Letting go of problems and embracing a new paradigm

What happens to a problem-solving mindset when we evolve beyond problems?

Recently I’ve been watching the TV series Alone which puts ten people alone in the wilderness to see who can survive the longest. In season two the surprising thing is how many of the contestants manage to reach a place of steady survival, only to quit once things become stable and routine.

They are very good at solving the problems of survival in a difficult environment: obtaining food, water, and shelter. But once those needs are met, the problem-solving mindset fails in the face of “monotonous” daily life.

Or perhaps we could say that their powerful problem-solving mindset successfully solves the remaining problem of loneliness and boredom by sending them home?

I used to identify with a problem-solving mindset too.

But lately I’ve felt a new state or way of thinking emerging, one which is no longer oriented to problems or difficulties but to receiving something great.

I don’t yet have the words to describe it, but that’s exactly what makes it so tantalising and fresh.

And the best part is that my usual way of thinking has the ability to bridge the gap between where I am now and where I want to be. My mind has the ability to translate this fresh new idea or state of mind into reality.

But not if I set out looking for problems to solve, obstacles to remove, or difficulties to overcome.

This new idea or perspective I’m reaching for is purely positive. It’s as if I’ve spent years climbing mountains and finally arrived at a spectacular hidden valley.

If we stay in a strictly problem-based mindset we cannot appreciate the grandeur, freedom, and lightness of receiving something purely positive.

But by knowing and sensing that this purely positive, fresh new perspective is there, within reach, we need only move toward it, learning the shape and the feel of it, until it becomes the measure and the touchstone of a new way of living and thinking and being alive.

How to relax completely

I want to be able to relax completely. I want to be able to enter a state of deep relaxation that overflows into my everyday life.

So how do I do this?

I’ve tried breathing exercises and meditation many times in the past, I’ve also tried yoga, massage, reiki, spiritual healing, psychotherapy, nutritional supplements, warm baths, cold showers, qigong, and seen Physiotherapists, osteopaths, and a handful of others I can’t remember.

But in the past I didn’t understand CPTSD, emotional flashbacks, or dissociation. I didn’t understand how mental representations create my reality. Following on from yesterday’s post: I know now that long-standing behaviours like dissociation and hyper-vigilance have a cognitive basis.

In other words, I can’t relax because I have some kind of belief that it is more important for me to remain alert and vigilant.

So no matter how many exercises or methods I use to relax, part of me is adamant that I remain alert and on guard at all times.

Brainstorming relevant thoughts about being alert, I come up with:

– I need to pay attention in case something bad happens

– I need to be aware of everything around me

– if I don’t pay attention something bad will happen

– you can’t take your eye off people

– you shouldn’t ever let your guard down

– better safe than sorry

– if you’re not paying attention, anything could happen to you.

These sound a bit nebulous, but they were backed up by bad experiences of being caught off-guard by awful people, leading me to subsequently reinforce the fallacy that “this wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t let my guard down”.

Why is this a fallacy? Because being eternally guarded and hyper-vigilant is not the answer to a happy and safe domestic environment. While it may be true that guardedness and vigilance could pre-empt instances of abuse and harassment, they aren’t viable solutions to abuse and harassment.

And while it’s also true that abuse and other forms of trauma might be more jarring if they happen when we are relaxed and unguarded, it’s ultimately a deeply maladaptive strategy to therefore determine that we will never again be caught relaxed and unguarded.

So in order to relax completely it is necessary to first remove ourselves either temporarily or permanently from sources of abuse, harassment, or danger in general, and second, to acknowledge and accept that being guarded and vigilant is unsustainable. Find a safe space, and really affirm that it is now safe to be – in the best sense of the word – careless, inattentive, oblivious and forgetful; to well and truly let go of any thoughts of threat or danger or negative consequences of being deeply and satisfyingly relaxed.

Outgrowing dissociation

Wikipedia describes dissociation as:

“any of a wide array of experiences, ranging from a mild emotional detachment from the immediate surroundings, to a more severe disconnection from physical and emotional experiences”

Dissociation has a protective purpose: it stops us from focusing on painful experiences, thoughts, or memories.

But it doesn’t negate or nullify the painful experience etc. Rather, akin to distraction, it takes our attention elsewhere until the negative stimulus is numbed.

I don’t know the exact mechanism of dissociation or distraction or even deliberate attention and focusing; but whatever the mechanism, dissociation presupposes cognitive states that favour dissociation over attention. In other words, we dissociate because we believe it’s better to dissociate than to face the unwanted stimulus.

Sometimes we just have to endure unwanted situations, even if it’s as innocuous as playing with your phone while stuck in a waiting room or a long line.

But for children especially, traumatic situations can seem impossible to escape. Dissociation is often the only accessible mechanism for reducing the stress and burden of abusive or traumatic or neglectful conditions.

Is it possible to stop dissociating by changing the thoughts or beliefs that made dissociation the most viable option in the first place?

Thoughts like:

– there’s nothing I can do to stop this

– it’s easier if I just go along with it

– if I fight or resist it will only make things worse

– there’s nowhere else to go

– at least I can block these awful people out

– even if I’m powerless, I’m still free inside my head

– I can control how I feel

– I won’t give them the satisfaction of getting angry or upset

These kinds of thoughts aren’t bad; they highlight the fact that dissociation is a coping mechanism.

But if I’m no longer in a place where “coping” is necessary, dissociation in fact keeps me from more efficiently processing and replacing old thoughts with new ones. It makes sense to change these thoughts and put an end to dissociation.

The fact is that “coping” and enduring no longer serve me. Enjoyment is a much more relevant skill now; enjoying life has replaced enduring abuse and neglect.

Dissociation assumes that I must be always enduring something unwanted. It’s a skill based on avoidance and the expectation of bad things, and this expectation shapes my reality.

So even if our lives are otherwise wonderful, the habit of dissociation can make it seem like there are still ambiguous threats or problems to deal with.

I don’t need to use dissociation anymore, because I have much better ways of dealing with unwanted situations – and that begins with not attracting them in the first place.

Emotional flashbacks and Law of Attraction

Emotional flashbacks are strong emotional reactions to thoughts or mental representations/cognitions.

The emotional reaction is a perfect match to the cognitive state, but too often we are unable to put the cognitive state into words. If we can’t put it into words, how can we challenge it?

I woke up this morning feeling bad but not knowing why. That’s typical for emotional flashbacks, and may also imply some degree of dissociation.

My usual approach is to focus on the feeling, remind myself it has nothing to do with current circumstances, and try to remember a time in the past when I felt a similar feeling.

This can be difficult because dissociation is designed to block out or disconnect from such memories.

But if I can start to remember the original circumstances it becomes a lot easier to put into words the thoughts or mental representations that were formed through those experiences.

We all live in the present, but our present is coloured and shaped by the thoughts we formed in past circumstances.

So what can we do but notice the emotional flashbacks, put the corresponding thoughts into words, and then begin the work of finding thoughts that feel better?

If the specific memories are too vague or hard to pin down, try to summarise the feeling in words.

“Life is shit!” Might capture the feeling (while again noting that it has nothing to do with current conditions).

Why might I have strong negative belief like “life is shit” running along in the back of my mind? Well, there are very obvious past circumstances that I know really were shit at the time, and I endured those circumstances for many years. So it makes sense that my bad circumstances throughout my formative years would have also informed my thoughts about life and reality.

My life is pretty good now, but with those thoughts still active I continue to have emotional flashbacks that warp my perspective of the present.

The solution is to update that old painful narrative: my life used to be pretty shit. I was surrounded by pretty awful people, and I took to heart a lot of their negativity. But I don’t interact with that kind of person anymore. I’ve made great progress in letting go of negative beliefs and expectations, and resolving these kinds of emotional flashbacks.

These days I only interact with people I love and appreciate. My worst days now are still better than my best days back then. I understand now how my thoughts and mental representations create my reality. And I know clearer than ever what has brought me to where I am today.

I’m looking forward to even clearer self-knowing and an even more satisfying life ahead. Things keep improving, and I witness the process behind that improvement. I’m daily refining my skills, and this translates directly into feeling better and better across all aspects of life.

Life used to be shit but it’s not anymore, and I know why and how it will continue to improve.

Why I hate writing

I’ve written a lot over the years and used to enjoy it.

But over time my enthusiasm waned as I realised that what made sense to me didn’t necessarily make sense to anyone else.

I thought I was communicating valuable insights, but what did those insights amount to?

Now when I try to write I feel almost immediate weariness and disgust. I know that it’s not writing per se, but the way I am trying to write.

Nonetheless I still try and fail repeatedly every week.

Along the way I learned that I’m tired of trying to communicate to people who don’t care and don’t want to listen. As a child it was ingrained in me that whatever I had to say was by turns ridiculous, worthy of contempt, deserved to be outright ignored, or to be painfully endured as the most burdensome thing imaginable.

“Are you finished?” 🙄

When it came to writing I tried to limit myself only to ideas that seemed objectively worthy of communication, divorced from my subjective voice and perspective.

My ideas had to be entirely defensible, and I strived to find points of interest that made them relatable and “worth listening to”.

None of these are bad in the right measure, but they can collude to support the deep conviction that anything I communicate has to overcome a barrier of hostility and opposition; that my words and thoughts have no intrinsic worth and are not worth the effort of communicating.

This is all the result of childhood conditioning, and what it calls for is the remedy of recognising that my expectations were shaped by some really awful people, but most people in the world aren’t like that, and I do in fact receive many positive responses from people I’ve never met who resonate on some level with the words I have written.

Ultimately, we write for ourselves regardless of how others respond. We write to express our thoughts, to clarify and focus our perspectives. We therefore don’t need to impose restrictions or extrinsic criteria in the hope of pleasing an audience or avoiding criticism and condemnation.

Most people aren’t awful; many people are lovely, authentic and open. If I write firstly for my own benefit and secondly with the expectation that most people aren’t bad and many are good, then I think I can learn to enjoy writing again.

Wu Wei and Law of Attraction

There’s a zone of silence within us that we can step back into, letting go of the hooks and strings that usually pull on us as we react to the conditions of our experience.

“The sage does nothing, but nothing is left undone.”

When you find that mildly detached place within you, it’s as if you know how to respond intuitively to every little thing that does (and doesn’t) require a response.

I used to practice it sparring with friends in martial arts: there the sense of inner detachment immediately released the fear of getting hit or the need to unnecessarily react to punches and kicks that were never a threat.

Later I learned to do it while looking after my kids: freeing me from my own worries and frustrations around crying babies that refuse to sleep, and giving me a kind of sixth sense for what they really needed in the moment.

Well that sounds amazing but in reality I was haphazard and inconsistent in my practice; now with three young ones I’m remembering what I used to do and how well it worked.

To sum it up: inner peace lets us respond with instinctive ease to the flow of events and circumstances around us. 無為 wu wei , translated as “non-action” or “not doing”, implies that when we let go of contrived intentions and actions we find a deeper instinct or intuition that guides us in accordance with the dao.

All this time I thought that I was allowing myself to respond better to objective external reality. But from a Law of Attraction perspective there is no external reality to adapt to.

From the Law of Attraction perspective, those moments of stepping back and letting go were non-resistant. And the intuitive responses that came to me were the first manifestations of the better-feeling conditions flowing to me as a result.

Letting go of resistant thoughts or mental representations allows us to attract conditions and realities that match our innate love and joy and satisfaction.

The crying children become easy to soothe because we are letting go of preconceived resistant thoughts and expectations.

With wu wei we aren’t responding better to reality, we are allowing a better reality to flow to us.

The Iceman, shallow breathing, and the freeze response

I’ve started experimenting with “The Iceman” Wim Hof’s breathing method because of the evidence that it can reduce inflammatory agents in the body.

But the deep breathing proved increasingly difficult for me to sustain. Breath holds? No problem. It’s the quick, repeated breaths that left me tense and unable to continue.

Which is great, because I’ve struggled with different forms of exercise and physical exertion all my life, but hadn’t considered the root cause might be in my breathing.

It turns out that stress, trauma, and anxiety cause shallow breathing. The fight-or-flight (or freeze) response sometimes calls for complete stillness and silence, with the possibility of frantic action if the situation calls for it.

You see a bear in the woods (or in Australia a snake) and our first reaction is to freeze and hope the dangerous animal doesn’t notice us. The backup plan is to get the hell out of there, requiring the use of auxiliary breathing muscles in the chest and neck.

This article describes the process in detail, rethinking the stock advice to “take a deep breath” in the context of strength training, yoga, and other forms of exercise.

When you freeze, your breathing becomes almost imperceptible. Many people go through life breathing like this, compensating with occasional deep inhalations and periodic sighing to balance out the shallowness.

The article linked above offers some suggestions for grounding oneself in the absence of deep breathing. For me these experiments with the Wim Hof method have brought to light a core component of health and vitality that was inhibited due to prolonged stress and trauma.

As I observe my breathing I now recognise that familiar feeling as the freeze response in action, attempting to still and reduce all movement and activity, out of a primal instinct for self-preservation.

Do your thoughts create your reality?

The etymology of thought comes from the verb to think:

From Old English þencan “imagine, conceive in the mind; consider, meditate, remember; intend, wish, desire” (past tense þohte, past participle geþoht), probably originally “cause to appear to oneself,” 

So a thought is something conceived in the mind, caused to appear to oneself. In cognitive science or philosophy of mind these are called “mental representations”.

Much of our thinking or representation is done in abstract, but we can also think in sensory forms such as visual and auditory, and in verbal form as well.

In other words, we can picture, hear, smell, taste and touch things in our minds, and we can talk or listen to ourselves in words, and we can think wordlessly as well.

All our thoughts are representations to our own minds. But what is the purpose or use of such representation?

Some argue that mental representation evolved because it allows us to creatively solve problems by imagining how reality could be different.

But philosophers and scientists also recognise that mental representation is to some degree implicated in our experience of reality. We don’t perceive reality directly, we perceive what our brain has processed and interpreted reality to be.

This gets really interesting when we consider the role cognition plays in our mood and overall mental health. Therapies like CBT explicitly try to alter our mental representations to help us feel better. They train us to change the words, images, and abstract symbols we create in our minds.

It turns out that constantly telling yourself “life is just too hard” will make you feel pretty bad about living. Or that traumatic experiences of abuse, threat, and violence can persist for decades in your mind as representations of possible dangers you may have to face at any moment.

Representations are powerful. Thought is powerful. And we recognise most clearly in cases of trauma and mental illness that others’ mental representations are not serving them. But we struggle to recognise it in ourselves, and above all we collectively struggle to see anything awry when our negative mental representations are considered “normal” simply because they are widely shared.

It is inspiring and uplifting to know that when we change our representations we change our reality on a profound level. Not only can we recover from the destructive and limiting stories of the past, but we can surpass or simply discard what others consider “normal” as well.

Making people happy

“Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering” – C.G. Jung

Neurosis develops when we try to avoid “legitimate” suffering in ourselves or others.

Legitimate suffering is the unwanted conditions of our reality. If I’m poor but don’t want to accept it, sick but don’t want to face it, lonely but don’t want to admit it; in every case it is healthier to admit and face the unwanted conditions as our starting point, rather than twist and writhe in efforts to deny or offset the discomforting truth.

Today I realised that since I was a child I have wanted people to be happy. In all relationships and interactions I took it as unquestionably good to wish for the happiness of others and, where possible, help them in their own striving for a happy state of being.

I took this benevolence for granted, and didn’t even consider it open to doubt.

But I was wrong. We each create our own reality, and the happiness of others is categorically none of my business.

This might sound harsh but the fact is that we all have unwanted conditions in our own reality, and no one can remove those conditions for us. No one can make us happy.

I can’t control other people’s moods, nor they mine. We are each responsible for our own happiness.

And the path to happiness cannot bypass acknowledgment and making peace with unwanted conditions. In other words “legitimate suffering” must be faced for us to move on to genuine happiness rather than neuroticism.

Trying to make other people happy is itself a recipe for neurosis. When we do things for the people we love, it is our own love of them that inspires us. And our inspired actions are best accomplished when we do not carry the impossible burden of making people happy.

Evolving spiritual beliefs

Spiritual or metaphysical beliefs represent how we see ourselves in relation to all that is.

Our metaphysical beliefs matter, even if they don’t seem to figure in everyday life.

But even our metaphysics are influenced by our individual personalities. It’s not easy to reconcile a “self-made man” ethos with a belief in divine providence. Personal responsibility doesn’t sit well with a belief in an all-powerful God.

On a different tack, the impersonal nature of Daoist or some Buddhist beliefs might appeal to, or repel, people depending on how they relate to the idea of a personal deity.

It’s not just that faith means different things to different people, but that different people are drawn to different ways of relating to existence itself, or conceiving of that relationship.

My metaphysics were unwittingly shaped by traumatic experiences as well as my underlying temperament; hence I was drawn to spiritual perspectives and practices where the individual mind finds peace and wholeness by realising its unity with a divine and transcendent truth.

Everyone knows that words themselves aren’t the way, they can only point the way; hence it doesn’t matter if you call that transcendent being God or Sunyata, or the Dao. But it does matter what we are trying to accomplish in relation to that transcendent being.

I always emphasised the loss of self in the divine, the search for security and sureness and freedom by surrendering individual boundaries and letting go of personal preferences and will.

But now I can see that this was also a way of retreating from conflict and trauma, surrendering boundaries and a sense of self that were already extremely fragile. I neglected the fact that the union of the human and the transcendent is an intermingling. We connect to the divine not to surrender a flawed human experience, but to complete it and make it whole.

Some mystics wrote of losing themselves completely in the divine…but they found enough of themselves afterward to speak or write about it.

New wine

Jesus said “Whoever loves his life will lose it, but whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life”…and I don’t know what he was talking about. Why would you want to keep a hateful life for eternity?

I don’t worry anymore about things that don’t make sense to me. If it doesn’t make sense to me, it probably isn’t meant for me. But at the same time, I’ve outgrown some things that used to make sense.

It used to make sense spiritually to deny myself, hate my life, and look for the freedom of retreating into something I knew to be perfect, pure and free. But now I’ve decided that life is supposed to feel good, and be good. My life is supposed to be happy.

And all of a sudden I saw the shift in my spiritual beliefs: I am not meant to be losing myself in a greater, transcendent whole. I am a part of the whole, to which the greater, transcendent, divine being extends and communicates itself.