Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Discipline Without Will-Power

Discipline is hard if you equate discipline with will-power. Will-power is the straining against the easiest and most natural action (or inaction) in the moment. In a short spurt, it can get a stagnant ball rolling or correct the course of a wayward ship, but an attempt to sustain will-power is tiring and often leads to a backlash of binge laziness. There must be a better way to be disciplined than constant resistance to the path of least resistance.

Instead of fighting the easy way, why not orient yourself so that the easy way is the disciplined way? Note that when you want something and have no doubt you can get it, you simply do what you need to do to get it. If you're thirsty and a glass of water is within reach, you just grab it and drink. There are two conditions for this easy achievement:
  1. I want something.
  2. I have no doubt I can get it.
Let's break it down some. A big part of discipline is remembering what you want. Whether it's quenching your thirst with a glass of water, building muscle, or publishing a creative work, you must keep what success looks like in the forefront of your mind lest doubt or distraction gnaws it into oblivion. It helps to write down your vision of success. As a literate society, we have imbued the written word with magical powers. Just think about how a signature can put money in your bank account or put you in jail. Use writing's power to cement your commitment to your success.

The more attainable you think your goal is, the less bothered you are by the effort necessary for its achievement. When you think it is difficult to get something, you might rationalize that you actually don't want it or you might make yourself forget that you want it. Thus the second trick to maintaining discipline is convincing yourself that what you want is attainable. Say, "This is easy," or at least, "This is straightforward".

On a related note, you must believe you deserve the goal of the discipline. Otherwise, you'll just sabotage your discipline by making its achievement evil or seem harder than it is. If you notice yourself mad at people who have made it while you haven't, realize that your thought of "he doesn't deserve it" will subconsciously drive "I don't deserve it". You'll secretly give yourself reasons to fail so you don't end up like that jerk who succeeded. Instead, use their glory as inspiration for yours. Everyone deserves the happiness of a disciplined life.

Fourthly, measure your progress. When it comes to conditioning, our minds don't operate much differently than Skinner's rats. Positive feedback acts as positive reinforcement for the habit we are trying to instill. A popular measurement strategy is the streak. Count how many days in a row you've kept up an activity that is part of your discipline, e.g. how many days you went to bed at a specified time.

You can also measure your progress by regularly rating the quality of the product your discipline is creating. Even if improvement seems imperceptible one day to the next, record yourself. For example, record yourself practicing a musical instrument. For writing or visual arts, keep your practice pieces. For motivating physical exercise, keep track of how energetic or tired you feel at various points during the day. Over the course of a few days or weeks, you'll notice a correlation with the amount of practice and measured benefits and be naturally encouraged to continue.

If you keep these four ideas in mind--remembering what you want, knowing it's attainable, believing you deserve it, and measuring your progress--you will maintain a momentum that reduces the need for sustained application of will-power and the resulting fatigue.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Grandma's Hand

I held my grandma's hand today. She is close to death. She wants to get physically better. I kept quiet so as not to betray my pessimism. I just hoped that she would somehow find peace.

Once upon a time, my grandma wanted to hold my hand as I walked down the stairs. Wearing a sarong and a precocious two year old ego, I refused her hand. One step, two step, three step on the sarong. I tumbled down the flight of stairs landing with my face in the gravel. No cry. 'Tis but a scratched upper lip with a few pieces of gravel embedded. My uncle took a look at me and said, "Oh, we must go to the doctor." Cry. I hated the doctor. They shot me in the butt with needles and placed me in cold steel scales. I felt no pain in my bloodied and torn face, but pain at the thought of being tortured and humiliated by strange hands. I should've taken my grandma's hands instead.

Years later, a front tooth grew almost horizontally outward near the point of impact, a reincarnation of the rebel that fell from grace so ungracefully. I had braces to correct it. For days after each orthodontic session, I rolled around in bed in agony. Years later, my wisdom teeth kicked in before my wisdom kicked in enough to trust the medical industry to remove them. They impacted my teeth and pushed the same tooth outward again.

A perceptive physiognomist recently told me that my crooked teeth indicated a rough childhood. Odd how the trait survived two opportunities for correction, first with the onset of adult teeth and second with braces. I guess I can't hide it; I had always been a rebel, distrustful of authority. Why should I trust people who hurt people or who cannot themselves escape suffering? In retrospect, I understand that I was in an extreme circumstance, born in soil traumatized by war. If the world of adults is domination and murder, let me walk on my own. Don't hold my hand.

But she wanted to hold my hand to protect me from falling, not as a patronizing judgment of my clumsiness. I squeeze her hand now in apology for my defiant independence. With tubes going into her wrists and pillows to prop up her frail body fluctuating between too high and too low blood pressure, I am surprised that she squeezes back with such firmness. Now she is the defiant one.

I listen to an audiobook speaking of spirituality and the powerlessness and nothingness of the body as I caress her hand. Her hands grasp for life while mine grasp for afterlife, impatient for this madness to be over. I'm still here though, and while I'm here, I communicate with the body. I don't speak Khmer to my grandma very well, so I communicate with my hands, the most emotionally sensitive part of my body. I don't know much about life and death, but for the moment, at least I know the warmth and vitality of my grandma's hand.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Extinction of the Dinoman

Dinosaur, Latin for fearfully great lizard. Maybe our species will one day be called dinoman, fearfully great man. Our counterparts in this future would look back and dispassionately judge dinoman as an inexorably expanding fire transmuting basic elements into an intricate pattern of light, a short-lived explosion of an intensity only surpassed by its contrast with the ashes in its wake.

The top of the food chain is a precarious place to be despite the predatory prowess of the species. In fact, it is the predator that prays to its prey. The apex species must bow down to the complex web that sustains it and quickly adapt to its caprices. The innovation of the next great species will likely be the parsimonious digestion of worldly resources. They will glide through the biosphere like wisps of air. Transparent and weightless, they do not consume or resist the material world but enliven it and make it glow with increasing intricacy.

As we presently choke in the soot of dinoman, we can still make a collect call to our future selves, if not to bail us out, then at least to soothe us with their song, the harmonies of which we may make practical use today. Even if our song is short and subdued, let it be the echo of the crescendo to come.

Inspired by watching Koyaanisqatsi for the 8th (or something) time.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Who is the judge

When people are arrogant, I feel threatened. Their belief in superiority implies my inferiority. Instead of seeing their call for love, I see an attack on my worth. My admonition to people regarding their judgmental outlook is really my defense against being judged unworthy. I am the arbiter of my self-worth, but I project it onto an arrogant person and find him guilty and in need of change for condescending.

My humiliation fantasies are a projection of sadomasochism onto innocent people who I see as dominant oppressors hurting me for their pleasure. I go even further by denying my innocence and seeing myself as worthy of being punished. Therefore I consider my humiliation to be my rightful due and not sadistic abuse. I am not a victim of my oppressor but of my own worthless essence to which I'm eternally bound.

This fantasy is the shadow of my precarious display of intelligence and confidence. I hide my mistakes and weaknesses in fear of tarnishing my perfect facade. It's ironic how much I puff up only to dream of being deflated. 

There is no truth in either of these insane imaginings. The thing that puffs up only to be deflated doesn't exist except as a mirage that witnesses to the suffering of existing separately from and at odds with one another. We in fact are not separate, but we see the world that way because we believe it, and believing is "seeing". To see a different world, I must be willing to let go of my previous worldview. I must be open to the possibility that I have been wrong about how I see. It is easier to admit I have been wrong if I associate my present unease with my present perception. It is easier to form this association if I am present to how I'm actually feeling in the moment. 

Whenever I am frustrated or afraid, I will ask myself, "Would I rather see peace instead of this?" If the answer is yes, I know I must be open to the possibility that I am seeing and believing wrongly about the superiority and inferiority of human beings. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Taking Criticism Constructively

Constructive criticism is when the critic is more concerned about the other person's benefit than furthering the critic's own convenience. However, since we can't control the state of mind of a critic, why not take every criticism constructively? 

One way to do that is to not take things personally. Judge the advice as if it were given to someone else to take off some of the sting that our egos naturally feel when criticized. Would following the advice help a person with similar goals and background as you? Imagine reading the criticism in the form of a tip in a book rather than coming from a person in front of you. Is the reasoning compelling enough for you to read further?

Criticism is as much or more about the other person as it is about you. People preach what they want to learn themselves. This is projection. If there is a lot of frustration or anger in the criticism, it is an strong indication that the person doesn't know how to accept and care for the part in himself that exhibits what he is criticizing. The critic is, in effect, asking you to model the self-compassion he cannot muster for himself. If you respond defensively, you are not only saying, "I don't have that flaw in me," your defensiveness is implicitly agreeing with the critic, "Anyone who has that flaw is bad." The constructive response would be to show how you could forgive yourself and grow if you did have that issue, whether or not you initially thought you had the issue.

Whether you respond to criticism by self-improvement or modeling self-compassion, you are taking charge of adding the "constructive" to constructive criticism and not leaving it up to the critic or your ego's interpretation of him.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Filial Piety in the Land of the Individual

Being raised with two different cultures can be freeing as well as confusing. It is freeing to know that ideals I've been taught are not absolute. It's confusing to have to decide so often between conflicting values espoused by the different cultures. My Asian side says I have to respect my parents' wishes. My American side says I have to find out what makes me happy despite what others think. Both ideals have value, but taking either one to an extreme to the exclusion of the other can lead me to trouble.

Primary relationships create a template for just about all of one's future relationships. During a child's early years with his parents, the more primitive parts of the brain develop preverbal reaction patterns. They are entrenched in a way cerebral reasoning can barely touch. Try as we might to run away from people who exhibit the same behavior as our parents, we can't run away from our imprints, which we project onto the present situation or relationship. This is why I think developing good rapport with your parents is important. Otherwise, you'll just play out the same problematic patterns in varying degrees with other people or institutions. For instance, my father having educated me in a punitive way, I have a bad association with being taught by a person and can only fruitfully learn from books or personal experimentation.

I must willfully contest my automatic reactions to my father if I am to clear out my limitations in dealing with authority. As my reptile and limbic brain kick in, I fire a rational salvo, "There must be another way to see this." With a lot of repetition, I may be able to erode the stubborn feelings and world-view that keep me stuck as a 5 year old.

It is true that one is ultimately responsible for choosing one's values, but that doesn't discount respecting others' views. In fact, it is in the acceptance that another person is doing the best they can in the context of their experience that one develops trust in one's own ability and experience. If you see someone as an incorrigible idiot who acts like a know-it-all despite his lack of self-awareness, what makes you safe from that very indictment? Think about it really logically. You could be in the same exact category and not even know it because not-knowing is precisely the definition of that label you so liberally apply to others.

On the other hand, respecting another's opinion doesn't mean you must internalize it and precisely follow its dictates. Your own experience and biases are just as important and should be carefully weighed against theirs and any evidence that can be gleaned from the present moment. Just take care not to let individualism become knee-jerk rebellion to any foreign opinion, which only furthers the tenor of oppression in one's life. True freedom is freedom from all tyrannical opinions, even one's own.