How to Let Go of Any Possession

Over the years, I’ve come to be very good at letting go of just about anything.

In fact, I’ve come to relish the joy of letting go of possessions. It’s liberating and delicious!

But most people I know struggle with letting go of the possessions they hold onto most tightly. There’s nothing physical that keeps us from letting go of possessions — it’s just our attachment that gets in the way.

I’m going to share how I let go of attachment to possessions (other kinds of attachment, I’m still figuring out!) in this short guide.

If you follow this guide, you will become a certified minimalist!

The Guiding Principle

In theory, we can let go of every single possession. Sure, for practical purposes, we’ll need at least one outfit and shelter and a way to eat and use the bathroom. And even more practically, we’ll need a house and things to wear for a job and so on. But letting go of a possession that you don’t absolutely need for practical purposes is theoretically possible.

So what stops us?

Every possession gives us something beyond pure practicality. Or at least, we believe that they do. This is the key to understanding how to let go — understanding what you believe the possession does for you.

For example, here are some common things we think possessions give us:

  • Security: Having items that keep you safe, or that you keep “just in case,” give us the illusion of some kind of security. When we’re feeling uncertainty, we run out and buy things. The truth is that even with a house full of safety items and emergency preparation items and backup everything … we still have insecurity. There is still tremendous uncertainty. We could get blown up by a nuclear missile, demolished by a hurricane or raging fire, or die of a heart attack or cancer, despite our best preparations. Security is an illusion.
  • Comfort: We keep a lot of things because we think they give us comfort or pleasure. For example, snack foods, video games, anything else you find pleasurable or comfortable. They might seem to give you temporary pleasure or comfort from stress … but it’s like scratching an itch that just keeps being itchy, and that gives you sores from scratching it so much. Eating junk food (and all the other forms of pleasure and comfort we all indulge in) only gives you more pain and less comfort over the long term.
  • Self-image: Most items fall under this category — we keep things because we feel they give us a certain self-image. For example, a leather jacket might make you feel cool (or maybe if it has metal studs, you feel tough), or having certain books on your shelf might make you feel educated or smart. If you have a lot of expensive stuff, you might feel they give you the image of success. Most of the things you have that aren’t 100% practical give you a certain self-image. Except … they don’t. The self-image is completely generated in your head. It’s not real, but to the extent that it’s in your head, it wasn’t created by possessions — it was created by you.
  • Love: If you have something given to you by a grandparent, or other loved one … you might think that item gives you certain memories, certain emotions. In essence, you think that cherished gift gives you their love. But their love isn’t in the thing. It doesn’t come from the thing. In fact, the love is in you. You generate the love and memories. The item is unnecessary for this process.

You get the idea. There might be other things you think that your possessions give you … but they don’t really give you those things. They come from within you.

You give yourself a sense of security, comfort, self-image, memories and love. Not any item.

Letting Go of the Most Difficult Possessions to Release

Of course, we don’t have to get rid of everything … but what would it feel like to let go of your most tightly held attachments? Could you discover a new sense of self, a sense of liberation, a world full of new possibilities?

What would it be like if you let go of everything you didn’t absolutely use and need on a regular basis? Sure, keep your car, phone, computer, basic clothing and toiletries. Keep your most essential dishes and cookingware. Keep your couch and bed and dresser drawer. But see what it would be like to get rid of most of the other stuff — I bet you’ll find it as enlightening as I do.

With the Guiding Principle from the previous section in mind, let’s look at how to let go of the possessions that most people have difficulty releasing:

  1. Books. If you love books, you probably have a hard time letting them go. You might not even question the need to have so many. It’s part of who you are. But instead of solidifying who you are, consider who you’d be without all of them. What if you had zero books? Who would you be? It’s an open question. You can reinvent yourself, and you don’t need books to find out who you really are. Try this: pick the books you’re actually going to read in the next 6 months. Base the number on how many you’ve actually read in the last 6 months. Now let go of everything else, because you don’t need them. You can usually get them at the library, if you ever really want it again. But you can find free or cheap books all over the place, and won’t need the books on your shelf in a year.
  2. Photos, mementos. I’m not saying you need to get rid of all photos and mementos. But they don’t give you what you think they do — the love for your loved ones is in your heart, not in the photos, and the memories of your trip to Greece aren’t in that trinket you got in that store in Santorini. Instead, why not just snap photos of everything using your phone, and put them in a folder you use for a rotating screensaver? You’ll still have the reminders of your experiences and loved ones, but without the possessions you don’t need.
  3. Gifts. Often we keep these for the same reason as photos and mementos — they remind us of loved ones who gave us the gifts. Deal with those in the same way as photos and mementos above. But often we hold on to gifts because of a sense of obligation, as if we owed it to our loved ones to hold on to every gift they have given us. No! Gifts aren’t an obligation, a burden to carry for the rest of your life. They are a gesture of love, one that is received as soon as the gift is given, but the love isn’t in the gift itself. And the love certainly isn’t in the sense of burden and obligation. Instead, snap a photo of the gift, and give it to someone who will actually use and treasure it.
  4. Clothes that make you feel a certain way. Maybe your clothes make you feel cool, trendy, beautiful, badass. Maybe it’s not clothes, but shoes, a bag, a pocket knife, or some gadget you carry around. We wear or carry these things to give people a certain image of ourselves, and to feel a certain way. In truth, we create this feeling and self-image, not the things. And we can’t control how other people will see us. Even better, let’s let go of that worry, and just be as true to our hearts as we can be, without posturing or pretending by dressing a certain way. Imagine if you just wore minimal, functional clothing, and let people form their impression of you by interacting with you, by experiencing your raw open heart. What a world that might be!
  5. Exercise or outdoor equipment. Do you actually use the equipment? I can’t tell you how many people I know who have bought a treadmill, elliptical machine, rowing machine or nautilus weight set and then used it only three times. The machine sits there for years, gathering dust. Let it go! You can still get fit without it — try going for a walk, adding in a few running or sprint intervals if the walk is too easy. Try doing some pushups, lunges, squats, chinups. Try some sun salutations for 20 minutes. Try pliometric exercises if those are too easy. We barely need anything (if anything) to get fit and healthy, to enjoy the outdoors.
  6. Items for hobbies you’re not actually doing. Over the years, I’ve gotten into a few hobbies that I was into for a month or so, and then fell out of interest with them. I kept thinking I was going to start them again sometime soon. And I kept not doing it. Finally I let go of all of those items, and it was a huge relief. I didn’t have to keep feeling guilty that I wasn’t doing those hobbies. I could just do the things I love doing right now, without some kind of placeholder for the future.
  7. Just-in-case items. These are things you might need someday, but haven’t used for years. Let ’em go. Ask yourself, “What are the chances I’ll really need this?” And also ask, “In the slim possibility that this need actually arises … how hard would it be for me to make do without, borrow the item, or find a cheap replacement for it?” For most things I’ve let go like this, I’ve never once needed it again. For others, I could get at a thrift store, borrow from a friend, or buy a cheap version at a big box store if necessary. I have never regretted letting go of these items. The security they give you is an illusion anyway — why not try living without any of that false sense of security? Why not embrace the uncertainty of life, and trust that you’ll be able to deal with whatever comes up? You always have so far.
  8. Things you spent a lot of money on. There is the guilt of getting rid of that item because you spent hundreds (or thousands) of dollars on it. The feeling that you’re wasting that money by giving it away. But you wasted the money when you bought it … holding onto it for longer and not using it doesn’t change that fact. Let go of the sunk-cost fallacy and just cut your losses. Forget about what you spent on it in the past (that’s gone) and think about what benefits you’ll get going forward … and what the costs are going forward. Most likely the costs of holding onto these items is much more than the (non-existent) benefits of holding onto them.

You might have other aspirational items (see the sections above on books and hobbies) or items that make you feel a certain way (see the section on clothing above) … but it all boils down to this:

You don’t need possessions to give you a feeling about yourself or your life. It all comes from within yourself — you yourself are the creator of who you are.

With that in mind, try letting go of that which you don’t absolutely use and need, and explore what happens. It’s one of the things I savor the most.

Open This Content

A Case Against Optimizing Your Life

Many people I know are on a quest to optimize their lives — some of my favorite people in the world will spend days trying to perfect a productivity system, get things automated, or find the perfect software for anything they’re doing. They are on a continual search for the perfect diet, the perfect work routine, the perfect travel setup.

Optimizing can take quite a bit of time and energy.

What would happen if we let go of optimizing? Who would we be without the idea that we should optimize everything?

One idea is that if we decided not to optimize everything, we’d stop caring, stop trying to make things better, and live suboptimal lives. But I know myself pretty well — I will always care, even if I am not trying to optimize. I will always do my best, which is different than optimizing — it’s taking care and giving love, even if things aren’t optimized. I believe most of you are this way, pouring your hearts into something with pure love, without needing to make everything perfect.

So why shouldn’t we optimize? And what would it be like if we didn’t?

Give me a few moments to make the case against optimizing, and present an alternative way.

The Case Against Optimizing

I don’t think people who optimize are idiots (many of the smartest people do it), nor is it a life-ruining thing to try to optimize. I’ve done it many times.

But consider:

  1. The savings never get realized. When you try to optimize, you are spending some of your precious life moments trying to find the perfect setup. Sure, once you’re done, things will theoretically be set up perfectly from then on, so over the long run you should save a lot of time and effort, right? Well, first, let’s acknowledge that there’s a big cost to optimizing up front. And the savings would only be realized after running the optimal system or method for a good while. Unfortunately most people who optimize don’t just set it up and forget it — they continue to try to optimize over and over. It’s a never-ending quest, so the cost keeps adding up but the savings never catches up.
  2. Optimizing is a trap of dissatisfaction. Optimizing is the quest for something as close to perfect as you can get it. But that’s an unrealistic ideal. It doesn’t really exist. And we’ll never get to optimal — when we get close, we’ll continue the habit of being dissatisfied with the way things are. We’ll have put in a lot of work, but then not be happy. Because the search for perfect is a trap, where you’re strengthening the mental habit of dissatisfaction.
  3. Optimizing is a focus on what’s not important. Coming up with the perfect productivity system, the perfect todo list software — it’s not important. It’s procrastination on the things that are truly important. The tasks at the top of the todo list you already have, that you’re not working on, so that you can optimize. Coming up with the perfect diet system isn’t important — eating vegetables is. Eating nuts and beans and fruits is important. Forget the rest, just do that. Coming up with the perfect vacation isn’t important — you’re missing out on what’s right in front of you, there at home, when you are trying to optimize your next trip.
  4. Even if you could optimize, such a perfect life would suck. Let’s imagine for a moment that you could spend a week optimizing every single thing in your life. Everything is now perfect, most things are automated, life because ridiculously easy. (Hint: it’s not possible.) Even if were possible to make life this perfect, life would absolutely suck. If everything ran easily, you would never appreciate any accomplishments, because they came too easily. Nothing would be earned, nothing would feel amazing. People run ultramarathons not because they are perfect and ideal and easy, but because they are such a struggle. The struggle makes it meaningful. Sure, get some good tools, learn how to do things well … but don’t worry about a little extra work. Don’t worry about don’t something a few too many times. A little repetition helps you to get really good at something. A little difficulty helps you to really learn something. A little irritation helps you to find patience, let go of ideals and love things as they are.
  5. Optimizing is a good way to get things to break. Imagine that you optimized a series of software tools so they all ran perfectly together, a huge complicated structure of connected machines … amazing work, well engineered, well thought-out. But when things are optimized like this, they are fragile. If one thing breaks, the others do too. If your life is optimized, it’s easy to break. To give you another example … let’s say you have an optimized sleep routine. It’s amazing, and you get great sleep this way! But then you have to fumigate your house, so you have to sleep at a relative’s house. Your entire optimized routine is thrown off, so you get horrible sleep for a few days. Then you try to optimize your sleep for travel, getting a great setup for sleeping on the plane and trains. Then your favorite sleep mask, ear plugs (or noise-canceling headphones) and travel pillow get stolen. No sleep! The most optimized thing to do, then, is to not optimize — get good at dealing with everything, from sleeping on trains without any kind of setup to sleeping on the ground. Unoptimize your life by getting good at dealing with unoptimal situations. Throw randomized craziness into your life. Forget about optimizing, and learn flexibility, learn to deal, learn to let go, learn to adapt.
  6. Optimizing is a distraction. It’s like cleaning the decks when the Titanic is sinking. It’s not important that you optimize. It’s important that you are present, that you learn to be mindful, to be compassionate, to work from a place of love, to let go of your attachments, to see your interconnectedness with others. To be pure love, and to give your gift to the world. Not what todo software you use, not what bulletproof coffee you drink, not what perfect backpack you carry. Don’t get caught up in the distractions — focus on what truly matters.

So what’s an alternative way? There isn’t one way, of course, but I’ll share some ideas.

An Alternative Way

Consider a different way of being:

  1. Instead of optimizing your schedule, pick one thing to do and focus fully on it. Do it with all of your heart, out of love. When you’re done, give a bow of gratitude. Take a moment to pause and not rush to the next thing. Repeat.
  2. Instead of trying to find the perfect software, the perfect tool, the perfect travel clothes … focus on being content with where you are, who you are, what you have, what is in front of you right now. Contentment is much more important than getting to perfect.
  3. Instead of building a fragile optimized routine, system or setup … give yourself less-than-optimal situations, randomness, things you need to adapt to. Develop flexibility, agility, adaptability, robustness, antifragility.
  4. Be present. Appreciate the fleeting moment, because there won’t be many more before you die. Be fully immersed in the moment, cherishing the beauty of this life.
  5. When you find yourself with the urge to optimize and find the perfect setup, recognize that you’re letting yourself be distracted from what’s important. Then ask yourself, “What’s most important right now?” Focus on that, even if it gives you discomfort and makes you want to run. Get good at that, rather than good at optimizing.
  6. Let your path be less controlled, more random. Let it be filled with messiness, because that’s how you adapt to messiness. Let it be filled with chaos, because then you can find peace in the middle of chaos. Let it be filled with the joy of life exactly as it is, because that’s optimal. What is. Not what you wish it could be.

And do it with a smile and joy in your heart. What a life we have been gifted with!

Open This Content

For the Love of Reason

Far be it from me to divide humankind in two, but were I so inclined, I’d divide it into those who love reason and those who are indifferent if not outright hostile to it. Members of the first group adore the reasoning process and their own reasoning faculties. The others find the process burdensome and discomforting, something that threatens long-held beliefs and intuitions. When I say the members of the first group adore their own reasoning faculties, I do not mean that they are arrogantly confident in their intelligence or immunity from error. Quite the contrary: the love of reason contains within it humility, doubt, an awareness of one’s limits and fallibility, and a recognition of the inherently social nature of reason (and language) and the growth of knowledge.

The thing to read in this regard is John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, a paean to the free and competitive marketplace of ideas. Mill wished to establish that this marketplace was indispensable to learning or at least to approaching the truth. My favorite line, which admirably summarizes most of the little book, is this: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”

Taking that proposition to heart puts one in the right frame of mind to engage in argument. It’s tempting to approach an argument like a high-school debater: I have a proposition to defend, and, damn it, I intend to do just that. This need not imply a willingness to lie or to make dubious moves; rather, it merely implies an overinvestment in the proposition, a sense that, if I lose the argument, I have lost something big, something like a piece of myself. This is understandable. Beliefs form a worldview; a belief shaken is a worldview shaken, and that’s not easy to take. Losing could also mean being or feeling obligated to do things I would rather not do or stop doing things I’m fond of doing.

But, in my view, that’s a bad attitude. I try to think of argument the way I think of trade: both sides gain no matter how the interaction comes out. (Think of what John Stossel calls the “double thank you” moment that occurs at the store checkout counter.) How can that be?

Mill’s sentence tells us. If you “win” the argument — and you can do this even if the interlocutor doesn’t seem convinced — you will likely have learned more about your own position simply by hearing it criticized. Being required to answer counterarguments will prompt you to plumb the depths of the topic you’re exploring, and you are likely to think of things you might never have thought of otherwise. That’s good! You’ll know your own position better because you know at least some arguments against it. Since you don’t know whether other counterarguments exist, you can look forward to the next intellectual joust as an opportunity to find out.

On the other hand, if you “lose” the argument, you still gain because you have shed an erroneous belief and are now closer to acquiring knowledge that you lacked before the argument. That’s good too.

It’s win-win, just like trade.

I’m not saying the process is one of unmitigated joy. We human beings naturally become attached to our beliefs, intuitions, and conclusions. We can develop a proprietary interest in them. As a result, we are not eager to see them rendered worthless. The reasonable person is not one who never feels that attachment but rather one who puts the attachment aside for the sake of learning. Like an Aristotelian virtue, openness to intellectual challenge can become second nature as one strives to make a habit of it. Practice makes virtue, and discomfort fades.

It’s no coincidence that argument resembles trade: it’s a form of trade, even if it doesn’t always feel like one. The marketplace of ideas is like the marketplace of goods and services. (Of course, access to an idea can be a marketplace good.) In both cases, people assert propositions — goods embody propositions — and they’ll find out whether better alternatives are available. In the commercial marketplace, sellers present their case that their goods at the asking price offer the best way for potential buyers to accomplish their objectives. Competing sellers make counterarguments. Prospective buyers weigh the arguments, looking for flaws. Thus the epistemological case for a free market in goods and services is identical to the case for a free market in ideas. We learn important things about how to flourish that we would likely otherwise not learn. (This was Ludwig von Mises’s and F. A. Hayek’s argument against central economic planning.)

Finally, the libertarian philosophy of full individual liberty — which includes the right to justly acquired material objects — embodies the love of reason as I’ve described it. The libertarian ethic — the nonaggression principle or, as I prefer, obligation — holds that, if you deal with others, you ought to deal with them through reason, not just for their sake but for your own. Persuasion is the opposite of force, though I acknowledge that someone people’s discomfort with reason stems from their conflating the metaphorical compulsion of a good argument with the actual compulsion of a government command. The libertarian philosophy embraces Athens — reason and persuasion — over Jerusalem — revelation and commandment.

I think this provides a case for the free society that is in a sense Cartesian. Descartes of course wrote that one can doubt everything except the existence of doubt and the doubter. (I’m not saying I agree with Descartes.) Applying something like this method to ethics and politics, we may say that, while one may reasonably doubt propositions about how society ought to be constituted, one cannot reasonably doubt the value of doubt and thus the freedom to doubt.

So stated, my proposition might win something broad assent, so I’ll push it further. If one should have the freedom to doubt — call it the right to doubt — then one should also have the right to express doubt. Expressing it is necessary to ascertain if it is reasonable. And if one has the right to express doubt, one has the right to acquire the physical means of maintaining one’s life and of expressing doubt. I’m using right to mean a valid claim to be free from aggressive force and to defend against such aggression, so naturally one’s exercise of this right cannot entail the use of aggressive of force against others, who also have the right. Needless to say, respect for such rights will generate a variety of humane institutions.

Any doubters out there?

Open This Content

8 Key Lessons for Living a Simple Life

For the last dozen years, I’ve been living a (relatively) simple life. At times, the complexity of my life grows, and I renew my commitment to living simply.

Living a simple life is about paring back, so that you have space to breath. It’s about doing with less, because you realize that having more and doing more doesn’t lead to happiness. It’s about finding joys in the simple things, and being content with solitude, quiet, contemplation and savoring the moment.

I’ve learned some key lessons for living a simple life, and I thought I’d share a few with you.

  1. We create our own struggles. All the stress, all the frustrations and disappointments, all the busyness and rushing … we create these with attachments in our heads. By letting go, we can relax and live more simply.
  2. Become mindful of attachments that lead to clutter and complexity. For example, if you are attached to sentimental items, you won’t be able to let go of clutter. If you are attached to living a certain way, you will not be able to let go of a lot of stuff. If you are attached to doing a lot of activities and messaging everyone, your life will be complex.
  3. Distraction, busyness and constant switching are mental habits. We don’t need any of these habits, but they build up over the years because they comfort us. We can live more simply by letting go of these mental habits. What would life be like without constant switching, distraction and busyness?
  4. Single-task by putting your life in full-screen mode. Imagine that everything you do — a work task, answering an email or message, washing a dish, reading an article — goes into full-screen mode, so that you don’t do or look at anything else. You just inhabit that task fully, and are fully present as you do it. What would your life be like? In my experience, it’s much less stressful when you work and live this way. Things get your full attention, and you do them much better. And you can even savor them.
  5. Create space between things. Add padding to everything. Do half of what you imagine you can do. We tend to cram as much as possible into our days. And this becomes stressful, because we always underestimate how long things will take, and we forget about maintenance tasks like putting on clothes and brushing teeth and preparing meals. We never feel like we have enough time because we try to do too much. But what would it be like if we did less? What would it be like if we padded how long things took, so that we have the space to actually do them well, with full attention? What would it be like if we took a few minutes’ pause between tasks, to savor the accomplishment of the last task, to savor the space between things, to savor being alive?
  6. Find joy in a few simple things. For me, those include writing, reading/learning, walking and doing other active things, eating simple food, meditating, spending quality time with people I care about. Most of that doesn’t cost anything or require any possessions (especially if you use the library for books!). I’m not saying I have zero possessions, nor that I only do these few things. But to the extent that I remember the simple things I love doing, my life suddenly becomes simpler. When I remember, I can let go of everything else my mind has fixated on, and just find the simple joy of doing simple activities.
  7. Get clear about what you want, and say no to more things. We are rarely very clear on what we want. When we see someone post a photo of something cool, we might all of a sudden get fixed on doing that too, and suddenly the course of our lives veer off in a new direction. Same thing if we read about something cool, or watch a video of a new destination or hobby. When someone invites us to something cool, we instantly want to say yes, because our minds love saying yes to everything, to all the shiny new toys. What if we became crystal clear on what we wanted in life? If we knew what we wanted to create, how we wanted to live … we could say yes to these things, and no to everything else. Saying no to more things would simplify our lives.
  8. Practice doing nothing, exquisitely. How often do we actually do nothing? OK, technically we’re always “doing something,” but you know what I mean — just sit there and do nothing. No need to plan, no need to read, no need to watch something, no need to do a chore or eat while you do nothing. Just don’t do anything. Don’t accomplish anything, don’t take care of anything. What happens is you will start to notice your brain’s habit of wanting to get something done — it will almost itch to do something. This exposes our mental habits, which is a good thing. However, keep doing nothing. Just sit for awhile, resisting the urge to do something. After some practice, you can get good at doing nothing. And this leads to the mental habit of contentment, gratitude without complaining.

Of course, these are not the only lessons you’ll need for living a simple life. But the best ones are the ones you discover yourself. Try these and see what happens — I think you’ll find out something beautiful about yourself, and about life.

The best kind of simplicity is that which exposes the raw beauty, joy and heartbreak of life as it is.

Open This Content

Life’s Conflicts Are the Plot Points of Your Life’s Story

What would life be like if you were aware of being in a story?

For some time now I’ve been fascinated by the idea of the monomyth popularized by thinkers like Joseph Campbell, C.S. Lewis, and (more recently) Jordan Peterson. One way of understanding a piece of what they have said is that all humans indeed occupy a story framework. We’re all taking Campbell’s “hero’s journey” and passing through its phases, which may look different for each of us.

It can be a powerful thing to think of yourself as a hero on a hero’s journey (and occasionally a dangerous thing*). But this story plot mindset is particularly valuable when you hit the down parts of the hero’s journey cycle. If you can embrace your life as a story, you will be prepared for many of the things that make stories both tragic and interesting (at the same time).

If thinkers like Campbell are right, every hero recapitulates most or all of the major themes that has ever happened in the stories of other heroes. And since the stories of heroes are the stories of each of us, in short, everything that has ever happened to others human can and will happen to you (consider that your Miranda warning for life).

You can expect to fail. How many protagonists know what they’re doing when they begin their journeys?

You can expect to hit walls. What kind of story would it be if things always worked?

You can expect to be misunderstood as a matter of course. How many great heroes (in fiction or reality) have escaped that fate?

You can expect to be hated. How do you expect to do any great good if you are so normal as to not be disliked by anyone?

You can expect betrayal. How many stories have you read in which the protagonist has been betrayed? Plenty. Why do you think your story should be any different?

You can even expect to be not only a hero in the course of your life. You will be an antagonist from time to time, no matter how good you are (or think you are).

Of course, you shouldn’t aim for bad things to happen to you, or for bad things to do. But you shouldn’t be too surprised or upset when conflicts arise. How many of the stories you love were free of these things anyway? Conflict makes the plot and makes the hero’s journey a journey.

As the Stoics, the Buddhists, and their later interpreters have explained in various forms**,  the greater part of our pain and angst as human beings comes from our attachment to illusions. One of the great illusions all of us probably hold when we’re young is the belief that “this time it will be different.” You probably think (I know I have) that you will be the lucky one to escape being hated, to escape failing, to escape your own shortcomings.

That illusion makes reality more difficult to handle. All of these things become easier and even acceptable when you realize that they’re just tolls to pay and gates to pass through. You can exercise a great deal of control over life, but the odds are that you will have a choice not of *whether* to pass through suffering but instead of *how*, *when*, and *where* you want to pass through suffering. That’s a lot of power, and your responsibility (your “ability to respond” as Nathaniel Branden might put it) can be a comfort in the face of conflict.

But don’t forget that when you do pass through conflict and suffering, you may be experiencing exactly what you need to experience to live out your full story. You might be progressing, even in the things that feel like regress.

*A danger of this mindset can be grandiosity.

**Intellectual Credit: Obviously Campbell and Lewis and Peterson, but also Stoics like Marcus Aurelius and Seneca (and modern Stoic interpreters like Tim Ferris and Ryan Holiday). Many more beside. Some credit to The Courage To Be Disliked, which has been filling my brain with Adlerian psychology recently. Building a Story Brand has been my latest exposure to the hero’s journey.

Open This Content

The Stories That Stop Us From Being Present & Taking Action

Most of us have spent our lives caught up in plans, expectations, ambitions for the future; in regrets, guilt or shame about the past. To come into the present is to stop the war. ~Jack Kornfield

I get emails all the time from people who are struggling with very common difficulties:

  • Wanting to overcome anger
  • Wanting to deal more calmly with stress
  • Hurt by other people’s inconsiderate actions
  • Getting stuck in resentment and thinking about how others have wronged you
  • Struggling with change because it’s hard
  • Struggling with letting go of clutter because of various emotional attachments
  • Finding all kinds of obstacles to taking on a project, side hustle, new business, writing a book/blog, etc.

And I completely understand these difficulties, because I struggle with them too. Here’s the thing — there are just two things stopping us from being present or taking the action we want to take:

  1. The stories we have in our heads about other people, what’s happening, and ourselves
  2. Our habitual pattern of staying in those stories instead of being present or taking action

It’s really one thing: our mental habit of staying stuck in the stories in our heads.

When I say “stories,” this isn’t a judgment about whether what we’re saying in our heads is true or not. It’s just what our minds do — they make up a narrative about the world, including other people and ourselves. Our minds are narrative machines. You could see the narrative as true or not, but that’s not the point — the narrative is getting in the way of being present and taking action.

What kind of stories do I mean? I mean things that we make up and spin around in our heads (true or not):

  • They shouldn’t act that way
  • If they loved me they wouldn’t be so inconsiderate
  • This is too hard, I don’t want to do this
  • I suck, I keep failing, I am inadequate
  • They keep doing this, I don’t know why they keep doing that to me
  • They hurt me, they are not a good person
  • I can’t start my business/blog/project until I learn this, or get to this place in my life, or have perfect peace in my day and am in a good mood
  • This shouldn’t be happening to me! This sucks!

These stories have some truth to them, which is why we cling to them so much. But these stories block us from being present. They are not helpful.

What would it be like if we didn’t cling to them so much? What if we could develop a mind that clings to nothing?

Dropping the Stories & Becoming Present

We can’t stop the mind from coming up with the stories, as it is a narrative machine. However, that doesn’t mean we have to cling to the stories and keep them spinning around in our heads.

Notice when you’re stuck in a story. Hint: if you’re angry, stressed, frustrated, disappointed, feeling shame or fear, dreaming about the future, thinking about something that happened … you’re stuck in a story.

Notice that the story is causing you to be stressed, angry, afraid, whatever. Notice that you are spinning it around in your head, and it is occupying your attention.

Now see if you can drop out of the story and into the present moment. Become curious: What is happening right now, in front of you? What sensations can you notice in your body? What is the light like? What sounds can you notice?

When you go back to your story (you will), try coming back to the present moment. Stay longer. Come back gently, without judgment.

What can you appreciate in this moment? A feeling of appreciating the sacredness of this moment can counteract the story, and change your way of being.

Dealing with Stress & Anger Without the Story

Stress and anger can be difficult things, because we have such a hard time letting them go.

But what if you could drop out of the stories that are causing the stress and anger (or frustration, resentment, complaining) and just be present with whatever you’re feeling?

Drop into your body and notice what sensations are there.

If you have difficult sensations in your body, see if you can be curious about them and stay with them, rather than spinning around a story about them. Stay with them longer (they might be located in your chest area), as you would try to stay with the sensations of your breath during a breath meditation.

Again, when your mind wanders back to the story, just come back gently. Stay with the sensations. Be present with them.

Touching the sensations in your body, of stress or anger, is a way to transform yourself. It doesn’t necessarily get rid of the feelings — but it changes your relationship to them. You no longer need to get rid of them, because you are fine just being with them. You develop a trust that you can stay present with them, without running or hiding or needing to do anything about them.

Each time you get stressed, each time you feel anger or frustration or resentment … this is an opportunity to practice and develop trust in yourself. Every spike of fear or stress is an opportunity to transform, to open, to stay and be present.

In this way, every stress is making you more mindful, less attached, and more open to life.

Taking Action Without the Story

The stories in our heads also stop us from taking the action we want to take in our lives — from changing habits to eating better to getting rid of clutter to tackling that difficult project.

Some examples:

  • I don’t feel like exercising, I feel lazy, it’s too hard
  • I don’t know how to tackle this big project, it’s too complicated
  • I don’t know how to blog, there is so much I don’t know, I have to learn it all before I can start
  • There’s too much clutter, and I don’t know what to do with it all, I can’t tackle all of that
  • Maybe I should do something else, I don’t really like this kind of work, I think I would be better trying one of the other options I like

There is some truth to each of the stories, but the fact is, they are getting in the way of action. They aren’t helpful.

What would happen if we just dropped the stories and took action, staying in the present as we did so?

Imagine dropping into your body when you have a story about why you shouldn’t exercise … and getting present. Then putting on your workout clothes and shoes, staying present without the story. Then doing some pushups or starting to run.

You don’t need the story to take action. Drop into the present, and just act. Stay present as you act. Be curious about what it’s like, rather than thinking you know what it will be like ahead of time. Take a “don’t know” mindset, and find out!

Don’t have any clarity about a project? Start doing it, and clarity will come as you discover what it’s like.

Afraid you’re not good enough to do the project? Only one way to truly know — take action on it and see!

Feeling overwhelmed because there’s too much clutter to tackle? Declutter one thing. Take action on one spot on your counter. There’s no need for the story about it being too much.

The truth is, even if we can’t avoid generating these stories, we don’t have to get stuck in them, especially if they are unhelpful. Sometimes it’s good to have a narrative that helps us plan and figure things out, but often it’s better just to find out by being present and taking action.

And you can do that very simply: just drop into the sensations of your body and surroundings. Notice. Get curious. Stay. Come back gently. Appreciate the sacredness of this moment.

Open This Content