Joy

I bought a lawnmower a couple weeks ago and I love it. It is a super, sweet $40 push mower that doesn’t require any gas or electricity. Instead, it is powered by calories and it is perfect for our small yard (1,200 square feet is small, right?). I could have opted for a more advanced lawn mower, but that would have been crazy. Why would I spend more money on an object that reduces my pleasure? Particularly one that is going to have continued costs like gasoline or electricity?

What it comes down to, I guess, is that I get joy out of mowing the lawn. In fact, I get joy out of all of the yard work. Trimming trees, raking, sweeping the driveway, planting a garden, etc all bring joy into my life. Not only do these activities get me outdoors into the sun (get that D!) and fresh air, it provides an opportunity for me to meet my neighbors. If I was pushing some loud, gas-powered beast or paid someone to mow my lawn then I wouldn’t be in a position for small talk and neighborly bonding. Yard work provides an environment to meet people without it being super awkward.

It is also pretty good exercise. It certainly isn’t an aerobic exercise, but there are health benefits to neglecting automation and getting your hands dirty. Cooking, cleaning, and house maintenance can all be accomplished more quickly with advanced technology, but they also create missed opportunities to become more healthy. Little micro-exercises of chopping and cooking my own food, cleaning my house, and working in the yard burn a few extra calories and keep me up and active throughout the day. Instead of sitting at my computer all day and letting machines do my chores, I have an excuse to take a break from the screen and get moving.

Now, I’m sure for some people the idea of getting out into the yard a few times a week sounds worse than rusty razor blades being pressed into their gums. So, where does this difference come from? Is it something that we just chalk up to the variety of humans and how our experiences (including joy and sorrow) are objective? Or can we learn to get joy in things that we used to hate?

Personally, I think we can train our minds to get pleasure from things that we used to hate, and that is actually something we should pursue if those things create a healthier life. One of the things that struck me about the individuals in “Born to Run” is how often they described 100-mile runs in almost child-like terms… they felt joy and excitement, it was a fun activity. I’m sure we all remember running as fast as we could when kids and ecstatically screaming in joy, but somewhere along the way we lost that. I don’t really know why, but I hope I can get that joy back for things that make me healthy.

Fresh fruits and vegetables, meeting new people, exercise, and yard work can all be sources of joy… not just because of the result, but actual joy in the moment. We can practice mindfulness during these experiences in a way that enrich our lives and make us better people. At least I hope so, I’m going to try and reset my views on things that I “hate”. Instead of saying “I hate running” I’m going to try and find that childlike feeling of running as a form of play. That type of negative mindset limits my life options, and I like to have lots of options. I don’t think dislike or pleasure in a particular act is something that is determined for us by our genetics, our minds (and all the emotions that come with it) are within our control. I can learn to love running, just like I now love Brussels sprouts and yard work.

I wonder what else I “hate” I can learn to love… maybe I should give pickles and Seinfeld another chance.

Advertisements

Emotion is my middle name…

While biking today I found myself in a situation that I’m sure many people can relate to. I was stopped at a stop sign at an intersection where the cross traffic does not have a stop sign. Basically, in order to turn left, I had to wait until there was a complete break in traffic, or at least a break in traffic on the right while the traffic on my left was turning right. Anyway, there was no traffic at all on my right but a flood of traffic on my left. As the cars approached they all turned right without using a turn signal. Car after car turned without signaling. If just one car used the signal I would know I could cross traffic safely… but it didn’t happen and I felt anger boiling up in my body and I muttered under my breath “I hate people who don’t use their turn signal”.

But that isn’t true, for a couple of reasons.

First off, hate is way too powerful of an emotion to explain my feelings. By mentally using such a strong word to describe my feelings I have watered down what that word means. I’ve removed a word from my vocabulary to accurately express my feelings when/if they actually reach hatred. It is dishonest and intellectually weak. I don’t “hate” people who don’t use a turn signal.

In fact, I don’t even dislike “people” who don’t use turn signals. That one action completely devoid of the intentions of the driver does not provide me with enough information about whether I like them or not as a person. So, without real information about their personality, behavior, and goals, I must default to liking them… maybe even loving them. My default position with people should be to see them in a positive light.

So, a much more accurate statement would be “I don’t like when people don’t use their turn signal”. I didn’t like the situation I was in, both because it caused me inconvenience (a very, very, very small 30-second inconvenience) and because my reaction to the situation was one of anger and frustration. I didn’t like how I reacted, but that is hardly the fault of the driver.

What does a negative response like that get me? I don’t arrive at my destination sooner. Hell, the person who is frustrating me doesn’t even know. They aren’t punished for their behavior, but I punish myself again. My anger only hurts me, it forfeits control to someone else who doesn’t even want it.

I’ve recently come across a lot of talk on emotion. Coincidentally, both the book I’m currently reading (Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama) and the Coursara Course I’m taking (Positive Psychology) discussed the structure of emotional response. Situations generally go like this:

Step A: An event happens (someone doesn’t use their turn signal)

Step B: An emotional starts (Frustration)

Step C: My body and mind respond to this emotion (Body tightens, pulse increases)

Step D: I respond to emotion

Step D is where we have control and can take many forms. Maybe I realize what is happening and try to evaluate Step A (what event started this, is the response appropriate, how can I prevent it in the future), or maybe I react towards whatever caused Step A (I cuss, I scream, I try to fight). I can also try to calm the emotion through meditative techniques or change how my body feels through deep breathing and focus on other things. The goal is to eventually prevent Step A from turning into Step B (at least when it comes to negative emotions), but that is a big ask. Our emotions are a result of millions of years of evolution and simply aren’t fit for a post-hunter/gatherer society (much less a post-industrial one). It takes a lot of hard work to rewire the brain and overcome the deep emotional grooves that have been made. But, I’m going to try.

My first step is to try and remove negative language from my vocabulary (unless it is accurate) and to properly articulate how I feel. Instead of “I hate people who don’t use turn signals” I want to start thinking “I find it inconvenient when I’m delayed because of the actions of others”. Instead of saying “I would kill for a slice of pizza” I should think “I am really craving pizza and would pay a high price for it”. Exaggeration and hyperbole has its place, but not with internal dialogue. Our mind should seek truth and an accurate view of the world, we should attempt to see and respond to things as they truly are. Hopefully, taking the hyperbole out of my internal dialogue will help with that, hopefully, I can cut negative emotions off at the knees and prevent them from even starting… but at the very least I hope I can intercept them before Step C.

Kindness

Yesterday, I finished the foundational 30 meditation exercises in the Headspace app and I am now free to pick any of the 10-session packages they have. There are about 15 packages that cover a wide range of topics to help with your health, relationships, and performance. I decided to start with “Kindness”.

I know that I am not always as kind to people as I could or should be. I don’t think I am cruel, but I do have a hard time feeling empathy or sympathy for other people. I want to enhance my emotional intelligence and stop being so logical. I wasn’t always this way, I used to be a hopeless romantic who wore his heart on his sleeve, but not really anymore. After my time in the military, an emotionally abusive relationship, and working in politics in DC, I had a hard time seeing people as humans or relating to them on an emotional level. I’m not as bad as I used to be, but there is still plenty of room for improvement and healing.

The first meditation lesson for Kindness focused only on being kind to myself. This surprised me at first, but maybe it shouldn’t have. One of the concepts discussed in one of the books I’m currently reading (Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama) is how the Tibetan and Western views of compassion differ. In Buddhist view, you cannot be compassionate towards another person if you aren’t compassionate towards yourself, while in the Western world compassion is generally focused only on someone else. My meditation practice isn’t religious but there are eastern philosophical views that run through it.

I don’t think that I am particularly unkind to myself, but there is a little bit of guilt that comes with taking care of myself or showing compassion to myself. I used to be much, much harder on myself though. When I was still coming to terms with my sexuality, relationship preferences, spiritual beliefs, and political viewpoints I was very hard on myself. I was still breaking out of religious conservative brainwashing and saw myself as a weak sinner who had no value and would be better off dead. Because I didn’t match what my family wanted I was a failure and had let down everyone. I don’t feel that way today, not by a long shot, but I still have trouble being kind to myself. I see so much potential that I fail to reach and occasionally beat myself up over it, or I look at myself in the mirror and wish I was more attractive or fit and think how my partner would be better off with someone else. These moments of unkindness to myself are rare, but they happen.

Hopefully, the meditation practice will help me continue on a path of growth and healing. I hope that it can help me become more kind to myself, and as a result more kind to others. It is hard being in a new city without a lot of friends… making friends is hard as an adult, particularly for two introverts like us. We aren’t big partiers and I am awkward at conversations because I want to discuss taboo things like sex, drugs, politics, and religion. Maybe kindness can help open some of the doors that have been closed to me in the past and allow me to make the world a better place.

Time for Some Holiday Sin

The holiday season is upon us. I spent the last couple of days driving up from Dallas to St. Louis to spend time with my partner’s family, and the next week or so is going to be filled with a whirlwind of family, food, and travel. To be honest, I was kind of stressing out about all this. I felt like I had finally settled into a healthy routine of exercise 4-5 times a week, eating right, working on learning German, reading regularly, and taking a couple of courses on Coursera. Now, all of that is disrupted and it really frustrated me. Luckily, I had kind of a drunk epiphany last night and my attitude changed.

Instead of worrying about how behind I’m getting or how that cookie is going to effect my waistline, I’ve decided to view this time as a reward. I deserve to be gluttonous and lazy and slack off for a few days. I’m going to spend some time enjoying all the sinning that is excused in the name of holiday cheer. If I find myself with some spare time I will work on Coursera and reading, but that is unlikely. Instead I can play Hearthstone, take naps, and try to sneak in some banging even though the family is around.

I think a big part of this drunk epiphany has come from my meditation practice, which I’ve really started to make an important part of my day. Mindfulness has made examining my thoughts without judgement almost second nature. When I was feeling stressed or bummed I was able to take a step back, look at why I was feeling that way, and analyze if there was anything I could do to change the circumstances. I couldn’t really change the travel and such, but I could change the way I viewed their impact on my life. Instead of a disrupting obligation they became a welcome reward for being awesome. So, now I’m looking forward to a week without work, chores, or concern over my fitness. That stuff will all be waiting for me in January.