The frustration turns into overwhelmedness. Overwhelmedness becomes irritability, inadvertent outbursts even. Old memories bring back resentments I believed overcome. What others do (or don't), have (or don't have), their achievements, again feeds the envy.
Expectations, the root of all the maladies.
That task at work I thought would be straightforward and ended up being incredibly hard.
The plans for the weekend that could not happen (at least not exactly as planned).
The frustration for not speaking Dutch despite the (subtle but constant) social pressure; plus how others (ex-pats as well) do speak Dutch.
Writing becoming shitty posts.
Unmet expectations. The same substance, different forms.
Then, I have to fix it and quickly get rid of my own expectations. Paradoxically, yet another expectation.
An ancient Zen teaching: “Do not manipulate the experience”
Whatever thought or feeling emerges, let it be. When it fades away, let it go. Things come and go without intervention. Being ignored or being listened to, feel angry or joyful, understand or being understood (or neither). All the same. When the experience is not manipulated, it is all the same.
Does it fix it? No.
No problem. No solution.
Lately, I've been writing posts that never get published. I sit down with something in mind, expecting it will be transformed in a short post, and fail. Ideas expand and I end up with long but not that coherent text. I plan to come back “later” to “fix it”, but it does not happen. “Later equals never”, right?
Those “unfinished posts” start to pile up. There is a mental burden on seeing (tangible or intangible) things pile up.
Sometimes make sense to delete everything and start from scratch. Simply write something down and without much thinking put it out.
But why shall I must put it out? What's the problem with unpublished writing?
Something doesn't feel right.
Monday to Friday, I take cold showers.
The first half of 2020 was a difficult period for me — among other things — I went through economic struggles and some drama related to my thesis work.
As soon as I opened my eyes every morning, I felt miserable. During the day, I ruminated on all sorts of negative thoughts. I blame myself for all the “wrong” decisions I had made — one of them was to quit my fancy job at home enroll in grad school on the other side of the Atlantic, or that's what I told myself at the time. I had a hard time focusing on the task in front of me, and my lack of productivity caused the anxiety to build up.
A few years back I had read about Wim Hof, the Dutch snowman. As I was running out of ideas, I gave _ Wim Hof's method_ a try. And it helped. A lot.
Using his breathing exercises as preparation, I forced myself to take morning cold showers every day. I hated it, every time. But stuck to it. I practised his breathing exercises throughout the day as well.
What happened next
The struggle of those days did not disappear completely but somehow helped. And everything went well in the end.
This cold shock therapy became a permanent habit. I tweaked my initial approach though. Now, I allow myself to take warm showers on weekends. It feels luxurious, it is part of what makes a weekend different for me.
It became easier with time, but I wouldn't call it enjoyable. I kind of hate cold water. Those few seconds before jumping into it I hear this voice inside my head saying: “Why the hell am I doing this?” Before this dubious voice can answer its own question, I'm already shivering under the showerhead. The body adjusts pretty quick. It helps to be aware of your breathing while transitioning to a “stable state” in the cold, then it is no big deal.
Why I keep doing it
I'll skip the health benefits of enduring cold, information is easy to find on the Internet if you're interested — Wim Hof's feats had triggered a lot of research in this area by the way. A non-exhaustive list is:
And by the way, it's free.
I would recommend it to anyone who is feeling a bit down and running out of ideas to get better. Ideally, as part of a morning routine in which you wake up at the same time every day.
This isn't yet another “novel” idea coming from the wellness industry. Nobody is profiting from you taking a cold shower every morning — well, you might even save some money if it becomes a permanent habit.
I'm a grumpy person in the mornings. I've trained myself to be a “morning person”, but it does not come naturally for me. At night, I feel great, even If I'm really tired—my wife, exactly the other way around.
She complained about waking up every day with a grumpy person — not a great way to start. I understood, rationally. At the same time, I felt there was nothing I could do about it; it is not like I wanted to be a grumpy person, I just could not avoid it.
One day, she asked me: “as soon as you're awake, smile, at least smile when you look at me”.
Okay, that sounds doable, it was an actionable and specific request, nothing compared to “stop being grumpy”. Furthermore, she said: “look at children; any child wakes up with a big smile on her face”. She was right. Children are happy and energized after sleeping (probably way too happy and way too energized for the misfortune of the parents).
So I did it.
And eventually, my mornings were different.
I cannot say I'm not grumpy anymore. But that trivial change made me feel better, and apparently, that was more than enough to please my wife as well.
I don't believe in “positive thinking”, or “visualization”, or any of the recipes offered by the wellness industry. But I do think there is a body-mind interrelation, that is, that my body affects my thoughts and feelings, and the other way around.
Detailed knowledge about the body-mind is part of canonical Buddhist teachings — developed more than 2,500 years ago. Recently, there has been copious scientific research in this area as well. But above all, it is something anyone can experience. When you have anxious thoughts, you can feel them in your body as well. You can also notice that your mind is clearer after a workout session. You don't need to (and should not) blindly believe in Buddhism or Science. Get a first-hand experience!
A second observation is on the importance of being actionable and specific with our requests. When my wife complained about my grumpiness, I got stuck. It was not that I did not care; I did not know how to change that — or if it was even possible. It was a great move of her to change that to “smile as soon as you wake up”. Okay, that I could do. It was fake at first, but you know what they say: “fake it 'till you make it”.
An important lesson learnt during this negativity experiment is how harmful it is to compare myself with others.
It is a painful habit. Why do I keep on doing it?
We are bombarded with messages such as: “Be yourself”, “Live your own life”, “Do it your way”, and so on. Okay, great, but how?
An idea: dial down the noise.
The Internet is a powerful noise amplifier. One big mistake is to believe that we can ignore the noise. I can't. I need to turn it off.
LinkedIn and Mastodon are the only social media I use, and I spend less and less time on them. As I read about the struggles some people had gone through with social media, I'm glad I stayed away from it. Social media is mostly noise.
Family, (IRL) friends, colleagues might also contribute to the noise. Don't turn them off permanently, but it is okay to mute them sometimes. Give yourself the space to look at your life with some perspective, without the pressure from others and the world.
As the noise goes down, I find myself less prone to chase absurd goals frantically. I care less about what other people have achieved in their lives, I'm even genuinely happy about it. I don't have this constant need of feeling special. Being the number one (in whatever category I'm interested at the moment), for what? what does that even mean?
Is the voice in my head that says I'm “not good enough” quiet now? Not at all. He sometimes whispers, other times yields at me. I don't fight him anymore, I simply dial down the noise.
There are important things and there are popular things.
Important is often overlooked; popular, extolled.
Not all important things are popular, not all popular things are important. Don't mix them up.
If you work on important things, you are alone.
If you chase popularity, you are surrounded by many.
Important is silence; popular, noise.
It is important to see greatness in little things. It is popular to despise great things.
Spending time on the important is fulfilling, but painful. Wasting time on the popular is fun, but ephemeral.
There is no consensus on what is important, everybody agrees on what is popular. Important is a gut-wrenching doubt; popular, a deceiving certainty.
Important is a personal endeavour; popular, an impersonal pastime.
Important is a question with an unknown answer. Popular, an answer for an unknown question.
I prefer to deal with genuine harshness rather than fake kindness; being surrounded by pretended and artificial happiness makes me really sick. It bothers me because then people feel guilty for not being able to smile the whole time (I do feel that way sometimes, less so over the last months).
I have good and bad days, just like everyone else.
In those days when I'm a bit down, I follow certain predictable patterns that contribute to perpetuate this state:
Then, when I'm aware of this, I just do the opposite.
I believe this is a futile and energy-draining activity. Spend time criticising what others do and don't do is merely an excuse to avoid looking inwards—which demands effort and it's sometimes gut-wrenching.