Browsing the archives for the fear tag.
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The Power of Vulnerability

The human mind

Social work professor Brené Brown gave a startling TED talk a while back, and her basic point was this: we usually want things to go a certain way. We usually want to be able to predict what happens and for it to be something we’ve identified as good. What we don’t want is to screw up, to look bad, to open ourselves up to pain, loss, or embarrassment, or to invest ourselves in something that doesn’t pan out. Yet Brown makes a compelling case that without the willingness to be vulnerable, we shut ourselves down and make it impossible to enjoy or make the most of our lives.

To tell you the truth, I’m especially enthusiastic to share with you Dr. Brown’s following TED talk, but it’s important (and rewarding!) to see this one first. If you’re not already one of the roughly 8.5 million people (at the time of this writing) who’ve heard what she has to say, please find 20 minutes now, or as soon as it’s practical, and hear her out. I’ll follow up with a related post soon.

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Aikido Interviews, #2: “Lift Your Head and Say ‘Isn’t Today a Great Day?’”

Interviews

This post is the second in a series begun back in October interviewing 3rd degree black belt Aikido practitioner Dwight Sora of Chicago Aikido club. While I’m interested in martial arts for their own sake, Aikido strikes me as having some unusual philosophical lessons about acceptance, change, and growth.

The first post in this series was Aikido Interviews, #1: Trying to Discover Truths. New posts will go up on the next three Mondays, February 4, 11, and 18.

Dwight SoraLuc: What’s the relationship between engaging with the world and engaging with an attacker? What approach or approaches does Aikido indicate for a practitioner who is being attacked?

Dwight: This may seem overly simplistic and reductive, but it really does seem to boil down to staying calm. And furthermore, that really seems to be what all martial arts ultimately strive to achieve.

Naturally, Aikido, with its strong philosophical component, places a lot of emphasis on keeping the body relaxed and centered and keeping your mind focused. However, I have met senior Judo instructors who emphasized the exact same points. Also, years ago I attended a series of Aikido camps in the Colorado Rockies where the guest instructor was Kenji Ushiro, a traditional Okinawan Karate instructor. It seemed odd to have a Karate instructor at an Aikido camp, until I saw what he was teaching. His technique was amazingly soft, and he never broke posture (or a sweat) and moved with total control. (Clip below.)

[Note from Luc: I don’t know if the following will be as fascinating to you as it was to me, but I do recommend checking out this short video Dwight sent.]

In terms of attitude, Aikido teaches one to respond to attackers non-aggressively. Now, that doesn’t mean passively, as some might assume from my earlier statement. The response is still dynamic, but you try to avoid ideas like “I’m going teach this guy a lesson” or “I’m going to put this person down.” And by keeping a cool head, you keep an open mind, and hopefully are able to see more possibilities (and of course, strategic openings) in a situation.

In terms of technicalities, the idea is that your body will also respond faster and stronger if your muscles are relaxed and not tense. And this does make a lot of sense even in street terms (I believe). I was once told that statistically speaking, a large number of the women who study martial arts will pick a striking art over anything involving grappling or throwing (So, Karate or kickboxing instead of Judo, Aikido or Jujitsu). The answer is understandable – A lot of women don’t like the idea of being in a room having to grab and possibly roll around the floor with men. However, I’ve also heard that if the intent of their study is self-defense against a mugger or rapist, there’s a hole in their decision-making. Most attackers on the street don’t want to fight you; they just want to subdue you or get the jump on you (often from behind) and grab on. The advantage of studying a grappling art is that you become desensitized to the fear that is induced during the act of being grabbed or choked, and learn how to keep your muscles relaxed (and flexible) while in such a situation to allow an effective response.

My senior teacher is always telling me to avoid being aggressive. He’ll even raise his head and say, “Don’t think about the other guy, lift your head and say ‘ Isn’t today a great day’.”

Photo by Janna Giacoppo

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The Courage to Suck

States of mind

It seems that the best thing that ever happened to Harper Lee as a writer was also the worst thing that ever happened to Harper Lee as a writer.

In 1956, Lee received a gift of a year’s wages from friends who told her to “write whatever you please.” Let’s take a moment now for intense jealousy. All done? OK, let’s see what happened next.

“Whatever Harper Lee pleased” turned out to be her first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960. It was a bestseller right out of the gate. Critics loved it. Readers loved it. It won a freaking Pulitzer Prize. To say that the book did well would be an ugly and thoughtless understatement.

Writers who would like to take the moral “Write whatever you please” from this story are welcome to take their things and go now. We’ll wait while you get up. However, you may wish to consider the many, many people who write whatever they please and fail to become bestselling Pulitzer Prize winners. I’m just sayin’.

Hoping for a quick and merciful death
On to the actual point of today’s column: Harper Lee’s greatest triumph seems to have absolutely crushed her spirit. Here’s what she said about the experience:

“I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I expected.”

Impostor syndrome
My guess is that it was more frightening. I’ve talked on this site about Impostor Syndrome, which is the experience of feeling as though you are getting rewards or recognition you don’t deserve, through some kind of fluke or fakery. One of the people I coach, for instance, is about to start her first year at Harvard after a fairly terrific high school academic career. Her grades were no accident, yet it’s hard for her to believe that people aren’t overestimating her. So it is, I suspect, with Harper Lee.

Because Harper Lee hasn’t offered any fiction for publication since To Kill a Mockingbird was published. She worked on a second novel, but wasn’t satisfied with what she was coming up with and, tragically and tellingly, burned it. While I don’t know Ms. Lee and could potentially be making unwarranted inferences, it appears that she suffers from a crippling fear of sucking.

Risking disgrace
After all, how would it feel if you wrote a novel that was praised to the South Pole and back, then wrote a second novel that was universally recognized as unreadable hackwork? In reality, I suspect a bad second novel would be quickly forgotten after the initial disappointment. It would have to be far, far worse than the usual offering to lastingly tarnish her reputation. And yet the fear of sucking seems to have deprived us of any and all other Harper Lee novels that might ever have been.

And unfortunately, fear of sucking is not restricted to Pulitzer Prize winners. Whether we have great successes in our past or no track record at all, it’s all too easy to look at something we’re writing and let the fear that it isn’t good enough crush us. We might stop writing, or fail to send it out, or fail to send it out a second time, or fail to send it out a fifteenth time. (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by the way, took 13 tries. Rowling then went on to write six more books in the series, several of which are arguably better than that first, wildly successful volume, making J.K. Rowling in a way the anti-Harper Lee–as long as she doesn’t consider the whole Harry Potter series her To Kill a Mockingbird.)

Sucking happens
I should be clear here: courage or no courage, our writing may at any given time suck. As good as practice can make us over time, there is never any absolute guarantee that our latest piece is any good, and there’s virtually no way any one person can judge the true value of a piece of writing, especially not the writer.

Yet there’s also good reason to believe that the latest thing you’ve been working on may well be the best thing you’ve ever written. Or if it isn’t, that finishing it and sending it out may grant you a precious insight that will take you to a whole new level of writing awesomeness. Courage can’t prevent us from sucking, but fear of sucking can prevent us from ever realizing our dreams.

A note: The discussion of Harper Lee in this piece is an extension of the big old section on overcoming writer’s block in my free eBook The Writing Engine: A Practical Guide to Writing Motivation.

This piece is reprinted from my column at Futurismic.

UPDATE, FEBRUARY 2015: I was happy to hear the news that another novel of Harper Lee’s will be published this year. It’s the novel she wrote before To Kill a Mockingbird, however, so unfortunately we still won’t get to see what she might have written to follow that work. The new book is, however, a sequel, written in response to requests for more about Scout’s childhood after an editor read the flashbacks in this new/old novel.

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On Writing and Failure

States of mind

A memoir of what went wrong
With mixed feelings, I’ve been reading Tom Grimes’ memoir Mentor, an account of his life as a writer, especially as concerns his time learning with Frank Conroy, who for some time directed the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I don’t know if you have heard of Grimes; I don’t think I had. He’s had some partly-successful novels, some reviewed well, some not so well–but Mentor, as he writes it, is an account of his failure as a writer.

His first book felt unimportant to him when it came out, but it got excellent reviews in some very important venues. However, as far as I can tell it didn’t make him much money or do much to combat his desperate struggle to prove his self-worth. (I’m not inferring what he thinks here; Grimes is extremely candid about his feelings in the book.)

His second book was finished with huge expectations of success, but from the beginning of its publishing journey yielded mixed signs and mixed reviews. In the end, it appears, it made back only 10% of its advance, which is certainly a financial failure, and also a sharp slap to the face for the writer.

His memoir seems to have gotten some good reviews, although judging by the Amazon ranking at the time I read this, it isn’t taking the world by storm.

Failure seems to be a huge and important subject for Grimes. Reading his memoir at this particular moment, as I’m about to launch into a new project that’s not like anything I’ve attempted before, may be a very good thing for me, because it’s good to face the failure bogeyman right at the beginning.

Is that you, Failure?
I should explain about the new book: for several years I’ve been researching the psychology of motivation and habit intensively. For about ten years, I’ve been writing prolifically and working to build a career as a writer. I had planned on being a professional writer since the third grade or earlier. But of course “writer” isn’t a position like “systems analyst” or “pastry chef,” where you can get a job, go in to do it each day, and feel more or less successful every time you bring home a paycheck. It’s more like being an entrepreneur, or a salesperson who works only on commission, or a painter: you put everything you can into each new project, and then innumerable people other than you–customers or end users or the general public–decide whether it will succeed or not. This would be easier to take, I think, if it were always clear that it was only this final audience that made the decision–that books always sell well when they’re well-written, or that a quality widget sells itself–but unfortunately there are also gatekeepers, timing issues, competing or distracting products, editors or agents or supervisors or clients getting sick or getting pregnant or moving on, good or bad marketing, and all the rest.

Why does a book fail?
If you write a book and it flops, how do you account for it? Did the book just suck? Or to speak more gently, perhaps the book didn’t have a large enough audience to succeed? Or maybe the publisher didn’t get the book out to reviewers as they were supposed to do (as happened to a friend of mine with an excellent trilogy of his that is still attracting new readers, despite rather than because of the original publisher)? Was it marketed to the wrong audience? (It could be argued that my book Talk the Talk: The Slang of 65 American Subcultures should have been marketed as a general interest book rather than only, as it was, to writers–but that was potentially my mistake and my agent’s in placing it with a publisher that specifically caters to writers.) Was it released at a bad time? Was it mislabeled or miscategorized? Did that awful cover doom it (though I was very pleased with my book cover)? And so on.

I don’t know about you, but I would love to have hard numbers on that. If I were to put out a book that only earned back half of its advance (this hasn’t happened to me; my first book earned modestly more than the advance–but hey, look at me being so quick to assure you that I’m not a failure.) I would want to know why, if it were possible, even if the answer was that the cover and the marketing strategy only accounted for 7% of the failure and the rest was squarely on my shoulders.

But here’s what I assume: I assume that a book most often succeeds or fails on how much the text itself makes people want to read it. There are exceptions: for instance, while I’m sure The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a fine book, it seems likely to me that its continuing success is fueled in part simply by the fact that it’s selling so well, as potential readers think “Well, it’s got to be good: millions and millions of people are reading it.” In a way, success builds success.

And obscurity builds obscurity. If no one knows about a book, the chance that they’ll stumble on it and pick it off a knee-height shelf at Barnes & Noble where a single copy is wedged in between books by two other obscure authors, or that they’ll dig it up and buy it from Amazon despite no one having rated it and it showing up at the bottom of the search results based on nonexistent sales, is poor. To some extent success for a book requires an inciting incident–or better, a dozen of them–meaning a review in a venue that a lot of people read, a news story, a mention in mass media, an event, piggybacking on the success of something else (especially the author’s other books), an ad in the right place (if ads really do help books), etc.

But now I’m just rambling about the publishing business, of which I know something but not nearly as much as a lot of other people who blog on the subject much more skillfully (Nathan Bransford comes to mind, for example). What I really want to talk about is the role of failure in a writer’s life as it affects self-motivation.

Failure: not as bad as death
No writing failure is complete if the author is not dead, in which case literary success takes a distant second in importance to being deceased as far as the author is concerned. The nature of a failed book is usually that hardly anyone has heard of it. This is merciful: as writers, it’s our successes that are well-known, while our failures tend to be of great interest mainly to ourselves and our publishers. Not so with movies, for instance. Will Bennifer ever live down Gigli? I’ve never seen the thing, don’t know what it’s about, and had to double check to be sure I got the “Bennifer” thing right, and yet here even I am making fun of it. Obscurity is nice sometimes, if you ask me.

So here I am entering on this book project, and it’s higher-stakes for me than previous ones. First, it carries the weight of years of investigation into the human mind, and if the book doesn’t fly, there’s a temptation to imagine that effort to have been a waste (though it’s already repaid me several times over, truth be told).

Second, it carries the weight of a decade of very serious writing efforts and a couple of decades more of on-and-off writing before that. If I can’t write a successful novel after all this practice, study, hard work, and even networking, what the hell is wrong with me?

Third, the new novel will be a mainstream novel, not a science fiction or fantasy novel. In fantasy and science fiction, it seems to me, we don’t take ourselves with the deadly seriousness I often associate with mainstream (let alone “literary”) writers. The F&SF community is comfortable and friendly and already understands that one failed novel does not determine a career. If I were to get a $5,000 advance and just barely earn out with a fantasy or science fiction novel, it would more or less be a success. This is not my feeling about a mainstream novel. I’m bidding for a wider audience, and it’s a churning metropolis of authors rather than a friendly neighborhood.

Embracing the whatever
And yet … this book can fail. That’s OK. I can put a year into writing it and two years into seeing it sold and published, assuming it even gets that far, and end up back where I started or worse, and that’s still OK. Believe me, I won’t be pleased if I get that outcome, but it’s possible whether I like it or not, so I intend to accept this from the outset, and that gives me strength. Not fearing what will happen, I don’t have to cling to ideas about the novel that seem essential for its success (but which, as I don’t really know for sure what will make for a success or not any more than anyone else does, could be its doom). I don’t have to take myself too seriously. I can screw around in the book, please myself, and hope readers will come along.

Fearing failure, I might handle things differently–hold off submitting the book when it’s ready, clamp down on my natural voice out of anxiety that I’ll sound stupid, fail to engage with the book because I don’t want to engage with the fear I would have created around it, and so on. Fear creates resistance: that’s its job. Fear of a predator in a jungle could make us run like hell or fight desperately. With writing, we don’t want to be running from or struggling with: we want to be diving into. It’s hard to execute a good dive into something that scares you, or when you’re scared of what will happen when you come back up.

So failure: yes, possible. Maybe every book you (if you’re a writer) or I will ever write will flop miserably–never getting a read from an editor or agent or never selling to a publisher or never getting read even though it’s been published. Maybe I’ll write the best novel in the history of the universe and it will come out in the wrong form at the wrong time and be completely ignored due to an unexpected invasion of the United States by Canada. We could say the same of everything else: every romance has a chance of dying, every child has a chance of being hit by an ice cream truck, every job has a chance of disappearing, every friend has a chance of turning on you. It doesn’t matter. I mean it actually doesn’t matter at this stage. This is the stage where we create and throw things out. When it comes back, maybe it will matter enough to be worth learning from, and maybe not. Sooner or later, if it fails, it will be worth moving on from.

Or maybe this time around it won’t be failure: it will be wild success. Maybe every major thing you try to do from this moment on will succeed beyond your wildest dreams. Who can know for sure? For now, I think I’ll ponder that.

Photo by blmiers2

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Anger: Keeping Your Cool with Preparation and Self-Awareness

Handling negative emotions

This is the second article in a series on anger. The first article was Monday’s “Anger: Does Venting Help or Just Make It Worse?

One of the tricky things about dealing with anger is that our immediate mental response system for dealing with threats–run by a primitive part of the brain called the amygdala–doesn’t wait for us to understand what’s going on. This is pretty reasonable: if you’re a primitive human being and you’re being attacked by a Smilodon, you don’t want to be thinking about whether to react or not: you want to be immediately jabbing with your spear or running away (fight or flight). This is why people can be startled even by things that they know intellectually aren’t dangerous, like a loud noise in a carnival haunted house.

But Smilodons are extinct these days, and while the fast-track fight or flight response is still useful sometimes, as when we jump out of the way of a falling object, at other times anger and fear responses are very bad news. For instance, if someone is scared or upset and says something ill-considered to us, we may have a hard time not immediately responding in kind and turning a offhand comment into an argument.

Yet we do have the power to override our amygdala-driven gut reactions, and two of our best weapons in this fight are preparation and self-awareness.

Preparation in this case means putting ourselves in a mood to defuse instead of magnify negative feelings. One of the best ways to do this, notes Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence, is to look at people toward whom you may be feeling angry “with a more charitable line of thought,” which “tempers anger with mercy, or at least an open mind, short-circuiting the buildup of rage.” In other words, thinking about what circumstances may be driving people to do things we don’t like rather than focusing on our mental condemnation of those people for doing those things creates an opportunity for compassion and keeping our cool.

As for self-awareness, this is an approach I’ve praised in other articles, such as “Mindfulness and Deer Flies.” Being aware of our own emotions gives us the opportunity to do something about a situation using our thoughts, for instance by noticing and repairing broken ideas. Lack of self-awareness–that is, acting without considering why we’re acting or what we’re feeling–closes off that option to us completely. When we’re not aware of our own emotions, we are mostly slaves to our own emotional habits.

This series will continue in the next week or two with more information about and strategies for dealing with anger.

Photo by euthman

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What Are Your Mental Schemas? A Quiz, Part 2

Handling negative emotions

Here’s part 2 of the quiz on mental schemas. See Part 1 for more information about what this quiz might be able to tell you and why mental schemas are worth understanding.

When you were young, did your family seem not to fit in with the other families? At school, did you feel as though you weren’t part of what was going on?
In social circumstances, do you feel as though you have little to do with the other people around you?
At times when you’re unhappy, do loneliness and a feeling of separation have a major role?
If so, it can be worth reading about the Alienation Schema.

Do you often feel like you’re not good enough for the situations or roles you want in life?
Are you acutely aware of making major mistakes on a regular basis?
If someone tells you that you suck, do you tend to believe them, at least a little?
These feelings can be indications of an Incompetence Schema.

Do you regularly find yourself worrying about terrible things happening to you, or to your friends or family?
If something goes mildly wrong, do you begin to imagine how that might be the start of a disaster?
Do you have trouble putting aside worries over situations you can’t change?
A Vulnerability Schema can cause these kinds of issues.

If you were going to consider a major life change, is there someone else whose opinion on the matter would feel more important than your own?
Apart from your children, if any, is there a relationship in your life without which you feel like one or both of you couldn’t survive?
Do you ever feel smothered in one or more of your relationships?
If these questions hit home, you might well want to learn about Enmeshment Schemas.

When you were young, were you often told that you were doing everything wrong?
Do you regularly feel that no matter how hard you try, you have no chance of being a great success at anything?
Think about something you’ve done well in the past. Do you tend to regard that success as a fluke rather than as evidence of your abilities?
If you answered yes to some or all of this set of questions, you may be facing a Failure Schema.

The quiz continues next time with the final fifteen or so questions.

Photo by kk+.

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Two Top Tools for Reducing Stress

Handling negative emotions

 

The ridiculously cheery song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” offers advice that may be a little hard to follow sometimes. Sometimes we’re not prepared to let go of fears and anxieties, feeling that we need them–occasionally, we may even be right. But even when we’re ready to stop worrying and be happy, letting go of stress is easier said than done.

To help reduce stress, there are many useful approaches described on this site, including meditation, mindfulness, emotional antidotes, a brief walk in a natural setting, and more. However, there are two especially effective, immediate approaches that have both been shown to greatly reduce stress, although both take some effort.

One is social time: if you’re spending most of your time alone (or perhaps with people it’s hard to be with), spending a lot more time with people you like can help enormously: see “Want to Reduce Stress? Increase Social Time.” E-mailing, time on the phone, and even time working with others in the course of your job can “count” toward your total. People who get in at least six hours of some kind of social time per day report being happy and relatively free of stress. See the article for more details.

The other option is idea repair: noticing and fixing thoughts of yours that encourage you to feel anxiety or frustration over time. By learning to recognize and remake these thoughts, you can make immediate, dramatic changes in your stress level. The thoughts are likely to come back again soon, but then you just repair them again, and over time they stop coming back as much until they go away completely. I recently posted an article covering the most useful idea repair articles on this site, which may be a good place to start if you’d like to take this approach.

Of course, you could work on both social time and idea repair, but people tend to be much more successful when they focus on just one thing at a time. Trying to add too much to your obligations at once can be a little overwhelming, and the last thing most of us need is something else to stress about.

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How to Become More Focused and Enthusiastic, Part V: Scared of Trying

Strategies and goals

This is the fifth in a series of articles that strive to answer the question “How can I get myself to work harder toward a goal?” Today’s article tackles the problem of being worried about what will happen to you if you try.

In part III of this series, I talked about emotional conflicts–about both wanting to do something and not wanting to do it. Being worried about trying is a special kind of emotional conflict, and a common one. I realized the other day that I’ve been running into this problem myself. Lately I’ve been sending out magazine article queries (that is, proposing to write articles for various magazines), and in some cases getting assignments (success!). However, I haven’t been sending out nearly as many queries as I’ve been wanting to, and when yesterday I sat down to send out another, I also did some thinking about why my progress has been so slow so far. As silly as it is, it became clear that I’m just worried about rejection.

I say “silly” because for writers, rejection isn’t so much something to worry about as a near-unavoidable fact of life. For any given query, the editor who reads it could just not like the idea, could have bought something just like it, could decide that they don’t want to work with a writer new to them just now, or could reject the story for any number of other rational or irrational reasons. Whatever reaction the editor has, it’s out of my control: all I can do is send out the best queries I can manage.

But I haven’t done as much querying on articles as I have of submitting short stories and even work on book proposals and submissions. It’s more familiar and comfortable for me to pitch a novel, propose a non-fiction book, or send a short story to a good market than it is to query about a magazine article, just because I’ve done those other things more. And without even noticing it, I was letting my fear of not doing well slow me down.

Like most fears, the best way to get past this one is to both acknowledge it and ignore it. Yes, I’m likely to receive some rejections (or non-responses, which is how some magazines do things instead of sending rejection letters). But I’m also likely to continue to sell some articles, and so rejection ultimately doesn’t mean anything: what matters are attempts and successes. Any query I don’t send is one that has failed out of the gate. If I send it and it gets rejected, at least I’ll have some information with the failure–and if it gets accepted, I have both some information and an article sale.

It’s the same for anything. Yes, failure is always possible, and trouble can always arise: finally getting around to sorting out an old pile of mail might reveal an unexpected overdue bill (or unexpected uncashed check! Though I admit those are rarer). Asking someone out may lead to failure or even embarrassment. But since not attempting at all is a guaranteed failure, trying–while sometimes painful or scary–is almost always an improvement.

Photo by CRASH:candy

The previous installments in this series are:

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Fighting Anxiety with Hopelessness

Handling negative emotions

Pema Chödrön

Buddhism is a rich source of insights about emotions and emotional states. While I don’t know that we can fairly call the centuries-old Buddhist tradition of investigation into the human mind a strictly scientific approach, it really is a rigorous tradition that builds its conclusions on direct experience. So I offer today’s post, based in Buddhist teachings, as food for thought.

American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, in her book When Things Fall Apart, offers an unusual route to living a happy life: embracing hopelessness. My initial reaction to this idea was extreme doubt, but hearing her point of view, I began to see the value of the idea.

To get a sense of what she means, let me give the example of my fear that everything will go to hell in a handbasket. Being interested in how things fit together–societies, supply networks, and so on–I often think about how easily something I’m used to having could be cut off. For instance, this past winter during a storm, we lost power at my house. This should not have been a big problem, especially since we have gas heat. Except that I found out that the gas heat system is dependent on electricity to run, so we had no heat or power. And the water is dependent on an electric pump, so we had no heat, power, or water. And our phone is through a VOIP service, so since we had no Internet due to having no power, we also had no phone. And of course with the refrigerator not working, I was concerned about most of our food going bad.

The power came back on after not too many hours, and my son and I had other places we could go if the outage went too long–and since it was winter, at worst I could put our perishable food outside. Still, it’s a little sobering to realize that one break in a cable can mean losing Internet, power, phone, heat, water, light, food, and more. And for years I’ve been a little bit concerned. What would happen if there were a really bad economic situation, or a plague, or a war, or something else that interrupted some of the ways that food, power, water, and other necessities get to us? How would I keep myself and the people who are important to me safe, sheltered, and fed?

Hopelessness doesn’t solve this concern, but interestingly, practicing it made things better. You can’t make anything completely safe, hopelessness says. Stop hoping that you can prevent every bad thing from happening if you just scramble hard enough. Bad things will eventually happen. Eventually, too, we’ll all die.

If you’re not feeling happier yet, I don’t blame you–but when we think about it, giving up the idea that everything will ever be perfect or absolutely safe allows us to let go of a lot of unneeded anxiety. “Giving up hope is encouragement to stick with yourself,” says  Chödrön, “to make friends with yourself, to not run away from yourself, to return to the bare bones, no matter what’s going on … if we totally experience hopelessness, giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives, an honest, direct relationship, one that no longer ignores the reality of impermanence and death.”

Stress and anxiety are a result of struggling with fears and things we want to avoid. If we don’t struggle, if we accept that bad things will sometimes happen, then the stress and anxiety lessen or disappear, because all we have to deal with is the moment right in front of us, and the moment in front of us usually isn’t so bad. Think of your situation right now, for instance. You probably have things you need to do, things you’re worried about, things you can think of that might cause trouble. But if you focus on how things are with you, right in at this moment, you may find it surprisingly easy to feel that everything’s fine. You are probably not in any great amount of pain. You’re alive. You have the ability to think about things that make you happy. Things could be worse.

There’s a limit to all this, though, at least if you ask me. I see value–real, lasting value–in moving toward our goals, in making progress, in striving for things. Hopelessness is absolutely not about striving: it’s about letting go. There is even value in negative emotions: see my article The Benefits of Feeling Bad. But striving for things is living in the future, and by my reckoning, there are times to live in the future, times to live in the past, and times to live in the present. When we need to come back to center, to marshall ourselves, to let go of things long enough to get our bearings again, then hopelessness and living just in the present moment can be just what we need.

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Why Lousy Is a Great Place to Start

Handling negative emotions

I’m reading a book called Start Where You Are by Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun, about meditation, coming to terms with suffering (our own and others’), and connecting to the world in a compassionate way. Much of the book is about meditative and partly spiritual practices that I won’t go into here, but there’s one particular section where she says something very striking that applies equally well to any process of self-improvement:

Start where you are. This is very important. [Meditation practice] is not about later, when you get it all together and you’re this person you really respect. You may be the most violent person in the world–that’s a fine place to start. That’s a very rich place to start–juicy, smelly. You might be the most depressed person in the world, the most addicted person in the world, the most jealous person in the world. You might think that there are no others on the planet who hate themselves as much as you do. All of that is a good place to start. Just where you are—that’s the place to start.

And later, she continues:

Suppose you are involved in a horrific relationship: every time you think of a particular person you get furious. That is very useful for tonglen [the practice the book describes]! Or perhaps you feel depressed. It was all you could do to get out of bed today. You’re so depressed that you want to stay in bed for the rest of your life; you have considered hiding under your bed. That is very useful for tonglen practice. The specific fixation should be real, just like that.

She goes on to describe how to harness these emotions in meditation, but the point I’d like to make is that they’re essential to any process of improving your life through changing the way you think. There are a few reasons for this. First, feelings like this that go unacknowledged tend to continue to torment us, because if we don’t take them in and really pay attention to how we’re experiencing them, we only have our habitual ways of responding to them, which won’t change anything (by definition, because habits are what we automatically do already). Second, if I’m going to improve my life, why should I wait for a time when I feel better? If I’m feeling bad now, then now is when improvement would be the most welcome, and there’s nothing preventing me from improving more when I feel better some other time too. And third, as Chödrön points out, strong negative emotions have a lot of juice. Someone who doesn’t feel excited (in a good or a bad way) about anything much at the moment doesn’t have a strong emotional incentive to change their lives. Someone who’s feeling something strong, whether it’s delight or love or anger or despair, has an immediate emotional reason to change things for the better.

Chödrön has specific recommendations for using negative emotions in meditation practice, and for anyone interested in Buddhist meditation, I strongly suggest the book for that purpose. For our intentions here, though, there are also specific ways we can harness negative emotions. In tomorrow’s post, I’ll talk about how to use pain and trouble to repair broken ideas.

Photo by Pensiero

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