The Inner Self vs. The Outer Self

Yesterday I listened to a podcast while painting a bathroom. This is the great thing about podcasts — they make you want to write blog posts. This particular one was “On Being” with Krista Tippett, and for the bathroom-painting episode, she was interviewing Seth Godin, who is hugely popular in certain internet circles, especially for his ideas and writing about authentic marketing.

Seth and Krista were chatting about how to get your message out, and who to connect to, and what makes that connection meaningful. If you want to know all the details about this, I recommend listening yourself. The super boiled-down version that I took away was: it’s not about how many people you connect to. It’s much more about connecting with the right people, with your tribe, and feeling part of that community.

This is not a new idea for me. I doubt Seth invented it (if he did, bravo!), but it’s at this point it’s widely dispersed on the web, and I’ve even written around the idea before. But something clicked for me this time. An analogy, or parallel, or metaphor (oh, the power of metaphor!), that I’ve experienced personally with the disconnect between the inner self and outer self.

Basically this: so often, we do work because we’re good at it, or because we think more people will like it, or like us. I do this all the time. All the time. And on the surface, it’s useful. It makes it easier for people to like us, it makes us relatable. These are great things! They contribute to meaningful relationships. But this bending of ourselves also has negative aspects to it. Over the long-term, it wears us down. It keeps us from intimately knowing our deeper selves. It allows us to repress things we don’t think will mesh well with everybody else, and I would argue, from developing a strong sense of character.

And for me, sometimes I do feel like I lack character. I worry that I’m boring. That by being some kind of meditation/mindfulness guide, I’m not supposed to have strong opinions about things, or at least not express those feelings. I love guiding meditation and leading mindfulness workshops, but I worry that I give the impression of being chill and passive all the time. Don’t worry friends, I am not always chill and passive!

Here are some things about me that are not encompassed by this mindful/deliberate internet persona I’ve somewhat intentionally created:

  • I love long, intellectual novels. Infinite Jest is my favorite book even though everyone says it’s pretentious. Anna Karenina and War and Peace are tied as my favorite Tolstoy novels, and I think Proust is a baller.
  • I’m often pretentious and arrogant. I think I’m right about a lot of things, even though I spend a lot of time trying to convince myself I’m not right about everything.
  • I’m a huge fan of Bernie Sanders, and consider myself to be a socialist. I think capitalism is evil, and exploits humanity’s most base tendencies.
  • Sometimes I care a lot about money and capitalism.
  • I don’t meditate everyday, and sometimes I go weeks without doing it at all. I do notice a difference in my life (things aren’t as good) when I’m not meditating regularly, but that isn’t necessarily enough to get me to get back in the routine.
  • I exercise a LOT (ideally twice a day), and believe that that is the number one most important thing we can do for our mental and physical health. Way more than meditating.
  • I keep meaning to see a therapist, but keep avoiding it.
  • I like getting absorbed in board games, and I’m good at them. Some combination of being competitive and good at math.
  • I’m good at math.

As you can see, this is kind of a silly list and the things are not a big deal. I doubt any of them are going to cause me to lose my “tribe.”

So, let me pose a question. What are the things about you that you repress, or don’t like to bring into the public eye? Why is that? Is that something you want to change? It’s not necessary to do so, but I think it’s a good thing to acknowledge and be aware of. There’s the mindfulness coach talking again…

Letting Go… of Sugar

Holy crap. First of all, I never thought I would be the kind of person to stop eating sugar. I’ve been firmly addicted for years. My favorite food is ice cream. I’m not a fan of fad diets, although one time I did do five days of the ten-day Master Cleanse.

Now I’m questioning everything. And if sugar can go, what might happen to gluten, or, God forbid, dairy? Caffeine?? (Not a chance. Not ever.)

Back to the beginning. Well, to a month ago. I decided I should tighten up my eating habits, and a few whispers I’d heard recently put sugar as a big question mark near the top of my list. “I’ve been eating a lot of cookies lately. What if I… didn’t?” This is how my brain works. It’s weird.

So I haven’t given it up completely, but I’ve cut back significantly, and cut out all the things that contain obvious processed sugar. No ice cream, cookies, cakes, pies, sweet breads, fudges, marshmallows (only once has this come up), soda (also only once), or fruit juice. Things I allow myself still: very dark chocolate (like 85% — not much sugar), plain yogurt (way more sugar than dark chocolate), and fruit (although I’m starting to cut back on this now, too).

This sounds like it would be a huge feat of self-control, especially since I would regularly chow down on sweet pastries to fill the calorie gap I have from exercising a lot and forgetting to eat regularly. But it hasn’t been hard at all. Seriously, after the second day, it’s been a breeze.

I don’t crave sweets at all any more. Most fruits are starting to taste so sweet that they almost hurt my mouth (hence the cutting back here, too). I wouldn’t necessarily say I feel substantially better all the time, but I have eliminated the lows that come a half-hour after a sugary snack. Here’s the best part: all food tastes better. My taste buds are coming back to life, having been numbed down by years of over-stimulating sugar.

This all kind of started on a whim, but now that I’m doing it I’m starting to find out all this crazy stuff about sugar. Basically, it is the Devil. Of food. Seriously. It seems to be one of the main causes of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, even cancer. It’s super addictive. It puts a huge strain on the liver and pancreas. All in all, it sucks big time. Here’s a National Geographic article about all that, along with the sordid history of the demonic treat. I have no idea who this guy is, but he says that the way to actually lose weight is to stop eating sugar. I’ve heard stories of this working wonders.

Apparently, a lot of people have known this a lot longer than I have. Cool. I don’t know why I didn’t jump on the no-sugar bandwagon long ago (side note: it seems “Sugar-free” and “Diet” snacks are evil in their own right. This is all about eating real, healthy food, mostly prepared by ourselves. Don’t trust the industrial food-processing conglomerate with your health). But I’m glad I figured it out now, and sooner rather than later. I can barely believe myself when I say it, but at this point, I don’t even want that piece of cake.

Meditating Buddha

Strategies for Dealing with Discomfort

I’ve written before about sitting with discomfort. It’s a big piece of the puzzle that is “mindfulness,” and something I think about a lot. As Americans (not to exclude everyone else, I’m sure this happens everywhere), we tend to view discomfort as this untamable beast that will destroy our picture-perfect lives if we let it show its teeth.

But discomfort is a fact of life. It’s going to part of our experience no matter how hard we try to protect ourselves and our loved ones from it. And it goes further: discomfort is where the most of our personal growth happens. It’s not even a bad thing. If we are to expand our boundaries and comfort zones, we have to accept that discomfort is a part of life and even embrace it at times.

There are five main strategies we have for dealing with discomfort. We can either try to avoid it in the first place, ignore it and push through, sit with it and observe, deal with it ourselves, or ask for help. My experience with mindfulness is that it has shifted how I respond to discomfort from avoiding and ignoring to observing and healing.

I made this awesome pie chart to how regular contemplative practice can change our experience with dealing with discomfort. This data is 100% made up, but the colors are great and having a chart on a blog makes it look so real. SO REAL! Check it.

Discomfort Chart

Let’s take a quick look at each one.

Avoid it. Classic move. Here we don’t even get far enough to admit that the discomfort could be a possibility. We go to great lengths to avoid it, in all likelihood creating more discomfort (or else building up internal shame and repression) along the way. This is generally bad news. There are certainly some discomforts that we should avoid (Life Pro Tip: Get a good mattress. Long-term back pain is not worth the cheaper alternative.), but for small, natural discomforts, it’s better to just face them and get some good practice dealing with it. Sore from going to the gym? Learn to love it!

Ignore it. Again, this is a favorite of the success-driven world. Power through! Haven’t gotten enough sleep for a few nights (or weeks)? Drink more coffee! Energy drinks (eww)! This is a big one in relationships. We ignore the difficult conversations we need to be having, and instead opt for business-as-usual. Ignoring discomfort tends to allow it to build up until it reaches some kind of breaking point, which won’t be pretty. Sometimes we need to do this for short stretches to meet deadlines, create meaningful work, and provide for our families, but we should always be aware of what’s happening and keep in mind that it should be temporary.

Sit with it. This is the main point of the post I linked to earlier on. By sitting with discomfort and just observing it, we learn to be comfortable in more challenging situations. This allows us to grow and develop a deep sense of happiness.

Deal with it. Some discomforts aren’t good to sit with for a long time, particularly if they are related to an injury (physical or emotional) in the body. Often when I’ve been neglecting my yoga practice, my body feels discomfort in the form of tightness and aches. I’ve learned that this is a sign that I need to get back into it and deal with those discomforts. Right now I’m icing my hamstring for a minor strain. I know I’ll feel better about everything if I clean my house. Take action!

Ask for help. Oh boy, this is a hard one. Sometimes we need a good friend, and sometimes we need a professional. We can’t do everything for ourselves all the time, and we’ll run ourselves into the ground if we try. Western medicine has taken an approach of only focusing on the extreme cases where something is obviously damaged. Most of the time we’re not in this situation, but we may still need healing or help. Seeing a therapist is always a good idea, regardless of how positive we’re feeling. Acupuncture, massage, chiropractic, meditation, reiki, and whatever else you’re into, can all help us go beyond our baseline feeling of “not injured” to feeling great (they can also deal with some of those injuries!).

Once we recognize these different approaches to discomfort, our contemplative practice will begin to provide us the wisdom to know which is the most appropriate route, or combination of routes, to take at any given time.

Sitting With Discomfort

Imagine you’re sitting on a train. Not a plush, air-conditioned, Western European train. It’s hot and sticky. The seats are fake leather, so the layers of grime they’ve collected scrapes off on your skin. Your seat is a bench with a straight back, and there’s not enough room to recline. Maybe there will be in a few hours, you hope. The air smells faintly of burning trash, and the train is crowded. You can’t understand anybody, but they’re very curious about you. You’re sweating through your clothes a little bit, and luckily the faintest draft from the window finds its way to your seat. You’re going to be on this train for 34 hours, surviving off greasy street food and tiny Dixie cups of tea. Welcome to India.

This was my experience traveling from Chennai in the south of India to Delhi in the north. It was one of the most beautiful and memorable experiences of my entire trip. The sweat and grime all washed off easily, but the peaceful sound of the train rumbling through wheat fields still remains. This trip could have been terrible. It was physically stifling. I could have told myself ahead of time that it was going to be so bad that I would have decided to fly instead. What is memorable about a two hour flight? I’ve been on train trips in the US and Europe, but now I’ve been on a train trip. This is what trains are all about. It was beautiful. It was not comfortable.

What’s the first thing we do when we’re uncomfortable? We try to fix it. If we have enough foresight, we try to avoid it. This is why we stay in unhealthy relationships, and why we pay more to take a sterile route from A to B. What if we didn’t? What if we looked discomfort in the eye, and instead of backing away, we just smiled at it?

The comforts of American society have taught us to avoid this at all costs. Get a softer couch! Don’t let your belly ever feel hungry! Take this drug or that supplement so you feel good all the time! Is your kid annoying? Try Ritalin! Can’t write that paper? Try Adderol! Body hurts? Try Percocet! Now obviously these drugs can have positive effects, and when we need them to function, we can take advantage of the wonders of modern science. But they are also symptomatic of a wider trend in our society: we avoid pain and suffering rather than explore, confront, and sit with it.

For me, this is what yoga is all about. Yoga is not comfortable. It will never be comfortable. That’s the whole point. There is no final destination of yoga, no ultimate understanding (at least not in this lifetime). It’s about finding the edge of comfort and going a little bit beyond. That edge might not always be in the same place, but going just beyond it is always similar. The sensation of muscles stretching or tensing is the same sensation as pain. In yoga, it is controlled and done with intention. We sit with it. We explore the sensation, and learn to see it as being just that: a sensation in our minds. It is not the world ending. As long as we’re being healthy and aware, our muscles will not break (well, actually, they will, but only a little).

Why do it? Discomfort is all around us, suffering is all around us. Practices like yoga where we sit with discomfort allow us to train our minds to start to be okay with that. Meditation does the same thing. We learn to recognize that the constant fluctuations of thought in our minds are the same as sensations as physical suffering in our bodies. If we spend our lives running away from discomfort, we’re never going to find true comfort, no matter how soft our couch. If we learn to sit with it and just be, however, we’ll be comfortable everywhere, even on a sweaty train for 34 hours. Even when things don’t go exactly as we want them to.

Have you ever had your heart broken? It’s the worst thing. So, so bad. There are all sorts of things we can do to cope with that pain. We can drink, we can eat, we can sleep, we can watch sappy movies until our eyes bleed. At some point, though, if we hope to move beyond the heartbreak, we have to just sit with the pain and start to accept it. It hurts now. A lot. It won’t hurt forever. But it really hurts now. And that’s okay. It hurts because we’re emotive, caring, sensitive beings. Other people might just be the most important thing in our lives. It sucks to feel like we’ve lost that. But it’s beautiful to be reminded of the truth of our humanity. This sensation of pain in our minds is also not the world ending. It is a sensation. It has arrived, and it will pass. It’s okay to feel it. It’s good to feel it. It makes us more resilient, better equipped to face life compassionately in the future.

How can we practice sitting with discomfort? Things like yoga and meditation are great, intentional techniques for it, but honestly it can be done anywhere. Get the worst chair at the conference table? Make it work. Ameliorate the pain but sitting well and with good posture, but also listen to your body. What is it telling you? It doesn’t like something. Okay. Why? Is it going to damage you? Maybe if you sit in the chair and slouch for hours every day, but probably not if you sit here for an hour. It’s okay if it’s not the most comfortable thing right now. Maybe you got in a fight with a friend or loved one. Okay. It happens. Maybe if you can sit with the pain and examine the sensation you’ll be in a better place to work it out with him later on. Maybe you’ve decided you want to start running, but your legs are sore from trying it a couple days ago. Well, first of all, running again is the best way to get rid of the soreness. But maybe try going for a run and seeing what the pain feels like. Is it a sharp, joint pain? Okay, stop running, that’s bad. Is it a diffuse, soft muscle pain? That’s okay. That’s what legs feel like when they work. It’s what our bodies do. Each day, we can find small ways to practice being with discomfort. I’m not suggesting we all become masochists, just that we work on being okay with things being not okay. It’s a practice that gradually makes everything more okay.

Giving Up Porn

Here’s something we never talk about. We need to. This is mostly aimed toward the men out there, but it’s important for women to know as well (and for all I know, female porn addiction could be a thing, too). Our generation is struggling with a pervasive, subtle (or not-so-subtle), and destructive porn addiction. Internet porn has slowly become ubiquitous and accepted as part of our society. So many men watch porn that researchers can’t study it because no control group (i.e. non-consumers) exists. The effects of high-speed access to porn are rarely examined by the user. We just assume that it will continue to be part of our lives.

Here’s the problem: internet porn is terrible for our minds. Here’s a fifteen-minute video that will do a better job describing the science and implications than I can. Watch it. It might be fifteen minutes that change your life. The following is my take on it, and my personal experience of giving up porn.

The basic idea is that having fast, unlimited access to “new mates,” in the form of online porn, trains our brains through dopamine response to become desensitized to real-life experiences and to continually seek novelty. Porn becomes better than sex. It is easily available all the time, so our drive to seek pleasure through meaningful action and fulfilling relationships slowly deteriorates. This is particularly devastating for young brains, as they are establishing some of these habits and sexual expectations for the first time. I feel lucky to be part of the last generation raised without cell phones and instant connectivity.

Not having a cell phone or broadband internet until college may have shielded me from the worst of what porn has to offer, but I haven’t been exempt, either. I’ve been watching porn regularly since sometime in college (and infrequently before that). Although I’ve never gotten to the point of feeling like it was taking over my life, today is probably the first time in a decade I’ve gone a month totally porn-free, aside from when traveling abroad. My conversations and experiences point to this being a fairly common usage pattern among men my age and younger (I’m 30). I know people who have gone much deeper into a porn addiction, and it can truly be just as bad as a drug addiction. But even for those who are not seeking a daily (or multiple times daily) hit, the effects are still there, and porn is making our lives not-quite-as-good as they could be. Sometimes much worse. For years, I’ve felt just slightly detached from my relationships, not particularly drawn to intimacy, and inconsistent in my energy/positivity level. I always feel bad after I watch porn, and I don’t have any positive memories of using it. Talk about a massive waste of time.

About a month ago, I watched a few TED talks (links at the end) on what porn does to the brain, stumbled across a supportive online community, and decided I would try giving up porn and masturbation. In the last month I’ve become more committed to the task, improved my life, and realized that a lot of people are way deeper into the negativity of porn than I was. I have more energy, better focus, and I’m more interested in building all my relationships, whether romantic or not. The not-masturbating part of the transition is really tough (but important, I think, for strengthening the transformation), but I don’t miss porn at all. It turns out all I needed was the accountability of some strangers online to keep me from going back to it. The group I found was on reddit, but there are plenty of others out there if you hate reddit.

I have a lot of women friends who watch porn, and on some level they tend to find it empowering and exciting. Some of them are surprised that I quit porn, as they don’t see it as all that bad. The popularity and acceptance of things like the amateur adult film festival Humpfest attest to this. I’m not saying there isn’t validity to this perspective on porn. I can see how some kinds of porn could encourage personal growth through sexual confidence and ownership, and I can imagine circumstances in which the careful and intentional use of porn could strengthen a relationship. But I believe this interaction is fundamentally different from the typical vicious cycle of use and abuse men have with high-speed internet porn. So women, please be gentle and encouraging if you have male friends who are trying to give up porn.

Men: it’s time to give up porn. Seriously. Try it. You might not think you’re addicted, but then you might also find it impossible to go a week without wandering back to a porn site when you’re feeling bored or lonely. The research is out there. Nobody is going to regulate porn or make it harder to find. The industry is booming. It’s up to each of us individually to say “no,” and to reclaim our sexual energy. Your partner will thank you, and you will thank yourself. Do it now.

Here are some resources that can help:

TED talks: