si dawson

experiments in self-improvement

Month: June, 2014

Look Where You Want To Go

There’s a simple trick for creating the life of your dreams: Look where you want to go.

The only catch here is: our brains are not our friends. They’re useful tools, but they’re not our friends.

One of the key ways they’re not is by constantly focusing on what’s negative  (search for “cognitive biases” for others).

There are sensible evolutionary reasons for this.

In life-and-death terms, good things (eg delicious berries on a bush) are lower priority than, say, a tiger that’s about to eat our head (generally known as “a bad thing”).

So, we’re tuned: Pay MUCH more attention to bad things. They’re more urgent, they’re more important.

However, now we’re roaming the streets not the savannah, this evolutionary priority isn’t helping so much.

These days, our actual life-and-death risks are much more probabilistic and long term – heart disease, cancer etc. They’re no longer things that jump out of a bush and try to eat us as we’re walking to work.

In fact statistically, surprising events are generally pretty benign – spilling coffee on ourselves, bumping into someone on an escalator, a boss shouting at us at work. Not great, sure, but no longer life threatening.

[obviously if you live in a war zone or an otherwise rough area, you’re in the modern equivalent of tiger jumping territory, so things are a little different for you.]

The real problem is, our brains still treat negative events as if they were ALL life and death.

Which doesn’t help us at all.

Of greater concern is the larger effect of our brains instinctively focusing on the negative.

After all, what are our lives but the sum total of our experiences and memories?

Our lives are simply the sum of everything we pay attention to.

If we are focused on negative events – particularly fears and worries (which, almost by definition haven’t happened), then that is what will fill our existence.

This is particularly obvious in relationships.

We may have a perfectly fine relationship with someone, but if what we’re most focused on is some negative event that happened, or some fear that didn’t – how is that going to colour our feelings towards them?

What’s actually an otherwise decent relationship will seem utterly awful.

Now obviously, I’m not suggesting being myopic. Every relationship has issues and these should be dealt with.

However, if you WANT the relationship to be good, focusing on the positive aspects will create that much more reliably than constantly looking for what’s wrong.

If your partner does something a bit off, assume they mean well. They love you and want to be with you, right? So why hold the picture that they’ve intentionally tried to hurt you? It’s only destructive.

If you get quiet and pay attention, you’ll be able to see this in action.

When you look at someone, what’s the general feeling you’re filled with?

THAT is the sum of all your most common thoughts about that person (whether conscious or subconscious)

  • If they’re mostly negative thoughts, you’re going to feel pretty crappy.
  • If they’re mostly positive thoughts, you’re going to feel pretty great when you think about them.

(here are some techniques for dumping those non-loving feelings)

Of course, this goes for everything in our lives.

Think about your job. Your home. Your commute. Your family. Your wardrobe. Your bank balance.

You can instantly feel what your predominant thoughts are.

Is your brain focused on the good or bad aspects?

Look where you want to go.

If you want a boring life, focus your attention on the boring things around you.

If you want a happy life, pay attention to what is already around you that brings you happiness and joy.

If you want a peaceful life, pay attention to what’s peaceful and choose to let the rest of it go.

Our eyes and ears face forward for a reason: Look where you want to go.


    The Detritus of Catholicism

    A couple of notes:

    • I previously wrote this over on Livejournal many moons ago, but I keep looking for it to refer to it – which I take to mean it should be over here too. I’ve tidied it up a bit.
    • This post is primarily aimed at Catholics & ex-Catholics, but if you’re not and you feel a resonance, hey, that’s cool too, just go with it, heal away. Catholics definitely don’t have a monopoly on this junk.
    • A side note on the word “God.” This word is incredibly loaded. It took me about 20 years after I left the church before I could use it without having a strong negative reaction. I’ve used it here for clarity and simplicity, but if it bothers you please mentally replace “God” with “Universe”, “higher self”, “flying spaghetti monster” or whatever synonym works best for you.

    Catholicism is an interesting religion. It is an immensely powerful organisation with a stunningly flat hierarchy (only 5 layers from the Pope to you). It’s run from the Vatican, one of very few city-states, which therefore has both diplomatic as well as religious protection. It’s also been listed as the 3rd biggest money laundering centre in the world (more here).

    It’s not a huge leap to suggest that perhaps this organisation doesn’t always have you, the (ex) parishioner’s best interests at heart. Perhaps not aggressively or directly maliciously, but certainly in terms of a very basic equation: more control over you = more money and power to them.

    Now, this isn’t a rant about Catholicism. If you’ve done any research or serious thinking in this area, you’ve possibly reached similar conclusions. Regardless, the Vatican and the Catholic hierarchy are very welcome to behave any way they feel is right (that’s their business, not mine). This isn’t about them. It’s about you, it’s about me. We want to clean up the mess left behind.

    There is an additional important distinction, between “the church”, and “God”. The church is made up of humans (regardless of whether they declare themselves infallible). The church is NOT God and God is NOT the church. The Catholic church does a really good job of blurring that line. What the church says is what humans are saying, not what God is saying. “Believe me because I say so” is not defensible logic.

    Let me be brutally clear. God is Good. Jesus (whether he existed or not) was a righteous dude. It’s the teaching of the Catholic church itself that results in problems.

    Oh, and if reading what I’ve written below results in you feeling strong negative emotions? That’s actually a good thing. It makes these issues much easier to heal. Use whatever tool works for you, but if that emotion is close to the surface, then you’ll be able to easily see as you’re making progress. Of course, if you’re not interested in healing in this area (which is perfectly ok too, most people aren’t), I do suggest stopping reading. My intention is REALLY not to upset you or appear to criticise your beliefs.

    Right, disclaimers and caveats aside, let’s get on with this!


    There are several key areas where Catholic indoctrination will have affected you that thus warrant attention and healing.

    This is the big one. I once had a competition with a Jewish friend at a party – whose family was better at making us feel guilty. He won, but it was a close battle (at least, until he started telling me about the stunning “skills” of his grandmother).

    1. Guilt only makes you feel bad.
    2. Feeling bad doesn’t achieve anything (other than, well, making you feel bad)
    3. On the other hand, actually doing something to correct your error does achieve something.
    4. On top of that, we often feel guilty when we haven’t actually even made an error – double plus ungood

    In short: Don’t waste time feeling guilty. If you’ve done something wrong (now, or in the past), DO SOMETHING TO FIX IT. Guilt about it will only damage you. How you feel about yourself, how you view yourself, how you treat yourself. Any guilt you feel? Heal it.

    This is a close cousin. This is you guilt-tripping yourself or beating yourself up.

    1. Regret is in the past
    2. You can’t change the past, only the present (and thus future)

    If you regret something, either DO SOMETHING, or let it go. Continuing to beat yourself up about it is only killing yourself (slowly).

    Heard the saying, “Love the sinner, hate the sin?” Ever stop to wonder why that is only ever applied to how we treat other people?

    1. Yes, you have made mistakes in your life. That IS OK (natural even, it’s a great way to learn).
    2. That doesn’t make you a bad person (“a sinner” is the catch all phrase)
    3. Viewing yourself in a negative light adds nothing positive or useful to the world

    Imagine you’re a parent and your child is learning to ride a bike. She’s not very good yet and occasionally hits a tree, or falls off. Would you be angry at her? Tell her she’s a sinner (or evil, or equivalent) that she will never be “forgiven” unless she leads a life of self induced misery and servitude? No, of course not. You’d be what? Loving. Understanding. Patient. Caring. Your heart would break every time she made a mistake. You’d be there, gently helping her back on, encouraging her every pedal of the way.

    So why do we get the idea that God (our Father) doesn’t view us, treat us, love us exactly the same way?

    Go easy on yourself. God Loves you; you should too.

    We’re taught that we have to deserve things. We’re allowed into heaven only IF we act a certain way. We don’t deserve forgiveness (or God’s love) unless we repent, and so on.

    Jesus never taught that. He taught “God loves you”, end of story. No ifs, no buts, no conditions. God IS unconditional Love. It’s (unfortunately) the church that puts all those conditions in there, not Him.

    If you feel like you don’t deserve something, anything? That’s conditioned behaviour. You’ve been taught that. 

    Do you honestly think that God, a being of pure Love, actually wants you to suffer? To be in pain? Would you want someone you loved more than life itself to suffer? For ANY reason? Of course not. All those excuses clamouring in your head as you read this? That’s just rationalisation, your brain talking. That’s not Love. Not big-L, unconditional God Love. 

    No excuses, no exceptions, no conditions. God Loves you, end of story.

    It’s pretty easy to forget this.

    We’re taught to “forgive others” – yet, did you ever stop to ask what that means, in raw, practical terms? Surely, harbouring no negative emotions towards them for that incident, right?

    Oh, so here’s a minor point – why do we so easily forget to forgive ourselves?

    “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive others” – so, if God has forgiven us, why the hell don’t we let go of it too? Do we honestly think we know more about this than He does?

    New vs Old Testament
    When Jesus arrived, he came with a simple message. When he was asked, “Which is the most important commandment?” he said (paraphrased) “First, love God. Second love each other.” [Mark 12:28-31] That’s not so complicated, is it?

    And because philosophy, morals and ethics are such slippery things (what is “good”, what is “bad”, etc), if you want to keep it simple? “Don’t be an asshole”. 

    Jesus also said to pretty much ignore the old testament (the God of hellfire and vengeance) that God was actually loving. Like a (good, rather than angry) father.

    He came with clarification and simplification: God is Love. Only love. Not love-and-anger. Not love-and-violent retribution. Just Love.

    If this is the case, then why is so much of the teaching of the church (hell, it’s not even in the Creed!) attached to the old, superseded, vengeance-and-fear model of God? Why the guilt, the fear, the shame, the recrimination? An obvious answer is that frightened, miserable people are more easy to control. Either way, Jesus didn’t come down and say “do this, this and this or God will hate you, punish you and make you suffer”. God just doesn’t work like that. Not the New Testament God.

    Don’t listen to me about this, listen to what Jesus said. God is Love, he loves you, love each other, ignore everything else. Simple.

    How to unravel it all
    If you’re feeling negative emotions inside you? That’s not Love. If you feel negative emotions towards others? That’s not Love. But most importantly, if you’re feeling negative emotions towards yourself, that’s not Love either.

    Why is how you treat yourself the most important bit? Because whatever you aim inwards is reflected outwards. If you feel like shit, that’s going to seep out into the world, one way or another.

    Unfortunately, Catholicism teaches us to increase, not decrease, these inwardly aimed negative emotions. All perfectly rationally, all perfectly reasonably, all explained away, of course. None of it helping you, none of it actually Love, or helping you live a better life.

    Here are some examples. If any of these resonate with you, they’re beliefs that are contrary to Love. Beliefs that if you want to move closer to God, to Love (or alternatively, just get that ex-Catholic crap out of your life), you should heal.

    • “How can I possibly forgive that person? What they did was SO bad”
    • “I’m a sinner”
    • “I must suffer for my sins”
    • “Sure, I’ve forgiven them, but I’m still X them” (where X=negative emotion=’angry at’, ‘hate’, ‘can’t stand’, etc)
    • “I don’t deserve [anything]”
    • “I regret [anything]”
    • “Only God can forgive me”
    • “I deserve to suffer”
    • “I’m a bad person”
    • “Unless I’m good, I won’t go to heaven”

    I’m sure there are many more. The point is very simple: God (the universe, whatever) Loves you. You should too.


      A Simple Meditation

      I’d been feeling pretty crappy for a couple of days.

      None of my tools really seemed to be doing it for me, and all in all I’d been feeling quite lost.

      Here’s what I started doing to fix it.

      Saying “yes”.

      And then saying “yes” some more.

      And some more. (and some more)

      Here’s the thing. By a huge margin, “yes” is the most positive thing we can say. Kinda obvious I know.

      Interestingly, it also has a disproportionate effect on our brains when we say it.

      Don’t believe me though. Try it yourself.

      1. Say “No” repeatedly and emphatically for ten seconds or so. Now see how you feel.
      2. Say “Yes” repeatedly and emphatically for ten seconds or so. Now see how you feel.

      It’s not an accident there are so many books (yep, that’s over 500,000) pushing people towards “yes”.

      In any kind of sales or negotiation (which if you stop and think about it is most of life), if you can get the person saying yes ABOUT ANYTHING, they’ll be significantly more likely to say yes to the specific thing you want them to (eg “buy this car” or “make me a sandwich”).

      Saying yes changes our brains.

      Now of course, even though saying yes by itself might be helpful, there are some simple ways we can really step this up a notch.

      First is tweaking our posture. Improve our posture and we’ll immediately improve our state of well being.

      So, I did that. I sat up straight. Ok, so I jammed myself against a wall, since I didn’t really feel like sitting up straight. But it still helped.

      Second thing is to let go of any angry or opposing thoughts, or any physical tension that arises while we’re saying yes.

      Yep, release the mental and physical noise.

      Why does this occur?

      Well, let’s take it in steps.

      Why are we feeling crappy? Well, there’s going to be something upsetting us, right?

      So, instinctively, we’ll be resisting this (because it’s upsetting). Ie, saying “no” to this whatever-it-is.

      Now, when we consciously choose to say yes, what are we doing? We’re loving whatever-this-awful-thing-is.

      We’re choosing to be loving about it. Which is always helpful.

      However, any resistance is going to come racing to the top – ie, anything in us that is the opposite of loving.

      Usually it’s pretty obvious. We’ll feel clutching or a physical tension in our stomach or chest. Our brain will be screaming “What the hell? No WAY am I saying YES. That guy’s an asshole” (etc *yawn* etc)

      Well, that’s all very nice, but really, that resistance IS the reason we’re feeling crappy (not whatever the resistance is actually about).

      It’s not the event that affects us, only our reactions to it.

      It’s nothing to do with what’s outside us. It’s actually (as always) what’s INSIDE that matters.

      Events don’t bother us. Our reactions TO those events bother us.

      So anyway. Saying yes brings all this junk to the surface.

      And then we can let it go.

      Mantras are all very well and good. It’s definitely smart to focus on what you want. Eg, feeling more positive.

      However, unless you actually work on the energy surrounding it, you’re not going to get very far. In other words, clear your FEELINGS about whatever it is that’s bothering you.

      Saying “yes” externally while internally you’re screaming “no” is just gonna leave you spinning in an unhappy circle.

      Hence, posture. Hence, releasing.

      Oh, and water. Water is always recommended.

      (I also find physically tapping anywhere I feel tension helps to unblock the energy and let it out too).

      So anyway. This is what I did. I sat up straight. I drank some water. I said “yes”, over and over to myself. I let go of any noise (physical, mental, emotional) that floated up.

      And you know what? I did start to feel better. Not the fastest I ever have – but when you’re super low, you’re really too low to do very much. It all helps.

      The key thing is, it lifted me up enough, just enough that I could start using more powerful tools.

      It got me back on track.

      And really, isn’t that just what’s needed, at least every now and then?