Immediate Reactions

Author Colin Wright discusses the ways in which our unconscious brain picks up on small cues and differences about people that we meet before we are able to form complete judgements of others as human beings. These small cues and differences shape the way we think about other people and influence our behavior, often times without us ever realizing.  In his book, Come Back Frayed, Wright explains this phenomenon by writing the following:

 

“It’s remarkable how our peculiarities can set us apart so dramatically and rapidly. Even before we truly recognize each other as humans, as complete people with depth and density, we recognize things about strangers that help us categorize the world. These biases, and sometimes prejudices, color the world around us with tones that guide our actions and opinions.”

 

Before we have met someone we are already preparing ourselves for what we expect our interactions with them to be like. These biases are huge because they prevent us from treating everyone as openly and fairly as we would like, and they exist within ourselves and within the other person at the same time. The way we frame the other person and the types of expectations we bring to a  conversation shape the actions and behaviors that we will have. If we instantly feel negative feelings at the sight of another, it is unlikely that our interactions with them will be positive.

 

Wright would encourage us to become more self-aware and to develop processes of self-recognition so that we can acknowledge those moments when we have immediate reactions to another person. We can develop skills to notice when the tribal part of our brain labels someone as an outsider, and drives us to act in ways that push the other person away. Becoming self-aware helps us see the ways in which these small cues influence much of the way we interact with the world, and gives us the power to better control the world around us.

 

If we fail to gain perspective over our instant reactions to other people, then we will never allow people who are different from us to truly participate in society. Our actions will be colored by the reactionary perceptions of our brain, and we will never develop the empathy needed to improve the world for all of those around us. Accepting  that we judge others before ever meeting them, and before we ever consider who they are as human beings, give us the ability to overcome biases, and to help society become more connected and unified regardless of race, ideology, age, or gender.

Put on Autopilot

“Many of our daily habits are put on autopilot, which conserves valuable thought-fueling energy that needn’t be wasted on familiar movements, experiences, and interactions.” Author Colin Wright writes in his book Come Back Frayed. Wright uses this quote to explain the way we build routines in our lives and the danger that automating our actions can have when we forget to experience and focus on the present moment. The quote above introduces the idea of autopilot, giving us a perspective of autopilot’s usefulness in terms of conserving energy and decision making power, but Wright continues to explain what can go wrong when we let too much of our lives be controlled without our conscious thought:

 

“As a result of this routine-building predisposition, we barely notice the drive to work, and sometimes find ourselves looking up from the steering wheel, already at the office parking lot and unable to recall the specifics of how we got there. … This automation goes far beyond commuting. We listen to the same, familiar music, have the same conversations with well-known, comfortable friends, loop through the same meal-time, bed time, and after-work habits that we’ve been repeating for months, years, perhaps decades. It’s no surprise that time compresses under these circumstances. … At some point it’s not the parking lot that we notice when we look up from the steering wheel, but life. We’re here, experiencing this point in time, but unsure of how we got here. Where did all those years go? Why doesn’t anything from the time between now and back then stand out?”

 

The danger of autopilot is that we put off being an active participant in our lives, and as a result, we fail to build a real history for ourselves. The problem that Wright explains is not with our routines and habits, but it is with our failure to be mindful and present in familiar moments. The more we can be present in even the simplest actions, the more we can become aware of the world around us and engage in a meaningful way to shape the direction of our life. Time will likely still go by too fast and some points will feel compressed, but by being more present in our actions we open new opportunities for ourselves to connect with others, grow, learn, and produce something meaningful with our time.

 

Wright travels frequently and actively believes in changing his surroundings by changing his physical location on the planet. This keeps his habits and routines constantly in flux, and forces him to be aware of his thoughts, actions, and decisions. It is hard to build a similar lifestyle, but we can build habits in our lives that put us in new positions and unfamiliar surroundings, rather than just building habits that replicate the same experience day after day. Creating situations that are not routine forces our brain to be active and present to process the world around us, and these moments may be the defining points in life that help us understand and delineate our growth through time.

Deliberate Growth

In his book, The Obstacle is the Way, author Ryan Holiday discusses the ways in which we often look at our selves, our abilities, and the situations in which we find ourselves.  We tend to think that who we are is set in stone and shaped by forces beyond our control: I am naturally good at writing, I was not born with a good singing voice, I like to go to the gym, I don’t know how to do computer programming. In some way with all the examples above, we are looking at the things we do and do not do as if they are given parts of life, and not conscious choices that we make. When we look at who we are, what we excel at, where we struggle, what we like to do, and what things are not part of who we are, we begin to narrow our lives and place ourselves in a box. We define ourselves not by our ability to grow and change, but rather by who or what we perceive ourselves to be during a point in time. Holiday challenges this thinking, “We craft our spiritual strength through physical exercise, and our physical hardiness through mental practice (mens sana in corpore sano — sound mind in a strong body).”

 

His quote on its own speaks to the importance of mental and physical fortitude, but the section in which he includes the quote speaks to more than just the idea of mental and physical strength. The focus of Holiday in the quote above is on the word craft. We do not simply have mental strength by chance, and we do not simply have physical strength without working out. As Holiday explains, we must put in the effort, work, and focus to build our lives to match the quote above, to have a sound mind in a sound body.

 

Deliberate action and focus are the only things that will lead us to the growth we wish to see. We will have to put in real effort and work to develop the person we want to be, and if we do not strive to improve ourselves, we will only atrophy, and wither away as a result of the limitations we accept. Holiday continues, “Nobody is born with a steel backbone. We have to forge that ourselves.” Looking at the qualities we want to develop, and preparing ourselves for the challenging road to acquire those qualities is a must if we want to find growth. From Holiday’s perspective, self-reflection and awareness are key, as a greater understanding of self and vision for growth will build and shape who we are and the actions we take, opening opportunity and improving experiences.

 

Holiday’s advice in forging ahead on our path is similar to the advice of Richard Wiseman, who wrote in his book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, encouraged journaling and reflection on the challenges we expect to face along our journey. By explaining how we will plan for obstacles in life, we can develop our sound mind, propelling us beyond our challenges. Thinking ahead and reflecting on not just our success but our failures and difficulties can help us build the strength necessary to develop our steel backbone.

Ultimate Strength

Author Ryan Holiday writes that his ultimate inner strength is his will, and he dives into what that means in his book, The Obstacle is the Way. He explains that our will stretches beyond simply our desire to do something or the degree to which we want something, and looks at will in the context of stoicism and our every day lives. Holiday writes, “Will is fortitude and wisdom — not just about specific obstacles, but about life itself and where the obstacles we are facing fit within it.” In this context our will is driven beyond the world of sports or promotions where it is analogous to hard work or grit, and it becomes transformed to an internal power plant that generates strength to persevere in all aspects of our lives during challenging times.

 

For Holiday, our will is a decision that comes from our mental ability to focus and reflect on our lives, which means that it is under the control of our conscious mind. Our actions, efforts, and energy can be shaped by other people and contribute the obstacles we face, but our will can be external to those events, influenced only by our own thoughts, perceptions, and self-awareness. By taking control of will, we can build it into our own lives to power our own engines.

 

Stoicism is helpful in building will since it focuses on self-reflection and self-awareness to shape our perceptions of the world. Recognizing the power of opinion and perception helps us take control of our mind, and allows us to focus our actions on our goals with intentionality. The will that Holiday explains results from the mental fortitude that develops when we realize that the only thing affecting our mind is our own thoughts and opinions.

Anger

A pillar of stoicism is the ability to control ones emotions, especially when it comes to negative emotions and states in which we are more likely to harm others. Throughout his book Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, the 2nd century Roman Emperor, reflects on the ideas of anger, contempt, and our thoughts toward other people.  He explains the benefits of calm and collected thought when we are frustrated and feel as though we have been wronged.  Through self-reflection he reminds us of the importance of considering our own actions as if we were in another person’s shoes, and with self-awareness he urges us to think about our actions and how we would like ourselves to behave.

 

Aurelius writes, “Consider how much more pain is brought on us by the anger and vexation caused by such acts than by the acts themselves, at which we are angry and vexed.” When looking at this quote it is easy to think about the importance of not becoming angry, but I think it is more important actually visualize the situation described by aurelius. We can think about how we could have handled situations differently, and we can imagine ways in which we could have been more responsible for ourselves or for others. Keeping this quote in mind and thinking about our conflicts and how we could have mitigated them by controlling our emotions and reactions can help prepare us for future conflicts.

 

Rather than becoming outraged that something negative happened to us, even if that something was an intentional act by another person, we can move forward looking for solutions or ways in which we can use the experience to better ourselves. Aurelius constantly argues for living a life in the present moment, which means recognizing that actions that took place even a second before the present moment no longer impact our current state, particularly in regards to our current actions or decisions.  Stepping back, looking at something that happened, and then deciding that it was not the end of the world will help us make the best decisions as we move forward. If we allow those thoughts, feelings, and emotions to remain, then we give away our self control and let an experience of the past dictate the decisions and actions of our present and future lives.

Focus and Action

Last night I was having a group discussion that focused on how hard it can be to make the most of our time and to do what we know we ought to do.  I added to the conversations quotes from Marcus Aruelius and Colin Wright focusing on how we think about things in our daily lives, and how we decide what actions and decisions to make. Aurelius wrote, “It is not right to vex ourselves at things, for they care nought about it” and Wright included in his book Act Accordingly, “Far more than just a phrase, acting accordingly is a framework for decision-making that places importance where it belongs…” These quotes combined with an idea of self-awareness which I shared with the group to help highlight the power of our own mind and thoughts in relation to objects and actions in our lives.  The quote from Aurelius’ Meditations that I have for today would have been a useful addition to the quotes above in last nights discussion, “Attend to the matter which is before thee, whether it is an opinion or an act or a word.  Thou suffers this justly: for though choosest rather to become good to-morrow than to be good to-day.”

 

What the original conversation focused on is the challenges we face as we make the right decisions in the day. It can be easy to settle into a routine that is relaxing and comfortable. When autopilot takes over we reduce our thought process and fail to tap into intentionally use the time that we have.  This takes away our responsibility for our actions and may reduce our stress, but it prevents us from improving ourselves and striving to become something greater. The quote from Aurelius that could have been added to last night’s conversation focuses on the improvement we can experience when we become present in our actions and focus on what we are currently doing.  If we shift our focus and think about growing today and improving ourselves now, we will be better off not just in the future, but in our present moment.

 

The key to taking action in the current moment is to build a practice of self-awareness, reflection, and presence. Recognizing where we are and being able to consider the actions available to us can help us be more productive.

Look Within

Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is a collection of thoughts that the emperor wrote to himself about life and how we should think about all that happens. The philosophy to which Aurelius subscribed and laid out in his book is known as stoicism and it centers around becoming more present in our daily lives and becoming more aware of how we are living and thinking.  Throughout his book Aurelius constantly focuses on the benefits and importance of self-awareness, and what we gain when we develop a meaningful practice of self-reflection.  To that point he wrote, “Look within. Within is the fountain of good, and it will ever bubble up, if thou wilt dig.”
His short quote reveal three key parts of Aurelius’ thoughts about the world. He is constantly optimistic about our place in the world and where we are heading in the future, he believes that we are all more inclined to be good people, and he believes that a greater ability to recognize our emotions and thoughts will help us become more complete and comfortable in the lives that we live.
What made Aurelius optimistic about the world was his ability to detach meaning from the events which happened to him and around him. On his journey inward he recognized that he had the power to interpret any situation in the way which would suit him the best. He could see The things which happened around him as good or bad, but until he attached a meaning and decided whether something was overall positive or negative, the thing itself was neutral. Living in this state of neutrality allowed him to find a space where he decided how he would respond to things, and where his own opinion was more powerful than the actions of others or the events around him. This gave him more control over his life and world, and it allowed him to approach  the world in a more optimistic manner.
Looking inward Aurelius recognized that all of his actions were based on rational thoughts within his mind. He extended this thought to other people and managed to see people as rational beings. This sounds like an obvious observation, but I believe it is a thought that has been lost by many people in the world today.  We often look at other people in society, especially those we do not know or those who we see making what we consider to be mistakes, and think of them as idiots or morons.  When we approach others in this way we reduce their humanity and cease to see them as rational beings. Aurelius sought to understand people in a greater perspective, and he believed that everyone was taking actions that seemed the most logical to themselves.
Ultimately, looking deeper into ourselves through self-awareness can help us take a better view of other people around us and it will help us also better understand our place in the world. Once we begin to recognize the power of our mind and align ourselves with our ruling principles, we can grow in ways that help maximize our lives and the lives of those around us. Marcus Aurelius recognized this, and practiced self-awareness to help improve his life and the life of others.