To save time spent in scrutinizing, you have heard this before: “Today could be your last.”
There, I said it. But I don’t think a single moment is wasted in emphasizing this cliche. “Today could be your last. TODAY COULD BE YOUR LAST.” All things considered, with every philosophy concerning the impermanence of life, with countless religions going far and beyond to predict and portend the (imminent) end of days as we know it, and with an ocean-wave uprising of motivational orators yell-encouraging all those within earshot to take each of the 86,400 seconds of an Earth’s rotation by the balls, this notion has become impossible to ignore and, I would posit, harder still to deny. Right?
And yet, according to a recent study, the average American spends roughly 5,400 of those precious seconds PER DAY staring passionately into the glossy dopamine-abyss of his or her smartphone. That’s 90 minutes, folks; 23 days out of the year, summing up to a staggering 3.9 years of one’s entire existence–gonezo. Now, I won’t go on ranting about your cellphone usage; that isn’t the point of this writing. Relating to my previous post Wannabe Saint (1:2), if it isn’t a cellphone, it’s the void of one’s mind, and somewhere strung along this cosmic expanse of thoughtlessly expended time, it’s nine seasons of a Netflix Original over the weekend or a consistently drunken blur of nights remembered in mostly regretful clips and blips, resulting in tomorrows spent wishing you could marry the toilet. It’s an abusive or otherwise loveless relationship, or a crippling depression upon its end. It’s a job you hate for a paycheck that doesn’t last. Statistically speaking, 85 percent of the world’s population dislikes or even hates what they do for a living. 85 percent of the world reduces its life worth to the ass-end of wretched week after week to earn a paycheck lasting less than a fortnight, affording barely the bills–for the cell phone, the Netflix subscription, the booze. The term “paycheck-to-paycheck” encapsulates the lifestyles of nearly 80 percent of full-time workers in the U.S. alone.
Chances are, if you’re reading this, it applies to you. Hell, it applies to me. Modern neuroscience has proven the default function of the human brain serves to an outdated lifestyle, that of a survivalist during the hunter/gatherer era nearly two million years passed: in lieu of real danger, conditioned to meticulously scan our conscious and subconscious minds for something–anything–to stress over. When something negative occurs, the sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear, triggering a potentially limitless number of subsequent stressful blows which Buddhist philosophy calls “second darts.” You hate your job and so you sit dreading the next shift over your morning coffee. You wake up later and later until every day is a rush, sleeping or brooding your free hours into nonexistence, the beauty of a sunrise relegated to an irritating light in your eyes along the drive. You get into a fight with your best friend and she calls you a bitch, so you shut down. Internalized anger and hurt paint your mind in darkening shades; you think, No, she’s a bitch! or, conversely, worry at length if she was right, if you’re a bad person, and if you’re better off alone. Maybe you already feel alone, that you have no friends and nobody likes you, nobody cares. Maybe it seems you have nothing to offer, no talent or imagination, nothing worthwhile to say or contribute to the world. And you aren’t wrong, are you? I mean, no one knows you like you do. No one else can glimpse the vast labyrinth of your inner self and even if they could, they wouldn’t understand. Surely, it’s more practical to hide behind social media applications or within the fantasy of an occult television series. It’s more feasible to pretend the world and our problems away, to deaden our anxieties with easy-access dopamine and our dreams with loathsome jobs that pay the bills.
“What we think, we become.” This quote is also commonly associated with Buddhist philosophy. It’s a loose conversion of a passage translated from the Dhammapada, which reads: “Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought.” This refers not only to what we think, but what we feel, more accurately conveyed: “What we think and feel, we become.” Have you ever heard of positive affirmations? This is the practice of thinking or verbalizing positive thoughts or feelings about oneself, consistently, in order to foster their belief. It is essentially the practice of compassion for oneself. To implement a phrase from neuroscience: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” This refers to consistent patterns of thoughts or actions, either positive or negative, literally forging neural structures in the brain and directly influencing our subsequent thoughts and actions. It’s common knowledge that it takes a minimum of three weeks to make or break a habit. Now, consider this concept of habits or “rituals”; these terms refer to actions which are carried out on a consistent–typically daily–basis. A routine of any kind can only be established through such consistency. Your way of thinking is no exception. Apply this understanding to the view you have of yourself, of your worth, of your potential, and your limits. “What we think and feel, we become.” “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” You tell yourself you will fail and so you fail and are a failure. You tell yourself you have no talent or that you’re better off alone and so you never try to begin with. Because you believe you are alone, you remain alone and because you believe you have no talent, you give up on practicing and never improve. The same goes for getting healthier and into shape, along with any educational, relationship, spiritual or career-related pursuit. We dig our holes and sit in them.
“You use it or lose it,” to quote another important cliche. If you stop exercising, your stamina, strength and musculature will inevitably dwindle; soon energy levels will plummet, along with metabolism and motivation. If an aspiring painter ceases to paint, the blade of his skill will grow dull; as with any unnurtured artful practice, the imagination will begin to shrivel into subconscious, passion will dissolve, and inspiration will ebb. And if one consistently fails to recognize his or her goodness it will fade into fiction; the highlights of personality and self-worth will die down like tired embers, perpetuating humanity’s most vicious of cycles.
By our very nature, negativity comes to define us. Failure breeds doubt, doubt breeds frustration; frustration breeds inaction which yields way to potentially crippling anxiety, the proverbial Achilles heel of countless, perfectly beautiful people throughout the world. Anxiety, the silent loudness of one’s thoughts, thoroughly contradicting reality as it occurs, working to amplify the negative and snuff out the positive, all due to an unfortunate but correctable default mechanism of the human brain. Anxiety lies. So convincingly, it interjects fabricated claims of unworthiness which distort the truth and sever our awareness from the world before our waking eyes. And what’s worse, we know it.
How many times have you heard a friend, family member or even a colleague say, “I have anxiety.” You see it on Facebook. You maybe say it yourself. Remember the earlier bit about positive affirmations? About it going both ways? “What you think and feel, you become.”
To quote Wannabe Saint once more, in reference to your demons (in this case, anxiety), “Only by your consent are they made powerful. And only by your neglect are you made weak.”
The issue lay not in the existence of anxiety but in our succumbing to it. We acquiesce to trusting these unjust fallacies because we’re too afraid to trust ourselves. We don’t give ourselves credit where credit is due. We don’t give ourselves compassion.
A lack of compassion for oneself leads to a deficiency of self-worth and confidence, leading to a life lacking luster and often resulting in a generally negative view of the world and of those who inhabit it. In this one granted life, on this day, the today which very well could “be your last”–whether from heart failure or undetected cancer, a drunk driver, sudden expansion of the sun, a nuclear bomb or the long-fabled rapture–wouldn’t you wish for your final memories to bring peace, joy and contentment to your heart? Wouldn’t you wish you had taken that art class, tried yoga on the beach, gone hiking or danced in the moonlight? Wouldn’t you regret spending more time on your cell phone than with family or friends, or that you invested who knows how many precious, forever-gone moments into a job which earned you less money than misery?
In the last decade, there’s been a massive influx of fascination for zombies–video games, comic books, movies, occult series–you name it. Such irony.
An insurmountable number of individuals lead their life constricted by a two million-year-old template. They have survived this long burdened by caution bred from this lack of fundamental self-trust. As I expressed in my previous post, they aren’t dead, but they aren’t alive either. And so, whether you’re a member of Generations X, Y or Z, whether you’re black, white, oriental or Hispanic, whether you’re rich, poor or somewhere in between, we are all, by default of our hapless neuroevolution, the relative Undead.
Luckily, there’s a cure.
While difficult to grasp at first, the remedy is simple, free, and available to anyone and everyone willing to commit their minds to positive change. In a word, you need only to notice.
Get comfortable; take a deep breath, in through the nose, out through the mouth. Now another. This is one effective way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), responsible for senses of relaxation, happiness and contentedness. Imagine your autonomic nervous system is split into yin and yang (minus the enteric nervous system). The PNS would then represent yang to the yin of the aforementioned sympathetic nervous system (SNS), responsible for alertness, focus, determination and the “fight or flight” mechanism of the brain–in other words, stress. Both are necessary to living, however, neuroevolution has conditioned a kind of hyperactivity of our sympathetic response mechanism, resulting in overstressing situations (current, future or from the past), inaction and anxiety, more often than not about things over which we have no control. By this method of breathing, you are essentially communicating to your brain that there is no need for alarm. Now, take a moment to reflect:
What’s something you like about yourself? Anything, no matter how small. Hold that thought deep in your mind; take a moment to appreciate it and allow that appreciation to fill you. Remind yourself that you are an important person, that you are worth it, and say it aloud. Next, what is something you’re good at or something you’d like to be good at? Imagine how it feels to spend time doing whatever it is, or the sense of fulfillment upon giving it a try and working to become better. Think of something you have succeeded in at any point in your life. An item you’ve checked off your to-do list or a goal you have achieved. Maybe you knitted a scarf or went on a walk. Maybe you gave up soda for a week or a year or altogether. Perhaps you did something kind for someone without any expectations, or even something as seemingly small as making your bed when you woke up. Allow yourself to be proud of this success, to be proud of yourself, and realize that you are capable. Then say it aloud. Lastly, conjure up the face of someone you hold dear. Bring to mind what it feels like to share time with them and embrace the sensation this evokes. Is there laughter? Are you smiling? What is it about this person you cherish? It could be a parent or a sibling, a best friend, lover or even a colleague you admire. Recall the happiness you feel when you’re with them and focus on it; let it wash over you. Know that this person cares for you and say to yourself with confidence, “I am worthy of love.” Take another deep breath, in through the nose, out through the mouth.
At this point, your mind has probably drifted a time or two. You’ve maybe had thoughts arise to contradict your positive words or lacked conviction in them to begin with. This is normal. It takes practice. Consistency. As I stated earlier, the human mind gravitates toward negativity, searching for an issue–any issue–to obsess over, even when the problem is beyond our control. You can’t change your physical appearance or the opinions of others. You can’t alter the weather or the economy or the circumstances of your upbringing. You can’t change the past by dwelling on it–the hurt of a breakup, the death of a loved one, an opportunity missed–and the fear you feel for the future only subtracts from the now. But if you take the time to notice, every day, to accept and experience each present moment as it comes, being true to your heart and your ideals along the way, you will find the accumulation of these powerful instances will sum up to a much happier future, with memories far more profound than regrets to look back on. By placing your soul in this moment you are made truly alive. When a negative thought appears–as you will come to realize–from nowhere at all, simply examine the thought and understand it is only a fiction manifested by the subconscious mind to lure you out of this moment. Consciously replace the negative thought with any of the positive feelings discussed in the previous paragraph. As you allow that feeling to fill you, notice the negative thought as it transforms and disappears. This is your power as an individual, to control your own mind and channel its focus into something worth the time of this present moment. Because once it’s gone, it’s gone for good.
Consider this: the phrase “making memories” refers to a conscious process. To make, by definition, is to “cause something to exist or come about.” That being said, this practice of consistent presence will take effort. The best things in life always do. So, my fellow undead, I implore you to stop waiting for some magical fix-all, to quit worrying about the things you cannot change and to take action where it will fulfill you. Steer your attention away from the pain of yesterdays and the dread of tommorrows and make your life happen today. If you’re miserable at your job, know that your well-being is worth more than paper. Choose to find a new one, or make a conscious effort to notice the goodness where you are. If you want to become healthier, buy a gym membership, go on a bike ride or a hike. Make time to cook yourself a healthy, homemade meal and take pride in the process. Put down your cell phone while in the company of those you care about and give a hobby you’ve long considered an earnest shot.
It’s a new year, dear reader, but there is no need for a new you. You are the same beautiful human being you have been since your birth. I hope now, having read this, you will begin to notice, and that today will be spent making memories. Because while tomorrow is uncertain and yesterday has passed, you are living right now–“Today could be your last.”
(Sidenote: Any and all support is well appreciated. I would very much love to grow this content to prevalence. If you’d be so kind, click the email sign up link below to follow Small Town Philosophy. I aim to post new content every week, likely between Sunday and Wednesday. Many thanks!)
I would like to accredit the book I am currently perusing, for its wealth of knowledge pertaining to the practical neuroscience discussed in this post. It’s called Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson, PH.D. If you haven’t already, I suggest you give it a read (or three). It is incredibly well-written and insightful. Whether you’re seeking to deepen your spiritual understanding, reduce your daily stress or you simply enjoy a good book, it will be well worth your time investment.