Thursday, February 29, 2024

The Algorithm of Relaxation and How Being Yourself Is Your Best Version and Option

I have always been suspicious of the concept of attempting to be the best version of yourself, and for good reason. This idea tends to be sponsored and promoted by the Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy community that was pretending or believing that it was merely a matter of changing your mindset and then you could just act out what you think or assume would be the best possible scenario in your mind and by extension the best version of yourself.

Although I am not averse or opposed to this notion and idea when it comes to planning, setting goals, following dreams, and even setting boundaries, there can be no better version or substitute than being who you truly are deep inside; that is authentically giving your innermost essence a voice and acting from it, that is from the heart.

But how do you know who you are? It would start with first figuring out what resonates with you. This cannot be achieved except by tuning into yourself and looking inward, a curious mindful mix of introspection and reflection that would give you insights into the core of your essence. It involves an openness to thought, feeling, and action to discover and uncover who you truly are. Many times, you are not who you think you are or even who you wish you were, and yet, the real you needs to shine through like rays of the sun. That is in fact the only time you would not only find but also embody inner peace and calm.

How to get there? The answer is it is not easy and will take effort and hard work. Yet one thing is certain, you cannot be yourself and worry at the same time. To attain a connection with yourself, like your source of creativity, you need to be calm and collected. Anxiety would create ripples in the sea of your essence and not let you see and feel things clearly.

Put differently, to be yourself you must relax, and ipso facto, the first step is to deal with anxiety. Anxiety, stress, and worry tend to be negative and toxic emotions that make you tense, and they are by definition the opposite of relaxation. In many ways, they would lead to thoughts and behaviors that may be the exact opposite of who you are and how you are as well as how you would like to be.

For your anxiety to diminish, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, you would want to be aware of it and accept that it is anxiety. Although it may fluctuate in level and intensity, we all have it and those who claim they are not anxious tend to score higher on the spectrum as they fail to recognize that they are human and will need to have a certain level of anxiety to function and survive in the world.

Anxiety is like thinking and so we can paraphrase Hamlet by saying there is nothing either good or bad in the world, but our anxiety makes it so. If you look at the sensations we have when we are thrilled and excited and when we feel anxiety, there is essentially not much of a difference there except how we label and respond to the feeling.

Even in daily jargon, we say that we are anxious for something to take place meaning that we are looking forward to it. To illustrate this with another example, we can cry for various reasons. It may be out of sadness or an exuberance of joy. This means that the act of crying on its own does not mean or constitute that it is always due to sadness; too much laughter can fill our eyes with tears. Feelings are often not as clear-cut, but we need to process them. It is of course much easier to process feelings of happiness than those of sadness but process them we must.

To be able to process them, you need to face them. Avoiding or circumventing them will rob you of the opportunity to process them effectively and by extension to learn and grow from them. Yet at the same time, it is important to be gentle with yourself and not push yourself too hard or criticize yourself too harshly.

It is best to lean into what is giving you anxiety, a form of tiptoeing into water instead of throwing yourself into the deep end. With patience and practice, you will learn to swim and even surf the waves. A given situation will not arouse strong uncomfortable feelings anymore, and even if they do, you will be better able to handle and deal with them.

To help you along is also the necessary insight and awareness of the situation and context. Our fear has kept humanity alive since time immemorial as we dodged tigers and wolves to survive. This inbuilt alarm system with its fight, flight, and even freeze options is a necessary component for our survival. We want to appreciate it and not curse it.

Yet, due to previous trauma and experiences, toxic feelings, and negative thinking, we may lose focus and even see things out of focus. That is when context is essential for us to notice that it is not always an existential threat even though it may feel as such. With this awareness, that it may not pose a grave threat but may even be innocuous in the grand scheme of things, we can reappraise and reevaluate the situation and respond to it in an appropriate and much calmer manner.

This is where AR, the algorithm of relaxation can become rather useful. You then look at a given situation and decide whether it is a serious issue or not. There are generally two options; either it is serious, or it is not. At first glance and as your knee-jerk response, you may think it is not only serious but an absolute tragedy or disaster. Yet when you ask yourself, is it really that serious and important, you may see it from a different light and perspective.

In some cases, we may not have sufficient bits of information to make a judgment call. In those cases, we often opt for the worst-case scenario, but we ought to keep that in check as worrying is not going to help us to deal and tackle with the issue in an effective way and manner.

Let us illustrate this with a few examples. Say, your boss wants to talk to you. This is usually followed by an immediate feeling of dread. We assume the worst and are already imagining getting sacked. A lighter shade of this strain of catastrophic thinking would entail being criticized, scolded, or reprimanded for something we have done.

It would be best to ask ourselves, is there any real cause for concern? Did we do something wrong? If we made a mistake, was it that serious? Will there not be a remedy for it? We could apologize or promise to do better the next time around.

What if it is nothing of importance but just a simple and friendly chat? Perhaps they might ask you a simple question that may not be even related to you and your work. Or, even better, what if it is good news and you are going to receive some praise for your great performance. What if there is the possibility of a promotion? Instead of jumping to conclusions and expecting the worst, you are giving yourself the freedom and latitude to imagine possible and potential alternative reasons for this tĂȘte-a-tĂȘte with your superior or supervisor.

If it is indeed serious, then you can tackle it with a clear focus. If it is not, you shall not waste your time and energy worrying about it. In either case, you want to avoid assuming the worst, especially without any sort of proof and evidence that it may be so. If you, however, have acted unethically or inappropriately, then it would be best to face the situation and the consequences, the same way one would face one’s anxiety.

What if your loved one wants to have a talk with you? Let us not sugarcoat this, that is usually a sign of trouble. Then again, if it is, ask yourself, if perhaps something good can come out of it. It is perhaps a long-due conversation that needs to happen, and it may not be as devasting and shattering as we make it out to be. In fact, although we may not wish it or would try anything to avoid it, it may even clear the air and lead to an improved level of communication and rapport and much less tension between the two of you.

Again, if it is indeed the end of the relationship, you may not necessarily see it as the end of the world but see it as the turning of a new page no matter how painful it may feel at the moment. That dreaded talk with your boss or partner may end up being much less serious than you thought it to be, and by using the algorithm of relaxation, you may be able to see through it much easier and much faster and spare yourself the drama and unnecessary worry and preoccupation that usually comes with it.

So why not try AR in your daily life whether it is the cancellation of your favorite concert or the just or unjust loss of employment? For instance, I used to fret over mistakes. I would call it part of my perfectionism, but one day, I realized that being a perfectionist was often used as a euphemism for one’s insecurity. It may be a different matter when it comes to the arts but for me, it was ensuring that my exams did not contain any errors. I would triple-check everything and God forbid there was a mistake on the sheet, which had somehow escaped my probing eyes.

You can imagine the amount of stress and pressure I would feel and put on myself for something that was not that important after all. Deep down, who cared if there was indeed an error? This was not precision surgery or rocket science in which a minor detail could endanger people’s lives and, in some cases, even one’s own.

Errors are part of life and for those of us whose work is not a matter of life and death, they are really not a big deal. A mistake on the exam or a wrong answer to a student’s question? Or even failing an exam here and there at high school? On the scale of AR that is simply not that important to fret about, so it goes straight to the category of not to worry about it. Alternatively, throughout all these cases, you may just be taking yourself too seriously to begin with!

Now I am aware that AR could stand for augmented reality but in a way, it is not that different from it. You are turbocharging your reaction and seeing things more clearly and are not overreacting to situations by seeing the bigger picture and putting them into context.

The more you do this, the more relaxed you will be and much less on edge that something bad will happen to you. The side effect is that you may be a bit too relaxed at times and perhaps confuse or misplace minor things, miss the occasional deadline, forget a commitment or an appointment here and there, or you may even, God forbid, make an error at work or in your private life or both.

But on the grand scale of things and when looking at the bigger picture, none of them would be life-shattering or as important and as serious as we take them to be, especially after looking at them again with the magnifying lens of AR.

Conversely, you will feel more comfortable in your own skin, which is the most important outcome, so instead of worrying about being the best version of yourself, actually be yourself, which is essentially the only version that really counts and matters.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

On How the Transcendentalists Searched in Nature What They Could Not Locate and Find in Themselves

View from of green and trees from an old cabin window
One of the main features of American transcendentalism was its quest for and refuge in nature. Both Emerson and Thoreau purposely as well as spiritually and physically turned their respective backs on what was shaping up to become an urban lifestyle and instead decided to search for peace and quiet in and within nature. Mind you we are talking about the 19th century before the advent of the noisy hustle and bustle of traffic and way before the clutter of the Internet, smartphones, and Artificial Intelligence. Their technology looked puny and rudimentary in comparison to today and to be honest, there was hardly much to speak of in that regard, as there was no television and not even radio.

And yet, these thought leaders felt the push and pull to move away from even relatively small crowds, partly because they could; they had the means and the choice and opportunity to do so. In the wild expansive nature of the North American continent, which was still largely unexplored and undeveloped, they still had pristine places to roam and delve into, unlike the much more restricted and relatively set geographical areas of Europe, for instance.

Let us also not forget that they had the means to live and survive in the wilderness. In fact, it is more often those who possess at least a moderate amount of income who would even dare and contemplate such a crazy idea, to begin with, namely, to seek a different and more minimal and austere lifestyle away from the comfort of one’s home. In the somewhat paraphrased words of the French singer-songwriter Soan, I’d like to sleep under the moon but only when it is my choice. Unlike many wanderers, nomads, and homeless people, both Emerson and Thoreau had a home to return to in case things went south, i.e. if they encountered dangers, ran out of food, or simply did not enjoy the experience anymore. People less fortunate would not have a backup plan to fall back on.

But such ideas do not come out of nowhere and are not created in a vacuum or on a sporadic whim. In fact, French thinker and philosopher Rousseau was quite influential in propagating this idea of a type of return to nature and the (supposedly and allegedly) simple rural life of peace and tranquility. In certain ways, they are also echoes of Jefferson’s dilemma regarding the American spirit, should the nation embrace a rural life and lifestyle or bend towards an industrialized urban life of workers and factories?

This was driven by a general dissatisfaction with the status quo of the rapidly growing and changing cities and it seemed like a viable option or a kind of refuge from the madness to venture far from the madding crowd and into the arms of Mother Nature.

On the other hand, this ideology was also expressed in the work of Spinoza and became a quasi-religion. Nature was regarded as a pantheistic phenomenon with an apparent return to more “primitive” and original beliefs of spirits living in trees and blades of grass. Although Spinoza stressed reason and rationality, he made it all part and parcel of nature, which was seen as a type of Mother goddess, the origin and pinnacle of creation, and the continuous ever-flowing source of nourishment and subsistence.

These views hearken back to a collective experience we all have and which psychoanalyst Otto Rank talks about in his books and writings ever since his quintessential and revolutionary publication of The Trauma of Birth a hundred years ago. It is the dreamlike and fantastical prenatal world and experience of the womb. In a certain sense, the turn to nature represents a return to the maternal womb, the place where one felt still, at ease, sustained, fed, nourished, and at peace. This longing has driven us from the world of crowds to the stillness that nature embodies or at least that we imagine and presume it (or she) does.

That said, it is not only an idealistic view of nature but a very romantic one and perhaps even dangerously so. The romantics who stressed feeling and all things emotional over the rational and logical embraced the natural world but failed to see it in its entirety, which included not only beauty and grace but also the power to destroy alongside other destructive forces.

This idealization of the natural world is a dangerous human fallacy that ended up costing various lives and it can be illustrated by two real-life stories depicted in two forms of art, a movie as well as a documentary. First off, we have the insightful and moving documentary Grizzly Man by Werner Herzog where self-proclaimed American environmentalist Timothy Treadwell dissatisfied with his own life and struggling with mental health issues decides to go to the Alaskan wilderness to live with bears.

He preferred their company over their human counterparts and was perhaps inspired by his affection for his cute and cuddly teddy bears in his childhood. In other words, he denied these furry animals their wild and beastly qualities and saw and idealized them as peaceful and loving beings and not as bears that would be driven more by instinct and less by reason.

That said, some humans may seem wilder and more unpredictable than animals but that is a different story, which leads us to the sad story of another nature-enthused individual who is cinematically depicted in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild.

This idealistic but depressed young individual Chris McCandless who also went by the pseudonym “Alexander Supertramp” decides to take a deep dive and plunge into the wilderness by (apparently) rejecting the materialism and consumerism of his time and era. At the same time, despite being good at school and having the opportunity (and means) to study at a prestigious university, he throws all potential and caution into the wind, burns cash, drives to live in nature, and eventually dies there due to accidental food poisoning.

Again, this seeking of nature is less a going-to-somewhere but rather a running-from-something. The same may be said of all the individuals mentioned here whether it is Thoreau (whose philosophy of civil disobedience ended up influencing Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.) or Emerson (whom Nietzsche considered “the most gifted of the Americans”) as they had their own motives to move away from traditional society, religion, and thinking.

At the same time, the transcendentalists served as the inspiration and role model to young idealistic but tormented individuals like Chris McCandless to embark upon a recklessly dangerous trip while using their books as a guide, source of inspiration, and motivation throughout the journey. They build upon Rousseau’s apparent dialectic between what is human-made and what is natural and organic and that the latter is what one should and needs to always ideally strive for.

In such dualism, we may overlook various segments of life where both can interact for the benefit of us all. This is very clear in the case of science, in particular, medicine and medicinal advances that have helped us survive the various onslaughts of naturally occurring diseases and circumstances. In that sense, a full and unprepared return to nature as in the above cases could and should be construed as foolish and misguided and certainly not beneficial to the body, mind, and spirit of all and any of those involved.

As mentioned earlier, they all had the means and the luxury to renounce a comfortable life for a lifestyle of unease and unpredictability. At times, it may feel not so much as a form of liberation but perhaps a kind of self-punishment stemming from one’s feeling of enslavement when faced with pain and trauma that one wishes to numb or escape from. Be it as it may, the notion that they are free in the wild and can howl like wolves or run around naked without necessary consequences comes from a romantic past and heritage. And yet, it is fraught with danger and each of them would have to wrestle with their own demons sooner or later.

This is not to say that the rich and wealthy cannot have insights; they can and indeed have, and it is perhaps best demonstrated in Siddhartha Gautama who gave up and sacrificed a life of comfort for his spiritual endeavors. However, I find it rather interesting to contrast the Buddha, a wealthy and privileged prince to Jesus who was born in a manger next to farm animals, rode a donkey, and died with few if any possessions, which I believe is food for thought for another and different kind of post.

Yet this does underscore that although it is important to embrace nature whose majestic beauty we do not appreciate enough, we should not use it as an excuse for not facing our troubles and personal issues. Though being in a retreat or a monastery may provide temporary relief and shelter and serve as a potential incentive for peace and calm inside of us, true peace and happiness await us and come from the inside and that could transform any place and dwelling to make us feel at home by even turning a simple nutshell into a luxurious palace.

Sunday, February 4, 2024

The Power of the Individual: Being Yourself and Increasing Your Personal Psychology of Difference

Person alone watching across English Bay
Be yourself no matter what they say. This revolutionary piece of advice is embedded in Sting’s tune “An Englishman in New York” which by all accounts and purposes depicts a relatively mild-mannered Englishman who walks around with a cane, drinks tea instead of coffee, and prefers his sliced bread toasted on one side only. In these small things of everyday life, he stands his ground and as he himself proclaims a gentleman will never run.

By today’s standards, you may not see his stance even remotely as revolutionary or significant, and yet, it is quietly subversive and perhaps much easier said than done. Western culture, which prides itself on individuality, at least in theory and ideology, hardly demonstrates this in practice and in real life. If anything, it is indeed closer to a culture of uniformity and conformity than subversion.

In fact, even those who would stand out before and used to be considered and judged as “weird” or “strange” have now become, for better or worse, embraced and assimilated by the mainstream; now they tend to be if not commonplace then only minimally different from the rest. In a twist of irony, in contemporary society in which weirdness appears to reign and have the upper hand, it is the common, the traditional, and the ordinary that soon shall be standing out like a sore thumb.

In a world where most people drink their coffee at Starbucks, Sting’s Englishman is different and outstanding indeed. Otto Rank talks about this constant push and pull, if not love-hate relationship between the psychology of sameness and that of difference. Yet individuality by definition must exist, develop, and thrive via difference. I cannot be myself if I am predominantly just like you.

Akin to the proverbial black sheep of the family, it is the true individual who carves his or her own and often unique path away from the mob and the masses. In that courageous act of defiance, as a matter of course, these individuals will be scorned, envied, and rejected by all the others who have been caught and lulled in the comfortable web of conformity. Their scorn is also equivalent to a type of punishment for straying from the preset established course set by most people.

Put differently, it is easier (i.e. takes much less effort and courage) to conform and to be like anyone else. Seen from this perspective, the person who does not go along but actually defies the Hitler salute during Nazi Germany (depicted extensively and masterfully in Malick’s true story of A Hidden Life) is a rebel but in today’s world in the background of which any such display is discouraged, frowned upon, or even morally and criminally punished, one could potentially construe the opposite. Morality and commonsense aside, it is the addition of context that defines the act as either cowardly or courageous.  A less extreme case would be males coloring their fingernails, which in the past was rather unusual and would have raised an eyebrow or two, while under current circumstances it has been sufficiently norm-alized and become rather a standard fare in most places.

Yet in either case, the above examples are not necessarily individuals who are living and acting following their true nature, but rather people who engage in isolated rebellious acts meant to merely defy the norms. It is like the child who more out of spite than personal conviction opts for the opposite of what the parents tell them to do. And defying norms just for the sake and thrill of defying is not a sign of individuality. In fact, it could be even a sign of conformity if you wish to gain the respect of your clan, tribe, or clique; this is regardless of political affiliation because they are driven by the psychology of sameness and use their supposed demonstrated difference only to fit in, curry favors, or please their own crowd, no matter how big or small that group may be.

In any case, these acts and behaviors are not their own nor unique in the sense of individuality nor are they being themselves in a deep and meaningful fashion. In fact, these types of people are as fickle and perhaps chameleonic as fashion itself as they are being driven and compelled by what is in and trendy at a specific moment of time. Being yourself this is certainly not; it is more a quest for a desperate substitute self because if you are acting in accordance with who you truly are, you are not being guided or swayed by the latest fashion but by your inner guide and compass.

Incidentally, a more extreme case of this would be the attention-grabbing narcissist who would do anything to stand out and be seen as different even though they may not even have a self to begin with or identify with. Full-fledged narcissists tend to copy and paste from others, borrowing what suits them most at a given moment and discarding what does not benefit them personally. They are not themselves, and sadly, they may never be able to be so.

The question arises how you can really be yourself in a culture that pays lip service to individuality while in reality, it discourages and even tends to punish any divergence whatsoever from its fixed and rigid standards and expectations. Anyone who dares to speak differently is under the threat of being expulsed, and this has been more pronounced in the wake of cancel culture. It does not matter what your group or political, ethnic, national, or religious affiliation may be, if you dare to challenge adopted views, you are more often than not excommunicated. Evolutionary speaking, inflicting and receiving this type of reputational damage would be seen and treated as a death sentence.

Returning to our opening statement, it is easy to say it does not matter to us what others say but we do care what others think of us. Since we cannot please everyone (believe me, I have tried for many years), it would be best to become shunned, canceled, or a persona non grata at least for a cause or something that truly resonates with you. The trouble is that you may think and believe something resonates with you or that something is truly worth it but deep inside, you may not really care for it after all, and you may just do it because it makes you look good in other people’s eyes and to artificially increase your self-esteem.

In terms of evolution, we seek and depend upon community, hence sameness, for our physical survival. We also seek sameness and the norm for evaluating and maintaining our sanity because psychologically speaking, being normal means following and adhering to the norm. The norm has undergone many changes and what is seen as outlandish and crazy in the past may be considered as perfectly normal today, and vice versa.

To complicate matters, anyone who stands out from the crowd will instill fears and doubts in the common majority. This is the power of the individual, but it is also its inherent danger because these individuals are an easy target, and they will be attacked from all sides for being different or having a different and less popular opinion. Difference can be physical or psychological in nature but instead of shying away from it, we must not only embrace it within ourselves but also encourage it in others.

At the same time, when all dress and think alike, whether the colors and jerseys of a given sports team or the scary uniformity in clothing and thinking of cults and sects, the one person that is not in alignment will be seen as hostile and is considered the “other”. Our survival instinct comes with the pledge and desire to protect our own kind, be it relations of blood and kin or geography and nationality or culture and religion. It is pitting us against them and living in constant tension and fear of being attacked and eroded by the other or at least imagining and believing these outcomes. This is Otto Rank’s fear of death projected onto the ones that we see as different to ourselves and by extension, our group and supposed immortality comes from identifying with and propagating our own kind of people, whatever that may be for the given person.

With all this comes paranoia and hysteria. Whether it is alleged communists, supposed terrorists, or what-have-you, anyone who does not fit into this predesigned box is seen as a potential threat and danger to the status quo or toward the aims, goals, and ambitions of the specific group. When these emotions mix and blend in with one’s own feelings of anxiety and of wishing to be accepted by our fellow beings, it can get very tricky to just be yourself.

Yet this is the moment where it is important to be setting our own boundaries, affirming, and confirming our own beliefs (not just mindlessly or rapidly adopting or swallowing the beliefs of others but honestly questioning and scrutinizing them), and increasing the difference and potential distance between ourselves and others.

As long as you are true to yourself, to who you are deep inside of yourself, after turning off all the voices that push and pull you in different directions or trying to grab, label, and put you in specific boxes, the voice deep inside of you that remains is your true one. If it is allied and aligned with your intuition, which would be naturally inclined to act out of love and bend towards the highest good, then you are good to go and can be yourself no matter what they say.