(larger PDF version)
Last month, I wrote two articles on my endeavour to be more attentive, appreciative, playful and full of wonder in everything I do. It’s the kind of post I haven’t written in a long time, since I’ve come to believe that our selves are illusory, and that hence we really have no control over what we do or don’t do.
So I was cautious in my ambitions: The idea was to see how I could make what I know I’m already going to be doing anyway, easier and more fun, by doing it differently in a way that would also increase my attentiveness, appreciation, playfulness and sense of wonder.
Some of my regular readers justifiably called me on the contradiction between these ambitions and my assertions about the impossibility of self-change. What I wanted to see is whether striving to do these things would prove futile (vindicating non-duality), or whether my success at doing them would undermine my recent belief in our lack of free will, choice and self-control.
It’s early going, but I have noticed some patterns to my behaviour in the month since I made the original list of 17 “ways of being differently” that I had hoped would inspire and influence my attentiveness and appreciativeness. Here’s what I have noticed:
- I need cues to remind me of these attentiveness and appreciation activities: After a brief flurry of using this list quite deliberately, I found that there needed to be some ‘marker’ to bring my attention to the 17 items on the list at the appropriate times. Lacking such cues, I have only played the Teahouse Game, for example, when I’ve found myself in a teahouse (it could be played many other places). Most of the 17 items are not my normal behaviour, not who ‘I’ am, and so remembering to do them and doing them has proven to be astonishingly hard.
- A simple cue that can be put in place in advance seems to be most effective. Last month I explained how my treadmill desk has made my aerobic workouts easier and more fun (by allowing me to multi-task while I exercise). This past month I’ve had a list of non-duality audios and videos taped beside my free weights, and hence have been listening to these recordings to pass the time when I do my upper body and core exercises. So far, so good.
- Some simple cues don’t work. I had a “heat turned down?” sign on the stairway for a year which I ignored. What did work was permanently turning down the thermostat and not turning it back up. Now, when I do turn up the thermostat, I immediately program it to turn back down again at a pre-set future time automatically. I may be incorrigible, but make it dead easy and apparently I can be trained.
- Generic cues that don’t make it easier or more fun don’t work. The old tie-a-string-on-the-finger or have-your-phone-beep-on-the-hour cues (to ‘remind’ you to breathe or check in or whatever) just proved to be annoying and I quickly stopped using them.
- A list itself is too complicated to serve as a cue. I’ve carried it around, but it doesn’t get used. There is also far too much on the list, and some of the activities on it are neither easy nor fun. I decided to slash the size of the list, and have simple cues for each in a place I’ll stumble on them when I’m doing an applicable activity.
The streamlined, re-cast list is the first 5 rows of the chart above. For each of the 5 major types of activity that make up most of my waking hours, I’ve identified one or a few ways in which I might be more attentive and appreciative doing these things. And then I’ve identified an easy-to-follow (or fun) cue, prepared and properly placed in advance that might remind me of these ways in the moment.
So when I am about to check my emails or online groups, or about to start composing an article, story or piece of music, a little “?” flag (pasted at the top of my screen beside the camera) reminds me to check in on whether I’m enjoying it and think about how it might become easier or more fun. Before starting scheduled social activities (especially those I’m not excited about), I look at a small card that I clip to the event paperwork that reminds me to pay attention to my feelings, body, instincts and to listen appreciatively without rushing to judgement or response.
In addition to putting non-duality recordings beside my weights, I’ve moved lights, candles, incense, oils, binoculars and microscope to where I’m likely to see and reach them easily (and hence use them more often) when I’m listening to music, going for walks etc.
This is all about setting myself up, by making it easier and more fun to increase my attentiveness and appreciation for what’s actually happening, in everything I do.
So back to the non-duality question: Did ‘I’ decide to do this, and if it keeps working does that mean that my ‘self’ actually does make decisions that affect the creature whose body my ‘self’ purportedly occupies? Or were all these mental gymnastics the only thing this creature could have done, ‘self’ or not?
I think it’s the latter. It’s in the curious and idealistic nature of this creature to try techniques (like Getting Things Done), and acquire tools (I have bought other exercise equipment that I quickly gave up using and gave away), to influence my behaviour. ‘I’ have no choice but to explore and lay out cues that prompt me to do things differently. This was what provoked me to acquire the treadmill desk a couple of years ago. Since then ‘I’ haven’t changed — I still hate exercising and procrastinate about it. But because it’s now easier and more fun, this creature is exercising more regularly. Non-duality vindicated, or at least not undermined.
Something happened in the midst of all this that set this experiment back considerably: An unseasonably cold, windy and snowy winter that isolated me in my home (which depends on electricity for heat) caused my anxiety level to soar. I fell into a lethargic and unhealthy state and could not shake myself out of it. In my younger days this would have likely led to a full-scale bout of depression, but this creature seemingly has outgrown the chemistry of depression and instead now gets into an anxious, spacey, incapacitated state until the source of anxiety passes.
As soon as the weather improved, I was back to thinking about how I might reduce such unhealthy reactions in future. I know I can’t avoid stress, but I wondered if there might be tools to mitigate the risk and effect of this hyper-anxious state, and cues to alert me to the fact I was falling into it. The theory is that being self-aware of it is half the battle. When I get into this state, I’m about as un-self-aware as one can get.
The second 5 rows of the chart above reflect my thinking on this to date:
- I started with diet. My friend Mat, who’s a fellow vegan, put me on to a delightful vegan doctor’s website and videos. Nutrition Facts is a non-profit, volunteer-driven project whose aim is to encourage more research into nutrition to prevent disease (since such research doesn’t profit Big Pharma, which subsidizes most research, little of it is done). Some foods clearly enable to body to handle stress better, and others are serious stressors. So I’ve found some simple recipes (raw veggies with dip, smoothies etc) to make it easy and tasty to eat the stress-busting foods I like anyway. And I’ve resolved not to fall back to vegetarian when tempted by some foods I really like that contain dairy (pizza, quiche etc). I suspect the latter part of this plan will be less successful.
- There are a number of other stress-busting activities that I already like: hot baths, music, scents & incense, pampered sleep, an hour a day in the sun, relaxing tapes etc. Each morning when I think about what needs (or wants) to be done that day, I now schedule as many of these activities as practical, and ensure that the tools that make them possible are on hand and visible around the house, as a reminder. Again, this is about using handy tools and obvious cues to make it easier and more fun to do the same things I am already inclined to do, a bit differently.
- The final rows on the chart identify the four main types of stressors in my life these days. They crop up all the time. I pondered how I might alleviate the more incapacitating aspects of the anxious, spacey state they tend to get me into, starting with how I might become at least more aware of the fact I was falling into that state. For me, this stress reaction is essential to who I am — I have no illusions I can ‘learn’ to think myself out of an anxious state (as you probably know, I’m not a fan of CBT or other ‘self re-programming’ methods). Black ice and flickering lights during a blizzard just get to me viscerally; it doesn’t matter that my fear/anxiety is unwarranted. But I do know that loved ones can calm me down by simply, objectively bringing my attention to my unhealthy, unhelpful internal state in those moments. There are some things, I suppose, that one cannot do for oneself, or one’s self — the help of others is required.
I used to believe I could change myself, that my self was real, in control, and responsible. And while I no longer believe that, I think there may be ways to set myself up to be more attentive and appreciative, more stress-resilient, and, with others’ help, more self-aware. We’ll see.