The more I read the Stoics, the more I agree with the general approach to life. I am also fascinated that, without the aide of much science, they got so many things right. We now know through Quantum Physics that everything is some form of energy wave. We are all made of the same stuff, just vibrating at different frequencies so some appear solid, some fluid, some alive, some dead, etc. Modern quantified spirituality guys like Dr. Joe Dispenza call it the “Universal Field”. I have no idea what it is, but the Stoics, and Marcus, in particular, nailed it. Basically, we are all connected, made of the same stuff. So remember that when you get tilted by someone. A part of them is you and vice versa. Would you be so tilted at yourself?
This morning during Morning Pages, I went on a rant which started from one of my core beliefs: That the only thing which is truly my own is my Reasoned Choice: Prohairesis. The bottom line is that you are the sum of the choices in your life. And everything in life can be taken away except your choice (assuming your brain is still working, if you loose your mind, you may not even have choice left).
The problem of this morning was the flip side of Choice. The consequences. What if you never look authentically at the consequences. I have come to believe that the reality of rational choice also imposes the responsibility of rational contemplation and review of choices and consequences thereof. If you never review your choices and evaluate if they are serving you, then you give up the responsibility for those choices. Choices without reflection are just reactions. They are of the autonomic nervous system. The challenge in this world is to be a better HUMAN, not a better animal. The Human part requires reflection, contemplation, and review of the Choices. That is why I like the morning gratitude journal and the evening Examin prayer (modified). I see I need to write about those. More tomorrow.
At coffee this morning with a buddy of mine, we were discussing his “emotional bank account” with his wife and the balances/imbalance thereof. While many relationship books and advice talk about this “bank account” and the importance of keeping it in “balance”, this has never sat well with me. In my experience, the problem is not the absolute balance in the emotional bank account at any one time, but the degree of AGENCY you allow the balance is this fictitious “account” over your mood and actions at any given point in time. In short over attachment to the emotional account balance is the problem. The solution is to remove the attachment, reduce the agency of the absolute balance at any one time. As with most things, focus on the process, the journey, not one point in time measurement.
By focusing on the “balance” at any one point in time, one can lose focus of the bigger picture: the journey. That is the core problem with allowing a measurement tool like the emotional bank account to determine or influence your reaction to the world or your current mood. Let us consider the three possible states of the account and the natural reactions to each.
- Even. You feel like the balance in the account is even between you and your partner. Everything is easy, peasy. In balance. And boring! What happens in this state too long is you get restless. Nothing is happening. There is no drama either way. So you get complacent and bored. And you do something to put it out of balance mostly out of boredom rather than any malice. In my experience, “even” has never been a long-term state of an account like this. While ‘even” may seem like a laudable goal, when I have been in it, it never lasts and never satisfies. Identification with an “even” balance in the account always leads to boredom and an abrupt state change in my experience.
- Negative. When my balance is at a deficit somehow. Either I am not getting enough of what I want/need/desire (all problematic words in themselves), or when my partner tells me they are not getting enough (meaning I have not put enough into my side of the equation). However it is calculated, when I feel like I am in a “negative” state, feelings of guilt, shame, unworthiness come up. Also, self-righteousness can rear it’s head “I deserve better than this”, “I am doing all I can and it still isn’t good enough for XXX, why am I bothering?” So I get sensitive and defensive which is never a good state to be in, especially if trying to have a relationship. I have found it is very hard to grow to a positive place when I am focused on how negative the balance in an account is and how much I “deserve” more/better balance. Identification with a “negative ” balance in the account always leads to defensiveness and makes progress out of that state even harder in my experience.
- Positive. When my balance is positive in my favor somehow. Either I have put in (in my mind) multiple deposits over and above the average, or in relation to my “other” in the deal, I am somehow “better” than the other at some point in time. This causes feelings of superiority, separation, and more self-righteousness. Identification with a “positive” balance in the account always leads to feelings of superiority/separateness and makes connections even harder in my experience.
In my experience, I am not happy in any “state” of the emotional balance account. Given that no state of the account produces contentment, nor is any state a stable state (they always change), the best way to deal is to transcend the attachment to ANY STATE. This is not the same as ignoring or denying the existence of the emotional balance sheet. It is a real thing. People generally keep the register in their head. The register is not the problem. It is your identification with any particular STATE of the register which is the problem. You are not your emotional balance sheet state. Transcend identification with the state and you are then FREE of that burden. Be aware of the state, make deposits and withdrawals, but do not IDENTIFY with the STATE.
I have been doing Morning Pages for almost a two years now. It seems like every week I meet someone else for whom Morning Pages has earned a place in the morning routine. Here are some of my personal hacks that make Morning Pages even better:
- On a desk with pen and paper. The point of morning pages is to focus and get the brain/hand connection working. Get the body and mind in sync. And to provide a distraction-free outlet for thoughts and feelings. I have tried using online applications to do morning pages. Bad idea, too many popups and distractions and too easy to indulge the impulse in checking email or facebook or any of the other shiny things that come up during the sitting. The best way to focus at the appropriate pace is to sit at a technology free desk or table with a pen, and college ruled journal.
- No electronics within reach. It is tempting to keep the “productivity” tool close to indulging those inspirations which come. But this is focus time. 15-20 minutes. The point is that you have the rest of the day for technology. Leave it all outside your reach.
- Set a timer. I have found that daydreaming is the first distraction during morning pages. If I take away the technology enabler of most distraction, I am left with just staring off into space daydreaming. To combat that, setting a timer has been effective because I know that thing is going go off and I want to be done before it does. I use Google Home to set the timer.
- Post-it notes. The most common shiny distraction that my monkey mind wants to indulge and get out of Morning Pages are additional to-do items that come up during the sitting. Since it is a creative time, there are frequently things that come up that I want to follow up on or do later. When I used to have my phone next to me, I would put them on the to-do list right then. But about 70% of the time I would get sucked into a rathole of further investigation or googling to flush out something. That would all be enabling delays in Morning Pages. But I didn’t want to lose those items of inspiration, so I now put a pad of post-it notes next to my journal. Inspirational to-do items go there. After the sitting, I take those things over to the computer, if on second thought they still seem worthy, I add them to the to-do lists then.
- Feeling word list. Often when writing, I have to describe a feeling. Before I found Byron Katie’s emotions list, I thought there were about three feelings (angry, happy, sad). Now when faced with describing a feeling I start with I am feeling… then read through the entire list of feelings. I write down every word that seems to fit with the feeling. Typically I come up with 10-20 feeling words. And in this process, I have never had the same set of words for two different events. The subtleties of the feelings come out. You get to understand at a visceral level what is going on inside you and how that situation was different from the one yesterday. While the at the top level both may be “angry,” when you read the longer list and notice the differences, you understand the next level of feelings. Critical hack to get to the real issues.
- Something to drink. Always have something to drink. I have two things. Usually coffee and water. Or Tea and water. Make full cups, so you don’t get up in the middle and use getting a drink as an excuse to stop morning pages. Making coffee can be a 5-minute distraction. Don’t let the monkey get the control that long.
- List of Journal Prompts. I have not had a problem filling three pages recently, but for the first few months, I did. This list of prompts has helped me break through and get going. Just read the list, and after you read through them, the writing will start. One of them will trigger something, and the pen will start moving. As a stand alone exercise I also sometimes just print out the list of prompts and write a sentence or two about each from top to bottom.
- Word of the Day at the top of the Page. Every day should have a primary intention for the day. I usually set this word in my Intention/Decision exercise just before Morning Pages. If you don’t do that, just come up with one word for the day. And write it at the top of the first page. Today my word was “Present.” That one word can start a whole page of dialogue. Why did you choose that word? Why today? What was the word yesterday? Why did it change?
- Do decision intention worksheet before. A huge part of waking up for me is being intellectually honest with myself. Am I living in line with my intentions? As a habit to track that congruency or synchronicity, I created the http://wp.me/p6JmUh-5sIntention/Decison exercise. I do it before morning pages every day.
- Be authentic. Make sure your Morning Pages work is actually in line with your goal/values. Early on in Morning pages, my monkey mind lets me believe three pages of wide ruled writing (160 words per page) was the same as three pages of college ruled writing (250 words per page). Contemplation and Analysis caught that cognitive disconnect. I fixed it. Make sure you are being authentic and not cheating yourself.
- Record emotions by moment to moment sensations. While #5 has been a life-saving hack, what it is getting at is DEPTH. Don’t write in your journal “I was scared”. Using #5, I write the 20 other feeling words that are also there and get a much more rich understanding of the emotion. Another technique I borrowed from this guy, is to reproduce emotions by the moment to moment signal and sensory experiences that you went through. The five ways we feel emotions are:
- Signals in the body. Temperature, heartbeat, lungs, muscles, nerves, etc.
- Signals outside the body. Gestures, posture, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc.
- Flashes from the past. Not analysis but “bursts of waking dream”
- Flashes from the future. More dream bursts, but as premonitions of what might happen. Again, not analytical. (not “being scared was bad”)
- Sensual selectivity. What we sense from the world around us, filtered by emotions. (like “the sun burned a hole in my heart”)
I have found these hacks to improve morning pages for me. I hope they do for you as well.
They focus on what is in their control and strive to accept what is not in their control.
From the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things in cannot change
The courage to Change the things in can
And the wisdom to know the difference.
You can’t choose your parents or the weather. But you can choose to have a drink or not.
The Stoics have a saying
“Ta eph’hemin, ta ouk eph’hemin”
“And what is up to us?”
What is up to us is
The rest is not in our control and all effort spent worrying about it is wasted.
I know from personal experience that having a plan and contemplating intentions leads to a more well-lived life. A life lived more in alignment with my values and intentions because I am keeping those plans top of mind and reducing the random walks and drifting in life. It is during the drifts that I get into troubled waters usually (again discerned after much contemplation). So realizing that things go better when my intentions are more often in my conscious mind, I started thinking about what daily habits or exercises I could add to support that behavior. For the last month, I have been doing this Intention/Decision activity, and it has won a spot in my daily routine, so here it is. While related to “How to make decisions” which lays out a set of decision guardrails, this is more of a tactical support habit for planning and cognitive authenticity.
As part of my morning routine, after making coffee, before sitting down for Morning Pages, I sit down with the day’s calendar and my to-do list and fill out an Intention/Decision log. A list of the major decisions I expect to have to make today. Things that are habits are not on the list. There is not a decision to make if it is a habit. Whatever comes to mind. Like where and with who should I have dinner? Or Should I work out or not if it is an off habit day? Or should I accept an invitation to play poker with friends? Should I do this big project today or tomorrow? Here is my Intention/Decision log for today:
Filled out in the morning for Today:
Date/name: I put the date and my name there (obviously)
Word of the day: What word do I want to be the foundational intent of the day. Today is “Present.” Often it is one of the four Stoic virtues (Temperance, Wisdom, Justice, Courage). It is the first word that pops into my head when my pen gets to that par of the page.
Cat: What category is the decision in? Of the four big classes of that affect life balance and wellness, Health, Wealth/work, Relationships/Family/Tribe, Soul/Spirituality. Then fill out how many decisions in each category down below. This will give me a cognitive trigger for how the day is going to be balanced. Is it primarily a work day? or relationships? or spirituality? Also, it helps me to make sure (since one of my goals is to have a balanced life) to have a major decision in each of the four categories.
Decision: What is the decision I expect to have to make today?
Intention: What is my intention around that decision? Now, in the morning, with my virtues and goals by my side, before the craziness of the day has taken over. What is my intention?
TWJCI: Does this decision have anything to do with the four major Stoic Virtues or an Indifferent? Temperance, Wisdom, Justice, Courage, or Indifferent? An Indifferent is wealth, status, fame, health, etc. All decisions should have at least one of these. Because if it does not, the decision is likely out of my control and should not be a decision at all. Or it is a habit which is also not a decision.
Then also in the morning, I pick up the Intention/Decision log from yesterday and review my performance yesterday by filling out these columns:
Y/N: Did my actual decision match my intention Yes or No.
Notes: Especially if the decision didn’t match the intention, why? What was the reason for variance?
% I/D sync: How may Y vs N in the Y/N column. Today it was 6/7. That means 6 out of 7 times I ended up making the decision during the day that I intended to in the morning. My goal is 100% synchronization.
Primary Variance Cause: Why did I not follow through on intentions. If it happened a lot, what is the ONE THING that was the biggest cause. This is to raise this leak in my cognitive stack so I am aware of it going forward.
One Change for Tomorrow: What one thing (if anything) should I do going forward to achieve 100% Intention/Decision synchronization?
This exercise has really helped wake me up to the truth of “Am I living life according to my stated values?” Something that can easily get sidetracked without a habit of reflection. I like the exercise and will keep it in my daily routine until further notice. It takes less than 5 minutes a day and is worth the investment for the cognitive authenticity it adds.
I invented this one, but I am sure some part of Cognitive Behavior Therapy agrees with exercises to remind cognitive self about your values and intentions on a regular basis.
Here is an Intention decision worksheet log you can use yourself.
Life is a journey. The stuff you bring along on the journey either helps or hurts you. Much of what we are draging around with us we are barely aware of. In order to wake up to what is actually going on in your life you need to periodically stop and check what you are carrying along. And ask the question: “does this serve the journey now?” You may have picked the stuff up at one point when it felt necessary. But is it still? Yes each and every thing.
I am big on learning by doing so here comes another paractical exercise. It will take you less than 10 minutes to do and it will literally and figuratively lighten your load on the journey of life. Last week I took a look around the hotel room and questioned everything I saw. This week it is time to uppack the backpack.
Grab your backpack. Yea the thing you carry to and from work every day. Or your purse. Or Bike bag. Whatever you carry your stuff to and from work in, including your computer.
Now go through each and every item and ask the question:
“Does this serve me for my journey ahead?”
If it does leave it in the pack.
If it does not, take it out.
Re pack for the journey ahead. Weigh the backpack again.
Here is a picture of the new contents with all the stuff taken out. And each pack section. It is noticeably less stuff.
6 pens (I only need one)
4 pairs of sunglasses (kept 2)
Fleece (I will pick the right one for the trip from closet)
Various trash items.
Keys I never use.
Out dated business cards.
Travelers checks that expired in 2008. (Yea I have been carrying them for almost 10 years).
Resulting new weight: 8.96 lbs. a reduction of 2.87 lbs. I have literally lightened my load in life. Going forward the journey will be easier and I will have more energy for the challenges ahead. I will not be bogged down with as much from the past.
I am sure some attachment theory applies here. But I invented this one myself.
George Carlin said commented on “stuff”
Stoicism came of age in a time of political turmoil as well. Remember that Stoicism isn’t about judging other people. It’s not a moral philosophy you’re supposed to project and enforce onto the world. No, it’s a personal philosophy that’s designed to direct your behavior.
This is what Marcus Aurelius meant when he said: “Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.”
Be open to the idea that people are going to be fools or jerks or unreliable or anything else. Let them be. That’s their business. That’s not inside your control.
But you have to be disciplined with yourself, and your reactions. If someone acts ridiculous, let them. If you’re acting ridiculous, catch the problem, stop it and work on preventing it from happening in the future. What you do is in your control. That is your business. Be strict about it.
This is especially important to remember at a time when many people seem to be consumed with every tweet or quip from certain politicians. Leave other people to themselves. You have enough to worry about.
This does not mean “sit down and shut up” like some will infer. If other people are doing something that does intersect with something in your control than you can and must act. But don’t keep reposting “outrage”. Don’t let other people into your head. Don’t let the monkey in your head run wild worrying about other people. Focus the monkey on what is in your own control.
Here at DGC, we have discovered first hand the power of reframing and Agency. One of the keys to building the capacity to make a decision (agency) is facing down your fears. I have talked about the coffee cup facing the flinch experiment and examining minor fears with data before. This week I found another very instructive situation in which there is a choice to build Agency or not.
A key tactic in the war to build Agency and overcome Fears is to pick your battles. Pick the right ones. The ones where you have an advantage. Ones where you have enough Agency to win.
This week a friend was over for dinner. Around 8:30 she headed out to her car to leave. She came back in 5 minutes later.
“I don’t want to leave.” she said.
“I only have 25 miles of gas and it is dark and cold and I don’t know if I can make it home.”
“There is a gas station less than a mile away, just stop there.”
“No, I am scared of getting gas by myself at night.”
“Well are you more scared of not getting home?”
“I don’t know, what should I do?”
And there you have it. Dueling fears causing paralysis. But a decision has to be made. How to decide which fear to face? My recommendation is always to face the fear in which you have MORE AGENCY, more capacity to make a decision. Regardless of the outcome, having made an affirmative conscious decision, builds capacity to make more decisions. Being passive and submissive builds more of the same as well.
Lets consider the facts and relative merits of each fear.
Fear of getting gas at night alone as a single woman. There certainly is merit to this fear. While the absolute probability of something bad happening is VERY low (probably less than 1:20,000) (FBI stats put overall threat of woman rape at 52:100,000 or a 0.0529% chance of being raped anywhere in one year, so a GAS STATION AT NIGHT is even more rare):, this one is very easy for the monkey mind to catastrophize about. The story is “don’t be alone.” And there are things you can do at a gas station to make you less of a target to reduce the odds even more. You can choose a full service gas station where the guy pumps for you. I offered to drive down in my car with her to fill up so she would not be alone. The bottom line is that with she had a HIGH degree of AGENCY with this fear; she could do some actions to modify the out come, change the odds in here favor. So the FACTS say this is a VERY unlikely event to occur, she had high Agency relative to the fear, but the emotional merits/appeal is quite high and understandable.
Fear of running out of gas. The facts for my friend were that she lived about 10 miles away and had 25 miles on the range meter in the car. Most cars are conservative on their range meters so you are likely to have half a gallon or so left when the gauge reads zero. With a 30 mpg car (which she had) that means the real range is likely 40 miles. So the probability of running out of gas is likely equal to the probability of an electronics failure causing improper measurement combined with the probability of some other major car system failure. While I couldn’t find any hard stats on either of these, I did find anecdotal predictions between 0.01 – 0.10 % of each type of failure (combined 0.02 – 0.20 %) It is not a huge logical leap to conclude that fear of running out of gas an fear of being attacked at a gas station are approximately the same. But there is VERY LOW AGENCY in running out of gas. You either are or are not. The only thing you can do to improve you odds is Fear #1, getting more gas. On the harm scale, being out of gas somewhere random is probably more dangerous than being out of gas at a gas station, but you have to stack the odds of attack onto the odds of running out of gas making the odds of both running out of gas AND something bad happening much longer than either event separately. But emotionally I can understand that being alone with a broken down car on the side of the road would cause more angst than being alone in a lit gas station with an attendant. So low probability event (likely equal to fear #1), low agency in fear, and roughly equal emotional appeal on outcomes.
So what did I tell my friend? To face the gas fear, go get more gas. Why?
- She has Agency in the gas fear. She can change the odds. Face her fear at a time and place of her choosing.
- By solving fear #1, you also solve fear #2. Two birds with one stone.
What did she do? Took her chances with the gas and put off the fill up. That is completely understandable. But it was also a missed opportunity. An opportunity to face down and practice overcoming a paralyzing fear. One which is keeping her from enjoying driving around the city at night. Why let a 0.05% chance event cause you angst EVERY NIGHT of the year? Instead her monkey mind choose the easy path, the path of passive acceptance that an unlikely event may happen and she would deal with it then. While that decision is understandable, it does not grow the individual. Not every growth opportunity should be taken every time, but I encourage you to take more when you see them. The first step is awareness and recognition that you do in fact have a decision and one option is better (growth) than the other.
So next time you are faced with a decision between two fears, choose to face the one in which you have more Agency. You will be stronger for it!
I used to think philisophy was for academics. Then I grew up and recognized many of the timeless philosophical questions repeating themselves in my own life.
The primary one of course is “How does one live this life?” Actually this death. Because we all are born to die. We are trying to do this very difficult thing – living and dying – as well as we can. We can let circumstances push us around and passively be a passenger on the trip. Or we can engage our reasoned choice of how, why, and what for to live. In that way we must become philosophers.
The philosophers who have made the most sense to me are the Stoics. The don’t ask us to believe in anything really. Just to wake up, contemplate, pause, question and decide for yourself. A pretty good program I must say.