Over the years I’ve learned dozens of little tricks and insights for making life more fulfilling.
They’ve added up to a significant improvement in the ease and quality of my day-to-day life. But the major breakthroughs have come from a handful of insights that completely rocked my world and redefined reality forever.
The world now seems to be a completely different one than the one I lived in about ten years ago, when I started looking into the mechanics of quality of life. It wasn’t the world (and its people) that changed really, it was how I thought of it.
Maybe you’ve had some of the same insights. Or maybe you’re about to.
1. You are not your mind.
The first time I heard somebody say that, I didn’t like the sound of it one bit. What else could I be? I had taken for granted that the mental chatter in my head was the central “me” that all the experiences in my life were happening to.
I see quite clearly now that life is nothing but passing experiences, and my thoughts are just one more category of things I experience. Thoughts are no more fundamental than smells, sights and sounds. Like any experience, they arise in my awareness, they have a certain texture, and then they give way to something else.
If you can observe your thoughts just like you can observe other objects, who’s doing the observing? Don’t answer too quickly. This question, and its unspeakable answer, are at the center of all the great religions and spiritual traditions.
2. Life unfolds only in moments.
Of course! I once called this the most important thing I ever learned. Nobody has ever experienced anything that wasn’t part of a single moment unfolding. That means life’s only challenge is dealing with the single moment you are having right now. Before I recognized this, I was constantly trying to solve my entire life — battling problems that weren’t actually happening.
Anyone can summon the resolve to deal with a single, present moment, as long as they are truly aware that it’s their only point of contact with life, and therefore there is nothing else one can do that can possibly be useful. Nobody can deal with the past or future, because, both only exist as thoughts, in the present. But we can kill ourselves trying.
3. Quality of life is determined by how you deal with your moments, not which moments happen and which don’t.
I now consider this truth to be Happiness 101, but it’s amazing how tempting it still is to grasp at control of every circumstance to try to make sure I get exactly what I want. To encounter an undesirable situation and work with it willingly is the mark of a wise and happy person. Imagine getting a flat tire, falling ill at a bad time, or knocking something over and breaking it — and suffering nothing from it.
There is nothing to fear if you agree with yourself to deal willingly with adversity whenever it does show up. That is how to make life better. The typical, low-leverage method is to hope that you eventually accumulate power over your circumstances so that you can get what you want more often. There’s an excellent line in a Modest Mouse song, celebrating this side-effect of wisdom: As life gets longer, awful feels softer.
4. Most of life is imaginary
Human beings have a habit of compulsive thinking that is so pervasive that we lose sight of the fact that we are nearly always thinking. Most of what we interact with is not the world itself, but our beliefs about it, our expectations of it, and our personal interests in it. We have a very difficult time observing something without confusing it with the thoughts we have about it, and so the bulk of what we experience in life is imaginary things.
As Mark Twain said: “I’ve been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” The best treatment I’ve found? Cultivating mindfulness.
5. Human beings have evolved to suffer, and we are better at suffering than anything else.
Yikes. It doesn’t sound like a very liberating discovery. I used to believe that if I was suffering it meant that there was something wrong with me — that I was doing life “wrong.” Suffering is completely human and completely normal, and there is a very good reason for its existence. Life’s persistent background hum of “this isn’t quite okay, I need to improve this,” coupled with occasional intense flashes of horror and adrenaline are what kept human beings alive for millions of years.
This urge to change or escape the present moment drives nearly all of our behavior. It’s a simple and ruthless survival mechanism which works exceedingly well for keeping us alive, but it has a horrific side effect: human beings suffer greatly by their very nature. This, for me, redefined every one of life’s problems as some tendril of the human condition.
As grim as it sounds, this insight is liberating because it means: 1) that suffering does not necessarily mean my life is going wrong, 2) that the ball is always in my court, so the degree to which I suffer is ultimately up to me, and 3) that all problems have the same cause and the same solution.
6. Emotions exist to make us biased.
This discovery was a complete 180 from my old understanding of emotions. I used to think my emotions were reliable indicators of the state of my life — of whether I’m on the right track or not. Your passing emotional states can’t be trusted for measuring your self-worth or your position in life, but they are great at teaching you what it is you can’t let go of. The trouble is that emotions make us both more biased and more forceful at the same time. Another survival mechanism with nasty side-effects.
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