Positive perspectives and practices for personal growth.

Limiting Emotional Investment

Nothing is important. We really are insignificant.

A post on Universe Today just helped me to appreciate the sheer, incomprehensible enormity of the Universe… and highlighted by contrast, just how insignificant even the most egotistical and megalomaniacal of us should feel.

There are, according to that post, 400 billion stars in our galaxy alone, a galaxy that stretches on and on for 120,000 light years… almost as long as some of my posts.

We of course, find ourselves – all 7 billion of us – on one lowly, albeit beautiful, lump of rock, orbiting just one of those 400 billion stars in our galaxy; a galaxy which though incomprehensibly enormous in itself, is itself just one of several hundred billion galaxies in the Universe.

And out of the 14 billion years since the creation of the Universe, and the billions of years that are yet to come before its inevitable demise, each of us gets at best 100 years of existence before we clock out into oblivion again.

We truly are insignificant, in both time and scale.

Wrong Perspective

Do we fully comprehend the preciousness of the blink-of-an-eye- existence we’re allotted; or really appreciate the infinitesimally small piece of the universal jigsaw that we are?

Most of the time, most of us live with the exact opposite perspective. We live our lives as if everything we do is of critical importance; as if we form the centre of the Universe.

We get stressed, anxious, depressed, frustrated about countless things – of of which feel important – but all of which are, in the grand scheme of things as trivial as a single grain of sand on a very sandy beach.

It’s all trivial… and that’s liberating

Appreciating the insignificance of everything doesn’t devalue you or your life.

It’s not a nihilistic excuse to do nothing, to aim for nothing, to achieve nothing; to sit around all day in your dressing gown watching reruns of Friends and stuffing your face Häagen-Dazs; to scratch whatever hedonistic itch that arises from your base desires.

In fact, for me, the greatest bonus I derive from viewing everything as fundamentally unimportant, is a release from the incessant performance anxiety that we’re all susceptible to; which in turn allows me to live more positively.

I’m less likely to ruminate on the potential repercussions of failure; to think to myself,  ‘I have to do well at this’ or ‘This is important’ .

Likewise, I’m less prone to procrastination; less likely feel overwhelmed and to end up saying to myself, ‘This is going to be hard work…I’d rather just watch TV’.

It enables me to just let go of all that emotional baggage and just do what I need to do… (relatively) care free.

As a consequence I approach life with greater peace of mind, I’m less ruffled by the turbulence of life, more light-hearted, I’m more accepting when things don’t go to plan, and I get a great deal more done than I ever did when I used to care too much.

I don’t maintain the mindful tranquility of a Buddhist monk by any means, and performance anxieties still creep in, but that constant reminder that just about everything is in fact pretty trivial, goes a long way to keeping me sane.

Performance

You’d think that the natural consequence of not caring too much about anything would translate into apathy.

But the opposite is true. We attempt to excel at whatever we do, even when we’re not trying to excel. It’s human nature.

In fact, consciously interfering with that innate drive to excel – by attaching too much importance to what we do and therefore, trying too hard – interferes with that process.

Even Rhesus monkeys suffer adversely from performance anxiety. Give a monkey a puzzle to solve for the sheer hell of it, and its instinctive playful curiosity will have it solving them faster than a child prodigy given a Rubik’s cube. Attach importance to the completion of that task on the other hand – say, through the promise of a handful of raisins as a reward – and it’ll approach the same task with all the mental prowess of a retarded chipmunk.

When nothing matters, the monkey performs on a higher level. When things matter, the monkey’s performance plummets. It’s the same for us humans too.

Consciously Limiting Emotional Investment

You don’t try. That’s very important: not to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. Charles Bukowski

Apart from stoking up enough motivation to get off your backside therefore, you really don’t have to put any further conscious emotional investment in to anything you do. Your instinctive drive to do well – to solve what needs solving, to do what needs doing – is all you need.

To that end, whatever you do, try approaching it with absolute care free indifference – as if it doesn’t matter. There’s no need to pretend it doesn’t matter, because it really doesn’t matter. Just read the beginning of this post again to remind yourself of that.

That indifference will liberate you from the performance anxieties that hold you back. Worries about whether you’re up to the task, the potential implications of failure, what people think, the uphill struggle ahead of you will all fade into the background. It’ll free you up to focus exclusively on the present – to perform at your innate, anxiety free best.

In Action

When I exercise, to give you an example, I give absolutely no thought to the nightmare of pain that awaits me.

After my first cup of tea of the day – without which I’d be relegated to the mental functioning as a gecko – I either hit the Concept 2 for a row, or the road for a run.

I just don’t think about what I’m about to do in any shape or form. I don’t try to motivate or push myself… and once I’ve started, I don’t demand a specific level of exertion or performance. I don’t think of what I’m trying to achieve (in fact, I’m not trying to achieve anything); and I don’t think to myself, “This is hurting…I don’t know if I can keep going.”

I just run or row, without any emotional investment or baggage.

But despite that lack of emotional investment, I nevertheless put a great deal of effort in. That effort is provided in spades purely from my innate human drive to do stuff well; a drive we all possess.

And that basic human drive is all I need to push myself to the point where I’m about to puke.

It’s when I fall into the trap of consciously attempting to motivate or push myself, or to beat a previous performance, that it all falls apart.

That’s when it all becomes a chore; when the pain just doesn’t seem to be worth the effort; when I start questioning why I’m doing what I’m doing. That’s when I’m liable to give up, or at least, am likely to experience a massive dip in performance.

It’s the law of reversed effort working at its finest… the harder you try, the less you get done.

Exercise is of course, just one easily identifiable example. But use the same philosophy whenever you find yourself trying too hard to achieve.

To that end, even try limiting the emotional effort you put into:

  • Self-improvement – We all want to feel happy, self-assured and to radiate positivity. But the law of reversed effort will inevitably kick in if you put too much effort into reaching that mental utopia. Bear in mind the words of John Stuart Mill, the 19th century philosopher when trying too hard to feel good: ‘Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so‘.

Whatever…

So remember, in any area of life, consciously worrying about your performance or attempting to motivate yourself to perform at a higher level, doesn’t help you to do better. On the contrary, it simply drains your willpower and diverts precious mental resources away from proactivity to neurosis.

It’s far better to let go of that angst – born out of our perpetual sense of importance.

Seeing just about everything as unimportant enables you to lower the bar on everything you do; to approach life with a sense of light-hearted, indifference. And from that indifference will paradoxically flow greater enthusiasm for life, and greater resilience to adversity; the things you do will seem easier, more fulfilling, more enjoyable.

You’ll operate at a higher mental level and ultimately, you’ll do more, and do it better.

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