Imagine that you have made a commitment to always remind yourself that reality is an illusion. That the floor you stand on, the air flowing into your lungs, your body, and the people and places around you are all illusions. That everything and everyone is not real. Whenever you remember to, you make this reminder to yourself. When washing dishes or stopped at a light in your car. Several times a day. For a year.
That’s what I did. I consciously brainwashed myself for a whole year. Good idea? I’m not so sure. I experienced many wonderful benefits but encountered one major downside.
Believing that reality is an illusion does have a basis in science. It does not need to be a fanciful flight of the imagination. At the basic quantum level, everything can be regarded as probabilities. In this instance of time, the probability collapses that a quark exists at this position in space. Other probabilities collapse into other quarks at the same position in space to create a neutron. And other probabilities collapse into positrons, neutrons, and electrons to make an atom. And this atom, in combination with other atoms, forms a living cell and with other cells, forms your body. All these gazillion probabilities collapse into you, a thinking being, at this exact moment. And they collapse into you again in the next moment and the next. It’s a miracle that we don’t fly apart, scattered across the universe, blinking into and out of existence.
Expand that miracle to include each of the billions of humans, the Earth we inhabit, and the universe around us. It is awe inspiring. As I convinced myself more and more that all was illusion, I grew more amazed at reality. When I’m hiking, I have to stop and let the marvel of nature wash over me. What possibilities exist for there to be this majestic valley and mountain before me? Sometimes, I spend minutes looking at my hands, wondering at its existence and at the fact that I can move it with my thoughts. Amazement soon moves into gratitude for my existence and the endless wonders that surround me.
“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” ― Albert Einstein
Note that I’m not in the state of amazement and gratitude continuously, all the time. This mindfulness infrequently comes and goes. Similar to how I have to continually remind myself to remember that reality is illusion, I have to remind myself to be amazed and grateful. I think this infrequency is a very good thing. Because humans adapt, I’m sure that after a while of being continually in such an “enlightened” state, it would start to be dull and average.
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
The goal I was shooting for with this mind experiment was to attain better detachment from worldly concerns. And I believe the experiment succeeded. What does detachment sound like? The phrase “don’t sweat the small stuff… and it’s all small stuff” (from a book title) comes to mind. Small stuff like almost hitting a car that cuts suddenly into your lane on the freeway, or having to wait at the checkout line because someone ahead of you has an issue. Because all is illusion, why should I be attached to events and their outcomes? Everything is as it should be. The near collision wasn’t a collision. I am here, waiting in this line, because I am supposed to be here. And I’m doing what I am supposed to be doing. No decision can be wrong if everything is an illusion, including the decision itself.
Detachment is great. Most of the time, I’m not stressing out about what goes on, wondering if I’m making the right choice, or worrying about the future. I am just calm, relaxed. Now, I still do things that I have to do, such as paying the bills and being productive at work, to avoid the possibility of externally-induced stress, such as getting evicted or not having enough money for food. There is only so far you can go before reality takes a bite. I’m sure that a truly detached being wouldn’t care about what happens to his body, but I’m still concerned about not experiencing bad things like pain and starvation.
Other than the survival stuff, I expect things to work out. If they do, great. If they don’t, that’s okay. Surprisingly, most of the time, things work out for the best; if not immediately, then in the near future. Sometimes I think it’s the worse, but then a twist occurs and it’s actually for the best. My previous car, a Jetta, developed a weird crayon smell in hot weather caused by the decay of the sound absorption material Volkswagen used. I was a bit vexed because the issue was a manufacturer defect but the car was out of warranty. I decided to live with it. Months later, my sister upgraded and offered to give me her Civic. I sold the Jetta and ended up with a car which was more reliable, used cheaper gasoline (regular, not premium), and was less expensive to maintain. Because I try not to expect good results, I’m pleasantly surprised when things just work out for the better. The universe (or if you prefer, God) knows what it’s doing.
Do Sweat The Big Stuff
The good thing about detachment is that I’m floating along in life, without stress. The bad thing about detachment is that I’m floating along in life, without stress. I’ve realized that self-induced stress is necessary to push me beyond my comfort level, to take action, and to force me to grow. Without stress, I feel like I’m at a dead-end. I’m no longer clawing my way up the corporate ladder. I’m not pushing myself to arrange get-togethers and activities with friends. I’m not under a time crunch to do things, professionally or personally. I get what needs to be done done, but I don’t push myself to go the extra mile. Sometimes I miss being busy, having to sweat about juggling family, friends, work, personal life, and their related dramas. I miss feeling like I’m accomplishing a lot.
“Creativity requires action, and part of that action must be physical. It is one of the pitfalls of Westerners adopting Eastern meditation techniques to bliss out and render ourselves high but dysfunctional. We lose our grounding and, with it, our capacity to act in the world. In the pursuit of higher consciousness, we render ourselves unconscious in a new way. Exercise combats this spiritually induced dysfunction.” – Julia Camera, The Artist’s Way
When I know that my accomplishments have no meaning, it takes a lot of wind from feeling triumphant. There is a lack of motivation and a lot of passivity. I’m not driving. The universe directs my life… I’m just waiting for it to send experiences my way. The ride is very pleasant but I’m not going anywhere. I’ve gone too far to the other end and am falling down a puddle without end. As with anything in life, when you reach a roadblock or dead-end, it’s time to look for a detour.
“Don’t sweat the small stuff… and everything is small stuff” is right and wrong. While learning to not sweat the small stuff, I should have kept sweating the big stuff. The big stuff is not everything, it’s just the important thing. And it is right that I should be sweating the big stuff in my life. Sharing experiences with family, friends, and coworkers. Figuring out what is important and meaningful to do with my life. Having compassion for my fellow humans in their misfortunes and sharing the joy in their triumphs. Putting myself out into the world, making mistakes, getting bruised, meeting cool people, and learning and doing crazy, interesting things. Trying to be a better person than I was yesterday. And, though I hate to say it, forcing myself to eat healthy and exercise. Those are the big stuff that matters.
Good Vs Bad Procrastinators
I admit that is an awful amount of big stuff to sweat, especially for a procrastinator such as myself. As with anything in life, procrastination is good and bad, depending upon how you handle it. Being a “good” procrastinator, I push myself to be creative about eliminating unnecessary work and doing the remainder in a way that requires much less effort and time. As a software engineer, I would spend my time to write a program to do repetitive work, instead of doing the repetitive work myself, especially if I know it is recurring work. And I write how-to instructions in detail, in this blog and in a wiki at work, because it saves me a ton of time when I can quickly refer people asking for help to an article and when I need to remind myself how to do something. (You probably have experiences with coworkers who ask you a question that you take the time to answer and a few days later, they ask you the same question again. I just point them at the wiki repeatedly until they understand that I won’t humor them and they go off to find another “victim”.)
Sometimes, if I feel a task is not important, waiting until near the deadline to do it can save me time when I find out the that task is no longer necessary. The downside is that if I’m wrong, I may have to work extra hard to meet the deadline; but that is the acceptable risk and most of the time, I come out ahead. Good procrastinators are careful gamblers who figure out the odds that something needs to be done. Bad procrastinators are bad gamblers who bet their energy on things that don’t need to be done, ignoring the important work.
A Simple Plan For The Rest Of My Life
Back to the main topic, I believe I have found a simple 2 step plan to making progress on the big stuff. I created this plan by merging ideas from two books, “The Now Habit at Work” by Neil Fiore and “Why People Fail” by Simon Reynolds. This plan will work for procrastinators, and if it works for procrastinators, it should work for everyone else.
Here is the simple 2 step plan for sweating the big stuff:
- Commit to start creating for 15 minutes each day or whatever is most attainable. (For the truly bad procrastinators, 5 minutes might be a better starting point.)
- Increase the time as you feel comfortable to.
Why the weird “start creating” phrase? Let’s address the latter part first, as it is the most important. I believe that the purpose of life for all humans is to create. We express our most pure nature when we do something creative, like drawing a picture, writing a blog, inventing a new skateboard trick, building furniture out of discards, combining flavors into a new dish, and testing a new prank on a friend. When we create, we are pushing our limits to bring something new into existence. It reminds me of the phrase, “man is created in the image of God”. To me, that phrase means that when we are creating, we are closest to God.
When I look closer at my big stuff, I find that the biggest, most challenging stuff has to do with creation. Creating enriching moments with my family, friends, and coworkers. Trying to find my life’s purpose can more accurately be stated as creating my life’s purpose. Creating a better life for myself and my fellow beings. Creating a new, better version of myself each day. If I keep my focus on the big stuff and commit to creating each day, my creations will naturally become the big stuff. I sweat the big stuff by creating it.
Self Help For The Procrastinator
The “start creating” phrase and “15 minutes” time limit are for procrastinators or people who lead very busy lives. I synthesized this approach from two ideas about overcoming procrastination, getting started from the “The Now Habit at Work” and limiting time commitment from “Why People Fail”. I hesitate to take on tasks because I don’t want to commit to spending my time and effort to complete them. The bigger the task and the greater the effort required, the more I hesitate. However, if I think that a task is short (just 15 minutes or even 5 minutes) and the effort is small (I’m committing to starting the task, not finishing it), I don’t mind taking it on. Once I get started, I usually go for longer than 15 minutes and sometimes a couple of hours later, I will complete the creation. (This method is how I usually complete postings for this blog.)
It’s a mind trick I play on myself. The goal is to do something (anything) creative every day and the secondary goal is to establish a daily habit of creation. Once I have the habit, I won’t need the trick as much. Or if the habit never develops (usually true for a procrastinator), I may just have to live with the trick. I can still “start” the same thing today that I’ve started the past 20 days or that I’ve started a year ago. Off and on, I’ve “started” this blog post more than two dozen times already.
Before I end this posting, I want to talk about learning. Sometimes I confused learning with creating. When I’m surfing the Internet and learning new things, could that be considered part of my commitment to doing something creative each day? The answer is yes and no. There is a gray area between creating and learning. I believe that learning may be required to meet the goal of creating, but it should never be the goal itself. For example, how can I invent a new skateboard trick if I don’t know how to skate and can’t perform any of the existing tricks? How can I create a video game if I don’t learn how to program first? So if you are learning in order to surpass that learning and create, then yes, it meets your commitment to start creating each day. If you are learning just to learn, then no, it does not meet the commitment to create.
Start Creating Every Day
If we are made in the image of God, then his greatest gift to us is creation in its many splendors. Are we not then made to create? By creating, do we not express our truest nature and offer thanks and gratitude to God?
I wanted to end with a story about Aya Kitou. She was a young woman, a teenager who was stricken with a disease, Spinocerebellar Ataxia, which took her mobility and ultimately her life. Yet, she never gave up on living, on growing, on creating her future, however imperfect and dark it became. From her diary, a quote (translated from Japanese) stands out: “So fall down, get up, and smile because you are alive and experiencing this wonderful gift of life.”