Bizarro Land: What It Means To Be Authentic

“To be authentic, one must be will to show their contradictions.” -Jean-Paul Sartre

I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity and what it means to be authentic in everyday life.

The general definition of authentic is of undisputed origin; genuine. When applying this term to a person, I understand it to mean a person who is clear or transparent about where they are coming from, true to how they are thinking and feeling in the moment. A person who is honest about their contradictions.

In my psychotherapy practice the struggle to be authentic in relationships and at work is one of the topics that comes up most in my work with people. I work with many younger people who are resisting entering the workplace because they do not want to give up their authenticity.

It is my opinion that we are currently living in a culture which advocates for non-authenticity. We are expected to play a part, to not be authentic. If we are authentic, we worry about the harsh consequences that will occur. So many of our daily interactions seem to be built upon this unspoken expectation to not be authentic. If we are, we fear we will be harshly judged and even discarded. So, we hide who we really are and play along.

For whatever reason, authenticity has always been important to me. Maybe it is the residual effect of my more youthful punk rock values. I don’t like or respect myself if I am not being authentic and having respect for myself always trumps other people respecting me. At the end of the day I have to still live with me and if I am not practicing transparency in my life it is hard for me to like who I am. But still, it is often very challenging and even frightening to be authentic. Why? I have some ideas.

We all want to do what is right. We all want to be seen as being right and making the right decisions. We live in a culture that supports this idea that we should always do the right thing and be striving for perfection all the time. But the problem with this ideal is that it is impossible to achieve.

No one is consistent all the time. If there is a person out there who always makes the right decisions, always does the right thing, never messes up, is always on time and always says the right things and who has no contradictions- well then, good for them. But I doubt this person exists.

It is very difficult to be consistent all the time, in everything we do. There are often two parts to our brains; one part that always wants to do what is right for us (exercise, meditate, be kind, be honest, eat well, be organized, be on time) and another part of our brains that wants to do what is wrong for us (eat unhealthy, sleep too much, not do anything productive, skip exercising, skip meditating, watch mindless television shows, procrastinate, avoid and on and on).

It is very difficult for anyone to be as consistent as they want to be all the time. We often give into what is not best for us because of how we feel emotionally or physically. If we feel good it is easier to do what is right for us. But if we are not feeling well emotionally or physically it is much easier to neglect brushing our teeth or skip exercising.

The truth is that most likely everyone deals with an inability to be consistent. No one really discusses their contradictions, so this often goes unnoticed in our culture. But we all struggle to do what is right and best all the time. We all contradict ourselves much of the time, but yet we prefer to not talk about it.

Appearing to be this good and perfect person who has it all together is a false narrative that we have created as a society. This false narrative creates a constant and intense pressure in people to be always seen as perfect and doing the right thing. Especially in business. Authenticity is what gets lost as a result.

It seems difficult for people to admit their imperfections or contradictions out in public, since this stuff is not accepted by most. As a result people pretend, or play the role of having no contradictions within them. “I am not like that,” people often believe and as a result harshly judge those whose imperfections and contradictions show through. It is much easier to judge and discard others for their contradictions than it is to be transparent and authentic about our own.

Someone I know once called this “Bizarro Land.” A place where the norm has become everyone living their everyday lives where everything is seen as being great and perfect. A world where when a person’s imperfections show up they are harshly judged and even dropped. The problem with Bizarro Land is that it creates these standards of who you need to be that are so high, that we spend our entire lives (or at least until retirment) trying to achieve them. As a result we surrender our ability to feel authentic in our lives, because we are afraid of being seen as the contradictory person we really are.

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“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.

Spending Time More Mindfully

I often hear people say, “I just need to do more.” Doing more seems to have become one of the more popular themes in our day and age. People need to meditate more, exercise more, eat healthy more, have fun more, work more, have sex more, socialize more, make more money, behave more, love more, post on social media more, spend more time with loved ones and on and on and on. How much more can we really do before we spontaneously combust? I think we are already doing enough.

When I have this conversation with people I normally say that I do not think it is about doing more as much as it is about learning how to spend time more mindfully. This is often referred to as time management but I am not a big fan of this term since it sounds so rigid and strict. Instead, I prefer to think of it as learning to spend the time that we do have in more mindful ways.

Most people already do way too much and to compensate for the burn out and stress that doing too much creates, we spend much of our time in various states of withdrawal and distraction. Whether we are on our phones, on social media, drinking at the bar, surfing the internet, watching television or YouTube, playing video games, creating unnecessary drama for ourselves and others, over sleeping or just spending too much time doing nothing- these (and many others) are ways that we tend to deal with the stress in our lives. The problem with these distractions is not the distractions themselves but the amount of time we spend immersed in them. These distractions often take up a good chunk of our time and we end up spending the rest of our time just trying to catch up. This is why habitual distractions are often referred to as negative coping strategies.

What I ask other people (and myself) to do is to ask themselves, “What is really important to you? How do you want to spend your time while you are still healthy and alive?” Then I recommend to write it down and post it where you can see it and then try and do more of whatever the answers are. This is the beginning of spending our time more mindfully.

Another important part of spending time more mindfully is to be aware of when we are not doing the things that are important to us because we are caught back up in the habit of distraction and then to stop doing whatever it is that we are distracting ourselves with. To get back on track as soon as we become aware that we are just killing time.

We only have a certain amount of time a day when we have the energy and attention to be able to do the things that are important to us. This is why it is so important to spend our time wisely. Habitual distractions take up larger chucks of time than a person is normally aware of. Just the simple act of checking your phone or the internet for ten minutes here and there can take up hours a day if a person is not mindful. Then what often happens is that we spend the rest of our time just trying to catch up and the cycle of stress and distraction from stress continues.

In spending your time more mindfully you are making a daily effort to really do the things that are important to you and not spend as much time doing the things that are not of much importance to you. Being mindful can help us be aware of when we are getting caught up in things that are just a habitual distraction and then return to doing what really matters most to us. We all only have so much healthy time allotted to us, this is why it is so important to learn to live our lives more mindfully.

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.

How To Wake Up Right Now

Why can’t I feel better? Why can’t I experience contentment or satisfaction right now? Why can’t I be free from stress, fear, anger and all the other negative crap that keeps me down and my blood pressure up?

Try this. Right now, for just fifteen seconds see if you cannot have a thought. A single thought. See if you can just keep your attention focused on your breathing and not think for just 15 seconds. Give it a shot.

15 seconds.

 

 

 

 

I can already feel you thinking. If your mind is anything like most human minds, it will be almost impossible for you to not think about something for just 15 seconds (some of you may have even had the thought that you were not thinking anything).

Why is this a problem for human contentment, satisfaction and well-being?

Well, it is not so much of a problem if all of your thoughts are happy, joyful and intellectually stimulating positive thoughts. But most of us do not think happy and profound thoughts all day.

Most of our thoughts are actually quite unpleasant and are composed of mainly judgment about ourselves, judgment of others, worry about the future and remorse about the past. This is what loops around in our mind all day, everyday. This is what we are talking to ourselves about all day and night.

If you were to turn our thought process inside out and turn up the volume a little bit- well you would probably be seen as being insane in most cases and countries (however, in Berkeley it might be a bit more permissible than in most other places).

When this insanity is looping around in our minds all day and night long- well that is a real problem for our well-being and the well-being of others in our life. It is a real, serious problem. Probably one of the greatest problems that afflicts humans all over the world right now.

So what do we do?

The irony of being a psychotherapist and a mindfulness instructor is not lost on me. As a psychotherapist, my business is individual’s inner thought processes (mindfulness is not often good for a psychotherapists bank account). If the individual did not invest in their inner thought process, what would we talk about? The bird singing in the tree outside my office window?

There is nothing wrong with thinking. I love intellectual thought as much as the next person. I enjoy engaging in stimulating intellectual discourse and silent, solitary, contemplation. There is nothing problematic about trying to figure things out. Trying to unravel years of experiences so as to get a better understanding of who you are, what you want, why you feel and act the way you do. I wish more people would invest in this process.

The problem is when we are lost in thought without knowing that we are thinking. This is when we are in the autopilot mode, which generates the vast majority of our suffering. It is very similar to when we are dreaming and not aware that we are asleep and having dreams (unless we are lucid dreaming). Most of us go through our lives in this waking dream state. We are lost in thought and have no idea that we are thinking. We are literally being held hostage by our thought process- and it is impossible for anyone to experience well-being when they are being held hostage.

So the first step towards freeing yourself from captivity is to develop the awareness of thinking. Just by becoming aware that you are thinking allows the thought and the accompanying emotional charge to diminish.

This is what self-transcendence means. To transcend the conditioned limitations of yourself (which, creates the vast majority of your suffering) requires that you engage your innate ability to become aware (you don’t need any belief system or spiritual practice to just become self aware right now). Becoming aware that you are lost in thought is as natural to who you are as becoming aware that you are hearing sound right now. We all can do it. It is a fundamental aspect of our biology. Just by becoming aware, you literally are waking up from a conditioned dream state and returning to your life as it is, right now, here, in this moment (the only place you can ever really experience being alive).

So give it a shot. Notice that right now you are lost in thought and bring your attention back to your breathing. Back to your body sitting in a chair and your feet on the ground. Notice what you are hearing and let the thoughts pass. It’s a proven technique to achieve well-being right now and even if only for a minute- it works every time.

Leaning Into The Sharp Points

I’m sitting here in my chilly, backyard studio space thinking of something to write. My wife is sitting on the back deck, drinking her coffee while being absorbed in the novel she is breast stroking her way through. I have an hour or so until I need to get myself ready for work.

It is early Monday morning. I have already fulfilled my promise to myself to move more by completing my daily hour-long morning walk. I have sat in the morning sun with my shirt off so that I could absorb the recommended daily dosage of vitamin D (helps my mood immensely). I have meditated for twenty minutes and read a bit from the novel I am currently ingesting.

The week is stretched out in front of me like the wilderness trail that I used to walk along as a confused twenty-two year old man. The trail was long and straight and I was unable to see the end of it until I got to within the final hundred yards. I walked on that trail several days a week, sometimes high, sometimes not. Whenever I began the hike I remember feeling the desire to turn around and do something else. I was afraid of what was in front of me. Mountain lions? Rattle snakes? A psychopath? A health problem? I was always alone on those hikes and paranoid that if something happened to me I would die a terrible, lonely death (this was before cell phones). I would scream out for help into a void, my final words absorbed into the vast wilderness all around me.

Every time I went on those hikes my mind was filled with these unpleasant possibilities. Sometimes I would shake with anxiety. Sometimes the resistance to turn around and go someplace else would push against me like a strong wind. But I always walked straight, despite my mind’s unremitting attempts to flood me with fear and panic. Other than coming across a few harmless snakes and deers, none of my mind’s projections ever came close to manifesting in the reality of the present moment.

As I watch the clock tick its way towards the time where I need to go shower and get dressed, I notice that my mind still generates similar thought processes (mental habits). I no longer go on hikes, but the work week ahead seems to have the same effect on my mind as that hiking trail once did. I notice that my mind is generating all kinds of future projections. It is envisioning the week ahead with all kinds of images and thoughts, which generates various emotions in my body. I notice resistance, some negativity and the impulse to turn around and go someplace else.

If you are lucky, your mind does this as well. I say lucky because you have an ingrained mindfulness teacher within your head. That teacher is the uncomfortable, negative, judgmental, fearful, paranoid voice in your head that makes all kinds of conclusions about things before they happen. This teacher is the part of your brain (mental conditioning) that is continually trying to drag you out of being fully present with your life right now by swooping you up into various emotions and thoughts about things that are not happening right now!

I call this part of your brain an ingrained mindfulness teacher because every time you notice that you have been swooped up into these thoughts and emotions, you have the opportunity to bring yourself back to your breath, back to the sensations in your body, back to the sounds that you are hearing and as a result allow the thoughts to come and go like cars moving back and forth on a busy roadway. This ingrained mindfulness instructor gives you the opportunity (again and again) to relocate yourself in your life as it is right now (rather than being caught up in the flow of thoughts and emotions that continually manufacturing stress and false realities in your body and mind).

Every time you relocate yourself into the present moment you are experiencing what is often referred to as enlightenment or nirvana. I just think of it as the great relief and pleasure (or happiness) that is felt when we find ourselves free from the false realities in our head and more present within our life.

Monday morning’s are often like that long path I once walked upon. We have all kinds of thoughts and feelings about the week ahead. We imagine stressful situations, search for more pleasant potential situations (what is for dinner tonight?) and generate all kinds of unnecessary resistance and stress for ourselves (high blood pressure anyone?). The work, or the practice of mindfulness is about coming back to the breath, staying here in the right now and continuing to walk forward while allowing all those unpleasant thoughts and emotions to come and go.

To put this into a more contemporary and cliché vernacular-don’t believe the hype. With awareness of our breathing, sounds, sensations and thoughts- again and again we let the hype go and lean into the sharp points (otherwise known as Monday mornings).