Keep it simple

The simple truth is life is not complicated, but we choose to make it so.

Newton’s third law of motion applies to our life as much as it does physics: to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

If we’re nice to people, they’re nice back. We know that yelling doesn’t produce a loving response. It didn’t work when we were yelled as kids, it didn’t work when we yelled at our kids, and it doesn’t work when we yell at the kid inside us.

“To be simple means to make a choice about what is important, and to let go of all the rest,” Zen master John Daido Loori writes in The Zen of Creativity.

“When we are able to do this, our vision expands, our heads clears, and we can better see the details of our lives in all their incredible wonder and beauty.”

Henry David Thoreau put it even simpler: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”

We don’t have to build a cabin in the woods. We don’t even have to do anything drastic or dramatic. We simply become aware of what we do and what we think.

Remember KISS? No, not the rock band, but the rule: Keep it simple, stupid.

We like complex. If a simple version of what we have to do is staring at us, we look for the complicated.

Occam’s Razor, named for a 14th century Franciscan monk because he shaved away all unnecessary assumptions, says all thing being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best one.

If we’re driving across the bridge and the gas light goes on, don’t assume the fuel pump is shot and the head gaskets will have to be replaced, and then we work up all sorts of dire assumptions about what our life is going to like.

Pull into a gas station and fill up.

Here’s a simple truth: Seventy per cent of everything in the universe is made of hydrogen atoms: one proton and one electron.

But just as simple is another basic truth: the reality we see is a reflection of our thoughts. The problem usually isn’t the problem; it’s our feelings about it.

“Life reflects back to us exactly what we expect based on our belief system,” Patrick. J. Harbula writes in The Magic of the Soul.

“It is our thought process that holds our experience of reality in place. It takes energy to hold the perceptual world in place. When we release that hold, we free up more energy for magical creativity.”

If we don’t blame others for what happens to us, we’ll feel better and have more energy. We know trying to change our family, our neighbours, our city, our province, our country and the world, doesn’t work. It’s more effective to change ourselves.

We don’t need to have an opinion about everything; we don’t need to comment on Martha’s hair or Joe’s shirt, or the fact that the coffee lineup is getting longer and the servers slower.

We could even get really radical and accept that life is easy, to accept that we can have it all, that we can be healthy, wealthy and wise.

It all starts with why. When we don’t like something, or get angry, or decide, before we even try something, that we couldn’t do it, we ask why.

We don’t need to judge why we’re afraid, just be aware. What we bring into consciousness we can — if we choose — change. As long as we are unconscious of our motivation, we are victims of circumstance.

There are  many things we can do to make our life simpler, here are a few:

  • Be positive. Science has documented that happy thoughts produce a different body chemistry than thinking depressing, anguished ones.
  • Be open minded and receptive. We don’t need to embrace every lunatic idea that comes along, but we don’t need to have an opinion about it either. We might not accept it, but we don’t have to reject it. Just be open to it.
  • Have a be attitude. “An attitude is a cluster of thoughts strung together, which turn on particular nerve cells in the brain, which then stimulate specific neurotransmitters to make you think, act and feel certain ways,” Dr. Joe Dispenza writes in Evolve Your Brain.
  • Be forgiving. Hanging onto issues that hurt us long ago means we still carry the pain. Let it go.
  • Be mindful. Be present. It’s the regret and guilt for what we did or didn’t do that produces most of our angst now.
  • Be grateful — for everything. As we age, we tend to complain more about our body and how it doesn’t do what we think it should. Maybe it creaks a little more than it did when we were 20, but it’s still amazing. Even the most sophisticated piece of machinery at its best can’t match our body at its worst.
  • Ignore what others think of us. Yeah, our parents were concerned about what the neighbours, the teachers and the priests thought. We don’t need to.
  • Slow down. Defy the screams in our head that yell Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! When the driver in front of us takes an extra 10 seconds to turn, big deal; when another driver is in such a hurry that he pull dangerously in front us, let him go. It’s better than having him on our bumper urging us on with sign language. In the context of a lifetime, how big a deal is a few seconds? For that matter, how big a deal is our angst du jour? What was it Feb. 3, 2017?

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” Leonardo da Vinci said.

We think too much

The average North American is as addicted as any junkie shooting up in a back alley. And, unlike the junkie, we lie about our dependence.

We live in an obsessive, addictive society, probably because we have more money and time than older societies. When the prime concern is surviving, no one worries about keeping up with the neighbours.

While we don’t lurk in shadows furtively exchanging dollars for dope, we’re just as addicted to food that isn’t good for us, to television, video games, the Internet, status, possessions, comfort, to our neuroses. We can’t get through the day without our coffee, tea or pop, and often, legal drugs.

We’re addicted to our wounds, which, next to the weather, is a favourite topic of conversation, as if our scars link us with the other walking wounded. If we don’t see the addictive patterns in ourselves, we can figure it out by listening to other people talk about their illnesses, frustration, fears and anxieties. That’s what we do, even if we don’t realize it.

We feign interest if people talk about their accomplishments and how great their kids are, but we perk up when they tell us how miserable they are and how poorly behaved their kids are. Then, we feel comfortable, then we relate.

We’re hooked on working, neglecting spouses and children, arguing that we missed a birthday or a football game because we were working so we could pay the mortgage, buy gifts for the birthday and pay for the football equipment.

But our worst addictions are our negative thoughts and behaviours as if we simply can’t see a world where what we truly want can manifest into form. If we’re afraid of flying, we worry that the plane will crash, if our child is late getting back with the car, we have visions of carnage on the highway. We obsess about the things we don’t want, instead of what we do want. 

We believe we are flawed, that we are weak, that we are unworthy, that we are the victim of the thoughts that run though our mind, that we are our mind.

Thinking is a wonderful tool, a program to plan and figure things out, but we never stop using it even when we don’t need to. If we use a pickax to dig a hole, we don’t carry it with us when the work is done.

Our compulsive thoughts are like a river in spring flood. Occasionally — when the cat throws up on the new carpet or our child overheats the credit card— we obsess about one particular topic, but the thoughts are still raging — mental reruns we’ve seen a thousand times.

We talk to ourselves constantly, yet feel superior, or maybe just grateful, when we see people — in the street, in old folks homes, in the hospital — mumbling and muttering to themselves or talking to people we can’t see.

We do the same thing for almost every moment of our waking day; but we do it silently. We explain, justify, complain, sometimes without even listening to ourselves, like a television playing when there’s no one home.

Compulsive thinking is an addiction because we can’t turn it off, even if we wanted to; it’s too strong or too seductive, too comfortable. We’ve been addicted our whole life — and often don’t realize it.

We’re like Job, who said, “that which I feared has come upon me.” But his problems were visited upon him by heaven while we create our own mental pestilence. No one is doing this to us. We create the pain; the panic; and the paucity. We go down every mental rabbit hole we see, chasing every thought, like Alice on speed.

 “Thinking has become a disease. Disease happens when things get out of balance,” Eckhart Tolle writes In The Power of Now. “The compulsive thinker, which means almost everyone, lives in a state of apparent separateness, in an insanely complex world of continuous problems and conflict, a world that reflects the ever-increasing fragmentation of the mind.”

Our behaviour is just as addictive, which is not surprising since action follows thought. We seek approval; we gossip, manipulate, react, and rush about mindlessly, like Don Quixote galloping off in all directions at once, when the knots in our stomach and the screams in our mind compel us to do something, anything.

We’re addicted when the substance or method makes us feel good, secure, even though it might make us feel guilty later. If we try to stop, we can’t, but we always have an excuse why we don’t.

If we weren’t addicted, we could stop everything that is not necessary to living harmoniously, that is destructive. We would eat only when the body needs it and not because it’s coffee-and-muffin time, or because we’re angry or stressed and we need the comfort that carbohydrates bring. We wouldn’t react mindlessly when someone bashes in our front fender while cutting in front of us on the bridge.

We could turn off the mind chatter, if only for a few minutes — when we’re brushing our teeth, getting dressed, stopped at a red light. We wouldn’t need our thinking fix.

The first big step is recognizing we are addicted, that we need the rush, comfort or security that comes from the addictive behaviour.

“We have a choice to either jump into the abyss of illusion and ignorance or soar into the experience of reality and enlightenment,” Deepak Chopra writes in Everyday Immortality.

Rumi, the Sufi mystic, put it more poetically: “Why do you stay in prison when the door is open wide?” 

Power of the equation

The equation that shook the foundations of science and changed the world 112 years ago can be a platform on which to build a philosophy of life today.

Albert Einstein peeled away the layers of the universe in 1905 and peered into the nature or reality with the Special Theory of Relativity and summed it up in E=MC squared.

The equation shows that energy and mass are one. We don’t see it because there are so many variations. We need a conversion factor, a shift in perspective to see one buried in the other.

The Internet can show how to convert Imperial into metric and Fahrenheit into Celsius, but not how to use Einstein’s equation to turn our excess poundage into power for the TV, or our negative thoughts into positive ones.

Multiplying mass – whether it’s a rock, a mountain or a plant ­— by the square of the speed of light shows how much energy has been frozen into matter, into us. (Light, in a vacuum, hums along at 670 million miles an hour, which, when squared, is 448,900 quadrillion miles an hour.)

It took a lot of time, money, manpower and brainpower to build that first atomic bomb, to turn that little bit of uranium into raw, explosive energy that destroyed a city and killed thousands of people.

We convert mass into energy every day. That steak and potatoes, fish and chips, soup and salad, bran flakes, and chocolate sundae fuel the muscles and the brain that can send a man to the store or to the moon.

Fortunately, life takes care of those details; our sub-conscious runs the little things we might forget to do ­such as breathe and beat our heart. But we can also use the equation consciously.

How we use our energy matters — as those of us who have spoken when we should have remained silent know. We can put it into what really matters, into the positive instead of the negative, into building up people — especially ourselves — instead of putting them down.

We must each decide what really matters, whether it’s who won the last election, who won Survivor or The Amazing Race, or how we run our own race.

That decision — like fission inside an atomic bomb — can build to a critical mass and release constructive power: we can re-invent ourselves, change our own view, find what we’re searching for, achieve our potential.

To do that, we need to change our thinking. Einstein said a problem can’t be solved with the same thinking that created it. We have to change how we see ourselves and reclaim time we spend in our daydreams — and nightmares.

We know this moment is the only one we have. Yet, we spend it thinking about moments that have happened or dreaming about ones we hope will happen.

We’ve all had those sublime moments when we were totally connected to the present, the creative cradle in which great athletes, great dancers, great composers, great artists and great scientists produce great works of art.

We’ve been in that flow, that zone, that now, that place where mass and energy flow together. But then “our reality” snaps back into place and the light of understanding is again filtered through the prism of our mind and we see the constituent colours rather than the wholeness.

E=MC squared is the ticket back there. Eternity and this moment are the same thing, but we need the power of comprehension squared to live that fact. Knowledge is power when it’s fuelled by action.

“Our true home is the present moment,” Thich Nhat Hahn writes in Touching Peace. “To live in the present moment is a miracle. The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.”

No matter where we go, Aristotle said, there we are. Life is here now, not in a Mexican vacation, not when the kids leave home, not when the mortgage is paid or when we retire.

It’s when the car won’t start, the water tank bursts, it’s the bills, the kids, the parents and the in-laws, the spouse and the noisy neighbour. It's accepting reality as it is.

But with that equation, with observation, attention, discipline and a commitment to live here now, we can control our attitude but not be controlled by our thoughts.

Aristotle also said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an action, but a habit.”

So is mediocrity when we are fuelled by frozen patterns of thoughts, when we re-act instead of observing, when we argue the same point instead of evaluating, when we allow our life situations to take over our life.

Einstein was using E=MC squared to peer into nature, to discover the secrets of the “Old One,” the creative process behind the universe. We can use it to peer into our own nature and unveil the secrets we keep from ourselves.

We can endeavour to make every act conscious, to use reminders – such as passing through a doorway or stopping at a red light – to ask ourselves where our mind is, to pull ourselves back from whatever illusion, delusion or drama we’re exploring.

“We learn in our guts, not just in our brain, that a life of joy is not in seeking happiness, but in experiencing and simply being the circumstances of life as they are; not in fulfilling personal wants, but in fulfilling the needs of life; not in avoiding pain, but in being pain when it is necessary to do so,” Joko Beck wrote in Everyday Zen.


Act like the cat

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” said Alice.
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cheshire Cat.
“I don't much care where…”  said Alice.
“Then it doesn't matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

Some people have a roadmap for life. They know where they’re going and how long it will take to get there.

Most of us are, however, like Alice In Wonderland; we have no idea where we’re going and are surprised when we get to wherever we end up.

When we take the time to listen, to ignore the persistent chatter in our heads and the busyness of our lives, we remember who we are. If we don’t, or would like to change, we can decide who we want to be. Every moment we’re at a crossroads.

Every moment is the first moment of the rest of our life. If we go sideways at 10 a.m., we don’t have to wait until tomorrow to get back on track. We can do it this very moment.

It helps, however, to have a constant reminder of who we are because it’s easy to forget.

Near the end of the last millennium, corporate mission statements were the rage and every company with more than 1.5 employees had one mounted on the office wall, although it was often trite, ambiguous and didn’t reflect reality.

But a good mission statement can keep a company on track, if it’s realistic and has employee buy-in, and so can a personal one.

A mission statement can be our guiding star, our Polaris that can tell us, when we have been battered by the storms of life, where we are. Life, or life circumstances, will blow us off course, but if we remember where we’re going, it’ll be easier to get there.

Stephen Covey, a former university professor who leapt to fame with The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is a prophet for personal mission statements.

“The power of the transcendent vision is greater than the power of the scripting inside the human personality and it subordinates it, submerges it, until the whole personality is reorganized in the accomplishment of that vision,” he wrote in First Things First.

A well-crafted mission statement that sums up the essence of who we are can and has changed lives; it can re-program the tapes in our head and rewire our neural net.

Thinking destructive negative thoughts is a habit, a bad habit, one we can change. It takes about 30-40 days of constant vigilance to re-configure the net that produces the negative chatter in our heads – I’m not good enough, I’m fat, I’m ugly, I’m stupid.

If telling ourselves we are perfect, we are wonderful, we are worthwhile sounds empty and trite at the beginning, we’ll just have to fake it till we make it. The 100 billion or so neurons in our brain process information and help us remember to drop off the kids and pick up milk or think self-destructive thoughts – or find a cure for the all too common cold.

Thinking the same thoughts creates a web that re-inforces the power of a thought. If we think it enough times, the thought become stronger and we think it more often with more intensity.

An example of a one-sentence mission statement could be: “to live life completely, honestly, and compassionately.”

When we aren’t living that way, we’ll know it.

Bob Boxall, a former managing editor of The Daily Courier, credits a mission statement with changing his thinking patterns – and his life. Like the rest of us, he thought he had plenty of reasons to doubt himself and his worth, but after a lifetime of beating himself up, he knew there had to be a better way.

The mission statement was it.

“I realized that 98 per cent of the people in the world don’t have a mission in life and they’re willing to go through hell to get to where they’re going, but they don’t know where they’re going.”

When he has fearful or anxious thought, he imagines it’s a phone call. As he receives each thought, he says, “thank you, I’m going to put you on hold” and then repeats his mission statement.

“I use those thoughts as messengers not as the message. When that stuff comes into my brain, the message is, ‘Get back on mission, get back to the true you.’ I lived a life following my doubts, fears and anxieties and all that stuff fed to me by external sources for too many years and I was lost as a chameleon. Now, I know who I am and I remind myself of that every day.

“Over that initial 30-day period after I wrote my mission statement, I could see myself changing. I was a different person at the end of it. It was such an a-ha moment.”

Any time we stop at a red light, wait in a line, walk down the sidewalk, exercise, we can use that time to reflect on who we are and turn our mission statement into a jingle we can repeat a thousand plus times a day. If we’re patient and persistent, that neural net will change.

That might seem like a lot of trouble, but we think anyway. We have a choice: we can think our negative thoughts or we can re-engineer our life.

More Transitions articles

About the Author

Ross Freake, a former managing editor of The Daily Courier, has worked at 11 newspapers from St. John's to Kamloops. He is the author of three books and the editor and ghost writer of many others.

He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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