Thursday, April 20, 2017
I am honestly trying to figure this out right now.
“Ambition” is defined as “desire and determination to achieve success.”.
“Discontent” is defined as “dissatisfaction with one’s circumstances”.
Is it possible for one to desire to achieve success, if they are not dissatisfied with their circumstances?
Or, to bring this out of abstract realm and put my skin in the game: is it possible for me to desire to achieve success, without a dissatisfaction with my circumstances?
It seems theoretically possible. I could think “Well, things are alright right now and I’ll be content if they stay this way, but it’d probably be better if I was able to improve this thing, so I’ll try that out.”
Sometimes I do have that mindset. But after I put thingX on my TODO list and the fantasy of finishing thingX taunts me, my mindset soon turns to “Gosh, I just won’t be satisfied until I improve this thing! And look at all these other people and things taking up my time, preventing me from getting thingX done! I really really want to get it done!”
My preference for achievement turns into a desire, and that desire turns into an obsession, and that obsession turns into anxiety.
Why does preference turn into desire? Why can’t I avoid discontenment?
Let’s take a tangent into etymology land, to see what it yields.
The word “content” comes from Latin contentus, meaning “contained, satisfied”, as in “their desires are bound by what he or she already has.” Thus, the state of discontent is when your desires reach outside what you already have. You must achieve that thing outside of you in order to become content again, and hope that you can keep that thing inside your bounds.
The word “ambition” comes from Latin ambitionem, meaning “a going around”, as in the act of going around to solicit votes — “a striving for favor, courting, flattery; a desire for honor, thirst for popularity”. Apparently in its early uses, ambition was always used pejoratively, and the positive sense is only from modern times.
I must say, that was a very interesting detour. So much is contained within the etymology of those two words.
The original meaning of ambition is certainly one that’s bound to end in discontentment. If my desire to achieve things is literally to become popular, then the bounds of my desires are reaching far outside myself — to a possibly infinite extent. Once I’ve gained the favor of 100, why wouldn’t I want to gain the favor of 1,000? I cannot be content — I cannot be self-contained — if my desires depend on the votes of others.
But we could argue that the new meaning of ambition is a different one, and that you can have a desire to achieve success not because you personally need the good favor, but because you recognize a problem in the world and you see that you have the capabilities to fix it. That seems reasonable.
Now let’s go into a Buddhist critique (from an amateur).
Desire is suffering. Desire is a form of attachment. Attachments are dangerous because of how strongly they stick to the mind. They make it hard to see truth, they make it hard for the mind to be free and open to all the possibilities of the world, they constrain the limits of the self.
Desire can be contrasted with preference. You are attached to your desires, you are not attached to your preferences. If the world changes such that you can’t follow your preferences, you can just go with the flow.
What if ambition could be a “preference to achieve success”? What if I could prefer to achieve thingX, but not be bothered if it can’t happen for some reason? That does seem nice, as it’d mean never spiraling from desire to obsession to anxiety.
The risk to it is that, in actuality, I might be able to achieve thingX, but I let some other false belief get in the way of that achievement (like a subconscious belief that I’m not capable). If I am not driven by mad desire, then I may miss out on potential personal growth.
That means that I must be very honest with myself. I have to admit everything that affects my ability to achieve thingX, and question how real those obstacles are. I also have to admit when I no longer think it’s useful to achieve thingX. Finally, I have to admit when a preference has turned into a desire, and when that attachment has clouded my other admissions.
It sounds hard, especially when desire is the standard modus operandi. But I do think it may be possible, to cultivate a form of ambition that is compatible with a sense of contentment.
Thinking through this has been most helpful. Thank you for reading.
Monday, April 17, 2017
…And I didn’t miss it.
I spent the fall on a 4-month retreat at a Buddhist institute in Berkeley. We did a lot during that retreat — meditating, Tibetan yoga, group discussions, work practice — but music wasn’t an integral part. The closest we came was our daily chanting and one workshop on mindful listening.
I wouldn’t actually notice the lack of music until I came back into the real world for visits each Sunday. Then, when a song came on, I would really hear it. I’d often find myself dancing or singing along to it. My body and mind found it such an entertaining novelty.
There were after-effects, though. Song lyrics would stick in my head and stay for days, pulsing through my head as soon as I woke up. My mind would try to understand the lyrics, to figure out what they meant for my life and how their values should be applied. I didn’t mind that for a few songs where the lyrics cohered with the rest of my life, but for many pop songs, that was very much not the case. Pop song lyrics are based on romantic fantasies, oversimplified idealized worlds that rarely exist. It doesn’t serve my mind well to hold my own life up to the expectations of pop song worlds.
I became more careful about what songs I exposed my mind to. When my partner made playlists for our housework, I asked him to prefer songs without lyrics. If I got cravings to dance, I put on beautiful instrumental music or simply danced without music.
Now that the retreat is over, songs are actually a big part of my life — but they are songs that I am singing to myself. They’re either made up songs, like lyrics about hungry cats set to the Muppets Blue Danube, or they’re songs from my childhood, like the entire Lion King soundtrack.
As it turns out, my mind already has enough songs to keep it entertained for this lifetime. I am certainly open to hearing new songs, but I will no longer go through effort to go out and find them.
If you’re curious about how music affects your mind, try spending two weeks without any or just two weeks with non-lyrical musical. Notice how your mind feels, and notice how it feels when you bring it back into your life.
Regardless of how your mind responds, it is an interesting experiment to try and you will learn something about your mind and music.
Enjoy the silence! :)
Sunday, April 16, 2017
Lately I’m very interested in how I can reduce the number of “concepts” my mind encounters each day, particularly nonessential, value-laden concepts. My interest started when we were challenged to spend two weeks of a Buddhist retreat in “non-conceptual silence.” I enjoyed the effect of that on my mind so much that I continued the challenge in my post-retreat life.
I find that the BART commute is particularly challenging, as it involves walking past many billboards and advertisements, plus it’s a tempting time to use my phone to wander mindlessly around the internets, bumping into concepts at every turn.
You see, when my mind latches onto concepts, it can swirl around them for hours, even (and especially) those it can’t do anything about. For example, there’s a series of ads at Powell Station that make fun of “dreamers” in order to elevate “doers,” in the name of promoting a freelancing startup. When I see those ads, my mind goes into a critical mode of deciding if I agree with the value judgments of the ads, weighing arguments on both sides. My mind then remains judgmental for a time after that, leaking that state of mind into unrelated social interactions and work discussions.
I have seen how much my critical state of mind is correlated with negative judgments of myself and others, so I aim to avoid entering that state of mind unless I am in an actionable situation. One way I can do that is by steering my life to detour around all the nonessential, value-laden concepts.
Thus, I present my strategy for enjoying the BART with minimal concepts.
Walk with wide angle vision
We were taught wide angle vision multiple times during the retreat, and it is still one of my favorite tools. Basically, we have two kinds of vision: acute vision and wide angle vision. In acute vision, our eyes focus on a point, then focus on the next point, etc. In wide angle vision, our eyes aren’t focused on a particular point and see more on the periphery.
You can get your eyes into wide angle vision by raising your hands up in front of you, then moving them to each side while watching both of them with both your eyes. Your vision will have to become wide angle to be able to see both at once.
Then practice walking around like that and notice how it feels. When I use wide angle vision outside, I actually notice that the trees bounce in my vision in a different way than before — that’s how I know that I’ve properly employed wide angle vision.
What does this matter? Interestingly, when my eyes are in wide angle, it seems to bring my mind into wide angle as well. Before, my eyes would jump to things in the scenery- an aggravating sign, a decrepit building, and my mind would circle around those things, trying to figure out how to fix them. In the Mission neighborhood, there’s a lot that could use cleaning and fixing, and it’s hard to convince my mind that it can’t do it all itself. In wide angle, my mind sees the big picture. It doesn’t mean that I’m oblivious to what’s in my scenery, but it does mean that I don’t fixate.
Journey to the land of no billboards
When I’m waiting for the BART, there are usually ads opposite the platform, big billboards with screaming fonts. I discovered that BART doesn’t install advertisements at the ends of the tunnel, where the final cars open their doors. Now I always walk to the ends (as long as I’m catching a long enough train) so that I can enjoy staring at the texture of the wall instead. ☺
Catch the breeze of incoming trains
I adore the feeling of wind against my face, like when biking down a hill. Did you know that you can get that for free at BART stations? When a train is about to come in, just position yourself near the tunnel entrance they’ll emerge from, and then face that entrance. Enjoy the whoosh!
Play the consonant game with posters
A voice coach once taught me this technique for improving articulation: go through a piece of text and clearly pronounce only the consonants in each word, then go through the text and speak it normally. I practiced it during BART rides to my voice lessons and discovered that I really enjoy doing it.
Now I do it on the BART when I find myself standing in front of the emergency instructions posters. They have such a delightful array of consonants, and so far, nobody’s called me out for my strange mouthing in front of them! ☺
Meditate the minutes away
When I’m on the verge of busting out my phone or getting lost in thoughts, I meditate instead (on my good days). I do Tibetan-style meditation with half-open eyes, which is convenient for keeping track of BART stops and admiring the texture of BART seat cushions. ☺ I typically count breaths, up to 21. I may also count cycles of counting breaths, so that I can challenge myself to do 7 cycles of 21. If I have my prayer beads with me, then I also have the option to do a cycle of chanting.
What do you do?
Let me know if you try any of these out or if you have any techniques you’d like to share for enjoying your train ride.
Monday, April 3, 2017
They say that 90% of our thoughts are repetitive. Actually, I don’t know who “they” is, but I say that 90% of my thoughts are repetitive.
The first time I have a thought, it may be quite nice. It might be a new idea or a pleasant feeling of gratitude. It can also be not so nice, like regret over the way I’ve worded something or dread of some upcoming event.
Both of those kind of thoughts repeat, the pleasant and the unpleasant. For me, the idea thoughts are the most persistent. My brain simply adores figuring things out, and when there’s a new idea that’s not completely fleshed out, it desperately wants to fill in all the details. It will even write the code for a program in my head. And when there’s some aspect it can’t figure out, like for something beyond my current skills, it will go at it even harder. For days, weeks, months.
At first, the idea thoughts are pleasant. But as my brain hammers on them, they become tiring. Why won’t my mind let go of them?? I often imagine taking a (metaphorical) drill to my head and just emptying them out. I even painted that one day:
It’s hard for my brain to convince my brain not to figure things out. It’s been doing it for 30+ years now, it’s gotten quite good at it, and the skill has gotten it many places. In the competition to be the best neurons in my brain, the figure-it-out neurons have been winning for a long time.
But now I’m on to them. Now I’ve seen that they’ve taken control of my brain, and that they simply have too much control. I’ve got a plan. I’m drying them out. I can’t prevent the thoughts from starting up in my head, but I can prevent them from going on for many minutes. I can interrupt their flow.
My technique of choice: continuous chanting. It’s been a few months since I graduated from a 4 month Human Development Training retreat, and I’ve been chanting ever since, every day, all day, for as long as my roommates can take it. Sometimes that chanting turns into singing silly songs to myself; sometimes it turns into nonsense poetry. But the technique works just the same. You see, during that retreat, I discovered that my mind has multiple tracks. Even during continuous chanting, my mind can keep thoughts going on another track. But at least with chanting, those thoughts can’t go as far, since they don’t have as much time/space as before. There’s also increased awareness of how far they’ve gone, likely due to the cognitive overhead involved in keeping them going. Here, a technical diagram:
Some thought loops are very strong, trying to scream louder than the chant track. When that happens, it’s sometimes because a thought actually needs to be processed. I start with the most lightweight processing I can do, scribbling it on a piece of paper. If the thought still screams because it doesn’t think the paper’s good enough, I can write it down digitally. If it’s still persisting after that, then I talk over the thought with a friend. That’s often the first recourse in our society, but for me, it’s the last recourse, because talking things over can solidify thoughts more than necessary and it involves putting thoughts into other people’s heads, too.
There are other thought loops that don’t need processing; they just need a BIG interruption. These are my top 3 favorite ways of clearing my mind:
- The Ursonate: A rhythmic nonsense poem. You can watch my favorite verse progression, or read my post about learning it.
- Manjushri chant: A Tibetan mantra which can be chanted with an increasing tempo until it gets so fast that no thoughts can squeeze in. Usually a teacher leads it, but I also made a little web version for myself.
- Kum Nye: A form of Tibetan Yoga with slow poses. Some of the poses bring up such intense bodily feelings that they clear my mind as well. You can learn Kum Nye from Nyingma Institute or a book.
To properly use my chant-the-thoughts-away techniques, I’ve found that I also need to avoid incompatible activities. Mostly, that means avoiding listening to music or watching concerts. I’ve found that I can’t chant while listening to someone else’s audio track, but I can still think (A LOT). Therefore, no music listening for me. That’s okay, I make my own!
Now you might be wondering: is it working? Are my thoughts drying out? Yes and no. I’m noticing much less unnecessary negative thoughts, like judgments about other people or about myself. I do still have many brainstorming thoughts, but they’re not as all-consuming as before.
I’ve noticed it’s particularly important that I employ these techniques after a happening, event or conversation. In the past, I’d often get in loops of rehashing and regret, which would turn an experience negative. Now, the experience is what it is, without one aspect of it being multiplied by my mind. It’s also important to dry thoughts out while I’m working on something I find difficult, as negative self-judgments can also easily multiply and get in the way of progress. It’s all about not letting the mind make a thought bigger than it needs to be, if it needs to be there at all.
My techniques are obviously very much inspired by having spent months on a Tibetan Buddhist retreat and experimenting with everything we learned there. But your mileage may vary. Also, your mind may work completely different from mine. Or you may not have any need for these techniques. Who knows? I do not know your mind. But I know mine much better now, and I’m going to try my best to retrain it.