I am instead of trying to be what I thought others wanted me to be. There are much lower expectations of immediate success when you aren’t counting on your looks to help you close any deals. I had a new appreciate of hard work because what I do became more important than what I am.

At least, as I look back on the last year, that’s how I see it.