The paradox of pain

The paradox of pain

The last two years of my life have been intensely painful, physically and mentally. In fact, they’ve been so painful that I was forced to deeply examine my relationship with pain and attempt to change it drastically.

In the summer of 2016 I was thrown suddenly into a terrifying chronic illness which changed my life.

I was no longer able to sleep at night due to constant, bone-deep itching like I’ve never known before, and then the accompanying pain after I’d literally torn my skin off with my nails, bleeding all over, and in the end I would fall into a fitful sleep early in the morning out of pure exhaustion.

Itch is a strange phenomenon. It’s arguably more intense than regular pain, since we tend to try to counteract itching with pain.

Anything to stop the itch

To be fair, normally people don’t get itches that are strong enough to warrant real pain, but I promise that if it gets intense enough you’ll do anything to stop it.

Although the itch may have been more intense, the pain I felt day in and day out all over my torn up body was a sort of chronic, high level burning sensation.

I often felt like a burn victim. It was that bad. I would lie in bed, staying completely still. If I could do this for long enough, the pain would subside slightly and I could calm myself down. If I moved an inch, the wounds and sores would open up again, causing me great pain and even more itching.

And when something commands your attention every waking moment as chronic pain does, you have two options if you want to try living a regular life : you can medicate it away as I did frequently (although I used weed instead of poisonous over-the-counter pain medication), or you can re-examine the way you react to pain.

Change your relationship to pain

At first I refused to face my pain, and I would look for activities absorbing enough to let me forget about it temporarily like video games and porn, and later with good old marijuana.

In essence, physical pain isn’t that different from emotional pain. We seek relief in many forms. We use porn, gambling, alcohol, weed, video games, sugar, and television to help us escape, to help us forget our pain, whether emotional or physical.


At the core of it, we’re talking about avoidance versus acceptance. In the end, I finally did admit to myself that if I wanted to avoid going absolutely insane, I would have to face what was happening to me and try to accept it.

What is pain?

I began by trying to understand what pain actually is. What the hell is it, really? The most obvious answer is that it’s a bodily mechanism that alerts us to damage being done on a physical level. Not much help there.

It’s also a concept that makes us very uncomfortable and that we avoid talking about. We’re getting closer to a model of pain that we can work with.

Life is all about perception. There is no ultimate reality, only our various perceptions of reality. In other words, in some sense we create reality. So pain, as terrifying as it is, is only as horrific as we allow it to be. If we can change our relationship to it, we can change its essence.

It’s all in the mind you see. I know that’s a cliché, but as you know, clichés exist for a reason. When I started really delving into the nature of my relationship to pain, I discovered some very liberating truths.

My greatest epiphany regarding the problem of pain, is that pain is a bodily sensation. This is a powerful concept, because as a sensation, pain has no real power to harm us. Just as we can choose how we react to sadness, anger, craving and itching, we can choose how we want to react to pain.

Pain and mindfulness

This is one of the precepts of mindfulness practice. Many sufferers of chronic pain, myself included, have discovered the incredible benefits of mindfully observing painful sensations.

In the here and now, there is no pain, technically speaking. “Pain” is a concept, and as such it resides on the mental plane exclusively. When we remove all our negative mental connotations that we’ve accumulated over the years, via family and friends, television and the culture we grew up in, what’s left?

What’s left is the essence of pain. The nucleus of the concept of pain. It can’t be spoken of, not really, because speech relies heavily on conceptualization. It’s ineffable.

The most powerful tool for dealing with pain

Mindfulness is a very powerful tool, or rather a mindset. It simply refers to experiencing reality directly in the present moment, instead of relating to experience mentally, as we usually do. We think of future events, or past events, or we think endlessly about the meaning of things that happened five minutes ago, or the likelihood of things happening five minutes from now. But we don’t ever think about what’s happening right now. The now can only be experienced directly.

Mindfulness takes us from a place of identification with pain, to a place of detached, or I should say non-attached observation. To be clear, I don’t mean to say that the pain actually goes away, rather that our capacity to deal with it improves. More specifically, our relationship to pain can change. It can change to the point that we only feel pain, without suffering.

“Detachment means letting go and nonattachment means simply letting be.”

Stephen Levine

We often feel like pain and suffering are one and the same, but there’s a massive distinction: pain is a sensation, suffering is a thought.

As such, pain may be inevitable, but suffering can be overcome by various forms of mental training.

Sitting with the pain instead of avoiding it

This is a different path that many don’t understand.

When I discovered the potential of mindfulness for changing my relationship with pain, I started doing a lot of strong-determination meditation sittings, which consist of sitting perfectly still for long stretches of time, without reacting to pain or discomfort. They are incredibly difficult, and incredibly rewarding. I would normally sit for 30-40 minutes at a time.

Pain2Only once have I managed to sit for an entire hour without moving, and it was a truly transcendental experience.

Simply observe

The pain had become incredibly intense, and my mind was screaming with frustration, but I wouldn’t give in.

And the more I directed my attention to the painful areas to directly experience the sensations of pain, the more I realized that that’s just what it was : Sensations of pain.

Our reactions to pain may seem absolutely determined, but in fact they are our own choice. The name we give to that choice is suffering.

We all instinctively know the difference between pain and suffering. If someone punches you in the face and breaks your nose, you’ll inevitably feel a lot of pain. But it’s the fear, confusion, and anger at the person who punched you that causes you to suffer.

Who dies?

The book Who Dies? by Stephen Levine really got me to think about pain in a completely different way. It’s one of the most poignant and profound books I’ve ever had the pleasure to read.

“If there is a single definition of healing it is to enter with mercy and awareness those pains, mental and physical, from which we have withdrawn in judgment and dismay.”

-Stephen Levine

Overcoming our fear of pain in this way is truly liberating, and has numerous benefits. I believe that one form of enlightenment may be found in the person that has transcended the fear of pain altogether.

A few of my own observations from working with and accepting the place of pain in my life:

Reduced Fear in General

When you’ve sat through an hour of stabbing pain in various parts of your body, or your daily life is brandished with a painful chronic illness, the numerous fears that we feel towards all kinds of things may start to diminish.

In my own life, I’ve discovered that I’m way less worried about humiliating myself, so I’ve started putting myself out there in many ways. For instance by starting this website. The old judgmental part of my mind that shouts “But what if what I write isn’t good enough and nobody wants to read it and everybody will laugh at me and I’ll be exiled and forced to live in the wilderness…” and so on, can be effectively countered with “I’ve had worse”.

I’ve also seen that fear of failure has greatly diminished. All fear is rooted in pain, be it emotional or physical. Fear of failure is actually a fear of the pain that accompanies failure, like humiliation (see above) or blows to our self-esteem.

A Drive to Live a Meaningful Life

Thank god my chronic pain didn’t last forever. In the last month or so it has rapidly gotten better. So much better that I’m finally able to exercise again, to sleep through the night, and to go out and about without being constantly distracted.

The most powerful result of my work with pain has been this powerful desire to live my life exactly as I want to.

Partly because I now know by direct experience that health is fickle, any number of things could happen to me and life is too short to waste it on worrying about consequences. But also partly because I know that I can handle whatever the universe throws at me. I know that nothing that happens to me can actually break me, especially if I keep cultivating my insights on pain and reality.

An Unobserved life is not worth living

There are some harsh truths inherent in the fabric of human existence. Pain is abundant. It’s everywhere.

People die in agony every single day. Many people lead lives that are so physically painful that it’s unimaginable to those of us blessed with good health. Pain is as much a staple of being human as is being born, loving, and dying.

Even those of us born with a healthy body and healthy mind will know pain at some point in our lives. If you haven’t already experienced some kind of storm in your own life, there’s certainly someone close to you who has.

This is just an inextricable part of being human. We’re playing this human game, and pain is an aspect of that game, whether we like it or not.

It’s funny, I took a course in Vipassana (insight) meditation a while back. The teacher told us that every now and then, a student would come to her after much meditation and strong determination sitting and tell her that he had actually started enjoying the aches and pains of sitting for an hour.

The game

We can make a game of it. We just have to be open to the possibility that pain isn’t what we always thought it was. You can start catching your mind, Ah I see, an old thought pattern of aversion is coming up. Is it anchored in reality? Or is it a mental creation?

Just think of the potential benefits of doing this! The fear of pain and suffering can limit us in so many ways, but when we start to question the fabric of this fear, we find that doors start to open to us. We start to open our minds and hearts to unheard of possibilities and potential changes in our reality.

With an open heart and an expanded mind, we become unstoppable. Fear can no longer crush our spirits, and pain can no longer hold us down. We will cease to suffer.

When we stop avoiding the things that scare us the most, like pain, we find that it leads to a feeling of wholeness. A feeling of acceptance of the nature of things.

When we fully accept pain, a paradox will become apparent to us:

Pain only causes suffering because we allow it to do so.

Much love.

The most effective way of overcoming depression

Throughout my life, starting shortly before puberty, I’ve had episodes of deep depression. Depression is common. Most of us have first hand knowledge of it, or somebody close to us does.

The mind is incredible. It learns to process data from this crazy reality incredibly efficiently, to make life easier and more fulfilling.

This attribute of the mind is what allows us to use language, tools, run from danger, think rationally and so on. But as with all things, it has two sides.

The mind is incredibly good at developing habits. Whatever it repeatedly does, it gets better at, and whatever it is becomes easier.

The dark side of this aspect of the mind is that while we can and do develop useful and good habits, we also develop negative habits that hold us back.

In my experience, depression is the result of the highly negative habit of dwelling on unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or events.

These thoughts, emotions, and events almost always originate from our memories of the past or predictions (speculations) about the future.

Depression can only arise when we’re overly focused on the past or future.

The reasons for depression are simple, but dealing with it is anything but.

As anyone who’s had to deal with bouts of severe depression can tell you, getting out of the negative thought patterns that arise seems absolutely impossible.

Whatever our circumstances, whether we’re chronically ill, or we feel stuck in life, or we feel unloved, or whatever they may be, our reaction to them is a choice.

A difficult choice, to be sure. When I was dealing with a horrific illness for the last two years, choosing to be unhappy and depressed was way easier than choosing to be happy.

In fact, choosing to be happy at that point was impossible for me, because I wasn’t even aware of the fact that I had a choice.

As the saying goes, you may not be able to control the wind, but you can adjust your sails. We don’t choose our circumstances, fate does. But we do choose the way we react to the cards that fate deals us.

So this is kind of a paradox.

Am I saying that people who are depressed are simply choosing to be depressed? In a sense I am, but it’s not that simple.

When we’re depressed, we are naturally inclined to be in that state. If we suffer misfortune or just sink into a pit of negative thought patterns, depression is the natural result. We feel like we have no choice.

As with all things, if we aren’t aware of the all of the possible choices presented to us at any given moment, the hidden choices might as well not exist.

Imagine a sparrow who for some reason thinks it’s a cat. It’s standing in the middle of the road, and a car is speeding towards it. It’s too late for the sparrow’s short legs to run out of the way, so he should just fly straight up, right?

Well, remember, he thinks he’s a cat. He isn’t aware that he has the choice of flying out of the way.

So he gets hit by a car.

Surreal allegory aside, we humans are worth more, capable of more than most of us could ever imagine.

We have such inherent power that it’s hard to believe.

We can literally change reality with our thoughts. We imagine something, and then we create it.

We are creators.

When we’re suffering from depression, we’ve forgotten our true natures, and we’ve become ignorant of our powers of change and creation.

In the spirals of self-doubt and destructive thought patterns, we’re unaware of our capacity to change our circumstances.

Depression is characterized by a dreadful feeling of utter hopelessness. Hopelessness towards the future, jaded with regards to the past, and ignorance of the present moment.

Why do I say we’re ignorant of the present moment when we’re depressed? Surely we’re feeling the pains of depression in this very moment?

That much is certainly true. The pain of depression is our only anchor to the present moment, but we ignore it. We ignore the sensations of the present in exchange for ruminations on the past and future.

We project our current circumstances into the future, and we dwell on the mistakes of the past.

This causes pain in the present, but as it goes untended, it stays unresolved.

The way to overcome emotional pain is to fully feel it.

When we decide not to run away from our pain with our medication of choice, be it a substance, porn, TV, sugar, cigarettes, sex, whatever, and instead we sit down and consciously feel what’s going on in the here and now, our depression will start to lift.

Keep in mind, this is a process.

This is in no way a quick fix. It is, however, a permanent fix. Or at least a permanent tool, which can be used as effectively in future bouts of depression.

So what are we doing here?

There’s a term for this process: mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the act of remaining aware of the present moment. Remaining aware of whatever you’re doing here and now.

There are a myriad benefits to practicing mindfulness, such as reduced stress, clarity of mind, stability of mood and, for the purposes of this article, lifting of depression.

I feel like mindfulness has a lot of woo surrounding it, even these days, when it’s become a popular word often thrown around in the spiritual, self-help or even fitness communities.

There’s really nothing supernatural about it (well, I guess it depends on what you call natural). Calling it a method or an activity is a bit misleading, since in itself, mindfulness isn’t a doing, but rather a being.

What I mean by this is that you can be mindful at all times, whatever it is that you’re doing.

You can be mindful of walking, eating, talking, thinking, writing, having sex. getting drunk, your emotions, bodily sensations, any mode of operating as a human entity.

Being mindful is being aware of what you’re doing, feeling, and thinking.

You don’t do mindfulness.

When we get sucked into that headspace, that gnawing negative thought cycle, it feels like we can never get out. It feels like resistance is futile.

The longer we allow the state of depression to drag us down, the more complacent we become, and the more difficult it becomes to get out of the pit of despair. Believe me, I know.

I should say that for me, mindfulness hasn’t been the cure for my depression, but more of a catalyst.

When I managed to become truly mindful of my mental state, and then made that awareness into a habit, I proactively started to research ways of making myself feeling better.

I researched all kinds of exercise, diets, breathing techniques, meditation techniques, psychology, and environment design, in order to set up a life that would be conducive to happiness, health, and fulfillment.

This is key.

Use mindfulness to break the depressive state. Then, before it manages to close in on you again, develop a new habit.

You may already be meditating, or eating relatively healthy, or you may be the worlds laziest couch potato with not a single good habit to talk about.

Whatever your circumstances, they can most certainly be improved.

If you don’t already meditate regularly, that’s the habit I would recommend you instill first. The benefits of regular meditation are so enormous that they outweigh all else.

After meditation, I would recommend cleaning up your diet and exercising, starting a journal, and going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, in that order.

There are plenty of other great habits to start, like deep breathing, cold showers, nofap, and so much more.

But don’t get overwhelmed!

The key here is to start small. Trying to kick-start a two-hour-daily meditation habit from the get-go is a recipe for disaster.

Trying to start a habit of writing five pages in your journal will meet a similar fate.

Listen, always start according to your circumstances. If you’re physically ill, starting an intense exercise regimen won’t be a good bet. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t exercise though!

Go for a walk, do some pushups, and for god’s sake, do it in nature if you possibly can.

The internet is more than saturated with information on everything. Be selective, but be persistent. Research everything that could possibly help you work through your depression and into a more stable, happy mode of being.

Sustained well-being is actually possible! You may not believe it, but it’s true. There are people, sharing this same reality, who feel good almost all the time.

If nothing else, you should strive to be one of them.

After you get the hang of being mindful of your state of being, you should never stop.

You should aim for mindfulness to be your default. Mindfulness is the key to sustained well-being. It’s not the only thing to strive for, but it’s one of the most important.

When I first discovered mindfulness, I might as well have been sleep-walking in life.

I wasn’t aware of anything.

Everything was foggy, everything was unclear.

Life happened to me, rather than me actively participating in life. It’s stunning to me, looking back on my life, how much time I’ve spent being hardly conscious of my own existence.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m far from being mindful every second of every day, but that is what I’m aiming for. It’s hard work, rewiring your brain that way.

You must learn to become mindful of your thought patterns.

This is probably the most important aspect to overcoming depression.

Take time out of your day to just sit down, and after a brief warm up of mindful breathing, move your awareness to your thought-space.

This feels weird at first, if you’ve never been consciously aware of this space before, but you’ll get used to it, and you’ll probably come to love it.

The thought space is that place in your mind where your thoughts pop up.

Notice that you don’t actually generate your thought, though you can do that with conscious effort. Rather, thoughts come to you.

This point is important. The thoughts that come to you are the results of mental habit.

With conscious effort, these thought patterns can be changed. If you’re often feeling depressed, chances are your thought patterns are generally highly negative.

This is obviously not good. The first step to changing this is becoming mindful of the thoughts themselves.

The thing is, we think we’re conscious. I mean, here I am, right?

We’re actually semi-conscious, most of the time, at best.

We’re on autopilot, almost all the time. We’re creatures of habit. We find a routine, and we stick to it like spaghetti to a wall.

The art of becoming conscious of our unconsciousness is the path to happiness and fulfillment.

Be mindful of your thoughts, and notice what’s going through your mind. Don’t try to change anything yet. Just becoming aware is half the battle.

Be especially aware of thoughts pertaining to yourself.

Now that you actually know what you’re thinking about yourself, it’s time to instill a habit of changing these thoughts as they arise.

The two absolute most effective ways of training yourself to do this is starting a journal and writing in it every day, and affirmations.

Check out the posts I linked to above, and then research some more online. Knowledge is power, my friend.

This is an uphill battle. Maybe even a up-mountain battle. But it’s the most worthwhile battle you can ever undertake. The battle for your sanity.

Collectively, we need to take responsibility for ourselves.

We need to realize that, while circumstances may be crappy, while our bodies may not be functioning properly, while we may be battered, beaten and betrayed, we can still take responsibility for our reactions to life.

This means doing everything we possibly can to improve our lot in life.

Small steps, by all means. Just a little bit at a time. But every single day, seek to make your life just a tiny bit better.

I hope with all my heart that this article will help somebody climb out of the horrific pit of despair that is depression.

Know that I feel your pain, and I know it’s hard, but you can overcome this


When life gets confusing, this is what you need to understand

As winter approaches, I feel like I’m getting old. Not so much physically, with the wrinkles, aches, and white hair, but more so mentally.

I feel like the illusions of youth have been shattered to some degree.

Listen, I’m only 26. I’m not old by any stretch of the word. But what I want to write about today is seeing through illusions.

Recognizing our models of reality for what they are.

The thing with illusions is, well, you don’t know they’re illusions until you go beyond them.

Life to me seems to be a sequential trading of one illusion for another. As a baby, we understand nothing apart from our own satisfaction/pain/discomfort/hunger, and our mother’s voice and breast.

Anyone seeing the baby from the outside is aware of the baby’s illusion, that the world is in fact infinitely larger and more interesting than baby can ever imagine, but we don’t try to explain this to the baby.

We know that with time, experience, and maturation the baby will experience this expansion of consciousness for itself.

The reason I feel old today, is that I’ve become aware of this part of the nature of human experience.

I may not know the absolute truth of reality, but I do know that I don’t know the absolute truth of reality. If that makes any sense.

“The only thing I know is that I know nothing.”


This knowledge, however trivial it may seem, has been changing my life. Knowing that I don’t know, that I can’t know anything for sure, is a double-edged blade.

On the one hand, it’s a bit sad. My models of reality become pretty meaningless, everything seems a bit confusing and ephemeral. On the other, it frees up a lot of energy. Mental space.


Knowing that my models of reality are not absolute allows me to apply the energy that I used to use for keeping them up and running, to other things.

Now, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak (does that saying terrify anybody else or is it just me?).

Even though a model of reality isn’t absolute truth, it may still be applicable, or even useful.

A model that’s not absolutely true, in other words, may still be true enough.

“I don’t believe anything, but I have many suspicions.”

– Robert Anton Wilson

True enough to keep you fit and healthy, along with your relationships. True enough to find happiness and fulfillment.

We live in this ever-eddying, swirling, constantly up-down, in-and-out, ever present experience we collectively call the world or reality.

I have no idea if anybody has discovered a truth to this thing, or if it’s even possible.

What I do know, is that some peeps have models of reality that move them forward, and others have models that hold them back.

The nihilist who sees only the bleakest side of every experience isn’t occupying a different reality than the optimist who strives to see the good instead of the bad.

They’re both here, now, right?

They’ve chosen different models of reality to live by, that’s all.

“We are happy when people or things conform and unhappy when they don’t. People and events don’t disappoint us, our models of reality do. It is my model of reality that determines my happiness or disappointments.”
Stefan Zweig

I’m not saying that blind optimism and denial of the pain of the world is a good thing, because it’s not. Nor am I saying you should be nihilistic. Not at all.

Both world views have their pros and cons. The nihilist will be way less likely than the optimist to blindly trust a malevolent stranger, for example. The optimist will be way more likely than the nihilist to grab a rare opportunity that presents itself to them.

But neither model is true. And both have serious drawbacks.

These are simple examples. Most of us don’t have a label we can apply to us. Nobody’s a pure nihilist or a pure optimist.

Our models, our reality tunnels, are an amalgamation of whatever experiences and influences we’ve encountered throughout our lives.

We’re cynical about some aspects of life, optimistic about others.

We’re open to new experiences in some realms of experience, and we’re closed off in others.

We react with love in some instances, and fear in others.

I think building a model of reality that’s absolutely true is a fool’s errand, to be totally honest.

I can hear the rationalists gasping in disbelief, the religious among you shouting “blasphemy!”.

What’s more, I think trying to build an absolute model of reality is a waste of energy. There are more important things to do.

“There is but one reality, that is true — but the two of you experience it in slightly different ways. The older you get, I should think, the more you will come to understand that the universe is very much a looking glass, Miss Lancaster.”               Jim Butcher, The Aeronaut’s Windlass

Accepting the fact that you don’t know what the hell is going on, as well as the fact that you may never know, will set you free.

Earlier in this article I stated that whatever our reality tunnel may look like, we all inhabit the same reality. This statement is arguable at best.

Do I inhabit the same reality as a fish? Or a snail? Or a piece of glass?

How do we actually define reality? Does reality exist without someone to experience it? Is there such a thing as an objective reality?

In other words, if a tree falls in the woods and there’s nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound?

Realizing that reality is fundamentally subjective, and not objective, has been a huge step for me in not only formulating a more precise model of reality, but in becoming a happier, more fulfilled, conscious human being.

This brings me to an incredibly salient hypothesis called consciousness first.

It’s very simple really, and goes hand in hand with Occam’s razor. In fact, it’s the neatest, simplest explanation of reality that I’ve ever encountered:

Consciousness is the point from which all reality arises.

There can be no object without subject.

In the history of the world, nobody has experienced anything objectively. How could they? Experience in itself entails consciousness. Without consciousness, nothing is.

“Nothing” is really an overstatement. The term “No-thing” is more appropriate. The former implies the absence of “something”. The latter implies the absence of “thing”.

“Nothing” is a concept. A concept is a thing. “Nothing” can be experienced as a concept, “No-thing” can’t be experienced at all. In the absence of consciousness, no-thing is.

If that doesn’t make your head spin the first time you think about it, congratulations!

This all ties into the nature of illusion. When we realize that out entire reality is subjective, springing out of consciousness rather than containing it, the possibilities for experience and growth become limitless.


What I’m saying is, life is a dream. A dream is the most famously illusory state of mind known to man, but as you realize the fact that life itself is illusory as well, it changes your idea of what’s real.

If life is a dream, or an illusion, does it necessarily make it any less real?

But then we’re lead to our next question, which is this: If life is real despite being an illusion, then how can we say that dreams are any less real than life?

The thing is, all experience is as real as it can possibly be!

If you experience something, anything, it can’t be experienced any more or any less than it actually was. In fact, that statement would be meaningless.

Everything that arises in consciousness, arises in consciousness. And that’s that.

So in that sense, any experience is real.

Okay, so that’s pretty interesting, but how is this practical in any way? How can this knowledge improve your life?

Well, when we stop fussing over reality, over what’s real and what’s not, we can actually start having some fun with experience. We can decide to enjoy and learn from all experience equally.

Meaning is to be found in anything. Humans are creators of meaning. Meaning isn’t inherent to anything, instead it’s our minds that imbue experience with meaning.

Notice that I said experience. Not item, place, person or teaching. In the end, all concepts, all things, all people and all places are only as real as they are experienced, meaning as the appear in consciousness.

Listen, having fun with experience is all well and good, but it doesn’t seem practical in this world to just take any old dream or hallucination for reality. Does it?

Absolutely not. This human experience has rules, laws. We need to follow those laws if we want to keep playing this game. Fair enough?

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be aware of the fact that we’re playing it.

You know when you play monopoly and you get so sucked into the game that you start to act and feel like you’re actually a millionaire? That the plastic houses and fiat currency are actually real and valuable? Even though at the end of the evening, it all goes back into the box?

Take it a step up. When you inevitably die, all your possessions, friends, personal attributes will go straight back into the box. Sound familiar?

Now imagine two players of monopoly. One of them’s so engrossed in the game that he’s forgotten his existence outside of it.

“A person who plays the game knowing he will win, doesn’t impress me as much as the person who plays the game even though he knows that he might lose.”                 N’Zuri Za Austin

He follows the rules because they’re all he knows, and he builds up an empire of hotel chains and real estate because that’s where you get meaning in monopoly.

The other guy does everything the same as the first player, with one difference: He still remembers his existence outside of the game.

When things start to go badly for him in the game, he reminds himself of the piece of cake he has waiting for him in the fridge. He’s not attached to the outcome. At least not in the same way as the other player.

If the first player loses the game, his entire universe (seemingly, to him) crumbles down all around him. His clinging will make him irrational and prone to stupid error.

The second player, although he may be enjoying the game immensely, will be cool and detached enough to see what’s actually going on, and the fear of losing will not be all consuming.

This is enlightenment.

When you get that life is a game, everything changes, even though everything actually stays the same.

The buddha saw through all illusion, maya, and that’s why he was called an enlightened one.

Seeing through the illusion of separateness, of subject and object, of self and other, is a noble goal. But even getting a glimpse of what’s on the other side of the curtain can change your life forever.

In my case, a lot of meditation, psychedelics, and a chronic illness all worked together to get me to the point where I could peak behind the curtains and see the truth.

Then I put the curtain back and went on with my life. But I will never forget what was on the other side, even if it can’t be conceptualized, or much less put into words.

There are ways to see beyond the illusory nature of reality. In fact, there are plenty of ways. I’ve written many posts on this site detailing them. But they all have something in common: work and dedication.

You need to be prepared to work for the glimpse. You need to want it enough.

When you take that drive, that need to see beyond the veil, all doors will be open to you.

Self help or self acceptance?

I’ve become very wary of self help books and articles, especially of the quick-fix variety. In fact, I’ve started to see them as more of a nuisance than a helpful resource, even damaging. The thing with self help, I feel, is that the main premise of the genre is lack or inadequacy.

Obviously, self improvement is generally an admirable endeavor.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t aim to be the best person you have the potential to be. What I am saying is that the vast majority of self help material is primarily devised, not to make you a better person, but to make somebody else a lot of money.

Some of the best-selling self help works are aimed at improving social skills, for example.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with working on social skills per se, but the fact is that not everyone is of a gregarious disposition. Not everyone gets energized by going to a party or partaking in large group activities.

Peoples’ temperaments range between the extremes of introversion and extroversion, and neither quality is better than the other.

However, extroversion has been pedestalized by western society in the last hundred years, especially through American culture. In contrast, the ideal of the brooding philosopher or wise hermit has sort of died off.

Good social skills are invaluable. They are a magnificent tool to improve life and make it in the world, but I think they are highly overrated, at the expense of voluntary solitude.

Solitude is beautiful, and the potential for personal growth through being alone is definitely on par with the potential for growth through enrapturing, profound conversation.

An entire industry has risen around the myth that if you’re not extroverted, there must be something wrong with you and maybe you can fix it by buying this book/program/dvd-series!

That’s really the root of my dissatisfaction with the self help industry, the fact that at the end of the day, it’s all about selling more stuff. And I know there are some gems out there, but most of it is chaff.

In my own life, I’ve started shying away from this kind of material. The way forward for me has been to reconcile the paradox of self improvement versus self acceptance.

How can you be motivated to improve yourself if you already believe you’re good enough? And how can you accept yourself when you work from the assumption that you’re not good enough as you are?

This is a tough question, and it’s taken me a long time to figure out what can be done.

If you can’t accept yourself as you are right this moment, you can be sure of depression and anxiety. And if you narcissistically decide that you’re already perfect, you stagnate or you may even have a negative influence on those around you and ultimately make your situation worse.

As in so many things in life, a balance needs to be struck. A bargain of sorts. Self acceptance to the degree that self love is possible, without falling into narcissism.

You see, accepting yourself as you are is not the same as thinking you’re perfect. That’s narcissism, and that’s not a good path to take.

Accepting yourself means accepting your flaws and weaknesses, as well as your strengths. Ironically, true self improvement can only begin after accepting the flaws you seek to improve.

Even though both concepts are valuable, the fact is that self acceptance is the base or pillar on which self improvement necessarily rests.

Once I realized this, I instantly started to feel better about myself, because I started focusing on knowing myself, in order that I could finally come to accept myself.

In closing, my last beef with traditional self help is this: You should decide what needs improvement! Not everyone wants to or even needs to improve in the same way. Stop giving other people, companies or institutions permission to tell you what’s wrong.

Through introspection and contemplation, you can figure out what you really need. It may surprise you.

What’s helped me most of all are two things: Keeping a journal, and meditating. Maybe “helped” isn’t really sufficient. Transformed is better, more accurate. These habits, over many years, have transformed me to the point that I hardly recognize myself, and my perceptions of the world around me are totally different.

True investigation of the relationship between self and other is a rabbit hole so deep that you will never find your way back out. It’s the ultimate adventure. I hope to see you down there.

As always, much love.

Walk into bliss – Walking meditation

I’m writing this post from a summer cabin my grandparents own next to the glacial river Jökulsá í Lóni.

The weather is beautiful and birds are chirping all around. What a privilege.

I started my day by drinking a litre of ice cold spring water and then I headed off to the mountains, hiking to a high point above the cabin where I met a few little lambs and a ptarmigan still in winter clothes even though it’s already June. The scenery was and is breathtaking.
I want to write about walking meditation. Its a concept that I had difficulty grasping for a long time, but I feel like I’ve got a better understanding of what it means.
Especially after my 800 km hike across northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago, where I decided I would train myself to be mindful even while on the move.
Sitting meditation is a wonderful thing, but unless you live in a monastery or a cabin in the wilderness like the one I’m in now, you will hit snags in the practice. It may be travel, work, illness or lethargy, but we all hit a point where we can’t seem to find the time or energy to sit for an hour or two every day.
I think this is a fact of life. Nobody’s perfect, nor should we expect ourselves to be. After I consciously accepted my imperfection, I feel a lot better about not being able to stand up to my highest ideals every now and then.
That doesn’t mean that I allow myself to get lazy, far from it.
It means that I free myself from feeling bad when something that I can’t control breaks up my routine. And that freedom from constricting emotions actually helps me to get back on track faster than if I allow myself to wallow in self-pity and despair.
However, there is always a way to practice, wherever you are and whatever’s going on around you. If for whatever reason we feel like we just can’t sit still, or we can’t manage to concentrate, we can go for a walk.
Taking a walk, especially in nature, clears the mind and calms the nerves. This is, I believe, common knowledge, and we’ve all experienced this at one time or another.
This makes walking all the more ideal for meditation, although for the longest time I couldn’t figure out just how to do it.
First off, remove external distractions. Don’t listen to music or podcasts. Unless that’s the reason you wanted to take a walk, in which case listening to something is perfectly fine.

But if you want to meditate, just do that.
Then, do your best to remove internal distractions. Become aware of your thought-stream. Are you agitated? Serene? Neutral? Excited? Become conscious of your emotions.

If you’re out in a natural environment, find a place to sit down before walking further, just to center yourself.

Tune into your senses, hear the birds, feel the wind. Feel the sun on your face. Or the rain. Feel the rock under your butt. Feel what’s going on around you. If it’s not freezing outside, taking off shoes and socks and feeling the earth under bare feet is wonderful.
Tuning into sensations in the body is the easiest way I know for calming mind chatter and expanding consciousness.

Give yourself a few minutes for this grounding process.
Then when you feel ready, start your walk. Try to retain the tranquility of mind you discovered while sitting. Feel the pressure and support of the earth in every step, feel the air entering your nostrils and mouth, filling your lungs with oxygen.
I like to practice concentrating awareness into specific sensations, such as the breath and footsteps, and then expanding it into the entire body, allowing myself to simply experience myself and the world around me. No thinking, no judging. Just being.
The natural world is full of distractions. Birds flitting around, wind in the leaves, insects buzzing. Observe these with an easy mind. Don’t judge anything. Nature is our greatest teacher. If something seems fascinating, allow yourself to be fascinated. Take a look, touch and listen.
Then when you’ve sated your curiosity, go back to awareness of your breath and footfalls.
To be sure, walking meditation is a bit more challenging than sitting in silence, but with a little time and effort it becomes a wonderful way to continue spiritual practice, even when we think we don’t have the time or energy.

It’s also a bridge between general mindfulness and formal sitting meditation, a way of infusing the mundane with awareness.
Much love.

Six months of mindfulness

A while back I became very interested in the concept of mindfulness.

The idea that my habit of trying to cram as much experience as possible into each moment was actually making me anxious and unhappy was pretty foreign to me.

After all, I was just trying to make the best possible use of my time, right?

Well, it’s been about six months since I started practicing mindfulness earnestly in my life, and I want to share the changes I’ve experienced so far.

First off, I feel generally more connected to my surroundings. I don’t know exactly how to put the feeling into words, in fact I think it’s more of a removal of a feeling of separateness. The way I feel now (much of the time, not always) is, I believe, the natural way to feel generally as a human being incarnate.

Then there’s the sense of inner peace and tranquility that seems to be developing within me, getting more profound the more I manage to be mindful in my life. It’s the same feeling you get after a good meditation session. Nothing to change, just be. It’s as if my mode of operating is shifting from a doing mindset to a being mindset.

There are pockets of time, sometimes many days in a row, where I feel no anxiety, no feeling of inadequacy, nothing that needs changing. Challenges arise, same as always, but I am able to take them in my stride, instead of obsessing over them and wishing things were different.

I believe this is related to the fact that being mindful of body sensations, for example, tends to sort of block out or quiet down our thought patterns. If I’m fully invested in washing the dishes, feeling the hot water on my fingers, the texture of soap on porcelain, hearing the running water hitting the sink, I have no awareness to spare for thoughts of boredom or frustration. Even if I grow tired or my hands get sore from the hot water, I can still choose how I want to react to it.

I feel like mindfulness is the concept I was missing for a long time in my spiritual development. I’ve been meditating for a few years now, and I’ve discovered loads of benefits from doing so, but I was still largely unconscious, unaware, in between meditation sessions.

I find the concept of mindfulness meditation to be a bit redundant. To me, mindfulness is a form of meditation, and vice versa. Mindfulness is meditating off the cushion.

On a related note, mindfulness and meditation complement each other perfectly. My concentration during meditation has improved by leaps and bounds since I started sincerely living a mindful life. The calmness of mind and focused intent cultivated throughout the day bridges straight into the meditation session.

Lastly, I noticed that my dreams have become way more colorful and detailed. I’m not sure if I used to dream in black-and-white, or whether I just never noticed the color before, and there’s no real distinction anyway.

I started to be more aware in waking life of color and textures, body sensations like the feel of wind on my face or grass beneath my bare feet, sounds and smells, and so I also started to experience this in the dream world.

I become more aware every day of the potential of a mindful life to expand awareness and devolop consciousness, and I’m excited every day when I wake up to see what I get to experience this time.

Much love.

Overcoming FOMO and regaining inner space

FOMO(Fear of Missing Out) is poisonous. It corrodes self-esteem, torments the mind and distorts reality.

When I quit social media years ago, I remember going through something of a withdrawal. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but looking back it’s obvious.

I used to be a major lurker on facebook, meaning I almost never posted anything but I was constantly skimming the news feed, looking for tidbits of stimulation.

Quitting was the best thing I ever did for myself.

FOMO is such an apt term for the emotions that social media like facebook stir up. It sums up the whole experience, from our deep fears of not being beautiful enough, tall enough, cool enough, photogenic enough, witty enough, all the way to the fear of missing out on actual experiences, like travel, sports, sex…

This is a vicious cycle that everyone on social media experiences whether they’re conscious of it or not. We feed each others insecurities, in a fruitless effort to cover up our own.

It’s self-judgment at it’s worst, or at least at it’s most glaringly obvious.

I don’t normally experience FOMO, but today it hit me full on.

I have an Instagram account where I post my artwork, but I never really use it except when I actually post something. Today I got a notification that Instagram was updating their terms of use and after I accepted I started to check out the feed. Coincidentally, all my colleagues from school, from the illustration course I had to quit due to illness, had graduated a few days ago.

Naturally, my head started to fill up with negative thoughts and unfair comparisons. “I should be graduating with them!” was the first thought, then came good old “What a failure I am”, and so on. I’m sure many of you can relate.

It wasn’t until ten minutes into this process that I managed to put things in perspective. Yes, it’s absolutely true that I quit the course, but I had good reason: I had become too ill to continue. And apart from that, I’m now almost fully healthy, I just finished walking the Camino de Santiago, I’m now in Sicily soaking up the sun, and life is better for me in every way.

But fighting the inner judge isn’t the answer. Where attention goes, energy flows. We need to dis-identify with these judgements. And that’s very tricky.

What I mean is, in order to be judged, permission is needed. We need to take back that permission. Nobody has a right to judge you, or me. Even our own minds have no right to judge us. As soon as we realize this and accept it, we can start to create real change for ourselves.

Of course, this wouldn’t be the Joy of Awareness if I didn’t say “mindfulness is the answer”. So, mindfulness is the answer, as with so much else.

Without becoming mindful of these thought processes, we have no hope in changing them. Increased awareness is always a good thing. So the first step is becoming mindful of FOMO, which is really just a part of the grander web of self-judgment, and the second step is dis-identification, or taking back the permission to be judged. But how do we do that?

Becoming aware is one thing, but how do we stop identifying with what our mind says about us? Well, I would split it into two facets. The first facet is pretty brusque, but bear with me: tell the inner judge to shut the FUCK up. Easy enough, right? Try to feel the anger, the feeling of offence. Your mind has no right, so tell it so.

You may thing this is stupid, and I agree, it does sound stupid. But I’m all about direct experience. I’m not here to give you results, I’m here to give you ideas. Ideas that have helped me work on the problems we share. So try it. That’s all I ask. You may find that the voice dies down, and what’s left is a feeling of spaciousness.

The second facet of dis-identifying is body-awareness. Becoming aware of body sensations is the easiest and most efficient way I’ve found for expansion of awareness and calming down mind-chatter. The sensations of our bodies are an anchor to the present moment.

Both facets are important. The inner space we gain from asserting our inherent value to the judge makes the shift of awareness from mind to body all the easier.

We may all be different, but in many ways we are the same. We can all work on overcoming self-judgment, and we can all benefit from it.

I pray for our success in expanding our capacity for self love. We’re in this together.

Much love.

Expansion and contraction – Rebuilding habits is easier than you think

Sometimes we manage to build excellent habits and routines only to see them come crashing down around us. It might be because of a difficult event or even a crisis, or it may just be a lapse in awareness or even laziness.

I’ve been going through this in my own life for the last week or so.

Those of you who’ve read my latest posts (yep, all two of you) will know that I returned from Spain about ten days ago, where I walked the way of St. James.

It was a wonderful experience, but coming home has left me very much out of sync. I’ve gotten so used to waking up between six and seven in the morning and just walking, eating and sleeping that now that the walk is over I find myself not knowing what to do with myself.

Before going to Spain I had gotten into a great routine of twice-daily meditation, journaling, yoga and exercise and general mindfulness, but the walk changed all that.

That’s not to say that I didn’t do all those things during the walk, in fact I think I’ve never managed to develop my awareness so much before.

I was very focused on being mindful while I was walking and I kept up the journaling habit as well, but the routines I had built were no longer relevant there.

So now I have this challenge that I’ve been working on since I got back, the challenge of re-adjusting to non-pilgrimage (haha).

First of all, I think accepting that I’m having difficulty getting back into habits that I thought I had gotten down completely is most important.

Sometimes we won’t admit to ourselves when something we thought was a sure thing ain’t so sure, and that obtuseness prevents us from seeing how things actually are and most importantly, prevents us from changing them to the better.

Secondly, I believe realizing that all the time we spent on building said habits was not wasted time.

Imagine a musician picking up his instrument after a year of not playing at all. He’ll be rusty, and he may even think his skillz have just evaporated completely.

But give him an hour or two of getting back in to the groove, so to speak, and he’ll almost certainly have remembered loads of tunes and licks.

Compare that to the person picking up an instrument for the first time in her life. An hour or two of practice will not bring nearly the same results. That’s the difference between having ingrained neural pathways and, well, not having them.

In my experience, this phenomenon isn’t limited to muscle memory only, but in fact applies to all habits that we build, consciously or not, good or bad.

We may have difficulties getting back into habits right away, after being lazy for a week, a month or a year, but like the musician we can get back into the groove relatively quickly if we put a bit of effort in.

I emphasize the ‘if’ because in the past, I’ve often put lots of effort into building a habit, only to drop it again, and then even if I want to build the habit again I wouldn’t put in the effort. Why? Because I felt like I was back on square one.

We have to realize that if we’ve worked on building a habit, we’ll never be back on square one. Every time we rebuild a habit, the easier it will be.

Expansion and contraction, up and down. Building a habit and then losing it again are two sides to the same coin, and they are inevitable.

That’s what I’ve been trying to accept.

I’m not perfect, but then nothing is. Perfect is an abstract term, concieved by human beings. In nature, nothing is perfect, and so everything is perfect. Everything is just as it should be, just as it needs to be.

So let’s allow ourselves to expand and contract, without hang-ups.

If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to rediscover the joy of awareness.

Mindfulness or multitasking?

It continues to baffle me, the power of being mindful. I’m was the kind of guy who, if I wasn’t doing at least two things at the same time, would feel as if I were ‘wasting time’. I now see the error of my ways.

The topic I want to rant about today is the seductive allure of multitasking and why it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

Multitasking is the norm today. It’s almost considered lazy to do only one thing at a time.

When I was a teenager, I loved playing electric guitar. I started playing at around sixteen or seventeen. I played mostly rock, with a majestic emphasis on Slash’s guitar work in Guns ‘n’ Roses. I would play all day, every day.

Okay, maybe not all day, I still had to go to school and whatnot, but I would skip every class I could get away with skipping, I would skip meals, I would even call in sick for work (I worked in the meat section of the local supermarket at the time). All so I could go back home, lock myself in my room, and play.

I became incredibly proficient in a very short time frame. A friend of mine who had played for years by then was awestruck. I was shredding and soloing like nobody’s business.

Then I discovered the concept of multitasking, and it was pretty much downhill from there. I applied it to guitar practice. I started to watch documentaries, listening to audio-books, sometimes even reading physical books (I had to contort into some pretty weird positions to make that work), while practicing riffs and scales and all that stuff you do to get good.

And mysteriously, inexplicably, I stopped getting better. Well, I was still getting better to some extent, I was just improving at a snail’s pace.

Except it’s no mystery to me today. I’ve long since lost interest in electric guitar, though I still play acoustic every now and then, but I often go back to that time mentally to see what lessons can be learned.

At first I thought I must have been practicing less, but that’s nonsense, because I had finished high school by then and could practice without worrying about homework or cramming for tests.

Then I reckoned maybe I had just lost interest, but that explanation’s no good either. I remember distinctly that my interest first started to fade after I realized that I wasn’t getting any better.

Pretty recently, though, I started applying mindfulness to drawing, which is a great passion of mine. Specifically I started being mindful in model drawing sessions. And the results went way beyond what I expected.

To be clear, when I speak of applying mindfulness to something, I simply mean focusing fully on the task at hand without distraction. No radio, tv, eating, talking, or anything else to split my attention.

As you may already know, mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR, is an approach to reducing stress and anxiety through present awareness. That’s what got me interested in trying out mindful model drawing.

I always used to listen to podcasts or audio-books while drawing, and I was consistently absent minded, unfocused and stressed. All of that was gone in the first few minutes, but what really struck me was the quality of focus I attained and the results of that first mindful model drawing class were very good. My best work so far. And then I had an epiphany.

The above are from my first mindful model drawing class, all in ink.

The epiphany was simply this. A skill will improve in direct correlation to the quality or amount of focused attention directed to that particular skill.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been improving steadily in model drawing even though my attention has been divided. It’s just that I could quite simply feel the improvements, the learning, when I focused solely on what I was doing in the present moment.

When we divide our attention, we think we’re spending our time wisely, when in fact we are missing out on the incredible power of fully focused attention.

This is what happened to my guitar playing as a teen, I’m sure of it. When I started playing, I was focused on my practice and nothing else. I made incredible progress in record time. As soon as I started to divide my attention between practice and *insert distraction here*, my progress effectively halted. Beautiful in its simplicity.

I’ll bring this to a close now.

What can you learn from my mistakes? There is no such thing as wasted time. We do what we do. That is what time is. A measurement of change. When eating, eat. When sleeping, sleep. When practicing or working on your passion, do that. There is no need to try to ‘improve’ any activity with anything else.

That’s not to say that every activity is equal, far from it. Practicing guitar is way more fruitful than watching TV, for example. But if you do decide, consciously, to watch TV every now and again, just do that. It’s pretty simple, really.

Where attention goes, energy flows. That’s the essence of this post.

So since I realized this, I’ve been applying this principle to all aspects of my life. I still feel the weird need to ‘make full use of my time’, but consciously decide not to multitask. I hope you will too.

Until next time, much love.

Awareness is curative in and of itself – Living the mindful life

For the last few weeks I’ve been studying mindfulness.

I’ve been taking an eight week MBSR (mindfulness-based stress-reduction) course, reading a lot about it, and of course, attempting to actually implement it.

I’ve come to the conclusion that mindfulness is the key to fulfillment.

I’ve been meditating for a few years now and the benefits have been astounding, but it’s only recently that I started to seriously attempt to bring the awareness I was developing on the meditation cushion over into my every day life.

The results have been so much more positive than I expected.

For those of you that are out of the loop, mindfulness is pretty simple in essence. It basically means to be here, now.

Whatever you’re doing, whatever your circumstances. In that sense, mindfulness is a sort of meta-skill, meaning that it’s an activity or practice that affects all other activities.

Sort of in the same way that improving your grammar and vocabulary affects your ability to study and learn the entire spectrum of academic disciplines.

You can be mindful while eating, or while walking to school, in a conversation, standing in line at the store, reading, exercising, while doing anything really.

No matter where you are or what you’re doing, mindfulness is always a stone’s throw away. And the strangest aspect of practicing mindfulness is this: Awareness is curative in and of itself.

There’s a reason MBSR is such a huge thing now: because practicing mindfulness, that is, developing your every day awareness, actually does result in stress reduction. That’s what I’ve experienced anyway.

The Perils of Multitasking

I used to always read while eating. At least, I would try to read. Normally I would manage to read at most two pages in whatever book I was reading while shoveling down my food, without even actually remembering what I read.

And I also didn’t enjoy my food, because I was too focused on trying to multitask that I couldn’t enjoy the taste and texture of whatever I was eating. Bummer.

I kept this up for years, but I’ve stopped now. Why? Because I found that as soon as I started to actually just eat, I started to chill out.

I think that when I try to do more than one thing at a time, I’m sending my body the message that my time is limited. Which means I should hurry, which means I should release stress hormones. Make sense?

That’s another thing I’ve consciously stopped doing: Hurrying. Hurrying is such a stupid thing to do anyway, unless you’re actually missing a bus or late for a meeting or something.

And even then, you only need to hurry just enough to catch the bus, or arrive on time. There’s no need to stay in hurry mode while waiting for the next bus after missing the one before it, or to keep feeling stressed because you arrived ten minutes late. What’s done is done, just be here now.

What is hurry?

Hurrying is really a way of postponing the present for some future event. You think ‘I can’t be here now, because I need to be there, then!’.

It’s ridiculous, really. Like I said though, hurrying has its place, even though it’s always pretty unpleasant.

The real problem for me at least has been hurrying for no reason whatsoever. Like hurrying up with washing the dishes because I want to then hang up my laundry because then and only then can I enjoy lying on the sofa to read a book, or have a cup of tea.

But what I’ve found is that I can feel quite fulfilled washing dishes or hanging up wet clothes when I actually decide to do it with conscious awareness.

Moving my attention away from thoughts or cravings for some future point in time, instead focusing on the sensations of handling wet cloth, or the sound of running water, or the light bouncing off slick porcelain.

When I said that awareness was curative, this is partly what I meant. When we become fully aware of the present moment, whatever it may hold, all kinds of changes take place. Heartbeat slows down, adrenaline production decreases, muscular tension dissolves.

It’s not that you’re suddenly in control of these automatic responses to stress, but instead that by virtue of moving out of doing into being, the mind and body calm down. It’s incredible when you realize this simple truth.

Try it out for yourself. You don’t need an expensive course, you don’t even need to buy a book. Everything you need to feel fulfilled is right here, right now.