Sunday, July 15, 2012

Learning to Want, Part IV

In Part III of this series, I talked about some of the steps I took to improve the environmental influences that contributed to my consumption driven lifestyle. As I said there, just the awareness of how much advertising and social pressures affected me was an incredibly powerful skill to develop. While on this journey, I also learned some other lessons that helped me address some of the internal barriers to implementing my Principle of Contentment:

"If you learn to want what you have, you'll already have what you want."

Sometime in my late 20s, somebody recommended that I read Feeling Good by David D. Burns, M.D. I wasn't battling with depression or anything like that, but I was caught up in some negative thought patterns that had me stuck in a rut. While I don't even recall much of the book today, I did find it very helpful at the time and one phrase that still resonates with me was this:

Only your thoughts can upset you.

While obviously this principle has some limitations like severe physical pain or when a real tragedy has occurred, there are really very few situations in my life where this principle doesn't apply. Let me take driving in traffic as an example. I used to get furious when people cut me off or did something rude or even thoughtless. I'd lay on the horn, throw out a string of expletives or simply wish them an early, gruesome death. I've been a passenger with enough other people over the years to assume that I wasn't at all unlike the majority of people.

Other than the one time that I was actually hit by another driver, none of those people had ever done me any harm. I realized that the anger and frustration I felt on the road was ultimately my choice. While I can't necessarily control my initial thought response when someone cuts me off, any further thoughts are my choice. While I still occasionally allow myself a cathartic minute of wishing eternal agony on some jackass, I've learned that I'm much happier breaking out of that train of thought immediately because ultimately, it is my thoughts, not their behavior, that make me upset. So to put the lesson in a slightly different way:

It is my thoughts that cause my feelings, not my feelings that cause my thoughts.

This wasn't an easy lesson to learn or to apply. When you're in the moment, there is such a strong feedback loop between the two that it is very difficult to take that mental step back from the situation and break out of it. For me, it was like learning to be a third party observer over my own thoughts and feelings. Initially I could only learn what went wrong by doing honest assessments after the fact. As I took the effort to do this on a consistent basis, I eventually learned to break negative thought patterns before they caused negative feelings.

I won't claim to be some absolute Zen Master over my every thought and feeling, but having developed a general mindfulness has proved very useful overall. If I'm feeling the urge to buy something new or snack on some "off plan" foods, I can usually deconstruct the thought patterns that would have driven me to succumb to the temptation in the past. Heck, I don't even see such things as temptations anymore, they're just choices which I make consciously. Sometimes I do indulge myself and when I do, I do so without guilt.

I'll close this part of the series with this final lesson:

Contentment is a choice.

I'm a lucky human who happens to live in a state of luxury our ancestors could never have dreamed of. I'm surrounded by advanced technologies that provide me with endless comfort, convenience and entertainment. To spend any of my time dissatisfied with the things I have just because other things exist is irrational, foolish and self-defeating. It's my choice if I want to be drawn into the never-ending cycle of consumerism that keeps everyone around me wishing they had the latest and greatest. It's my choice if I want to spend my time being unhappy about how unfair it is when others do. It's beyond my power to change any of that but it is not beyond my power to change my thoughts.

I'm certainly not perfect and I still get aggravated about things I know are pointless to be upset about. Sometimes it feels good to rant for a while but I do so with an awareness of what I'm doing and a new ability to let go of it. It feels much better in the long run to know when to stop and choose to be content again.

Looking back, none of this was a highly disciplined or difficult process. It was a growing awareness of how my environment and thoughts influenced my feelings and my behavior. That awareness coupled with a willingness to make different choices was all it took to make some significant changes in my life. It's a subtle, yet powerfully different thing when you change your behavior by modifying your underlying impulses rather than trying to exert your willpower to thwart them.

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