Lots of our unhappiness stems from our expectations.
It’s a very human habit to form a picture in our minds of how the world should be. And then we sometimes get upset if things don’t work out the way we’d hoped.
This is such a common human experience that I catch myself doing it many times, every day.
And that’s the key – catching yourself.
It’s a bit like being Sherlock towards your own thoughts and behaviours. When you’re paying attention, you get a strong gut feeling when you’re acting in alignment with your values… or not.
I’ve found it’s well worth learning to tune in to that little internal voice, it helps you choose between right and wrong (by your own personal definition).
For me, I keep noticing that I unconsciously carry around sets of expectations about other people.
“They shouldn’t have said/done that.” Or…
“This event must go the way I want it to.”
Bollinger, R (2019) – busy judging other people and trying to control the world.
(Note: sometimes this kind of judgement is entirely appropriate, particularly if the other person’s behaviour is falling short of mutually-agreed standards. But my contention is that judgement like this is usually unhelpful – it’s our attempt to impose our own internal standards onto other people, without their consent.)
When I judge other people harshly, it triggers a feeling of indignant anger. It’s dangerous. Very quickly I find myself wanting to take control of situations, imposing my will and controlling the behaviour of other people.
Fortunately, my self-awareness helps to me to re-centre.
I remind myself of the Stoic belief that I can only control myself, not others.
I take a few moments to pay close attention to what I’m thinking and feeling. I try to carefully choose how I respond, rather than reacting impulsively and fanning those interpersonal flames.
I aim for peace, rather than more conflict.
A Daily Practice
I am definitely not claiming to be an expert at staying calm. But I’m getting better.
It takes consistent daily practice, one small step at a time. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it.
“I’m not trying to be perfect, I’m just trying to improve a little bit each day.”
Bollinger, R. (2019)
A few months ago, in my blog post “Crossing The Bridge” I talked about how I’d discovered that it was self-awareness that’s the crucial ingredient for getting where I want in life. It’s the most important factor in my spiritual growth.
The cognitive technique I’ve described in this post – letting go of expectations and returning to a place of calm – that’s a great example of self-awareness in daily use.
Sometimes the stuff I blog about might seem esoteric or obscure – difficult to implement in daily life. But at their heart, lots of Buddhist and Stoic ideas are eminently practical.
Are you feeling a little grumpy as we near Christmas? Or is it just me?
To be fair, it could just be me.
It’s been 6 weeks since I stopped taking my anti-depressants cold turkey (I’m sure there’s a joke about Christmas leftovers here somewhere). And I’m definitely more irritable.
Though I’d much rather be irritable than depressed.
Actually, I’ve had consistently good moods: literally 6 solid weeks of 4/5 or 5/5 days (as measured by the excellent Pixels app by Teo Vogel).
I can’t remember the last time I had 6 weeks of solid good moods. Over the last few years, it’s been rare for me to go more than 2 or 3 weeks without a few days of depression in which I struggle to get out of bed or have enough motivation to do anything at all.
I’m definitely feeling more irritable than usual, but not so much that it has a significant impact on my happiness levels or general satisfaction with life. Phew!
Many Reasons to be Grumpy
At this time of year in particular, there are plenty of reasons to be feeling grumpy.
There’s the stress of preparing for the big day – buying and wrapping presents, tidying the house (if you’re having guests over), trying to make sure you’ve got all those extra little jobs sorted out in time.
And then there’s incompetent delivery companies… yes, I’m looking at YOU, Hermes UK. You’ve managed to lose a parcel which contained a little boy’s Christmas present, despite the fact it was sent two weeks ago.
Yes, it was insured, but that’s not the point, is it. This present can’t easily be replaced. And by now it’s certainly too late.
You had ONE job, Hermes. ONE.
So yeah, there are a 1001 things to do and even more reasons I could use to justify why I’m a bit irritable and grumpy.
But that’s not how I want to feel.
And so I remind myself of a few things which help to return me to a place of calm.
I remember that there are people sleeping on the streets this Christmas, so I should consider myself lucky that I can even afford to send presents.
I remember that although it’s difficult to totally avoid all of life’s little irritations, I can choose how I respond to them.
I can choose to stew on those annoyances, obsessively ruminating on all the reasons I’m justified in feeling angry.
Trust me, I’m an expert at making mountains out of molehills. That’s a big part of why I ended up with clinical depression.
If I continue down that path, pretty soon I’ll have backed myself into a corner, filled with rage. I’ll be a dark, angry, depressed mess, just in time for Santa.
You should have seen me one year ago. I was depressed as fuck. I refused to actually run during the Christmas Day Park Run. Instead, I walked it, stubborn as Mary’s mule.
I hastily deleted the photos taken by the official race photographer. I’m surprised my miserable face hadn’t cracked his lens!
I can choose just to Let It Go (credit: Frozen). I can choose not to let those irritations get to me.
I can acknowledge the feeling of irritation in my mind. I can notice the tension in my body. And I can just… breathe it all out.
Ahhh, peace. Now that’s how I want to feel this Christmas.
And If All Else Fails…
… just get drunk and start a violent altercation with the nearest bystander.
There’s lots about the Buddhist tradition which makes sense to me. It’s helped make my life more peaceful and enjoyable.
But there’s still lots which I’m unsure about or don’t fully understand.
For example, they say that there’s no such thing as “you”… as in, there’s nothing definite that we can call “you” that’s separate from the rest of the world.
When most Westerners first hear that idea, it sounds pretty weird.
Most of us have a very definite idea of who we are. To us, it seems that we’re totally independent from outside influences. We like to think of ourselves as clear-minded, rational thinkers.
And yet, we’re really not. We get influenced by outside factors all the time, without noticing it.
You don’t need to be an expert like Derren Brown to get away with manipulating people… all you need to do is simply exist!
Below the level of our conscious awareness, all of us are constantly accepting outside influence from the world, and we’re influencing others too, whether we want to or not.
So, it seems the Buddhists were right. You know the bulletproof glass which we imagine separates our sense of self from the outside world… it’s actually more like a flimsy fishing net… with massive holes and tears in it.
A Gigantic Industry
Don’t believe me? Still think you’re independent from the world?
Do you know how much the advertising industry is worth?
“In 2016, global advertising sales reached $493 billion.”
I guess those advertisers are doing something right, to be worth so much.
Think you’re immune to advertising? Well, companies and political parties wouldn’t spend so much money on advertising if it didn’t work.
Consider how most advertising functions… it’s not trying to convince you to buy things using reasoned arguments… it (often) works at the level of your emotions and unconscious desires… so you don’t even notice it!
Look, I get it: it can feel a bit scary to think that we’re so easily influenced by outside forces. But, as far as I can tell, it’s true.
I’ve heard this quote attributed to several famous people. It feels true to me.
“You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with. So choose wisely.”
You’re not the same as you were 10 years ago, 5 years ago, or even just 1.
In lots of subtle ways (and some not so subtle), over the years you’ve unconsciously adopted some of the beliefs, attitudes and even mannerisms of the people around you.
I definitely think I’ve become more like my wife since we started dating nearly 20 years ago. Fortunately for me, that’s a very good thing: she’s kind, honest, caring… and probably the most well-organised person I know.
Recently I’ve developed a (slightly nerdy) love for ticking things off To Do lists… I’d say that’s at least partly due to my wife’s influence – and it makes me a better and more productive person.
The Power of Media
One of the most frightening ways in which we unconsciously accept influence is from the media we consume: TV, radio, websites, newspapers etc.
Again, we all like to think that we’re independent thinkers. We believe that we carefully consider facts and form reasoned opinions.
But in reality we’re incredibly susceptible to influence from sources which we consider authoritative – for example our favourite daily newspaper.
It sounds unbelievable, but we’re also highly susceptible to accepting opinions if we hear them over and over again, even if they’re untrue.
That’s why successful politicians repeat the same catchy slogans over and over. They know that eventually, some of those key phrases will lodge inside our brains and start influencing us.
I know, I know, I sound like I’m part of the tinfoil hat brigade, right?
After all, I’m a self-confessed drug addict who has made plenty of mistakes in his life. So what the fuck do I know?
Well, I happen to enjoy running experiments on myself, especially if I think they might lead to improvements in my happiness and general satisfaction with life.
And for a few years now I’ve been consciously limiting my exposure to advertising and mainstream media.
I very rarely watch TV or listen to commercial radio
I don’t read any daily newspaper – they all have their own sets of biases.
I avoid the news as much as possible, mainly because I found it contributed to my depression.
I have an Ad Blocker installed on my web browser.
I avoid social media “influencers” like the plague.
Well, it’s hard to say! How can I be truly independent and objective about myself?!
But here’s what I believe to be true about the changes I’ve seen in myself since I tried to limit my exposure to mainstream media and advertising.
I get less angry
Mainstream media seems to be in perpetual outrage these days – it grabs people’s attention. By avoiding all those shouty, indignant people, I found myself becoming calmer.
I’m more open to learning from people with opposing points of view
Ideological echo chambers are dangerous precisely because it’s really difficult to know when you’re in one!
Instead of making assumptions and convincing myself I’m right, I try to ask other people questions. It takes a little more effort, but it’s definitely worthwhile to practice curiosity.
I’m kinder and more caring
It’s easier for me to empathise with others, even if they have annoyed me!
I’m less tribal
Who do you identify with? What kind of people do you feel are like you?
Maybe it’s people from your town. Maybe it’s those with the same skin colour as you.
Maybe it’s people who vote the same way you do.
Sadly, when we identify strongly with any particular group, it makes us less amenable to the people who are outside that group.
So, nowadays I keep reminding myself:
“We have far more in common with each other than our differences. We need unity, not further division”
Bollinger, R. (2019)
That’s not just a phrase I parrot to myself, I genuinely try to live that way.
Of course, I’m only human. I’m very far from perfect (as my wife can attest!)
I make mistakes all the time.
I aim for virtues such as Courage, Love, Truth and Humility, but the reality is that I fall short constantly.
I don’t think I’m better than anyone else. And I’m sorry if this post gives that impression.
I’m just trying to do what I feel is right.
And I guess that’s one of the core goals of Buddhism… and most other religions and spiritual principles.
So – your broken fishing net – pay attention to how you use it. Please.
All maps of meaning are essentially meaningless. They hold no objective value. Their only value is what people decide inside their own minds… or that people have shared across multiple minds (i.e. culture).
All narratives, all thoughts, all feelings – they mean nothing… unless you decide they do.
When you collapse all meaning to nothing (like knocking down a house of cards), what’s left is a big black empty void. Nothing exists there, nothing has meaning, nothing has value.
Philosophically, lots of people reach this point… and get stuck. This is nihilism. And it’s fucking bleak and depressing.
If you inhabit Nihilism Land for too long, you risk becoming bitter, angry, resentful, seriously depressed… and for a very small number of people: murderous.
But there’s an interesting duality at the heart of this inner void.
Yes, on the one hand, it is the utter absence of anything meaningful.
But also, it is a great source of peace and comfort… Perhaps even the greatest source of peace.
When we are mindful, when we meditate, we are tapping in to the intrinsic peace in this great void. We become separate from our thoughts and feelings. We merely witness them from a distance, without engaging in them.
What a strange paradox! This void within the human soul can be the source of utter destruction, but also the source of ultimate peace!
Humans can’t live without meaning for long. Our minds are automatic meaning-creating machines, unless you suffer from certain types of brain damage.
So what’s the foundation of your maps of meaning? Is it religion? Spirituality? A commitment to your family?
A desire for material wealth or power?
A belief you are the centre of your universe (AKA narcissism)?
What I’ve realised is that there isn’t a right or wrong foundation for your maps of meaning. All of them can be collapsed to nothing at a moment’s notice, assuming one’s thinking is flexible enough.
Each of us is totally free to choose whatever foundation we want to build our lives on. There are consequences of course, both for ourselves and for the people around us. So the onus is on each of us to become aware of those consequences and decide if the price is worth paying or not.
Because we are conscious beings, we suffer. And to make the suffering worthwhile, we need a map of meaning which justifies the suffering.
Which map you choose to construct doesn’t really matter. In essence you’re finding positive delusions to give yourself which justify why you continue to live.
You build hope for yourself, even though part of you suspects you’re building on sand, and you acknowledge that this house of cards can be collapsed at any time.
Positive delusions are at the heart of being human.
We try to convince ourselves our lives have meaning, even though ultimately, there’s only a void. We dedicate ourselves to pursuing one or more of our core values: family; status; success; fame; wealth; relationships; religion; spirituality.
Most of us live our lives acting as though we’re never going to die. We do our best to bury our head in the sand. Any one of us could die within the next 24 hours, but we do our best to avoid thinking about that uncomfortable truth.
So we build our houses of cards, our maps of meaning, the foundations for our life… something to give us hope. Something to make the suffering worthwhile.
Is it possible to get comfortable with the void? Can we be mindful all the time (or at least the majority of the time)?
Can we collapse our maps of meaning down to almost nothing… and still survive, have peace, feel hopeful? Can we be mindful, focussing only on raw sensory input, and yet also manage to avoid nihilism?
Can we orbit around the event horizon of a black hole, without gravity sucking us in and destroying us?
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We are two halves. These halves are often in conflict. One option is to pick a side versus the other one. But then we are denying a part of ourselves.
What we have to try to do is negotiate between the different parts of ourselves. This applies at the individual level, with interpersonal relationships, and at a societal level.
If you insist that the way you currently view things is correct and are refusing to listen or negotiate with other points of view… then conflict, death and destruction are inevitable. We must always try to find a middle way.
Bollinger, R. 2019
Brains: Logical side vs emotional.
Belief Systems: Religious/Spiritual vs Scientific/Rational.
Marriage/Partnerships: You vs your partner.
Politics: Left vs Right; Democrat vs Republican; Liberal vs Conservative.
We must always:
Listen respectfully to others.
Ask good questions in order to better understand differing perspectives.
Choose kindness over our need to be right.
Empathise and try to see other points of view.
Be still, calm and wise. Don’t rush.
Negotiate – try to find common ground
Giving us… A plurality of ideas
Which leads to… Peace and harmony
The opposite of this is:
Being certain you’re already right. In other words, refusing to consider the possibility you may choose to amend your current perspective in light of new evidence.
Refusing to listen to others, or just waiting for our turn to talk.
Act quickly and rashly.
Belittling, mocking and dismissing other perspectives or other people.
Giving us… Ideological purity
Which leads to… Conflict and anger
Looking for differences, reasons to disagree… this often results in us throwing the baby out with the bath water. In other words, we reject a small part of something, then use that small rejection as justification to reject the whole idea/belief system/person. We miss out on huge benefits just because we don’t like a small part of something.
Instead, we need to look at what we have in common, how we can accommodate other ideas and other people.
Let’s try to integrate all the advantages of all these different ways of thinking and being… and just learn to ignore or tolerate the parts which we don’t like. We need to find ways to live in peace and harmony, rather than continually rejecting parts of ourselves and others.
This is the middle way.
It’s not easy. It feels painful. It rarely feels fully satisfactory.
The sense of panic was snowballing. Where could I have left it? Did I drop it somewhere?
If I retrace my steps, will it still be where I’ve left it? Will someone have stolen it? Maybe a kind stranger will find it and hand it in to the police. I really hope they do.
How much would it cost to replace? I’m sure it was over £500. And I have no phone insurance. Can I realistically afford to get a replacement?
My internal monologue was fully revved up. My heart was hammering and my breaths were short and fast.
And then I remembered: It doesn’t have to be like this.
I don’t have to feel this way if I don’t want to. I can choose how I think, feel and behave. And that’s all I can do.
I can’t control anything outside myself. What will be, will be.
For a while now, I’ve been learning about Stoic and Buddhist ideas. They share quite a few things in common. I’ve been trying to implement many of their ideas in my life, with some success. Yesterday was perhaps my greatest success yet.
If I’m meant to find my phone, I will find it. Fate has already decided. If my phone is meant to leave my possession now, or if it’s broken, then it was the right time for these events to take place.
What will be, will be, and I can’t affect it.
So, I may as well stay calm and enjoy myself until I’ve finished what I need to do. Then I can calmly and quietly try to find my phone.
And I was calm. And I enjoyed myself. The stress, panic and anxiety just melted away.
I returned home at precisely the time when destiny intended for me to get home.