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

Self Compassion – An Idea worth Spreading

In this 19 minute Ted Talk, Kristin Neff identifies how self esteem can fail and why self compassion is a better option for positive mental health and well-being.

First let’s dispel the myth, self compassion is neither self pity nor self indulgence. When dealing with life’s difficulties its simply the best solution when compared with the toxic alternatives of self judgment and self criticism.

Self Esteem

Self esteem is our personal judgment of whether we are a good person or a bad person and is often considered the global indicator of positive mental health, yet it has some dangerous pitfalls.

Self esteem fails us because we set the bar too high. In modern society average simply isn’t good enough and we strive to meet the impossibly high standards of a critical media that perpetuates the fantasy of perfection. These standards might be to do with body image, achievement, or simply staying on a rickety wagon. When we fail, as we inevitably must, our self esteem comes crashing down and the recriminations begin.

A society in which we need to feel better than others in order to feel good about ourselves is a society which is ripe to narcissism and bullying.

The Human Condition

Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro’ the World we safely go
William Blake – Auguries of Innocence

The human condition is imperfect and prone to failure. We recognise this and accept failure and imperfections in others, yet we seem unable to accept it in ourselves.

When we become painfully aware of the divergence of our expectations from our reality we get to choose between self compassion or self judgment and criticism. All too often self judgment and criticism are the unconscious default mode which trigger our natural stress response.

Stress

Our stress response floods our bloodstream with adrenaline and cortisone to prepare us for fight and flight. While this was vital for the survival of our ancestors it is overkill for our modern day disappointments.

Most of us have quite a vicious inner critic and continual lashings from its tongue are more paralyzing than motivating. If our inner critic is continually triggering the stress response we are slowly poisoning our bodies.

Self Compassion

Kristin Neff advocates self compassion as a healthier alternative response to the disappointments of the Human Condition and identifies three core components.

Self compassion is not a way of judging ourselves positively, it’s a way of relating to ourselves kindly. Embracing ourselves as we are, flaws and all.

Self Kindness v Self Judgment

We believe we need our inner critic to motivate ourselves. We do not believe we are deserving of kindness and we associate self compassion as indulgent, self pitying and a sign of weakness. We verbally abuse ourselves and as a consequence keep firing our natural stress response.

The alternative is to accept we are human, that we are not perfect, and that we will fail, usually quite often. Why not celebrate our successes, acknowledge that to strive is to fail, and understand that self compassion is far healthier and far more motivating than harsh self criticism.

If we can accept this we can cultivate a desire to alleviate our own suffering instead of intensifying it.

Kristin highlights the natural instinct in animals to soothe and comfort their young. In contrast to stress, this releases oxytoxins and opiates into our blood stream which make us feel safe and which is good for our well-being.

The simple act of placing our hand on our heart at a stressful moment can induce comfort and relieve stress.

Common Humanity v Isolation

When things go wrong we experience a sense of failure, a sense that this shouldn’t have happened, we suffer and feel we are somehow different. This manifests as a sense of exclusion and isolation which for social animals like ourselves is threatening and provokes anxiety.

Paradoxically, it’s our imperfections and our constant ability to fail that connects us as humans.

Kristin relates that the biggest insight gained from participants on her workshops is this realization of common humanity, that what unites us is failure, imperfection and suffering.

Failure is the human experience, this is how things are supposed to be. Life is imperfect.

Mindfulness v Over Identification

When things go wrong we have automatic coping mechanisms to suppress the painful experiences associated with failure. We often escape into activities and behaviour that distract us and block out the pain.

Our constant niggling self criticism blends the problem into our perception of our abilities and soon we begin to identify ourselves as the problem.

In contrast, Mindfulness introduces a ‘sacred’ pause which allows us to react with self compassion and kindness instead of self judgment and criticism.

Instead of avoiding, suppressing, or seeking a quick fix we allow ourselves to ‘be’ with our suffering. By acknowledging and experiencing our pain we get to hear its message, we may gain insights into its cause and find healthier ways of accepting,  dealing and living with it.

By creating a mindful gap we can break the link between us and the problem and see it for what it is, just stuff that is happening to us.

The trick is to catch ourselves in the act of self mugging.

Next time try a little self kindness and care instead. You might just create the conditions for natural healing and recovery to begin.

Self Compassion – An Idea worth Spreading

Why mindfulness?

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What we think, we become

The Buddha

Mindfulness is defined as nonjudgmental awareness, but what does this mean?

It’s the ability to be aware without the instinctive need to attach our opinion or feeling to the experience. Its developing the skill to become an impartial observer of our thoughts, senses, and experiences.

Here are six reasons why mindfulness is important.

1. To change. The Holy Grail of all personal development blogs, books, and courses is the ability to change ourselves. So many of us seek to become happier, healthier and wealthier, yet even the smallest change is elusive and remains just beyond our grasp. In contrast, change is not an objective of mindfulness, indeed a core principle of mindfulness is to stop our incessant striving. We are always running after one thing or running away from another. Paradoxically, when we stop striving and find stillness, metamorphosis begins.

2. To learn to live with ourselves. Do you live with an underlying dissatisfaction of your life, a sense that if only a few things could change then it would be much happier and more fulfilling? This sense of dissatisfaction is real, it has a bitter taste, it sits heavily on our stomach. It can weigh us down even when there is no apparent cause. In developing mindfulness we learn acceptance, gratitude and compassion. These three gifts dissolve dissatisfaction and can bring joy.

3. To heal our wounds. As we go through life we pick up physical and emotional knocks and bruises. The truth is that few of us make it far through life without experiencing pain and hurt. These experiences stay with us, we keep them in our scrapbook of slights and injustices. Emotional pain can often be felt as acutely years after the event as it was felt at the time. Mindfulness is a tool for dealing with suffering. It’s a poultice that we can apply to a physical or emotional wound. It allows us to experience it as it is, and by bringing our attention to pain we softens its intensity and create the conditions for healing to occur.

4. To deal with distractions, habits & addictions. The smartphone in our pocket is a means of instant communication and information, but it can also be a source of constant distraction. When we repeat distractions we form habits, and habits that are out of control become addictions. The fight for our online attention is now a trillion dollar business. It’s no wonder that every form of psychological trick is used to hook and hold our attention. What is more scary is that we are unaware of the traps that are set for us. Mindfulness can bring us to a place of stillness, a respite from the constant distraction of our modern, technical world.

5. To discover who we are. In many ways who we are is hidden from us. We can look out but rarely do we look back in at ourselves. We can describe in detail our friend’s personalities and their endearing and annoying quirks, but can we describe our own? It is remarkable that the person we know least about is often ourselves. By becoming an impartial observer of our thoughts, words, actions and feelings we begin to get glimpses of our true self. Not who we think we are, but who we truly are.

6. To live another life. There is another life out there waiting for us. It’s much simpler and involves a lot less doing. It requires us to find moments of stillness throughout the day. It means learning to just be and this is much more difficult than we can possibly imagine. For thousands of years the way to this alternative life is to simply wake up. Mindfulness helps to open our eyes to a richer, peaceful and more fulfilling life.

Why mindfulness?