Why We Struggle with Change

We think we need to improve ourselves and our current situation, because we’re dissatisfied (at least a little bit) with how things are. We have a drive to improve, improve.

So we strive for change — exercise more, eat better, read more, be more mindful, do more meaningful work, be more disciplined.

And yet, we struggle with change. Why is that? What’s going on?

The problem is that we are clinging to the illusion of solidity.

Allow me to explain. It turns out that we all want things to be solid in our lives: we want a solid income, work routine, daily routine. We want a solid version of ourselves, that’s not so blown about by the winds of whim.

We want everyone else around us to be solid, dependable, stable, the way we want them to be. We want our relationships to be solid, trustworthy. We want our health to be solid, not subject to injury and depression and illness. We want everyone else to be solid and not die or get sick. Of course, our rational minds know this always possible, but still, this is what we want. Solidity.

Unfortunately, we are grasping for something solid … in a river. There is no solidity, just fluidity.

Think about yourself for a second: can you stick to a perfect routine, never changing, for an entire year? No, probably not — most of us can’t do it for a day. Why is that? Why can’t we just make a plan and stick to it? It’s because our minds are not machines that follow a fixed program, but instead are complex, constantly changing, constantly reacting to new things, constantly making new connections, fluid, dynamic, everchanging. We can’t shape ourselves into a solid shape of our choosing any more than we can grab a handful of water and make it into a solid shape.

Well, what if we freeze the water to make it solid, you might ask? Let’s think about your thoughts: take a single thought, the next one you have, and freeze it. Make it stay in your mind, unchanging, without going anywhere, without jumping to another thought. Can’t do it, can you? I sure can’t. We don’t control our thoughts. We can’t make them stay still. We can’t force them into a pattern we want to follow. It’s fluid. It’s like trying to control the wind.

We are fluid, like water. Nonsolid, like wind.

And yet we want ourselves to be solid. We grasp for this solidity, despite our fluidity. We struggle with our improvements, because even if we perfectly plan our solid progress, we will never follow this perfectly solid plan. We drip through the form we created for ourselves, find the cracks and leak out of it.

Everything else around us is also nonsolid. Every other person is just as fluid as we are. We want everything and everyone to be solid, but they aren’t.

So we struggle with this, because nothing is the way we want it to be. Nothing is stable, nothing follows our ideals, no one is the way we hope they will be. We get frustrated, anxious, worried, angry, sad, fearful.

Letting Go of Solidity, Embracing Fluidity

So what’s the solution? How can we ever improve ourselves? How can we let go of frustrations and fears in this fluid world?

Start by embracing the fluidity. Look at your thoughts, your fears, your pain, and really investigate them. See their nature. Understand that even if the difficulty you’re facing right now feels solid, it’s actually vapor, and will dissipate in moments.

None of the problems around us are that big of a deal, when we realize they’re just passing mist.

In this way, we can just sit in the mist, and smile. Cherish this mistful moment.

When we plan to do a habit every day, and we fail … notice that we failed because of our fluidity. Examine the fluidity of yourself. Be curious about it. Lay back into the gentle fluid waters of yourself, and relax. It’s OK, this warm water that is you, just as you are.

The fluidity of ourselves is only “bad” if we want solidity.

Whenever you’re struggling, notice how you are grasping for solidity. Notice how the thing you’re hoping will be solid is in fact vapor. Investigate it, with friendliness and curiosity.

And then smile, relax, and enjoy the mist.

Why We Struggle with Change was first published on Zen Habits on 2/19/16.

The Miracle of Suspending Mis-Belief

Would it seem miraculous if you could dissolve anxiety, fears, stress, frustration, anger … by making a small mental shift?

The answer might lie in thinking about how we watch films.

Last night, I was watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy with my kids, and my 9-year-old daughter said some of the things in the movie scared her. I started talking about how they’re all just actors, and isn’t it funny how they dress up in these costumes to tell us this story? By helping her to see through the make-believe of films, I was trying to help her dissolve some of the fears she had.

Amazingly, I’ve found that this works for all our other fears and difficult feelings. We just need to stop believing in the make-believe in our heads.

Think about this: when you watch a film, you suspend your disbelief. You know it’s all pretend, but for the 90 minutes or so you’re watching the film, you agree to forget that it’s make-believe. You believe. And this allows the film to move you, to cause you to cry, be angry, be scared, be overjoyed by the climax. Not everyone does this — some of us think, “God, the story-telling is awful, the actors aren’t very good, the special effects are cheesy, I can’t believe they’re making me watch this.” Those of us who don’t suspend our disbelief aren’t very moved.

In the rest of our lives, we constantly believe in the stories in our heads. When we think about how someone has been inconsiderate, we believe in a story where we are the hero and the other person is the villain, and think of how they wronged us. When we are disappointed when someone else doesn’t love us the way we want them to, we believe we’re in a romantic comedy and the other person should fall in love with us and be the perfect partner. This happens over and over: all of our anger, stress, sadness, depression … it all comes from the stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening in the world around us.

The things happening in the world around us don’t revolve around us, and aren’t part of a story. They’re just happening. Often it’s all random, but to deal with this chaos, we try to make sense of it as part of a story. We create meaning where none exists. We think the other person has bad intentions towards us when actually they are just thinking about their own stories.

So what’s the answer? The answer is in how we watch films: if we stop believing in the story of a film, and start to see the film as a series of moving pictures that someone has created from props, sets, costumes, digital effects, scripts, sound studios and more … we see the reality and don’t feel the hurt, the anger, the fear.

When we feel difficult emotions in real life, we can stop believing in the story, and start to see the reality of what’s happening: there’s just physical objects around us, moving. There are atoms and molecules, living organisms, people who can talk and create. Those are not part of a story, but just happening. By letting go of this false belief, this mis-belief in the made-up story, we can let go of the fears and anger and frustrations that come with it.

So when you feel stressed, sad, mad … that’s totally fine. But just realize that you can stop believing in the story, if you choose.

The Miracle of Suspending Mis-Belief was first published on Zen Habits on 6/12/15.

This Moment is Enough

I was in a plane descending into Portland for a quick stopover, and I gazed upon a brilliant pink sunrise over blue and purple mountains, and my heart ached.

Instinctively, I looked over to Eva to share this breath-taking moment, but she was sleeping. I felt incomplete, not being able to share the moment with her, or with anyone. Its beauty was slipping through my fingers.

This was a teachable moment for me: I somehow felt this moment wasn’t enough, without being able to share it. It took me a second to remind myself: this moment is enough.

It’s enough, without needing to be shared or photographed or improved or commented upon. It’s enough, awe-inspiring just as it is.

I’m not alone in this feeling, that the moment needs to be captured by photo to be complete, or shared somehow on social media. It’s the entire reason for Instagram, for instance.

We feel the moment isn’t enough unless we talk about it, share it, somehow solidify it. The moment is ephemeral, and we want solidity and permanence. This kind of groundlessness can scare us.

This feeling of not-enoughness is fairly pervasive in our lives:

  • We sit down to eat and feel we should be reading something online, checking messages, doing work. As if eating the food weren’t enough.
  • We get annoyed with people when they don’t act as we want them to — the way they are feels like it’s not enough.
  • We feel directionless and lost in life, as if the life we have is not already enough.
  • We procrastinate when we know we should sit down to do important work, going for distractions, as if the work is not enough for us.
  • We always feel there’s something else we should be doing, and can’t just sit in peace.
  • We mourn the loss of people, of the past, of traditions … because the present feels like it’s not enough.
  • We are constantly thinking about what’s to come, as if it’s not enough to focus on what’s right in front of us.
  • We constantly look to improve ourselves, or to improve others, as if we and they are not already enough as we are.
  • We reject situations, reject people, reject ourselves, because we feel they’re not enough.

What if we accepted this present moment, and everyone and everything in it, as exactly enough?

What if we needed nothing more?

What if we accepted that this moment will slip away when it’s done, and saw the fleeting time we had with the moment as enough, without needing to share it or capture it?

What if we said yes to things, instead of rejecting them?

What if we accepted the “bad” with the good, the failures with the attempts, the irritating with the beautiful, the fear with the opportunity, as part of a package deal that this moment is offering us?

What if we paused right now, and saw everything in this present moment around us (including ourselves), and just appreciated it for what it is, as perfectly enough?

This Moment is Enough was first published on Zen Habits on 5/13/16.