Delight

Delight

“Delight,” writes Michael Tisserand in his biography of George Herriman, Krazy, “was herriman’s strongest point in a world where most artists had lost it.”
When I was in college there was a spring morning where I went for a run at a local park. I didn’t have a lot going on that day (maybe some classes or work after my run) and I didn’t have to rush home after my workout. The park was up on a hill with a great view of Reno and I was able to sit on the grass and stretch as I cooled down from the run. At the time I was bored, not doing enough to engage with my university or local community, and I had lost a sense of delight with the world around me. As I sat and stretched I thought to myself, “is this really it? Is sitting around stretching after going for a run really all that I am going to do in life? Am I going to be this bored forever?”
It seems to me that as we move through life it is easy to lose our sense of delight. It is easy to become accustomed to the amazing technology of our time, to take something as enjoyable as stretching in park after a run for granted, and to be discontent with lives that by all objective measures are full of enjoyment. Somehow we lose our delight in the marvels of the world, mistaking them as simple, boring, and pedestrian.
George Herriman, Tisserand writes, never lost his sense of delight. His artwork did not turn scornful, sour, or stale. He continued creating comics, continued to brighten the world for others, and never failed to appreciate the position he was in as a cartoon artist.
Keeping delight in our world helps us maintain a sense of presence and helps us approach the world in a grateful manner. If we can be delighted with something as simple as a cup of coffee, a day with good weather, or something funny that a pet does, then we can find something to be happy about and a reason to continue to engage with the world. If we lose our sense of delight, then we risk being overcome with cynicism and selfishness. For Herriman, a man of black and Creole descent passing as a white man in the comics and newspaper industry, perhaps his continually precarious position and the luck and opportunity afforded to him by his light skin color helped him maintain a sense of delight. Perhaps that is what helped him learn to appreciate everything, since he lived a life that so easily could have been denied to him by racism and bigotry.
In my own life I have learned to greatly appreciate the simple moments of stretching in a park after a run, of drinking coffee in the morning, or of walking with my wife and our pup in the evening. These are not exciting moments and are experiences I have almost every day, but by learning to appreciate and find delight in them, I have learned to be more comfortable being who I am and where I am. I have learned to overcome some of my fear of missing out by finding delight in every moment, even if there is nothing remarkable about the moment. I still remember how I felt that day during college, but I look back and appreciate that moment rather than feeling as if my life was not or is not enough.
A Navajo Beauty Prayer

A Navajo Beauty Prayer

In his biography of George Herriman, author Michael Tisserand includes a Navajo Beauty Prayer that Herriman learned in Arizona and found ways to incorporate into his artwork. The poem goes:
“In beauty I walk
With beauty before me I walk
With beauty behind me I walk
With beauty above me I walk
With beauty around me I walk…”
I really like this poem and find it to be a powerful way to find presence, gratitude, and a sense of calmness. The poem reminds me of stoic ideas that I first learned about reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Meditations is a collection of notes that Aurelius wrote to himself, to remind himself to be thoughtful and considerate in all that he did. One of the ideas he returns to throughout the book is the power of being present, of not worrying about a future that hasn’t arrived and not being caught up in regret or sorrow over the past. Focusing on nature, Aurelius notes, can be a powerful way to stay grounded in the present moment and to recognize that much of what troubles us is in our minds, and not in the present world around us.
The Navajo poem focuses our attention in a meditative way on the present, especially if we can be outside in nature to recite the lines of the poem. We can appreciate the beauty of trees, the sky (even if cloudy), and the world around us. What we focus on will become our reality, and looking for beauty no matter where we are will help us see the world through a more positive lens. Our world is defined by how we use our mind and the poem reminds us of the power of our mind as it focuses it on positivity and beauty.
The Happiness of the Moment

The Happiness of the Moment

In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes, “remember that neither the future nor the past pains thee, but only the present.” He also writes, “if though holdest to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with thy present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which though utterest, though wilt live happy.”

 

Aurelius is a foundational Stoic thinker. A key part of stoicism is remaining in the present moment, focused on where you are now, what you are doing now, and how you can best use your current time. Worrying about what will happen in the future and feeling regretful of what has happened in the past only distracts from the present moment, bringing anxiety to situations that on their own do not cause any negativity in our lives.

 

The stoics, it turns out, were largely correct about finding happiness in the present moment. Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking Fast and Slow, writes, “Our emotional state is largely determined y what we attend to, and we are normally focused on our current activity and immediate environment. There are exceptions, where the quality of subjective experience is dominated by recurrent thoughts rather than by the events of the moment.”

 

Happiness is generally an emotion we feel when we are present. By refocusing our mind on our present activity and finding constructive and useful outlets for our attention, we can find happiness, even if our past has been a nightmare or if we are afraid of what will come in the future. It is important to learn lessons from the past and important to plan for the future to be successful and maximize our opportunities to meaningfully engage in the world, but when we spend all our time allowing recurrent thoughts to dominate our mind, we will diminish our overall happiness. If we constantly think about something embarrassing from the past, if we are always worried about an upcoming deadline, or if we only think forward to vacations and what we would rather be doing, then we won’t be happy in the moment. We won’t make the most of our current situation, and we won’t be content where we are. By focusing on the present and attending to a single present task or activity (even if it is just our breath), then we can root ourselves to our current state, and allow the regret and fears from our past and future to begin to melt away.

Slumps

“Slumps are normal,” writes Dan Pink in his book When, “but they’re also short-lived. Rising out of them is as natural as falling into them. Think of it as if it were a cold: It’s a nuisance, but eventually it’ll go away, and when it does, you’ll barely remember it.”

 

Pink’s quote about slumps ties back to stoic philosophy in many ways. Stoicism encourages us to focus on the present moment and avoid ruminating over the past or fearing for the future. When we are in a slump, we are in a sense doing both of those things. We are thinking of a future without creativity or the possibility of things being better, ultimately zapping our energy and ability to put forward a meaningful effort in the present. We are also thinking of a past that held more promise than the present moment, and wondering why and how the energy of the past disappeared. What we are not thinking of is how we can use our present moment to make improvements and take steps that meaningfully improve our current situation.

 

The slumps that Pink focuses on are the midpoint slumps in projects that we engage with in work type situations. His advice and reflections on slumps, however, can carry over into many areas of our lives. A slump in a school report or business project parallels slumps that we might feel in middle age or even just in the middle of a work-week (fitting for me to be writing this on a Wednesday morning).

 

“If you’re feeling stuck in the middle of a project, picture one person who’ll benefit from your efforts. Dedicating your work to that person will deepen your dedication to your task.”

 

The problem with a slump is that we are focused inward and fixated on a past that was better and a future we fear will be even more bleak. Changing our perspective to think about how we can make a difference for someone else shifts our thoughts back to the present moment, as stoicism encourages, and gets us to think beyond our own problems and concerns. It forces us to ask what we are doing with our brain power and efforts now, and how we can use the resources available in a way that maximizes our impact for the world around us. Helping others can be inspiring, and it can serve as a spark to help us overcome slumps in business, school, and life. It changes our motivation and helps us imagine a future that can improve over our past. Thinking of how we can help others isn’t just wishful thinking, it is practical thinking about the ways we can be better in the present moment and helps get us through our own slumps.

Present in Mind and Body

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “You must be not only present in the body, but watchful in mind, if you would avail yourself of the fleeting opportunity.” I am always surprised by how hard it is to actually be present at any given moment. Our minds think far faster than we can talk or do any physical activity. From what I remember from a psychology class in college, our minds can think somewhere around 400 words per minute. We talk at about 200 words per minute when talking quickly and our pulse is much closer to about 60-ish beats per minute when just sitting around relaxed (just off memory so double check those numbers if you are really curious). Our brains are seriously quick, and that gives the mind extra time to jump around outside of our body and outside of our current setting.

 

I started reading the first Harry Potter book as a little break from non-fiction and one of the surprising things about the book is how quickly I detach from the present moment. Throughout the series, which I am now reading as quickly as possible it seems, I have found myself completely unaware of my physical surroundings and I have noticed my mind continually wanders away from the present in a day-dream. I will admit that I have enjoyed the books and the time that has flown by while reading them, but I do find it a little concerning how quickly my mind will jump out of my body into the story and steal away 10 minutes, an hour, or an entire evening in story, absent of the present moment and the things that my mind originally intended to do.

 

Seneca’s quote is about opportunity, and this morning I am reading it more as a quote about intention and doing meaningful things that we want to do. A good quick example to illustrate my thoughts comes from the world of sports. When we really train for something in a serious manner, we know that we have to put in deliberate practice. If we are just trying to stay fit then it is fine to hit the gym with our music, listen to a podcast while lifting weights, or lose ourselves in our thoughts or music while jogging comfortably. However, if we want to train to be a great martial artist, if we want to train to make a free throw when the game is on the line, and if we really want to stick that ski jump landing, then we need to focus on our physical body and what we need to do to perfectly execute our desired sports performance. If we are not also mentally present, then we miss the opportunity to apply ourselves in a serious way.

 

Presence is a sense of awareness of where we are, of the time, and of the opportunities in front of us. This is what the Harry Potter series, while I have enjoyed it, has stolen from me. I am physically present and where I need to be, but my mind has been running at 400 words per minute through a fictional world and magical fantasy. I think it is great to read fiction and get some story exposure in our minds, but we should remember the opportunities we miss if we can’t bring ourselves back to a mental presence. We need to be aware of our physical situation and also our mental situation if we really want to make the most out of the time we have on our planet.

Present Minded Relationships

Self-reflection is a central theme in all of Colin Wright’s writing, and his book Some Thoughts About Relationships provides us with real life examples of how self-awareness and reflection can help us in our day to day lives. In his book, Wright describes how our relationships can be strengthened when we focus on the context around our relationships and can identify our ideas, expectations, and reactions surrounding our current relationships.  Focusing on past relationships without considering context can take us away from our current relationship, and trying to live in a relationship while constantly thinking about what we will want from our relationship in the future risks damaging our current interactions with our partner. Focusing too much on either past or future relationships makes it difficult for us to engage in a meaningful way with the people in our lives right now.

 

In his book, he writes, “The ‘you’ of this moment should judge relationships based on who you are now and what you want today, not standards made up by someone else, standards developed by you at a very different time in your life, or standards that you think may apply to you at some point in the future. Allow your happiness to be now-centric and enjoy it.”

 

Wright is not encouraging us to live a wild lifestyle based purely on hedonistic desires, but rather encourages us to be present in our relationships and to be aware of what we and our partner want, expect, and enjoy. His quote is powerful because it addresses many of the hang-ups that people face in relationships when they are not honest with themselves or their partner.

 

Seeking a relationship to mirror that of your parents or to avoid the troubles of your parents can put a lot of pressure on you to build a relationship that fits a preconceived notion of what a happiness is, how you should act, and how your partner should act. Approaching a relationship in this way is an act of giving up control of your own relationship and self, and places unrealistic burdens and demands on both you and your partner as you try to live an idealized life meant to impress others rather than bring about growth and fulfillment for you and your significant other.

 

Similarly, focusing on past relationships or future expectations can be dangerous as it may lead you to try to change yourself or your partner to fit environments in which you do not actually live. Asking your partner to fit into a mold built by past relationships may be unrealistic since your relationship with your current partner is between you and them, and not you and your past self or a past individual. Asking your partner to fit your future expectations is equally challenging since you can never truly predict what you will want and need in your future life. Living outside the present forces you and your partner to constantly live in a balance where fictional ideas of relationships impact who you at the expense of what you actually feel, want, and experience.

Put on Autopilot

“Many of our daily habits are put on autopilot, which conserves valuable thought-fueling energy that needn’t be wasted on familiar movements, experiences, and interactions.” Author Colin Wright writes in his book Come Back Frayed. Wright uses this quote to explain the way we build routines in our lives and the danger that automating our actions can have when we forget to experience and focus on the present moment. The quote above introduces the idea of autopilot, giving us a perspective of autopilot’s usefulness in terms of conserving energy and decision making power, but Wright continues to explain what can go wrong when we let too much of our lives be controlled without our conscious thought:

 

“As a result of this routine-building predisposition, we barely notice the drive to work, and sometimes find ourselves looking up from the steering wheel, already at the office parking lot and unable to recall the specifics of how we got there. … This automation goes far beyond commuting. We listen to the same, familiar music, have the same conversations with well-known, comfortable friends, loop through the same meal-time, bed time, and after-work habits that we’ve been repeating for months, years, perhaps decades. It’s no surprise that time compresses under these circumstances. … At some point it’s not the parking lot that we notice when we look up from the steering wheel, but life. We’re here, experiencing this point in time, but unsure of how we got here. Where did all those years go? Why doesn’t anything from the time between now and back then stand out?”

 

The danger of autopilot is that we put off being an active participant in our lives, and as a result, we fail to build a real history for ourselves. The problem that Wright explains is not with our routines and habits, but it is with our failure to be mindful and present in familiar moments. The more we can be present in even the simplest actions, the more we can become aware of the world around us and engage in a meaningful way to shape the direction of our life. Time will likely still go by too fast and some points will feel compressed, but by being more present in our actions we open new opportunities for ourselves to connect with others, grow, learn, and produce something meaningful with our time.

 

Wright travels frequently and actively believes in changing his surroundings by changing his physical location on the planet. This keeps his habits and routines constantly in flux, and forces him to be aware of his thoughts, actions, and decisions. It is hard to build a similar lifestyle, but we can build habits in our lives that put us in new positions and unfamiliar surroundings, rather than just building habits that replicate the same experience day after day. Creating situations that are not routine forces our brain to be active and present to process the world around us, and these moments may be the defining points in life that help us understand and delineate our growth through time.

The Process

In The Obstacle is the Way, author Ryan Holiday looks at the unprecedented success of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban to share a lesson about reaching our goals. He includes the following quote from Saban,
“Don’t think about winning the SEC championship. Don’t think about the national championship. Think about what you need to do in this drill, on this play, in  this moment. That’s the process: Let’s think about what we can do today, the task at hand.”
This brilliant quote about focus shifts our perspective from the long run success we aim toward to our current actions, but in a way that ensures that our actions always align with our ultimate goal. Holiday pieces apart Saban’s quote by writing,
“Okay, you’ve got to do something very difficult. Don’t focus on that. Instead break it down into pieces. Simply do what you need to do right now. And do it well. And then move on to the next thing. Follow the process and not the prize.”
What is so powerful about the process is that each step and each action builds toward the final goal. We do not arbitrarily shoot toward where we think we want to go, but we build each moment into a blueprint that guides us to our ultimate destination. By constantly reflecting on our actions and striving performing at our best with each task in front of us, we make sure that we continually grow. We push ourselves to bring excellence into each moment so that whether or not we reach out goal, we end up in a place where habit of excellence allows us to be successful.
Holiday’s quote shows us that success stems from growth through the process and in being mindful of how we perform each action. We may not end up being the champion, receiving the promotion, or winning the contest, but we will have built skills that will serve us in the future. The process may not always give us the reward we hope for, but it prepares us for any obstacle that we may face, and will build toward exceptional outcomes.
I think this quote on its own seems to contradict the message I presented from Holiday in my last three passages. However, when you look deeper you see the way the process aligns with the idea of playing for the long run and going beyond the whistle. The process allows us to take our long term goal and break it into bite size mini goals that constantly build in an intentional direction. The process provides us with clarity to overcome obstacles and challenges by focusing on the here and now, rather than the cumulative roadblocks we know we will face. It is also aligned so that each individual action builds toward our final goal and allows us to persist toward our destination.

More on Perception

Ryan Holiday in his book, The Obstacle is the Way, looks at the ways we think about and approach the world around us, and offers suggestions and ideas for how we can become more adaptive and better suited for the challenges of life’s journey. A common theme in his book is the power of perception and the importance of being able to step back and expand our perspective. Holiday writes, “It’s our preconceptions that are the problem. They tell us that things should or need to be a certain way, so when they’re not, we naturally assume that we are at a disadvantage or that we’d be wasting our time to pursue an alternate course. When really, it’s all fair game, and every situation is an opportunity for us to act.”

 

Holiday’s quote has two parts for me. The first part is the idea that we are constantly approaching the world with certain perspectives, and as we do so, we have preconceived ideas about how things should be. Our expectations become powerful guides dictating the experiences we expect, and how we interpret those experiences. If we can begin to better recognize our perspective we can hopefully get to a point where these preconceived ideas are no longer hidden from us, but rather are clear for us to see and leave behind. When we can get rid of ideas for how the world should be, how we should feel, and what is the right way for  the world to organize itself around us, we can be more complete and true versions of ourselves. Our emotions cease to drive our behavior and we can remain more level in our emotions as we are not wrought by the failure of the world to reach our expectations.

 

The second part of Holiday’s quote focuses on an idea of taking action and thinking about ourselves relative to others. It is challenging not to think of the world as a constant contest, and it is hard to avoid comparing ourselves with others who come from different backgrounds, have different interests, and have different skills. Constantly expecting a certain outcome because we have confidence in our ability can only lead us to frustrations when the outcomes we want fail to materialize. What is even worse, we may fail to act at all because our preconceived ideas about what will result from our action do not line up with what we would want. The true problem when we dictate our world based on hidden preconceived ideas is that we are giving up our focus on the present for our imagination of what the future provides. Our preconceptions are driven by the past and keep our attention fixed to an uncertain future. Remaining present in the moment grounds us to our current actions and eliminates our preconceived ideas for what we want and expect, allowing us to be the best version of our selves and to put our best effort into what is currently in front of us.

Presence During Tough Times

Author Ryan Holiday wrote about the ways in which we can take the challenges and struggles in our lives and turn them into opportunities for us to grow, learn, and become more complete human beings in his book The Obstacle is the Way. Holiday’s message is always relevant and important for anyone, regardless of your situation. He offers strategies and ways of thinking based on stoic philosophy, but he does so in a way that recognizes our humanity and recognizes that though simple in theory, his recommendations are challenging in real life. What his book gives us is a new perspective on struggles and a practice that overtime can help us succeed when we face obstacles and frustrations.

 

One of the key ideas from his book is our ability to focus on the present moment and to reshape the way in which we interpret events around us. Often times we tear ourselves apart in fear of the unknown future and regret of our past. Holiday encourages us to stay in the present moment and to truly understand our current situation to better handle the mistakes we have made and to better navigate the uncertainty of what is ahead. Holiday writes, “You can take the trouble you’re dealing with and use it as an opportunity to focus on the present moment. To ignore the totality of your situation and learn to be content with what happens, as it happens. To have no “way”  that the future needs to be to confirm your predictions, because you didn’t make any.”

 

In this quote Holiday reminds us that each struggle and each moment of frustration, fear, and doubt can be a tool for us to use to change our perspective. We may be working hard to have life be a certain way, and our obstacles can help us analyze our current situation, recognize that all we have control over is our own thoughts, and let go of the anxiety that builds when we try to force our lives to be a certain way. The act of presence during tough times helps us see the positives and keeps us from letting our mind connect current troubles to past challenges or future fears. Staying present in these difficult moments helps us learn how to be present in every moment, and helps us recognize that all we ever have is the current time.