Finding your innate happiness

We don’t experience reality directly. We translate it through the medium of our thoughts, beliefs, and expectations.

That’s why it’s so powerful to make peace with where we are – not in resignation, but in acceptance that this is our own temporary and malleable creation.

Pushing or pulling against aspects of our experience is futile. Giving attention to unwanted conditions keeps them active.

But if we accept how we feel within the reality we’ve created, we change how we relate to our own creative process. We become conscious of reality as an act of creative attention.

And since reality is an act of creative attention, the moment we think about changing it we give our attention to thoughts of dissatisfaction and need and pushing against our own creation.

The trick is to accept it as it is in the moment: an act of creative attention; and in that acceptance we let go of struggle and resistance to our own creation, and become aware of our intrinsic power.

In the absence of struggle and resistance, our deeper desires and preferences will naturally emerge. It’s like falling asleep. You can’t fall asleep by trying, all you can do is relax and put yourself in the best conditions for sleep to come.

Happiness is innate in all of us, and it is only obscured by our attention to unwanted thoughts and conditions, which mount and increase by our efforts to push against them.

Accepting this whole creative reality as it is right now allows our innate happiness to rise to the surface.

A brutally honest diet post

You can’t keep doing the same things and expect a different outcome.

You can’t eat the same amount of food, do the same amount of exercise, and expect to lose weight.

Why do I prefer milk in my coffee rather than black? Because of the taste.

I prefer the taste but I don’t prefer the byproduct of being overweight.

Everything I eat at the moment is about enjoyment. I’m eating food for the enjoyment of it. And while that sounds okay, I don’t like the byproduct of being overweight.

But the thought of eating less right now is terrifying. It feels like hard work and sacrifice, and for what? To be a few kilos lighter?

Am I really willing to sacrifice all that pleasure and enjoyment for the sake of such a minor aesthetic goal?

Of course not. Why the hell would I?

Not for minor weight loss, but for something more meaningful and more daunting: the realisation that the pleasure and enjoyment means so much to me.

I’m not against pleasure and enjoyment; I think life should be enjoyed. But honestly I’m disturbed by how much food means to me right now, and how fiercely I resisted the thought of going without.

Have I no other pleasure or happiness in life? Does food overshadow all other sources of enjoyment? Will my inner landscape be so bleak if I stop eating for pleasure?

Yeah, maybe.

There are other sources of enjoyment but I haven’t practiced enjoying them. That’s why food is so prominent for me. I’m a good cook, I buy good ingredients, I make sure it tastes great. And it’s so easy to enjoy what I’ve created.

I’m very good at making food that my family and I enjoy. So why not turn some of that skill, focus, and attention to other aspects of life?

Why not get good at enjoying other things? Why not practice finding pleasure and enjoyment elsewhere? I can make a tasty dinner out of random leftovers and ingredients in my fridge; can’t I make enjoyment out of the vast resources of my daily life?

It’s terrifying and daunting to think of cutting back on my enjoyment of food, but for that very reason it’s a clarifying moment and an opportunity to start finding enjoyment elsewhere, to start becoming someone who feels great being alive, regardless of how much I’m eating.

Relish the more subtle flavours and tastes of everyday life. Start choosing fresh, good quality ingredients. Blend them in new and interesting ways and give them time to cook to perfection.

Explore these underdeveloped senses of taste and smell. Appreciate the savour and the sweetness in each moment as if sampling a new cuisine.

I believe I can do it. I can turn my creativity and my appetite to new aspects of life. I can find the wanted aspects of every day and draw happiness and pleasure from them.

Eating less is not a sacrifice of pleasure. Abstaining from food gives space and time, an opportunity to truly appreciate the fullness of my experience.

Feeling good amidst the pandemic

An unexpected benefit of having been a depressed, anxiety-ridden person is that I’ve spent a lot of time learning how the human mind works and how (and why) to manage my own emotional state.

I’ve delved into various resources from religion and spirituality to philosophy and psychology searching for things that would help me find answers and feel better.

And while I can’t claim to be an enlightened Stoic master or a wizened Eastern sage, my familiarity with these various theories and traditions makes it a lot easier to deal with challenging circumstances such as the ongoing global pandemic.

For example, I get that people are afraid. But the worst thing that can happen to you is that you die, and that’s always been on the cards. In fact death is one of the few things in life we are all guaranteed to experience.

That’s why it’s been such a focal point of religious, spiritual and philosophical thought throughout human history.

People have always feared it, but they have also sought to understand it, make peace with it, and even use it to keep things in perspective, with a touch of memento mori.

If you accept that death is the worst thing that could happen, and yet it was always going to happen anyway, doesn’t that take some of the stress out of current circumstances?

If death is unavoidable should we even consider it such a bad thing? If death is going to happen anyway, I might as well not stress too much about it.

If death is inevitable, there’s no point succumbing to fear and anxiety about it. Not only is death inevitable, it’s clearly part of the plan.

Since death is inevitable the worst that can happen is I live in fear and anxiety over it. I can’t control death, but I can control how I feel about it.

I can control how I feel by choosing what I pay attention to, which trains of thought I encourage, and what information I contemplate.

In every moment I can choose what to think, and with practice I can change the overall tendency of my thoughts. The more you focus on thoughts that feel bad, the easier it will be to find bad-feeling thoughts.

The more you look for thoughts that feel good, the easier it is to find them.

It’s not as simple as looking at “the facts” either. Because we are the ones who determine what facts are relevant and admissible; and on a subconscious level we even filter and interpret our reality, “the facts”, according to our prior expectations.

That’s why it’s not enough to wait for things to improve before letting go of anxiety and fear. The choice to feel better needs to come first.

Have you ever had the experience of sharing good news with someone only to have them stubbornly persist in feeling bad?

In my city there are people who think they are living in a news report, who assume every person they meet has the virus, and that they might catch it by eating takeaway.

And it’s not possible to prove them wrong or convince them to feel better.

But it is possible for them to feel better, if they practice talking themselves into a better-feeling place.

What it takes is a commitment to feeling good, regardless of what “the facts” might be. It takes a degree of faith that there will always be reasons to feel good about life no matter what is going on. It takes a clarity of knowing that no matter where we stand, it is always better to feel good than to feel bad.

I decided for myself that I would feel good even if there was no evidence to support my feeling good. And once I made that decision, I began to find evidence that did support my optimism.

At the same time I stopped giving attention to news and media that I felt would encourage fear and pessimism. I don’t watch TV news. I don’t read articles saying how bad things are or how much worse they’ll get or how worried I should be.

Don’t agree when people make dire predictions or tell you how bad things seem to them. Also don’t try to convince them otherwise.

When you make a commitment to feeling good regardless of what the facts say, you allow yourself peace of mind and clarity, and then you are in the best position to find and interpret evidence that supports feeling good.

While feeling good I stumbled across information about mortality rates that showed the figures in some countries were likely to be drastically exaggerated.

Out of curiosity rather than fear, I started looking at the statistics in my own state and found that here in South Australia we had amongst the highest levels of testing per capita in the world, but with very low positive test results. These results strongly suggested that the virus was not being transmitted in the community, and that the authorities were doing a good job of capturing and containing any outbreaks.

I was discussing these statistics with friends back on the 28th March, and subsequent reports from SA Health have affirmed my conclusions, with one further cluster of cases quickly brought under control, numbers of new cases steadily declining, and zero new cases over the past three days despite a testing blitz targeting anyone with cold or flu symptoms.

But even so I’m not relying on this information to make me feel better. I’m choosing to feel better, and noticing facts and details that affirm the direction I’ve already chosen.

People are now catching on that the situation is not as bad as they feared in Australia and SA in particular. But some are still fearful and anxious, going beyond the necessary safeguards and firmly believing they’re surrounded by contagion.

And that fear and stress is unnecessary. We don’t have to feel anxious and fearful. We don’t have to feel bad. It’s just a matter of what we choose to focus on, and how we practice.

And you know what? It’s even okay that people are scared unnecessarily. Being afraid helps some people do the right thing. Some people need fear and calamity before they take their social obligations seriously. There’s good to be found even in instances of people refusing to find the good where they are.

Diet and exercise – the anxiety connection

The relationship between body weight and diet is physically simple yet psychologically complex.

What I mean by “physically simple” is that when we overeat regularly our bodies store excess energy as fat, and if we stop overeating our weight returns to normal.

But this simple relationship becomes complex because many of us eat for the rich and varied pleasures and distractions eating brings. What typically drives this search for pleasure and distraction is our underlying negative emotion.

So although we might wish we could lose weight, our actions are driven by a deeper desire to avoid and escape unpleasant feelings and the thoughts that prompt them.

When we try to modify our eating habits without acknowledging our underlying motivation to keep overeating, we experience inner conflict and struggle.

Where does exercise fit into this?

Once again it is physically simple – at least on paper. Exercise uses energy and the more energy we use the sooner we return to a normal weight (assuming we also stop overeating).

Parallel to weight loss is an improved physique. Most of us wanting to lose weight also want improvements in how we look and feel, and in our health and fitness. Weight loss through diet alone doesn’t necessarily improve these other facets of health and aesthetics.

So we are encouraged to hit the gym, go running or cycling, “get moving” to enhance our weight loss and also build our health and improve our appearance.

Physically simple. Psychologically, not so much. And here, at least for me, is the reason why:

Exercise is supposed to feel good. Moving your body is supposed to feel good.

But for as long as I can remember that hasn’t been the case for me.

Over the decades it’s gradually become clear that I am chronically tense as a result of anxiety and related problems. This tension causes fatigue as I attempt to go about my daily life while exerting unnecessary effort and internal resistance.

Tension arises from anxiety as part of the fight-or-flight response. Our muscles activate to prepare us to run away, or to stiffen up in response to physical attack.

Another layer of tension comes into play as we try to function normally despite this unpleasant fight-or-flight state. For example, anxiety may pull your body into a defensive, hunched posture. But feeling so defensive when there is no objective threat can make you self-conscious. And yet attempting to force a more “natural” posture only adds to the tension in your body.

Now imagine going for a walk or a run in that state. Imagine trying to lift weights in a crowded gym. Imagine trying to relax in a yoga class.

It’s not just about feeling tense and tired. It’s also about form. Good form is vital to effective exercise and physical activity that is sustainable and injury free.

But it can be very difficult to find and maintain correct form when various muscles in your body are activating in response to a state of anxiety and fear.

So what’s the answer?

As with dieting, the first step is to really accept that your mind and body are being pulled in different directions.

My ideal has been to find ways of achieving my goals without inner conflict. Inner conflict is inefficient, unpleasant, a waste of time and energy.

In my approach to dieting I essentially made peace with my conflicting desires and came to terms with the “hidden” motivations that turned dieting into a struggle.

I called my book “The Weight-Loss Paradox” because at the time making peace with my inner conflict meant that I stopped pushing against being overweight. I stopped trying. I stopped struggling.

But I did that with the deeper belief that there was a natural ideal that my body would align with, once I removed the sources of struggle and conflict.

When it comes to exercise the same dynamic is coming into focus. The fact that I don’t do “enough” exercise is not a problem to be solved or a failing to be overcome. Physical activity is meant to be enjoyable and natural. Pushing myself to exercise more doesn’t really make sense when, in an ideal world, I would naturally want to be active and I would find excuses to be more active.

And when we take into account my anxiety and physical tension it makes perfect sense why I do not spontaneously exercise more, or make good-feeling plans to be more physically active.

My body’s current state of being reflects a fight-or-flight response that overrides the natural enjoyment of physical activity. It’s an undiagnosed complaint of which physical inactivity is just a symptom. I’ve been told for years that my problem was not doing enough exercise; but that’s just a symptom or side-effect of the actual problem.

At rest I can actually feel the tension in my body, pulling me into a closed, defensive posture. Getting up to do exercise has no appeal because my body is preoccupied with this stressful and burdensome physical response.

I can’t immediately turn it off. I can’t simply relax right now. But I can at least stop adding to the pain and struggle by demanding I be physically active. I can stop beating myself up for not imitating other people’s lifestyles and exercise regimens and relaxed way of being.

And this is the path to de-escalating the fight-or-flight response and anxiety itself. Being okay with what’s going on in my body takes a whole lot of unnecessary stress out of the equation. Analogous to not beating yourself up for being overweight or for overeating…because whatever is going on within you did not happen overnight and is obviously not under your immediate conscious control.

Did rethinking dinner help?

Yes.

In the previous post I questioned my habit of eating almost nothing until dinner, and accepted that there was an escapist motivation behind it.

Since then I’ve made a point of eating a bit more food earlier in the day, and taking some of the shine off the evening meal experience.

If dinner is just another mealtime and I’m not making a big deal of it, then I’m disrupting the habit of overeating and emotional dependence on food.

I can eat more in the morning and less at night, or less in the morning and more at night; it doesn’t really matter to me.

And in the end that’s what is really important to me: being able to eat what I genuinely want, when I want, and not out of escapism or compulsion.

The meaning of dinner

A big thank you to those who’ve bought a copy of my book recently. I wasn’t expecting it! I hope you find it helpful!

*Sigh*

I didn’t want to do this, but it’s clear that my attitude to dinnertime is distorting my relationship with food.

It’s evident in my BMI that I’m still continuing to overeat. And if that wasn’t enough, my reluctance to examine my ritual of the evening meal indicates that there’s something going on.

Okay here goes.

As a parent and a husband I’ve poured my creative efforts into cooking delicious meals for my family. And both the preparation and especially the eating are a relief from daily burdens and boredoms.

There’s a kind of magic in setting out to cook. And there’s a delicious escape in sitting down to eat.

Last night I cooked pizza and switched off my brain to eat.

Tonight I’m cooking jiaozi dumplings, and my anticipation of their deliciousness is already taking me to a happier place in my mind.

The thought of depriving myself of that is painful. But using the principles developed in my book, that means I already feel pained and I’m relying on dinner to help me avoid facing it.

When I think of the food I’m going to cook tonight it gives me a sense of direction and purpose that is otherwise lacking. It’s a purpose and meaning firmly under my control, since I source the ingredients and do all the preparation. So it comes with a sense of efficacy too.

Purpose, direction, control, efficacy, and then enjoying the fruits of my labour.

The thought of cooking but not eating, or eating only what I need, brings feelings of resentment and discouragement to the surface.

I’ve imbued my evening meal with an equal and opposite emotional sway. I’ve practiced switching off once fork hits food. And so at dinner time I overeat, eating less throughout the day in anticipation of the nightly feast.

It’s not about the quantities per se, but the fact that I’m eating for reasons that override and distort my natural relationship with food. I’m letting the experience determine how much I eat and that makes it hard to stop when I’ve had enough.

Can I really cook those delicious jiaozi tonight and only eat as few as I need to keep going?

It’s not going to be easy, and I’ll probably not succeed this time around, but at least I’ll be mindful.

Mindful not just of how much I’m eating and why, but also of the negative emotion already there.

Because when I tune out of the negative emotion I’m feeling, I’m actually tuning out of myself and my life. I’m tuning out me, and that is the most disempowering thing I could do.

The answer lies instead in accepting how I feel, acknowledging that it’s okay to feel bad, if that’s how I feel (and I can’t stress this enough: get professional help for dealing with negative emotions and the experiences that caused them).

I’m learning to sit with negative emotions and not run away, not busy myself in efforts to escape them. I just breathe, feel, and remind myself it’s okay to feel this way and it won’t last forever.

As I learn to continue being myself in the midst of negative emotion, the emotional escapism tied to eating (or drinking, or any other compulsive/addictive behaviour) will soften and fade.

My jiaozi are delicious, but that’s not why I’ve been eating too many of them. My family dinners are delicious and rewarding, and in fact they will become more rewarding as I begin to enjoy them for what they are, and not use them as an escape from something else.

Tonight I will pay attention to how I feel as I cook and eat.

Changing your body

In my approach to diet I shift the focus from losing weight to repairing my relationship with food.

But there’s another factor that often goes unmentioned and that is changing our relationship with our bodies.

Part of my original motivation was to experience being lean, and being firmly within the normal BMI range.

I was very open-minded about what that could look and feel like. And I think this open-mindedness is often forgotten.

The way my body looks and feels right now is changeable. It’s not simply about losing fat by eating less, it’s about how I envisage myself in my embodied form.

Being overweight isn’t just about excess fat, it’s an aspect of my lived experience of my body.

Can I really imagine how it would feel for my body to change? Do I know what I’m aiming for? Do I recognise that I’m entering unknown territory that may change how I feel, how I carry myself, how I dress, and how I relate to others?

It’s a big deal. And it’s not just a matter for overweight people. Everyone carries a sense or multiple senses of how they live their embodied form, how others perceive them, and how they perceive themselves.

We are shaped by habits of thought and action that often proceed unconsciously. Most of us have never really imagined ourselves being shorter, taller, leaner, heavier, older or younger. To imagine it is to begin opening our mind to other ways of being.

And what is this diet about if not finding a way of being I enjoy more? I can’t be the same person but thinner. Likewise, I don’t want to live the same life but with less food. I want a change, and that has to start with an openness to possibilities and a conviction that something good awaits.

Why write?

I’ve been writing for about fifteen years in various capacities.

Journaling, fiction, opinion pieces, work projects, blogging, and non-fiction books and articles.

Motivation is the most significant component throughout all of my writing. Most conspicuous in its absence, motivation is the difference between a finished article and an unfinished stub of an idea.

What moves you to write?

I’ve experimented with different motivations over the years. The promise of financial rewards worked…once. The hope of finding a purpose and meaning in life kept me going for a while.

For a long time my motivation was helping people by sharing insights and perspectives that I found valuable.

But that motivation took a hit as I eventually realised my insights and perspectives don’t help people. People help themselves, and they find the right material at the right time. Aka “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

My remaining motivation had to be entirely self-centred. If I can’t help others, all that’s left is helping myself. So I wrote to express and crystallise my own thoughts.

But lately I’ve been wondering if even that is beneficial. Endless rumination doesn’t help me. So why continue writing?

The end of objectivity

Recently I learned that I’ve been operating under a false premise when it comes to my own motivations and choices.

As an ethicist, I not only accepted but also internalised the fundamentals of ethical theory: that there are right ways and wrong ways to live, there are actions that further our happiness and actions that undermine our happiness. Ethics is about trying to work out principles and rules to guide our choices.

And the implication is that we can’t trust ourselves. We can’t trust our feelings, our desires, our naive thoughts and impulses. The history of ethics is a history of human beings trying to shape themselves and others, on the premise that we aren’t right the way we are.

There’s plenty of evidence to support this. But given that we create our reality through our thoughts, expectations, and what we give our attention to, the belief that human beings are in need of fixing will always provide its own evidence.

Even within ethics, people have historically held with equal conviction that human beings are born good but turn bad, and conversely that they are born bad but with some promise of turning good.

Has anyone held that people are born good and stay good just the way they are? Probably, but these people tend not to get into ethics.

What does this have to do with motivation?

What I’ve learned is that desires and preferences and impulses don’t need to be justified, and yet my own belief that they need ethical justification and guidance is a surefire way to suppress motivation.

It wasn’t enough for me to simply enjoy writing – I had to imbue it with a deeper meaning and purpose and rightness. I had to have some kind of deeper principle or basis to my motivation.

That’s a huge burden to place on something that could serve me simply as an enjoyable pastime, rather than some kind of epic search for meaning.

What if I write in the context of enjoying life, while letting enjoyment be its own justification?

Ethically, that’s a recipe for societal collapse into anarchy and hedonism. But people don’t operate ethically, they operate according to their own non-academic beliefs, thoughts, feelings and desires.

Life can be a lot more enjoyable if I accept that enjoyment is a good enough motivation to live by.

Will it mean I write more? I don’t know. But so long as I’m enjoying life it won’t matter.

Diet in a time of Coronavirus

At a time when Australians are hitting the supermarkets to stock up on food and other essentials, I’m appreciating being so acutely aware of how little food I need to survive.

A third of Australian adults are overweight, which means a lot of people in this country overeat, not to mention the food waste from households (and the whole industry and supply-chain).

That translates to a lot of people currently buying more than they usually buy, which is already more than they actually need.

In my approach to diet I’ve become more and more mindful of why I eat, and why I sometimes eat too much.

Once you distinguish between eating for nourishment versus eating for pleasure, escape, comfort, and socialisation, it’s startling how little is needed.

I’m pretty sure a lot of the panic buying is driven by the need for food as an emotional support. People are anxious, and obtaining large quantities of food brings a primal sense of security.

I’ve literally brought home the bacon, and not only is survival now assured, but so is the crispy, delicious, fried and salty sensory overload, should I need it to help me feel better about the unfolding catastrophe around me.

Except I’ve been progressively reducing my use of food for emotional support, and taking some of the emotional complexity and codependence out of eating. I don’t need the food to make me feel better, just to give me enough energy to live.

In a healthy serve of irony, right before the panic buying began I was already thinking about reducing the amount of food I buy and cook for myself and my family.

Food as fuel

I like to imagine food as fuel. Imagine you’re throwing wood or coal into a furnace. You want the fire to keep going at it’s optimal rate…you don’t want to give it too little fuel because then it will die down. But nor do you want to smother it with too much fuel.

It’s not a bad analogy, since cellular respiration (the process of converting chemical energy into cellular energy within our bodies) is technically a combustion reaction, just like burning wood or coal.

But I’m keeping it as a rough analogy, because what I like to imagine is the food I eat being akin to fuel thrown on a fire. Too little and I feel weak and dizzy – the fire dies down. Too much and I feel heavy, full, and bloated – the fire is smothered.

And it’s not just the amount of food, it’s also the type of food. Eating heavily-processed sugars and carbohydrates provide energy but leave me feeling unwell, like throwing accelerants on a fire – the burst of flame from flammable liquids and solids dies down quickly and gives off unpleasant fumes.

So I let my body guide me, and it can have some surprising results. Fruit doesn’t appeal to me as much, and I naturally eat fewer carbohydrates overall.

But occasionally this same intuitive sense of what to eat leads me to fats, oils and salt, or to wholemeal bread, dairy, protein – all in small quantities but presumably fulfilling a need for specific nutrients.

Wholesome is how I would describe these impulses. Certainly different from the needy sensation of craving other kinds of foods, and different even from the feeling of wanting to repeat a wholesome food experience.