Public Enemy #1 – Immediate Gratification

PublicEnemy

Jim Harter, Chief Scientist at Gallup may not have set the Internet alight in his TED Talk on Well-Being, but 13mins and 29 seconds into his 15 minute talk I had an ‘Aha’ moment.

Jim’s book, ‘Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements‘ recommends we take a ‘Holistic’ approach to our Well-Being by nurturing five dimensions of our life.

  • Career – Enjoy what we do.
  • Social – Connect with friends & family
  • Financial – Earn enough
  • Physical – Keep active
  • Community – Engage in our community

It was when Jim identified the Well-Being ‘blockers’ that I had my ‘Aha’ moment.

‘Immediate Gratification’…..gets in the way…… Boy, doesn’t it just!!

WhatGetsintheWay

To the best of my ability I try to plan and watch my days. And almost every day I get tripped up by that old chestnut, ‘Immediate Gratification’. If I am tired, hungry or feeling down it’s pretty much a dead cert I’m going to fall.

We all know what’s good for us, and we all devote our good intentions to gazing at the golden rainbow on the far horizon. Instead we should be looking for the snags & snares that lie hidden in our next step.

Before we start nurturing the Five Essential Elements, we should find a ‘methadone’ replacement for our own personal ‘Immediate Gratification’ hit. After all, the pursuit of pleasure is hard wired into the human condition, its neural pathways are the super highways of our brain.

If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Jim wasn’t the first person here.

Life in this mundane world with its craving and clinging to impermanent states and things is unsatisfactory and painful.

Buddha, The First Noble Truth – 500 BCE

While Jim calls it a ‘blocker’, I believe it’s ‘Public Enemy Number One’, it’s the barrier we need to climb over to get to the other side.

Public Enemy #1 – Immediate Gratification

The Axis of Failure

FailureChurchill

There is so much written about success, so much advice offered it makes change sound so easy. Why then do we bomb, botch, bungle and bust every time we try to change?

The simple truth is……. change just isn’t that simple!

I have become rather tired of failing. I fail often and I’m starting to realise that most of us do. It’s about time we redressed the balance and gave failure the credit it deserves.

It doesn’t do us any good to constantly overestimate our ability to change and underestimate our ability to fail. Because when we fail, as we usually do, we get deflated, disappointed and downright depressed.

“Know your enemy”
– Sun Tzu, The Art of War

It’s about time we got to know our enemy. If we want to make real change in our life, the kind of change that can turn our life around, then we will inevitably come face to face with the combined forces of failure. These are the tanks and infantry that form ‘The Axis of Failure’.

I’ve identified 5 Agents of failure and 5 Anchors of failure.

The 5 Agents of Failure

These are the mechanisms of failure, the bumps and ruts that dislodge us and throw us off the wagon of change.

1. Desire

Change often involves an attempt to suppress what Rick Hanson refers to as the ‘Ancient fires of Desire’. The problem with fighting these fires is that they are never quenched and are prone to reignite at any time.

2. Sparks

The flying embers that reignite the ‘Ancient fires’. These are the triggers, the snakes in our path that send us sliding back to our old behaviour.

3. The Great Escape

We meet Stress daily in all its manifestations. Most of us have developed a quick escape route to dull the pain and numb the suffering. Often this is just the behaviour we are seeking to change

4. Tired & Hungry

I read once that we make our worst decisions when we are low. There is no greater enemy than lack of sleep to overrun our blockades and crush our resistance.

5. Stormy Weather

Anyone who observes their thoughts and feelings will know that our moods change constantly like the weather. Low moods lower enthusiasm, motivation and resilience.

The 5 Anchors of Failure

When we fail these are the anchors that keep us stuck in our distractions, bad habits and addictions.

1. Craving

The itch, the hunger, the recurring thoughts that leave us unsettled and distracted until finally we give in.

2. Smoke & Mirrors

We have an impressive ability to deceive ourselves. It’s why the first step in the Noble Eightfold Path is ‘Right View’. The ability to see things for what they really are, not what we have convinced ourselves.

3. The Country Drive

It never ceases to amaze me how I am constantly taken for a ride by my subconscious mind. It starts with an innocuous distraction, and progresses by hidden twists and turns right back to the very behaviour I’m trying to escape.

4. The Cuckoo

What keeps us stuck in our old behaviour is far stronger than the fledgling we wish to nurture and grow. It often feels like a cuckoo clamouring to be fed and intent on dislodging the small fledgling from the nest.

5. The Whirlpool

When we fail we find ourselves back at the epicentre of a whirlpool and in danger of being submerged. It takes a lot of time and effort to work ourselves away from the vortex to a place where the waters are calmer.

“I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem”
– William Blake, Jerusalem

The wish to change is not just admirable, it genuinely holds out the promise of a better, richer and more joyous life.

However, the next time we fail as we surely will, we need to recognize the magnitude of our struggle and appreciate the strength and arsenal of our foe.

Then with a kindness and compassion for our efforts and striving, with a renewed gaze on our objective, once more its time to gather up our resources of strength and enthusiasm, and fight on.

The Axis of Failure

No Sticky Distractions

Attachment

In my last blog I asked, “what is the one thing that will change everything in your life?” Well for me the answer is simply ‘No distractions!’

In this digital age distractions have become a constant background noise, but I want to be more specific and talk about ‘sticky’ distractions.

‘Sticky’ distractions are our attachment to virtual connections, the connections we make when we email, message, post, comment, like, ping, nudge, wallop, whatever. It might be social media, it might be online games, it might be web communities or mobile apps. It’s when we put ourselves out into the virtual world and wait for something to come back in return. It’s attachment, albeit virtual!

It’s also extremely addictive, Dr Judson Brewer of UMass Medical School believes Facebook is more addictive than Crack Cocaine. (1m 25s)

The problem with these ‘sticky’ distractions is that they create a ‘peace wall’ that  hide us from stillness. They are cyber pied pipers leading us off on a merry dance down the back alleys of fantasy. They block off the few opportunities we get to discover a place of peace and quiet in which to spot what is elusive, but most important in life.

Why the hell are sticky distractions so damn addictive? As a leading Neuroscientist and Sociologist (not!) I have come to the conclusion that it’s not just our brain that talks to us but it’s also our body. And as our sole purpose as a fully paid up member of the human race is to protect and further the species, we are rather drawn to the social and the sexual through our connections with others.

Up until the introduction of the World Wide Web by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, connections pretty much required a face to face communications format. (OK, I admit I’ve conveniently forgotten Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone age from 1876 to 1989). However, the reality is we can now pretty well connect with anyone else on the planet, quote ‘FaceBook friends’, unquote.

When we connect our human drives and desires both conscious and subconscious with the internet, ‘wham’ the whole world suddenly becomes wired. Add a few social psychologists into the mix to design sites, games and apps that become progressively more addictive and suddenly you have more ‘sticky’ distractions than you can wave a wireless mouse at.

I’d like to say that the design of hooks and snares to make websites progressively more addictive is insidious, in fact I think I will. When we are presented with a gallery of our friend’s smiling faces who will miss us ‘if we leave’, it does tug on our heartstrings but it’s just another snare to modify our behaviour.

The problem is I do love my distractions, if only they weren’t so …… well addictive! But as much as I enjoy being distracted I find that when I finally drag myself away, I feel a little bit empty, a little bit queasy, and a little bit disappointed. I regret I didn’t spend my time doing something a bit more fulfilling. It suddenly feels like a waste of time and when it becomes a habit, it feels quite despairing.

I have been journaling more recently, which is a wonderful way of observing my behaviour, moods and emotions. And I’ve discovered that when I go through a period of no distractions I am much happier and strangely I even become a fun person to be around.

Wolf Singer describes the brain as lacking any decision making ‘coherence center’, like an orchestra without a conductor. It seems to me that when we allow ourselves to follow ‘sticky’ distractions we just get a cacophony of noise. But when we stop the distractions we create a stillness in which we can play beautiful music. We nourish our very souls.

By stopping our ‘sticky’ distractions we create time to deepen our relationships with our significant others, to strengthen our friendships, to discover our own inherent creativity, and to enjoy the sights, sounds, and tastes of the world we live in. We raise the tide mark of our own personal happiness and we become more resilient in dealing with the challenges of Life.

It’s why for me, the one thing that will change everything is ‘No Distractions’.

At least No ‘sticky’ Distractions.

No Sticky Distractions

The Bowl of Mindfulness

Sunset

Photo Credit: Erin Berg via Compfight cc

At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.

Lao Tzu

If mindfulness has a purpose, it is to find calm. It is the way back to our center, to the place of inner peace that lies within us all.

This is not an easy path. Most of the time mindfulness will only make us aware of how far we have wandered from our center. We will see the shadows of suffering cast by the distractions, bad habits and addictions that have grown within us.

But until we recognize and accept our life as it is, we cannot begin the journey back to our center, to our place of inner calm.

Mindfulness is like a bowl, it is both what the bowl is and what the bowl does.

The bowl is nonjudgmental awareness, an ability to watch our thoughts, words and actions without judging them, to become an impartial observer of ourselves.

What the bowl does is to hold our thoughts, words, and actions in this state of nonjudgmental awareness and allows them to marinate.

Meditation is the intentional practice of mindfulness where we sit without distraction for a set period of time. However, this formal practice of meditation can be both a barrier and a limitation in developing a mindfulness practice.

After all we are human and the routine of a busy working day leaves few of us with either the time or the inclination for formal meditation practice.

Instead we can aim for a few nutritional mindfulness snacks throughout the day. Not only will this help us to develop mindfulness, but it gives us a few precious moments to pause, refocus and allow the dust of the day to settle.

In a busy and demanding working day I have found three simple mindfulness practices.

Commas, full stops, and carriage returns. If every day is a page, then it has no definition without commas to add a pause, full stops to take a break, and carriage returns to end one activity and begin another.

We actively need to punctuate our day if we are to prevent it from becoming one long mad blur. I visit calm.com a couple of times a day while I’m at work This takes me for a few wonderful minutes to a distant beach to watch the sun setting, or to dawn in a misty forest to listen to the dawn chorus.

A Walk. There is no better way to draw a line under one part of the day and prepare ourselves for the next than a walk.

Something happens when we step outside the door, context returns and we become part of something bigger than ourselves. Perhaps it’s the sound of the world getting on with its own business without a care for us. Whatever it is, it usually brings perspective and well-being back into our lives.

A deep breathe. In yoga and meditation, the breath lies at the center of mindfulness. We have access to it at any time and in any situation. In the words of Thich Nhat Hahn, “When we breathe in a miracle happens, we stop the thinking. This is the miracle of mindfulness”.

These three simple practices all have one thing in common, they create a pause in the day, a gap in which we can fill our bowl of mindfulness with precious moments.

It doesn’t matter how we develop mindfulness. What matters is that we find our own way back to our center, to reclaim the inner calm that nourishes our very soul.

What path do you take?

The Bowl of Mindfulness

On Suffering and Boomerangs

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Photo Credit: Jeroen Krah via Compfight cc

If suffering brings wisdom, I should wish to be less wise.

William Butler Yeats

It’s a little known fact, but one of the biggest causes of suffering is from accidental boomerang strikes.

Let me elaborate on what I mean here.

This is when we get hit in the head by a boomerang we threw, but at the time we didn’t know it was a boomerang and we certainly didn’t know it was going to come back and smack us on the head.

In that sacred of all self development books, ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’, Franklin Covey reminds us, “When we pick up one end of a stick, we pick up the other”. In other words, “While we are free to choose our actions, we are not free to choose the consequences of those actions.”

A boomerang is a stick we would have been better off leaving well alone. Here are four causes of accidental boomerang strikes.

The Sands of Distraction. In this connected world we are constantly bombarded by distractions; newspapers, radio, television, computers, tablets, smartphones, they are simply unavoidable.

Once distraction gets into our mind it soon clogs up our focus and attention. Its not so much that distraction is bad, its the fact that it takes over and before we know it the tail is wagging the dog.

This is a mild form of boomerang strike, but nevertheless we usually come out of it dazed, and disappointed at the hours we’ve lost.

Fatal Attraction. This is distraction with hooks, it comes in many different forms, want and desire being the most common. This is where our inner angel meets our dastardly inner devil.

It’s the human condition, and fighting it is like taking a tricycle up against a steamroller. Its the slippery slope that leads to all our bad habits and addictions and yet we constantly underestimate the beauty and draw of the siren song.

Attraction can be a particularly painful boomerang strike especially if it leaves us with that that most horrid of all feelings, #despair.

The Niggle. This is the self propelled boomerang that keeps coming back and clipping us on the head, again and again. It can be experienced as an underlying feeling of irritation, anxiety or dissatisfaction. I often experience it as a feeling of being overwhelmed.

Often the cause isn’t always apparent. However, deep down there is a persistent little voice reminding us of a belief we hold that conflicts with reality. Until we accept reality and let go of the belief, we will remain in the flight path of that circling boomerang.

Procrastination. Procrastination is like getting hit by a boomerang that we never threw in the first place. In that sense it’s hard to imagine it as painful, yet not doing something because we feel blocked is a particularly painful and frustrating experience.

So if like Yeats and you wish to to be less wise, then at the very least before you pick up a stick, make sure its not a boomerang that will just come back and wallop you.

On Suffering and Boomerangs