Our physical and mental health are the core of our being.
When they fall apart, we suddenly feel powerless. It’s hard to feel capable when you’re running on empty.
But we’re not actually powerless. Feeling empty is not a permanent and unalterable state. We just need to refuel. We need to get our engines going again.
To do this, we will have to get back up.
Getting back up is difficult, though, when your physical and mental energy is gone.
But what other choice do we have? We need to restart the engine.
CGP Grey illustrates this idea beautifully in this video. I highly recommend it.
The video proposes that we could visualize our physical health and our mental health as the twin elements at the core of our “spaceship”. Near the end of the video, CGP Grey explores the idea that there will be times where despite good habits, we will end up with an empty physical health gauge and an empty mental health gauge. At some point, finding our health gauges running near empty is almost inevitable.
When this happens, we need the courage, and the faith in ourselves (and in life) to get back up. We need to take the smallest possible first step to start rebuilding our physical and mental health.
This is the rediscovery of the unbroken. The engine is still usable.We just need to refuel.
We can also ask for help with this. We don’t have to restart our engine completely on our own. We can reach out to a friend, a family member, or a crisis line. Other people can (and will) help us restart our engine. But we have to ask. The support of others is an invaluable gift that can help encourage us as we restart our engine and begin to refuel.
Even if it feels like our spaceship’s core has stopped spinning, we can always get it spinning forward again. As long as we can breathe another breath, we have another chance to get that core spinning. We have another chance to restart our engine. We have another chance to refuel.
The buddhist notion of right speech is a tool that can help us navigate the process of telling the truth in an ethical way.
The truth is something that most of us value. Even more so in this questionably post-truth era. We want to tell the truth, or at least, not to lie.
But we are confronted by situations where telling the truth seems like it might not be the right thing to do.
One of the easiest example: it’s your birthday and you’re presented with a gift. It’s a god-awful ugly sweater. You know instantly that you’re never going to wear it. But you also know that your friend took the time and effort to go buy this gift for you. Let’s assume it’s not a half-hearted regift of something they knew you wouldn’t like. If your friend gets you a present because they like you and they wanted to make you happy, and the present doesn’t make you happy, how should you react?
Most of us would probably try to seem happy with the gift, and then quietly donate (or regift) it later.
In this example we have practiced right speech. The traditionally “polite” thing to do, is often also what one would do if one were operating through a lens of right speech. But that’s not always the case.
Right speech gives us a more concrete framework than what we can infer from a general deference to politeness.
The buddhist tradition of right speech (along with several other traditions) suggests that we ask ourselves a few filtering questions when we are deciding whether or not to express something. These three questions are the ones that seem to be used most frequently:
- Is it true?
- Is it necessary?
- Is it kind?
If we can answer yes to all three questions, then we can express our thought with confidence that we are probably doing something good.
If we can only answer yes to two out of three of those questions, then we might want to consider not expressing our thought. Perhaps we ought to express our thought anyways — context dependent. But we have reason to pause and think further.
If we can only answer yes to the first question — if something is true, but not necessary and not kind — then we should probably defer to not expressing our thought.
This is a high-barrier of filtering and questioning to do on every thought that we are considering expressing. Perhaps it is too much of a burden. It depends on the context, and on our relationships with the people we are considering expressing something to, and on other incalculable elements of interpersonal calculus.
These filtering questions are also subject to the wishy-washy-ness of our own subjectivity. Maybe we’re an extremely disagreeable person and believe that many things are necessary to say, while others might believe that much of what we have to say was not quite necessary to say.
But we can still benefit from keeping these three questions of right speech in mind as a reference point, for moments in which we are genuinely torn about whether or not to express something. It’s not the be-all and end-all of communication decision-making, but it is a pragmatic micro-level tool to help us navigate tricky interpersonal territory.
We want to tell the truth, but we want to do so in a way that makes things better, not worse. We also don’t want to be disingenuous. We want to feel as though our outer existence is congruent with our inner life.
Practicing right speech can help us navigate the deceptively complicated process of trying to tell the truth while also trying to be kind.
The experience of being alive feels beautiful when we are doing what we intend to do in any given moment.
If we’re playing on our phone and that’s what we intend to be doing in that moment, it feels like pure and lovely leisure.
But if we’re playing on our phone and we intend to be studying or working in that moment — there’s dissonance. We’re at war with ourselves.
I was reminded of this recently, by one of my favourite Youtubers, Ali Abdaal. He described the way in which he feels aligned when, “at any given time of the day, I am doing what I want to be doing.”
We feel a lot better when we are doing what we intend to do.
That doesn’t mean that life feels better with non-stop leisure. Life feels better if we’re doing what we feel like we ought to be doing in any given moment.
So, if we feel like we ought to work, and we’re working, it feels great. But if we feel like we ought to work, and we’re not — it doesn’t feel so great.
The opposite is true as well — if we feel like we ought to be relaxing, but we can’t stop thinking of work… it’s a bad time. But when we’re fully relaxing, and not thinking about work in the back of our minds, the joy of the relaxation can feel like utter bliss.
In moments where we feel an internal tension, we can consider checking in with ourselves. We can ask ourselves whether or not we’re doing what we intend to be doing in any given moment. And if we’re not doing what we intend to be doing, without beating ourselves up, we can gently adjust towards doing what we intend to do in that moment.
That doesn’t mean that we can always do exactly what we want to do. What we want to do isn’t the same thing as what we intend to do. We may not want to work, but we may still intend to work anyways, because the future exist.
Most of us don’t have the privilege to spend our days doing the things that we truly want to do in every single moment. But most of us do have several hours a day of discretionary time. During those hours of the day, especially, we can make the most out of the time that we truly control by adjusting towards doing what we actually intend to do.
By keeping this framing in mind, we can spend more of our time doing what we actually want to do — what we intend to do.
What we intend do, with the time that we control, is up to us.
There are days when we decide to push ourselves. On those days, we are playing for tomorrow.
It’s hard to keep showing up everyday and doing the work when it feels like you’re in a loop.
But if we don’t show up often enough, nothing gets done. That just makes us feel worse.
When we play for tomorrow, we show up and do the work, even when we’re not feeling it. We show up, and we do what we’re capable of doing on this day, in this moment.
It’s a balancing act. We don’t want to ignore how we’re feeling, but we also don’t want to give in to how we’re feeling. We want to be kind to ourselves, but we also want to live in line with our intentions.
We know that if we’re too easy on ourselves, too often, nothing will get done.
So, we can accept that we don’t want to work, and still go to work.
We do this, by playing for tomorrow.
We are judging each other a lot more often during the pandemic. Maybe it’s because there’s more to judge. Maybe it’s because the stakes are high. Maybe it’s because we’re bored and frustrated and want to feel like we’re taking action in some way. Maybe it’s because the social etiquette of the quarantine is kind of like the wild west.
But judging, broadly, is a blunt force. It’s not very useful in its generalized and unarticulated form.
Getting frustrated by how other people are behaving or not behaving during the pandemic seems pretty futile.
If we actually do something based on our judgement then maybe it could be useful. It depends on what we do. But if we just get upset and make ourselves more anxious, then we’re not helping.
Once we investigate our judgements we can decide whether or not there’s something to do in response. Maybe we can do something with our feelings of judgement. Maybe we can have an uncomfortable but potentially meaningful conversation with somebody who we love about something they are doing (or not doing). Maybe we can write to our representatives and express our concern about a specific public policy. Or maybe we’ll realize that what we’re judging is something (or someone) that is — realistically — completely out of our sphere of influence.
In order to get to the point where we can decide what to do about our response, we first need to notice that we are judging.
So we should keep an eye out for it.
Once we notice that we are judging, we can begin to investigate our judgement and we can decide whether or not it’s connected to something that we can control or something that we can’t control.
But until we notice that we’re judging, we’re not helping anybody.
When we notice that we are judging we can break out the trance-like state of just being annoyed, and we can decide what to do about what we’re feeling.
I feel like I sort of forgot, somewhere along the way, that it’s okay for something to just be beautiful.
Not everything has to be valuable, or practical, or pragmatic, or even helpful.
Some things can just be beautiful. And that can be lovely.
John Green gets at this idea really nicely in this video:
He uses the example of sports to illustrate his point.
When people go to a baseball game, the whole joy of it is that –in the larger scheme of things– it doesn’t matter. It’s a bunch of people gathered to enjoy watching something beautiful and exciting happen where there are absolutely no real stakes.
That type of thing feels so foreign during the pandemic.
Like John says, it feels like a luxury now, to be able to care about things that don’t matter.
There are still beautiful non-important treasures that we can access from inside our homes. And despite the circumstances, we can give ourselves permission to enjoy these little things that don’t really matter. We can enjoy these things for the sheer beauty of it.
For some people it’s Animal Crossings. For me, right now, it’s season four of my favourite Viking TV show, The Last Kingdom. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t matter. That point.
Despite the large scale suffering taking place in the world, we still need beauty.
As John says near the end of the video, “we all need things in our lives that have no end, save beauty.”
During the pandemic, we are being deprived of many of the elements of our lives that bring us joy.
It’s easy to start to feel resentful about this.
We can counteract our sense of deprivation by cultivating our ability to be grateful for the nourishment that we have received.
By actively practicing gratitude for the ways in which we have been nourished, we can create a virtuous circle through which we begin to feel even more nourished.
The more that we can actively experience this sense of being nourished, the better our state of being will feel. And when when we experience life in a beautiful state, we feel more capable of helping ourselves and more capable of helping others.
One way that some people practice actively appreciating nourishment is by saying grace before a meal. But for people who don’t self-identify as religious, the practice of grace can feel at least somewhat disconnecting. Saying grace can feel pious.
Perhaps we are missing out by dismissing the practice of grace because of our cynicism towards piousness. We may be blocking ourselves off from an easy way of habitually cultivating gratitude for a part of our daily nourishment.
But there are also other opportunities to be grateful for nourishment.
Nourishment extends far beyond food. We are nourished by love, by connection, by care. We are nourished when we feel taken care of, supported, encouraged. We are nourished when we feel ready to exist.
When we notice that something someone else did (or perhaps, something we did) is helping to support our life, in any form, we can pause for just a moment and be grateful. We can do this at any time, in any moment. It doesn’t have to be before a meal.
We can always pause and give thanks for the kindness that we have been shown. This is a way for us to actively appreciate that we are being nourished, throughout our days and throughout our life.
“I love myself.”
It’s the mantra — the mental loop — at the heart of Kamal Ravikant’s book Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends On It.
It’s hard to love ourselves sometimes: when we feel like we should be doing better, when we feel like we’re not enough — not good enough, not smart enough, not tough enough.
Without giving ourselves a free pass on living in line with our intentions, we can use this mental loop — “I love myself” — to help shift our default view of ourselves to a warm self-reception instead of a cold internal-admonishment.
Kamal found a sense of healing by repeating this phrase to himself in his head, over and over again, in the little empty in-between moments of his life. He found particular relief in returning to this phrase during moments of great pain and self-hatred.
There is a societal judgment about positive self-talk. But even though the mental loop’s phrase — “I love myself” — can feel contrite in some moments, it seems to have a genuinely positive effect on our state if we stick with it.
The “I love myself” mental loop seems to affect our state kind of like a smile does. Thich Nhat Hanh says “sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, and sometimes your smile is the source of your joy.” A psychological study done in 2012 has found support for the same idea — the physical act of smiling seems to lead to higher levels of subjective well-being.
By continuously telling ourselves “I love myself” we can start to make this true, more of the time — even in the moments where we are not perfect.
It can feel selfish or solipsistic, but it’s not. It’s a lot easier to help others when you love yourself.
And it seems to get easier to love yourself, with practice.
We know that we’re fragile. But we don’t usually walk around feeling like we’re fragile. At least, not this fragile.
COVID-19 has reminded us all of just how fragile we are, both on an individual level and on a systemic level.
Some people live with this acute sense of fragility all the time. But for many people — especially young, healthy, and relatively wealthy people in the western world — our fragility wasn’t really on our minds. But now it is.
During normal times we know that death could technically be just around the corner. We always know that tragedy could come our way. But it doesn’t usually feel like we could leave life at any moment.
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
— Marcus Aurelius. Meditations 2.11
Right now, the possibility of death feels very real. It feels like death might be creeping around the corner anytime we leave our homes.
The dehumanized numbers that continue to tick upwards and the images of truckloads full of the deceased strike fear into our hearts.
Maybe it won’t happen to us, or to people who we most love, but if we let our concentric circles of care and empathy extend much further than beyond our direct circle — and despite it being painful to do so, we should — the emotional impact is visceral.
It’s terrifying when we let ourselves really feel it.
And the fear that it brings up can lead to huge waves of anxiety.
How should we respond to this anxiety?
Radical Acceptance is an antidote to anxiety
To the greatest extent possible, we should strive to meet our anxiety with Radical Acceptance.
Radical Acceptance is Tara Brach’s way of phrasing an idea that occurs throughout many spiritual and philosophical traditions. The idea is phrased in many different ways by different thinkers but it serves the same purpose — to help us move towards peace, despite the existence of suffering.
As part of our efforts towards radical acceptance, Tara Brach suggests that we attend to our fear with mindfulness and compassion:
Most of us, in some way, struggle with fear—instinctually tensing against it or becoming overwhelmed by it. Shifting our relationship with fear is central to the evolution of consciousness. While fear is a natural, intelligent emotion, when it goes into overdrive, we are in a trance that contracts our body, heart and mind. Our resistance to fear sustains this trance and perpetuates our suffering. As we learn to attend to fear with mindfulness and care, its grip loosens, and we reconnect with our full aliveness, wisdom and love.
Accepting that we are fragile will not make our fragility go away. But it can help make the fear subside.
The fragility and the fear don’t need to go hand in hand. We can be fragile and not be afraid.
Being afraid isn’t going to help us beyond a certain point. Remembering our fragility is going to help us.
“Accepting what is does not mean passive resignation; it is a courageous engagement with the reality of our experience” – Tara Brach
We can use our awareness of our fragility to help us stay conscientious about doing our part to help. Rigorous social distancing is one way that we can pragmatically respond to our fragility, for our own sake and for the sake of others. Acting based on an acceptance of our individual and systemic fragility could help us save a person’s life.
We are fragile, and that is scary. But if we can accept that we are fragile, we can move forward and we can focus on how we’re going to respond to our fragility.
There are significant changes every day right now, sometimes multiple times a day.
It can feel like we need to check the news a whole lot more right now. It can feel like the responsible thing to do.
We need to keep up with important health and safety announcements, but that doesn’t meant that we need to look at the news non-stop.
Scrolling more isn’t going to make us feel better, or make us better prepared, or make us more able to help others than we already are.
5-minutes a day is all you need in order to keep up with any important developments.
Maybe we can save a long-form article or two to read later in the day.
But it’s a balancing act of keeping up to date while also avoiding using the news as just another way to numb out.
We can be informed and thoughtful citizens without compulsively checking the news all day long.