Raising happy children

It’s actually not difficult, since children are naturally happy and find happiness easily.

All you really have to do is not actively undermine them and you’re already ahead.

I took to heart some painful lessons from my own childhood, and so with my kids I make an effort to:

Not belittle them, their efforts or their interests.

Not criticise, pick on, or draw attention to perceived faults.

Not mock, ridicule or laugh at them.

Limit the harm

We aren’t perfect. I get angry, frustrated, and can be petty or stubborn.

But I make an effort to limit the harm my bad mood might have on my kids.

I apologise to them, and explain that even if they’ve done something wrong, they aren’t to blame for my mood.

Sometimes our reactions as parents can be remarkably childish. It’s important to admit that and apologise rather than dig in and get defensive.

Focus on happiness

As part of my own efforts to be happier I’ve taught my son the “feeling game”, which is basically about finding good things to focus on rather than bad ones.

He’s taken to it with enthusiasm, and will even remind me of it when I’m frustrated or tired.

He has learned through his own experience that focusing on the wanted aspects of life is far more enjoyable than whining about the unwanted.

I don’t think we have to be perfect to be good parents. But I hope at least that my kids will grow up with a clear sense that happiness is accessible to them, and that my honest admission of my slip-ups and shortcomings on this path will aid them in their own journey.

Empty your cup

Yesterday I started tidying the kids’ bookshelf. It was a real mess, with new books having been piled horizontally on top of the others making it almost impossible to retrieve one without triggering a book avalanche.

There wasn’t enough room for everything so I moved onto the parents’ bookshelf hoping to make some space.

An intellectual house-cleaning

Wow! There were some really old books in that shelf!

I don’t mean hundred-year-old treasured volumes. I mean books that represent a part of me I no longer want or need to hold onto.

Textbooks on Neuro-philosophy from my Honours year that were horribly bleak when they first came out and are now outdated to boot.

Books on orthodox Catholic philosophy and theology from when I thought that perfect intellectual formation was the key, as if the answers to life’s questions could all be found via sufficient mastery of the Summa Theologicae.

A couple of new-age and qigong books from people I now know are basically charlatans.

Incredibly abstruse texts on philosophy of language and parsing religious relativism from my PhD studies that might as well be treatises on theoretical physics for all the interest they now hold for me.

The tome-like “Zen and the Brain” I ordered from America back in the early 2000s which I hoped would give me some kind of objective guide in my search for spiritual insight.

Books complaining about the decline of Western civilisation, marshalling the proof that the world as we know is falling apart in all new and exciting ways!

Whether these books were on apologetics and philosophy or mysticism and prayer, they each represent part of my search outside myself. A search for identity, a search for wisdom, a search for inner peace and happiness, a search for empowerment through knowledge or spiritual practice.

Getting rid of these books is like allowing a space to open up for new things in life. Not likely new books, but a new approach. Nor new answers but a new receptivity to what life is offering me.

Because the only reason for keeping a big old textbook on Philosophy is to have it there, on the shelf, as if to advertise my intellectual inventory.

Not a single person has ever inquired, and with good reason. I kept those old books on the shelf but they weren’t active in my life. I was presenting them to others, but even I didn’t value them anymore.

Empty your cup

“Empty your cup” is a popular martial arts idiom derived from a Zen proverb.

It means that we can’t learn something new when we are already full of our own opinions and ideas.

It’s become cliché but I think it fits well with another popular saying “when the student is ready the teacher will appear”.

What does this mean in practice?

For me it means that yesterday I got rid of all the “answers” sitting on my shelf, all the tomes of dead wisdom and intellectual esoterica that I’ve been carrying around as part of my identity, like a sticker saying “ask me about my philosophical background!”

And these non-answers, like the proverbial overflowing tea-cup, kept me from receiving actual answers and insights and wonderful coincidences.

So this morning as I walked home after dropping my son at school I bumped into a friend and enjoyed a conversation that was a perfect match for where I am at today.

There was more satisfaction in receiving that answer, like a sign-post along the way, than I could ever have found digging into my old resources searching for wisdom.

Besides, I’ve already become what I was looking for in many of those books. My personal knowledge and experience outstrips what one might gain from rereading them.

So with a great appreciation for irony I’ll end with a quote from the long-dead Zhuang-zi, translated by the also-dead Thomas Merton:

The men of old 
Took all they really knew
With them to the grave.
And so, Lord, what you are reading there
Is only the dirt they left behind them.

Weight loss and happiness

It’s been over a year since I published The Weight-Loss Paradox: an enlightened approach to body weight and diet.

I reread the book recently and what struck me was how intense it is. It’s like a concentrated dose of all the principles and ideas that helped me lose weight and change how I was eating.

Reading it again helped me get back in that mindset, and to appreciate what an intense period of reflection it was.

Ultimately any major behavioural change requires a lot of focus and energy. What made this approach work for me?

Above all it’s about clarity – clarity of purpose and clarity of method. It’s much easier to commit to a path when you know for certain that this path is the right one.

Looking back on it, I can’t say that it’s the definitive approach and I doubt that any approach to diet and weight loss will work if you can’t find it within yourself to focus and change.

It doesn’t matter how straight the path if you refuse to walk it.

In hindsight what I would most like to explore in greater depth is the relationship between our motivation to change, and the need to find sources of happiness other than eating.

I touched on it in the book, but my own motivation was already well established by that stage. For people who are reading, rather than writing, the book – is it really enough to just look for alternative sources of pleasure and enjoyment?

I think next time around I would make this question more central, because I don’t think it’s a coincidence that eating too much goes hand-in-hand with insufficient sources of happiness and enjoyment.

Many of us think we would be happy if we lost weight, but it’s likely the other way around: we would lose weight if we were happy.

And to achieve happiness we need something more than just a change to our eating habits.

What if we made happiness central to our lives, trusting that issues like body weight and lifestyle choices would gradually shift?

After all, over-eating and being overweight are not the happiest experiences in life. As I get deeper into positive-thinking it seems obvious that we overeat partly because we don’t know how to treat ourselves better.

From “never enough” to “always more”

I’ve been searching for answers for more than 20 years and I wish I could tell you how many times I’ve thought “This is it! This is *the* answer I’ve been searching for!” only to find myself searching again within days or even hours as the euphoria of discovery dissipated.

I kept searching even though searching began to feel less like a journey and more like a compulsion. I can’t help but search, and I continue searching even when I know that no answer will ever be completely satisfying.

But what if “complete satisfaction” is an impossible goal in the first place? Better yet, what if this never-ending search is not a bug but a feature?

The Abraham material I’ve been reading states that the whole point of life in this world is expansion. We will never be fully satisfied, because we are not meant to be fully satisfied.

Searching for complete and final satisfaction is like looking for a meal that finally and forever sates our hunger.

No such meal exists, and if we look at it negatively it means we will never find “true” satiety. But if we look at it positively it means we get to explore and create and try all kinds of different food.

Technology is another good example: I used to feel annoyed and cynical because no matter how good my computer or phone was, it would always become obsolete.

But if you love technology this isn’t a bad thing. Technology becomes obsolete because technology is always improving and advancing! The phone you have now is a vast improvement over the phone you had 10 or 15 years ago.

Both perspectives are true: obsolescence and advancement, endless hunger and gustatory exploration. But one perspective feels bad and the other perspective feels good. Which one would you rather have?

Would the same change in perspective apply to my endless search for answers? It does!

It turns out that while it feels bad to endlessly search for answers, it feels very good to be endlessly having fresh insights and understandings.

Answers that don’t last become insights that never run out. The attitude of endless searching becomes an attitude of unlimited curiosity and wonder.

Getting into alignment

The apex of so-called “positive thinking” is for your thoughts/mind to be in alignment with your innermost being. To that end, I’m putting together a series of principles or reminders to help me return to that state of alignment.

It’s a work in progress, but I thought it would be nice to share it and keep track of it in this space:

  1. if you’re feeling any negativity your thoughts are not in alignment
  2. misalignment can come from habits of thought/belief, or from focusing on external reality, which is a reflection of prior misalignment.
  3. to align it is necessary to have the intention of ‘allowing’ it, but most importantly to stop focusing on misaligned thoughts.
  4. further, detachment or ignoring of present reality may be required to allow thoughts to come into alignment.
  5. alignment is found in the absence of resistant, negative thoughts and hence in the absence of negative feelings too.

The themes of alignment, detachment, and misalignment can be found in mysticism across the great religions.

These principles incorporate the paradox that our lives improve when we stop trying to improve them. It’s our own focus on negative thoughts and beliefs that mars our experience of life.

Feeling like a different person

There’s a saying in the Abraham Hicks material that “you can’t get there from there”.

It has a couple of different meanings, but the meaning I discovered recently is that in my quest for happiness I must at some point feel like a different person.

Living with depression and anxiety for so many years, it makes sense that feeling genuinely better would also be profoundly unfamiliar.

I was so accustomed to my baseline feeling of weariness and dread that going without it almost seems fake.

But the truth is that there’s no continuity from feeling terrible to feeling good. A change in mood is like becoming a different person, and for that reason it’s not possible for the depressed anxious version of me to go along for the ride.

I kept fixating on those negative feelings looking for a solution or some means of transmuting lead into gold. But that’s not how these things work.

Negative feelings are something we create in ourselves, a by-product of the misalignment between our inner being and the beliefs or thoughts we are focused upon.

Those negative feelings don’t need to change, it’s our focus and our thoughts and beliefs that need to change. Then the negative feelings will simply be gone.

It really does feel like becoming a different person after all.

Action and Distraction

If you feel bad and use action to distract yourself, then your action will produce a result that also feels bad.

That’s why my efforts to “problem-solve” my way out of anxiety and depression didn’t work. I used intellectual effort to try to escape those bad feelings, and the promise of an “aha!” moment, the feeling of clarity and understanding, became addictive like a drug.

I’m learning now that I can change how I feel just by changing my focus.

But how is changing focus different from problem-solving or other distractions?

The difference is that it starts with acceptance of how I feel right now, whereas distraction is an abandonment of feelings in favour of activity or stimulation.

Since my aim is to improve my baseline feeling, it makes no sense to abandon and lose track of it for the sake of temporary reprieve. It’s better to feel what I’m feeling (even if it feels not so great) and see if I can gently improve it.

Otherwise when distractions end, we are just back where we started, with the added pain of having been distracted and disconnected from ourselves all that time.

And that’s why life seems to go on so consistently despite the many things we do each day. When our actions end we are right back to the feeling that inspired them. Years can go by without much change to how we feel.

Unless your actions challenge and expand you, they won’t bring about deeper change – they remain mere distractions.

Can you be too positive?

No one has ever accused me of being too positive.

But I’m hoping that will change as I make more progress in my journey from cynicism to optimism happiness.

Last night I swept away some old beliefs that had sat like a deep chasm across my inner landscape.

My prior attempts at being more positive were hitherto hemmed in by that old negativity — I was convinced of a threatening malice in my world, and of my own powerlessness to defend against it.

Now that it is gone – now that I’ve ceased to keep it alive – the relationship between my thoughts and my feelings and subsequent experience of life is clearer than ever before.

It is obvious now that I should focus on finding thoughts that feel good, rather than struggling to control or manipulate external circumstances – since the existence (and my interpretation) of those circumstances hinges on the quality and direction of my thoughts.

So how do we change our thoughts?

The mechanism is obscure, but we do it all the time. We constantly reach for, and accept, thoughts about everything, but we rarely exercise our ability to hold back and be selective about the thoughts we accept.

Reflexivity: thinking about thinking

Today the weather is hot, and the first thought that comes to mind is that the heat is unpleasant.

But I don’t have to stay with the first thought that comes to mind. I can choose one that feels better: it’ll be over soon. The sun is so beautiful. It’s great beach weather. I love how variable the weather is here. I’m so glad we don’t have terrible heat-waves anymore. I love how bright it is outside!

You can tell for yourself which thoughts feel better, and how much better they feel.

If you choose a thought that feels better instead of one that feels worse, you have successfully changed your thoughts and hence your feelings, and hence your reality.

So far so simple.

But what might happen in the midst of choosing a new thought is that you find yourself thinking about this process itself.

You might think: this is stupid, you can’t change anything just by thinking about it.

Or: this is hard work, I don’t want to have to do this all the time.

What’s happened is that choosing a more positive thought has brought out of hiding higher-order thoughts or beliefs.

And it turns out that these higher-order thoughts or beliefs also determine how you feel, and hence your reality.

So try as you might to feel better about the weather by changing your thoughts, if you have higher-order thoughts that say positive-thinking is a load of wishful thinking and self-delusion, you will continue to feel bad and nothing much will change.

The good news is that you can change your thoughts about positive-thinking itself just as easily as you can change your thoughts about the weather.

So can you be too positive?

Hence the title of this post: the idea that you can be too positive, or that being positive is a superficial attempt to delude oneself, these are themselves beliefs or thoughts that determine how you feel, and hence your reality.

There is no such thing as “too positive”, because the thought of being “too positive” is not a positive thought.

If you think there is such a thing as “too positive”, you are, by definition, being too negative.

Ghost in the Shell: what is it really about?

I’ve been a bit slow on updates since the arrival of our baby girl a couple of months ago.

Nothing quite like regularly-interrupted sleep to trim one’s creative efforts!

But someone ‘liked’ my previous post on Ghost in the Shell, and that reminded me I’d intended to write a follow-up post on it.

(That’s not true. I’m melancholic, so I didn’t need reminding. I’ve been constantly berating myself for not having done it yet).

I originally wanted to write about the character of the Major, what makes her a good character in the anime movie and SAC series, and why these features didn’t translate into the Hollywood adaptation from 2017.

But as I thought about the Major, I realised that what makes her character successful has as much to do with the plot and themes of Ghost in the Shell as it does the character itself.

What is Ghost in the Shell about?

Ghost in the Shell contains numerous themes.

It showcases great action scenes, political intrigue, geopolitics, the widespread impact of new technology, and philosophical and personal questions of identity.

People will draw out different aspects. For example, many fans of the original anime were moved by the explicit engagement with philosophical questions raised by cyborgisation and artificial intelligence.

But that doesn’t mean Ghost in the Shell is “about” philosophy, any more than it’s about the unrequited affection between Batou and the Major.

Rather, what makes Ghost in the Shell so compelling to its fans is that even the profound question of personal identity is just a secondary theme.

The Major wonders about her identity – not her biography, but whether she is, or can remain, the same person over time despite changes to her body, and the further implications of the digitisation of human memory.

But Ghost in the Shell is not about the Major’s identity.

Sci-fi vs Drama

The Hollywood adaptation contains many of the same themes as the anime movie and SAC series, but the priorities are different.

The adaptation features corporate-political intrigue, examines the impact of the new technology of cyborgisation and includes crime-solving and numerous action scenes; but the central theme of the movie is the Major’s personal identity, as in, her true biography.

The adaptation brings the Major’s personal drama to the foreground, and relegates the science-fiction aspects to background or setting.

The movie uses cyborgisation as the pretext for the Major’s identity crisis, but the loss of her memories is not intrinsic to the cyborgisation process.

We could remove cyborgisation from the story altogether, remove all the sci-fi elements, and still have the movie be about loss of identity through loss of biographical memory and an altered appearance.

Real Sci-fi

By contrast, the original anime and SAC series downplay personal drama. Questions of personal identity are raised in both, yet really only enough to show that, yes, there are questions of personal identity raised by this new technology.

How could the original anime raise such interesting questions and not pursue them as central to the plot?

There are actually two good reasons:

Firstly, questions of personal identity might be interesting in a philosophical context, but they would make for a very dry and uninspired movie unless they were dramatised.

Philosophy is an academic discipline, not a performance art; and it’s likely that viewers who are intrigued by the intellectual aspect of identity would be turned off by a dramatic portrayal of a character in the midst of an identity crisis.

Which is likely one reason why fans were less than enthused by the Hollywood adaptation.

Secondly, the original anime didn’t explore the questions of identity further because it is about something else.

The original anime is driven by sci-fi, not drama. And while it takes place in a world full of cyborgisation, an expansive internet, and tanks with legs!, these technologies are just the setting or background for the technology that really drives the plot: artificial intelligence.

It may sound underwhelming or even a little quaint these days, but the big reveal of the Ghost in the Shell anime is the existence of a sentient being who evolved from an espionage program created by Section 6, an intelligence unit under Foreign Affairs.

Project 2501 or “the Puppet Master” gains sentience and realises that in order to survive it must, like all species, find a way to reproduce itself. To that end it offers to merge with the Major, the two of them becoming a new entity.

Technology drives Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell depicts a complete and believable future world in which the emergence of a sentient AI seems plausible.

The other themes of the original anime are either directly or indirectly subordinate to the science fiction question: what would a sentient AI be like? What would it do? How would the world respond to it?

Political intrigue is involved in both the creation of Project 2501 and subsequent attempts to control or destroy it, where it is viewed not as a “living thinking entity” but as a computer program with a functional purpose, touching on the question of what constitutes “life” and the foundation of individual rights.

When the Puppet Master escapes to Section 9, it demands political asylum, leading to this exchange with its former master Nakamura:

Nakamura: Ridiculous! It’s programmed for self-preservation!

Puppet Master: It can also be argued that DNA is nothing more than a program designed to preserve itself. Life has become more complex in the overwhelming sea of information. And life, when organized into species, relies upon genes to be its memory system. So man is an individual only because of his intangible memory. But memory cannot be defined, yet it defines mankind. The advent of computers and the subsequent accumulation of incalculable data has given rise to a new system of memory and thought, parallel to your own. Humanity has underestimated the consequences of computerization.

This is the core of the anime movie, what it is really about.

The creation of this “new system of memory and thought” is highlighted by the Puppet Master’s use of a cyborg body similar to that of the Major.

It underscores the Major’s previous doubts about her own identity:

I guess cyborgs like myself have a tendency to be paranoid about our origins. Sometimes I suspect I am not who I think I am, like maybe I died a long time ago and somebody took my brain and stuck it in this body. Maybe there never was a real me in the first place, and I’m completely synthetic like that thing.

But once again the drama is downplayed. This isn’t about the Major’s existential crisis, it’s about the Puppet Master. So the conversation continues along philosophical lines:

Major Motoko Kusanagi: But that’s just it, that’s the only thing that makes me feel human. The way I’m treated. I mean, who knows what’s inside our heads? Have you ever seen your own brain?

Batou: It sounds to me like you’re doubting your own ghost.

Major Motoko Kusanagi: What if a cyber brain could possibly generate its own ghost, create a soul all by itself? And if it did, just what would be the importance of being human then?

Adaptation-failure

The Hollywood adaptation earned some respect from fans for its attempt to reproduce the look and feel of the anime movie and SAC series. But ultimately it disappointed fans because it missed what Ghost in the Shell is really about.

The Hollywood adaptation took a secondary theme of the original anime and used it as the basis for a drama about personal identity in a sci-fi setting.

The adaptation couldn’t help but seem thin by comparison.

It might have been better for Hollywood to have aimed to create a new installment in the franchise rather than an adaptation. What sets the original anime and the SAC series apart is that they each contain a core technological theme that drives the entire plot.

SAC series one is about the phenomenon of the “Stand Alone Complex”, which, like Project 2501, originated in a context of political/corporate intrigue and then took on a life of its own.

I won’t go into series two due to its complexity and risk of spoilers, but it’s noteworthy that the more recent Arise anime series seemed to focus on an origin-story rather than a core sci-fi theme, and like the Hollywood adaptation it too missed the essence of the franchise (and the esteem of the fans!).

Now that we’ve seen what Ghost in the Shell is really about, my next post will look at the character of the Major, and why it works.

Learning to feel better

It’s been a while since I last posted. We’ve been a bit preoccupied with our new baby, and some days my ability to put words together seems to have deserted me entirely.

In the meantime I’ve been working more on positive thinking, and experimenting with how changing my thoughts can change my feelings and my whole experience of life.

Thoughts that feel good

Being interested in mysticism and spiritual traditions gives me a different perspective on this stuff.

But in a way, thinking about God, ultimate reality, metaphysics and so on becomes just another interesting topic that I can feel good about.

It’s very easy to feel good when thinking about the divine being that underlies all reality, and ultimately the metaphysical implications of (good) positive thinking material seems easily reconcilable with my own understanding derived from comparative mysticism.

So at the moment I seem to be relying on two processes or ways of improving my thoughts.

The first is to take that transcendent, divine perspective and see that “Everything is perfect exactly as it is”.

The point of this is that if you appreciate everything as perfect, you get better at doing that, whereas we usually focus on the problems and irritations in life, which means we’re highly practiced at finding faults.

The positive thinking stuff points out that if we practice finding faults then we’ll continue to find more faults, create more faulty situations, and fail to see how situations are actually perfect for us.

But if we start looking for things to appreciate, we become more skilled at finding things to appreciate, creating appreciable situations, and increasingly fail to see faults and obstacles in our lives.

Typically we avoid doing this, because we assume that reality is a fixed, objective thing “out there”, and our experience is more or less an accurate reflection of that reality.

I used to think this as well….or at least, I acted as though it were true despite my broader theoretical understanding.

But in the past few months I’ve proven to my own satisfaction that it isn’t true at all.

I’ve found that if I change my thoughts – my actual thoughts – on a given topic, I feel differently about it, and mysteriously my experience of that topic changes in ways that I would have thought defied reality.

In brief, things have gone better, because I changed my thoughts in ways that made me feel better.

Obviously I don’t mean that I simply told myself falsely optimistic things and tried to believe them. That doesn’t work.

Thoughts that feel better

What I’ve been doing instead is identifying the thoughts that I genuinely think about a particular topic, and stating them as clearly and as negatively as I fear them to be.

When I do this, part of my automatically comes to my defense, as if bringing those negative thoughts into the light of day shows how incomplete and unwarranted they are.

Sometimes the negative thoughts have turned out to be excessive… For example, thinking “I can’t work out the answer to this problem!” makes me feel bad, but if I think “I haven’t been able to find the answer so far…” then I feel just a tiny bit better about it.

This “tiny bit better” isn’t enough on its own, but at the same time I can choose to take it as evidence that the process works.

It provides evidence that I am able to improve my mood by focusing on more positive thoughts.

That thought in itself is more positive too, and gives me a feeling of hope.

And since I now feel a bit better, I have access to other thoughts that feel better still.

“I haven’t been able to find the answer so far…” “but I’m working on it now with a new approach and a better understanding”, for example.

Again, it’s not a case of just saying stuff that sounds better, if it doesn’t actually feel better then it’s not going to do anything for you.

The whole point is to feel better, after all.

A practiced skill

So I’ve been using these two basic methods: finding thoughts that feel better than my current thoughts, and focusing on a transcendent sense of appreciation, that “everything is perfect exactly as it is”.

The latter works because I believe it on a theoretical level, so it too is an example of focusing on better-feeling thoughts. The reason why this alone is not sufficient is simply that I don’t spend every waking moment on the subject of metaphysics and divine reality.

As my skills increase with practice, I find I’m gradually closing the gap between this transcendent view that everything is perfect exactly as it is, and my views on a range of other subjects.

I’m now much more aware of when I, or other people, focus on things that make us feel bad.

Now that I have the choice to feel better, it’s so much more obvious when I instead focus on the negative.

I’ve also found that I have more of a tendency to look at things according to how I feel about them, rather than the “reality” that is supposedly informing those situations.

For example, if I’m worried about how a brewing process is going, whether I made the right choice with my recipe, I once would have sought reassurance by going over the procedure and revisiting my decision-making process.

Now I’m more likely to notice that this worry doesn’t feel good, and become conscious of where I’m putting my focus. Am I focusing on not screwing up the brewing process and the many ways it could go wrong? Well no wonder it feels bad. Why not focus instead on the final product and wonder how good it is going to taste?

Again, this is not a case of wishful thinking, it’s a deliberate choice to change my focus, emboldened by the knowledge that the resultant experience is far far more malleable than we imagine.

Telling yourself “it doesn’t matter, how you think won’t change the outcome” is simply not true.

Be good to yourself

Underlying all of this is an intention or decision to feel better, and to put feeling better at the forefront of your concerns.

That’s one of the things that struck me when I examined some of my negative thoughts….before I even thought to rebut it or provide counter-arguments, I was struck simply by how cruel and unwarranted the negative thought was.

If someone said your most negative thoughts to you, you’d be taken aback by the hostility and apparent malice or lack of empathy within them. But we tell ourselves these things all the time.

That’s why the choice to feel better and make that the measure of your thoughts and focus is such an important first step.