A single dark crow flies past the weathered, grey-green barn, its thatched roof covered in patches of bright, spring-green moss. Old, tangled vines gone dormant, cold and wet lay tired across the rafters – the beams heaving, stretching to support the jumbled masses. Just below, ten humble soldiers stand alert, their strong veins darkened by rain, their weary, hopeful faces anxiously awaiting the first signs of spring. A sparrow hops across the edges of the tattered fence posts, and patches of lichen crowd towards the pale marine sky, hoping to capture the first drops of distant sunlight.
I’ve always been a huge fan of mind-body activities, or exercises that teach you in physical form what is to be learned in the mind. It can be argued that anything in life can teach the mind lessons, but there are a few activities I’ve found that foster mind-body learning unlike anything else. As someone intensely interested in personal growth/philosophy and movement, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite lessons.
Archery: Trust and follow your intuition. Don’t think. Just point your body in the direction of what you want. Stay humble. Shoot before your mind takes over, because overthinking will cause you to make mistakes. Your mind is more powerful than you think. Trust your first gut reaction, and trust your instincts.
Hiking: Trust the process. Always remember to look back and see how far you come. Remember to stop to enjoy the view and your surroundings – it’s not just about the work. Savor the small things. Find someone walking on the same path. In life there are valleys, peaks and summits. Find someone who will walk with you through it all and give you a hand or a lift when things get hard, and do the same for them. Enjoy every minute of life because it’s not just about the summit, but the journey. There is no destination.
Yoga: Trust the signals your body sends you. Life is not a competition – you are on your own personal journey. When the body is moving, it brings the mind into the now. Be where you are. Be compassionate with yourself, and be compassionate with others. Be humble and open, and stay curious. Sometimes there is a muscle you can move that you might not have known even existed – if you listen and stay open to instruction, you’ll find it. The more open you are, and the more curious, the more you’ll find. Relax and breathe into difficulty. Trust yourself, give yourself what you need (and so, so much more.)
Climbing: Being in the present moment allows you to be free of anxiety about the past and anxiety about the future. It allows you to enjoy life exactly where you are at (and prevents you from falling.) Staying present and focusing on something with the body can force the mind into a state of flow and intense presence, which helps you enjoy life more. Be where you are. Don’t look down or back at where you came from, focus on what’s ahead and where you are going. It’s all in the mind. Trust that you will get there. Know you will. Refuse to give up. Keep trying. Encourage and support others. Take risks. Know you can. Have fun.
Don’t overthink this, either. Write every day. Write from the part of you that sits beyond the mind and the ego. Write from your creative energy. Writing is like driving through the desert at night with just your headlamps on – you can only see 4 feet ahead of you, but you’ll still get to where you need to go. Sometimes you find where you need to go just by starting the journey. Sometimes you realize what you wanted to say only after you are well into a piece. Sometimes what you want to say changes. Sometimes what you think you want for your life is different than what you actually want, and writing helps you realize that. Jump on the “train” of inspiration as soon as it hits and before it leaves, or it may never come back. It doesn’t have to make sense, as long as it is true. Don’t try – just make it honest and true, and be brave enough to talk about what hurts. Be vulnerable – because that is what connects us, and our writing to everyone else in the world.
Covered spaces, cracks in the pavement
The way our smiles lit up dusk like twilight
Love me forever
If only for this moment in time
Light up my life my heart like fireworks
Blanket my soul
We didn’t notice the dandelion seeds blowing in
endless roads, distance, causeways for miles and miles
We’ll take these trails hand in hand forever
didn’t notice the foxtails in the distance,
flowers got in the way
sun setting over highway 94
your voice still an echo fading,
you know i’m driving all the way to chicago,
i don’t know if i’m ever coming back home.
i remember the way you used to look at me
you didn’t know i longed for you the same.
melt my heart into your pillow
don’t you know your smile shoots
darts like sunbeams?
i know the days we walked in darkness
were numbered, so numbered
if these streets could talk they’d tell you
that i still remember
sand dollars, that one day
and i wanted you so badly
i wanted so badly for you to be the one.
salt and snow gravel grind beneath your shadow smile
miles and miles,
left behind the train tracks skidding with the pebbles dancing off the rails as we race on by.
Don’t you know we’re going to Alaska?
you say laughing, throwing your hat into the air
for a moment all i see is your joy
and in that moment i know that nothing else matters
Sometimes there is silence and space
reaching across the multitudes of
decades, decades, decades
spent dancing by the kitchen door
spent in that hallway, shone
spent wandering by the bookshelf,
won’t you slide across this empty room
faint hum of music and sparkle in your eyes
won’t you tangle, soft around these limbs
won’t you wrap my heart in sunrise
I’ve been reading A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine this past week, and while I don’t agree with 100% of Stoic teachings, there are many lessons and philosophies contained within Stoicism that align with Buddhist ideologies and scientifically backed happiness studies that I think most people will be able to get behind.
In A Guide to the Good Life, Irvine gives us a modern introduction to Stoicism, weaving themes of acceptance, contentment, and fatalism into easily digestible psychological practices we can adopt to start living life happier now. Here are four that stood out to me:
1. Understand “Hedonic Adaptation” and Start Appreciating What You Have Through “Negative Visualization.”
Hedonic adaptation is the phenomenon that occurs when humans return to previous levels of happiness after getting a slight boost in happiness that comes from getting something they want. I’m sure you’ve noticed this before – humans spend their whole lives wanting. We start by wanting a certain job – but once we get that job, we want a better job, more pay. We start wanting a house – but once we get that house, we want a larger house, a bigger garage, maybe more windows.
Studies have shown that once people get something they want, they typically return to a baseline level of happiness not too long afterwards. In fact, one famous study shows that lottery winners return to similar baseline levels of happiness 18 months after winning. If this is true, it doesn’t make sense to fall into the trap of constantly chasing “more.” We run the risk of chasing more until our lives are over – thus never experiencing true happiness and contentment in our lifetimes.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t ever be ambitious and reach for more in our lives. Not falling into the trap of the “hedonistic treadmill” means that we should enjoy every step of our journey. We should never reach for “more” just to reach “more,” and we should spend way more of our time enjoying where we are and what we have. Study after study has shown that the secret to happiness is found in contentment: wanting what we have and enjoying the little things in life. It isn’t the huge, hallmark moments that truly fill our lives with joy – it’s the small, unnamed moments – a cup of coffee and a book; the feel of your dog warm, asleep against your leg; and the sound of your favorite record playing as you get ready to cook dinner with your partner.
Irvine also introduces the Stoic concept of “negative visualization” as a way to intensify the feelings of enjoyment that come from experiencing what you have in life. To practice negative visualization, imagine if you didn’t have everything you have. Imagine your favorite car being totaled in a car crash. Imagine today as the last day you’ll ever see your best friend. Imagine the cup of tea you just had as the last one you’ll ever be able to drink. (Okay, hold on, you’re thinking. This is starting to sound negative.) This was also my exact thought upon learning about this concept – but, what is really being suggested is that you savor your experiences.
Stop thinking about what you don’t have, and start thinking about how lucky you are to have whatever you’ve got. Start being grateful that nothing has taken those things away from you (yet). And enjoy what you have (all the wonderful, small things) with everything inside of you.
2. Improve Your Enjoyment of Things through Self Denial and Minor Acts of Self Deprivation.
Masochistic as this sounds, another way we can improve our enjoyment of life is by occasionally denying ourselves a constant stream of pleasure. I don’t think this is a first-world suggestion for self-flagellation – rather, I think the message behind this sentiment is, when your baseline for satisfaction is lower, you increase the number of chances you have for experiencing joy.
Instead of constantly appealing to our hedonistic desires for increasing pleasure and comfort, we can practice discipline and train ourselves to appreciate the smaller, less luxurious things in life. If we become slaves to our desire for more, we become slaves to an ever-increasing threshold for happiness that becomes more and more impossible to satisfy. Think of a dog and its happiness upon being taken out for a walk. Think of the joy on its face when you come home from a long day at work. Ponder how your cat continues to play with cheap cardboard boxes with the utmost glee no matter how many expensive cat toys you continue to buy. The fact remains – your quality of life does not go up with the size of your income. In fact, many studies have shown that once your income reaches a certain point (the point where you’re no longer stressing over lack of money), incremental increases in income do not equal equivalent increases in happiness or life satisfaction. In fact, our happiness levels plateau as our incomes go up from there and (surprise) even start to dip.
There’s a reason why Costa Rica, despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, remains one of the happiest countries in the world. It’s been said time and time again, and as trite as it sounds, happiness has a lot more to do with how we perceive our world and how easily we find contentment – and a lot less to do with what we actually have. It also (not surprisingly) has a ton to do with the relationships we have in our lives. The United States, a highly individualistic country that prizes material gain and power over anything else, produces a society that perpetuates dissatisfaction, isolation and disconnection from what really matters. We are constantly chasing a dream we’ll never reach, and it’s unattainable by design. We are taught to be perpetually dissatisfied. We are told that this is the key to growth. These outside societal voices mix and merge with our inner voice until we don’t know who we’re actually listening to. Is this what we want?
A Stoic philosophy of life isn’t, however, an unambitious lifestyle reeking of mediocrity and smug ambivalence. Instead, it encourages a mindset of growth – with the right perspective. Which brings us to the next point.
3. Internalize Your Goals, and You Can’t Fail. (Plus, You’ll be Happier.)
Going after a goal without being attached to the outcome creates an environment where we can be happy no matter what. It also produces an atmosphere ripe for a sense of self worth that comes from within. Practicing Stoicism doesn’t mean you should be a chronic underachiever without any dreams – it means you can create a goal of growth without attaching your worth to an outcome. In other words, fall in love with the process and the journey, and do not become too attached to arrival. There isn’t a place to arrive to. Because we will never “arrive,” we might as well experience joy from all the little moments in between. Our goals should reflect that fact that there is never an arrival point, because in this moment, we’re perfectly imperfect just the way we are. Believing anything otherwise sets us up for a lifetime of feeling inadequate. And who wants to do that to themselves?
Instead of creating goals like “become the Director of Marketing at a major, well-known company,” or “be the most hilarious husband ever,” we can create goals like “do my best to work towards becoming a Director of Marketing,” “strive to continue to challenge myself,” “make an effort to make my wife smile every day,” and so on. When we internalize our goals, we can’t fail, and we can still put all of our effort into improving our lives and our circumstances. The key here is detachment from outcomes. As my dad used to say repeatedly, “all we can do is the best we can do.” If you’ve done that, no matter what happens, be happy with yourself. That’s all you can really ask for.
As for the outcomes? Those are just pleasant side effects. And you weren’t really trying to “arrive” anyway, were you? If you consider life to be a race where you’re trying to reach a destination…well…good luck and have fun racing to death. Yup, I said it. Sorry.
4. Finally, Amor Fati.
Amor fati means simply, to love your fate. As German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche puts it, Amor fati means:
“That one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backwards, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it….but love it.”
In the words of Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher:
“Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.”
What this means is that you should fall in love with every part of your life, not just the great moments – in fact, go so far as to fall in love with your struggle and your pain. This is obviously much harder than (or as hard as) it sounds. But if you consider that your struggle allows you to experience joy, it might be a little easier. It is the contrast of darkness and light that allows there to be light. It is nothingness that allows there to be “something.” In fact, it can be argued that the “nothing” creates and defines the “something.” Our lives go through constant cycles – what goes down must come up, and what comes up must go down, eventually. So instead of simply loving one part of your life and only the happiest moments, try to love the whole. Amor fati encapsulates the philosophy of simply loving what “is.”
Everything in Balance.
Is a Stoic philosophy (or any philosophy of happiness or well being, for that matter) hopelessly optimistic? My opinion? Hopefully not. Not too long ago, I subscribed to the idea that we should only ever pay attention to the bright spots in life, while ignoring the dark. I hoped that in doing this, I would increase my life satisfaction by focusing on and “growing” the good things in my life through visualization and positivity. This practice of relentless positivity improved my outlook, resilience and overall feelings of happiness. Yes, “law of attraction” definitely works, and you can create the things you want (in physical form!) in your life by believing they will happen and by visualizing what you want.
The flip-side? An intolerance for anything other than relentless positivity in both myself and others left me ill-equipped to deal with the truly palpable low points in my life and in this world. We cannot turn a blind eye to suffering, because in doing so, we are in essence denying ourselves of our humanity and a decent portion of our lives. Interestingly, it was my very refusal to accept pain and discomfort that caused me more pain and discomfort than anything. The cognitive dissonance that occurred whenever I felt anything less than positive was immense, and I’d waste hours of my life berating myself for not being “resilient” enough, “positive” enough, or for not being able to pick myself back up.
This isn’t to say that we should allow ourselves to sink into despair, or that we shouldn’t be resilient, solutions-oriented people who always believe a brighter day is yet to come. We should continue to do those things, for that is one (very important) side of the coin. The other side, however, can’t be ignored or rejected. We should allow ourselves to be less than perfect, less than positive, and even a little defeated at times. That is as much a part of life and being human as is being resilient and positive.
We should stop kicking ourselves, and sometimes allow ourselves to sink low into the bath, candles burning – to hide from the world for just another day…
…for tomorrow the sun will come up again, like it always does.