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How it All Started
“The smallest of steps completes the grandest of journeys”—Kyle Carpenter
It was a cool, spring night as I was walking north-west down the Champs-Élysées boulevard to see the Arc de Triumph in Paris. I can remember admiring the beauty of the city and the rich history of its architecture all around me. I’ve never been one to take many pictures, with the intention that to fully enjoy the moment I can’t experience it through the optics of a lens or screen. Photographs and film will never be able to fully do justice to experiencing sights and sensations in pure consciousness. But I’ll admit, I typically come to regret that I didn’t at least take a few snapshots for contextual association to the memories I made in those moments when I look back.
With no warning or foreshadowing of events, as I continued my normal cadence towards my destination, I experienced, what I later realized was, my first panic attack. My world became blurry, my heart rate spiked, my legs became heavy, and my sense of being was completely distorted within mere seconds. I was alone, at night, in a foreign country, with limited cell service experiencing the most frightening sensations I had ever witnessed. I can’t fully recall the subsequent chain of events, but I stumbled into a café to order a water and croissant and sat down for a few minutes to collect myself. I eventually got my bearings straight and continued to head west to see the monument I originally intended to visit. Within a few minutes, my bodily sensations subsided, and I was able to appreciate the magnitude of the Arc built to commemorate Napoléon’s victories, but mentally a wound was slashed opened that I’ve been healing to this day.
Life initially returned to its natural order for me, but every so often, moments of panic seemed to flash through my mind. The confidence I had exuberated in the previous months of studying abroad and traveling throughout Europe slowly began to dissipate. As I looked to commence my final semester of college, I was a shell of my former self, and had serious reservations about my ability to finish. Throughout syllabus week, intrusive thoughts plagued my mind. I never experienced them before in the intensity, duration, or frequency that they were now impacting me at. I reached a breaking point after a few days, called my parents, and told them I needed serious help.
This was my first exposure to the term mental health. Throughout my youth, adolescent, and early adult life, I never questioned my brain’s chemistry or tendencies, my ability to handle stress, or believed that there was reason to suspect I had any psychological abnormalities. It’s not that I was sheltered, but the educational institutions I attended never highlighted the unique array of minds humans exhibit as a result of differences in culture, biology, and development. Mental health had a negative connotation to it. It was shown only in a negative light. It was to be avoided. And should it be diagnosed; it should be cured with pharmaceuticals to ensure that the individual could fit in with what society considered “normal” behavior to be.
When I decided to take a semester off from school to explore my new set of challenges, I desperately wanted there to be a smoking gun. After months of blood testing, talking with mental health professionals, and searching the internet for anecdotal accounts of similar symptoms, I was left empty handed. Everything was normal. I didn’t have low testosterone, I wasn’t deficient in a certain vitamin, and I wasn’t diagnosed with any form of “mental health problems.” As an individual with an aptitude for problem solving and creating solutions, not being able to understand myself was such a debilitating obstacle to face. But with great struggle comes an opportunity for growth.
“There is no comfort in the learning zone, and there is no learning in the comfort zone.”
One day I looked in the mirror and decided to take full accountability for the life I wanted to live. I acknowledged that while I had no compass to follow, or roadmap to progress on, the journey to “solving” my problems would come in the form of a holistic understanding to my body, my mind, and my thoughts. The human system is too complicated, and too complex to foolishly think you can source the root cause to a singular problem or address the symptoms you notice without causing secondary and tertiary effects behind the scenes.
I tell people this journey has been the most fulfilling, and challenging endeavor I’ve encountered in my life so far. It’s the reason I’m writing this article today. It has served as a catalyst to the exploration of various subject matters and topics that I never knew existed and never would have interacted with had it not been for that night in Paris. From studying Stoic philosophy, to experimenting with a carnivore diet, my intellectual curiosity seems to continually find new sources of enlightenment and wonder in attempts to better understand myself. At the end of the day, you are your own guinea pig.
Because of the holistic nature of consciousness and personal interpretation of world phenomenon, there is no one-size fits all metric, tool, process, or approach to tackling adversity and obstacles throughout life. Sometimes talking to a trusted friend is the right tool for the job, but other times, new methods of self-discovery or resources will be needed to accomplish the mission. My intention is to open the arsenal of mechanisms that enhance self-development and continued learning in the hopes that through analysis and understanding, you can apply them in a manner that grants you a more fulfilling, and rich life.
Tool to Highlight: Meditation
Until recently, I never practiced any form of meditation. I wanted to be manly, which meant you deal with your problems head on, with violence of action. Sitting back and taking time to think was a sign of weakness. The latter statements could not be further from the truth.
An inspiration of mine, Chris Irwin, took to social media to present individuals with a 21 day mental fitness challenge (Mindful21) a few months ago. The cornerstone of it revolved around spending 21 minutes each day mediating, reading, doing brain exercises, journaling etc. Prioritizing mental development, exploration, and discipline helps individuals unlock the door to their true human performance potential. Chris beautifully describes that having a foundational mental paradigm gives you a springboard to then launch into life from.
Due to changing life circumstances and a multitude of new stressors presenting themselves, I was eager to implement a routine of meditation to explore the benefits it could offer. Being inspired by Chris’ challenge, and hearing positive reviews on the Waking Up app, I started the Introductory Course that Sam Harris constructed on the platform to allow individuals like myself to not only experiment with meditation, but also to learn about the scientific and philosophical understanding of meditation. His courses involve a wide range of concepts, techniques, and questions to reflect upon as you discover what constitutes “consciousness.”
In one of the very first lectures Sam gave, he said “The quality of your mind, determines the quality of your life.” As simple as it reads, its depth is tremendously impacting. The mindset you adopt, along with the physical chemistry of your brain directly correlates to your overall enjoyment of life. If you’re angry, it’s extremely hard, if not impossible, to feel joy for yourself or others. But as Sam notes, those feelings, sensations, and awareness can change very suddenly, often at your own election, which is where the power of meditation really shines bright.
“The quality of your mind, determines the quality of your life.”
Reading this post and now reflecting on the quote will not give you the full kit of tools to then navigate your own emotions and quality of mind. I bring that quote up as it serves to the basis of mindfulness—a state of clear, non-judgmental, and undistracted attention to the contents of consciousness. Mindfulness is about being less distracted by everything that is already happening and experiencing your life more clearly. Meditation is an effective tool to explore your thoughts and refine what you’re really paying attention to.
Sam believes attention is an individual’s true source of wealth, more so than time. He argues that you can waste time being distracted. Boredom then, is simply a failure to pay attention. In our modern world, us humans are constantly chasing stimuli and entertainment to fill the times we otherwise would be “in thought” or potentially “lost in thought.” If there is a break in conversation, or a lull in the day, pay attention to what your mind gravitates to, and also pay attention to what others subconsciously and/or unconsciously do. It’s scary that a screen 3x5 inches captivates so much of our “attention” throughout the day yet isn’t offering fulfillment or happiness as a byproduct. Individuals will close applications down feeling more anxious, more stressed, and more forlorn than in the direct moments preceding that action. When you experience a moment of joy, take note of your environment and your thoughts. Being able to recognize how you are feeling will allow you to appreciate that moment even more.
Attention is invaluable and should be treated with prestige. Future posts will dive into more specific aspects of mediation, consciousness, and mindfulness, but I highly recommend starting to analyze your own thoughts and attention spans in relation to your happiness and quality of life in those given moments. Start to catch yourself switching emotions almost at the snap of a finger as your thoughts change from one impression to another. It takes energy, both for good and for bad, to prolong any emotion. If you continue to stay upset at someone or something for a long duration of time, you can conclude that you are giving too much attention to that emotion or to that individual which is sustaining the feeling, rather than letting it simply come and go. Instead, navigate your thoughts and attention towards sources of joy and happiness. Meditation practices of various sorts can grant you the ability to be at attention and in control of the chaos that continuously penetrates your mind, allowing you to mitigate vicious thought cycles, and create more virtuous ones.
Idea to Embrace: Compersion
One of my favorite podcast hosts is an individual named Lex Fridman. He’s a Russian-born American that exemplifies many characteristics of being a modern renaissance-man. From creating AI programmed robots, to playing guitar, to practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Lex looks to capitalize on many facets of life. A question he asks all his guest at some point during their conversation is, “What is the meaning of life.” Very simple, but again, very profound.
He had a guest on by the name of Daniel Schmachtenberger in June of last year, who directed that line of thought towards the concept of “how to create a better world.” He postulated that these two questions are intrinsically tied together as to understand what makes life meaningful, you must understand the dynamics of the environment in which you live your life.
Mr. Schmachtenberger outlines a few metrics/models he would use to design a desirable civilization/world. The one that caught my attention, was his compassion-compersion index. Compersion is a rare word in our language, that sometimes isn’t even registered within dictionaries. It means the wholehearted participation in the happiness of others, the sympathetic joy we feel for somebody else, even when their positive experience does not involve or benefit us directly.
Evolutionarily, compersion was needed to allow humans to survive. In tight knit, nomadic groups, the success of an individual often meant success for the group as well. As civilizations grew, became settled, and evolved though, that relationship between individual and the group/others began to dwindle. Obviously, human advancement and innovation has afforded our species so many positive opportunities, but it’s important to note that elements of our brain/body chemistry and hormonal reward systems are still tied to the sense of compersion.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that humans have found a way to create more, build more, and consume more with each revolving trip around the sun. The “economic pie” continues to grow, yet we are as confrontational, jealous, and spiteful as ever. How is it the case that as we create more abundance, and more opportunities for individuals that they become greedier?
Compersion is a core component of healthy relationships. Those who have a significant other or meaningful individual in their life have probably felt the emotions tied to compersion. When your spouse completes a goal of theirs, you feel the joy as well even though your role was completely reserved to the sidelines. Seeing them happy automatically triggers happiness in you as well. That exact feeling is probably one of the best in the world, and I’m sure many individuals have a certain someone that comes to mind as they read those lines.
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
But compersion doesn’t need to be confined to romantic or serious relationships. Seeing the world through the lens of an abundance mindset allows you to understand that life is not a zero-sum game. Someone else doesn’t have to lose for you to win. Other people’s success doesn’t come at the detriment of your future ambitions. Begin to welcome joy for others where there is nothing inherently beneficial for you and see how your mood shifts.
It’s important to note that compersion is not “sacrificing” for others. Taking the burden off someone else’s plate doesn’t constitute as an act of compersion. Rather genuinely enjoying someone else’s success and accomplishments will move the needle in the right direction. Society is so divisive, polarized, and in desperate need of re-alignment that now is the time to emphasize compersion and compassion. It will take time but develop a practice that works for you where you recognize and appreciate when others achieve victories in their lives.
Resources for further discovery: