We all want to lead lives full of energy and vitality. We also, by and large, know how to lead such lives. We know what habits, what routines and what lifestyle changes will improve our lives. Despite this knowledge, many of us still struggle to lead the empowered, inspired, engaged lives that we feel are just a few changes away. I’d like to explore why this might be.
What We Know:
The keys to living an inspired life are no mystery. They’re simple, tangible, and largely agreed upon by the wisdom of the west and the east. Generally, they are as follows:
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet (Whole, unprocessed foods, with a lot of greens).
- Get enough sleep (7–8 hours)
- Maintain close social ties
- Feel daily gratitude
- Engage in some form of service — something that gives you a sense of meaning beyond yourself
That’s it! You now know how to master your life (you’re welcome).
Why It’s Not Enough:
There’s a lot of pain and cognitive dissonance that arises because of one’s desire to be healthy and happy, and one’s inability to follow the tenets that will increase one’s chance of obtaining health and happiness. This disconnect between what we know and what we do arises from myriad reasons. The ones I’m going to focus on are as follows:
- We underestimate the power of our unconscious, habitual processes
- We fail to adequately address the effect of our environment
- We refuse to embrace the unfolding of natural processes and fail to maintain equanimity in face of them
One of our biggest impediments towards maintaining lasting change is an over-optimistic faith in the power of our conscious, rational thought processes. We make the mistake of assuming that our conscious, rational minds are in complete control of our lives. We imagine that if we want to start a new habit or change our lifestyle, willpower is enough. For the vast majority of us, this is patently not true. I think most of us are aware of this — yet we continue to make resolutions and naively assume we’ll stick to them.
There was a young man that said damn
For it certainly seems that I am
A creature that moves
In determinate grooves
I’m not even a car I’m a tram
Our unconscious, neural circuitry plays a massive role in orchestrating how we move through life, and will generally dictate the degree to which we stick with a new habit — or don’t. Jonathan Haidt uses the metaphor of an elephant and a rider to describe our unconscious, feeling mind, and our conscious, rational mind, respectively. At first glance, the rider seems to be in control. However, anytime the rider and elephant disagree about which direction to go, the rider is going to lose.
We all have unconscious, elephants within, and for most of us, they’re pretty poorly trained. As we walk along the bumpy, pot-holed path of life, our elephants often take us in errant directions, down winding paths of less resistance, in search of a banana, a mud pond, or whatever other immediate gratification elephants enjoy. We spend our days internally yelling at this elephant, and bemoaning it’s stubborn nature — to very little avail. Rarely do we stop and think: what if we chose a slightly less bumpy path? What if the path we were walking had steaming, enticing mud baths every few miles?
This brings me to my second bullet point. No matter how much we desire to change ourselves, our environments will constrain the extent of our change. If we swear off junk food, our resolve will only last until the next time our buddies call us up for a night of beer, nachos and football. If we decide to get 8 hours of sleep each night, that will only last until the next time our boss asks us to work overtime. These are obvious examples, but the subtle ways in which the environment affects our life direction cannot be overstated.
Changing our environments can be incredibly hard, and there are no easy solutions to this problem. However, as long as we treat ourselves as solitary creatures, capable of complete self-determination and change in isolation, we will be bound for disappointment.
Beyond the effect of environment, there is something about human nature that we don’t quite yet have pinned down. We like to think of ourselves as separate from nature, rather than a part of nature. This view causes us to perceive the human being as exempt from many natural rules. Not only did we evolve in nature, we are still a part of the continual unfolding of nature, and we are subject to many of its tendencies. I believe that just like nature, we have rhythms, cycles, and seasons. Sometimes we feel brimming with energy, excited about tackling our latest endeavors. Other times, it takes all our effort just get out of bed on time. When these shifts happen, we feel helpless, we feel like failures, and we get caught up in the drama of our own internal narrative. We don’t understand how to effortlessly ride these waves of being. We fight, we force, we fail.
What We Should Do About It:
Changing our lives is both incredibly simple and infinitely complex. The methodologies of change are simple; implementing them is hard. We are nodes in a fluctuating web of being, with countless factors affecting our desires and drives at every given moment. In face of this, the vast majority of self-help information feels vacuous. Nobody really knows how to untangle our personal webs. We’re like drunk spiders. We stumble about, trying to orchestrate our destinies, not realizing we’re wasted, have eight legs, and are dealing with some damn sticky situations. There are just too many variables to deal with, and we should just sleep it off; waiting till the sun shines, our minds clear, and we realize we’re actually centipedes.
There are no easy answers to how to change one’s life. Anyone who tells you otherwise, whether it be at a self-help conference, an online webinar, or a guru, is either misleading you or is misleading themselves. We like definite answers, lists, to-do bullet points. Things we can check off, pat ourselves on the back, and say, “who’s a good boy?” That’s not how change works. Change doesn’t come from lists and check boxes.
That being said, here’s a list (a short, vague, flawed list, that definitely won’t guarantee change — you’re welcome):
Surrender to Change:
Life is inherently a process of change. We are continually changing, whether or not we are aware of it. Our limited, myopic perspectives show us as relatively constant beings, changing minimally each day. However, even if we do absolutely nothing, we will continue to change. Will it always be for the better? No. Are forceful regimes of regimented change always going to make things better? No. Go ahead, let loose part of the burden of change, and realize that you are a continual process of change, whether or not your rational, conscious mind is involved.
Now, this is not to say that we should stop trying to change ourselves altogether and give up all responsibility. Radical, personal change, in the face of all odds, is indeed possible. But it is not probable.
With this in mind, we should spend less time trying to be our ideal selves, and more time “being” with our current selves. The acceptance and love of who we currently are will have much broader beneficial effects than any internal words of rebuke or consternation.
Emphasize process over progress:
You’ve consciously curated your environment, you’ve addressed your unconscious habits and your life is starting to look pretty good! Then you go to a music festival. Between beer bongs, ridiculously late nights, and the haze of green smoke, you lose all track of your progress. You say you’ll return to exercising and eating healthy and sleeping well once the weekend is over. You don’t.
Before you know it, you’re back to square one. You’re upset that such a silly thing could throw you off balance, and your fret at not having more self-control. Maybe you’re subtly disappointed. Maybe you’re full on depressed.
That’s ok. We learn as much during the winters of our lives as we do during our summers. Trust that no matter how bad things look right now, you’re still on a path of growth.
Imagine that you stand on a spiral — change is generally more like a spiral than a straight line. As you walk the spiral, you move in many directions. Some of these directions bring you joy, others bring you pain. Yet, whether or not you see it, you are continually moving towards the center of the spiral. Even if you feel you’ve wasted years of your life in unproductive, uninspired, or destructive ways, you’ve still been moving along the path. Will we ever reach the center of the spiral? Who knows. However, always remember that change is a process, not a destination. Keep walking and you will surely reach somewhere. And in the process of walking to somewhere, you might as well throw in some song and dance — it’s more fun that way.
There are no simple answers when it comes to change. There are many self-help teachers, motivational speakers, and gurus, that claim to give you the keys to permanent change. For the majority of us, these keys don’t work. There are deeper mechanisms at play, mechanisms that can be hard to understand with the rational mind. As long as we remain unaware of them, we will continually be blind-sighted by our inability to change in the ways we think we should.
Change is an inevitability of life. Will that change always be positive? No. Are you always a good judge of what is positive and negative change? No. Relax into your current self, love your current self, and realize you are part of something much greater — a process that has been unfolding since the dawn of time. Feel the changing of the natural world thrumming through your being. Trust that there will be ups and downs; trust that as the seasons change, so will you. Like a tree shedding it’s leaves, you will take on many different appearances through many different phases of life, but you will continue to grow taller.
Originally published at medium.com