Ignore It

If I ignore something, does it go away or get worse? Answer: it goes away. That sounds like the wrong approach, that such a strategy would only lead to a festering mess in the end. Yet, over the course of many years, I’ve found that it’s the exact tactic that works. Whether it’s an internal ache or something external, ignoring it has typically made it disappear whereas focusing on it only increased the intensity.

From thoughts, to pains, to people, to situations – whenever I stop maintaining them within my mind, they simply fade away. It’s not always easy to forget something, which is why things don’t blip out instantaneously. I typically have to repeatedly ignore the image while trying to focus on something else. But if I keep at it, it goes away.

Yes, this phenomenon demonstrates that the world is not a concrete physical reality in which I’m a mere spectator to life’s objective events. My thoughts and feelings are readily influencing the reality I’m experiencing, there’s no doubt about it. But if that’s true, why am I not having the best time ever? Why do I find myself experiencing unpleasantness again and again?

My guess would be: the lack of application of mental discipline. In other words, I don’t ignore enough. I don’t selectively identify and ignore that which produces discomfort. If I’m not feeling great in every moment, that means there’s something I’m not ignoring. Could it be that simple!? Does ignorance truly result in bliss!? I’m going to dedicate myself to this experiment and find out!

Striving for Something

I’m here, so I might as well keep busy. I’ve found it’s best to keep striving for something, anything. It can be a frivolous goal, it doesn’t matter, it’s the effort that counts. I’m currently pursuing three primary objectives.

Number one: I’m striving to become a mellow, lighthearted fellow. I started out as an tightly wound, overly anxious, paranoid, pessimistic naysayer. I’m trying to do a 180 flip into a calm, optimistic, friendly and welcoming guy that always has a good word to say about everything. Will I get there? Eh, who cares, it’s the striving that counts. (Ha, such a casual attitude, it must be working!!)

Number two: I’m striving to maintain good relationships with my wife and son. My attitude and behavior are obviously key aspects to this. These relationships are the reason I want to tame my negativity in the first place. I’ve noticed that my interactions improve as I progress along the mellow path.

Number three: I’m currently striving to use tools – particularly for small-scale hand-tool woodworking. This has become a great hobby over the past few months and I hope to continue with it. My longer term goal is to put together a small woodworking workshop with the finest tools I can procure.

A Christmas Cratchit

Dear diary, I will now mention the reason why I’ve been a bit upset lately. It’s money. Of course. That old cliche has inserted itself as a prominent part of my narrative.

We’ve been living in our current location for about two-and-half years (it’s a lovely locale and I like it). Mathematically, the money was going to run out about seven months ago – it didn’t. It somehow lasted till now, the end of the year. Right in time for what? That’s right, a Christmas Miracle. It’s the first of December today, a month of many celebrated birthdays (including my own).

I love Christmas Miracles by the way, which is why I have hope amidst the lack. Of course I have to feel bad for a bit and soak in the dour circumstances, setting the scene. “Gee wiz guys, I guess Christmas isn’t going to be very merry this year. Aw shucks….” But in my heart of hearts I believe in the power of Christmas and know it’s never too late. Christmas isn’t over! There’s still time!!

Just the other day, my friend said how much she hates the holidays since we only ever have enough money for minimal living expenses – and this year we have even less. But oh does the crescendo start soft and gradually build until the loudest frequency fills the ear with an abundance of sound. I know not what form this miracle will take, but I believe in its inevitability.

Christmas CAN be saved. It must. So too must she know Christmas as a time of merriment and delight. There is not one thing more in this world I want than to see their faces on Christmas morning alight with the resplendent glow of joyful glee. Yes James, there is a Santa Claus and he lives through me – today and for 10 times 10,000 years he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Striving to Strive

If you think about the rewards you receive in video-games, you notice how lame they are. A high score? A virtual trophy? Your character jumping up and down? A screen that says “The End”. Meh. All that dedication and effort for what amounts to nothing? And that’s true in this game as well, the actual physical prizes available here are kinda lame.

There’s nothing here, that once gotten, you’d feel “Wow, this is IT! I’m done! Nothing left to get!”. Once anything’s received, it’s a fleeting sensation of attainment followed by a new-normal in which it becomes an everyday object that sits mundanely as any other. Therefore, as in any game, experiences themselves are the only actual reward.

I’ve wasted countless hours in video-games attempting to achieve lame objectives – yet, I was perfectly entertained by the experience. The fun isn’t in attainment, that’s just another form of “Game Over”. The fun is in striving after something, anything, even if it’s a frivolous goal. Striving itself IS the goal here.

And I don’t mean “struggle” by the way. You really should find a level of striving that feels comfortable. It’s kinda dumb to stress and strain over a pointless objective when objectives themselves are valueless. Since they’re all of equal value (i.e. zero), pick something fun. And if you actually attain the object of your effort? Great, now pick another appealing objective and keep striving.

Trend Spotting

I’ve been attempting to analyze the trends of reward/punishment in relation to my behavior.

For example, I’ve clearly noticed a negative trend from overeating. It’s not every time, but overall it leads to unpleasant circumstances such as a tummy-ache or a complete lack of energy. But when I eat sensibly, not stuffing myself mindlessly, things proceed much better. I can clearly see a path I should take and one I should avoid.

Another trend deals with thinking about things I don’t like. If I allow unpleasant topics to remain in my thoughts, I typically feel bad. And once in awhile, those undesirable things even show up in my life. Whereas if I reject those unpleasant thoughts and focus on things I do like, my mood is better and my situation tends to improve. There seems to be an obvious pathway here too.

Another trend deals with how I treat people. If I’m careless and rude for example, good things don’t usually follow. Whereas when I present the best version of myself, I’m more satisfied with my interactions and things typically go much better. Again, there seems to be an undeniable path here.

The overall trend seems to deal with the application of mental discipline. If I’m lazy and let myself act like a disrespectful pessimistic slob, things don’t go well. Whereas when I stay aware of myself and keep to the role of a polite lighthearted guy that colors within the lines, things trend better.

Why are there preset guidelines that I must stay within? Perhaps the answer’s simple: it provides me with something to do. In games you move your character, making sure he stays on the correct pathway – that’s it. Life isn’t a movie: if you sit there, nothing happens – and if you stomp the accelerator without steering, you’ll likely crash.

As player of this game, I must remain awake and aware, with my hands on the wheel ready to make micro-adjustments as necessary to keep my character on the pleasant path. A path that’s discoverable through the reward/punishment mechanism. For instance: I have to actively monitor what he eats, what he thinks, and how he treats others.

Skinner Box

Is Earth a form of aversion therapy? In other words, am I punished for improper behavior? And if that’s the case, am I rewarded for good behavior?

Even from a purely physical perspective, you’d likely say that penalties exist for inappropriate actions. For example: if I eat too much, I get a tummy-ache. If I treat others poorly, I tend to suffer negative repercussions. If I allow my mind to wander, I find myself thinking thoughts I don’t prefer. If I consume dour and pessimistic media, I feel bad. In short, there seems to be a direct correlation between careless behavior and discomfort.

Is the opposite also true? Am I rewarded for considerate behavior? If I eat an appropriate amount of nutritious food, do I feel better? If I treat others well, do I benefit from similar treatment? If I guide my thoughts down pleasant paths, do I find myself delighted? If I watch a lighthearted movie, do I feel cheerful? In short, is there a direct correlation between thoughtful behavior and well-being?

In behavioral conditioning, the obviousness of the correlation between cause-and-effect is a key factor for learning. For example, if I fail to realize that a specific action results in a particular punishment, there’s no reason to stop an action. In other words, the amount of punishment won’t matter if I don’t know why I’m being punished. Yet, it would be heavy-handed or even harsh to reprimand for every infringement.

In teaching/coaching situations, obviousness is often sacrificed for gentleness. Instead of correcting every single misstep, a gentle teacher often allows some incorrectness to slide. This puts more responsibility onto the student, who must actively watch for trends in order to grasp the direction of the reward/punishment mechanism. The tradeoff is a greater feeling of agency and influence over one’s own life.

This would explain why actions in life aren’t always rewarded or punished appropriately. Life trades cold mechanical conditioning for a more organic feel. There’s no lever that reliably releases a pellet when pressed – outcomes follow trends instead. Also, intermittent reward is a more captivating circumstance and likely leads to longer, more involved engagement.

Honestly, I’ve been obstinately plowing through life, ignoring any signs pointing in the proper direction. I follow my own assumptions about what’s appropriate. As you might imagine, it hasn’t been an effective strategy. Am I to simply follow the path set forth by the aversion/reward mechanism? Hm, that almost sounds like cheating. Wait, actually that seems like a lot of work. Well, I’ll have to keep this is mind and be on the lookout for trends resulting from my behavior.

Way of the Wood

When I set out to do something, the process and outcome aren’t typically what I expect. In other words, I’m frequently frustrated by an inability to do what I aspire to do. There’s way too much strain involved for a final product that I’m not satisfied with. That’s basically the story of my life: a lot of exertion with nothing to show for it – a whole bunch of frivolous toil – an engine revving in neutral.

Then a few months ago I got into woodworking. I’m pleased in the sense that I enjoy the effort and I’m somewhat satisfied with the outcome. I even like the ecosystem: I watch woodworking videos and browse websites for tools. The only unpleasant aspect is a slight tool obsession that’s conflicting with a constrained budget. I absolutely love the tools though – browsing through Lie-Nielsen planes takes me to another place.

I’ve only been crafting small-scale projects, like a 1:24 scale picnic table – and I prefer it (6 feet becomes 3 inches). I’m literally milling my own dimensional lumber from small blocks of wood with a little rip-saw and a tiny hand plane. I had started out with whittling and woodcarving, but the effort/output ratio wasn’t quite right. I’m not really an artist, so carving a block into a bunny isn’t something I can readily do. I can’t visualize organic stuff – whereas tables, benches, and boxes I can see.

Through the years, I tried at various times to get into woodworking but it never panned out. For example, my chisels are from a failed attempt almost twenty years ago. Finally, I think things are aligning. The projects aren’t works of art, but they’re good enough and they come together without a struggle. And of course, having a reason to collect and use tools is an awesome thing in itself.

Plowing Ahead

In one sense, it doesn’t matter what’s causing unpleasant external conditions. I have to deal with them either way. Whether it’s random chance, mischievous imps, an existential escape from boredom, karmic repercussions, part of a dramatic narrative, a simulated challenge-generator that maximizes player engagement — it doesn’t matter, the obstacles are there. And complaining about their presence, is an ineffective strategy for dealing with them (my exhaustive multi-decade study has proven this to be true).

Since complaining doesn’t work, I have to try a different approach. But I will NOT be engaging with these obstacles directly, it’s just not my play-style. Any time I’ve tried the direct approach, I’ve just gotten frustrated by my lack of ability. Whereas I’ve always been intrigued by the Buddha’s approach: disregard obstacles. “Oh is something blocking my path? Hm, cool, well I’ll just chill here, no biggie.” Haha suck it obstacles! You hold no power over me!!

There’s still hurdles, but instead of jumping over them, I shift my perspective until there’s no longer a desire to jump them. This isn’t new to me, I’ve been trying to get this nonchalant approach to work for a long time. It hasn’t been effective enough to end my angst yet. Essentially, I’ve been attempting to dismantle the veil of illusion that makes the world seem “real”. But of course the world lures me back with a mix of pain and pleasure, physical aches and aspirational promises.

Ideally, there’s a balance I can achieve in which I’m in this fictional world AND able to enjoy the experience. By all my efforts thus far, it seems to be a VERY delicate balance though. Oftentimes I wonder if a balance is actually achievable, and the attempt feels futile. I keep trying since I’ve got nothing better to do. I don’t believe I can quit this game – if I dared, I think I’d be right back where I started. My only option is to plow ahead.

Plowing ahead for me means to keep adjusting my focus. Thoughts streaming through my mind require evaluation before they monopolize my attention – most should be disregarded and left unconsidered. It doesn’t matter why I encounter unpleasant experiences or even the content of those experiences – my role is to remain calm and unattached, tuning my focus to whatever’s more pleasant in the moment. Day after day, I chisel away on my quest for balance.

Character Analysis

I’m not good at playing pretend – I often take my role too seriously and add too many procedural details and attempt to establish elaborate and often dour backstories. Plus, overreaction comprised of frustration and histrionics is a hallmark of my characters. “WHAT!? This is preposterous! How dare you!”

I think in life, you have to commit to a role. It makes improvisation easier in the sense that a character has a typical response to a given situation. Whereas I often don’t know how to react, so I stand awkwardly attempting to evaluate the situation and analyze my feelings. But a pre-established character would simply respond in his usual way. “Wowza, that’s the beez kneez!”

I don’t think it’s a good idea to figure out a character by examining the external world and looking for clues. Characters are best defined by whatever evokes the most joy – so you have to look inwardly. I think the world we experience is a product of our imagination and subject to interpretation, therefore the world can appear as a paradise or a nightmare solely based on perspective.

When you commit to a character, I think circumstances change and form to accommodate it. So if you play an anxious character for example, upsetting scenes and stimuli will become the basis of your experiences. I’ve often played as an overly-sensitive anxious-guy but I don’t enjoy it and never feel committed to the role. And like I mentioned, not having a preset role leads to slowed interactions with life since every stimulus sparks a new analysis.

Therefore, I’m in the market for a new role. And unlike before, I’ll take a much more lighthearted approach. Instead of that solemn guy that disappears into every room he enters, often spouting pessimistic nonsense to himself, I’d rather be a cheerful optimistic fellow that people are glad to see. “Oh snap! Rich is here!? It’s about to get good!”. Instead of nervousness and doubt, calm and confidence should be my foundational feelings. Yeah let’s do that instead of all the nonsense I’ve been doing.

Bragging Rights

To me, it feels like I’m on a reality gameshow in which I’m thrown into an unreasonable situation and must persist to the end despite the constant challenges. But what’s the prize? It’s certainly not the process itself right? As I find this game difficult to appreciate. And like those gameshows, I feel like any structure I create will only get torn-down by the producers when I leave. Therefore, I don’t have a desire to invest my time into anything significant – I’m fine with a temporary structure that simply gets me through the day.

I stay close to my small structure. I do little projects to stave off boredom. I talk to myself, trying to find the motivation to make it one more day. I wrestle with whatever challenge comes up that day. I celebrate minor victories, lament the losses. And like all other contestants, for whatever reason, I feel like I have to see this through – quitting isn’t an option. If it was, I’d have quit many times by now. Where’s my radio!? “Hey guys!? Yeah I’m done. Get me outta here!”

To me, there’s nothing in-game that provides a sense of satisfaction. It’s like a bootcamp where you’re relentlessly drilled and pushed until you break – a torture-chamber making you scream “I can’t take anymore! Please stop!” But apparently I can take more, and I do, running up the obstacle course again and again – day after day. “Please, may I have another!” Sicko. I might just be a masochist, using pain as a means to feel alive.

I used to lift heavy weights as a hobby, I know what it’s like to consciously push myself to failure. Who’s to say I don’t do it unconsciously too? Is this some other-worldly training facility? But am I any stronger because of it? Is my spirit actually improving? Is my soul some buff dude flexing amongst his peers? Or am I merely a pitiful weakling in this world, barely scraping by?

Or perhaps I’ll be sitting at a bar with other-worldly pals one day, bragging about the time I spent on Earth. Their eyes looking on in astonishment as I retell the hardships I experienced as an Earthbound being. “Believe me boys, it was rough stuff, the kinda thing that puts you into a higher tier of toughness. Why the things I did and the things I saw would melt your socks off.” They’ll be buying my drinks for eons to come. “Another round for Rich! The toughest S.O.B. in here!”