Written over several days in Arizona and completed in Los Gatos @ Starbucks on February 4, 2017 with a venti mocha and EDM (Electronic Dance Music) in my ears.
The Illusion of Problems
Tomorrow I am giving a talk in front of a bunch of strangers and I am truly feeling anxious. I’m not even sure if my topic is even relevant to my audience. My mind is filled with such questions such as, “will I sound like a buffoon?” or “will I come across as unprepared?” Along with my anxiety there are physiological effects I am feeling such as shortness of breath and elevated heart rate. There is a good chance I won’t be able to sleep tonight. My problems just keep getting worse and worse! But is there really a problem, or am I just giving myself to an illusion?
This blog entry serves the purpose of extrapolating the illusion of problems. I will defend the supposition that problems are self-made constructions that only produce gratuitous anxiety, pain and suffering. Furthermore, while problems don’t exist, situations do in fact exist. We have realistic options within those situations that can prevent us from spiraling into anxiety.
Where Does “The Problem” Begin?
All problems begin in your mind. Problems are therefore internal rather than something outside of you. An illusion of a problem occurs when a flight or fight response is triggered in your amygdala, and a rush of adrenaline and cortisol enters your body. This is common with phobias or any threat to our safety or security. Whether it’s a gazelle being chased by a cheetah or someone getting mugged at night, the amygdala is fired and active. In my situation, my safety was breached when the security of my ego was not tended to by the moderator of the speaking event. My ego was rocked, then I blamed the moderator, all the while my mind is riven with frustration. The illusion is that my problem was placed in the external (the moderator) when the reality is that I failed to take responsibility for my negative internal response.
Even though I enjoy public speaking, I feel a sense of dread when it comes to having too many things unknown: Who is my audience? What is the expectation of my talk? In my situation, I was not briefed on these basic questions, thus I feel things are not secure and too much is out of my control. I am most comfortable in a public speaking situation when all my basic questions are answered and the expectation is clear. I feel that I can point outside myself to the problem: it’s the moderator’s fault because she communicated the agenda poorly to me. And there is the illusion.
Upon reflection, I remind myself that I don’t have a problem, rather, I have a situation. Problems occur internally and situations occur externally. A problem means that I’m dwelling on a situation mentally without there being a true intention or possibility of taking action now and that I am unconsciously making it part of my sense of self. A situation, in contrast, is simply my current state of affair. A problem requires me smuggling in my own judgment, analysis and fears. A situation is taking a step back, and being completely present in the moment.
Allow me to illustrate this contrast. If you have ever been in a life-or-death emergency situation, you will know that it wasn’t a problem. Your mind didn’t have time to fool around and make it into a problem. In a true emergency, the mind stops; you become totally present in the now, and something infinitely more powerful takes over. Much like a mother who is attempting to rescue her child, she’s present, focused, and intentional within her situation. But with my speaking engagement looming, I have turned a situation into a problem by dwelling on fears and assumptions that I have constructed myself.
A self-made construction is precisely what problems are. The mistake that we make is when a thought arises, and we identify we the problem. As soon as we identify with the problem, we are then hooked and can begin spinning our own false narrative into the negative. In my case, a thought arose in my mind that said, “you don’t know your audience and therefore you will sound like a moron in front of all those people?” and I then identified with that thought, making it appear like reality. Once I attached myself to that insecurity, it was simple to cognitively spiral out of control with cascading delusional thinking to the point of experiencing physiological effects.
Thoughts in our brain is like a radio in the background that is constantly turned on. Turning off our mental radio is very hard to do, and it takes a lot of practice. Moreover, most of our thoughts are useless and harmful. When we identity with our mind, we easily become compulsive. Not being able to stop thinking is a dreadful affliction, but we don’t realize this because almost everybody is suffering from it, so it is considered normal. This incessant mental noise prevents you from finding that realm of inner stillness that is inseparable from being fully present. It also creates a false mind-made-self that casts a shadow of fear and suffering. It is not uncommon for the voice to be a person’s own worst enemy. Many people live with a tormentor in their head that continuously attacks and punishes them and drains them of vital energy. So what’s the solution to the tormenting mind?
The key the freeing oneself of a tormenting mind is to observe your thoughts rather than identify with them. When you become a watcher, you listen to the voice in your head, being there as the witnessing presence. When you listen to that voice, you ought to listen to it impartially. In other words, don’t judge or condemn what you hear, for doing so would mean that the same voice has come in through the back door. You’ll soon realize: there is a voice, and here I am listening to it, watching it. This, I am realizing, this sense of your own presence and existence, is not a thought. It’s a way of being.
“So the single most vital step on your journey toward enlightenment is this: learn to disidentify from your mind. Every time you create a gap in the stream of mind, the light of consciousness grows stronger.” – Eckhart Tolle
When we become the observer and simply watch – without judgment – the thoughts that arise, it keeps you present in the moment. To be present means that we free ourselves from both past and future attachments. In other words, we release and let go of past regrets and mental baggage. It’s not repressing the past, rather, it’s refusing to identify with it. In fact, you shouldn’t resist your negative baggage, rather, simply observe it – while not becoming enmeshed with it. The same holds true regarding the future. Often, we use the future to justify our worries, assumptions, and fears. All you can do is hold your future gently with openness; realizing that anything can happen. After all, your next breath is not even guaranteed. Let’s unpack the illusion of the past and future a bit more.
The first illusion is that you are your past. Our past absolutely plays a role in fashioning the person we are today, but most often, we allow ourselves to be enslaved by past mistakes and experiences. Therefore, a string of failed relationships or failure leaves us paralyzed while we perpetually identify with whatever negative label enters our mind. To use a car analogy, this is akin to saying that the highly rated 2016 Ford Fusion Hybrid is junk because in 1971 Ford came out with the regretful Pinto. Similarly, because you lost your job and failed your marriage in 2003 does not mean that you are intrinsically inept in 2017 with regards to employment and relationships. To identify with the past means to identify with an illusion.
The second illusion is identifying with the future. This happens when we anchor our beliefs in an illusion that lies somewhere in the future. Like the past, we become enslaved to amorphous future illusions based on guesses and assumptions. We then find ourselves paralyzed while carving out a smaller and smaller world to hunker down into for safety. It is in this dark cave where we avoid deep relationships, new careers, adventurous traveling, self-care, socializing, or any worthwhile risk. The danger of this illusion is that it acts as a barrier to one experiencing their potential. Taking action, progressing and growing in life is stifled by the myths that one has constructed about their future.
The present is all we have. The present is the only reality. The present is where our existence perpetually emerges. With each experience, insight and act, you emerge differently than the past. Like Heraclitus states: “you can never step into the same river twice (paraphrased).” We are constantly changing, such that, I am different now than last week. Even in the tiniest of degrees, each passing day propels me toward newer understandings, behaviors, and beliefs. Granted, 99% of these subtle changes go unnoticed by me, but they do happen. Thus, the present is the only reality all I have.
If the present is all I have, then I should want to embrace the freedom of the moment instead of indulging into illusions. It is in the present that I can enjoy being. Being is simply the freedom of enjoying the -isness of life without suffering and pain. The -isness reminds me of one of the greatest philosophical statements about life: ‘It is what it is’. So very simple, but so very true. When you fully accept life, without judgement and as an observer, you can simply be. Without past baggage and fear of the future, just be. When we get to this point, we don’t see problems, rather, we see situations. And we don’t allow situations to turn into problems because we stay present. If situations are serious and need attention, we stay focused and come up with solutions, or we simply accept the present circumstances. The other option is to turn it into a problem which will lead to unneeded suffering.
At the time of writing this conclusion, my presentation has already come and went. My talk went well, without a hitch. In fact, many people composed emails thanking me for the talk. Turns out that my assumptions and frustrations were in fact illusions. I wasted a lot of time with worries and fears for nothing. Like a five-year old who imagines a monster beneath his bed, I created my own imaginary beast. Lesson learned.
I’ll close with this final point. We need to take responsibility for how we respond to situations. While it’s easy to point to the external and cast blame, that’s not where problems reside. Problems take place in our mind when we fail to respond appropriately, while situations occur externally in everyday experience. You are responsible for how you respond to those external situations. You are responsible for your response to the insomnia you experience due to a constant talking mind. You are responsible for your response to the frustrations regarding the person you’re with, the city you live in, and the money in your account. We have ultimate freedom in life to respond to life situations with either constructive or positive action, or, you simply realize there is nothing you can do, and simply let it go.
With each situation that presents itself to you, you ought to ask yourself, “Is it worth believing in illusions that result in my pain and anxiety?” I hope you know it’s not worth it.