Letting go of problems and embracing a new paradigm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outgrowing dissociation

Wikipedia describes dissociation as:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts like:

– there’s nothing I can do to stop this

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

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

– there’s nowhere else to go

– at least I can block these awful people out

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

– I can control how I feel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do your thoughts create your reality?

The etymology of thought comes from the verb to think:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making people happy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

What does it mean to be rich?

I love using etymology to inform my philosophy as I ask and answer questions like: what does it mean to be rich?

Full credit for all etymological resources to the magnificent website etymonline.com

Rich comes from Old English rice “strong, powerful; great, mighty; of high rank,” in later Old English “wealthy,” and was influenced in Middle English by Old French riche “wealthy, magnificent, sumptuous”.

So the high-ranking elites in Old English society were powerful and mighty and also wealthy. What we think of as rich most directly links to the wealthy component.

So what is wealthy?

Wealthy is the adjectival form of wealth, which means “happiness,” also “prosperity in abundance of possessions or riches,” from Middle English wele “well-being” (see weal(n.1)) on analogy of health.

Now we have a bunch of new words to track down:

Happiness, prosperity, weal, and abundance of possessions and riches.

Starting with riches, which, you might have guessed, is a bit of a dead end since it takes us back to rich.

In fact riches means “valued possessions, money, property,” c. 1200, modified from richesse (12c.), a singular form misunderstood as a plural, from Old French richesse, richece “wealth, opulence, splendor, magnificence,” from riche (see rich(adj.)).

What about possessions? Possessions are things that you have or hold, believed to stem from a root word that means “having power, able”.

Abundance means “copious quantity or supply,” mid-14c., from Old French abondance and directly from Latin abundantia “fullness, plenty,” abstract noun from abundant-, past participle stem of abundans “overflowing, full,” present participle of abundare “to overflow” (see abound).

So abundance of possessions and riches basically means having or holding so many things, especially the kinds of nice things high-ranking people have, that they are metaphorically overflowing.

But that’s not necessarily what we mean when we say “I want to be rich”. There’s more nuance needed, though in some respect it can simply mean “I want to be like one of those high-ranking elites!”

Let’s keep going.

Weal isn’t used much these days. It means “well-being,” from Old English wela “wealth,” in late Old English also “welfare, well-being,” from West Germanic *welon-, from PIE root *wel- (2) “to wish, will” (see will (v.)).

Will means “to wish, desire; be willing; be used to; be about to”. A fascinating word that predates our contemporary notion of free will, and appears to combine intentionality (he wills it) with behavioural commentary (he will do it).

What makes it even more fascinating is that well as in well-being comes from the same root as will.

Well means “in a satisfactory manner,” which makes sense if we take satisfactory to mean as desired or as willed.

Well is satisfactory because it matches what I will. And well-being therefore means being as I will.

So let’s add weal, meaning “being as I will” to our understanding of wealth. Wealth doesn’t just mean having so many things that they are metaphorically overflowing. It also means things being as you will or desire them to be.

Let’s keep going.

Prosperity is traditionally regarded as from Old Latin pro spere “according to expectation, according to one’s hope,” from pro “for” + ablative of spes “hope,” which sounds a lot like things being as one wills.

Finally, happiness, from happy means lucky, favored by fortune, being in advantageous circumstances, prosperous;” of events, “turning out well,” from hap (n.) “chance, fortune”.

Etymonline notes that: From Greek to Irish, a great majority of the European words for “happy” at first meant “lucky.”

And just for the sake of completeness, hap was a purely positive conception of luck. “chance, a person’s luck, fortune, fate;”.

So going back to where we started, Rich referred to a class of people who, amongst other things, were wealthy.

Wealth turned out to refer to a number of concepts, most predominantly the idea of things being according to one’s will.

Happiness has come to mean the emotion once associated with being favoured by fortune.

And abundance of possessions clarifies the overflowing of material things, presumably desirable things, which most people associate with wealth anyway.

If I had to summarise, I would say that the underlying historically-informed meaning of wealth is about the fulfilment of desires, which for most people includes material possessions and is commonly believed to rely on fortune or good luck.

I would argue that the word rich retains additional implications apart from wealth that touch on things like status and power. Perhaps that’s why we have the phrase rich and famous but not wealthy and famous.

Crazy wealthy Asians doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Do you need to eat to feel better?

I’ve just made two delicious pizzas for my family, but there’s a problem: I don’t need to eat anything to keep going right now.

So these delicious, hot, wonderful pizzas…I’m not ready to eat them.

I’m not thrilled about this, but if I want to get into the normal BMI range I shouldn’t overeat, and by my definition eating when I can otherwise keep going is overeating.

They smell really good…

But what’s actually so bad about this situation? The food smells good. It probably tastes good. It would be pleasant to eat it.

So what?

Am I so lacking pleasures in life that I would rather ignore my body’s guidance than find something else to do?

Am I trying to hide from feelings of boredom, loneliness or dissatisfaction by gorging on tasty food?

Or do I feel like I’ve been on duty all day and dinner is supposed to be my time to relax!

I think that’s a big part of it. It’s not so much the food but the context. The time of day, the lull in activities, the proximity to bedtime for the kids and me, the promise of winding down.

But there’s something funny about that: if I look forward to the evening “wind down”, I’m implicitly excusing being wound up in the rest of the time.

I don’t like being wound up and tense and on high alert. Having the wind-down time seems like a reprieve…but wouldn’t it be better not to get so tense in the first place?

Maybe taking away the solace and comfortable escape of overeating at dinner time will help me find a way to stay chilled all the time?

I’m going to give it a try, because I respect my approach to diet and the signals my body is giving me. If I don’t need more food to keep going, then I won’t eat more food.

I already feel clearer with this decision and the stress of losing the escapist comfort is fading. I don’t need to eat to feel better.

What motivates your diet?

About three weeks ago my BMI was 26.59. A BMI between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight.

Today my BMI is 25.68. I’ve been focusing on my eating habits and motives for about ten days, and from past experience I’d expect to refine my process more over the coming week.

I won’t put a timetable on it, but while I’m preoccupied with my own motives and sensations around eating, I’m eating more to keep going with other aspects of life and less for escapism and pleasure and therefore it won’t be long before I’m back in the normal range for BMI.

Where I go from there is an open question. I tend not to focus on weight or aesthetic goals, because I really like the idea of seeing how my body and mind respond to a balanced and…let’s say philosophically satisfying…approach to eating.

If I eat only to give me the energy I need to keep going, what will I look and feel like? Not just because I’m consuming fewer calories but because I’m no longer using food to manage my emotional state. I’ve walked that path before, but I have to admit I’ve never gone right to the end.

To me that is an exciting and intriguing question. I’m curious to see what happens. Will I have to make myself eat more to have enough energy? Will I become someone who forgets to eat because I’m so engrossed in other activities? Will I find even more refined and satisfying sources of pleasure and fulfilment?

These questions are, for me at least, far more motivating than weight-loss goals and physical aesthetics these days.

Revisiting my approach to diet

I’ve gained weight in the past few months, and to me this is a visible indicator that my relationship with food has changed.

My environment has changed, and my inner world has changed too. I’m happier than ever, but I’ve also let go of some hobbies and interests that used to bring me pleasure.

So my overall balance of happiness needs some recalibrating.

This time around it’s immediately clear that my diet changes my perception of eating from “entertainment” to a source of energy for my body.

I can eat whatever I want; but if I’m eating more than I need to keep going in all my other activities, I’m over-eating by definition. That will be reflected in my physical condition.

And of course there’s the question: why am I eating more than I need to keep going?

The answer is always either for the pleasure of it, or to escape unpleasant emotions.

The solution is to find more alternative sources of enjoyment and pleasure in life, and to allow myself to feel the unpleasant emotions rather than escaping into food.

That latter path may require professional support from a psychologist or counsellor.

I sometimes go jogging and I often practice a martial art. Both count as exercise, but they are also sources of pleasure that give me options other than eating to boost my happiness.

I can’t eat while I’m training, and training keeps me occupied and happy. But I haven’t been able to train for a month, and I’ve also let go of the pleasurable problem-solving aspect of training that had kept me mentally stimulated for years.

For me, at this stage in life, pleasure will come from moving towards my goals. That sense of purpose and direction (even if it’s just “enjoy life more”) puts eating into its rightful place as a support and enhancement of more important and pleasurable things in life.