Problems, gottas and need-tos are the ultimate addiction of our time.
Everybody’s got ’em. No one’s are truly unique compared to anyone else’s.
But, without fail, every day, we hear friends tell us about those same exact things they were complaining about 3 years ago.
A family member you love shares a freshly invented dilemma that makes you want to say, “So, this is the new thing we’ll discuss for, what, the next week or two?”
A colleague discusses a “daunting” obstacle like the desperate need to lose exactly 3 pounds, or the urgent requirement to completely gut and redesign their kitchen.
Real talk. These kinds of problems and obstacle are entirely chosen.
We select them. Because we’re bored.
But most of all, because they give us a feeling of purpose.
And I’m just as guilty as anyone else.
I’ve been examining my own relationships to my invented problems, obstacles and dilemmas over the last two months especially — although I’ve really been a student of the mind and observing its many tricks since I was a child. Lately, the trend has been this: when I’m stuck in ordinary cycles of everyday routines and familiar habits, I fill my mind with problems. And I’m entirely sure that these invented problems are created in the subconscious mind to give the bored, restless and overly comfortable conscious mind something to do.
When my daily life starts to feel stale, unchallenged and altogether mundane, I become consumed by thoughts of problems.
My mind finds struggles that simply weren’t around yesterday. I even catch myself thinking back to old conversations and mistakes from years ago. I notice new obstacles being invented that would seem to burden this goal or that project.
Everyone says they don’t want their problems. I’d wager that we actually do.
Because problems fill us with the sensation of purpose and even the feeling of “presence.” While we’d rather experience deep sensations of purpose — like contributing to the world in meaningful ways, uplifting our local communities, writing a book, being artful — those things take a lot of work. They take time. They take energy. And no one is short on being busy, overtaxed, and under-rested.
It’s a vicious cycle.
When invented problems fill our thoughts and consume our attention and drain our energy, the few precious human resources that we possess — from thinking power to physical energy, mental strength and emotional capacity — can’t be used positively for the purposes we really dream about.
Like our dreams. Pursuing goals. Building skills. Practicing. Spending moments with people we love.
Resting. Letting go. Feeling content.
Our invented problems are robbing us of the very things we desire most.
So why do we do it to ourselves?
Why do we spend so much energy, attention and awareness on problems, instead of the practices, goals, dreams and ideals we say we want?
It’s not because we’re twisted. It’s not because we’re masochists. It’s not because society is broken.
We really do mean well.
It’s because problems provide us with purpose.
And, the more problems we can create, the more of a sense of purpose we feel.
I believe that our minds are addicted to the invention of problems (and the narratives and stories that support their existence) to feel purposeful. And not just purposeful, but “present,” too.
It’s, of course, a misguided sense of presence, but it still feels like presence nevertheless.
Senses of nowness, immediacy and urgency come with a new problem. When an issue comes up, we may not want it to exist but it does provide us with “now” meaning. A “problem” means “solving.” There’s stuff to figure out. We think about it, day in and day out. We’re engrossed in the problem. The problem gives us meaning. The problem makes us feel “here and now.” The problem makes us feel alive.
Even if the problem is losing 4 ounces of belly fat, or choosing between two new toilets at Home Depot.
All we really want is to be here, and to be alive.
We want to feel like our existence matters and to experience the gift of being alive, everyday.
In a backwards, roundabout way, inventing new problems gives us some sensation of being alive and having meaning.
It’s never been about redesigning the downstairs of the house because it’s outdated. Or what your best friend is doing with her love life.
You see, our minds are tricky but brilliant little story generators. And when life gets too comfortable, too cushy, too insulated, too protected, too luxurious, too boring, too mundane, too familiar, too regimented, we begin inventing obstacles, problems, issues, dilemmas, conditions, disorders, illnesses, pains, neuroses and anxieties to find new and driven senses of purpose.
We invent stories around Problem X and Obstacle Y as an attempt to satiate what is all the more a hollow existence in our everyday lives: full of material things, but fully lacking in soul.
And in creating these problem-filled narratives, they subconsciously disrupt all of the complacency and spiritual-disconnect of the social constructs that are literally boring us to our own deaths.
I’m speaking from experience.
When my “purpose meter” drops too low, my mind finds problems and obstacles to fill it up. Quickly.
I entirely depend on doing all the things I have to do everyday — from meditation to yoga (or walking, some form of body movement), writing, teaching and being around people to stop my mind from creating a myriad of problems.
When I’m too insulated from people, or too complacent in my everyday life, so too does a never-ending cycle of issues, dilemmas and obstacles return. I know now that these problems are filling an empty space to try to make me feel “purposeful.” But it’s a “purpose” that prolongs the realization of uncomfortable truths:
That I’m bored. That I’m unhappy. That I’m unfulfilled. And, that I need to make serious changes.
It’s a privilege to have purpose-providing problems.
It’s a sign that life is remarkably good. It shows that our needs are so taken care of that we have too much time…so we invent rudimentary problems around shopping for clothes, groceries and household goods that give us temporary satisfaction of “doing something” or “having acquired” or “having achieved” that leave us empty and longing 5 minutes later.
Listen. We are living incredible lives. They are so full of luxury, privilege and opportunity. We are so lucky.
Yet, why do so many of us seem so miserable? What for?
Living this familiar Western lifestyle in the year 2016, how are millions of us losing our collective search for happiness, contentment and peace?
It’s not that our society is burdened by unique problems; it’s that the perennial human condition throughout all of civilization has called for human beings to go deeper and deeper within for the peace they say they desire. We’ll never find it by searching further and further in spite of ourselves.
We have too much stuff that will never make us feel content. In the wake of our guilty discontent with the “so much” that we possess, our minds stir up stories of problems and obstacles to give us now-meaning.
But in the mental and emotional clutter, we rob ourselves of the opportunities to be present and feel good.
We instill neuroses and search aimlessly for what we can only discover more of by sitting still, meditating, expanding awareness, and cultivating moments of clarity and peace.
We owe it to ourselves — and our world, for goodness sake — to start to be champions of where we spend our mental, emotional and spiritual energy.
It is high time to challenge the stories and narratives of our minds that try to provide us with purpose, but rob us of chances to live deeply and well.
Disown the problems that provide you with imitation-purpose.
Constantly remind yourself of how good your life is. No one will do it for you. And it’s not about inducing yourself to feeling like a guilty, over-privileged person. It’s about owning what precious mental/emotional/spiritual power you possess, to do more of the stuff that you say you want with your one chance to live your life.
On the journey to wholeness within, your task is to intently challenge the problems you see. Because you see them as problems.
You can’t change the world — or your office, or your partner — by being swallowed whole by their own purpose-providing problems.
But you can start within and do your best to observe and disrupt your own unhelpful thinking patterns — even the thoughts that sneakily provide a false sense of purpose.
By observing your own tendencies and patterns, you discover opportunities — personal choices — to gently correct your behavior. To choose peace, presence, and love. Even though I write about these topics and teach them, the truth is that correcting my own thoughts and behaviors is all I’m ever really driving towards, myself. it’s the only real estate that I can truly till and hope to improve.
Try to shut down these kinds of addicting, faux problems from the start.
However, that’s a little easier said than done.
So, here are 3 of my favorite (and most effective) tools for disrupting my problems. I use them nearly every day:
Sitting still. It’s a hell of a task, and can feel like a difficult daily practice. So here’s my challenge for you instead. The next time you’re bored, anxious or antsy, dare yourself to sit still for 15-20 minutes and breath.
It will disrupt whatever problem is urging you to flee. I’ve been doing this especially when I feel suddenly called to leave my home and go out searching for something, anything, if it means not being bored and restless by myself. That’s a meaningless habit — and meditating helps me disrupt it.
We could all stand to move our bodies more, and movement has an incredible way of disrupting problems. I go for walks nearly daily to be in nature and to reconnect my feet to the earth.
I also do yoga to disrupt problems: escaping the mental patterns and opening up feel-based processing and the in-body experience.
3. Tell a Different Story
Dare to question your problems — in writing, and spoken aloud. I commonly reflect on what problem narratives and stories I’m telling in a personal journal. By choosing the words to write them, I can just as well choose how to rewrite the problem.
Tell a different story. Frame up a situation as anything but another problem. And see how the situation changes. Bonus points for not framing up things as problems in conversations with friends and family — you’ll all be better for it.
As it is in the macrocosm, it is in microcosm.
How we do anything is how we do everything.
Take advantage of small moments and opportunities to disrupt your problems.
Keep your mind and heart focused on what deeply serves you, honors you, and satiates your soul.
I promise you this: you will not remember the problems that gave you a false sense of purpose today.
Just as you can’t remember what problem you were fixed on 5 days ago. 5 weeks ago. Or 5 months ago.
Let it go. Let it all go. It is scary to let go of problems — it feels vulnerable. It feels guilty. Because so many people we know live their lives through all their problems. You deserve to let it go. They deserve to let it go. Everything that we’re looking for, we won’t find it by “working harder” and “fighting more” — it begins by letting go of everything we don’t need, that’s never served us. Erasing the clouded judgment, the interfered-with thoughts.
And in the wake of what space is left, you discover the power, focus, energy and capability that is already within you.
An artist doesn’t spend weeks comparing each brush to every other at the craft store; he’ll paint with his fingers if he needs to. A yogi doesn’t stop her practice because her old mat is worn down; she’ll practice on a floor if she needs to.
Be that artist. Be that yogi. Be relentless in directing your “doing” with conscientious intent.
Don’t allow petty obstacles or invented problems to dictate your true, undying sense of purpose.
Say no to purpose-providing problems.