"Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose."
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
How we think makes all the difference. The way we position ourselves in the world makes a difference. The words we use make a difference. Then where should our attention go? To the things we cannot control or to the things that make a difference?
We over-think rather than think effectively; we're busy yet unproductive. Before I ever threw a punch or a kick in the dojo, my instructor explained why. Why I bowed. Why I took off my shoes. Why I might be attacked. Why I might need to defend myself and others. Why I need to think a certain way. Most of all, why any of this mattered. If I never thought about why, I may have quit long ago.
Even as a child, if someone told me to do something, I needed to know the reason. This is universal. Imagine yourself in the primitive world, if resources were limited, you would need to know why before you sacrificed precious energy. Life was (and still is) a value proposition, then knowing purpose was your filter for survival: these things make sense, and these other things do not. Not having that filter could mean eventual death for yourself and possibly your tribe. If you can keep the village healthy, your life serves a purpose, and in return, your village keeps you alive—spiritually and physically.
Starting Point Vs. Endpoint
We often start things without valid reasons or even knowing why we should care. (Most New Year's resolutions.) We think about some goal, something we want, and want replaces purpose—it becomes our only reason to do something. Yet goals are the expressions of purpose; it exists to bring purpose to fruition. Yet now, an abstraction like a goal can exist on its own, while serving no purpose, which brings us to a culture of busyness that gets little done (with unhappy citizens constantly questioning the point of their existence). Wants can change, be flexible, have different deadlines, but are always secondary to purpose. Much like a river, it can bend, fork, maneuver, and change, but why it exists is to meet the ocean. It's not important what it does, but why it does it. To flourish, one must be responsive; to stagnate, one must do the opposite.
We look only at the endpoint when the only thing that matters at the beginning is the starting point: where you are and why you should do this. There is but one endpoint, one final deadline—why rush to it? Why keep thinking about what we'll be doing when we're done when we're never done? Not really. You'll keep trying for more until the day you die, the one true endpoint. Why miss everything on the way? What will be accomplished, and recognized too late, is a wasted life.
Your thoughts create your actions. In practical terms, what you think, you become. Always thinking "try" instead of "do" leads to subjectivity—a subjective life. Is it good? I don't know. Am I happy? I don't know. It all depends. Is it meaningful? Doesn't seem like it. In a void of objective confidence, and without a clarity of purpose, fear and doubt will proliferate.
Words can be wishful, used to imagine outcomes rather than actively pursuing outcomes. In linguistics, this is the subjunctive—how most of us have learned to speak:
or worse yet,
However, words can also be indicative of action. Yoda only speaks in the indicative:
(This was not by accident but by design, you translate most classical languages to English, and they sound like Yoda.)
One of the beauties of Star Wars was how it transmitted Zen, Taoist, and Stoic philosophy to the general public. And like any good philosophical contagion, the public wanted more. Everyone told their friends and neighbors, "You have to go see it. It has everything you've ever wanted in a movie." Star Wars became the biggest original movie property of all time. But much more to learn, there is.
Jedi training involves exposing yourself to discomfort, to allow vulnerability to give birth to courage. This is not dissimilar to many classical training methods that are still used in sports, leadership, and the military. This is how the Jedi unlock the power of the Force, to commune with their potential.
The Force is a language; do you speak it? To live life to capacity means thinking indicatively and subjectively. This takes control. Compassionate thinking requires the subjective mind. To act with compassion requires the active mind. Luke Skywalker could do both, something even Yoda could not. This is what made Luke the chosen Jedi.
In the East, the Jedi were martial arts-wise men. In the West, they were Stoics. The Jedi not only control their actions but also their thoughts and words. (This is how the Jedi mind trick works, subjective minds are susceptible and open to suggestion.) Trying means hoping, doing means doing. To a Jedi, everything is measured, and nothing is taken for granted.
Many folks have ample motivation, what they lack is the ability to turn motivation into anything lasting and meaningful. Our compartmentalized system of thinking needs unification because every aspect of your life will affect other aspects of your life, and confusion in one area will create confusion in the others. You don't live life in segments, it's one continuous chain of events. So are you, one whole being, rather than isolated parts. What will your judgment be like if you never considered all the areas of your life? Will it cloud your judgment? Make misguided decisions? What we really want is to value ourselves more, but if we ignore the whole, we might mistakenly believe what we want is to be richer and to look better.
Think back to when you were a child, your teacher might have played a hide and reveal game where she would remove pieces, and you had to guess what animal was hidden underneath. You see what appears to be a snake, and you are convinced that it is one, but as more pieces are removed, what appeared to be a snake was actually the tail of an elephant. In many ways, we are still that child, because we only see a piece of the picture, and that piece looks like we want more from the world when what we really want is to value the world more.
Suffering exists within ourselves, the Stoics say these are subjective opinions. Yet we seek to quell our suffering with the external, with material things outside of ourselves. This is why the Dark Side is misguided, it seeks to solve what is inside of yourself with things that are outside of yourself. The Buddhists would say this only creates more attachment, which only begets more suffering, which only begets more desires until, like a fly attracted to dark tree sap, you are trapped in the amber.
We need more self-control, yet control is also about yielding to the unknown. Controlling our thoughts and emotions. We choose to control outcomes that are outside of our effect because that seems easier than controlling our own reactions to those outcomes. This only fuels out anxiety. Anxiety is unhappiness. Happiness is the absence of anxiety, or what philosophers call peace.
Just as we can't know what we don't know, we can't control what we can't control. We can, however, control our reactions. We can't always cause an effect on the universe, but we can cause an effect in ourselves.
In Taoist philosophy, the Way means to control the self and accept the rest. This is why Star Wars was such a unique experience, because most people do the opposite, try to control everyone else except themselves. Look at a typical argument, it's to control everyone else's opinions except our own. And has that made us happier? Or has that caused more suffering and disharmony? No matter what year you read this, that truth will remain the same.
Mastery is goalless practice—to practice with purpose. One of the best things I did to improve my own happiness was to abandon goals. Blasphemy, you say. And why is this idea so controversial? Because we have been radicalized to believe the only way to get things done is to set goals. (The Farce of setting high expectations to feel happy about yourself.)
Then how did people get anything done without goals? Most innovations were unexpected byproducts of continuous improvements. As a species, we made the bulk of our advances and migrations before self-help books. It's like believing people will only do things for money. Charity disproves that, childhood disproves that, love disproves that, even the Internet disproves that. Most of the Internet is made up of things people did just because they wanted to; things are constantly happening on the Internet without monetary gain, without a goal. I accomplish more with less anxiety when I bloom without goals, because it happens organically, as a matter of course. And the best part, I'm always surprising myself.
Imagine two identical twins starting karate. One sets a goal to become a black belt. The other trains with the purpose of continuous practice; to continuously hone and improve without end. Who gets better every day? (A black belt is the byproduct of getting better every day, not the other way around.) Who'll always win in sparring? (A black belt is the byproduct of limitless will and not the other way around.) Who'll get their black belt first? (The better person earns a black belt; however, the desire for a black belt will not make for a better person, nor will it earn a black belt.) Who'll keep going after their black belt? (The person who trains regardless of outcome, and not the one who trains with preset conditions.) Who'll quit in a short amount of time and talk about the good old days when they used to train karate? (The one with the goal and a delicate heart.)
And like karate, artful living is a skill. Practice hones those skills. How much easier would life be if we practiced overcoming conflict and adversity? How overwhelming would it be if we didn't? How you think will affect every choice you make. How powerful is that? Then shouldn't we be critical in how we think and speak? Shouldn't we practice by sitting with our thoughts and bringing them to clarity? Shouldn't we think before we speak? Shouldn't we keep a journal of thoughts to improve our words? Shouldn't we practice? The pen requires more respect than the sword.
Comfort Is Seductive
If all we do is chase comfort, what need is there for change? It's like standing in quicksand, it's warm and cozy, but dry land, meaning and happiness, is getting further away and harder to reach. Important things in life aren't always pleasurable or exciting, but that is the process. Like school, career, family, relationships, just causes, and everything else that is important.
Imagine a baby that didn't make weird faces, or strange noises, didn't try to touch everything, never fell over, and never got back up. Instead, it only tried to remain comfortable. Wouldn't you be worried? There is something seriously wrong with that baby because it has one job in life, to develop as a human being and challenging comfort is how we develop. So why are we not as worried when we as adults stop developing? It's still our job, and we're still not dead.
The Dark Side is a metaphor for the seductive nature of comfort. It is the easier path, the selfish path, the destructive path. It's effortless to think only of yourself. It requires less energy. It is comfortable. It's the viewpoint you were born with, from behind your own eyes. To be other-centered, to think of others, that takes effort.
Luke, through his compassion, can see through the illusion of Darth Vader. Though he is "bad," he knows he is still capable of good. What we did is not who we are, we are what we do. With every decision, with every new action, we can redefine ourselves. We are a culture of second chances, we can be different because we can act differently. Unlike some animals, we can change our stripes.
Judging the Action, Not the Self
We tend to find motivation through value judgments of the self: You're good, you're bad, you're smart, you're a loser, you're amazing, you suck. Unmistakably, if it is flattering, we don't consider it a judgment, we consider it a compliment (or a truth). Only when it is negative do we consider it a judgment (though the negative is sometimes truer than the compliment). They both create temporary motivation. The positive can create an emotional high, the negative, a surge of defiance—but they both only last so long. However, this is not the same as giving objective feedback or affecting real change.
Value judgments are not self-sustaining and require constant external stimuli—someone cheerleading or barking at us. It takes the focus off of our actions and puts the emphasis on ourselves—judging the self rather than judging the actions. (E.g., you are brilliant vs. what you did was brilliant.) Productivity is about the things we do or don't do. It is not a self-selected identity. Self-judgment creates anxiety, a fear of failure, and a constant comparison of who we are vs. who we think we ought to be. It kills resilience and self-control.
That's subjective judgment rather than objective observation. Use the language of productivity. If you're a traveler, being told you're good or bad at directions neither helps nor prevents you from getting lost. Being told you're going the wrong or right way, that is beneficial. Productive, unproductive, effective, ineffective—this method of evaluation gives us a roadmap for improvement, a better path to learning.
Your Destiny, You Must Choose
Everything is information, even food. What is it telling you? Give yourself the right information and you peak. Get the wrong information and you can alter your trajectory for the worse. Seek direction, think better, and choose your actions wisely—for your current actions dominates your future.
What we do now shapes our tomorrow. As Obi-Wan’s apprentice, when Anakin Skywalker started down the dark path, one misdeed fed the next misdeed, until he was trapped in darkness—his fate sealed. This is what Vader was taught, a fixed mindset of non-change and permanence, just as this was taught to Luke. (This is why rather than Yoda, it is Luke who is closer to Buddha and his philosophy of change and impermanence.)
If we take Yoda's words to be absolutes, there are no choices. Your destiny is already set in motion. There is truth to this, the more you do something, the more it is deeply embedded into your character—your character determines your actions. As we know, only the Sith speak in absolutes. Luke was special even among the other Jedi, like a good Taoist, even in yin there is yang, and in yang, there is yin—Luke sought balance (rather than the Dark Side's fatalism).
There is always a new hope, a chance for change and a choice to make.
When Luke finally confronts Vader, not only does the Emperor tell Luke to kill him, but Luke killing Vader was the expected course of action by every character in the movie, including Obi-Wan and Yoda. (In fact, Obi-Wan and Yoda hid Darth Vader's true identity from Luke, telling him instead that Vader killed his father. It was an attempt to manipulate Luke's actions, to push him to kill Vader. In story myths, betrayal and lies are typical trials on the path to enlightenment. Once enlightened, the hero forgives.)
However, Luke chooses his own destiny and saves the galaxy. Eventually, there are no more books, outlines, to-do lists, or resolutions. You need guidance, but only you can do the work. It can't be done for you. In the end, your destiny, you must choose.
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