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December 8th, 2018
It’s a common habit to give yourself grief over mistakes, poor performance, laziness and all manner of other flaws that we can find. If we can remember that we only have the present and that the past actually does not exist, then what exactly are we doing with the present moment when we engage in such indulgent self-castigation?
We are inevitably wasting more time making a similar mistake that can likewise be the object of ridicule by a future version of our self.
This crops up in meditation for many people. While meditating, the mind drifts, and eventually the meditating person realizes that the mind has drifted off on a river of thought and suddenly gets frustrated and angry with the mind for not being able to do the simple task of focusing on the breath or repeating a mantra, or whatever the instruction of the meditation is during that session. But this frustration is yet another thought that is taking focus away from the task.
We can zoom-out from this context and see the same behavioral structure occurring at a larger scale:
When failure occurs.
What is the response? How many people become obsessed with the failure, overwhelmed by the concurrent feelings? Nearly no one is unfamiliar with experiencing this. We might justify our dwelling on this failure as an attempt to figure out what went wrong with our efforts, but such analysis should be relegated into two categories, both of them quick: Either there were obvious mistakes that can easily be remedied when we try again, or, the reasons for ‘failure’ have too many factors and variables and is therefore too difficult to figure out with a high degree of certainty, at which point it’s just best to move on and take actions that will glean more information from reality, filling in these unknown variables and giving rise to more obvious mistakes that can further more be remedied on the next attempt.
The remedy to all of this is simple but difficult:
We need only to refocus. Whether this be with our meditative focus on breathing, or refocusing on the goal that we’ve failed to achieve with previous failed attempts. This remedy is the opposite of ‘dwelling’ on a subject, or as it’s termed in psychology, ‘rumination.’
As a side note, the word rumination originally refers to a cow chewing. Such herbivores chew their green food over and over and over in order to make it more digestible and this repetitive action is likened to the repetitive nature of thought when someone is dwelling on a subject. This is essentially one way of being in a RUT or at the very least a good way of carving out an unproductive RUT to get stuck in.
This dwelling or ruminating produces nothing, it is a holding pattern. And the only thing that can be gleaned from such an activity is the fact that it’s happening – it’s a sign that more information is needed from reality, which requires interacting with reality, i.e. just plain ol’ taking action. This holding pattern, if occurring at the initial experience of reality – that is our thoughts – will then ramify up through all versions of reality that we can experience.
Or to put it another way, if we dwell on a subject, we take no further action. Not only is the time for thought wasted, but the time for action is wasted, the opportunity for feedback is squandered, the chance to gain more information is lost, the universe where we would have seen a new and better way to progress in life ceases to have any possibility of existing, and then our precious gift of life is spent unfulfilled.
But to think about this is to literally invoke this tragedy,
so let’s move on.
Move on to what? Might be the next obvious question. A question that is potentially so large as to probably invoke fear. Our default reaction to fear is to turn away from it, and go back to doing what we know. On a mental level, this is akin to that holding pattern. On a day-to-day level it might be going to the same unchallenging job day in and day out, draining our energy to the point where we feel justified binging on unhealthy food and mind-numbing T.V. shows.
What’s needed is a better question. One that does not necessarily have an answer but pushes us in a more productive direction.
We might ask:
are my priorities as thoughtfully constructed as they could be?
am I being as useful to humanity as I could be?
do I have a capacity for innovation that I am not expressing?
am I asking myself the best questions on a regular basis?
Questions are the most powerful tool we have, and we can use them to break the fractal mistake of unproductive dwelling. And there is a simple test to know if we are asking a good question, it’s this:
If an interesting question does not spur a change in behavior and create subsequent action, then the most productive form of this question has not yet been found.
Finding those productive questions is key to shattering the fractal mistake we make by dwelling. Asking the right question is an art and that skill is at the core of what it means to problem solve.
Our greatest mistake can simply be to forget to ask ourselves any productive questions at all.
What questions are you asking?