Spend More Time in a Good State of Mind (Your 2018 Resolution)
One morning, while walking down the streets of Budapest, I noticed that my hands were shaking.
An hour earlier, when I first got out of bed, I was struck with an unusual feeling of unease. I figured the feeling would go away once I got my day started, but by the time I left my apartment for work, the feeling had only worsened.
I didn’t realize how serious it was until I noticed my shaking hands.
I held the right one out in front of me and stared for a moment. Then, with all my spirit, I tried to will it back into stillness.
“Stop shaking. Stop shaking.”
For the rest of the day, my hands continued to shake.
It was August, 2016, and I was having my first ever anxiety attack. One month later, I slid into the deepest depression of my life.
At the time, I couldn’t make sense of what was happening to me.
I always took pride in my emotional sturdiness and relaxed attitude toward life. Since I was a teenager, my anxious friends always came to me to calm down, and my depressed friends always came to me to cheer up.
Yet there I was, crippled by my own inner-chaos.
I never felt so powerless.
I didn’t know how I was going to turn things around. All I knew was that there was no way I could continue on the path I was on.
That’s how I decided to make 2017 my year of “State.”
Good State-of-Mind vs Bad State-of-Mind
Each year, instead of setting goals, I set a single-word theme. In 2017, my theme word was “State,” as in “State-of-Mind.”
The idea was to better observe and manage my mental states. When I was in a good state-of-mind, I noted it. When I was in a bad state-of-mind, I noted it.
Most importantly, I noted the subtle shifts between states. I’d note the beginning of a change, then I’d try to identify the thoughts, feelings and sensations that led to it.
The ultimate goal was straightforward:
Spend more Time in a Good State of Mind.
At the end of your life, you can divide your time on earth into two basic categories:
- Time spent in a good state of mind.
- Time spent in a bad state of mind.
I spent most of my 2016 in a bad state of mind. That’s why I wanted to flip the ratio in 2017. And now that 2017 is over, I’m happy to say that I succeeded in this end.
Thanks to the insights from my year of “State,” I haven’t experienced any anxiety or depression in months.
What was the key insight behind this transformation?
A deeper understanding of my two selves…
The Spirit and The Ego
In an old Cherokee parable, an old man teaches his grandson about life:
“A fight is going on inside me,” he told his grandson.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.
One is evil–he is anger, envy, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
The other is good — he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, generosity, truth, and compassion. The same fight is going on inside you–and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied:
“The one you feed...”
In my own inner world, I like to think of the good wolf as my “Spirit,” and the bad wolf as my “Ego.”
In light of the old man’s wisdom, we can define the two states of mind as follows:
- Good state-of-mind= Fed Spirit + Starved Ego
- Bad state-of-mind= Starved Spirit + Fed Ego.
Now the question is: what do the Spirit and the Ego eat?
The Meaning of Life vs. The Moment of Life
Take a moment to think about the most memorable moments of 2017. What do they involve?
For me, some highlights include feasting on the beaches of Portugal with my closest friends, trekking through the mountains of Australia with a woman I loved, entering flow as I invented new products for my business, and sitting in my mom’s kitchen while she cooked me stew and told me stories about her childhood in Nigeria.
I’m sure your moments are quite different from mine, but they probably share a common theme — connectedness to the moment.
When you connect to the moment, you feed your Spirit.
We connect to the moment by way of the people we love, the nature we revere, the bodies we move, and the art we express.
The deeper and longer you lose your Self in a positive experience, the more you nourish your Spirit.
But in our day-to-day existence, most of us don’t spend much time immersed in the moment. Instead, we fuse ourselves with the “meaning” of each moment.
For whatever reason, the human mind has a tendency to make moments “mean” something.
“That handsome man just smiled at me — that must MEAN I’m pretty! Oh my God there he is again at the bus stop — that must MEAN it’s destiny. Wait what? He saw me and didn’t even look twice?! That must MEAN I’m ugly and worthless!”
Pay close enough attention to all the meanings you make from your moments, and you’ll start to notice a pattern:
Everything means something about YOU.
When the handsome man smiled the first time, it couldn’t mean he just remembered a funny joke, it could only mean that he loved YOU!
When he didn’t smile a second time, it couldn’t mean he was worrying about his sick grandmother, it could only mean that he hated YOU!
Each “meaning” you make combines to form a cohesive story about the world and and your role in it. And you don’t just play any role— you ALWAYS play the protagonist, whether the story is a tragedy or a comedy, whether you play the hero or the victim.
The Ego is the part of your mind that attaches to these meanings and holds the story together.
When you attach to the meaning, you feed your Ego.
Now that we know what feeds your inner wolves, the recipe for a bad state of mind should be clear.
- Attach to the Meaning (and Feed the Ego).
- Disconnect from the Moment (and Starve the Spirit)
This was precisely the recipe I followed in 2016.
The Recipe for a Bad State of Mind
In 2016, I committed to growing my business as fast as possible. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I committed to the story of growing my business as fast as possible.
In my storyline, I was destined to become an uber-successful, famously-eccentric, multi-millionaire inventor businessman.
Whenever I thought about how that image would look, I’d get excited and filled with restless energy. From that position, I’d make huge bets, set overly ambitious goals for my team, and commit myself to multiple projects.
If anyone suggested that I might not have enough time, energy or experience to pull all of it off, I’d write them off as not having enough vision, brilliance or imagination.
I was disconnecting from the people around me, disconnecting from my art, and disconnecting from reality.
Then unbeknownst to me at the time, I started to slowly sink into the swamp of self-absorption.
Each day that passed, I attached more and more to the meaning of my life, all while disconnecting more and more from the moment of my life.
Then I failed to achieve my goals, over and over again.
At first, my Ego worked the meanings of my failures into a story of Fated Success.
“It only failed because you were missing this piece of information, and this person wasn’t pulling his weight. But it’s all good, you’re brilliant — you can invent your way out of this and do it again!”
But after years of repeating the same mistakes and living failure after failure, the Ego started to script out a new narrative for me:
“You’ll never be good enough. You’re just a lazy piece of shit — wasted talent that will never reach its potential. Why bother trying anymore? You’re just gonna fail and disappoint everyone like you always do.”
This story of Fated Failure always played on low volume in the background of mind. But for most of my life, the story of Fated Success was loud enough to drown it out.
Over time, however, the Success story receded to the background, and the Failure story grew louder and more shrill.
Then one morning in Budapest, my Failure story reached peak pitch, and my mind shattered like an empty wineglass.
The Recipe for a Good State of Mind
My first step out of the basement of depression came when I started journaling.
Each day I woke up with a head swirling with thoughts. Sometimes, I feared I might drown in them. With writing, I was able to drain the thoughts out of my mind, through my pen, into my journal.
One day, after reading through a week’s worth of journal entries, I noticed a pattern in my language.
In almost every other sentence, I would use the word “Should”, “Must”, “Need to” and “Have to.”
“Woke up late today. I NEED to start placing my alarm across the room so I have to get it. Today I MUST get this blog post done. What I’ll HAVE to do is make an outline by 4pm, then I SHOULD to call Mike about the files…”
Reviewing these thoughts long after their relevance to me had passed, I was impressed by how absurd they sounded.
Why did I feel that I NEED to do anything? Where did I learn this obligation to succeed?
I didn’t know the answer to these questions at first, but I was determined to find out.
I had a strong gut feeling that, if I kept pulling at this thread, I would discover something vital at the end of it all.
After months of introspection, exploration, and lots and lots of reading (mostly books on Psychology, Neurophysiology and Philosophy), I started to piece together the puzzle of my Ego.
That’s how I started to cultivate a mindset of “Detached Connectedness.”
The recipe for Detached Connectedness is as follows:
- Detach from the Meaning (And Starve the Ego).
- Connect to the Moment (And Feed the Spirit).
Of course, this recipe is not so easy to live in practice. Detached connectedness is something to be trained and habituated into the mind at both the psychological and neurological levels.
But I strongly believe anyone can cultivate Detached Connectedness with enough of the right training.
In the past several months, I’ve developed systems to help my friends cultivate this mindset, and so far, it’s been successful in helping them spend more time in a good state of mind.
I plan to write about this more in the future, but for now, I’ll just share the main pillars of the system:
- Mindfulness: Train your mind to habitually detach from the Meaning and objectively observe the Moment.
- Movement: Train your body to habitually shift your attention from the mental realm to the physical realm.
- Spiritual Discovery: Experiment and discover what types of connectedness experiences most feed your spirit. Most of this will have to do with your personality type.
- Ego Discovery: Figure out what the plot to your story is, then delve deep into your history to figure out what early life experiences gave rise to it.
- Honesty: Go cold-turkey on all forms of lying, even the forms most people consider “innocent.”
- Authenticity: Don’t just stop telling lies, start telling hard truths to the people around you, so you can be 100% real 100% of the time.
- Integrity: Always do the things you tell people you’re going to do, so your word becomes a source of self-efficacy rather than a source of self-loathing.
- Mental Defense: The world’s designed to kill your mind. Media companies invest billions into machines that steal your attention for the purpose of selling it to advertisers. Then those advertisers invest billions into marketing campaigns that feed your Ego. The end goal is always for you to buy more stuff. The end result is always spiritual starvation. To resist their influence, you can’t rely on self-discipline alone. You can only deploy your own counter-tech to defend your mind and conserve your willpower.
- Collective Unity: Self-reliance is a misguided virtue. You won’t win the battle for your mental well-being on your own. You have to enlist the support of others, and offer your support in return. Together, we can help each other spend more time in a good state of mind.
New Years Resolutions
To end this essay, I want to encourage you to think differently about your 2018 goals.
Goal-setting can be fun, but it often turns into a feast for the Ego.
In hopes that you’ll avoid the mistakes I made in 2016, I would like for you to consider these questions:
- What goals did you set for 2018 and why?
- What does it “mean” about you if you succeed in these goals?
- What does it “mean” about you if you fail in these goals?
- Do success/failure really mean what you think it means?
- If none of that stuff meant anything to you, what would you do to spend more time in a good state of mind for 2018?
With that, I wish you a Happy New Year, with all the emphasis on the word “Happy.”