The Weight Of Obligations

At the end of a day working as a psychotherapist, I can’t help but wonder if unwanted obligations are not the main cause of so many physical and mental illnesses. On a typical day I will see between six and eight clients, most of whom have lives that are filled with things they have to attend to, but do not really want to do.

In America we tend to see this as the normal way life is. It is as natural as the sun coming up in the morning. We have all these obligations to tend to, things that we do not really want to do, but we do them anyways because in a sense we must.

For most Americans, work tends to be one of the main obligations that people would rather not spend their time tending to if they did not have to. Afterall, the definition of happiness is doing exactly what you want to be doing.

But as Americans we have been taught to remedy the unhappiness of doing what we have to do but do not really want to do by buying things. In fact, the more we are able to buy, the nicer the things we own, the more successful we are seen as being.

But I am not so sure that buying things really brings lasting happiness. Yesterday, I bought a really nice table my wife and I have wanted for some time. A few hours later we were arguing about a problem we have been having with one of our dogs. I couldn’t help but note that the happiness from buying the expensive table did not last long.

I realize that in America we see everyone working hard and then buying their way up the status ladder with the money they have earned. This is just what we do, it is how we have been taught to live and we don’t really question it, except maybe when we are in a hospital bed.

I wish that the things we bought from the money earned doing things we do not really want to be doing but are pretending like we really like doing, brought long-lasting happiness. I really do. But the truth is that this way of achieving happiness is like stacking more stuff in a garage that is already over-filled. You buy a car or a house and a dog or have a few kids and then you just have to spend more of your time doing things that you do not really want to be doing with your limited time.

Now that I own a home and have dogs and some nice things, I have to spend a lot of my time engaged in home care and dog care and organizing and paying for all the things I own. The time I spend doing the things I really want to be doing has grown exponentially shorter. If I complain about this, I feel guilty because I feel like I should be grateful for what I have. I remember having very little and I should be happy that I finally have a nice and comfortable lifestyle. But I sure spent a lot more time doing the things I liked to do when I was poor.

This is what I call a middle-class syndrome. Middle-class because day after day in my work as a psychotherapist I see people dealing with the anxiety, depression, chronic worry and stress that are symptoms of this particular syndrome.

Because happiness is having the ability to do whatever the hell it is you really want to do (and not just on the weekends), I often tell my clients that they must find balance.

Unfortunately, it is the nature of economic life in America that most people will have to work jobs that are not the ideal way that they would like to be spending their time. They will also have to do a lot of things outside their jobs that are not the ideal way they would like to be spending their time. It is just how we have set up economic life in America.

If a person goes an entire day without spending some time doing exactly what they want to be doing, this is a recipe for misery.

Everyday a person needs to try and take the power back by committing themselves to doing exactly what they want to do- even if it is on a lunch break. For me it is reading, writing, making art, meditating and listening to music. If I do not do a few of these things everyday, I will feel despair. If I neglect these things for too many days I will just start to feel like a hopeless robot going through the motions with no real purpose or interest driving my life.

If we want a shot at feeling good we must make the effort to balance out our daily lives by doing things that we want to do (and not just when we get in bed at the end of a day with a book). If this is for too long neglected the anger, stress and depression that we feel will manifest in a physical and/or mental illness.

I am not sure that there are too many people who get to do exactly what they want to do all the time. I am sure that even Donald Trump would rather not put on a suit somedays. Life in the current late-capitalist American economic system that we are living in, means spending a large majority of our time obligated to things that we do not really want to be doing.

Like I said, most see this as normal and do what they must without thinking much about it. This is what the powers system wants, a non-questioning, submissive, automaton.

But we are human beings and I believe that the point of being alive is to be able to enjoy your life as much as possible; to be able to do exactly what you want to do most of the time. I believe that we were designed to live this way and nothing we purchase is worth its exchange. It is just the current system that we are all living within that has messed this up by encouraging us to turn our lives into a never ending series of weighted obligations.

If you really want to do the things that you want to be doing in your everyday life, you are going to have to really try. Because after all, the person easiest to neglect is yourself.

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Take Care Of Yourself! A Conversation.

Why can’t you take care of yourself?

What the hell is that supposed to mean?

You don’t know how to take care of yourself!

Why do you say that?

Because you don’t! You sit around. You let things go. You withdraw into books. You are struggling in your work. You struggle to exercise and get outside in the sun. You are unfulfilled and feel stuck in your life but still you do nothing!

I think you are being a bit critical. I do things.

You do the bare minimum just to get by.

Really?

Yes, and then you expect others to pick up the slack. To take care of the things you don’t want to take care of. To take care of you.

I don’t know about this. I have a business where I help others every day.

Yes, but you are a fraud. You are no better than your clients. You are trying to get well or to manage, just as they are. I do not think you are fit to serve. Just like you need to be fit to run a marathon you need to be fit to serve. Maybe the reason why your job does not make you happy is because you are running in a marathon without being in good shape?

I have not thought of it like that. I think I am fit to serve because I am trying to be a better person every day. I am trying to more effectively deal with the crap I have inherited from my parents- my past conditioning. I am trying to manage it more effectively so it does not make me a miserable person. This continual effort I think makes me fit to serve.

Maybe. You have part of the equation correct but you are still unwilling to do things that would make you happier and healthier in life.

What do you mean?

What do you mean?

What?

You don’t want to take charge. You don’t want to cut the bullshit. You don’t want to stop staying stuck. You don’t want to do the hard work that it would take to change things for the better. You don’t want to push yourself.

Maybe. But I do what I can. I try.

Yes, but this is not enough. You are just staying stuck in the convenience of habit. You are not willing to change and so you make do with what is. This is bullshit! Push yourself man. Do not be so fearful of hard work!

Maybe it is about accepting what is. Maybe it is about not trying to change anything but instead just making peace with what is? Maybe the reason why humans are so fucked up is because we are not able to just make peace with things as they are? We are very critical of ourselves and others and think things should be how we think they should be. Maybe when we become really critical it does not actually motivate change but instead creates more depression and unhappiness. I think you may be going about it the wrong way.

You are saying that it is about accepting things as they are? Accepting your lack of motivation. Accepting that you do what you can (which, by the way is never enough), accepting that you can’t really get things done, accepting that you have a hard time taking care of yourself? You are basically saying just accept that the garden is not being taken care of and let it stay in its disheveled and dried out state?

I suppose I am saying do what you can and accept that. Maybe a person is not meant to have a beautiful garden because they, for whatever reason, are not able to devote the time and energy needed. In this case the person needs to be able to accept that they have a garden that is not perfect. That is partially dried out. That it is not much tended to. Such is life. What I am saying is that in just accepting things as they are, even though they may not be desirable, it releases a person from all the stress and unhappiness that comes up as a result of trying to fix and change things and thinking things are not good enough. Maybe change happens through accepting what is.

I don’t know man. I think this is the greatest act of rationalizing one’s own illogical bullshit that I have ever heard. I think you are just perpetuating the status quo. You are just trying to accept the status quo. Anyone who is great never got anywhere with the perspective you are articulating. No one has ever mastered anything or become really skilled and successful thinking like that. That train of thought will get you nowhere besides right where you are which is struggling to take care of yourself.

I understand this. But maybe my work is in accepting that I will not be that person who is great, masterful and successful and super productive. That that is not who I am. This is just not in the deck of cards for me. Perhaps happiness for me is in accepting that this is just not who I am.

But you have talent. You have potential. You could do whatever you want. You could be great. You could have a beautiful garden if you pushed yourself more.

Maybe so, but maybe I am just not that kind of person. Maybe I am more fated to live an imperfect life. A life of slowness or no great achievements. Maybe I am just going to be average. Maybe I am going to need help along the way. Maybe I am just that kind of person.

And you are ok with this? You really want to accept this?

I see no other way if I don’t want to be miserable for the rest of my life.

Bullshit man. You know this is bullshit. You just don’t want to do the hard work.

Maybe so. I don’t remember ever being a fan of hard work.

Ok. There is no making sense with you. You are not getting it. You want to keep sitting on your ass and just let all the potential in your life go- go ahead. You want others to take care of you. You don’t want to deal with the hard stuff. Ok. Fuck it. I am not getting anywhere with you.

You know, what? I don’t like how you are talking to me. I think this conversation is done.

The Fly, The Stone and The Present Moment

A fly sits on a warm stone, enjoying the morning sun. It looks still, secure and content but suddenly it flies off. Then it is back again, then it flies off again, then it is back again, then it flies off again. The fly can not seem to make up its mind. So much to do, so little time left to live. It is having a difficult time deciding what to do. It returns to the stone, becomes still again for just a few seconds but then is gone yet again. I notice that the fly is flying all around the stone, lands on the dirt close to it but then flies away again.

We are not that different from this fly. The warmth, security and contentment that is experienced on the stone is a metaphor for the present moment and the fly is a metaphor for how our brains work. We struggle (some more than others) to remain present. We are like the fly who keeps coming back to the stone, then flies away again. The moment that we become present we notice that we feel a great relief. We feel happier, calmer, more secure but then we are gone again. Off to do something, accomplish tasks, judge others or ourselves, check something that we feel we are missing out on, worry about what might or might not happen in the future and before we know it we have returned to a state filled with anxiety, dissatisfaction, unfulfillment, anger and stress.

But then some of us are able to bring ourselves back to the present moment. Most of us remain here for just a moment or two before we fly off again, pulled away by our speedy and judgmental brains. The entire point of regularly practicing mindfulness meditation is that we are training ourselves to develop our capacity (which, we all have) for living more and more in the present moment. In a world where there are flies buzzing all around us, out of control- without regularly practicing mindfulness meditation it is very difficult, if not impossible, to cultivate the capacity to remain present. We practice mindfulness so that we can remain grounded on that stone for longer periods of time, experiencing more contentment, security, calm and relief. As a result we live much more satisfying, fulfilling and less tormented lives.

The fly has not yet returned to the stone.

Mindfulness, What Is It Really?

Lately, I have noticed meditation practitioners being parodied or satirized in the media (television and film). It seems as if popular culture has some issues with meditation and the states of being that it can create. Meditators are often parodied as being neurotic, stressed out, head cases who find temporary relief, peace and love in the higher states of consciousness that they find through their meditation practice. But of course, it is not long before these blissed out head cases fall back into their same patterns of anger, rage, anxiety and self-hatred. And I admit- this can make for some good entertainment.

I suppose to some degree these parodies are deserved. Meditation has been appropriated by multi-millionaire self-help gurus like Tony Robbins, Deepak Chopra and many other corporate meditation gurus. They have intelligently packaged meditation in pretty new age wrapping and sold it to mainly white people in the business world who are looking for more centeredness, efficiency, focus, less anxiety, more space, less reactivity and more positive meaning in their lives. It is true that meditation has been dumbed down and become another high price commodity sold by “the athletes of positive thinking and health (and greed)” to people and corporations who want to be able to maximize their positivity, health and performance.

But everything I have spoken of above has nothing to do with what mindfulness is. The meditation sold by Tony Robbins is as far from authentic mindfulness practice as we are from Mars. Mindfulness has nothing to do with generating positivity, love or money. It has nothing to do with optimizing performance (although this can be a pleasant side-effect of mindfulness). All mindfulness is is a practice of becoming less identified with thinking and ego and more aware in the present moment.

In mindfulness practice, awareness is referred to as the 6th sense. There is touch, smell, sight, hearing and seeing. But there is also the sense of awareness. In our culture we are so conditioned to be identified with our ego, with our never ending thought processes, that we are very rarely aware of experiencing our five senses- let alone our sixth. But just like our pancreas, liver and our spleen- awareness is always there even if we are not aware of it. Mindfulness is a practice of stretching our attention beyond our narrow focus on obsessive thinking so that we can become more open and aware of our lives in the present moment. The psychological, relational and physiological benefits of being able to do this are too numerous to name here.

The corporate meditation approach of training individuals to always be in a state of positivity, high energy and bliss is like expecting the blue sky to always be blue. No rain clouds, no fog, no thunder clouds- just blue. This is ridiculous, shaming and impossible to do. Clouds are as natural to the sky as our various darker emotions and feelings are to our awareness. But when practicing mindfulness we develop the skill of being able to be aware when the clouds of anger, worry, sadness, stress, anxiety, depression and/or excitement are present- without getting caught up in them. Just like a food critic who cultivates her sense of taste, mindfulness practitioners are cultivating their sense of awareness so that they can be less reactive to the clouds and more fully accepting of life as it is.

And this is all mindfulness really is- developing the skill or art of being more aware and present in life rather than being lost in thought and becoming reactive to every little cloud that moves through you. Through mindfulness we become more grounded and aware within ourselves and less enslaved by our conditioning (we also become less dependent on things outside of ourselves). You rarely see this kind of mindfulness satirized in films or television programs because in truth there really is nothing funny about a person who is being mindful.