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.
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 used to be in search of a book, workshop or practice that would, in a matter of hours or days, change me forever. I’d stop doubting myself, my relationships would always go smoothly, I’d become courageous enough to always say how I felt, and so on.
I had this goal in mind, consciously or not, with every self-help book I bought, workshop I attended, and spiritual practice I tried. “This is going to be the one,” I’d say to myself. “This teacher will transform my life and end my suffering, once and for all.”
As my self-development journey wore on, it began to become clear that this wasn’t going to happen. I wasn’t going to have some sudden breakthrough that would blast all my neuroses and shortcomings to ashes with white-hot divine light.
Being Okay With Being A Mess
My first reaction, when I realized this, was to blame the personal growth teachers I’d been learning from. “They promised me all this wonderful transformation, but I’m still the same old mess,” I griped. “They must all be frauds.”
But after spending some more time working on my growth, I began noticing something remarkable: I was becoming more okay with “being a mess.” My insecurities, the weird ways my body tensed up in certain situations, and so on started to seem less shameful and more acceptable.
Gradually, what I discovered was that having fears, neuroses, and other “flaws” is actually a built-in part of being human. I recognized that most of my suffering actually came from expecting myself to be more than human — to be a perfect, godlike being, free of limitations. No seminar, book or practice, I came to understand, could turn me into that.
Acceptance Creates Transformation
And here’s the real kicker: the more I began accepting my hangups, the more they started falling away. The more “okay” I became with my humanity, and all its quirks, the less I suffered. Tight spots in my body that I thought would stay clenched forever finally began to relax.
One of the practices I found most valuable was to sit across from someone and just admit, as honestly as I could, what I felt as I sat with them — whether it was a fear that they were bored with me, a concern that they might not find me attractive, an irritation with them, or some other “compromising” fact about my experience.
Simply revealing, to another person, all the thoughts and feelings I was once too ashamed to discuss has been deeply healing. There’s nothing like the experience of showing up as the imperfect human being I am, without being criticized or shunned, and sometimes even being loved.
After being on this path for a while, I’ve come to believe that self-development, at its best, is about learning to embrace being human, with all the gifts, and limitations, that come with being part of our species. It’s great to strive for “neverending improvement” and all, but working to change ourselves can bring great suffering if we do it from a place of disliking who we are right now.
Interestingly enough, I think, when we become able to honestly say “if nothing about me ever changed or improved, that would be okay,” that’s when real transformation takes root. But at that point, transformation is really the icing on the cake — the greatest gift is being able to accept who we are, right now.
In the past, when someone said something to me that I found insulting or disrespectful, I tried to avoid reacting angrily. I told myself I was probably just being thin-skinned, and that the other person probably didn’t intend to hurt me.
Besides, I said to myself in “spiritual” jargon, the anger I feel comes from my ego — my identification with my body, my accomplishments, my possessions, and so on. In reality, I am all that is, I am consciousness itself, I am Atman. How could pure spirit take offense at anything? By letting myself get upset, I dishonor my true nature.
On one level, I think some of this “spiritual talk” is valid. There have been moments when, in meditation, I’ve ceased identifying with the body and history that people arbitrarily label “Chris,” and experienced myself as limitless consciousness.
And yet, I can’t deny that, from time to time, I get pissed off. I feel a tension in my shoulders and a dull heat in my lower back. In moments like these, I can remind myself of my spiritual nature until the proverbial cows come home, but that won’t change how I feel.
Is It “Spiritual” To Deny Our Anger?
A little while back, it occurred to me: is it really “spiritual” to tell myself I shouldn’t feel angry, even though I do? If I, in my true nature, am perfect and complete, why isn’t my anger perfect and complete too? If I’m really a “spiritual being having a human experience,” why isn’t it okay for that experience to include getting mad sometimes?
What’s more, I used to tell myself that, in my true nature as spirit, I am infinitely loving. Thus, when I tell someone I’m angry, I’m acting inconsistently with my deepest self. But does this make sense?
In fact, I find my relationships with people most loving when I can tell them what’s really going on for me, and hear the same from them. How can I really connect with, and love, another person if I’m not willing to reveal my anger to them? Doesn’t that render our relationship kind of a farce, or at least superficial and businesslike?
Anger and Intimacy
Acknowledging all this was painful, as I think most growth is. But these realizations have led me to start dealing with people in a way that’s a lot more satisfying for me — and, I think, for them as well.
Over the past year, when someone has talked to me in a way I’ve found disrespectful, I’ve taken to telling them “I don’t like what you just said to me.” I don’t call them names or otherwise attack them — I just share, matter-of-factly, how I feel.
Instead of destroying my relationships, doing this has actually led to deeper intimacy. I’ve found that, when I tell someone what’s really going on for me, they tend to feel freer to reveal their own emotions to me. Even if what they share is their own anger, that gives me a better sense of who they are.
This doesn’t always happen, of course. As I’m sure you know, there certainly are people out there who just want to say something hurtful and leave, feeling like they “won” or became superior as a result. But by and large, letting people know when I’m upset has actually brought me closer to them, and fostered a more genuine connection.
I’ve written before about how it’s helpful, when you’re facing writer’s block, to just sit with that sense of creative emptiness, and allow it to pass away on its own — rather than beating yourself up for being uncreative, or distracting yourself from the emptiness by playing Minesweeper. When we learn to just let the writer’s block be, instead of resisting it, we get more inspired and productive in what we do.
In this post, I want to expand on why this is. One thing I often say is: “If you can’t be with emptiness, you can’t be with content.”
Emptiness and Procrastination
What I mean is that, no matter what creative project you’re working on — whether you’re painting a picture, drafting a business plan, or something else — you’ll inevitably encounter moments when your mind feels empty of useful ideas.
Many people, in my experience, can’t bear those moments. For them, staring at a blank screen, canvas, or other empty surface, is agonizing. Because they know, consciously or not, that working on their project will involve empty moments, they find it easier to put the project off, or perhaps never to start in the first place.
So, because they can’t tolerate creative emptiness, they can’t generate the creative content they want to bring into the world. It seems we need to get comfortable with emptiness if we want to make sustained progress in our work. But how can we do this?
Why Is Blankness So Bad?
In my experience, it’s helpful to become aware of why emptiness is a problem for us. When we closely examine the reasons why we see writer’s block as a threat, we often recognize that it isn’t so dangerous after all.
What I’ve found is that the fear of blankness is often driven by a sense of urgency. We think “I’ve got to put my work ‘out there’ as quickly as possible.” If you can relate, I invite you to ask yourself, in those anxious moments: “What will happen if I don’t finish this project immediately?”
Often, the answer to this question is rooted in a desire to be seen and appreciated. In other words, it comes from the ego. “If I don’t finish this project, the world may never recognize my brilliance. I may never get written up in the New York Review of Books. I may ‘die with my music left in me.’” And so on.
Now, I don’t mean to put down the ego — we all have one, and without some degree of concern for our own advancement we probably couldn’t survive. But I do think it can impede our progress in our creative work.
Content Needs Emptiness
So, if you find this fear that you’ll “die with your music in you” arising, consider these questions: what if it isn’t really “your” music at all? What if the ideas at the core of your project aren’t really “your” ideas? What if you are simply an instrument on which the universe plays its music?
At a deeper level, what if you are not just the instrument, but also the music? What if you are not just a body, small and limited in time and space, but a limitless creative energy suffusing all that is — just as a wave on the ocean, in some sense, is the ocean?
If all this were true, why would a moment of blankness bother you? A pause in a piece of music creates tempo and expectation — without space, music would be a confusing, unpleasant jumble of sounds. Without emptiness, content cannot exist.
The next time writer’s block comes up for you, see if these questions help bring you peace and focus.
Ready to get off the “time management treadmill”?
You’ve tried all the usual productivity advice: make to-do lists, reorganize your e-mail, color-code your folders, and so on. You’ve probably bought more than enough books, CDs, planners, special notebooks, and “apps” as well.
So why do you still find yourself procrastinating, getting distracted, feeling anxious, and not making the kind of progress you want in your work? Why does getting through your daily routine still seem like such a frustrating chore?
The answer goes deeper than planners and iPhone apps . . .
Although there’s a lot of sound advice out there, it usually doesn’t deal with the biggest obstacle we tend to face in getting our work done: our own minds. As I think you know from experience, arranging your e-mail subfolders in some fancy way won’t be enough to keep you on task if:
- You keep getting to the end of the day, and feeling like you didn’t accomplish enough
- You’re working from home, and it’s hard to stay on task when no one’s keeping tabs on you
- You feel overwhelmed when you see a lot of items on your to-do list
- Your mind keeps jumping around to all kinds of different ideas when you’re trying to focus on something
- You struggle with a sense that you’ve got to do everything perfectly, or not do it at all
- You have trouble starting a project you want to do, because you worry that it’s not going to be good enough
- You have difficulty saying “no” to requests, and protecting your time, when you’re trying to do a task
- You’re tired of beating yourself up and forcing yourself to work
- You get bogged down in resentment, because it seems like people don’t appreciate what you do
Most of us are in the habit of running from uncomfortable feelings and sensations like these when they come up as we’re working. To distract ourselves from them, we check e-mail, play Minesweeper, get up and pace around, or do something else. Unfortunately — and this is key — when we distract ourselves from our discomfort, we also take our attention off our work.
What if, instead of running away from difficult emotions and sensations, you could learn to accept and allow them? What if you could choose to move forward in your work, even when discomfort is coming up?
That’s what the Work Consciously Audio Course is all about.
For thousands of years, mindfulness practices like meditation, yoga and qi gong have helped people learn to be with silence and discomfort, concentrate on one thing for a long time, and even find peace and joy doing it. This program is about using practices like these “in real time” — while you’re at your desk doing a task — to stay focused and motivated as you work.
To get a sense of what this is about, next time you find yourself wanting to turn away from your work, pause instead, and notice what you’re feeling. What kind of discomfort is there — tension, heat, itching, or something else? Where is it in your body?
Now, see if you can keep breathing, relax your body, and just allow that discomfort to pass away on its own, without trying to fight it or flee from it. Notice how, the more you welcome the uncomfortable feeling or sensation, without resistance, the easier it is to be with.
This is just a taste of the practices offered in the Work Consciously Audio Course. In this program, you’ll learn how to:
- Let go of anxiety that used to paralyze you in your work
- Develop a longer attention span and feel less distractible
- Stay focused even when you’re feeling the urge to procrastinate
- Motivate yourself by getting in touch with your desire to contribute to the world
- Return your attention to the present when it’s drifting off
- Become aware of the unconscious ways you sabotage yourself in what you do
- Set boundaries with others and protect the time you spend on your projects
- Move through writer’s block, and even use it as a source of inspiration
- Bring the “real you” into your work by letting go of the “work persona” you put on in what you do
What others have said
“I found Chris’s material in the course amazing! And what I mean by that is the value that he provides, the wisdom he shares and the practical applications he leaves us with can literally transform our life and work. And he does it all, with the most loving and authentic approach.”
“We all need some nudges along the way to keep our thinking, writing and designs fresh and refreshing. The [Work Consciously Audio Course] is a good work out.”
And here’s some of the wonderful feedback I received about Inner Productivity:
“Chris Edgar has taken an exploratory dive into the procrastination pit and come up with a cogent explanation of this phenomenon as well as an elegant set of techniques to transcend it. It’s a great read and a useful guidebook for turning the daily grind into something much more interesting and engaging.”
– David Allen, bestselling author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity
“Inner Productivity will show you how to clear your inner clutter and create a pathway to success!”
– Marshall Goldsmith, bestselling author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There
“Real productivity doesn’t come from forced behaviors. Inner Productivity can help you connect with the inner state of being that can empower you to act in new ways, choose new perspectives and have a different experience. There is no greater productivity than connecting with your true self.”
– Tama J. Kieves, bestselling author of This Time I Dance!: Creating the Work You Love (How One Harvard Lawyer Left It All to Have It All)
“Inner Productivity is packed with practical examples of how to achieve greater results and peace of mind at work.”
– Laura Stack, bestselling author of Leave the Office Earlier: The Productivity Pro Shows You How to Do More in Less Time . . . and Feel Great About It
“A wonderful guide for organizing both your physical and your head space.”
– Peter Walsh, bestselling author of Enough Already!: Clearing Mental Clutter to Become the Best You
Download the introduction
To get a sense of what the course is all about, you can listen to the introduction here free of charge. If you’d prefer to read it, you can view a text version here. Whether you buy the program or not, I’m confident that just listening to this section will fundamentally shift the way you think about your work and what’s possible for you in it.
One unique part of this course is that, if you download the program, you’ll also receive a 100-page document with the entire text of the course. If you prefer reading to listening, or you’d like to review the exercises you’ve done in written form, this will be an ideal resource.
Buy the course
The audio course is available for $24.95. I’ve tried to keep it affordable because I want everyone, including people who want help getting through the job application process — and who benefit a lot, I’ve found, from my book Inner Productivity — to have access to this program.
You can buy the course using this PayPal button:
If you’re done with buying fancy gadgets and notebooks, and you want to really get to the source of what’s holding you back in your work, this is the program for you. I think you’ll find this course will help you bring your creative gifts into the world, find the efficiency you want in your work, and even have some fun in what you do.
Wishing you the best in your work and elsewhere,
“The strife is o’er,” as the hymn goes — I’m all done recording the Work Consciously Audio Course. I’m writing up the “liner notes” right now — that’s what I like to call them, anyway, because it has me feel like I’m releasing a rock and roll album.
In the meantime, I’d like to share with you the introduction to the audio course, and hear any feedback you might have on it. If you’ve read Inner Productivity, you’ll be familiar with some of the ideas I present here, but there’s plenty of new content that I’ve developed over the year I’ve spent speaking and leading workshops on the book.
The course will feature both exercises you can do “in real time,” as you’re sitting at your desk, to restore your focus and motivation in what you’re doing, and guided meditations I’ll lead you through for developing awareness around what’s holding you back in your projects.
Whether or not you pick up a copy of the audio course when it comes out, I think you’ll get some useful insights out of just listening to this portion of the program.
I’ve linked to the mp3 file of the introduction in this post, and I’ve copied the text below in case reading works better for you. It’s long, so you have my blessing if you want to read the first couple of paragraphs, or listen to the first few minutes, and leave a comment.
Hello, and welcome to the Work Consciously Audio Course. I’m looking forward to working with you. I think you’ll find that this course takes getting work done and enjoying what you do to a deeper level than what you’ve probably experienced before.
When most of us think about productivity, a pretty predictable group of images comes to mind. We tend to think of all the usual organization and time management tools people recommend — creative ways to organize your e-mail inbox, color-code your folders, find the right iPhone apps, and so on.
What you’re going to hear about in this course will be very different from all that. Don’t get me wrong — there are many great productivity techniques out there. But one thing I’ve noticed about these tips and tricks is that they tend to be almost exclusively focused on our outer circumstances — the ways we have our to-do list or our desktop organized, and so on.
What the usual techniques don’t tend to focus on, though, is what I think is the biggest obstacle we usually face in getting our work done — and that, we might say, is ourselves. It’s our own minds and bodies.
Why There’s No “App For That”
Here, I’m talking about those moments when we find our attention getting scattered all over the place — maybe replaying some piece of music in our heads, or replaying memories of that bad relationship from twenty years ago, or something else.
I mean those times when we find ourselves feeling sluggish or unmotivated, like we have to drag ourselves through the mud to accomplish the task we’re trying to do, and it’s all we can do to keep our heads off the desk.
Maybe we feel paralyzed with anxiety, worrying “what’s the boss going to think of this presentation I’m doing,” and second-guessing every word we write.
As I’ll bet you know firsthand, if you’re having one of these experiences, having a really well-organized e-mail inbox probably isn’t going to cut it. That is, it isn’t going to be enough to keep you on track in what you’re doing, no matter how great the tips for time management and organization you’re following may be.
If you’re paralyzed with fear about what the boss is going to think of this presentation you’re doing, that paralysis isn’t going to go away because you’ve achieved a zero e-mail inbox, or because you’ve made a multicolored to-do list.
Getting Off The “Time Management (Product) Treadmill”
Unfortunately, because — like I said — productivity literature tends to be focused solely on our external circumstances — on how our workspace is arranged — people tend to assume the only way to get more done is to find the right method of organizing their work environment.
So, people often get locked in a cycle of buying a book or taking a seminar, finding what they learned isn’t working for them, going out and buying another one, and repeating this process until they get tired of the whole productivity thing and give up.
Also, to be totally upfront, I think one of the reasons the usual organization strategies are so popular, even though so many people have trouble actually putting them into practice, is that people feel kind of virtuous and responsible when they learn new material on getting organized, or overcoming procrastination, or something along those lines.
They get a temporary high when they buy that new planner, or e-mail application — that frustration they’re feeling, and all the self-flagellation they’ve been doing because they feel like they’re not doing enough, temporarily fall away. But very soon, those feelings come back, and the procrastination and inefficiency come back too.
If you can relate, one of my goals in this program is to break you out of that cycle of frustration. I want you to be able to actually benefit from these organization strategies you’ve been learning, rather than just trying them for a day or for an hour and giving up, which unfortunately is what I think many people do.
So how do we start dealing with the ways our own minds and bodies tend to disrupt our focus as we’re trying to get something done? I’ll begin to illustrate this by telling you a little story about my friend and the frustrations he’s been experiencing around e-mail.
The Core Experience: An Illustration
My friend is really into these tips and tricks for organization and time management — he’s probably what a lot of these productivity websites would call a “productivity ninja.” His most recent goal has been to curb his habit of compulsively checking his e-mail. I imagine you’ve struggled with this at times yourself — or maybe you just, you know, know someone who has.
What my friend has committed to himself to do is to check his e-mail only twice a day while he’s at work — at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. In theory, this sounds like it would help my friend save a lot of time. But in practice, he’s never actually been able to keep this commitment to himself.
This is what happens for him. He gets into work at about 8 or 8:30 in the morning, and he’s able to get about half an hour of fully focused work in, even if he’s got a nagging curiosity in the back of his mind about whether there’s anything interesting or important in his e-mail inbox.
But when that half-hour mark rolls around, my friend’s curiosity actually starts to intensify into physical discomfort. He starts to feel a tension in his shoulders and a tightness in his chest.
If he leaves that curiosity for long enough without doing anything about it, it almost starts to feel like a shortness of breath, and he starts wondering “oh my goodness, am I going to die if I don’t check my e-mail?” So, it seems like a pretty serious situation to him in the moment.
So, of course, to relieve this tension that’s coming up for him, my friend goes off and checks his e-mail. When he does this, he takes his mind off the tension he’s feeling, and so he gets a break from it.
Unfortunately, while he’s checking his e-mail, he’s also taking his attention off the work he’s trying to do. And because this keeps happening throughout the day, he keeps arriving at the end of the work day having accomplished less than he wanted.
The Core Experience: What It Means
The moral of the story here, of course, is not that my friend doesn’t know enough organization and time management techniques. He knows plenty of those. He’s got a super-organized e-mail inbox with about 100 different sub-directories. But no matter how he tweaks his e-mail organization, that burning curiosity still seems to come up.
The point of the story is that, when my friend tries to sit and concentrate on his work, these sensations come up in his body that he finds uncomfortable or even disturbing. And to relieve those sensations — to take the edge off, as people often say — he checks his e-mail.
In other words, my friend is caught up in what I call the Procrastination Cycle. He sits down to work and is able to chug along in what he’s doing for a short period of time. And then, that pesky sensation, which I call the Core Experience, comes up for him.
I call it the Core Experience because, no matter what type of project you’re having difficulty moving forward in — whether it’s starting your dream business or cleaning out the garage — you’re going to find this particular nagging experience lurking in the background.
In order to get away from the Core Experience, my friend uses what I call an Escape Route — that is, he checks his e-mail to distract himself from what’s going on inside.
Then, after a little while, he returns to work, but within a short time the Core Experience arises again, and he repeats the cycle over and over again throughout the working day.
Everyone’s Experience Is Unique
I imagine you can relate to this story — that you can relate to trying to get your work done, but being confronted with thoughts, emotions and sensations — or, what I call inner experiences — that you’d rather not be having.
Now, of course, not everyone has a problem with a burning curiosity about their e-mail. Everyone’s mind and body is different, so everyone has their own variety of inner experience that tends to come up and make their life difficult when they’re trying to get something done.
For example, maybe, for you, it’s a painful memory that keeps nagging at you while you’re trying to accomplish something. For instance, maybe you keep replaying an old argument you had with someone in your mind as you’re sitting trying to code your computer program. And, to make matters worse, this only seems to arise when you’re trying to do a project that’s particularly important to you.
For other people it’s just an unpleasant physical sensation that arises when they’re trying to get something done. Maybe they feel this jumpy, anxious energy in their body. Maybe they find their shoulders tensing up. Maybe it’s a sinking feeling in their stomach.
Whatever it is, it seems to come up most often, or perhaps most loudly, when you’re trying to get something done.
An Awareness-Building Exercise
What kind of experience tends to come up for you? Maybe the thought or sensation that you keep experiencing is easy to bring to mind. But for some people it isn’t immediately clear — when I ask what inner experience is giving them trouble, they’ll say “I don’t know — I just keep finding myself putting things off.”
If you find yourself unsure about what the particular feeling or thought is for you, I think you can start to get an idea of what kind of experience it is by doing a brief exercise.
Right now, think about some project you’ve been wanting to work on recently, but you’ve been putting off. As you recall this project and the frustrations you’ve been having around it, notice what you’re feeling in your body.
Notice the places where it’s tensing up — where it feels uncomfortably hot or cold — where you feel a heaviness or nausea — or whatever it is you’re feeling. Do you get how unpleasant that experience is for you?
Now, what I’d like you to do is consider the possibility that, when you sit down to work on the project you’re thinking about, this is the experience you’re having — these are the sensations that are coming up in your body. Whenever you put off working on this project, it’s because you don’t want to be feeling these sensations.
And I think you can see, as you experience the sensations right now, firsthand, why you might be doing that. Of course you’ve been fleeing from them, given how unpleasant they are.
The Core Experience: Fighting and Fleeing
So, I think we all have some troublesome inner experience that comes up as we’re trying to complete our projects. But importantly, I want to suggest to you that this experience alone isn’t enough to create procrastination.
The mere fact that we’re feeling some kind of discomfort doesn’t force us to put off our work. Instead, procrastination happens when we do what I call fighting or fleeing from the experience — basically, when we choose to try to avoid having it.
What do I mean by fighting or fleeing? I’ll start with fighting. By fighting the experience, I mean trying to punish or shame yourself into working when that experience is coming up.
For instance, suppose that, like my friend, you tend to experience a burning curiosity about what’s in your e-mail inbox when you’re trying to work on a project.
If you try to shame yourself into working despite that experience, maybe you’ll tell yourself something like “oh, I can’t believe you’re so lazy and distractible — I can’t believe you’re thinking about your e-mail again — what’s wrong with you,” and so on.
Or maybe you’ll threaten yourself with punishment, as I know some people do. Maybe you’ll say to yourself “you know, if you check e-mail again, you don’t get to play any XBox 360 tonight — no video games for you tonight if you check it again.”
Some productivity writers actually recommend doing this — making threats, or using what’s sometimes called “negative reinforcement,” to force yourself to work — but I don’t.
Why not? As I’ll bet you’ve experienced, when you try to beat yourself into submission and make yourself work, that only creates more resistance inside — it only tends to intensify, in other words, that unpleasant experience you’re having.
In fact, I know that, for myself and others I’ve talked to, doing this can actually be physically tiring — by beating ourselves up, we can drain ourselves of the energy we could have been using to accomplish something. This is a good example of what I think Carl Jung meant when he said “what we resist persists.”
What Fleeing Means
The other thing we tend to do, as I said, is that we flee from this painful experience. Whenever that unpleasant memory, or that worry about the future, or that pain in our lower back, or whatever it is, comes up, we do something to distract ourselves from it. Maybe we’ll play Minesweeper, or call a friend on the phone, or surf the Internet, or something else.
When we take our minds off the sensations we’re feeling, the benefit is that we don’t have to experience those sensations. Unfortunately, there’s an obvious cost as well, which is that we don’t accomplish anything when we’re in this self-distraction mode. While we’re messing around on Facebook, playing video games, or whatever, we aren’t getting anything done.
Now, one recommendation you’ll often hear from people who write about productivity is that you should just take away all the “toys” you could possibly “play with” when you sit down to do a task for a long stretch.
In other words, take away all the tools you might use to distract yourself — leave your cell phone in your car, disconnect your internet, and so on. When you’ve got nothing to divert your attention with, you’ll be forced to work on your project.
Unfortunately, if you’ve ever tried this strategy, I’ll bet you’ve seen the flaw in it. No matter how many “outer distractions” you switch off, you’ll always be stuck with what we might call your “inner distractions.”
You can always use your own mind and body to escape from that pesky inner experience, even if there’s nothing else at hand. Maybe you can start thinking about a pop song you like, or drumming your fingers on the table, or getting up and pacing around. The last problem I guess you could solve by tying your legs to your chair, but how far do we really want to take this?
All Right, Then What?
So, merely rearranging your workspace isn’t going to be enough to break you out of the habit of fleeing — of distracting yourself from — these unpleasant thoughts and sensations that you’ve been going through.
Now, imagine if, instead of fighting or fleeing from the experience, you could just calmly accept that the experience is coming up, and choose to move forward in your work. Suppose that you could stay relaxed, keep breathing, maybe notice for a moment “oh, there’s that experience again,” and stay focused on what you’re doing.
Imagine the sense of freedom and ease that this could give you in your work, and how much more this would allow you to accomplish. Learning how to do that is the heart of what this course is about.
Awareness of the Core Experience
I see dealing with this inner experience as basically a two-step process, and I call these two steps Awareness and Allowing.
I’ll start explaining this by talking about what Awareness means. By Awareness, I mean that we become aware of the Core Experience that we’ve been running away from, and the Escape Route we’ve been using to run away from it — that is, calling friends on the phone, messing around on social media, playing Solitaire, and so on.
Remember I talked about my friend, who came to me and complained that he couldn’t concentrate on his work, because this burning curiosity about his e-mail would keep coming up that was almost painful.
In a sense, my friend’s situation is unique — perhaps you could even say he’s lucky — because my sense is that most people don’t have that level of awareness of what the Core Experience and Escape Route are for them.
Let me put it this way — have you ever gotten to the end of the workday, and wondered to yourself “where did the whole day go? Why didn’t I get anything done? What could I have been doing with all that time?” And you feel frustrated and confused. I think most of us have had that experience from time to time.
My sense is that, when we have a day like this, this Procrastination Cycle I’m talking about is happening outside our awareness. It’s happening unconsciously.
Throughout the entire day, this is what’s happening: we work for a few minutes, then that Core Experience — that jitteriness or resentment or whatever it is — comes up, and then we turn our attention away from our work — we follow our Escape Route. The cycle repeats again and again, and we’re not even aware that it’s happening.
How could this be? What I’m going to suggest is that you’re doing unconscious behaviors like this all the time. For instance, have you ever gotten into the car, and just watched your hand shoot out and turn that car radio on, as if you didn’t even have to participate in the process?
Breathing, of course, is another good example — most of the time it’s happening even though we’re not doing it consciously. This Procrastination Cycle, if we’re not aware of it, becomes just another one of these unconscious behaviors going on in the background for us.
Awareness by Itself Can Be Curative
The good news is that, when we become aware that this Procrastination Cycle is happening, we start to gain some control over the way we move through our workday.
Sometimes, just being conscious of the Core Experience we’re avoiding, and the Escape Route we’re using to get away from it, can free us from this Procrastination Cycle, without us having to develop a lot of self-discipline and constantly monitor ourselves to see whether we’re back in our usual habits.
Fritz Perls, the inventor of Gestalt psychotherapy, said that “awareness by itself can be curative.” In other words, awareness by itself can create transformation. I think this is true, and I’ve certainly seen evidence of it in my own life.
For example, I used to be in the habit of clenching my jaw and grinding my teeth. I wasn’t consciously aware that I was doing it — the only thing I knew was that my jaw would be strangely sore a lot of the time. Eventually, someone close to me pointed out that my jaw seemed really tense, and I had an amazing experience — my jaw just spontaneously relaxed.
In other words, I didn’t have to do any work to accomplish this — I didn’t have to get a jaw massage, or acupuncture on my jaw, or something like that — thankfully, no needles needed to be involved. All I had to do was become aware of the tension, and it naturally fell away.
I’ll bet you’ve had an experience like this — you were doing some habit, like tapping your fingers on the table, or tensing up your shoulders, or something like that, and when someone pointed out to you that you were doing it, you effortlessly let go of the habit.
That’s what I want for you when we do the awareness-building exercises I’m going to talk about in this program — to spontaneously let go of ways you may have been hindering your progress in what you do.
Allowing the Core Experience
Unfortunately, just becoming aware of this procrastination cycle I’m talking about isn’t enough to help some people break out of it. Some people are acutely aware of the Core Experience — of that troublesome thought, feeling or sensation — that keeps coming up when they try to focus on their project. But that doesn’t stop them from habitually running away from this experience.
I think one reason is that, for many people, this Core Experience is actually kind of disturbing and scary. When that anxiety, or anger, or distraction, or whatever that sensation is comes up, it can seem like a really serious or dangerous situation.
Some people get the sense that, if they just let that feeling be there without trying to do anything about it, it might stay there forever, or they might somehow be hurt or destroyed.
It’s almost as if your body is a steel pipe, and there’s pressure building up inside when this Core Experience is arising, and if you don’t open the valve and let some of that pressure off, maybe you’ll explode or implode or disintegrate or be destroyed in some other horrible way.
What Allowing Means
This is where what I call Allowing comes into play. Allowing a sensation means to keep breathing, relax your body, and let that sensation pass away on its own — to just let that feeling flow through you and dissipate, without resisting it.
For example, suppose you’re sitting there chugging along in a project at your computer, and suddenly, like my friend I described earlier, you start to have this burning curiosity about what’s in your e-mail inbox.
Before, you may have been in the habit of beating yourself up for feeling that curiosity, like “oh, I can’t believe you’re so lazy and distractable,” and so on; or, perhaps, you may have been in the habit of giving into the urge by checking e-mail.
But this time, I invite you to try something different. Instead of fighting or fleeing from that sensation, just sit there, and breathe, and relax your body, and allow that burning curiosity to pass away on its own. Just let that tension or discomfort, wherever it may be coming up in your body, just drain out of you by itself.
The Core Experience Is Fleeting
What I think you’ll discover, when you practice Allowing in the way I’ve described, is that this Core Experience — this sensation you haven’t wanted to be with — is actually fleeting. That is, it’s temporary, and it passes away quickly when you don’t resist it. In that sense, it’s like any other thought or emotion we experience as human beings.
Take anger and sadness, for example. If you feel angry or sad, as I’m sure you have at some point in your life, usually those emotions don’t stick around forever. Normally, they pass away, and they’re replaced by some other thought or feeling. That’s just the human experience.
What you’ll find when you take on this practice of letting the difficult experience pass away is that, in fact, the Core Experience is exactly the same as other thoughts and emotions in this sense.
Just letting it be there, without trying to force it away, isn’t going to make you spontaneously combust or disappear or be harmed in some other way. Instead, it will simply fade away on its own.
Once you experience, firsthand, the fact that this Core Experience is fleeting and temporary, I think you’ll start to observe something remarkable, which is that you’ll actually begin to get more comfortable and more familiar with that Core Experience. It will start to seem more manageable, and less disturbing and scary.
Moving Through The Core Experience
And ultimately, when you get comfortable enough with this Core Experience, this experience that used to be difficult for you to tolerate, you become able to keep moving forward in your work, even when that Core Experience is coming up. In other words, you become able to make progress in the project you’re working on, even when that sensation is arising.
It’s as if, when that anxiety, sadness, tightness, or whatever it is comes up, you become able to say “yes, I’m feeling this sensation — and, I’m going to keep drafting this presentation, or coding this computer program, or sculpting this sculpture,” or whatever activity you happen to be doing. And when you develop that ability, that’s when you really start to get the sense of ease and flow you want in your work.
This attitude of Allowing is similar to the practice of yoga. If you’ve done yoga, you’ve probably had the experience of getting into a pose that involved a really deep stretch — and choosing to hold that pose, despite the intensity you were experiencing, and just allowing the sensations you were feeling to be there, without trying to do anything about them.
You may have had the urge to get up and run out of the yoga studio, or take a break and fold your socks, but you consciously chose to stay with that feeling.
I imagine you noticed that, as you stayed in that challenging pose, the intensity you were feeling in your body started to seem more comfortable. You started to understand that you could be with that feeling, and that it wasn’t going to envelop you or destroy you if you just allowed it to be.
In the same way, when we allow the difficult sensations that come up as we’re working to just be, rather than distracting ourselves from them, we start to see that we can actually handle that intensity, and that nothing awful is going to happen to us if we continue working when that intensity is coming up.
How To Use This Course
So, like I said, the method of finding focus and motivation in your work I’m talking about in this program has two basic steps: first, becoming Aware of the Core Experience you’re avoiding, and the Escape Route, the way you’re habitually escaping from that Core Experience; and second, learning to just Allow that Core Experience to pass away on its own, without resisting.
The exercises we’re going to talk about in this program are all about bringing this two-step process of Awareness and Allowing into your everyday working routine.
One last note: as you’ll notice when you listen to this course, the course consists mostly of exercises. It’s important to actually do those exercises if you want to get the benefits out of this program — this isn’t about just passively soaking up information. The good news is that, for all of the exercises, you don’t need any special props — you just need your own mind and body.
With all that said, let’s dive right into the perspectives and exercises I’m going to talk about in this program.
I can’t believe it was nearly a year ago that, on this very blog, we had our fascinating discussion about the productivity challenges readers are facing, and how mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga can help us move through those challenges. It was an inspiring chat for me, and I’ve re-read it many times.
Last time I re-read the post, it proved to be more than just a source of nostalgia — it gave me the idea to put out an audio program dealing with the questions people asked in the comments, and in the many other settings where I’ve spoken to people about Inner Productivity.
I now have voluminous notes about what I’m going to say in the program, and I’ve started recording it. Before I release it, I want to check in with you to make sure I’m not leaving out any concerns you may be dealing with in your working life, whether it comes to focusing, staying motivated, letting go of anxiety, actually enjoying what you do, or something else. Simple as that.
So, I want to throw the floor open to you. Maybe “throwing the floor” isn’t the most coherent figure of speech, but you get the point. I want to know what you’d like to hear me address in the program, and if you let me know I’ll do my best to cover it.
To get the creative juices flowing, here’s a list of some common issues people raised in our earlier conversation:
Self-Starting: “I’m working from home, and it’s hard to stay on task when no one’s keeping tabs on me.”
Overwhelm: “I feel overwhelmed when I see a lot of items on my to-do list.”
Perfectionism: “I struggle with a sense that I’ve got to do everything perfectly, or not do it at all.”
Inadequacy: “I have trouble starting the project I want to do, because I worry that it’s not going to be good enough.”
Image Consciousness: “I’m having difficulty doing the work I want to do, because I get too concerned about what others will think of it.”
“I haven’t done enough”: “I keep getting to the end of the day, and feeling like I didn’t accomplish enough.”
Resentment: “I get bogged down in resentment, because it seems like people are asking so much from me in my work.”
Distraction: “My mind keeps jumping around to all kinds of different ideas when I’m trying to focus on something.”
How about you? What issues would you like to hear about in the program?
You may recall I wrote a while back about my recurring “critic fantasy,” which involved a man getting up while I was giving a talk, and yelling that my book had nothing to offer.
Well, last week, a man actually did approach me after a speaking engagement and tell me my work had nothing to offer! Oops — perhaps I attracted this situation by “putting it out to the universe” on my blog! (More on the law of attraction in a moment.)
I didn’t find myself freaked out by the odd synchronicity, although I did feel a mild irritation at being misunderstood. This was because the man’s rant didn’t seem to deal with what I actually said, but instead with his preconceived notions of what people who talk about “spiritual” stuff say.
Roughly, his complaints went like “all this stuff about ‘making yourself happy’ and ‘creating a Rolls-Royce by thinking about it’ and so on is garbage.” However, I didn’t talk about either of those. First of all, I only teach about manifesting Lamborghinis — if you want a Rolls, you need a different guru.
No “Magical Manifesting Mastery” Here
Just kidding — I don’t talk about “manifesting” anything. In fact, I later realized I was, in a (limited) way, thankful to the man for helping me clarify what my work is really about. The work I do is about relating to the thoughts and sensations that are already there in our experience, not attracting or creating something to take their place.
One of my biggest inspirations in following this path has been the work of psychotherapist Robert Augustus Masters. Some might say this inspiration borders on obsession — I even flew from California to Boulder, CO to take Robert’s workshop. Robert, if you’re reading this, don’t worry — I don’t have your home address.
But here I am joking around, when I’m actually here to review Robert’s latest book, Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters (not an affiliate link).
What Is Spiritual Bypassing?
Spiritual bypassing, to Masters, means “the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs.” Basically, when we learn that getting the “right” job, relationship, car, or something else isn’t going to heal our pain, we turn to spiritual practices, hoping they’ll quell our “bad feelings” at last.
Often, unfortunately, we don’t find the relief we’re looking for. For example, some people (as I used to do) think meditation is supposed to involve feeling peaceful and perhaps even blissful.
But if they get deeply into it, they discover that it isn’t like that at all — in fact, when we switch off all the noise we’re usually surrounded by, and sit quietly, the pain we’ve been shutting out often comes through loud and clear. And that’s when we start griping that meditation “doesn’t work.”
On the other hand, some of us do find tranquility in meditation and similar practices, but then we start using those practices to shut out emotions and sensations we don’t want to be with – as Masters puts it, to “find a safety from the more brutal dimensions of life that we crave.” If we feel angry, for instance, and we see anger as a “negative emotion” we “shouldn’t be having,” perhaps we’ll meditate to numb the feeling.
The trouble is that feeling angry can serve us at times in life. If we need to protect ourselves against an attacker, or say a firm “no” to someone who’s demanding a lot of our time and energy, anger can fuel us to take decisive, effective action. Thus, sedating our anger and other “bad feelings” with spirituality (or anything else) can be harmful.
What’s Spirituality Good For?
This isn’t to say that spiritual practice has no benefits. In fact, says Masters, spiritual practice can serve us by helping us get more comfortable and familiar with our pain, rather than running from it. “Contrary to what we tend to believe,” he writes, “the more intimate we are with our pain, the less we suffer.”
This kind of statement was hard for me to believe before I experienced the truth of it myself. Like many people, when I began meditating, I felt really bored, and when the boredom got intense enough I’d simply stop. Eventually, inspired by teachers like Robert, I focused my attention on the boredom and just allowed it to arise.
As I did this, the boredom became easier and easier to be with — and, as I often describe, this had practical benefits in my life, such as helping me focus on a project I was doing for a long period of time even if I felt bored.
And on that note, look at the word count! Looks like I’d best put the rest of my review of this important book into a second post. Stay tuned!
Do you ever notice yourself doing “spiritual bypassing”? What feelings do you use spiritual practice to get away from?
If I got my whole picture of the world from reading the news and people’s comments on it, I’d probably see the world as a place where everyone was in a state of perpetual outrage about something. People even get outraged about a dip in the overall level of public outrage. “Where is the outrage?” editorials demand. “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” bumper stickers accuse.
One reason our culture sees outrage as important, I think, is that we tend to equate outrage with compassion and working for change. If you aren’t outraged about this government policy, the situation in that country, the acts of this public official, and so on, we assume, you must not care and you must not be interested in doing anything about it.
Non-Outraged Service Is Possible
But do we really have to be outraged to be motivated to serve others? In my experience, the answer is no. When I used to volunteer at a homeless shelter preparing meals for the guests, I didn’t do it because I hated homelessness or blamed somebody for it. I did it because I wanted a chance to serve, and I know many others who regularly do the same.
Mahatma Gandhi is a much larger-scale example. Gandhi’s strategy for bringing about India’s independence grew out of his spiritual practice of ahimsa, or nonviolence. Ahimsa, to Gandhi, didn’t just mean not killing others — it meant letting go of hatred and judgment as well. Although he didn’t hate the British Empire, he peacefully and successfully opposed its rule. Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King are two other well-known examples of people whose role in creating massive social change grew out of their spiritual practice and desire to be of service, rather than their negativity.
What examples like Gandhi and King also illustrate is that it’s possible to criticize some practice or policy without demonizing the people responsible for it. If we disagree with what someone said or did, we don’t have to make them our enemy to say what we think. We can calmly and firmly state our opinion without calling them a liar, idiot or sociopath. We can also take action from a place of inner peace.
Outrage and the Ego
In fact, I think, outrage is often a cloak for our ego — for our desire to feel superior to someone else. In a state of outrage, we’re almost always blaming somebody and portraying them as immoral, dishonest, selfish, or something else. And this gives us the momentary high of feeling like we’re more righteous, honest, or caring than them. Much of the news we watch and read seems devoted to giving us a “righteousness fix” — the obsessive coverage of scandals involving politicians, actors, and so on seems geared toward giving us someone to feel better than.
I’m not saying that anger, or even outrage, has no value and should be repressed. There are moments when we need to defend ourselves. If someone is physically attacking me, anger can be the fuel that mobilizes my body into action.
But the kinds of things we usually get outraged about aren’t threats to our lives. Political debates, conflicts in our work and relationships, and similar issues don’t normally endanger our survival. To put these situations in perspective — like I said in an earlier post — I think it’s useful, whenever we find ourselves getting heated and tense inside, to ask ourselves whether we’re truly in physical danger. And to take a deep breath, relax our bodies, and let that burning desire to be “right” pass away.
Inside Personal Growth Interview
I recently did an interview about my book, Inner Productivity, with Greg Voisen of Inside Personal Growth. We talked about many useful exercises for developing focus and motivation in your work, and how the ideas in the book can be useful strategies for living in addition to just getting your work done. The interview was a pleasure for me to do and I hope you enjoy it.