As I think many people do, I can get into a mindset of constantly forcing myself to work, and never giving myself a moment of “free time.” If I carefully look at the reason I’m doing that, it’s usually because I’m afraid that, if I stopped working for a moment, I’d somehow never be able to start again. Instead, I would revert to my “true nature” of being lazy, and my lollygagging would continue until the end of my days.
Often, if I honestly ask myself why I’m compulsively working, I also notice that I’m worried about other people’s opinions. After all, I don’t want to be seen as shiftless, selfish or apathetic, and in our culture it often seems like constant activity is valued for its own sake.
But Aren’t We Supposed To Just “Shut Up And Do It”?
The ability to force myself to work even when I don’t feel like it, on the surface, may look like a good thing. I mean, isn’t that what all the “productivity” advice out there tells us — just shut off the internet, grit your teeth and slog your way through what you’re trying to accomplish? Isn’t life all about constantly battling our laziness?
Unfortunately, when I buy into this mentality of pushing myself to work, I usually don’t end up producing much that’s worthwhile. Instead, I normally find myself churning out mediocre work that I probably won’t end up using, or constantly bouncing around between ideas, unsatisfied with everything I come up with.
Listening To Our Laziness
What I’ve found is that I can restore my focus and energy by simply admitting to myself that I don’t feel like working, if that’s the truth in the moment. At times, the truth is even “uglier” than that — sometimes, I can’t even bring myself to care about the work I’m doing or the people I plan to serve with it. If that’s the case, I simply admit it too.
When I acknowledge what’s true for me right now in my relationship with my work, it’s as if muscles I didn’t know I had suddenly relax. Often, the sense of relief I experience is so palpable that I start laughing. And then, a moment later, my vitality and sense of purpose come back, and pretty soon I’m able to get back to work again without so much struggle and frustration.
Why does this happen? My sense is that we diminish our vitality whenever we reject what we’re actually thinking and feeling. If some part of me feels frustrated and unmotivated, and I basically try to beat that part into submission or pretend it doesn’t exist, the war I’m fighting against myself drains my energy. It’s much easier if I make peace with the part that doesn’t want to work right now, and let it know I’m willing to hear it out.
So if you ever hear me say “I hate writing” or something along those lines, rest assured, it’s just because I’m motivating myself.
I’m pleased to announce that I’ve contributed an article to the latest Productive Magazine, “What Yoga Can Teach Us About Productivity.” As you can probably tell from the title, this is a different take on getting work done than what we usually see in the popular literature, and I’m grateful to the magazine staff for their willingness to “explore strange new worlds” with me as far as this type of material is concerned.
By the way, you can read previous articles of mine in Productive Magazine here:
* “3 Keys to Developing Inner Productivity,” Productive Magazine Issue #9
* “How Getting Used to Silence Can Help Your Productivity,” Productive Magazine Issue #8
* “Three Ways Your Breathing Can Help Your Productivity,” Productive Magazine Issue #7
It’s funny how scary it can be to relax.
When I was a kid, I came to believe that, when I relaxed the muscles in my jaw and behind my eyes, my face took on a doe-eyed, “begging” look. This, I thought, made me appear weak, and an easy target for bullying.
So, I took up the habit of tensing the muscles in my face when I was around other children. I thought having a tightened-up face would help me look tougher, and discourage my peers from putting me down. I carried this habit into adulthood.
Unfortunately, I Got My Wish
I think this strategy worked to some degree. When I walked around with clenched facial muscles, people usually avoided me, and nobody messed with me. I probably did look kind of intimidating.
But this approach, while it protected me, also tended to keep me alone. By making me look a bit scary, it drove away people I could otherwise have gotten to know.
So, over the past few years, it’s been my practice to keep my attention on my face when I’m around people, and relax the muscles when I notice them getting tight.
The Relaxation Ripple Effect
At first, this was scarier than I expected it to be. I felt pretty vulnerable walking around with what I saw as my “Bambi eyes” or “Japanese cartoon eyes” on display. Would people mock me, refuse to take me seriously, or something along those lines?
As it turned out, that’s not what happened at all. When I started relaxing my jaw, the world actually started to seem more relaxed as well. Even people I didn’t know started saying hello and smiling at me from time to time, which hadn’t happened before. I wasn’t showing up as weak — I was actually coming across as more open and genuine.
It’s kind of like the experience I had when I first started meditating. Everybody around me suddenly seemed so calm, and I found myself asking “did everyone else take up meditation too?”
Seeing For Yourself
It’s become almost clichéd to talk about how we’re all one at a deeper level, everything we do affects everybody else, and so on. But experiences like mine, I think, show that this isn’t woo-woo mysticism — it’s a down-to-earth fact that you can confirm for yourself at any time. In a very real sense, when I relax, we relax. By the same token, when I freak out, we freak out.
If you want to experience what I’m talking about, try this. Next time you’re around people, put your attention on your body, and notice any area where you’re tensing up — whether it’s your jaw, shoulders, stomach, or somewhere else. Then, see if you can let go of the tightness in that spot.
Once you’ve done this, take a look around. Do the people around you seem any different? Are they acting differently toward you? I think, if you look closely enough, you’ll notice that their bodies seem looser and more comfortable.
It may be subtle at first, but I suspect it will become clear that, when you relax, the world relaxes with you.
Recent Guest Posts
I didn’t announce these posts here earlier, because they are meant as introductions to my work, and I know this blog is only read by my advanced, graduate-level students. :) But seriously, I thought I’d mention them here in the hope that my regular readers might get some value out of them. I hope you are among those value-getting readers!
Upcoming Talk and Workshop at EastWest Bookstore
Also, I wanted to mention that I and yoga instructor Rosy Moon will be offering an interactive talk on July 1, and a full-day workshop on July 2, at EastWest Bookstore in Mountain View, California. If you’re in the Bay Area and you’re interested in finding more focus, peace and motivation in your work, this is definitely the place to be. Looking forward to meeting you in person if I haven’t done so yet.
Here’s something that doesn’t make much logical sense.
I imagine that, at some point in your life, you worked on a task that felt really “make or break” to you. Maybe it was a project for an important client at work, or perhaps you were a student and preparing to take a test worth a big share of your grade. Whatever it was, your whole career seemed to depend on your success at it, and “failure was not an option.”
When Starting Is Not An Option
Have you ever noticed that these “make or break” projects are actually the ones you have the most trouble starting? That, the more that seems to be “riding” on the outcome, the harder it is to make progress?
From a rational perspective, this is hard to understand. You’d think we’d dive headfirst into a task we see as “mission critical.” Isn’t that what all the motivational bestsellers tell us — that we need to “chase success as if our lives depend on it”?
But when we look at this issue from an emotional perspective, it starts to make sense. After all, if I really believe that making a mistake in my project could “break” me or my career, that probably means I’m basing my sense of self-worth on how well I perform.
If my self-worth depends on how my work is received, of course I’m not going to start my project. This is because, if I finish my task and present it to the world, I’ll run the risk that people will see what I’ve done as inadequate, and then I’ll have to feel inadequate.
I think this is one reason so many people seem to have a book they’ve been “meaning” to write, or a business they’ve been “planning” to start, for the last ten years. They’re worried that, if they come out with a final product and others don’t appreciate it, they’ll stop appreciating themselves.
Being Okay With Our Non-Okayness
Now, it would be easy for me to say that “the solution is to be okay with yourself no matter what.” But as I think you know, that’s not so easy in practice. Building up our basic sense of “okayness,” in my experience, takes work, and there’s no “30-day miracle cure.”
One practice I’ve found simple and effective, though, is to watch carefully for moments when you’re basing your sense of self-worth on the results you get in your work. When you notice yourself thinking this way, just acknowledge what’s going on, without trying to change it. Simply admit to yourself: “I’m worrying that, if people don’t approve of my work, I won’t approve of myself.”
When I do this, I often feel the sense of heaviness in my body dropping away, and find myself chuckling out loud. When I look directly at the painful story I’m telling myself, rather than trying to push it aside or pretend it isn’t there, the light of my awareness tends to burn it away, like the sun burning off the clouds.
On a practical level, when I let go of the sense that a project can “make or break me,” and see it more as a chance to play and experiment, I find concentrating and finishing my work so much easier.
I usually don’t feel drawn to doing “list posts.” Some of this is because of my unease about doing something “everyone else” seems to be doing.
So, as a personal growth exercise, I’m going to jump right in and do a list post! I also think this is a pretty cool and valuable list of questions for building awareness about how we limit ourselves with our ways of thinking and being.
Without further ado, here are some questions I’ve gained a lot from asking myself. Some of them may be uncomfortable to think about, but I think that kind of discomfort is usually a sign of growth:
1. What quality in other people irritates you most? (For example, is it ambition, shyness, laziness, or something else?) How do you have this quality in the way you live your own life?
2. What quality in other people do you envy the most? How do you already have this quality in the way you live your own life?
3. What emotion do you least want to feel? Is it fear, anger, sadness, or something else? What do you do in your life to avoid feeling it?
4. What do you most want people to think about you? What do you do in your life to make sure others think that? What is that costing you?
5. What do you least want people to think about you? What do you do in your life to make sure others don’t think that? What is that costing you?
6. What have you done that you least want people to know about? What do you do in your life to make sure no one finds out about what you did?
7. What have you done that you most want people to know about? How do you go out of your way to make sure people know you did it?
8. If you knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the only reason you’re alive is to enjoy every moment, would you change the way you live? How?
9. If you knew that, no matter what you did or didn’t do, you would love and respect yourself, how would you live your life?
10. What would you create if you knew no one would ever see it? In other words, if you were 100% certain that your work would never make you famous or rich, and the only thing you’d ever get out of it was personal satisfaction, what would you choose to do?
11. Here’s another interesting way to put Question # 10: How would you live if you knew that no one would ever approve of you? If you knew that nobody would ever be happy with the way you live, and that you might as well do whatever fulfills you, what would you do?
12. How are you trying to please your parents with the way you live? What is that costing you?
13. If you knew that you were 100% forgiven for everything you think you’ve done wrong, how would that change the way you live?
14. If you cried in front of a stranger, how would they react? (Take the first answer that comes to mind.)
15. If you got angry at a stranger, how would they react? (Same rule as Question # 14.)
16. In what situations do you try to look happy when you really aren’t?
17. In what situations do you hold back from speaking the truth to avoid hurting someone’s feelings?
18. If you’re a man, how do you think a man is supposed to act? How do you make an effort to act that way?
19. If you’re a woman, how do you think a woman is supposed to act? How do you make an effort to act that way?
20. How is the “public you” different from the “private you”?
Whew! And we’re done. It was an intense experience for me writing and thinking about those questions — I’m curious what it was like for you to read them. You don’t have to share your answers to the specific questions, but if you want to that’s great too. Thanks!
In other news: I did an interview with Evita Ochel of EvolvingBeings.com on meditation, how to do it and the benefits it can bring. I hope you enjoy it.
I haven’t been on the internet much lately, because I’ve been deeply engaged in a new project. I’ve been creating a computer game with a friend. It’s built around an adventure story, as many games are, but the main focus is my ideas about what the spirituality of prehistoric people was like.
Being a reflective sort of guy, as I’ve worked on this, I’ve been asking myself from time to time “why am I doing this?” Two reasons have come to mind. One is that I think this game could really stimulate the personal growth of people playing it. The other is that I want to be recognized, and for people to think I am cool.
Are My Wounds Behind The Wheel?
The second reason has troubled me a bit. If I’m doing this because I want people to think I’m cool, doesn’t that mean my ego is driving the project? Doesn’t that mean my wounded child part — the part that feels abandoned and needs approval — is really behind what I’m doing? And if so, is it healthy for me to keep moving forward?
I hang out with lots of folks who are “on a spiritual path,” or interested in self-development, and many of them are dealing with the same dilemma. They worry that, if they work on a project they feel called to do, they’ll be feeding the “selfish” part of themselves, instead of doing the seva, or selfless service, they think they should do.
After a lot of thinking about this issue, I’ve come to the conclusion that an “ego-free project” is a pipe dream. No matter what I do, I’ll probably be motivated, to some degree, by a desire for approval — and, I’ll also be driven by a genuine wish to serve. In other words, there will always be a mix of “healthy” and “unhealthy” motives behind everything I do.
Real Self-Love Loves The Ego
Although I can’t totally get rid of these “unhealthy” motives, and the ways I operate from a sense of lack instead of abundance, I can choose how I relate to those motives. I can choose to acknowledge and accept them, rather than pretending they aren’t there or beating myself up because they exist.
When I can admit, without self-blame, that “part of me is wanting attention,” a weight lifts from my shoulders, and my body feels lighter. In those moments, I’m practicing real self-love, as opposed to just loving the parts of me that I label as pure and righteous.
On the other hand, pushing those “unhealthy” parts away, in my experience, just creates more unhealthiness. When I pretend I don’t have a “selfish” part, I end up projecting my selfishness onto others — judging them as self-centered, and casting myself as superior. That’s an unpleasant experience for everybody.
I often notice the same dynamic when I’m with people whose spirituality is all about “selflessness” — when they talk about the volunteer work they do, with no expectation of reward or approval, I usually notice an undertone of aggression that sounds to me like “and how much service do you do?”
I’ve harped on this theme lately, but I think it’s important — that personal growth in its highest form is about getting comfortable and familiar with all parts of ourselves, including those we tend to label as bad, inappropriate, embarrassing, and so on. The more “okay” we get with those parts, I think, the more peace and focus we can find in all areas of our lives.
I do something kind of unusual when I’m writing. (I know, shockingly enough.) I keep a journal of what I’m feeling and thinking when I’m faced with writer’s block.
To an outside reader, this journal would probably seem painfully repetitive, because it talks about the same worries again and again. Some common themes are:
* “I think I had the last decent idea of my life a few days ago, and the well has officially run dry.”
* “I’m not sure I have the brain cells left to do this kind of piece anymore.”
* “I’m never going to finish this article — I might as well delete it.”
Why would I want to keep an angst-filled journal like this? Because I’m a masochist?
I’ve Been Through It All Before
Actually, this has been one of the most helpful techniques I’ve discovered in a while for staying focused and motivated as I write. The fact that the journal sounds like such a broken record is really what makes it so helpful.
Why? Because the goal of this journal is to remind me that, no matter how much hand-wringing I may be doing as I’m writing something, I’ve been through it before. There’s no moment of blankness, doubt about the originality of what I’m saying, or concern that I’ve “lost my mojo” that I haven’t experienced in the past.
And yet, even in the face of those doubts and fears, I’ve managed to finish my piece.
On one level, this is simply a reminder that I have the strength to handle whatever writing-induced suffering I’m going through. But at a deeper level, it’s a way to keep in mind that, just like every experience we have as human beings, that creative blankness we call writer’s block is fleeting. It passes away quickly.
From Black Hole to Break Time
My sense, from looking inside myself and talking to people, is that a lot of the suffering we do around writer’s block happens when we worry that it will never go away. That sense that we’re empty of ideas can actually be kind of scary — almost as if the emptiness might grow and swallow us up if we let it.
Naturally, many of us tend to write in fits and starts, running off to fold our socks or play Solitaire when the emptiness arises. Unfortunately, when we write this way, we usually don’t make as much progress as we’d like.
But when we keep in mind that the emptiness is fleeting, those blank moments become so much easier to be with. Instead of looking like a black hole threatening to devour us, that blankness starts to seem more like a welcome moment of rest before we unleash our creative energies again — just as our bodies naturally cycle between waking and sleeping.
I think “this too shall pass” is a great mantra for moments when we’re feeling creatively empty, just as it is in other parts of life.
Once upon a time, my goal was to lead a life that was completely criticism-proof. Once I had the “right” job, credentials, relationship, and so on, no one would ever accuse me of falling short in any area. I’d get nothing but respect from everyone I worked with and knew.
Of course, this plan didn’t quite pan out. As wonderful as my job and education may have looked to the world, and as hard as I worked, there would always be someone who’d come up with ways to find fault with me — whether it was a client, boss, intimate partner, or someone else.
“Spiritual Bulletproofing” Didn’t Work Either
So I tried another approach. I decided that, instead of trying to create a life no one would ever criticize, I’d make myself immune to criticism. I’d find some spiritual practice, or personal development tool, that would help me grow a skin so thick that nothing would ever get through.
Unfortunately, this didn’t work either. As it turned out, no amount of meditation, going to men’s groups, forcing myself to do scary stuff, or anything else completely took the sting out of people’s jabs. It became clear that, probably, I was never going to feel completely okay with getting ridiculed, condescended to, and so on.
This seemed like a depressing discovery at first. But eventually, it led to a valuable realization: If there will always be people who criticize me, and I’ll never be 100% “zen” about it, I might as well just do whatever I want with my life. How liberating it felt to give up my painful quest to build a “bulletproof life,” or numb myself to the pain of people’s putdowns, and just live the way I wanted.
It’s Okay To Get Hurt
This points to an area where a lot of personal development ideas, in my opinion, go astray.
On one hand, so many tips and tricks out there are meant to help us avoid criticism — ways to ask questions in a job interview to make sure we don’t get rejected, things to say when talking to the opposite sex to make sure we don’t get “shot down,” how to deliver a presentation that won’t bore anyone, and so on.
On the other hand, on the more “spiritual” side of personal growth, we see many practices intended to get rid of the “ego” — the part of us that gets attached to our status, relationships, possessions, and so on. Once the ego is cut down to size, the thinking goes, we won’t get offended or hurt so easily, and we’ll feel blissful even as our significant other is yelling at us.
Unfortunately, I think, neither of these approaches can get us what it promises. There will always be people out there who can hurt us with things they say. Getting hurt in that way, and in other ways, is just part of the human experience.
I’ve come to believe that self-growth, in its highest form, is about accepting that we’re nothing more, and nothing less, than human. No matter how developed or enlightened we become, we’ll never be fully rid of our neuroses, hangups, and sensitivities.
The big paradox here is that, the more I accept that getting criticized and hurt once in a while is just part of life, the less I’m bothered by things people say, and the freer I feel to forge my own path. Living is much simpler and easier when I can embrace my humanity, in all its perfect imperfection.
I’ve published a post over at The Change Blog, “Why Craving ‘Results’ Gets Us No Results,” about how the fear of “not getting results” in our work can limit how much we accomplish, and how we can let go of that fear. I hope you enjoy it, and I’m looking forward to your feedback!