In my last post, I proposed that taking a purely goal-setting focused approach to chasing success was a limiting strategy, especially if you are dealing with ever changing and chaotic environments.
If the playing field is always in flux, it is difficult to set and be rigidly committed to specific goals. Let’s say in 2019, you had the goal of visiting every country in the world in the year 2020. How would you even begin to get that done considering the global pandemic?
Your goals can become irrelevant or obsolete overnight due to factors outside your control. How do we respond to chaos?
By focusing more on intention.
Goals are of course, still incredibly useful. They give us something to aim at and be accountable to. But this is life after all, we know many things will happen to throw us off course and make it difficult to get there. Holding on to intention becomes a more viable option.
If a goal is about achieving a specific thing, intention is the reason you want to achieve that thing. It is the result you are actually trying to achieve, the state you are trying to access with the goal you have chosen.
There are the goals we seek – a fat bank account, loving relationships, successful career, and the outcomes we really want – a sense of security and freedom, the experience of being seen and heard and connected, the feeling of being fulfilled and productive. That is the core of our grasping, that is our intention.
Intention is what we truly want, a directed impulse of consciousness that contains the seed form of that which you aim to create. Goals are akin to the paths we take to get there, and there are many paths to get what we want. When we are overly focused on a goal, it means we are so fixated on a path that we ignore all the other possible ways to get to what we want.
If we hold on to the intention, we are flexible enough to hold goals loosely until we eventually find the right combo of goals and actions to get there.
Holding intention means that despite obstacles and problems, even though we are not hitting arbitrary numbers, we still flow towards the aims we seek in a relaxed and almost automatic way.
This doesn’t mean leaving everything up to chance, wishing and hoping on a star, lounging around waiting for the universe to align. It means dancing with the universe as equal partners. Miracles and incredible things do happen, but we must also play our part.
So what does it even mean to hold an intention and how do you do it successfully?
To hold intention basically means to keep a thing front and center in your mind. There are many things that will cross your mind from from minute to minute, but this will be an anchor, a strong gravitational pull that aligns all your other concerns, actions and behaviours in the right orbits. This is the intention we will return to in meditation and prayer.
This is the use of intention not just as a vague daydream, but as a beacon and driving force to inspire action.
As a man thinks in his heart, so he is.Proverbs 23:7
The power of intention
You may have experienced some times in your life that if you kept your mind focused on a thing, eventually, you brought it to pass. Holding intention is about exploiting that spiritual law, about focusing and clarifying vision. It is about imagination, and visualisation, converging all your energy towards a defined direction.
Holding intention means staying primed and magnetised towards what you want. Doing it in a relaxed way means that we are not too beholden to rigid rules and schedules, but can ebb and flow. Some days on, some days off. The days off allow us to rest and recover, to fill the other areas of our lives, and recharge us for the days we are ‘on’.
Intentionality means being clear. It means being still enough to figure out what you really want and what you should focus on.
I might have the goal to grow my business to an income of x amount/month goal. What I’m really looking for is the feeling of success, the feeling of financial abundance, the feeling of accomplishment, and the feeling of a craftsman designing a good system. My overarching intention is to develop profitable, smooth-running business systems and enjoy financial abundance.
The intentionality captures the essence, the true purpose of the goal, and keeps that front and centre.
7 things to do to hold an intention
Simple strategies to help make sure that you are geared towards what you desire.
- Distil your intention and goal into a statement that you meditate on day and night.
For instance: The theme of my year is living intentionally and getting tangible results. My intention is to design and build very profitable, smooth-running business systems that give me financial abundance. I want to have the experience of having everything I need to focus on living and building a life of holistic excellence. My goal is presently to build my income to $10,000 a month.
Take some time out to reflect and think about your main goal and your intention behind that goal, and then summarise it into a statement you can repeat to yourself often. Great if you can do this in the morning and at night. But look at it as often as works for you.
2. Create a totem
A totem is an object that serves as a physical representation of your intention. It is a reminder and a useful tool. For me, I like to use journals. Filled with my notes, and specially printed pages, it becomes a visual expression of my goals and targets that i can quickly refer to and monitor. It also reminds me of what i am aiming for and where I am going. Using this often helps to reinforce whatever direction I am embarking on.
3. Design cues into your environment that remind you and reinforce it
Your environment is a powerful tool in shaping who you are and influencing your success. As much as possible you want to have control over your space and put things in there that will help you move forward. It could be a poster of a hero, a sticky note with your favourite quote, a piece of equipment that helps you work towards your intention, the way you set up your workspace, books. As long as it reminds you and nudges you towards more of the person you are trying to be.
4. Reinforce your intention in your mind
Your internal space is also key. Actually the most important thing. Intention is about holding thought energy. It is about mind state. It is about letting your desire, your chief aim become the central focal point of your life. You have to feed your mind with things pertaining to that to nurse the fire along. You can do this with movies, stories, motivation, books, podcasts, research. You have to keep learning and and implementing around your intention.
5. Take massive and inspired action from this state
As you do all of these, you will become primed. Your mind, body and soul geared towards your chief aim, your great intention. In this state, ideas will spark, you will get sudden nudges to take certain action or create certain things. Take action on them, go in, do what you need to do. Here the rubber hits the road and you get to work. You might be inspired to set goals. In this state you can set goals and confidently go for them, knowing they are aligned with your true intentions.
6. Take time off when you need to and celebrate your wins
Don’t burn out. The whole idea about intention is in flexibility. Knowing when to be on, and when to be off. Knowing that you dont have to be at full tilt, gung ho all the time to be excellent or get what you want. Respect the ebb and flow of energy and allow the space for the universe to do its thing.
7. Rinse and repeat
As humans, we will grow and evolve constantly. Same with our desires, ambitions and intentions. And as one intention ceases to serve us anymore, we can release it and embrace the next.
With this philosophy and framework, we can build organically from the inside out, becoming more and more the person we want to become, growing, progressing and hitting the targets we set.
“You are what your deepest desire is. As your desire is, so is your intention. As your intention is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny.”Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
In the Marvel cinematic universe, Thor’s journey is one of an identity that is systematically stripped back, broken and reforged through tragedy, through times of transition. Over the course of 7 movies in the Infinity Saga, he goes from an arrogant prince eager to ascend to the throne of Asgard to abandoning it completely for a life as a self-accepting simple adventurer banding up with the Guardians of the Galaxy.
Time will tell if he continues on this path as we move into phase 4, but watching this video breakdown of his cinematic story got me thinking about the tension that exists between our perception of our identity and its reality. A tension we must navigate to reach fulfilment.
Life’s journey sees us transform over time, adopting and abandoning identities. At each point in life, who we are is partly self-generated and partly shaped by our environment, specific context and the expectations of implied roles.
As small children competing with siblings for attention, we might play the bully, or the funny joker, or the needy vulnerable one to get an edge. In school with our peers, we navigate identities to figure out who we are and where we fit in the larger community. We undergo the same process, in every new stage and level of life. Identities evolve and change as we do.
It is in the transition between phases of life that we usually have to grapple the most with identity. Who we were isn’t enough for where we are going. We have to change. So, we experiment with different roles to find ourselves, sometimes playing the same roles multiple times until we finally understand just who we truly are and who we are not.
I’ve been thinking about this lately as I face personal transitions and I think the process of navigating identity in these times has something with three things – ‘the person you think you are supposed to be’, ‘the person you actually are’, and ‘the person you can be’.
The person you think you are supposed to be
No one exists in a vacuum. Our society, our upbringing, our culture, our family, our social circles, our roots, the cities we settle in, all provide a context in which our lives are immersed and in which we must create meaning. As we grow, we fall into roles that are laid out for us, implicitly or explicitly. There are also hopes and dreams thrust upon us, the expectations of the people we should become, and the kind of things we should do. Often, we internalise these expectations and make them our own.
We want to do our folks proud. We want to earn the approval of others and maintain the status quo of our communities. This can work out fine if there is enough overlap between our true identities and these expectations placed on us, or it can cause a lot of friction if there is dissonance between the two.
I expressed a bit of this idea in my piece exploring the lessons gleaned from Spider-Man into the Spider-Verse. Miles tries to be like the original Spider-Man, Peter Parker. In his mind, Peter is the example of the kind of person he is supposed to be.
But it is unwieldy, it is false, and it is not until he has his personal catharsis and he relaxes into the person he actually is (Miles), that he is able to be effective as the new Spider-Man.
We all want to be something and become someone. Our hopes and dreams for our lives pull us to higher places. When we transition from one phase of life to the next, we have preconceived notions of what we are supposed to look like on the other side.
But we must examine these desires and perceptions to know if they are truly our own, or if we are chasing things thrust upon us and missing our true selves. Because if not, disaster ensues.
The person you actually are
It can be a terrifying thing – being yourself. Many of us spend our lives running away from our true selves. Unwilling to bring our essence to light, unabashedly, unashamedly. Unwilling to live our truth. Because truth can be painful, and uncomfortable. Truth challenges us, and often, breaks the tidy lil boxes and moulds that we have created for ourselves.
But the person you actually are is always there with you. Always lurking just below the surface, coming up in those moments when we think it is safe, when we are alone, or lost in a crowd.
The person we are, the impulses, drives, desires and attitudes that arise from deep within are to be wrestled with and navigated. Sometimes, there are things here that make us feel complete, alive but we judge as bad – a sensual proclivity or orientation, a restless desire for adventure, or a yearning for a quiet unassuming life.
Between the demands of culture and the world around us and these truths that arise from deep within , the friction easily arises. Do we stand our ground and assert our identity, our truths, consequences be damned? or do we capitulate and maintain the status quo.
There are no easy answers.
Sometimes we must assert ourselves and choose our fulfilment and happiness no matter the discomfort or stress involved. At other times, we have to fulfil our duty to the greater good and the collective.
But you cannot escape yourself, if this tension is not adequately navigated, it will rear its head in some way. Either in the incident that blows up, or a low level simmering sense of resentment that eats you up on the inside.
The person you can be
Maybe there is a middle ground, I think it lies in the person you can be. This person is your true potential. A place of balance. A place of truth. A place of growth and real acceptance. Where your nature can blossom and your real gifts can be given.
I think a successful resolution of the tension between ‘who you think you are supposed to be’ vs ‘who you truly are’ gives birth to this third ideal state – ‘who you can be’.
The person you can be is rooted in who you truly are. It is a place of authenticity. But it also understands that who you are now is just raw material for what comes next. Even in that state of being, you must evolve and grow and integrate. You must be refined into the best version of yourself.
It honours your aspirations, your dreams and vision. It takes into account the expectations, and the needs of those around you, and then bridges the gap between two and allows you to evolve to your best self.
We do not use who we are as an excuse to rage against the machine or waste away. But we harness that potential, that energy to create something beautiful and meaningful.
In this way you integrate the person you truly are against your expectations and duties to become the person that you can be, someone who is authentically alive, fulfilled and connected to the larger tapestry of life.
Across many of Robert Greene’s books, there a reoccurring theme – to be effective in life, you have to learn to see the world as it is, not as you wish it to be.
Obviously this is easier said than done. It takes practice to develop and master this skill. We are naturally meaning attribution machines, we spin stories and see patterns to make sense of the events in our lives and the world around us.
None of us really see life as it is.
Or maybe there is nothing to see. Maybe nothing is real.
From a scientific viewpoint, there is nothing at the foundation of reality but the experiences created and interpreted by the observing self. Stimuli from an external environment filtered by the structure and capabilities of our senses, neurons and synapses, brought to life by the ego and consciousness.
But beyond physics and metaphysics, maybe nothing is real even from a social point of view.
The world around us, the one we think we live in, the one with the rules and norms and expectations, the one with the constraints and limitations, doesn’t really exist. We act like it does. We believe it does, and we eventually create it, by our expectations, beliefs and behaviour.
I think about this in terms of the market place and the world in general, questioning my preconceptions around brand, self-image and success in the real world. The battle as a creative, as a maker, is balancing the need to make things for the self, to create to learn and for creation’s sake, against making things that have wide appeal, that get famous, that resonate and succeed in a capitalist world?
How do we do that?
Some things work better than others. There are certain creative formulas that draw eyeballs and grab attention. Appealing to our baser instincts of lust, superiority, righteousness, indignation generally have a more immediate and visceral reaction than appealing to the sublime, or rationality.
Is it good or ethical to change ourselves, to change our packaging, change our story to achieve a goal? Does authenticity still matter, or should we just wear the masks we must, spinning the webs and illusions that get us what we want?
How long can you wear a mask before it becomes your true face?
Can we use this idea as a tool instead? Reaching forward to ‘pretend’ our way into the person we want to become. Is there an ethical way to ‘fake it before we make it’?
If nothing is inherently real, does that free us to be anything we want, anything we choose to be? Or is there a real self waiting to emerge? Where is the space for authenticity?
Is what we call authenticity just trying to hold on to a past story? Trying to make your actions today be congruent with the person you have always been?
If we must embrace forward-facing stories, pressing on to what we must be that we aren’t yet, then perhaps we can embrace the notion that nothing is real and just go ahead to create the new experience we desire.
Which means we second guess ourselves less. We are less tripped up by expectations, by the burden of our self-conception. We no longer use the excuse, ‘no I can’t wake up early because I am not a morning person’. We just go head and work our way to becoming early risers. We are free to change and be who we want to be moment to moment.
I read somewhere a while ago that behaviour drives emotion and behaviour drives desire.
It means that we can change desires. We are who we are now because we have conditioned ourselves through our choices and behaviours. We love junk food, or leisure or low-value entertainment and activities because we have behaved in ways that reinforced those desires in us.
We are also familiar with change, growing out of things and into things as we develop over time.
But if behaviour drives desire, then we can speed up change in the directions we choose. It will feel weird and horrible at first, but over time, after constant action, desire changes to match behaviour.
The more I workout, the more I enjoy it, the more I crave it. Something I would not have imagined possible years ago. The tricky part is that initial hump you have to push across. Doing something consistently enough to change desire.
If nothing is real, (and the timeline is malleable, which is another idea for another time having to do with changing the past) then we face the questions, what should we do, and how should we do it?
If nothing is real, then our fears are unfounded and unreal. It means there are no real lines, no real restrictions, just illusions, promises and agreements. We can honour them and we can break them.
Is there then no morality?
If nothing is real and anything is permissible, it does not mean that it isn’t without consequence.
So, perhaps nothing is real but everything has consequence.
The idea that nothing is real then becomes a liberating idea that allows you to morph and change as needed. It also frees you from constraints of expectation. If nothing is real, then its okay to create the image you need to get what you need to get done sorted. But know that what you create will have an effect.
If nothing is real, and you want success in a certain arena, if you want more eyeballs and attention to your work, to your brand, then you have to work and rework your brand until you find resonance. And that is not something to fight, it is something to embrace, to practice at until you get it right.
But whatever you create, must be aligned with your true values. If you are not aware of your values, you run the risk of building something empty, losing touch with that which is most fulfilling, the highest expression of your soul.
Potential is…dormant ability…reserved power…untapped strength…unused success…hidden talents…capped capability.
Inherent in the idea of reaching your potential – ‘doing more with yourself and your life’ is the fact that where you are right now isn’t enough, that there is more. It is the admission that you are capable of more.
But to get where we need to go, we have to examine where we are now. How have we lived so far? What are the results we enjoy or endure? What the present scorecard of our life experience? How ever we want to judge it.
Life is a 1 + 1 = 2 equation. Asides from circumstances and forces outside our control, where you are right now is as a result of your past choices – your thinking, your mindset, your reactions to events and your actions or non-action towards your goals.
To get different results, to move forward and tap into more of your power and potential, you have to think and do different things. You need to manipulate the variables of your life equation. You need an evolved disposition and a way of being. But you can’t do that if you think you already know everything.
There is an enemy that is so close to us. He is more than close, he is actually within. His favorite trick is to blind us. He makes us feel good but keeps us oblivious to opportunities for growth, for success, and to our blind spots. He promises to trip us up at every point and turn. That enemy is our ego.
There are various layers and levels at which to engage with the concept of Ego.
First, there is the concept of self, and these are esoteric waters, so bear with me if you are unfamiliar. We all experience the ‘self’. We believe we are something, that we are someone. This bundle of thoughts and emotions, this state of consciousness that resides where? Our heads? Our heart? Our gut? All over our body?
Who are we? Where’s our soul? The illusion of self is so persistent that we cling to it very strongly. We are us – a separate entity from them. The rabbit hole here goes much deeper, but my point is we usually think the sense of self is a constant real thing that almost never changes. We say things like, that is just how I am, I can’t help my temper, my procrastination, whatever traits and habits we choose to hold on to. But the self is far more malleable than we think. What we anchor as ourselves, our personality, is nothing more than a bundle of habits and patterns we have picked up. They can be unraveled. They can be changed.
The rigid sense of self especially when it is unconsciously chosen and engineered becomes a stumbling block to our progress. If we must reach our potential, if we must take up new habits, new patterns of thinking, then we must see the self as malleable, and everything as learnable. Which means that we cannot hold on too tightly to our present notions of self, we must be flexible enough to evolve, to grow and change.
Ego as we usually know and refer to it, is having an unnecessarily inflated sense of self. It is pride. It is the scared child within that seeks to protect itself, that needs to be right at all cost. It is the spoilt petulant self that wants to be the center of everything, to be acknowledged, to be validated.
It is also this ego that we must confront and bring into submission. It is the thing that flares up when we are confronted with evidence or ideas that go against everything we believe and stand for. It is that flash of anger and self-defense that spontaneously arises when we are called out or corrected. It is the response that comes to a seeming attack on our character, on our person.
To grow, you have to be able to manage this side of you. Otherwise, you will never move forward. Your ego is the sum total of the ideas and beliefs you have set up around yourself – who you are, and what you are capable of. It is ego that clings to excuses…because it is not really your fault, someone else failed you, harmed you, made you who you are. It is ego that refuses to take responsibility, that chooses the easy way out, that chooses to indulge yourself instead of doing the hard work you need to do to move forward and change your situation.
It is the ego that judges others. It looks at other people enjoying things you would like, things such as material goods, notoriety, fame, accomplishment, and lashes out saying ”…they were lucky, that person thinks they are all that, they had rich parents, they suck up to the boss, I bet if I had what they had…”. It is ego that projects and makes everyone else the enemy.
It is the ego that gets offended. How could that person say that about me? How could that person say that at all? Who are you to refer to me as this kind of person, and yourself as that? How dare you think you are special?
It is ego that must protect the self at all cost. Because the ego really believes in scarcity. Attention is scarce, resources are scarce, success is scarce. The more that person has, the less I do. It is the reason bad leaders hog all the credit and treat their followers like crap. It is ego that must inflate the self and preserve its perch above all others. It is the ego that prioritizes personal short-term gain over the long-term good of the collective.
If you must move forward, if you must live up to your potential, you must go to war against the ego every day. You have to humble yourself and build your confidence not on who you think you are, but on how you actually behave and what you accomplish. Let your sense of pride be earned and forged in the bitter trials of change, of trial and error, of actual learning and education.
Be open to receive correction. You don’t know everything. You don’t even know what you don’t know. The way you have done things has brought you this far for better or worse. But there is so much more to be and to do. To grow, you have to allow yourself to learn new things. Don’t shut down ideas just because they offend you, be willing to entertain, to calm down, to think through rationally and make a decision. It doesn’t mean listen and agree with whatever one says, it just means don’t be so quick to dismiss, at least check yourself. Be continually open to the idea that you might be wrong.
At the core of his ‘Principles’ Ray Dalio has the idea of truth as the ultimate benchmark. He is always trying to find out what is true about a situation or about life. Not what he would like to be true, not trying to confirm his assumptions or beliefs, just what is actually true, regardless of how it tastes. It is humility in the face of reality. To try, to fail, to clearly analyze failure, take instruction, make corrections and try again. It is understanding that as diverse as we are in personality, physicality and inclinations, we are also diverse in perspectives and strengths. Each of us has something to teach the other. If we will move forward and reach our potential, we have to be willing to lean on the expertise of others in search of the truth that will take us where we need to go.
To break through to your highest potential, you have to be willing to do some different, you have to be willing to be someone different. Regulate the ego, stay humble, stay open, don’t judge, don’t be offended, just keep your eyes on the prize, keep learning, keep evolving and keep moving forward.
I had just posted my last piece on the 7 reasons you don’t reach your potential when my friend George hit me up asking if I had ever written about anxiety. Personally, I like to write about what I know best and stick to my comfort zone which is the personal development stuff. But there is the saying that if you can design one thing, you can design anything. So, I’m going to see if that also applies to writing.
I approach matters of mental health with great care. As someone who has had his own fair share to deal with, I understand that it is a triggering and fragile thing to discuss. It is great that lately as a collective, we are recognizing mental health issues as valid conditions and not just sweeping it under the rug or being oblivious like previous generations. At the same time, it is not an exact science, it is a very subjective experience, so these are murky waters.
It is only recently, like 4 months ago, that I started to realize that perhaps I actually am a lot more anxious than I realize. I have always had a low level of anxiety going on. I just never called it that. I just bookmarked it as fear, but this low-level feeling of tension always exists. It rears up its head when I have to do something new, when I sit in the car with a mentor or someone that I look up to. It rises when I have to go out into the world and interact with people. It rises when I get phone calls. It builds when I need to do something important. It flares up when I have to go out to an event or a party. It is my faithful companion. Sure you could call it nervous excitement, but sometimes it never really leaves, there is easy to constantly worry about anything and everything.
But life and growth require that you move forward. They require that you try new things, that you stretch yourself out of your comfort zone. Because otherwise, you would remain stuck. So, I’ve always viewed this anxiety as fear, and fear as something to be embraced and overcome. One of my favorite quotes is the Latin phrase ‘nihil timendum est’. It means ‘nothing is frightening’. Recently, I’ve come to meditate on fear as a specter, a ghost. There is even the acronym F.E.A.R. meaning ‘False Evidence Appearing Real’. Fear is just a projection of our subconscious mind unto the screen of life. If it is a matter of projection, perception and interpretation, then perhaps it can be influenced or even controlled.
When my friend asked me about anxiety, he framed it in a specific way. As young men (and everyone really) trying to come up in the world, it is difficult and we are prone to anxiety, whether we talk about it or not. In the prevailing social narrative, as men, we are supposed to have our shit together. It is said the only time a black man is truly loved is for his money. Which means if you don’t have money or means, then you are useless. Now that isn’t completely accurate, because there are a lot of broke men who are loved and supported by their women, but there is still a truth to it. Life is real, and you have to be able to shoulder the burdens.
So, the anxiety mounts, coming into your own as an adult. Figuring out your career, figuring out relationships, paying bills, getting married, raising children. All very real, very weighty things. At the same time, the whole world around us looks and feels like it is going to hell in a handbasket. In Africa, we face hundreds of years of exploitation from outside forces and broken promises and dashed hopes from our own leaders. There is conflict worldwide at every turn, even the empires and structures we used to look towards for stability or a sense of aspiration are all crumbling. Everything is falling apart, the ground beneath our feet seeming to give way. With so much going on, the mounting anxiety is understandable.
I read a copy of the New Internationalist the other night, and it was back to back full of bad news. Printed across its pages was one crisis or the other, from the underdevelopment and exploitation of Africa, to the piling plastic and electronic waste from our consumerist capitalist society, even to the damage of the inner psyche of the average person, we are faced with the most pressing challenges of our species and we are woefully unequipped to deal with them. It gets so overwhelming, it is easy to look out for the check-out button, both literally and metaphorically.
How do we cope?
If you are religious, you hold on to the hope of a life beyond this one, sure that this will pass away and a utopia will ensure. Otherwise you can cope with various philosophical or political responses – nihilism – eat, drink and be merry today because tomorrow we die, resistance – we can change this, we just need to change our prevailing systems, radicalism – let’s just burn everything down, anarchy – let’s descend into chaos and let everyone be responsible for themselves.
I don’t have the answers fam, I’m just as overwhelmed as you. But I’ll share how I think and approach it. It might not work for everyone, but it works for me.
Mindfulness helps. Which is really just the practice of being aware. If you are aware that you are being anxious, then you can resolve it. But it starts with recognizing that it is happening. When I realized how anxious I got around people I looked up to, I started consciously breathing deeper and deliberately relaxing into the present, into their presence and bringing forth my true self – as a human being, with personality, and ideas and a point of view. Basically, acknowledging that I am valid, and I don’t need to pander to be accepted by anyone.
Meditation helps too, and it ties in well with mindfulness. Taking the time out to reconnect with yourself, to deepen your inner reserves, to increase awareness give you more control in your day to day life. You can lengthen the time between occurrence and reaction and fill the space in between with impartial observation. Once you master the discipline of perception you can react or act accordingly.
In stoic philosophy, we are encouraged to see the world as it is, not as we want it to be. That also means a radical acceptance of what is. Amor Fati – love what it, as if you wanted what happened to happen. Even if it is failure, even if it is destruction. Once you can accept it, then you can deal with it. Too much psychic energy is spent resisting what is and wishing for something else, instead of dealing with what is and transforming that to what you want, if possible. So sure, things are hard, I am anxious, accept the fact, embrace and then decide what to do.
We are also encouraged to focus on what is within our locus of control. You can’t control everything, not the decisions of other people, not the things happening halfway across the world. You can’t even control what will happen to you in the next 5 minutes. But you can control the meaning you give to it, and you can control your reaction and your action to it.
Cultivate an inner citadel. In a world of chaos, it is imperative to have a space within that you can retreat to, a place to drop anchor. It is a place cultivated in meditation, in prayer and in contemplation of the transcendent. It helps you understand that everything physical will pass away, but that you, your consciousness, your soul is more than just what you see. And you can root yourself in that awareness and draw strength, even in the most-dire of straights.
All these tactics help to deepen our resolve, our reserves and manage anxiety. To be calm when needed and to arouse passion when needed, so that we are not overrun and overwhelmed but with emotional discipline, we have what it takes to meet our challenges.
I love skulls.
I think they are beautiful. A little morbid sure, but beautiful. Over the years, I have accumulated a few skull-related paraphernalia. I had this really nice skull vase that sat on the table in my living room to hold odds and ends. I have a skull decanter and a skull cup. I wear a bracelet with a skull as its center piece. I keep skulls around me as a reminder of death…and as an invitation to life. In this, I follow a long standing philosophic, religious and artistic tradition spanning thousands of years.
Last week, I joined my extended family to lay my late uncle to rest. It was a bittersweet experience. On the one hand, it was a sad thing to say goodbye to one of our own. We mourned a life cut abruptly and unexpectedly short. On the other hand, it was great to see cousins, uncles and aunts I had not seen in so long and to celebrate a life that touched so many. The entire experience was a mix of excitement, celebration, grieving and sombre reflection.
Of course, funerals are a poignant time to think about our mortality.
Remember you must die.
This seemingly haunting, but inspiring phrase has a rich history, evolving through many forms of practice and interpretation in literature, art, fashion, and even current popular culture. To this day, many people keep Memento Mori coins or similar physical totems as reminders of the ever-present nature of death.
For the stoics, memento mori was a key meditation device. A reminder that our time on earth in finite, and this thing called life is fragile, and precious. Most times we don’t think about death. We are too preoccupied with the business of living to stop and ponder something so morbid, so depressing. But such is the fate of all of us. That we are born, and one day, we will die. It is the one constant in a world full of flux.
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”- Marcus Aurelius (Meditations)
In art, the genre ‘Danse Macabre’ or the ‘Dance of death’ grew in the late Middle Ages, a time when the Black Death decimated a third of Europe’s population. Paintings included kings, peasants, young and old dancing with the grim reaper or with skeletons, to convey that death comes for everyone. ‘Vanitas art’ arose with Dutch Golden Age artists, emphasizing the emptiness and futility of earthly items. Their still art paintings depicted compositions of skulls, wilting flowers, rotting fruit, time pieces to remind observers that time is relentless, and death is inevitable.
It is said that a lot of our neuroses, our fears and frantic scrambling, stem from our inability to cope with our innate mortality and limitations. We do a lot of things to avoid our death. We seek comfort in things, and pleasures, grasping for security, to stave off facing our end. With all our creature comforts and amenities, we pretend we have all the time in the world, and that we will live forever.
This is understandable, the fear of death is a tough burden to bear. Man lives in constant tension, peering into the sublime and eternal on one hand, and yet severely limited by time, and the fleeting nature of life. Easier to just live and be distracted and try not to think about it for as long as you can.
Yet we must die.
What if we embrace death? Not as something morbid and to be feared, but as something to be inspired by. The necessary end that is death makes the time we are alive that more precious. In the larger scheme of things, none of the things we do will matter much. No matter how much we achieve or accumulate, we will die. Our time will pass, our names will be forgotten, our monuments will wash away with the sands of time. But right now, in our experience, in our lives, the things we do, do matter. How we live, matters. Our actions reverberate across the universe. It’s a paradox.
Steve Jobs called death, probably the greatest invention of life. Life begins, life ends. And it does both all the time. If it didn’t, life would be stagnant, not going anywhere. But we are born, we grow into our prime, and then we die. As we leave, others come to replace us, to do it all over again, to do it differently, to tear down what was done before and create anew. The cycle of births and deaths allow us to continue as a people, as a species, ever present, ever reinventing, ever dying, ever renewed. It is a beautiful thing. Embracing this truth brings release.
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” – Steve Jobs
If we must die. then perhaps life, is just learning how to die well. Can we live in a way that honours the people we were made to be? Can our short time be used to mean something more than just our happiness and pleasure? Can we live with a sense of urgency, not putting off our great work to a day that may never come, but tackling it right now, today? Can we live in such a way, that after we are gone, we still live on, in the hearts and minds of the people we touch, and the marks we make in the world?
If we must die. Perhaps we can spend less time and energy trying to impress others, taking on things that do not serve us. Perhaps we cannot be so swayed by the crowd. Perhaps we can allow our truest selves to unfold. Perhaps we can truly value our time, and not waste another second. Perhaps we can pursue our dreams, and goals. Perhaps we can embrace purpose. Perhaps we can unleash our true potential.
If we must die, then we must live. With urgency. We must think of how we want to exit, and what we want those we leave behind to say and feel about us when we are no longer here. If we must die, then we must also savour life, making sure to enjoy it, to live in the moments, and enjoy life’s simple pleasures, not being preoccupied with worries and fears. Knowing that the forward march of time is relentless, we can live so we get to the end with no regrets, having truly lived, having fought the good fight, having left everything on life’s stage.
“On this occasion when you have such a bounty of opportunities in terms of your body, environment, friends, spiritual mentors, time, and practical instructions, without procrastinating until tomorrow and the next day, arouse a sense of urgency, as if a spark landed on your body or a grain of sand fell in your eye. If you have not swiftly applied yourself to practice, examine the births and deaths of other beings and reflect again and again on the unpredictability of your lifespan and the time of your death, and on the uncertainty of your own situation. Meditate on this until you have definitively integrated it with your mind… The appearances of this life, including your surroundings and friends, are like last night’s dream, and this life passes more swiftly than a flash of lightning in the sky. – Dudjom Lingpa