As one can gather, the awareness that arises from introspection comes with great responsibility. Knowing that we can convert ourselves to healthier, more proactive versions of ourselves, we feel an impending pressure to do so. And we soon discover how much work this undertaking entails, which can be quite daunting.
I was watching The Biggest Loser the other day and it was the first episode of a new season. Everyone showed up to the first workout with smiles on their faces, optimistic about the change they were about to initiate in their lives. But once they got on the treadmill at five mph, they started dropping like flies after just a few minutes! And the excuses started to percolate in. In fact, the show’s head trainer Jillian Michaels had to implement a “no excuse” policy inside the gym for the precise reason that when we act in direct opposition to our compulsions, little petulant soldiers in the form of excuses
rise up from the bowels of our ego in combat. The most important thing is not to surrender to self-defeating thoughts. They are the ego’s first defense mechanism. The role of the ego is explicitly to defend the self against anything that could cause us pain or discomfort mentally or physically. “Oh I’ll do this weight loss program some other time” “I am not cut out for this. Maybe other people are, but not me” “I can’t work out, I have asthma. There must be another way” “I have a sprained ankle, I’ll have to go half-speed.” Our ego becomes so threatened when we attempt a new operating system because for as long as it takes us to become acclimated in this new modality, we will be vulnerable. We will be the underdog. The ego’s role is precisely to defend us against anything that puts us at a disadvantage and anything that is unpleasant. In aversion to evidence of our shortcomings, the ego desperately looks for any and every way out. And I see the people on Intervention scurrying like panicked mice on a sinking ship for a way out, or at least for another hit to lessen the impact of the proceeding.
The ego is so powerful that, given a taste of how hard the work will be to accomplish a given goal, it might go beyond simply making excuses and actually draw the conclusion that the feat is impossible. It might even go beyond that and banish ideas to the impossible category before they even arise on a conscious level, denying us the opportunity to consider them as serious prospects. I experienced this first-hand… while on a meditation retreat, I was composing a mental list of things I needed to do to purify my life. It occurred to me one thing which I must do to absolve myself of a dark skeleton in my closet. I needed to call someone from years ago and apologize for something I had done. And the notion of doing this deed was so scary that almost as instantaneously as the notion occurred to me, it vanished… “Oh no no, anything but that!” I thought, “I can’t bear to do that!” And somehow my conscious mind retrieved the idea before it slunk completely out of sight again. Then I examined it in all its excruciating truth and I could realize, that the faster the reaction time to bury it, the more toxic the skeleton must be, and therefore the more essential it is to purge from oneself. And after avoiding doing this task for years, within hours the urge to expel this impurity from me became so urgent I could barely prolong it for moments more, and I made the call. But what stands out to me more than anything else about the incident is that the skeleton reared its ugly head so elusively, that I could have easily disregarded it and passed the rest of my life without having made that phone call, as I had for five years hence.
How undetectable these truths are when the ego is like a constant steam engine in one’s ears, drowning out truth laid humbly before us. When the ego imposes itself upon our perspective and filters everything in its favor, as to excuse us of every reality we don’t want to admit to ourselves. It is helpful to personify the ego as an external entity to understand how it works and to in fact dissolve it. When excuses arise we can think of them as our enemies which we must conquer. Because when we feel aversion, we feel it as an organic sensation from within ourselves, and we feel all-possessed by it. But if, when it surfaces, we can recognize it as a mere petulant figment of the ego- we are more inclined to go head-to-head with it and extinguish it quickly.
Our potential is there waiting for us. It is not beyond our reach. It is beyond our reach if we continue whatever behavior pattern has maintained us where we are now. But it is not if we immediately discontinue the mindless habits that debilitate us. See all those cafes around you? See all those non profits? They all started with an idea. But if ideas are like autonomous fish swimming around the atmosphere all elusive like Haroun’s stories in the sea, such entrepreneurs actually grabbed one, pinned it down, and built up from it. See those filmmakers on the National Geographic channel shadowing a hunter-gatherer tribe? They were laymen just like you and I at the onset. See Joe Rogan? See Stevie Nicks? They started as children in some elementary school just like me and you. There is no inherent difference between them and you. They are not superhuman. They didn’t just “get lucky,” they worked. They worked up from the ashes. They are not elevated on some inaccessible platform of privilege. They are not untouchable. Everything is just one big spectrum. And there is no reason why you cannot ascend the spectrum yourself. You can do that too. But there is no way around the work. The work is the only way. The work is the end itself. “Being” a musician is nothing other than rehearsing every day and writing every day and dealing with producers and agents and managers and band politics and marketing.
I know how grueling the work of responsibility is. I myself have a parasite inside me I need to purge. But in prior attempts to do so it was taking so much effort that I just wanted to let go of the lifeline like the rope hanging over the cliff in Princess Bride and fall back down into the abyss, to my lowly place on the ground. I thought of drug addicts. I thought about the lifelong uphill battle they must wage to extricate themselves from their slum and how at so many points they must be so tired they just want to say, “Just let me go back to the heroin den, let me curl up in the fetal position like Marion on the couch, just let me stay here, please please let me be, down here in the dark, in the basement. Insist no longer, rouse me no longer, let me be forgotten, let the sediment collect around me, let me be swallowed into my grave.” The drug analogy is a hyperbole of a pattern that extends to all facets of life. But at THAT degree, when things are that bad I know that the trek itself seems impossible. It feels like the drug has you hostage, your job has you hostage, your marriage has you hostage, etc. These self-defeating thoughts are the only thing standing in your way. The image of Jack Dawson fading into the murky icy waters to be lost forever is all too familiar. If you let go of the lifeline… if you fall off the wagon, if one month in to your weight loss program you say “Fuck it!” and go on a Nutty Professor binge of twinkies and snickers bars, the parasite will still be within you. You will never be any better off than you were before. And you will continue to carry around this weight inside of you that has plagued your existence thus far. But you make it exponentially harder on yourself by presuming that the work will be insurmountably hard. The work is only as hard as the amount of resistance you have. We put ourselves through a hell of a lot more suffering when we insist upon our fears or cravings. But the sooner we let go of them, the more flawless, painless, and quicker the ascent will be.
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