Life is no “brief candle” to me

joy


This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

Life is no “brief candle” to me.

It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for a moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.

-George Bernard Shaw

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“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

Godfather

I just revisited the movie, The Godfather, and this line shared by Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro coincides with a recent measure I’ve enforced on myself, making myself an offer I can’t refuse. I’ve given myself no choice. I must be present, I must show up, or I fail. More and more people are doing it every year, and it’s happening across the world: We are addressing our primal need for danger and challenge.

Surfing, skiing, mountain biking, mixed martial arts, powerlifting, Crossfitting, entrepreneurship. These require your full attention. Your diligence. And once there, you find yourself in the ecstasy of presence, of productive bliss, of conquering and understanding. Of truth.

And you don’t need to go skydiving to experience this. What I’m talking about is getting focused at your task, like when the coders were “wired in” in the movie The Social Network. It’s called the flow state, as coined by psychologist Csikszentmihalyi from the studies he’s done with people. It’s a primal state of clarity. It’s simply when you flow from decision to decision, without fear, without confusion. You are wired in. You are fully present, and experiencing life.

So one way I put myself on the line is simple, harmless, but highly effective: I set a timer for 15 minutes, or 20 minutes. For each task I have: writing, a work task, reading a chapter, cooking. I click the timer and I go. I am “on the clock.” I don’t have any other options once I click that timer. And it works. There’s no time to think. Your bike crests the hill and gravity grabs you, nature takes hold, and there is no turning back.

The flow state is where we aren’t thinking of any other task but the task at hand. Anxious, fearful, impatient, embarrassed? Then you’re not in flow. Flow means we’re focused, we’re present, and we’re totally invested. There’s no time to worry. You’ve isolated a slice of your life. I’ve given myself a 15 minute mini-life. You see ‘death’ coming up, the end, and there’s no time to procrastinate. No time to think, “maybe this won’t work, maybe this will suck”. You just need to push off down that hill, you need to grab that breaking wave, and go, go, go. There’ll be time to judge yourself after you act.

The cost of not getting into flow? No bliss. Marginal levels of happiness. Imagine crawling when you could be running. Imagine a potted plant on a window sill compared to flourishing in the full sun of a meadow.

Can we soak up all the experience in our life? Can we live it like it’s going to end?

Of course we can. It’s going to end anyway, right?

Because we’ve all been given an offer we can’t refuse: Death.

Meditating and then…cat attack!

boat in storm

I sat down to meditate and felt a whisper of a touch on the hand resting on my knee. It was the shy cat, I called her Demure Swat (about that name, I’ll tell you later). She had avoided me for days, until now, but now I was still and quiet, and she showed up. I think this is how many of the wants that escape you finally come around: When you’re still, focused, and controlling your energy from the bounding waves.

It seems then, that all you need to do is wait for what you desire. But I’m not talking about the Secret, where you visualize and think positive thoughts and hope for the best.  What I’m talking about is the discipline to stop and tune out everything else – the girlfriend, boyfriend (or the search for one!), the house that needs cleaned, facebook, and all those emails.

My meditation was the perfect way to attract a shy pet, but it’s not the way to create something, or learn to play soccer, cook a tasty meal, write a book, build a product and sell it…those things require work. However, all these things need discipline to stop running around and focus.

At a certain point, we must ignore the crashing waves of distraction, get our ass in the seat and start paddling our boat. That way, we’re controlling things, and not at the whims of everything else in the sea of life.

How love turns to dependence

book

I’ve been reading the non-fictional works of Steven Pressfield. He writes about Resistance (no typo there. He takes Resistance seriously) preventing you from pulling the trigger on creative endeavors, be it writing, starting a business, or implementing a major self-improvement in your life. In one part, he writes about how we may rely on icons to help us instead of helping ourselves. That’s when I realized something embarrassing:

I’d turned him into the icon that he warned about.

As my thoughts frequently turned to the resistance he’d written about and overcome, I realized I was avoiding the resistance I needed to face myself. I wanted to revisit his encouragement, instead of doing the work. The most ironic thing is, he’s the best guide of all, because he has no system of rules, just one simple direction: Stop distracting yourself and do the work.

If your guide starts presenting rules, he ceases to become your guide. Rules are for those who can’t control themselves, or their power, and they encourage that mentality. A guide who gives rules starts becoming less of a guide, and more of a dictator. I found myself picking up Pressfield’s book like a religious doctrine. I felt good after reading it, sure, but then I realized that his writings had become a crutch. And it became addictive, and restrictive.

The same applies to your friends or partners if they want you to be a certain way and follow some definition of what they want. And the same applies to our political leaders who want to help us, but sometimes pass some laws that restrict us.

These groups should empower us, not take power from us. And it’s easy for us to give our accountability away. To a friend, lover, priest, guru, or lawmaker.

Pressfield’s works are empowering, but I made them my source of power instead of claiming the power he was showing was already in me.

The good feelings I would get when picking up his book and reading a bit, became just that. Good feelings and little else. It’s nice to feel good. But if you want to produce something, feelings don’t do much. Producing something… something good, and beautiful and from you… that requires practice. Showing up everyday and doing the work.

And far from being a selfish act, this internal source of power is more selfless, because it doesn’t require you to take power from others. It gives you the capacity to generate this power at will. When you can do that, you can share it without fear, because you will have it always. And then the world stops becoming a series of partners or jobs or cars or clothes to give you validation. You stop collecting stuff in a world of scarcity where you need to guard those partners or worry about that job. Instead, the world becomes abundant, and at that moment, you not only make yourself happy, but you will unconsciously spread that happiness to everyone you meet.

Taking off the blinders requires learning how to ignore

I have trouble sitting down to work sometimes. My focus is on many things, and so it is on nothing. Then I realized how to let go. And it was more than simplifying and prioritizing. It was the realization that I needed to acknowledge and then ignore many things. In order to get stuff done, I needed to ask myself throughout the day, day after day, week after week: “What do you want? What are you doing?”

The other day, I was returning from the bathroom to continue my writing and saw the new handheld vacuum I had purchased recently. I like tools, and this was a bright, shiny new one. Soon, I was unplugging it, having just swept the kitchen. I stopped suddenly and thought, “What am I doing? Why am I not writing?”

Vigilance is key

Neil Gaiman has a great analogy for making tough decisions in life. If your goal is a mountain, make sure your decisions are taking you towards that mountain, not away. The mountaintop is far so it’s ok if it takes you a long time to get there, as long you’re making your way to it.

My experience would make me add this to his analogy, “Make sure you’re not circling that mountain, neither going towards it or away from it.” To this end, I think it’s vastly important to reiterate to ourselves, “What do I want? What am I doing?”

The day I started ignoring things was ironically the day I took the blinders off. I looked up from the solid foundation I was laying and noticed all the options that were open to me, from professional to social, and then I decided to stop and ask, “What do I want?” It is overwhelming, but the possibilities appear around you, and it is the first step towards accomplishing what you want.

The saying that ‘ignorance is bliss’ isn’t true. We’re not animals. To achieve bliss we must be conscious of our surroundings and taking a stand and making choices and adapting. And this requires taking the blinders off and asking ourselves repeatedly, “What am I doing? What do I want?”

Occupy yourself

Don’t think and the days go by, never to be done again, except in our heads. If only I’d done this, if only I’d done that…

But doing what? I’m often busy doing things as the days go by, but not really any thing. I’m buying things. Moving things. Cleaning things. Trying to maintain a steady state of constant activity. A mind occupied by everything but my self. Activity is the appearance of production, like a big leafy top to a little carrot.

More important is YOUR thing. That which will make you happy. It will leave you smiling at the end of day. But then I think too much on my thing, and the same situation is created. Stymied by thoughts and words. The paralysis of analysis. I find the best is when I plan. Then do.

The thinking comes first, so that the doing will flow… eternal, unconscious and unrestrained.

The summer smells good

The intoxicating smell of comfortable warmth and movement and change. Of sun rays beating down, of future acts, exciting unknowns, shirtless, of liberation from consumption by creation. It smelled of possibilities.

I stopped thinking of what I had to do today. The urgent stuff that wasn’t truly urgent. I sat down and embraced this small area where I would bang out my 1000 words for the day. This would be my bunker. I put the thoughts of everything else out of my head. I willfully -albeit with quiet kicking and screaming- entered this solitary confinement. In this quiet, I stopped holding. The energy of my thoughts moved onto the digital canvas. I knew I hadn’t moved, but I was changing things. What had not existed, now did. People acting, realizing, feeling, and growing. My characters and I took turns leading. When the words were spent, I emerged from the dark cramped environment. I felt liberated. I immediately thought ahead: I must go here, and check this to buy, and then go here and have them fix this, and then I need to go the gym, and then…and then.

And then I stopped the planning. and just as I had when I crawled into my foxhole, I started thinking, “What if?” I started thinking, “Let’s see what happens.” Because life isn’t a series of situations. Life is what I choose. It’s what I create. And my creation started off quite well today.

The summer smells good.

“Once the plan gets too complex, everything can go wrong.” -Walter Sobchak

Technology and prosperity give us many options, from what to buy, where to go, who to communicate with, and the “how many” almost reaches infinity given the internet. We have a lot of power to do more as an individual and put a dent in the universe. The one danger of techonology and access is the distraction. And this distraction could be in the form of Facebook or it could be information overload. Too much data can create an abundance that leads to redundance and overanalysis that leads to paralysis.

The simple idea with effective use of tools allows us to do more for less.

The amount of work for a task will grow to fill the time you set aside for the task, based on all the different things you can study and do in preparation. Sometimes we like busyness, because it delays the real work. I’ve done that with my writing, making unnecessary outlines and reading how-to’s when the action of writing is what I needed to get into. All the references at our fingertips certainly gives us the opportunity to stay busy.

The one thing that is clearly quantifiable, more than how much analysis and preparation is proper, is this: We will accomplish nothing if we don’t do something. And Walter was right: “Once the plan gets too complex, everything can go wrong.”