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I run from conflict.

[Perceived personal attacks or criticisms trigger my flight-or-flight response (no, that’s not a typo).]

That’s not entirely true. Let’s be honest here. Most often, when an interaction turns antagonistic, I freeze.

[Apparently, freezing is a natural fear response to give the mammal in question (me) time to assess the situation before fighting or flighting.]

Whatever the biology… I. Don’t. Like. Conflict. Big revelation, right? I mean, who does? Except for maybe lawyers, rappers, and Jerry Springer, that is. But it’s more than just a preference for some of us. For me, it’s become something that causes me to isolate myself and avoid the kinds of long-term relationships that are important to happiness and growth. Even the potential of conflict causes an obsessive whirlwind of stressful thoughts and feelings.

I am so conflict averse that I’ve become a chronically single solo entrepreneur who earns most of his income from sitting alone writing.

Hi, my name is Curtis. I’m a conflict aversion addict. And I’m ready for a change.

Step 4 of any Twelve-Step program suggests taking a “fearless moral inventory” of oneself. Knowing and accepting who you are (the full picture, the “good” and “bad”) and why you are who you are, are prerequisites for conscious growth.

So let’s start by taking a trip to the past…

Looking to my formative years, my conflicts consisted of fighting with my younger sister over limited resources (mom’s attention, the one television, the front seat of the car, etc.) and fighting with my parents about their reasonable and unreasonable rules of behavior. A common enough childhood experience, I imagine.

I’m not aware of many (if any) “scarring” level conflicts with either my mother or sister. They may exist, but if they do, they’ve long been forgotten by my conscious mind. I was the older brother, my mom was very loving and fair, and the conflicts I do remember were resolved quickly and relatively unemotionally.

My conflicts with my father are a different story. I remember them being quite intense. Turned up to 11.

My dad’s rules seemed arbitrary, his standards impossible to meet. Conflict with him felt very unfair and defeat felt personal.

Therefore, it seems that my most emotionally-heightened experiences of conflict at that formative age were extremely one-sided and I often (always?) lost.

In that context, learning to avoid conflict seems like a necessary survival skill for my child self. The problem is applying that survival skill now as an adult in situations where it’s not effective or appropriate.

Adult Curtis: Poor, predictable Curtis. Always chooses conflict avoidance.
Child Curtis: Good ol’ conflict avoidance! Nothing beats that!

Okay, moral inventory complete. [Not quite, but this is a blog post. Move along, nothing to see here.]

So what about that change I’m apparently ready for?

The answer seems to be more exposure to people. More investment in relationships of all kinds. More structures in my life that “force” me to interact with others in messy, emotional ways. More risk taking. More vulnerability and trust. More authentic communication. More beer. Okay, not more beer. Less beer. Less emotional eating. Less obsessive people pleasing. Less thinking and more feeling. Most importantly, less hiding.

So here I am, coming out of hiding. What are your thoughts, suggestions, experiences? Conflict is welcome in the comments below. [I think. No definitely. Just be nice, okay? Or fuck it, be mean. Let’s do this. I’m ready. I think.]

Thank you.

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My trip to Denmark is coming soon. And as the departure date draws nearer, it brings with it a growing uncertainty about my life. The only thing that feels certain is the sudden realization that I’m not ready to die. That thought hit me yesterday like a punch in the face.

I picture myself on my death bed, knowing the inevitable is at hand, and I hear my mother’s words the day before she died, “Please, God, I’m not ready to go yet.” Unlike her, I have no god to beg for more time; I have no god to surrender to and put my faith in. The story of me that this linguistic brain has been telling itself for all these years ends when the body expires.

And “I’m” not ready for that. Why? I don’t feel alive.

Imagine being on a merry-go-round but you’re distracted and unaware of the ride. Suddenly the attendant signals that the ride is over. You exclaim, “Wait, you can’t stop the ride yet! I wasn’t paying attention!”

So what does it take to feel alive? Clearly I don’t know. But I have some guesses…


Presence

A more fully realized awareness of the here and now. Vibrant sensations of my experience of life that drown out the conceptual chatter in the mind. Or as the Buddhists teach, maybe the chatter is just another sensation? [Buddhism recognizes 6 senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, the feeling body / touch, and the thinking mind.]

Enthusiasm

A passion for life and its component pieces. Respect for (and awe at) how life shows up — however life shows up, even if it’s in a way I didn’t intend or expect or desire. The word enthusiasm comes from the Greek word entheos which means “having a god within.” A Higher Power for the non-believer, perhaps? A way to feel connected to life itself?

Connection

Seeing through the illusion of separation. True empathy. The story of me isolates “me” conceptually from the rest of life. But it’s an arbitrary division. To quote Alan Watts from The Wisdom of Insecurity:

Where do I begin and end in space? I have relations to the sun and air which are just as vital parts of my existence as my heart. The movement which I am a pattern or convolution began incalculable ages before the (conventionally isolated) event called ‘birth’, and will continue long after the event called ‘death’. Only words and conventions can isolate us from the entirely undefinable something which is everything.


So, how do I make presence, enthusiasm, and connection livable? How do I feel more alive? Again, some guesses:

  • Sitting still more, chasing goals less
  • Going outside more, hiding inside less
  • Creating more space, having less stuff
  • Appreciating more (“What I love about this is…”), criticizing less (“What I hate about this is…”)
  • Surrendering more, “controlling” less
  • Noticing and enjoying synchronicity more, playing the victim less
  • Experiencing other humans more, conceptualizing them less

I acknowledge that this inquiry risks turning life into a future objective. Therefore, most importantly, I must recognize that life is now.

To feel alive is not an objective, not a destination. Maybe to feel alive is no more complicated than to feel life. As I type these words, I feel the keys against my fingertips, the laptop against my legs, my feet against the floor, the flow of air into and out of my lungs, and so much more.

As I type these words, by a simple choice to feel, I come alive.

 

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My friend and “optimism mentor” posed a question to me today: Is there such thing as a selfless act?

We had a great conversation on this topic that boiled down to this…

The concept of “selfless action” is essentially meaningless. Physics offers an instructive metaphor: The device used to measure some aspect of “reality” can not be separated from the reality it’s measuring.

In a similar way, the self cannot be separated from any action because the self is what intends and perceives the action. To put it another way, we always have a reason for the actions we take. Fulfilling that reason (even if the reason is to be charitable with no expectation of reciprocity) is our “reward” for the action.

If I donate $100 to a cause I believe in, I will certainly receive one or more of the following: feelings of joy, satisfaction, integrity, charity, or even self-actualization.

It seems that the only way “selfless action” makes any sense is if we’re unaware of the action. For example, I unknowingly drop $100 on the ground and someone picks it up. That is selfless!

All of this leads to the conclusion that giving is receiving, and receiving is giving. It’s like playing tennis — you need both sides or you don’t have a game.

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Abuse

Early emotional and psychological abuse taught me how to be a victim. And I became an expert at it.

I sought out abusers, and when none were available I played dual roles in a schizophrenic dance of self-abuse.

I’m learning now that my relationship with myself is where all others take their cue. Only as I learn to stop the self-abuse do I become free of the abuse of others.

Which is beautiful, because my relationship with myself is also the only relationship I have any real control over anyway.

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In a conversation earlier this evening, my brain tried to say “Does he really say that?” and “Is that what he says?” but what came out of my mouth was:

“Does that what he say?”

Yup. Been putting the “best” in “dumbest” for 43 years… 😉

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100-Day Game completed! Wow, lots of great experiences, results, and insights these past 100 days. I haven’t blogged much about it because I was more focused on living it, but here are some of my first thoughts and reflections:

1. My “emotions” aren’t always emotional

By bringing more consciousness to my choices, I started to discern subtleties in how I feel emotionally and physically. One example is when I’m feeling emotionally down or low. In the past I just thought this must be who I am — a sad person — because I so often feel low. What I discovered, though, is that many times it’s a physical low, a tiredness or dip in my physical energy level, that I misinterpret as emotional. And often it can be solved by a short nap or meditation.

Another example: I’ll notice that I’m feeling anxiety and can’t figure out why. It’s not like there’s something specific I’m worried about. Then I remember that I had caffeine earlier and realize that the “anxiety” is actually a physical experience that I’m misinterpreting as an emotional one.

In short, I’m tuning into my physical triggers that create emotional-ish experiences.

2. The best thing to do is nothing (a.k.a. Full-stop for inquiry)

One of the biggest lessons I learned during this Game was that I don’t need to tolerate bad feeling thoughts. If I’m writing, for example, and I start to feel negative about it (I’m judging the writing as bad, or I’m telling myself I won’t meet the deadline, etc.), then more of the same is not going to make me feel any better.

The solution is to simply stop. But not stop and avoid the feelings. Stop and listen to the feelings; experience them so that I can understand them. It’s what I’ve started referring to as a “full-stop for inquiry.”

The path to a better feeling thought is not to tough out the bad feeling thought. The solution is to stop, inquire, listen. Then when I do feel better, I can resume what I was doing from that better feeling place.

3. Redefining “difficult”

One day I found myself avoiding/procrastinating a writing job, and it was creating a lot of suffering for me. So I did my full-stop for inquiry. I put everything on hold, I turned off my phone, and I sat and meditated on what I was feeling to discover the beliefs that were fueling that pain.

I discovered I had a series of beliefs that were causing these uncomfortable feelings. I’ll call this my Old Belief Sequence:

  1. If something is difficult, it means I’ll fail
  2. If you know you’re going to fail, don’t do it (that’s only logical)
  3. The process itself has no value; only the result has value

This was quite shocking, actually, because I think of myself as a person who really values process. “Life is a journey” and all that. So no wonder I was suffering. I had this belief system causing me to feel and act in a way that was in direct contrast to one of my deepest values.

So as a result of this inquiry, I chose to rehearse a new set of beliefs that are more consistent with my values. I’ll call this my New Belief Sequence:

  1. If something is difficult, it means there’s an opportunity to learn/grow
  2. It’s my choice to decide if I want to learn or grow in this way
  3. If my choice is yes, the task is worth doing for its own sake

This feels so much better, so much more open. I have options, possibilities. If I choose to do something challenging, it becomes an exploration, an experiment.

And as you might imagine, after I made this mental this shift during that first inquiry, I couldn’t wait to write! 🙂

4. Small actions repeated consistently produce big results

Part of the reason I included a physical challenge in this 100-day experiment was to test my theory that small actions repeated consistently will produce big results over time. My favorite illustration of this is how water carved the Grand Canyon.

Even after just 100 days, I can see a change in my body shape. The pushups and pullups have given my chest and back some nice definition. If I were to add some exercises that worked my shoulders, I’m sure that would make the change even more pronounced. [My intention is to maintain and build on these physical gains with a new Game I haven’t defined yet. I’ll post here when I do.]

On a longer time frame, I’ve also seen a shift in how my mind operates. Through weekly conversations with a good friend and weekly support group meetings, I’ve spent the past 2 years rehearsing a more optimistic outlook on life. And within these past 100 days, I experienced a qualitative difference in how I’m perceiving the world.

For example, my mind spontaneously anticipates positive outcomes. And if multiple outcomes are possible, my mind spontaneously defines them all as positive so no matter what happens, I feel like I won.

For someone who thought he was doomed to be a sad person his whole life, this is both exciting and terrifying — like the Kingda Ka at Six Flags! I find myself wondering, am I becoming a happy person? And if so, what does that mean? I’ve gotten quite comfortable being sad. Giving up that comfort is scary.

This all brings me back to the theme of these 100 days: conscious choice. I choose to continue, physically and mentally, on this uncertain path. Despite the fear, life feels so much better than what was. And I trust it will feel better still.

Summary of Physical Challenges

Here’s the final tally for the 100 days:

10020/10000 pushups (100% of target)
starting max: 41
ending max: 60

1002/1000 pullups (100% of target)
starting max: 4
ending max: 10

1500/1500 burpees (100% of target)

5/5 hrs plank (100% of target)
starting max: 220 seconds
ending max: 240 seconds

3.6/20 hrs sitting meditation (17.9% of target)
This was the weak link in the chain. I’ll give it more attention in my next Game.

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Half-way!

It’s tempting to concoct some major breakthrough or benefit I’ve gained from this 100-day experiment so far. The truth is the benefits have been subtle.

For example, I bought at box of donuts last night, and I ate just one. I consciously savored every bite. And I was content. The old me would have binged unconsciously, eating 3 or 4 donuts and tasting just a few bites at best. What’s most surprising though is that this new way of eating was not an effort. It was simply a conscious choice.

Another example: All week I’ve been working on a writing job. At the beginning of the week I was lost. My first draft was shit and I had no idea how to make it better. But again, I made a relatively simple and conscious choice. This time it was the choice to believe that if I put in the time every day, the writing would have to improve. And here I am, approaching the end of the week, and the draft I have now is so much better. I can even envision it being great.

It would be misleading to say that change is just a matter of choice. What I’m learning is that change and choice go hand in hand. As you make new choices, you begin to change. And as you change, new choices become easier.

Update

Here’s a tally of the first 50 days:

5010 pushups (100% on track)
460 pullups (92% on track)
766 burpees (102% on track)
2.5 hrs plank (100% on track)

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