Release Your Cows … Be Happy

Attachments are Commonly the Cause of Much Suffering

In response to my article on tempering our expectations and avoiding disappointments, a dear friend inquired,

I follow the idea that when one has no control over a situation, one should not have their desired outcome be their expectations or it will lead to disappointment. Ex: I want my favorite sports team to win, but I am not a player who can change the outcome.

But where does this leave someone with a grand vision or a 10-year plan? We all start out having to learn, having to grow, not having the answers, having to “figure it out”. Do you tell a young doctor “you can’t cure cancer”?

How do you bridge from this idea of expectations to one that explains how one can navigate through life and achieve great accomplishments, like finding a cure for cancer?

Attachments are Commonly the Cause of Much Suffering

We Suffer—and Make Our Loved Ones Suffer—when We Try to Hold on to Things

Life is enjoyable, joyful, fascinating, and purposeful because of the attachments we form. Nevertheless, Buddhism teaches us, the loss of these very attachments is the root cause of the worst pains in life. Even the realization of the prospective loss of a cherished attachment—a person, pet, feeling, hope, ambition, or an inanimate object—can make us suffer.

'The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching' by Thich Nhat Hanh (ISBN 0767903692) The Buddha taught that all conditioned phenomena (everything we can know through our senses) are impermanent and transient. Everything we come across and all our “encounters” end in eventual separation. Expounding this foremost ingredient of the Buddhist thinking, the renowned Vietnamese-French Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (b.1926) narrates a Buddhist parable in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching:

One day, after the Buddha and a group of monks finished eating lunch mindfully together, a farmer, very agitated, came by and asked, “Monks, have you seen my cows? I don’t think I can survive so much misfortune.” The Buddha asked him, “What happened” and the man said, “Monks, this morning all twelve of my cows ran away. And this year my whole crop of sesame plants was eaten by insects!” The Buddha said, “Sir, we have not seen your cows. Perhaps they have gone in the other direction.” After the farmer went off in that direction, the Buddha turned to his Sangha and said, “Dear friends, do you know you are the happiest people on Earth? You have no cows or sesame plants to lose.” We always try to accumulate more and more, and we think these ‘cows’ are essential for our existence. In fact, they may be the obstacles that prevent us from being happy. Release your cows and become a free person. Release your cows so you can be truly happy.

In a Graceful State, There is No Clinging, No Expectation, and No Desire

Though somewhat pedestrian, there is a profound wisdom in developing a sense of nonattachment (Sanskrit: upādāna.) Take for example our personal relationships. They are always a challenge because we keep wanting others—family, friends, and colleagues, even pets—to be who we want them to be for us. But if we can learn to accept them for who they are and let go of our conceptions of their perfection for us, our relationships become more straightforward and richer.

Often, the Buddhist concept of nonattachment is misunderstood as “non-loving” and relinquishment. The “absence of craving” (alobha) is the opposite of “craving” or “greed” (lobha). Nonattachment is not to abandon our loved ones, but to dispose of tendencies of self-protective clinging that preclude us from treasuring our loved ones more unreservedly and unconditionally.

All conditioned phenomenon are subject to emerging and passing. The more we attach to things that will change and pass away, the more we will suffer. The more expectations we have—for material success, for comfort, for exclusively happy relationships—the greater our inevitable disappointments.

Idea for Impact: Let Go, Be Happy

Release Your Cows » No Clinging, No Expectation, and No Desire Learn to let go of your metaphorical cows—those things you’re attached to. Only when you can get out of your own way, you can allow the world and its riches to work their magic. Embrace that prosperity.

Remember, nonattachment is neither indifference nor self-denial. Accepting the nature of our clinging and attachments in their true and transient nature eases our fears, opens our hearts, and benefits others and ourselves. Letting go of attachments is the secret to really enjoying life and loving others. It is freedom. It is nirvāṇa.

The More You Can Manage Your Emotions, the More Effective You’ll Be

The More You Can Manage Your Emotions, the More Effective You'll Be

Understanding the deep-rooted basis of our negative emotions and their destructive consequences can help us navigate the turmoil that sorrow, love, anger, greed, envy, pride, and fear can invoke in our lives.

American Philosopher William James on Emotions The pioneering American psychologist William James argued in his famous 1884 essay “What is an Emotion?” that emotions and their effects on our attitudes and our behaviors is bidirectional. That is to say, “bodily disturbances” are manifestations of our emotions and those reverberations are really the fount of the emotions themselves.

Our natural way of thinking about these standard emotions is that the mental perception of some fact excites the mental affection called the emotion, and that this latter state of mind gives rise to the bodily expression. My thesis on the contrary is that the bodily changes follow directly the PERCEPTION of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur IS the emotion. Common sense says, we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike. The hypothesis here to be defended says that this order of sequence is incorrect, that the one mental state is not immediately induced by the other, that the bodily manifestations must first be interposed between, and that the more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike, or tremble, because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be. Without the bodily states following on the perception, the latter would be purely cognitive in form, pale, colourless, destitute of emotional warmth. We might then see the bear, and judge it best to run, receive the insult and deem it right to strike, but we could not actually feel afraid or angry.

“Geological Upheavals of Thought”

American Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on Upheavals of Thought I’ve been reading American philosopher Martha Nussbaum‘s outstanding—albeit demanding—book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. The initial chapters contemplate the power of emotions and the manifestation of emotions in all aspects of our thought stream.

One of the central positions of Nussbaum’s book is that our sentiments and emotions spring from internal narratives—the stories we ponder within ourselves about who we are and how we feel. Emotions are acknowledgments of our indigence and lack of self-reliance.

Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.

Emotions … involve judgments about important things, judgments in which, appraising an external object as salient for our own well-being, we acknowledge our own neediness and incompleteness before parts of the world that we do not fully control.

Emotions should be understood as “geological upheavals of thought”: as judgments in which people acknowledge the great importance, for their own flourishing, of things that they do not fully control—and acknowledge thereby their neediness before the world and its events.

Human beings … are the only emotional beings who wish not to be emotional, who wish to withhold these acknowledgments of neediness and to design for themselves a life in which these acknowledgments have no place. This means that they frequently learn to reject their own vulnerability and to suppress awareness of the attachments that entail it. We might also say … that they are the only animals for whom neediness is a source of shame, and who take pride in themselves to the extent to which they have allegedly gotten clear of vulnerability.

'Upheavals of Thought' by Martha Nussbaum (ISBN 0521462029) Nussbaum notes that our strong emotions stem from our intolerance and from the disruption to our internal narratives about what comprises perfection:

The emotions of the adult life sometimes feel as if they flood up out of nowhere, in ways that don’t match our present view of our objects or their value. This will be especially true of the person who maintains some kind of false self-defense, and who is in consequence out of touch with the emotions of neediness and dependence, or of anger and aggression, that characterize the true self.

Idea for Impact: People who lack the capacity to withstand psychological distresses such as anger, fear, frustration, and sadness are at a marked disadvantage in life. Learn to manage your negative emotions.

Learn to Manage Your Negative Emotions and Yourself

Negative emotions not only take their toll on our mind, body, and spirit, but also hinder your liberation from suffering, according to the Buddhist way of life.

People who lack the capacity to withstand psychological distresses such as anger, fear, frustration, and sadness are at a marked disadvantage in life. When faced with life’s unceasing challenges, they respond with greater emotional distress. Worse yet, rather than deal with the challenge at hand wisely, they engage in destructive behaviors, often with verbal and physical aggression toward themselves and others.

Swami Chinmayananda Saraswati on resilience and equanimity

There’s great strength in learning to divorce yourself from negative emotions

People with lower tolerance for distress usually spin their wheels and find as many escapes—including substance abuse and binging—as their troubled minds can conjure up. Instead of allowing themselves a modest amount of grieving, rebounding quickly, and moving on with their lives, they feel victimized. They avoid people and situations that may provoke frustration, discomfort, embarrassment, and uncertainty. In due course, their mind, body, and spirit start to atrophy.

Speaking of the need to expand the human capacity of resilience and equanimity and learn from adversity to achieve success, the renowned Hindu spiritual teacher Swami Chinmayananda Saraswati (1916–93) once said, “The secret of success behind all men of achievement, lies in the faculty of applying their intellect in all their activities, without being mislead by any surging emotions or feelings. The secret of success in life lies in keeping the head above the storms of the heart.”

Having a propensity to react negatively will hurt your career and personal life

When the celebrated American tennis player Andre Agassi (who was infamous for his temperaments) was asked in a Harvard Business Review interview if he learned to manage his emotions when he played, Agassi replied,

I’ve seen people use emotion, positive or negative, as a tool, and it works for them. But typically, the more you can remove emotion, the more efficient you’ll be. You can be an inch from winning but still miles away if you allow emotion to interfere with the last step. So you have to accept the weather, heat, rain, stops and starts, the line calls, whatever your opponent is giving you, however tired or injured you are. There are so many things that can distract you from taking care of business. The only thing you can control is your engagement.

Equanimity is thus at the center of Buddhist practice

When you learn to better understand, tolerate, and harness negative emotions, you become empowered.

Learn to manage your negative emotions and yourself. From Buddhist perspective, learn to thoughtfully attend to your negative emotions with an emphasis on neither suppressing them nor acting them out. According to verse 4.34 in Udāna, eighty stories that contain eighty utterances of the Buddha,

Whose mind is like rock, steady, unmoved,
dispassionate for things that spark passion,
unangered by things that spark anger:
When one’s mind is developed like this,
from where can there come suffering & stress?

Equanimity is thus at the center of Buddhist practice, which prescribes many forms of disciplined practices to overcoming the harmful effects of destructive emotions. According to the Therīgāthā (“verses of the female elders”,) a set of principles composed by senior nuns during the lifetime of the Buddha,

If your mind becomes firm like a rock
And no longer shakes
In a world where everything is shaking,
Your mind will be your greatest friend
And suffering will not come your way.

Idea for Impact: Negative emotions and the destructive behaviors they breed are essentially always wrong—they are psychological errors you’ll do well to eliminate in yourself.

Book Summary of ‘The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload’

'The Organized Mind' by Daniel Levitin (ISBN 0147516315) In the best-selling The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin argues that the problem with the proliferation of information isn’t as much about the storage of the information as it is about organizing and retrieving that information. The human brain is incredible at storing data; the challenge is summoning up the right stuff at the right time, while not being distracted by the rest.

To be efficacious, we not only need to limit the information we consume (by simplifying, limiting our sources, quitting social media, taking digital Sabbaths, etc.) but also need to develop systems to take the strain off our befuddled brains. To do this, Levitin says, we must organize our personal environments to better channel our brains’ unique approach to doing things.

According to The Organized Mind, the trick to efficiently organize and manage information is to “shift the burden of organizing from our brains to the external world.” Levitin uses the latest brain science to propose “organization principles”—methods and disciplines to regain a sense of mastery over the way we can organize our time, home, and office.

Organization Principle #1: Conquer information overload

The information age is drowning us with an exceptional deluge of data. Simultaneously, we’re expected to make more decisions quickly than ever before. To survive information overload, Levitin suggests:

  • Be much more discerning at what you allow in. Not all input is worthy of being let in. Exercise control and discipline regarding your input choices. Don’t keep what you can’t use.
  • Develop and put into practice an organization system that works for you: to-do lists, 3×5 cards, etc. Whatever that system is, it needs to offload, classify, and be easy to retrieve. A mislabeled item or misplaced location is worse than an unlabeled item.
  • Organize in all areas and facets of your life. “Too much stuff” is fatiguing, no matter which part of your life has the “too much stuff” problem.

Organization Principle #2: Quit multi-tasking and become fanatical about focused work

Quit Multi-tasking Levitin’s pet hate is multitasking, which he describes as “the ultimate empty-caloried brain candy.” Our brains are not designed for multitasking; he writes, “When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”

  • Allow no distractions when you are in “focused work mode.”
  • Limit the interruption caused by email, text messages, visitors, and callers.

Organization Principle #3: Rest more, work less

In our chronically sleep-deprived society, sleep deficit is a performance killer. The general effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive performance are well-known: scientists have documented that when we are sleep-deprived our immune system suffers, our thinking and judgments are impaired, and our fuse becomes very short.

Studies have found that productivity goes up when the number of hours per week of work goes down, strongly suggesting that adequate leisure and refueling time pays off for employers and for workers. Overwork—and its companion, sleep deprivation—have been shown to lead to mistakes and errors that take longer to fix than the overtime hours worked. A sixty-hour work week, although 50% longer than a forty-hour work week, reduces productivity by 25%, so it takes two hours of overtime to accomplish one hour of work. A ten-minute nap can be equivalent to an extra hour and a half of sleep at night.

  • A calm, well-rested mind is a fruitful mind. Don’t overlook sleep, rest, and vacation as stress busters.

Organization Principle #4: Organize your physical environment into categories so it helps your mind

Organize Your Physical Environment One principle that Levitin emphasizes repeatedly is “offloading the information from your brain and into the environment” so you can “use the environment itself to remind you of what needs to be done.” One appealing example he offers is, “If you’re afraid you’ll forget to buy milk on the way home, put an empty milk carton on the seat next to you in the car or in the backpack you carry to work on the subway (a note would do, of course, but the carton is more unusual and so more apt to grab your attention).”

  • Levitin also emphasizes the importance of putting things away in their designated places, because there’s a special part of our brain dedicated to remembering the spatial location of things.
  • Neuroscientists have proved that the human brain is good at creating and thinking in categories. “The fact that our brains are inherently good at creating categories is a powerful lever for organizing our lives.” Further, “productivity and efficiency depend on systems that help us organize through categorization.”

Organization Principle #5: Spend only as much time on decisions, tasks, and actions as they are worth.

Significantly, Levitin suggests the practice of satisficing—a decision-making approach that aims for acceptable or “good enough” results, rather than the optimal solutions:

Satisficing [is] a term coined by the Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon, one of the founders of the fields of organization theory and information processing. Simon wanted a word to describe not getting the very best option but one that was good enough. For things that don’t matter critically, we make a choice that satisfies us and is deemed sufficient. You don’t really know if your dry cleaner is the best—you only know that they’re good enough. And that’s what helps you get by. You don’t have time to sample all the dry cleaners within a twenty-four-block radius of your home. … Satisficing is one of the foundations of productive human behavior; it prevails when we don’t waste time on decisions that don’t matter, or more accurately, when we don’t waste time trying to find improvements that are not going to make a significant difference in our happiness or satisfaction. … Recent research in social psychology has shown that happy people are not people who have more; rather, they are people who are happy with what they already have. Happy people engage in satisficing all of the time, even if they don’t know it.

Organization Principle #6: A Zen mind is an organized mind

Conquer Information Overload Beyond the productivity hacks and the tweaks, Levitin suggests a spiritual composure in favor of mental organization. He advocates practicing Zen-like mindfulness not only to relieve the anxiety that comes with worries over undone tasks and unease over future uncertainties, but also to allot more of your limited attention to the present moment.

  • Instead of seeking to cope with information overload and travel at warp speed, focus on the things you can do to put yourself on the right path to better wellbeing—one thought, one bite, one task, one project, and one breath at a time.

Recommendation: Read Daniel Levitin’s ‘The Organized Mind’

In today’s “age of information overload” you may find yourself continuously distracted and swamped with demands for multitasking. Daniel Levitin’s fascinating The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload explains how to organize your mind, systematize your home and office, and gain control over your life.

Even if The Organized Mind is somewhat meandering and ill-organized (which is ironic for a book getting organized,) Levitin discusses noteworthy capabilities and limitations of the human brain and how to effectively deal with them.

Idea for Impact: Develop a comprehensive plan to audit, simplify, and structure how information flows through your life. Develop personal habits and organizational systems to lead your mind effortlessly to good decision-making. As Levitin suggests, “The task of organizational systems is to provide maximum information with the least cognitive effort.”

The Gift of the Present Moment

People Tend to Live a Fantasy … They are Unable to Remain in the Present Moment

Most people tend to focus on things that aren’t happening right now. They get easily distracted. Through their bodies are present physically, their minds are elsewhere. They become easily absorbed in the past, get depressed, and compulsively pick over the past with the purpose of learning their lessons. Or else, they project themselves into a hypothetical future, get anxious, and worry about things that may never occur.

'Present Moment Wonderful Moment' by Thich Nhat Hanh (ISBN 1888375612) According to the renowned Vietnamese-French Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (b.1926), life can be found only in the present moment. In his Present Moment, Wonderful Moment, a persistently insightful discourse on the Zen-Buddhist philosophy of dwelling in the present moment and living a meaningful life, Hanh writes,

When we are driving, we tend to think of arriving, and we sacrifice the journey for the sake of the arrival. But life is to be found in the present moment, not in the future. In fact, we may suffer more after we arrive at our destination. If we have to talk of a destination, what about our final destination, the graveyard? We do not want to go in the direction of death; we want to go in the direction of life. But where is life? Life can be found only in the present moment. Therefore, each mile we drive, each step we take, has to bring us to the present moment. This is the practice of mindfulness.

When we see a red light or a stop sign, we can smile at it and thank it, because it is a bodhisattva helping us to return to the present moment. The red light is a bell of mindfulness. We may have thought of it as an enemy, preventing us from achieving our goal. But now we know the red light is our friend, helping resist rushing and calling us to return to the present moment where we can meet with life, joy and peace.

The prominence on living the present moment is perhaps the defining characteristic of the Zen philosophy. This attitude tries to get you to understand that life exists only in the present, or nowhere at all. There’s no purpose in getting anywhere, if, when you get there, all you do is think about yet another future moment.

The Gift of the Present Moment

Reclaim and Expand the Present Moment

'Calming Your Anxious Mind' by Jeffrey Brantley (ISBN 1572244879) Life is only available in the present moment. The past is just a memory and the future is merely a projection. The American psychiatrist Jeffery Brantley writes about the importance of awakening to the present moment by way of discipline and deliberate practice in Calming Your Anxious Mind:

Everything happens in the present moment. It is in the present moment, the now, that you live. All of experience, whether it occurs inside your skin or outside your skin, is happening in this moment. In order to live more fully, to meet the stressors and challenges of life (including fear, panic, and anxiety) more effectively, and to embrace the wonder and awe of life more completely, it is fundamental that each of us learns to connect with and dwell in the present moment.

To teach yourself the art of attention and presence is both a difficult and beautiful undertaking. The habits of inattention and absence are strong, yet the experience of life, moment by moment, is precious.

Bear in Mind, Your Present Life-span is Only One Moment Long. So Live It Now.

'Fear Essential Wisdom' by Thich Nhat Hanh (ISBN 0062004727) In Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm, Thich Nhat Hanh explains that mindfulness lets us become “aware of what is going on in the present moment—in our bodies, in our feelings, in our perceptions, in the world.” Hanh advocates grounding ourselves in the present moment via mindfulness meditation:

When we are not fully present, we are not really living. We’re not really there, either for our loved ones or for ourselves. If we’re not there, then where are we? We are running, running, running, even during our sleep. We run because we’re trying to escape from our fear.

We cannot enjoy life if we spend our time and energy worrying about what happened yesterday and what will happen tomorrow. If we’re afraid all the time, we miss out on the wonderful fact that we’re alive and can be happy right now. In everyday life, we tend to think that happiness is only possible in the future. We’re always looking for “right” conditions that we don’t yet have to make us happy. We ignore what is happening right in front of us. We look for something that will make us feel more solid, more safe, more secure. But we’re afraid all the time of what the future will bring—afraid we’ll lose our jobs, our possessions, the people around us whom we love. So we wait and hope for that magical moment—always sometime in the future—when everything will be as we want it to be. We forget that life is available only in the present moment. The Buddha said, “It is possible to live happily in the present moment. It is the only moment we have.”

Establish Yourself in the Present Moment

Idea for Impact: Whatever adverse happened or whatever bad looms, don’t let it spoil the present moment.

Learn how to pay attention to the present moment rather than getting tied up in negative thinking about the past or the future.

When you establish yourself in the present moment, you can live life and make the most of those stimulating, refreshing, and nourishing elements of life that are always within you and around you. As the American psychologist and yogic scholar Richard Miller said, “In the end, we realize how simple life is when we accept this moment, just as it is, without pretending to be other than who we are.”

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize [Two-Minute Mentor #9]

Focus on What You Want to Achieve Many of humankind’s greatest feats are accomplished by people who have a singular desire that becomes the foundational element for everything they do.

The 13th-century Turkish poet-philosopher Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, undoubtedly the most celebrated mystical poet in the Islamic world, purportedly advocated being absorbed in the task: “There is one thing that we all must do. If we do everything else but that one thing, we will be lost. And if we do nothing else but that one thing, we will have lived a glorious life.”

Don’t Have Too Many Irons in the Fire

  • Ask yourself this question: “What is my one thing—the singular objective that could make the most positive impact and meaningful shift—either on the present moment, or on my life as a whole?”
  • Just as the comical and wise Jiminy Cricket accompanies Pinocchio on his adventures serving as his official conscience, have a persistent voice persistently prompting you, “Are you doing your thing?”

Focus on What You Want to Achieve

The ability to prioritize, focus, and achieve is one of the most useful skills you can master. Learn to focus fully on the task at hand, and shut out everything else. As I mentioned in my world’s shortest course in time management, focus on things that you must do and avoid everything else.

It is truly amazing how much possibility, joy, and fulfillment you can add to your life when you shift your mindset to realizing and focusing on your one thing—in whatever timeframe you’re taking into consideration.

Keep your eyes on the prize.

This Trick Can Relieve Your Anxiety: “What’s the worst that can happen?”

I’ve previously written about how a great many of life’s anticipated misfortunes, adversities, trials and tribulations will never come to pass. Much of your worrying is ultimately fruitless and anger is often pointless.

Today, I shall discuss a technique you can use to let go of anxiety.

Bertrand Russell: Nothing that happens to oneself has any cosmic importance

The Remedial Benefits of Deliberating, “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?”

When you face anxiety, nervousness, fear, or worry, try the following technique: imagine all possible negative consequences of the situation you are confronting. Then, conceive of the worst outcome, even if there’s little chance events will turn out that way—imagine everything that could go wrong, in the worst possible way. Envision the worst outcomes.

When you exaggerate your fears and imagine the worst thing that could happen, you make your impending fears look unreasonable. You will realize that even the worst possible scenario isn’t so terrible after all. Often, this deliberation—and your sense of humor—usually restores your perspective on the anxiety you’re facing. You’ll realize that, at the worst, nothing that could happen to you is ultimately that significant.

'The Conquest of Happiness' by Bertrand Russell (ISBN 0871401622) Bertrand Russell, one of the west’s great intellectuals, was an advocate of this ploy. In The Conquest of Happiness, this extraordinary mathematician and brilliant philosopher asserts that happiness is in no way a passive endeavor, but a condition that takes a lot of work. Discussing how to avoid worry through the cultivation of right attitudes, Russell wrote,

A process … can be adopted with regard to anxieties. When some misfortune threatens, consider seriously and deliberately what is the very worst that could possibly happen. Having looked this possible misfortune in the face, give yourself sound reasons for thinking that after all it would be no such very terrible disaster. Such reasons always exist, since at the worst nothing that happens to oneself has any cosmic importance. When you have looked for some time steadily at the worst possibility and have said to yourself with real conviction, “Well, after all, that would not matter so very much,” you will find that your worry diminishes to a quite extraordinary extent. It may be necessary to repeat the process a few times, but in the end, if you have shirked nothing in facing the worse possible issue, you will find that your worry disappears altogether and is replaced by a kind of exhilaration.

To Get Rid of Anxiety, You Must First Embrace it

This Trick Can Relieve Your Anxiety: What's the Worst That Could Happen Russell’s method of overcoming anxiety and worry hints at the Stoic practice of “premeditatio malorum”—contemplating potential misfortunes in advance and reinstating emotional calm through positive affirmations. This classic technique of the Hellenistic world in due course laid the foundation for exposure therapy where anxiety is treated via exposure to stressful events either in vitro (in the laboratory of the mind) or in vivo (in real life.) Russell provides this explanation of exposure therapy:

Worry is a form of fear, and all forms of fear produce fatigue. A man who has learned not to feel fear will find the fatigue of daily life enormously diminished. … The proper course with every kind of fear is to think about it rationally and calmly, but with great concentration, until it has been completely familiar.

Idea for Impact: When confronting your fears, denial is never a wise strategy, positive action is!

The Roman lyric poet Horace advocated, “remember to keep a calm and balanced mind in the face of adversity” (loosely translated from the Latin “aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem” in Odes, II, 3.)

When faced with potential adversity or anticipated worry, try imagining the worst thing that could happen. This strategy for approaching your worries can help you to maintain an assertive, self-determining attitude even in the presence of very real and serious fears and threats.

Heaven and Hell: A Zen Parable on Self-Awareness


Your Mind Renders the Outer Condition into Inner Pain and Suffering—or Joy and Happiness

The state of your mind plays a vital role in shaping your everyday experiences of joy and happiness, and your general physical and mental well-being.

If you can maintain a peaceful and tranquil state of mind, the external conditions can cause you only limited disturbance. However, if your mental state is tense, restless, and agitated, you’ll find it difficult to be at peace even in the best of circumstances—even if you’re surrounded by the best of your friends and family.

When you truly become aware of how much damage negative emotions can cause—for yourself and for others—you will not indulge them even a bit.

The following Zen ‘koan’ parable (see source in postscript) validates the potential dangers that can occur when you fall prey to your negative emotions.

When you become aware of how much damage negative emotions can cause, you will not indulge them even a bit.

Heaven and Hell: A Zen Parable

A tough, brawny samurai once approached a Zen master who was deep in meditation.

Impatient and discourteous, the samurai demanded in his husky voice so accustomed to forceful yelling, “Tell me the nature of heaven and hell.”

The Zen master opened his eyes, looked the samurai in the face, and replied with a certain scorn, “Why should I answer to a shabby, disgusting, despondent slob like you? A worm like you, do you think I should tell you anything? I can’t stand you. Get out of my sight. I have no time for silly questions.”

The samurai could not bear these insults. Consumed by rage, he drew his sword and raised it to sever the master’s head at once.

Looking straight into the samurai’s eyes, the Zen master tenderly declared, “That’s hell.”

The samurai froze. He immediately understood that anger had him in its grip. His mind had just created his own hell—one filled with resentment, hatred, self-defense, and fury. He realized that he was so deep in his torment that he was ready to kill somebody.

The samurai’s eyes filled with tears. Setting his sword aside, he put his palms together and obsequiously bowed in gratitude for this insight.

The Zen master gently acknowledged with a delicate smile, “And that’s heaven.”

Self-Awareness & Self-Regulation: The Bases of Emotional Intelligence

'Emotional Intelligence' by Daniel Goleman (ISBN 055380491X) Retelling this Zen parable in his influential bestseller, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, the Harvard psychologist Daniel Goleman comments, “The sudden awakening of the samurai to his own agitated state illustrates the crucial difference between being caught up in a feeling and becoming aware that you are being swept away by it. Socrates’s injunction ‘Know thyself’ speaks to the keystone of emotional intelligence: awareness of one’s own feelings as they occur.”

In Emotional Intelligence (1995) and in his legendary Harvard Business Review article What Makes a Leader (1998), Goleman further argues that self-awareness and self-regulation are essential elements of emotional intelligence. In What Makes a Leader, he writes, “Self-awareness means having a deep understanding of one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, needs and drives. … People who have a high degree of self-awareness recognize how their feelings hurt them, other people, and their job performance.”

With reference to self-regulation, “Biological impulses drive our emotions. We cannot do away with them—but we can do much to manage them. Self-regulation, which is like an ongoing inner conversation, is the component of emotional intelligence that frees us from being prisoners of own feelings. People [with high self-regulation] feel bad moods and emotional impulses just as everyone else does, but they find ways to control them and even to channel them in useful ways.”

The Stoic Philosophers Advocated an Equanimous Outlook to Life

Equanimity is an essential state of mind that you must maintain when interacting with people who rub you the wrong way or push your buttons.

Equanimity (apatheia in Greek and aequanimitas in Latin) was one of the ideals of Stoic philosophy, the third great philosophy of the Ancient World. The ex-slave and leading Stoic philosopher Epictetus teaches, “Man is troubled not by events, but by the meaning he gives them.”

Marcus Aurelius, who finally carried Stoic philosophy into the emperor’s seat, writes in Meditations, “When force of circumstance upsets your equanimity, lose no time in recovering your self-control, and do not remain out of tune longer than you can help. Habitual recurrence to the harmony will increase your mastery of it.”

Equanimity is an Essential Buddhist Virtue

In Buddhism, equanimity (upekṣā in Sanskrit and upekkha in Pali) denotes a mind that is at peace notwithstanding stressful and unpleasant experiences. In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, the Vietnamese-French Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh defines upekṣā as “equanimity, nonattachment, nondiscrimination, even-mindedness, or letting go. Upa means ‘over,’ and iksh means ‘to look.’ You climb the mountain to be able to look over the whole situation, not bound by one side or the other.”

In Dhamma Reflections, the American Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi describes equanimity as “evenness of mind, unshakeable freedom of mind, a state of inner equipoise that cannot be upset by gain and loss, honor and dishonor, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. Upekkha is freedom from all points of self-reference; it is indifference only to the demands of the ego-self with its craving for pleasure and position, not to the well-being of one’s fellow human beings.”

'Comfortable With Uncertainty' by Pema Chodron (ISBN 1590306260) In Comfortable With Uncertainty, an excellent discourse on overcoming the many challenges that life presents us, the renowned Buddhist nun Pema Chodron discusses the above Zen parable and comments,

The view of the warrior-bodhisattva is not “Hell is bad and heaven is good” or “Get rid of hell and just seek heaven.” Instead, we encourage ourselves to developing an open heart and an open mind to heaven, to hell, to everything. Only with this kind of equanimity can we realize that no matter what comes along, we’re always standing in the middle of open space. Only with equanimity can we see that everything that comes into our circle has come to teach us what we need to know.

Equanimous Outlook to Life Through Mind Training

Transcending Turmoil through Mind Training

If life is what you make of it, you can shape your attitudes and behavior by possessing a calm and stable mind.

Centuries of eastern contemplative practices have posited that regular physical yoga exercises and mindfulness meditation can train your mind to regulate your emotional states and bring about positive effects on your physical health and psychological well-being. In the last two decades, thanks to the Dalai Lama’s collaboration with the scientific community through programs such as the Mind and Life Institute, a growing number of scholars in the biological and cognitive sciences are convinced that such contemplative practices are a substantially beneficial introspective laboratory into the effects of negative emotions on overall wellbeing.

Given that your mind is the cause of all emotional upheaval, you can attain an enlightened state of mind by transcending turmoil. Practice of yoga and meditation can help you develop a compassionate assessment of the feelings of pain and suffering, and pleasure and happiness that dominate your existence.

In several well-known books and lectures (such as the Habits of Happiness TED Talk,) the French biologist-turned-Buddhist-monk Matthieu Ricard has popularized the practice of mindfulness meditation as the key to mind training. In Motionless Journey, his awe-inspiring photographic journal of his retreat in the Himalayas, Ricard writes,

A [practitioner] begins by understanding that true happiness does not fundamentally depend on changing external conditions, but rather on changing his own mind and the way it translates the circumstances of existence into happiness or frustration. He sees that as long as he is still not rid of hatred, obsession, pride, jealousy and the other mental poisons, it is as hopeless to expect happiness as it would be to hold his hand in a fire and hope not to be burnt.

Postscript / Source: The Zen Koan “The Gates of Paradise”

Japanese-American Buddhist teacher Gyomay M. Kubose‘s Zen Koans (1973) includes a faithful translation of the parable from Shasekishū (trans. Sand and Pebbles,) an anthology of koans by the thirteenth century Japanese Zen monk Mujū DŌkyŌ:

Nobushige, a soldier, came to Hakuin, a famous Zen Master, and asked, “Is there really a paradise and a hell?”

“Who are you?” inquired Hakuin.

“I am a samurai,” Nobushige replied.

“You, a samurai!” exclaimed Hakuin. “What kind of lord would have you as his guard? You look like a beggar!”

Nobushige became so enraged that he began to draw his sword.

Hakuin continued, “So you have a sword. It is probably too dull to even cut off my head.”

Nobushige brandished his weapon.

Hakuin remarked, “Here, open the gates of hell.”

At these words the perceptive samurai sheathed his sword and bowed.

“Here, open the gates of paradise,” said Hakuin.

Weak Kindness & The Doormat Phenomenon: Balance Kindness with Strength

Kindness Can Be a Weakness

'The Art of Being Kind' by Stefan Einhorn (ISBN 0749940565) I’m currently reading Swedish oncologist Stefan Einhorn‘s The Art of Being Kind (2006.) Arguing that being a good person is the key to a happier and fulfilled life, Einhorn stresses (watch his TED talk) the need to distinguish ‘true’ kindness from ‘false’ kindness.

Einhorn describes three forms of false kindness:

  • Manipulative kindness where deceitful kindness masquerades as goodness. This superficial kindness is driven by some ulterior motive—to shrewdly obtain something, rather than to be genuinely helpful.
  • Stupid kindness that lacks appropriateness—trying to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped, for instance.
  • Weak kindness is thinking that being kind sometimes means yielding and being a doormat to others’ demands.

Weak Kindness Will Make You a Doormat

The doormat phenomenon is the outcome of weak kindness where a doormat bends over backwards to desperately satisfy others, often resorting to do whatever it takes to try to make others happy, no matter how badly the others treat him/her. In the name of kindness, the doormat allows others to walk over him/her due to lack of strength, fear of conflict, or fear of rejection.

The doormat phenomenon is perpetuated primarily by an inability to say “no” effectively. Here are the consequences of being too gullible, too empathetic, and too timid.

  • Doormats neglect their own self-interests.
  • Doormats often resort to passive aggression and/or resentment. Eventually, they find themselves silently annoyed by others.
  • Doormats don’t enjoy spending time in a social context, since they resent the people they assist.
  • Doormats often face more demands than they can handle. Hence, being fully conscious of how they’re taken advantage of and unable of standing up for themselves, they suffer from stress and depression.

Don’t Be Duped by your Own Kindness

Weak Kindness & The Doormat Phenomenon: Balance Kindness with StrengthThe key to leading a wise and purposeful life is to balance kindness with strength. To be wise and kind,

  • Be profusely kind and obliging but never weak. Don’t give up your power to another person. Don’t become a people-pleaser. Don’t put everyone else before yourself.
  • Be vigilant for nefarious people and their hidden motives. Be alert and aware of the many negative ploys and manipulations you could confront.
  • Be assertive and stand up for yourself. Don’t say “yes” when you really want to say “no”. Don’t be so desperate to please others as to ignore your own priorities. Keep your own interests at the forefront of your mind.
  • Be on the lookout for win-win opportunities to be kind and giving. Don’t always prioritize other people’s needs above your own; seek opportunities to help out where you can expect some reciprocity. Successful people tend to ask for what they want.

The Chinese use a “flower and sword metaphor” to illustrate the need to balance kindness with strength. For the most part, present the world a flower—a symbol of kindness and compassion. However, when people try to take advantage of your kindness, that is to say when they try to crush the flower, wield the sword—a sign of protection and strength. The sword exists to protect the flower.

Idea for Impact: Wise kindness entails judiciously subjugating some of your self-interests sometimes in aid of others’ welfares, while still having the courage to stand up your values when necessary. Be kind when you can, and tough when you must. Remember, a wise person’s own happiness matters as much to him or her as the happiness of others—no more and no less.

Seinfeld, Impermanence, Death, Grief, and the Parable of the Mustard Seed

Jerry Seinfeld Found Acceptance in His Father’s Death

Jerry Seinfeld This February-2002 article from the newspaper-magazine Parade quotes comedian Jerry Seinfeld on coping with the death of his father. Instead of recalling emotions of sadness and loss, Seinfeld declares he found acceptance:

His dad’s death at age 66, when Jerry Seinfeld was 30, was the first great loss of Seinfeld’s life. Did it crush him? Surprisingly, after a brief pause, he says no. “I tend to accept life as it is,” he says. “I’m not one of these ‘Life isn’t fair’ people. I tend to accept whatever the limits are, whatever the rules are.” He sits back. His love for his father is evident, but no more evident than his acceptance of the basic facts that the man is no longer around … “It’s okay,” Seinfeld says. And you get the feeling that it is.

Acknowledging Impermanence Can Foster Happiness

The above anecdote about Jerry Seinfeld invokes the Buddhist concept that everything—including life—is impermanent. The Buddha taught, “Decay is inherent in all component things.”

Life, Death and Rebirth in Hinduism Nothing in the world is fixed and permanent. Everything is subject to change and alteration. Life offers no control or consistency but rather impermanence and successive changes—youth changes into old age; the past changes to the present and then into the future.

Suffering, Buddhism teaches, is caused by unrealistic expectations of permanence—especially in relationships. Accepting impermanence can therefore lead to an existence with less suffering. Appreciating that everything in life is fragile and impermanent can foster an appreciation of the present.

Buddhist Parable of the Mustard Seed

Kisagotami and Parable of the Mustard Seed in Buddhism When faced with adversities you must feel and experience—not deny—your emotions, and then embark on a healing process by looking at the situation in a more realistic light.

The Buddha used a well-known parable to help a woman prevail over the death of her son. Here is the “Parable of the Mustard Seed” from British Pali scholar T W Rhys Davids‘s Buddhism: A Sketch of the Life and Teachings of Gautama, the Buddha (1894:)

Kisagotami is the name of a young girl, whose marriage with the only son of a wealthy man was brought about in true fairy-tale fashion. She had one child, but when the beautiful boy could run alone, it died.

The young girl in her love for it carried the dead child clasped to her bosom, and went from house to house of her pitying friends asking them to give her medicine for it. But a Buddhist mendicant, thinking “She does not understand,” said to her, “My good girl, I myself have no such medicine as you ask for, but I think I know of one who has.” “O tell me who that is,” said Kisagotami. “The Buddha can give you medicine; go to him,” was the answer.

She went to Gautama, and doing homage to him, said, “Lord and master, do you know any medicine that will be good for my child?” “Yes, I know of some,” said the Teacher. Now it was the custom for patients or their friends to provide the herbs which the doctors required, so she asked what herbs he would want. “I want some mustard-seed,” he said; and when the poor girl eagerly promised to bring some of so common a drug, he added, “You must get it from some house where no son, or husband, or parent, or slave has died.” “Very good,” she said, and went to ask for it, still carrying her dead child with her.

The people said, “Here is mustard seed, take it”; but when she asked, “In my friend’s house has any son died, or a husband, or a parent or slave?” they answered, “Lady, what is this that you say; the living are few, but the dead are many.” Then she went to other houses, but one said, “I have lost a son “; another, “We have lost our parents”; another, “I have lost my slave.”

At last, not being able to find a single house where no one had died, her mind began to clear, and summoning up resolution, she left the dead body of her child in a forest, and returning to the Buddha paid him homage. He said to her, “Have you the mustard seed?” “My Lord,” she replied, “I have not; the people tell me that the living are few, but the dead are many.” Then he talked to her on that essential part of his system the impermanency of all things, till her doubts were cleared away, and, accepting her lot, she became a disciple and entered the first Path.

Buddhism: Acknowledging Impermanence Can Foster Happiness

Swiss novelist Hermann Hesse wrote in Siddhartha, “I learned… to love the world, and no longer compare it with some kind of imaginary vision of perfection, but to leave it as it is, to love it and be glad to belong to it… Everything is necessary, everything needs only my agreement, my assent, my loving understanding; then all is well with me and nothing can harm me.”

Idea for Impact: The key to finding equanimity and contentment in life is to develop a heightened acceptance of reality.

Postscript: The Buddhist parable of the mustard seed is not to be confused with the identically-titled Christian parables in Matthew 13:31–32 of the New Testament: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” This parable also appears in Mark 4:30–32 and Luke 13:18–19.