“Why Do You Do What You Do?”

It is a question that I do not ask myself enough, but the life coach I have been working with asks me this question often. She believes that if the answer to this question does not involve joy, pleasure or something similar, what you do is what is causing your unhappiness, lack of purpose, depression, anxiety, etc.

In America, I would say that the vast majority of people do what they do because they have to make a living. They are following someone else’s script of what success means and doing what most others are doing around them without any meaningful connection to why they do what they do.

We are not really taught how to follow our own intuition. Instead we are taught how to follow a path of success developed by others. But we often end up sacrificing what we really love to do.

Burnout is a condition that many working people suffer from. Burnout (and not addressing burnout) is responsible for so many illnesses. What many who are dealing with the stress of burnout forget is that instead of valuing people who can do a lot, it is important to encourage the valuing of people who are able to balance their lives. When there is a mismatch between effort and reward, one’s energy is what gets drained.

“Why do you do what you do?”

Is your behavior driven by joy or by obtaining a goal? Keep in mind that joy is exists in the pursuit much more than it does in the realization of the goal.

Through my work with a life coach (I often try and engage in work with a mental health professional of some sort, because it is important for me to stay on top of my own personal growth and well-being or else I will not) I have been made aware of some things which are easy to forget.

For example, ego-involvement versus task-involvement. Ego-involvement is when a person’s feelings of self-worth become hinged on their performance such that they do the activity to prove to themselves that they are good at the activity and thus worthy as individuals.

Task–involvement is when people are more involved with the task itself than with its own implications for a person’s feelings of worth.

This distinction is also related to the difference between extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is focused on outcomes that are separable from the activity (making money, status, recognition). Intrinsic motivation is self-determined activity; that is to say, that people engage in the activities freely, because it is already interesting and enjoyable for them.

It is extrinsic motivation that burns out one’s life, thus leading to the condition of burnout.

To get to a healthier place in our lives where we feel better and live with less stress, anxiety and depression it is important that (among other things) we find a way to make the shift from ego-involvement to task-involvement. Thus, regaining our intrinsic motivation.

As yourself that classical psychological question, “Why do you do what you do?” Then listen to the answer.

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How To Save Your Life Right Now

 

“Life is what happens to you while you are making other plans.” –John Lennon.

There is a sentence in the novel The Bathroom by Jean-Philippe Tousaint where his protagonist says, “I am compromising the quietude of my abstract life for what?” This sentence resonated with me so deeply that I have had it posted above my desk for many years. All of us are continually compromising the quietude or calm of our lives for so many things. Many are probably doing it right now! Things such as relationships, money, jobs, status, things that other people do that we don’t like, things that we have to do but do not want to do, the state of the world, the state of our situation in the world and on and on. One word that is often used to describe what happens when we compromise our quietude is stress.

Chronic stress is mainly caused by a mind that wanders. Our brains are not well-tuned mental machinery as much as we might wrongly believe they are. Instead, they wander off into reactive territory at the slightest trigger. Most of us tend to be lost in random thoughts all day long, unfocused on whatever it is that we are doing as we are doing it. Some of you may have heard about the psychologists at Harvard who started the Track Your Happiness app. What they found was that a wandering (unfocused) brain was the cause of unhappiness. What people were thinking was the cause of their stress/unhappiness not what they were doing (even if what they were the most unpleasant situations or performing boring chores).

Make no mistake about it, chronic stress is the cause of more illnesses (mental and physical) and early deaths than anything else on planet earth. As science becomes more and more conclusive with regards to the serious effects of chronic stress on the human body and brain, we will have doctors prescribing meditation (relaxation-responses) in the same way that they currently prescribe medication. Chronic stress is no joke. It is not to be taken lightly and it is important to realize that it is almost always the result of a wandering brain that is not focused in the present moment. Chronic stress literally turns off the switch that illuminates our lives.

In scientific terms that switch that illuminates our lives is referred to as telomeres. Telomeres are the stretches of expendable DNA at the ends of chromosomes. Telomeres act like the stiff plastic sheaths that prevent the ends of shoelaces from fraying. Over the course of a lifetime, cells divide so many times that telomeres wear down to such an extent that the integrity of the genes carried by the chromosomes is threatened. To protect our bodies when undergoing various stresses, the cells stop dividing and gradually undergo apoptosis, otherwise known as cell suicide. Telomere length is thus an effective measure of a cell’s biological age, and people with shorter telomeres seem to have a lower life expectancy.

There is currently solid evidence that chronic stress shortens telomere length and accelerates everything that comes along with the aging process. Conversely, there is also solid evidence which shows that mindfulness meditation (or any kind of daily relaxation response) rebuilds telomeres and combats the effects of aging at the cellular level by promoting the activity of a gene that makes an enzyme called telomerase. By ramping up the activity of telomerase, evidence suggests that we can slow down cellular aging. Still more research and evidence is needed, but once this happens (which, I think it certainly will within the next decade) doctors will be recommending meditation as a way to keep the Grim Reaper at bay.

The single reason why mindfulness techniques (or anything that promotes a relaxation response) are so effective at combating the negative physiological and psychological effects of stress is because it interrupts the train of our regular thoughts. Mindfulness tempers the stress response in our bodies by breaking the chain of everyday thinking (the wandering mind) and aligning the mind with what is happening in the present moment. As a result of being able to remain more present and focused with whatever we are doing as we do it, the adverse clinical effects of stress are counteracted and possibly we can end up saving our own lives.

 

Reflections While Sitting In A Chair

I sit down in my chair. I set my meditation timer for thirty minutes and then place the palms of my hands on my knees. I feel the material of my sweat pants. I straighten my spine, place both feet flat on the ground. I notice my shoulders are constricted so I loosen them down towards the ground. I move my chin slightly in towards my chest. I then close my eyes.

Here I am, sitting in a chair. I am aware of myself as I am in this moment. I can feel the back of the chair pressing against my spine. I notice the bottom part of my body pressing into the seat of the chair. There is the sound of a distant train. Birds are singing their songs.

I follow my breathing as oxygen moves in and out through my nose. I notice my chest expanding and contracting with each inhalation and exhalation. There are a plethora of sensations in my body. Tingling sensations. Pulsations. Pressure. Tightness. A pleasant feeling of relaxation and space.

I am just sitting here doing nothing except being present with life. Nothing to do, nowhere to go. Just sitting.

I pay attention to my breathing as if I were on a walk with a friend. Breathing in and out. I notice that my brain is generating a lot of thoughts. It’s busy upstairs, I think to myself. I notice how I am thinking about many different things. Thoughts that come out of nowhere and go back in to nowhere. I continually let thoughts go by returning my attention to this moment.

There are so many chirping birds out there. Why are they making so much noise? What are they so happy about? Thinking, I tell myself and then bring my attention back to the present moment. In the distance I can hear cars speeding by. There goes a siren. Hope someone is getting the help they need. An airplane moves across the sky. I follow the sound of the airplane until it disappears.

Is that an owl that I hear? Maybe not. what could it be? There is a fly buzzing around the room. I can’t stand the sound that a fly makes as it flies around the room. So much nervous energy! Chill out man! Should I get up and swat it? No just learn to live with it. Let it be there and respect all life. I realize that I am lost in thought again and no longer paying attention to my breathing. I return my attention to following my breathing. Breathe in, breathe out, I repeat to myself. I notice the sensations of my feet touching the ground.

My head has tilted backwards, causing my chin to point slightly up towards the sky. I slowly bring my chin back down towards my chest. Feels more comfortable this way, I think to myself.

A bird flies past my window.

It’s a bit cold in this room. Should I get up and turn on the heat? Just be present with the cold. Just let the cold be there. Ok. Follow your breathing. I notice that I am telling myself this. Thinking again, I say to myself.

There is the sound of a barking dog. What kind of dog is it? Another airplane moves across the sky. I hear a high pitched beeping sound. Maybe it is a truck in reverse? There is a tingling sensation all over my body. I smile as I realize that I am fully aware of the experience that I am having in this moment. Fully present and aware. How pleasant it feels to just be fully here in this moment. It comes on quick and then goes away just as fast.

I notice a painful sensation in my back. Maybe I should move a bit just to lessen the pain? No, just let the pain be there. Accept the pain as it is and just continue to follow your breathing. I notice that I am thinking and I return my attention to following my breathing, hearing various sounds, feeling my feet on the ground, noticing my chest expanding and contracting with each breath. I let the pain be there as it is. The pain becomes tolerable. I can live with it.

Another airplane is moving across the sky. So many airplanes. Humans are so busy, always coming and going and moving at such high speeds. It’s a kind of collective madness. The world needs to slow down! I notice that I am thinking again and return my attention to my breathing.

I follow my breathing as it moves in and out through my nose. Breathing in, breathing out. My dog barks. My head falls back without me even noticing. I bring my chin back down towards my chest. I am aware of my chest expanding and contracting with each breath. How much longer this is going to last? I notice that I am thinking again.

So many other thoughts that keep coming and going. Thoughts about this, thoughts about that- mostly nonsense. It seems as if my brain is moving as quickly as the cars and airplanes out there in the world. I notice all different kinds of thoughts. There is a judgmental thought. There is a worried thought. There is an angry thought. There is a thought about the future. There is another judgmental thought. Thought after thought, like a stream with no end.

I get caught up in certain thoughts. The fearful and judgmental thoughts are particularly sticky. Just being aware that I am thinking allows me to return my attention to the present moment. I let the thought go. Again and again.

This is the only thing I need to be doing right now, I tell myself. I am present with my life as it is right now.

And then there are more thoughts. When is the dam timer going to go off? Hasn’t it been thirty minutes already? I notice that I am thinking again and then return my attention to my breathing. The singing birds are now quiet. An airplane moves across the sky. Busy air travel day, I think. I feel my digestion. I notice a pain in my gut. It could be cancer. It could be an ulcer. You are getting older. There you go again, I tell myself. Just by being aware of the fearful thoughts I notice that the thoughts disappear. I return my attention to my breathing. I feel calm.

There is the sensation of pain in my back. There is a openness in my chest that was not there before. Bird sounds and a ringing sensation in my ears. I am breathing. I am just sitting here in a chair. I notice how good it feels to be present with my life as it is. I am just being. I smile.

Maybe I should meditate again later? I want to keep feeling this way. There is an absence of all anxiety. Thinking again, I tell myself. I notice the sound of truck. There is that fly again. Just let it be.

I sit there. Fly sounds. Cars sounds. Bird sounds. Airplane sounds. My life.

The palms of my hands are still resting on my knees. My chin is pointing up at the sky again. My hands feel cold. There are various pulsations in my fingertips. Is that an owl that I hear or some other kind of bird?

The timer goes off. I open my eyes. I smile.