Stop doing that thing you keep doing

Our favorite analogy is the cork that bobs on the surface of the water. And when you hold it under the water, it is unnatural. It is natural for you to let go of it, and it is natural for it to bob. But when you take hold of a thought that does not feel good, and the negative emotion sweeps over you, you remain in an unnatural state for as long as you hold your attention upon it. – Abraham Hicks

I’ve been keeping a journal or notebook for a number of years now, where I write down the problems I’m dealing with and try to analyse them, look for solutions, or just get some perspective on them.

I’ve been doing this for a while but I wasn’t sure how long until today, when I found an old notebook from my Honours year in philosophy back in 2003, full of the kinds of personal musings and reflections that have since filled many notebooks and scraps of paper.

I opened it by chance to 19/03/2003 the exact day that I realised I was actually depressed, and had been for a long time. Up to that point I’d assumed everyone felt kinda the same way, and my personal struggles were just part of a bigger spiritual reality we all face.

The notes are so familiar. I wish I could say that they weren’t; yet the style and content barely changed in the 16 years that followed: analysing fears, worries, tension, hypervigilance, and trying to reconcile it all with the spiritual ideas that captivated me.

16 years of trying to work it all out, the frustration showing again and again but always returning to square one, as if I could make sense of it all…if only I could find the right question!

I get the feeling my life improved over those 16 years despite rather than because of my obsessive attempts to find an answer.

Because although every line of my past writing strives toward a satisfying conclusion that is never final, the truly lasting impression is in the tone.

It’s negative. Negatively framed, because I’m always trying to escape from misery and suffering; negatively directed because I’m unflinchingly self-critical lest I make the mistake of going easy on myself and shrinking from “hard truths”; and negatively realised because it never ever ended.

16 years of self-analysis and reflection didn’t arrive at an answer, but they did lend my negative thoughts powerful momentum.

Don’t go digging

One of the challenging messages of the Abraham Hicks material was that we aren’t well served by going digging for answers, focusing on our problems, or revisiting painful subjects.

This makes sense if you consider that our goal is to come into alignment with our inner being, the presence of God within us, and God doesn’t focus on unwanted conditions past, present, or future, real or only worried about.

Further, whatever we focus on becomes active in the filtering and creating of our reality. The more I focused on my suffering and misery, the more my suffering and misery persisted.

In the past year and a half I’ve been reading the Abraham Hicks material and using it to become less of a pessimist, and to actually enjoy my life. Yet my desire to “dig in” and analyse obstacles and problems persisted.

It’s slowly grown weaker, and finding this 16 year old notebook has given me the opportunity to see how little the analysis and “problem-solving” really contributed, other than to perpetuate itself.

The irony is that I don’t have better answers to the questions my past self was asking. I never did find the answers I was looking for. But I’ve quickly realised it wasn’t about the questions or the answers, but the awful and depressing thoughts I was so intently focused on.

Stop doing that thing you do

Abraham uses the analogy of a cork floating in the water to describe our emotional state. We would be bobbing happily at the surface, if only we didn’t focus on things that hold our cork under water.

If we aren’t finding alignment and appreciation in our lives, then we are doing something, maybe a couple of somethings, that keeps us from feeling better.

I’d often wondered what I was doing. I probably even wrote it down in hopes of finding the answer. I think I know now what it was!

So I’m going to set an intention to no longer repeat, rehearse, or reiterate problems and negative points of view, especially not to write them out and give them so much attention.

That in itself is a very encouraging and hopeful thought: that I have learned something after all. Not simply another run through the cycle of analysis and flawed conclusions, but a substantial change that brings relief and helps me feel better.

Revisiting the ideal diet

Back in October 2016 I did a follow-up on my diet. Four or so months on, my weight still hasn’t changed despite making no real effort to control intake or exercise.

I’m proud of this diet I’ve created, not only because it works so well, but because I created it by doing what I do best: analysing a problem, breaking it down to its most basic principles, and finding a radical solution informed by those insights.

Radical comes from radix, meaning root. So a radical solution is one that goes to the roots of the problem.

When it comes to being overweight, the root of the problem is excessive intake of food. People eat for many different reasons, but the only truly essential reason – the purpose of eating – is to sustain us physically.

Being overweight is typically the result of eating for reasons other than sustenance. Eating for pleasure, for escape from unpleasant feelings, for camaraderie, or just out of long-established habits. These behaviours distort our sense of hunger, loading it with emotional needs that go beyond the simple goal of having enough energy to live.

One rule

When we consistently overeat, we forget what it is like to feel genuine hunger. Between breakfast, lunch, dinner, and various snacks, our digestive systems are never really empty. We overeat at every opportunity.

What we really need is to calibrate our sense of hunger, emptiness and fullness. Calibrate it by going without food for a while. Eat nothing until you begin to feel physically tired, a bit shaky, a bit irritable, a bit weak.

That’s your new set-point of hunger.

When you feel that weakness, tiredness, failure to concentrate and irritability, you can eat something. You can eat one bite of something.

One bite is all you’ll need to stave off the hunger and replenish your energy.

Thus the one rule of my diet: only eat enough at any given time to stave off the symptoms of actual hunger.

Can I keep going?

So you’re feeling a little hungry, you’re starting to experience the physical symptoms, and you’re considering eating something.

Before you do that, ask yourself “Can I keep going?”

Often the answer is “Yes”. Our reserves are much greater than we think, especially if we are already overweight.

This doesn’t mean we should keep going to the point of exhaustion. No, the whole point is to sustain our energy levels throughout the day so we can maintain a sound performance in our daily activities.

If your daily activity is sitting at a computer, you probably don’t need much to sustain you. If your daily activity is working in a factory or digging ditches, you’re going to need a bit more.

You don’t want to reach a stage where you physically can’t function. But nor do you want to use the first sign of tiredness or boredom as an excuse to eat something.

Imagine your body is like a furnace. You want to keep it running efficiently by adding fuel as needed to maintain it at a constant temperature. You don’t want to overload it with too much fuel, nor do you want to wait until it nearly dies out before you add more fuel.

Your body will get the message

When you start to calibrate yourself according to the rule, you’ll find that your body responds positively to your new behaviour.

If you stop eating for entertainment, for escapism, to avoid waste, or to clean out the fridge of leftovers, your body will change.

There’s something powerful about declining food you would usually eat, declining it not because you’re stuffed full, not because you’re trying to force yourself to meet some arbitrary dietary regime, but because you recognise that your body doesn’t need it – and any other reason for eating is not good enough.

If you adhere to the rule, you’ll find that losing weight happens quickly and quietly.

The catch

Every diet has a catch, a hidden difficulty or challenge. In some diets you can eat whatever you want, but you have to carefully control portions. In other diets you can eat as much as you want of certain foods. These diets appeal to different aspects of our appetite and for some people they work.

The catch in my diet is that you’ll quickly discover the hidden emotional causes behind your normal eating habits. There are reasons why we eat more than we need to. The moment you decide to follow the rule of my diet, you’ll find yourself assailed by whatever fears and negative emotions usually motivate you to eat.

Perhaps you’ll experience an awful feeling of emptiness and pointlessness that you usually fill with food. Maybe you’ll discover you’re lonely, or bored, or depressed, or that you just don’t have enough sources of enjoyment in your life other than food.

It’s going to be painful. But at least you’ll know that it’s painful, why it’s painful, and that eating is not the answer. Even if you succumb to these feelings and overeat, you’ll do so knowing that you’re eating for emotional reasons, not real hunger.

Gradually you’ll learn to recategorise things. You’ll see that what you used to experience as “hunger” is actually boredom, fear, emptiness, sadness, or similar.

In this sense, my diet is more demanding than others. But at least the demands are clear.

Symbolism of posture

I’ve known for a while that there’s something wrong with my posture, but it’s only in the last year that I’ve resorted to learning basic functional anatomy to troubleshoot the problems for myself.

I’ve been learning about extension and flexion of the various joints, bony landmarks, specific muscles and their antagonists, as well as common postural deficiencies like forward head posture, excessive lordosis of the lumbar spine, kyphosis of the thoracic spine, pelvic tilt, rib flare, and so on.

There are lots of variables to examine and many of them are inter-dependent. For example: I started with the issue of rounded shoulders, which is really about protraction of the scapulae. I worked on trying to fix that for a while, but with limited success. Eventually I realised I was flaring out my ribs too much, which is really an issue of excessive extension at the thoraco-lumbar spine – the middle of the spine.

To correct the rib flare requires engaging abdominal muscles to pull the ribs down, but this in turn is not feasible unless the pelvis is correctly aligned. Anterior pelvic tilt tends to weaken the abdominals and the gluteals, while shortening the lower back muscles and the hip flexors.

By the time I’d worked all this out I’d forgotten about the shoulder protraction issue, so it’s come full-circle again.

Beyond anatomy

I think there’s also a symbolic or psychological aspect to these postural issues.

Posture is directly linked to the psyche in two main ways: first, we use posture to communicate with others. Defensive and submissive postures indicate to others that we wish to avoid confrontation. Hunching or rounding the shoulders, dropping the head, collapsing the chest all communicate submission by making us appear physically smaller and weaker.

Second, bad posture feels awful. It makes us irritable and stressed, takes more energy to maintain, and discourages us from the physical exertion required to accomplish daily activities and meaningful projects.

Forward head posture

So let’s take forward head posture as an example.

There’s a simple behavioural component, in that we spend a lot of time sitting at computers or staring at mobile phones or tablets. These activities tend to encourage forward movement of the head.

But moving your head forward to stare at the computer screen isn’t necessary. Perhaps it’s a by-product of intense focus, or maybe it’s a result of the conflict between a sedentary seating position combined with active visual attention.

Even before I began looking into posture I knew I had problems with my neck. It feels incredibly stiff at times, and occasionally it would ache from the tension. Symbolically, I used to relate this tension to my analytical and overly-intellectual approach to life.

I think a lot. I think about everything, all the time. 80-90% of my waking hours involve thinking about something, and this hasn’t changed in over a decade.

I’ve tried a lot of things to let go of this excessive intellection, but I’ve never found a simple solution. The complex solution has been to keep thinking about it, or at least try to improve the efficiency of my thinking in hopes that I’d eventually find the answer.

Trying to think of a solution to excessive thinking may sound counter-intuitive. As Maslow wrote:

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

But if the only tool you have is a hammer, it’s not too outrageous to prioritise all your hammering tasks…maybe see how far hammering alone will get you.

Nonetheless, I can’t ignore the symbolism of forward head posture as a psychosomatic effort to lead with one’s head – putting one’s mind out in front.

And compared to what?

Well if I try to correct my head position, I immediately feel that my throat, chest, and whole torso are more open and exposed. That’s why dropping the head is a defensive position: better to get hit in the chin than in the throat.

If the head is associated with thinking, the chest or the heart is associated with feeling. Perhaps the symbolism of forward head posture is an attempt to use thinking, intellect, and analysis, to get out in front of feeling?

Melancholics are, after all, feeling-oriented. The effort to analyse life rather than feeling it directly is an established trope or cliche, and it makes sense that a feeling-oriented person would compromise their posture through such an effort. Feeling can be a confusing and seemingly ineffectual function. It gives long, slow answers when what we might prefer are short, convenient, and maybe conventional solutions. Feeling often points a direction with no hint as to the final destination.

We can easily blame behaviour for bad posture, and it certainly plays a role. But our psychology also makes us more susceptible to particular behaviours. Maintaining a postural deficiency takes constant effort, and trying to explain it as merely the outcome of certain behaviours like staring at a computer screen is question-begging. Why, after all, am I spending so much time happily staring at a computer screen if it is damaging my posture?

Looking at a postural problem in the broader context of one’s behaviours, psychology, and temperament can reveal symbolic relationships and even solutions.

Not that I found the solution by examining the symbolism, mind you. It’s eight to ten years since I first thought my neck trouble might be linked to my intellectual outlook, but the more I hammered away at that question, the more ingrained my intellectual efforts became.

It’s taken life experience, grudging and sometimes grueling lessons to reveal the real meaning and importance of feeling in my life, and how this mysterious function is to be embraced.

So now my old speculations about the symbolism of posture have come to mind, more like a memory or a realisation than a solution. The solution has happened on a deeper level, and now the recognition of it comes like an afterword, tying up loose ends when the real story is done.

 

The limits of non-fiction

The problem with my first attempt at writing  a novel was simply that it lacked meaning. It wasn’t meaningful enough for me to pursue it beyond the first five or six rejection letters and additional non-replies. I knew deep down that despite finding it interesting, enjoyable, and challenging, it had particular faults that stemmed ultimately from a failure to fully invest myself in it.

This is, I think, the most likely answer to the previous post’s question: why am I so conflicted about writing fiction? – a question I attempted to unravel through finding the essential value or purpose of stories or histories generally.

But on reflection, it turned out that what matters more than the essential purpose (there may very well be multiple non-essential purposes) is finding a single purpose that is sufficient to motivate me. After all, different authors have different reasons for writing, and all that matters in the end is that my reason is good enough to get the job done. And for me that means that the process itself has to be personally enriching.

A novel is a huge undertaking, and I don’t have the patience or the energy to write for the sake of merely completing the task. What I need is a purpose and a process that can sustain me through it, make me want to keep going, make me turn to fiction for nourishment or re-invigoration.

That purpose lies in the special nature of stories as opposed to non-fiction: I love that non-fiction lets me describe, analyse, and solve problems with as much clarity and wisdom as I can muster. But the fact is that fiction has its own power to solve problems, with a clarity and wisdom that is paradoxically both stronger and weaker than its more realistic counterpart.

Ideal non-fiction has the attributes of realism, certainty, and fact. It is direct and unadorned, making no attempt to hide the truth or to embellish it; relying only on what can be known and reveling in the clarity and openness of whatever it can grasp.

Fiction, on the other hand, is not limited to facts, certainties, or the real. It is entirely unreal, and accordingly imprecise; attuned as much to the wildest fantasy as it is to truth. It can grasp anything, but nothing of any substance. It is totally without the raw integrity of non-fiction – the constraints that make non-fiction relevant, that keep it grounded and useful.  Fiction is ultimately empty; the freedom from constraints equally a lack of discernible essence or identity.

Yet in this weakness lies also fiction’s strength. While non-fiction allows us to identify, analyse, and resolve problems, its power is really our own power, and we are limited precisely to what we can identify, analyse, and resolve for ourselves, using whatever reason and wisdom is at our disposal.  Fiction may be imprecise, but this is what makes it perfect for problems we cannot precisely identify.  Fiction may be as attuned to fantasy as to truth, but non-fiction cannot go far beyond the truths we already recognise and understand. Fiction may be empty, but its very emptiness allows it to soar far beyond the crawling limits of non-fiction’s methodological constraints.

What is of all things most yielding
Can overwhelm that which is of all things most hard.
Being substanceless it can enter even where is no space;

– Daodejing 43

The value of fiction, then, is that it alone can deal with the problems we cannot pin down, the challenges and themes of which we are at best only vaguely aware. Not every problem or challenge in life can be safely abstracted, intellectualised, and dissected under the light of day. In the dark there are dragons and monsters that can only be fought, treasures that can only be found, if we are willing to enter – even blindly enter – into the fray.

Dealing only with problems we feel we can understand is like only fighting battles we know we can win. It is safe, secure, and some would say wise. But much can be gained or lost in the space between what we know we can win, and what we actually could win if we fought for it. What is lost, above all, in limiting ourselves to problems that can be dealt with through careful analysis is the broader domain of our own selves. We are not simply analytical intellects. And though the whole of our lives, selves, and experiences may be intelligible, they cannot all be engaged or approached with the shining clarity of the intellectual problem-solving mind.

For me, the appeal of non-fiction is that it can draw the entire world and reality itself into my intellectual domain. The challenge represented by fiction is to drag me out of that very same domain, that safe and comfortable fortress, into the broader, wilder, more mysterious world beyond.  It’s no wonder then that I have both resisted and yearned for it, knowing that there is more out there, but unwilling to put aside the obvious power and clarity of the intellect.