Finding motivation

Whether it’s losing weight or learning to meditate, motivation is the key.

The key to motivation is belief. The reality we each inhabit is entirely framed and contextualised by our beliefs about it.

I’ve tried for many years to meditate, because I believed it would help me find peace and happiness.

But for some reason I found it so difficult that I began to suspect it just wasn’t for me.

It’s not until recently that I understood why: meditation is really, really easy, but I believed it should be difficult.

I came to meditation and spiritual practice as a kind of epic journey and worthwhile accomplishment. I believed that in order to be worthwhile, the journey must be difficult.

And coupled with this was my desire for an identity and sense of self-worth. So meditation had to be difficult, to give me a feeling of accomplishment.

Making things easy

Many things in life are easy once you’ve worked out what you need to do.

But even “easy” things are difficult if you lack the motivation to do them.

Losing weight and meditation are great examples.

If I want to lose weight, know how to do it, but don’t do it, then clearly something is going wrong.

If I want to meditate, know how, but don’t…it’s a motivation issue and therefore a belief issue.

Self-examination

So why haven’t I been meditating every day?

To examine myself on this subject I imagine the scenario in which I meditate every day and bring that peace and ease into my life.

I notice a negative feeling in me as I imagine this scenario. It’s a bit like part of me feels left out of this scenario.

So part of me is resistant to what I want. This is inner conflict, and explains why I’ve struggled to do what I think I want.

The resistant part of me isn’t bad. It probably comes from an earlier time in life and represents different priorities and wants.

So part of me wants to meditate and feel good each day, and part of me wants something else, and the end result is inner conflict that comes across as a lack of motivation.

The next question to ask is: why? Why would part of me not want to meditate and feel good each day? What would I lose if I felt good each day….if I felt relaxed, easy, peaceful…

I need to get things done.

That’s the thought and the feeling that came up as I expanded on my desired state of ease and peace.

Part of me strongly (and with negative feelings) believes that I need to get things done, and this belief – and especially its emotional tone – conflicts with meditating and feeling peace and ease and relaxation.

By a process of self-examination this conflict is becoming conscious. Two parts of me that have never met are now connecting and I’m in a position to reconcile the implicit conflict between “getting things done” and “enjoying life in peace and ease”.

Resolving the conflict

It’s immediately clear to me that the desire to get things done is not a happy one. It feels bad, fearful, and stressed.

It no doubt stems from an earlier period in life when I was under strong external pressure to “get things done”. Back then it seemed like getting things done was the best way to remove that external pressure and find relief.

So this part of me isn’t bad or wrong. It was my best attempt to find relief and ease under very specific circumstances. I just haven’t updated it or examined it since then. I continued living my life with this belief operating quietly in the background.

Under external pressure it made sense to get things done so I could rest and play and be free from pressure. But that pressure no longer exists, and yet I’ve kept it alive in my mind for years.

As I tried to meditate in the past, these different parts of me tried to find their own balance by turning meditation into a difficult challenge that, if accomplished, would count as “getting things done”. But that’s not how meditation works.

While I wanted to meditate, part of me wanted to appease a sense of external pressure. It was only as I learned that meditation is actually meant to be easy that this conflict came to the fore, because nothing “easy” can placate the pressure I had internalised.

Updating old beliefs

Beliefs like “I have to get things done to relieve external pressure” don’t serve me anymore.

As I become conscious of them they lose their power and I am able to update these old beliefs with my new knowledge and clarity.

Now I can imagine again my desired scenario of meditating and allowing that ease and peace and relaxation and happiness to flow into every day.

And as I feel the resistance from the old beliefs, I can continue to expand on my desired scenario with words that soothe and neutralise the old belief: I don’t have to get anything done. I am relaxed and easy. My whole day feels like ease. There is no pressure on me to get anything done. There is nothing I need to do. There is nothing I ever need to get done. There will never be anything that needs to get done. There will never be any pressure on me.

Meditation is ease. Meditation is all I need to do. My whole day can be ease and relief and relaxation, and there is no one and no thing that can resist it.

I can feel the shift in my mind as these beliefs change. It will take continued practice because “getting things done” will crop up again in different contexts. But I’ve sown the seeds of the new belief and so long as I practice ease and relief the conflicts will resolve naturally.

Getting to the root

As I practice, the root beliefs in this conflict will eventually arise.

I create my reality. My beliefs literally create and form the reality I inhabit.

Why does meditation allow ease and peace and relaxation? Because reality is meant to be easy and peaceful and relaxing, it’s just beliefs like “I need to get things done!” that create conflict.

Meditation suspends those thoughts and beliefs and temporarily removes the conflict.

Time spent in meditation feeling good reinforces the intrinsic goodness of existence and weakens the hold of old beliefs.

And along the way, the act of meditating becomes a measure of motivation, and hence an indicator of the beliefs active within.

Weight loss: Time to get serious

So I’ve lost 4-5kg using my approach, and I’m borderline overweight according to my BMI.

At this stage the pleasure of eating still motivates me to eat more than I need to keep going. It’s easy to think “screw it” and eat more for dinner and also have something for dessert.

I’ve been at this point for a couple of weeks and the beauty of doing this mindfully is that I’m increasingly conscious of my decision to overeat.

It’s simply cause and effect: my overeating maintains my current weight.

But as time goes on the pleasure of the food holds less allure, or rather, the displeasure of being overweight becomes more salient.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be in the normal weight range? Wouldn’t it be nice to not be carrying excess weight? Wouldn’t it feel good to be lean again?

I’m well-versed in the pleasure of eating, but what about the pleasure of a lean and healthy body? What about looking good? What about wearing whatever I want?

It feels good to be attractive and healthy. It feels good to be lean. And these good feelings are motivators that can counteract the allure of food.

Feeling good about my body can help me make a different decision as I approach mealtime, or when my wife brings home snacks (it’s all her fault!).

Appreciating your body in a healthy and normal weight range is far more powerful than the pleasure of most of the food that most of us eat on a daily basis.

And it is possible to have both: you can be lean and healthy and still enjoy the pleasure of truly delicious food; just not to the extent that it robs you of the pleasure of a lean and healthy body.

Being overweight is hard work

We are always told it’s hard to lose weight. But consider how hard it is to gain and maintain weight.

Sometimes we hear about actors gaining weight for a role, and how difficult they find it.

Think about it: your body consumes energy just by being alive. And the heavier you are, the more energy it consumes.

If you’re overweight you’re already going to a lot of effort, time, and expense obtaining, preparing, and consuming food.

It takes energy to eat! It takes energy to digest. It takes energy to convert excess energy into fat. And it takes energy to carry around that stored energy in your body.

Your body has to work hard to eat, digest, and excrete. Being overweight takes hard work.

And it takes dedication too. You can’t simply eat a lot one day and then gain weight. You have to eat consistently. You need your average intake to be consistently high.

Think about how much time and effort it takes each day to maintain your weight. Wouldn’t it be easier not to? To give your body a break, let it wind down. Give it space to relax and be free from the high-intensity processing of food for a while.

Okay, this one idea isn’t going to change your eating habits, but there’s some truth to it, and it’s worth playing with fresh perspectives to shift your established patterns and habits of thought.

It really does take a lot to become and remain overweight.

Weight loss: connecting the dots

The basics of weight gain and loss are simple. I eat an average daily amount of food. If it’s more than I physically need, I gain weight. If it’s less, I lose weight. If it’s equivalent I maintain weight.

Since I’m currently overweight, that average daily amount has been more than I need. I’ve been decreasing the amount I eat, and sure enough my weight is also slowly decreasing.

Some people adjust their food intake with ease, but others of us find it difficult. When I had been overweight for most of my adult life I found it extremely difficult to decrease the amount I was eating sustainably.

In the end what helped me (and became the subject of my book) was a personal approach informed by my work as a philosopher.

Approaching weight loss as a process of discovery and personal meaning helped me, because that’s where I find enjoyment.

I turned weight loss from an exercise in caloric restriction into a kind of personal philosophical experiment and adventure.

And that’s why it’s a bit different for me now. You can’t have the exact same adventure twice, not when you’ve changed and grown in the process.

I’m more patient now. I know it just takes time for my body to catch up to my changed eating pattern. I’m also less intense. I accept that I’m still eating for pleasure at specific times, and I’m aware that I am deluding myself a little when I have some late night snacks.

But what I love about my approach is that I can’t hide from my own awareness and insight. I’m aware that I’m still slightly overweight and that I don’t like being overweight. And I’m also aware that when I snack I am ignoring those feelings temporarily.

This higher level consciousness grows over time and repeated experiences. There’s only so many times I can keep repeating the same actions and having the same unwanted outcome.

It’s just that I haven’t mindfully connected the dots between the brief sensation and distraction of the late night snack and the continued unwanted experience of being overweight.

But something has to give. If I’m really genuinely tired of being overweight and miss how my body feels when I’m in the normal range of BMI…I’ll bring that focus and feeling to mind next time I’m tempted to snack.

Exercise for pleasure and distraction

Finding things to replace overeating as your primary source of pleasure and escape is not immediately easy.

I’m drinking more coffee, but coffee is a hobby for me, not just consumption. What else can I do?

It will probably end up being a combination, a variety of different things. And some of those things might stretch and challenge your idea of what constitutes pleasure and enjoyment.

It’s a bit like the cliché of a drug addict whose whole life revolves around their next hit. When they eventually get off the drug it’s not as though any single other thing replaces it. They replace the drug with a life.

So think outside the box.

One unexpected source of enjoyment might be exercise. Going for a walk when you’d usually eat, doing a couple of sit-ups, moving your body in a different way…

Exercise can be enjoyable. Doing something different can be enjoyable. Variety itself is enjoyable.

So if you’re struggling to find something more enjoyable than eating, try finding four things that are less enjoyable on their own, but enough to liven your life and get you exploring possibilities.

And isn’t it also enjoyable to find new ways of changing your long-term eating habits? Even if something doesn’t seem enjoyable in its own right, it can become enjoyable when it serves a greater purpose.

Your thoughts create your reality, so…

I’ve been working on this New Thought/law of attraction stuff for a few years now, and I no longer have any doubt that my thoughts create my reality. So what now?

It took me a while to process lots of negative beliefs about myself and about life; perhaps the biggest challenge came from maladaptive strategies I put in place decades ago.

It also took me time to understand how I differ from the majority of people eliciting advice from teachers like Abraham-Hicks. It took me time to translate their teachings into my language, and appreciate the advantages of things I’ve already worked out and accomplished.

So I’ve cleared a path, and now the teachings are really really simple: just make a practice of thinking thoughts that are better than your usual thoughts.

It’s best to stay general and brief and just reel off thoughts that you know to be good, positive, and aligned with your desires.

For example:

I love my life

I love being me

I love myself

I love how easy my life is

I love how effortless my life is

My life is easy

My life is effortless

My life is fun

My life is enjoyable

My life is complete ease

My life is complete flow

As I write and think these thoughts I start to feel better and better. But I don’t worry about how I feel anymore. I know these are good thoughts that will feel good as I practice them.

I also know I can loosen my resistance and not contradict them with other thoughts.

This is an exercise. I don’t have to argue with myself over how much I do or can or should love my life. I don’t look evidence and ideas to support these thoughts. Because that comes later, comes automatically, with practice.

Just like my diet, I know what works now. If I just think these kinds of thoughts often enough and don’t contradict them with other thoughts, I’ll become these thoughts soon enough.

Likewise, I know that if I eat the right amount of food and don’t overeat, my body weight will come into balance.

The struggle and the obfuscation all lies in our complicated patterns, like eating to escape from bad feelings, or like finding security in playing the victim.

These are the habits that stop us from doing simple things like eating as much as we need, and thinking good thoughts.

My life is easy, if I let it be. But I can’t let it be if I’ve only practiced thoughts of fear and difficulty and despond.

But my life is easy. I love the ease. My whole life is full of ease. I love having such an easy life…

When failure is not a setback

Valentine’s day, and with a new baby we celebrated at home with an assortment of nice foods: cheeses, pâté, dips, and so on.

I ate more than I think I should have, and I’m regretful for not adhering to my diet. I’m still overweight of course, but while eating I “forgot” and just enjoyed the food, with the excuse of it being a special occasion.

I remember this happening last time. I mentioned in my book that I came up with one simple rule to follow…and immediately broke it.

I broke it many times back then. And that doesn’t sound good. I don’t feel good about failing to follow my rule now either.

And yet failure is not a setback. Observing myself honestly during this failure reinforces the lessons I’m learning.

Because now I can see for myself that yes, I did enjoy the food, but that enjoyment was so brief and fleeting and now I feel bored and empty.

I feel physically full, and it doesn’t feel good. I don’t need the energy for anything, so why did I eat that much? I enjoyed the food but surely there’s more for me to enjoy?

Failure is not a setback because it only demonstrates the truth of our situation. You can break the rules as often as you like, but it will only provide more evidence that overeating is a very meagre short-term source of happiness.

Just-a-taste strategy

I skip breakfast because I can’t stand the thought of it in the mornings.

I skip lunch because I don’t need it, and I’ve found that if I do eat some lunch I don’t need any dinner.

I cook dinner for my wife and kids most nights, and I tend to enjoy it more when I’m a little hungry myself!

So that leaves dinner as my main meal. We all sit down together and eat the food I’ve prepared.

But now that I’m mindful of not overeating, what should I do if I find I can keep going without eating?

I’ve tried skipping dinner but that doesn’t seem right. The point of this diet is to find balance and there’s nothing balanced about fasting.

Even intermittent fasting is too arbitrary for my preference.

No, for me the solution is to eat some dinner. Try some of the delicious food I’ve made and share this time together with my family….but do so with a ridiculously small portion.

If I’ve made pizza, taste just enough to appreciate the flavour and the texture. It doesn’t take much at all. If I’ve made pasta, a spoonful of the sauce would be enough.

If this sounds too severe, that’s fine. But for me it doesn’t make sense to eat a large portion of food just for the enjoyment. If you can enjoy a tiny amount you will savour it more. Repeat performances in the form of larger servings take us back into “eating for pleasure” territory.

So in the name of balance my solution is to eat just enough to sample the food and join with my family in eating it, but nowhere near enough to turn it into a pleasure-seeking activity through overeating.

It is not easy at first. But the whole point is to bring our eating habits and bodyweight back into balance. That can’t be accomplished if we are, while overweight, allowing ourselves to overeat for the sake of pleasure.

I’ve done it before, and I will do it again. However tantalising the food may be, I am placing greater value on finding a more enriching life that does not depend so heavily on the pleasure of eating.

To look at it from a different perspective: what pleasures and joys and fulfilment have I neglected to find in my life, preferring instead the more easily accessible pleasure of eating to excess? What needs have gone unmet or unacknowledged because I have found immediate distraction in large quantities of tasty food?

That’s a question I can’t begin to answer on a full stomach.

Finding the flow

Imagine the human being like a complex, vastly intelligent and finely balanced machine.

When it works smoothly it is magnificent and flows without effort.

But when something goes wrong it grinds and tears at itself and makes horrible noises.

The human being is not really a machine but it does flow with impeccable smoothness and ease, and it does grind and tear and make horrible disturbances when something goes wrong.

I’ve been interested in religions, philosophies and other teachings that address on the one hand the perfect state of flow we all innately desire, and on the other hand the “something” that went wrong with us to disturb this flow.

Through my studies and my searching I’ve slowly merged and converged these many explanations into a core set of principles.

Flow is natural

Flow is our natural state of being. Natural means “from birth” (natal) and denotes what belongs to us innately (in-born), our essence.

Flow is ordered

Our natural state of being is ordered, it participates in an order that is expressed through all things, all being. When we participate in the state of flow we feel connected to the greater pattern, the chorus, the flow of all existence.

Flow is empowering

When we connect with this state of flow we remove resistance from our immediate experience. This may feel like handing over control to something greater than ourselves, and at the same time we feel as if our physical self operates on a kind of intelligent auto-pilot.

This is empowering because it demonstrates in real time the ease of non-resistance. The power is in the freedom from effort, the timing, the sense of being guided, the sense of being able to sit back and relax rather than micromanage. Going with the flow, within the flow, rather than fighting our way through life.

Resistance disrupts the flow

Resistance occurs whenever something grabs our attention and pulls us out of the flow.

The primary source of resistance is our belief in negative consequences or outcomes. When we think something bad may happen the flow is disrupted in us, and we experience the disruption as fear in various degrees and forms.

Most of us accrue a number of fears in early life, typically learning them from other people and our own experiences.

Layers of resistance

We tell ourselves complicated stories and enact patterns of behaviour in an effort to manage our fear.

Flow is replaced by our own efforts and struggles to control resistance. But typically we just create more resistance.

For example, we begin to crave things that we believe will make up for the problems caused by our fears. Fear and craving dominate our motives when we are no longer in a state of flow.

Flow is fearless

In a state of flow there is no belief in bad outcomes or consequences.

A state of flow can only come when we believe nothing bad can happen.

The moment we think there’s something “important” at stake, we are pulled into micromanagement and a focusing of attention that disrupts the flow.

Flow is freedom

Daoist, Neo-Confucian, and Zen Buddhist literature has some great resources on the psychology of this flow state.

In particular one of the more famous samurai wrote about this state, and received illuminating teachings on it from a renowned monk contemporary.

In the context of fighting, the mind must not “stop” at anything: not thoughts of losing nor thoughts of winning, not fear of being cut with the sword, nor thoughts of using some particular technique.

In a life and death struggle, these people believed the state of flow to be of greatest significance and value. Surely we, in our easy modern lives can find it too?

Addiction as self-medication

My approach to diet involves recognising that I tend to overeat for two reasons: insufficient sources of pleasure and enjoyment in life, and as an escape from negative emotions.

In my case, what I thought was hunger was actually an impulse to distract myself from negative emotions.

The causes of negative emotion are different for all of us. That’s why I urge people to consider professional help and mental health support.

Like other forms of “addiction”, overeating can be a way of soothing and distracting from negative emotions. Studies into obesity have shown that for many, both the overeating and the weight gain can provide an unconscious solution to the problem of traumatic experiences such as abuse, neglect, and assault.

That’s why conventional diets don’t work for everyone. There’s an inner, often unconscious, struggle between the desire to lose weight for health and aesthetic and social reasons, and the desire to escape from very painful emotions or memories.

Have some compassion for yourself in this process. First, because you may be seeking to change behaviours that have been in place for years or decades. Second, because although self-medication with food or other substances tends to have negative side-effects in the long term, it’s also typically a case of doing the best we can under very difficult circumstances.

All things being equal, I doubt anyone prefers to be overweight. But all things are not equal. We work them out piece by piece over time, and compassion and understanding are not only deserved but essential.