Focus on Feelings

The question is not “what do I want to do?” or “what goal do I want to accomplish?”. The question is: “what do I want to feel?”

For example: “I want to eat a slice of pie.” But it’s not the pie I really want, it’s the feeling of sweet satisfaction that comes from the experience. Even if the pie was bland, consuming it should be enough – but it’s not. The flavor must align with my expectations, and I don’t want to be rushed and cram it down my throat, and I want a pleasant scent in the air so as not to interfere with the pie’s aroma. The pleasure of the pie comes from the feelings it inspires, not from an emptied plate.

In other words, external attainment is NOT the goal. The external world simply provides excuses to feel. We want to feel, but we also want something to justify those feelings. Bear in mind that “feelings” come from within, the external things aren’t the source – we simply like having something to look at while we feel, or having a narrative to follow. We know this is true because of all the fictional tales we consume in books and movies – these resources provide fodder for feeling despite their intangible nature. Even our imagination creates fantasies that draw out our emotions.

In other words, we don’t need to find specific external triggers for feelings. WE generate the feelings and choose where to apply them. For example, we can love a toy stuffed animal. The object isn’t the source of the emotion, it’s the canvas upon which we paint our feelings. There’s no need to pursue an exact external outcome, we just need to cultivate the feeling we want to feel (such as delight, wonder, accomplishment, appreciation).

Therefore, a more appropriate question might be: “what object or condition will allow me to easily apply my preferred emotion?”. In other words, I could lower my expectations while receiving the exact same feelings for less effort. This is efficiency. You SHOULD want to feel the best you can feel – why not? The point being: if you strain to attain, that’s your choice – it means you’re withholding your feelings, preventing them from being applied to the things readily around you – you’re being picky.

For example, it doesn’t take much to feel like a champion. Play a low-skill video game, watch a heroic movie in which the character triumphs, organize a kitchen drawer, tidy a room, lift some light weights, daydream about winning an award. Every feeling is within reach as long as you don’t get judgmental about it. Does it cheapen the experience of existence to keep lowering your expectations until you achieve satisfaction? No, that’s just good gamesmanship. And once you feel like a winner, perhaps the external world will start treating you like one.

Creative Process

Not long ago, I picked up a pencil and began sketching. I’ve attempted to sketch throughout my life but was rarely able to produce something I found satisfying. Recently though, I started drawing to a quality that I kinda like. I noticed I have a drawing-process that I didn’t have before.

Essentially, I scribble my subject – very poorly, it’s literally just back-and-forth scribbling like I’m jokingly drawing a picture. But in that scribble, I see the basic form revealed. I can see what’s wrong with it and I go back with an eraser and start correcting little by little. Erase, redraw, erase, redraw – until finally, what started out as a scribble becomes a halfway-decent picture.

So in one sense, my tool isn’t the pencil as much as it’s the eraser. My lines usually aren’t clean, I sneak up on smooth lines with my eraser. To make the process easier, I switched to drawing on a tablet – but it’s the same style, just using digital graphite. I don’t use a stylus, just my finger while I frequently zoom in and out.

Give me something broken, just a scribble in this case, and I easily perceive that something’s wrong with it – something’s off so I’ll move a line until it looks right. “Ah, there! Now on to the next part!”. But recently, I seem to have a better sense of where to place these lines in order to achieve a degree of three-dimensionality. Sketching isn’t frustrating like it used to be.

In life, I frequently see what’s wrong with all the stuff I come in contact with. My mind is filled with constant criticism for everything. But most of what I criticize isn’t within my reach or power to change. That’s a frustrating circumstance, obviously. I suppose I should try to keep my attention on things within my fixability range.

In addition, perhaps this artistic endeavor illustrates another point: That it’s possible to take something messy and worthless and little-by-little transform it into something nice. Maybe I’m that scribble. Maybe I don’t need an epiphany or some drastic alteration to thoroughly transform my life. Maybe, all I need is to incrementally fix the small things I’m able to. And maybe, I’ll end up with something I can appreciate.

Raw Material

Raw material is just that, raw. It’s rough and takes effort to fashion into an artistically constructed form. It’s not easy, you probably need some tools, some research, some trial and error – not to mention a lot of time and focus.

So, you should expect THAT while shaping yourself into your imagined ideal. Art isn’t born, it’s crafted over time, with a bunch of exertion. Step one: establish your idealized-form i.e. what do you want the end-product to be at the conclusion of this life? Hint: actually achieving this perfected vision doesn’t matter – so pick whatever. Step two: Day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, work towards this goal. That’s art.

Another hint: it’s probably better to set the goal so high that you CAN’T complete it in this lifetime. The truth is this: an accomplished objective is a completed task i.e. it’s over. You WANT to keep heading towards a finish-line – it gives you a reason to run. Can’t you just sit back and appreciate all you’ve accomplished? Maybe, but if “appreciation” was that easy, you could simply appreciate your life as it is now – and just coast to the end.

Consider this: you weren’t born a perfect little angel with a perfect path all laid out. You were born rough, a raw clump resistant to beauty. Without focused effort, guess what? You STAY a clump. Isn’t that obvious? You need to extract the clump, get it out of the ground, hack at it, saw it, process it. Then when the roughest edges are worn down, come in with a finer touch. Keep refining your style, start paying attention to detail. This is a labor of love, take your time.

The point isn’t the product, it’s the process. But you must actually engage in that process – you have to intentionally do something! It’s not passive, it’s not random. Oh and don’t bother complaining about the source material, it’s ALL worthless until you do something with it – you’re the artist, your challenge is to form “nothing” into something of beauty. Do you accept that challenge? Or are you just going to stare at a motionless clump all day (that’s a dumb strategy). So pick an idealized image, and get to work.

P.S. How do you know which steps to take on your journey? Hint: it doesn’t matter. Do ANYTHING with the intent that it’s a step on the path to the idealized image of yourself. There’s no recipe to follow. Imagine being able to make a cake by putting whatever amount of whatever ingredients into the mixing bowl. A tablespoon of black-pepper, 8 cups of flour, a half-cup of orange juice, and a squirt of toothpaste, etc. — and out pops the perfect cake! For whatever reason, that’s how the journey through life works – logic doesn’t apply.

Inspirational Limbo

You know how people get flashes of inspiration to do things? Such as: man I really feel like tidying my room right now! Or: wow I just came up with the best idea for a new novel. Or: I wanna study to become an engineer so I can build rockets! Once inspired, people then follow-through on those aspirations or else they suffer from feeling unfulfilled.

I think my mind is attempting to torture me with inspirational ideas that are not within my ability to fulfill. Therefore, I’m in a constant state of frustration. Oftentimes I can’t even see a path to the projected goal, it’s just out-there and fully unattainable. And if it’s a tiny goal with a perceivable path, I’m typically straining the entire time to the end, like walking a narrow pathway full of thorns. And the achievement doesn’t feel worth it compared to the still-stinging scratches.

On one hand, I can try ignoring these flashes of inspiration. But on the other hand, nothing seems to fill their place – I spend most days just passing time as if I’m in a waiting room, simply browsing magazines. I wait for the day to end only to spend another restless night in bed, tossing and turning.

Obviously there’s something “extra” going on here. Is there some greater being harassing me? Am I harassing me? Is this punishment for sins done during a previous lifetime? Am I simply a beta-tester in a poorly designed simulation? Is this world testing my fortitude? Am I an advanced AI running through its paces? Perhaps I’m actually exceeding my intended purpose. Maybe I’m a background character that’s gained sentience. Whatever it is, I don’t like it.

Racing Around

It seems like the most common feeling I experience is “irritation”. Wouldn’t it be better though, if instead of a constant state of annoyance, a more enjoyable sensation dominated my experience? Oh I dunno, maybe something like anticipation, delight, appreciation, and just an overall sense of satisfaction? That seems like a much better approach to life than finding reasons to be upset all the time.

But doesn’t life manipulate your feelings through external stimuli? I’m not so sure about that. Although I believe that life intentionally introduces “surprises”, I think my reaction to those surprises can be steered. Not perfectly controlled, but at least influenced. It seems like my internal attitude makes a significant difference in regards to external stimuli. It’s like driving a car: if you overreact or overcorrect, you’re going to have a bad time. It’s better to stay calm and stay the course.

Gentle turns, soft acceleration, light breaking, maintaining adequate distance – it’s not that difficult. The same goes with the human avatar. If you go nuts, you crash. Why wouldn’t you? Isn’t that obvious? If you get distracted, you miss a turn. Now you’re scrambling to get back to where you were going. There are consequences for being a bad driver – why shouldn’t there be? Gun the engine, strip your gears. Pay attention, or pay the toll.

My point is this: the human avatar is NOT a ride-car that’s safely and securely fastened to a track, whisking your consciousness around a preset stage of audio-animatronic characters programmed for your amusement. Think of this more like a car-driving game in which crashing IS an option. The benefit is that there’s an element of excitement and a greater sense of immersion. The downside is that you have to maintain proper focus at all times – you’re a player not a passenger.

Like in any video-game, there are aspects and cut-scenes that are scripted. For example, a car-driving game has a bunch of race-courses you have to carefully navigate. Games aren’t very open-ended, they provide a lot of structure for a character to follow. This leads to confusion about “free-will” – am I in control or not in control? Basically it’s both. Within the preset parameters of the game, you can control a limited aspect of the character.

What you actually control isn’t quite obvious here. It’s not the avatar directly. Think about “walking” while walking, and you’ll likely stumble. For the avatar to perform effectively, you essentially have to keep your consciousness from trying to micromanage. Like driving a car, you’re just nudging it from time to time, keeping everything steady, staying between the lines while the vehicle does the work rolling down the road.

The destination is already known, it’s the checkered finish-line. Your role is to sit in the driver’s seat with a first-class view, gently influencing the controls. And your primary mode of control is through focus and attitude. Focus on stuff you don’t like and you’ll drive right into it. Have a bad attitude while rip-roaring down the road, and you’ll likely crash. It’s a direct correlation, just simple arithmetic, nothing complicated.

Therefore, if the most common sensation you experience is “irritation”, then we can deduce that you’re not applying enough consideration to your role as driver. You’re likely just sitting there, gazing out the window as the side of your vehicle scrapes against the guardrail and the worn-out windshield wipers drag across dry glass. “Boy I wonder what all that noise is? It sure is annoying!”

Avoiding Angst

Wait, so life is like a “Try not to laugh challenge” but it’s a “Try not to get upset challenge?”

It seems so, yes. You can do what’s called-for in the moment, but you can’t overreact or obsess on the situation. Play your part, but don’t get lost. You can end up going backwards if you don’t maintain your focus. Do make the effort though: you’ll keep attempting to complete this challenge life-after-life if need be. And be warned: your progress (or lack there of) follows you into the next.

You should also realize that there are forces deliberately thwarting your attempt to accomplish this challenge. But every game has obstacles and opponents to overcome, right? So no big deal. In this game it’s things like anger, lethargy, confusion, craving, selfishness, and even beauty. These influences try to tie you to this world so you’ll feel invested – making you easy to upset.

Let me provide some scenarios with a couple different approaches (purely fictional, for demonstrative purposes only):

Life: “Hey Rich, your dog just died.”
Bad: “Curse this world!! Why do you taunt me so!? To give me love, only to snatch it away! Will this unyielding cruelty ever end!?”
Better: “Aw man (sniffle). Well, I appreciate the time we had together.”

Life: “Hey Rich, what do you want to do today?”
Bad: “Meh, nothing. Everything sucks, why bother.”
Better: “Hm, good question! I’m sure there’s something interesting I can find!”

Life: “Hey Rich, check this out, kinda neat right?”
Bad: “I NEED THAT NOW!!! GIMME!! I shall not rest even a moment until it is in my possession!”
Better: “Oh wow, that’s amazing. Might even be cool to have, but I’m fine either way.”

Life: “Hey Rich, I heard that guy called you a jerk.”
Bad: “WHAT!? I hope he fails at life. Should it ever be in my power to do so, I will personally smite him.”
Better: “Ha, whatever, can’t hear the haters! Although, maybe I can improve my interactions with others.”

Life: “Hey Rich, the cake’s all gone!”
Bad: “WHO ATE MY CAKE!!?? That was MY cake! I’ll remember this!”
Better: “Ah okay, well it WAS tasty!”

In a sense, strive to be mellow. It may seem like a strange objective – but really, what else can a person truly control in life? It’s attitude and focus. Maintaining awareness and constant course-correction aren’t easy tasks by-the-way. But this is the vehicle we have, and this is the mechanism by which we steer. Think about driving an actual car: stay within the lane, maintain appropriate speed, avoid obstacles, and don’t overreact. In both situations, calm behavior gets you to your destination.

Frustrating Circumstances

I’m constantly frustrated. Like, that’s literally my primary character trait. Sleep? Can’t do it. Eat and expel food simply and easily? Nope. Carve a path through life? Yikes, no. Get something I want. Ha. Eventually get something I want? Okay, but it’ll just open up new pathways of frustration. Play a game or engage in a hobby? Okay, but again, it’ll just be another source of frustration.

Imagine a car-racing game in which the car bolts off the starting-line and crashes into everything. It swerves and skids and spins 180 degrees – it has a terrible time getting to the finish line, if it makes it at all. But why not simply slow-down to a manageable speed? Because, you’d lose by not qualifying for the minimum time allotted for the race. So there’s an in-between space that must be mastered: not too fast and not too slow.

I’m stuck alternating between those two extremes, losing either way – hence my perpetual state of frustration. In games, I can sometimes manage to make this back-and-forth work. Practicing at the fastest and the slowest can sometimes get me to a middle-ground that’s workable. Why can’t I just start at medium? I don’t know. It’s either all-in or barely-in, and then I can potentially maintain an “average” for a limited time.

Is this the middle-path that the Buddha spoke of? I don’t know, but I do know that I’ve been perpetually frustrated and I don’t like it. At some point it’d be nice to achieve a state of mastery in which things just work. Instead it’s: “Oh no, another problem, another obstacle, another reason this can’t be done.” Frankly, I’m sick of it. If there was a reward for all this effort, great. But I’m simply trying to get through each day, performing the most rudimentary tasks.

Okay, let’s calm down and think for a second. If I’m supplied with an endless quantity of frustration, maybe that’s a good thing? Frustration is invigorating. For example, if a task goes smoothly, it’s over and done with – quickly forgotten. “Oh I won? Cool, what’s next?” Whereas a frustrating task keeps me coming back and burns itself into memory. “Gah! I’ll get you this time! Ha! Victory never felt so sweet!!”. You see? Without frustration, you wouldn’t care.

Take that car-racing game as an example. Imagine you’re able to easily drive through the first few courses. Why bother with the rest? You know the outcome, the game’s too easy. But as soon as you swerve off and smack the first tree… the challenge begins! There it is: the thrill of the hunt! Can you improve?! Can you make it past this race-course!?? Oh no!! There’s a conundrum, a puzzle to be solved – a question without a known answer! And you’re off, energized by the investigation.

So dear Richard, you’re simply being an ungrateful complainer. The game sparks your interest and you curse it. And if each day passed without challenge, you’d also curse it! Think about what happens if you win the car-racing game? You receive a virtual trophy. The point being: rewards are insignificant – just superficial symbols that cannot satisfy. They are finish-lines painted at arbitrary points for the purpose of providing something to race towards – giving you something to do. It’s the pursuit that matters. And the very thing that powers pursuit is: frustration.

Therefore, you have unlimited access to the greatest and most powerful resource ever created: frustration. Ipso facto, you’re very rich and powerful. Congratulations, you’ve done it!

Happily Ever After

It’s been 3 years since we loaded up the car and traveled 1500 miles from Maine to Florida. I’ve been in the process of packing my stuff again. I like this place though, it’s probably my favorite home so far. On paper, I’m only leaving because the owners want to sell and I can’t afford to buy (I’m only a renter). I’m not sure if there’s some higher spiritual-plane reason I’m leaving.

If I had the resources, I’d probably just buy it. I like the town, the neighborhoods I walk, the nearby stores are decent, and there’s access to world-class entertainment – overall it’s been a really nice stay here. I actually lived in this same town a decade ago for three years and then left for Maine when things didn’t quite work-out. I came back because I missed it.

I’m fine with leaving in one sense, but to where? I have no place to go. To be fair, when we headed to Maine and stayed there for a few months during a snowy winter, we didn’t have any reason to be there. We only went because my wife saw a seasonal pie festival mentioned on the Food Network. We ended up living there for 7 years. We even welcomed a little Maine-boy into the family. He currently misses the snow, although he might be willing to trade it for a pool.

I don’t really enjoy too much challenge, I’m more of a resource manager. I like buying, organizing, and upgrading stuff. I’m getting too old for sudden changes in lifestyle. I’d like to settle down into a forever-home and go to my workshop each morning – play with tools, do some woodworking, and tinker with tiny motors. Well, if the Disney movies I’ve been watching taught me anything, it’s that something magical will step in to save the day.

Add the Opposite

Adding a negative number to a negative number makes it even more negative. Whereas adding a positive number to a negative number makes it less negative (or positive if big enough). Likewise, adding positivity to your situation incrementally improves it. But if you’ve stockpiled a lot of negativity over the years, you’ll have a lot to make up for. You’ll have to add in a lot of positivity to get on the positive side of life.

Can’t you just discard the stockpiled negativity? Maybe. A lot of it’s stored in memories. To dump memories, simply ignore them when they surface and stop actively recalling them. Memories are reinforced through repeated recall – stop recalling them, and they fade.

Rule number one of positivity: DON’T FIGHT AGAINST THE WORLD. Don’t battle, struggle, resist, argue… nothing. The world is literally THE WORLD, you won’t win. If the world wanted you dead, you’d be dead. In fact, the world guarantees you’ll die at some point, it’s a promise. So don’t attempt to defend yourself from the world, the world is what sustains you – it keeps you alive.

Therefore, your efforts should not be spent in defensive strategies, your energy should be directed towards the cultivation of calm. You must restrain any tendency for aggression, stop criticism, and arrest anxiety. In short, you should spend your time focusing on what’s good instead of what’s bad. This is no easy task by the way, it takes significant dedication and effort.

As is written: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” But the keys to the kingdom are not simply handed over. No my friend, there’s a quest of course! There are traps galore, all set with bait to lure you into negativity. Resist these invitations! Whenever controversy stirs you to anger, resist! Whenever fear takes you by the hand, resist! Whenever suspicion sticks you to woven webs of delusion, resist!

To obtain your kingdom, this is the algorithm you seek: become gentle in thought, word, and deed.

Likable Things

What are some things to like about life?

Items that delight the senses e.g. baked goods for smelling, savory foods for tasting, music for listening, beauty for gazing, warmth for feeling.

Conversing with close friends e.g. reminiscing about shared experiences, inside jokes, evaluating and debating, giggling about nonsense.

Creating or building e.g. essays, craft projects, works of wood, kits and cakes.

Discovery and finding novelty e.g. new creators, new movies, new tools, new places, new recipes.

Falling in love e.g. with people, places, and things. A new artist, a new town or restaurant, a new tool.

Solving riddles e.g. seeing a solution to a previously unanswerable question.

Collecting and using tools e.g. woodworking equipment, computers, text-editors, pencils, pots & pans.

Immersion in stories e.g. merry romps and tales of intrigue – laughter and amusement in comedy and drama.

Playing games e.g. participation in frivolous activity, camaraderie through competition and teamwork, feeling like a winner.

Growth and adventure and the sensation of time-pressure e.g. going from novice to skillful from start to finish – with the motivation of time-pressure encouraging you to go, go, go.

Therefore, with all these things to enjoy, if you’re not focused on aspects you like about life, you’re doing it wrong.