Reality isn’t What You Think and Feel

Humans are neither thinking machines or feeling machines. They’re feeling machines that think.

Antonio Damasio

I was panicking.

I had a feeling in the pit of my stomach. A tight ball of black wire wool was scratching away my insides.

My mind jumped into action.

You’re feeling this way because...

You didn’t eat much this morning, maybe you’re just hungr....

What if it’s the weather?

Maybe you miss Ollie?

When was the last time Ash hugged you?

Oh. It was yesterday. So… That must be it!

You’re feeling this way because you want Ash to hug you more.

That’s it. It’s hugs.

Phew. Thoughts to the rescue. My mind came up with the answer. Lucky I’m so smart and logical. Those fucking hugs, why won’t Ash hug me more?? I started to feel upset and a little lonely. The tight ball of black wire wool was still there, but I was distracted by how upset I felt that Ash didn’t hug me more.

Hang on.

This makes no sense. I have no idea where that answer came from. All I know is that I felt a sensation, likely attached to an emotion, and my mind sprayed a bunch of thoughts at me until I accepted one as the truth. It didn’t even address the ‘black wire wool’ sensation I was having - instead I created a distraction out of thin air… I thought it, I was able to come up with logic around the thought, so it seemed true.

If my emotions and my thoughts were people having a conversation it would be a very one sided conversation. My thoughts would be the kind of person who interrupts constantly, finishing sentences, not listening, just waiting until the next moment he can jump in and explain how it really is. My emotions would be the person being talked over, not being listened to, meekly saying “oh, no... that’s not what I was trying to say at all...” while the other person takes over the conversation.

My thoughts aren’t necessarily any truer than my emotions. And yet, something about me causes me to believe them over and above any other kind of signal I experience. Even though they’re mostly a random spray of ideas and general mind junk, my thoughts seem the most true.

Not everyone is like me. You might be convinced that your emotions are the truth. You’ll tell me that if you feel it, it must be true. You’ll accept your emotions as truth and do all sorts of mind tricks to fall in line with the truth.

You and I are not so different. I assume my thoughts are the truth and bend my emotions to fit and you assume your emotions are truth and rationalise to fit. What each of us tends to accept as reality obscures reality.

Emotions, thoughts, and sensations are just signals. The only thing that is ‘real’ is what we do. Barring a big philosophical discussion about what 'real' means. Let's do that another time.

Don’t get me wrong - I’m not asking you to ignore your signals. They’re incredibly important parts of the way you perceive the world and work out what to do. But they’re not reality - they’re trying to tell you something about reality. I want you to see them for what they are and perhaps free yourself from the belief that your negative emotions or oppressive thoughts are real. For many of you, the starting point to this is the third signal - sensation.

The Triangle

These three signals; emotion, sensation, thinking; make up a nice neat triangle. I know that this triangle is much neater than you or I will ever be but this sort of simplification is a great start to understanding what goes on inside the complexities of your brain.

Paper.Tom things.1.png

Emotions are the motivations to take actions. Essentially, an emotion is a strong cue for you to move.

Thinking is the ’rational’ part of you brain trying to process, consider, reason, judge, and provide explanation to what’s going on.

Sensations are signals coming from the systems in your body designed to notice changes in environment internally and externally. For example, a sensation might be how the skin on your hand notices a change when you move it near the stove. A more internal sensation could be the how your muscles and connective tissue feel when you stretch them.

All of these elements are linked and it can be hard to distinguish between them sometimes. Luckily, it’s not that important for you to be able to do that.

What is important is that these three elements are constantly trying to interpret each other. If you're feeling a sensation, you interpret it with your emotions or you think about it. For example, you feel the sensation of pain. Maybe your response is to spend time thinking about why it’s hurting. Or perhaps you start to feel sad (an emotion) because you feel as though the pain will never go away. Either way, you are interpreting the sensation using the other signals available to you.

Sometimes this is helpful. Your thoughts about why you’re feeling pain might lead to you think of a way to stop the pain. But it’s not always helpful. Have you ever woken up feeling angry about a dream you’ve had? Has that anger crept into your day? When you wake up from a dream like that, you’re feeling the emotion of anger. Because you’re feeling that emotion, you rationalise that there must be a reason you’re angry so it feels much more reasonable to respond with anger to things in the real world. If you’re feeling the emotion, it must be for a reason!

Of the three sides of this triangle, thoughts and emotions are most often mistaken for fact. But as you can see from the dream example, they're merely signals and interpretations of your environment. They are all important and helpful at times, but when you start to believe them to be more than they are, you stop using them to interpret the world and instead find yourself caught in a weird abstraction of reality that feels completely true.

It’s hard to see the signals for what they are when you’re in the habit of believing them to be truth. It’s even harder when you have a particularly strong signal. Nevertheless, you can change how you react to your signals. You can change which signals you pay more attention to (remember, I tend towards believing that what I think is true). You can also change the way these signals are created in the first place.

Powerful stuff huh? Guess what? It’s basically just realising that all of these are signals and listening carefully to them. It’s simple to write, easy to say. Hard to do.

Paper.Tom things.1 2.png

Meta cognitive awareness is your ability to sit above this triangle and watch what’s going on in the triangle without perceiving anything in the triangle as a fact. You become an objective observer of your signals and can make choices about how to interpret them. It’s not about questioning what’s going on in the triangle or trying to rationalise why you can see things happening in a particular way (guess what? that’s just thinking...) You simply take the time to observe all the emotions, the thoughts that pop up, and any sensations you feel without doing anything about any of them.

That’s the beauty of this - you don’t have to do anything.

Just observe.

I’m not suggesting that you live your entire life like this, but the skill is incredibly useful to have. With a life time of practice in taking action in response to your thoughts, emotions or sensations, sitting back and observing instead will be hard. It’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to do this after reading my blog post about it. It takes practice.

This model is a simplification of the complex system that is you. The whole point of observing yourself in this way is to show you that you’re operating in a system. The thoughts, emotions, and sensations you’re having are all part of a system even if one feels overwhelming right now.

it gets a whole lot more complex than this but that’s for another time.

Meditation Practice

The objective of mindfulness meditation practice is to be able to observe your experience and to be less reactive. You focus on what’s happening right now in your body and mind. A common method to get into this state is to observe the sensations in the body such as the rise and fall of your breath.

There are many resources out there now to help you practice mediation. I successfully kicked off my mediation practice using the Headspace app which I continue to use today. I also use Oak for unguided mediations because of the great implementation of interval bells.

I strongly recommend using an app to help you or even better, an in person guided mediation. If you can’t, here’s a simple written guide to help you get started now.

  1. Get comfortable. You could sit on a cushion, your favourite chair, or even lie down.
  2. Take a few deep breaths, slowly drawing air all the way in and slowly releasing the air.
  3. Close your eyes and let your breath return to normal - make no effort to breath in a particular way.
  4. Focus your attention on the rising and falling sensation of the breath in the body. It might be in your stomach, or chest. If you can’t feel it, try putting your hand on your stomach.
  5. If it helps you to focus, count in your mind each breath as it passes up to 10 then start over at 1. For example, breath in, one, breath out, two, breath in, three etc.
  6. All you have to do is pay attention to your breath. There’s nothing else to do. If your mind wanders, as soon as you realise it has happened, bring it back to focusing on your breath. Don’t worry - this will happen a lot. Coming back to the focus is the practice.

Maintain this practice for 5 minutes to begin with. You could set a timer using your phone. Try building up to longer periods of time as you get used to observing your ‘triangle’ like this.

Do you know which side of the triangle you tend to believe is true? I’d love to hear your answer in the comments!

The Enemy of Creativity is Comparison


I got a Panobook from Studio Neat today. It’s really nice. The cover is lovely, and the paper itself is beautiful to write on (and I’m only using a bic!).

Do you ever feel bad writing in new notebooks? Like whatever crap your writing or drawing isn’t as nice as the notebook deserves or something? I do. The Panobook has lovely paper and such attention to detail that I felt bad writing in for the first time.

I learned from Merlin Mann that the way around this is to break the spell straight away. Draw something stupid on the first page. Scribble on it. Write a dumb quote. Put a sticker in there. Shit. Someone has to do it. Once you realise that the notebook is just there for you to fill up in whatever way you want, there’s nothing left but to fill it up! Create in it. Draw. Write. Make Things. No-one will laugh at you here in this notebook.

And even if they did somehow find the notebook, look at it, and for some reason laugh at you, it’s because they’re not creating. It doesn’t mean you should turn off your creative tap. It doesn’t mean you should stop creating.

Creativity is how you figure stuff out. It’s how you learn about yourself. Fuck, it’s how you get in touch of who you are. It’s play. It’s human.

It starts with the first page. And Don’t Fucking Stop. I get it. You’ve heard this before. And you can’t draw anyway. Well fuck. If you really can’t draw then that’s something you can learn to do in this notebook.

The enemy of creativity is comparison.

I’m sure I heard that somewhere but I can’t remember where. A few months ago I would’ve let that stop me writing because I wanted to be scientific and cite my sources always. That’s a fair point - people should get credit if they want it. But creativity is also taking what you see around you and bringing a part of yourself to it. I’m not saying you should steal. I am saying don’t fucking let details like that get in the way of you tapping into your creative stream.

I wrote about making something instead of consuming something next time you and try to relax. Did you try that? What did you make?

Once you besmirch the first page of your notebook and keep creating, the next step is realising that’s the whole point. It’s about attitude. In this culture where work is the primarily valued thing, it can be easy to measure the value of your play and creativity in terms of money. Imagine for a second that the value in whatever you’re creating in this notebook (or whatever you’re doing!) is just as important as the work you do. Hopefully you don’t need much imagination because if it feels good to you and you get something out of it, it has value.

So. Go dirty the first page of your notebook in whatever way you want. Hell, you can just tear it out if you want. Creativity is valuable in all its forms. Don’t let comparison in any form get in your way.

Images on this post are from Studio Neat

You Can and you Must Change your Stories

Ramit’s Sethi's 2018 manifesto on rewriting your story grabbed me by the scruff of my neck, sat me down, and made me listen. Go read it.

I believe that our lives are made up of stories. And I believe there are three kinds of stories that matter:

  • The stories we’re told.
  • The stories we believe.
  • And the stories we change.

It’s a pretty simple idea. Your whole perception of what goes on around you is based on these stories. How you react to things and the way you see others is all based on your stories. Some of the stories are hidden but you can use the mirroring tool I linked to yesterday to help find them.

Ramit points out that your stories don’t have to be hidden to have big unintended consequences. You might suddenly realise that something you’ve always identified with as ‘you’ isn’t true anymore.

Try to imagine you’ve built your entire identity on something, and suddenly, you realize it’s not true. Suddenly Mr. Hot Shit ain’t so hot.

Or maybe, day by day a story you wrongly believe is fucking you. It’s hard to change your stories:

Changing the story you tell yourself is viscerally uncomfortable because it means that (1) you might have to do the very thing you’ve created an identity around not doing, and (2) you might have been wrong about yourself for your entire life. It’s not just hard. It’s psychologically devastating.

But you must be capable of rewriting your stories. Things will always change around you. You will change. They’re just stories.

Ramit shares the three ingredients to “rewriting your story of a Rich Life” in more detail than this at the end of his post. Go read it. I implore you!

Rewriting your story of a Rich Life takes these three ingredients:

What if: Start your story with two words. What if?

You’re the hero: Make yourself the hero of your story by (1) having fun and (2) getting the help of other people around you.

Look to the future: Don’t dwell on the past or just focus on the present.

Use Mirroring to Uncover your Blindspots

Here’s a great tool to check out over on Awaken with JP Sears Premium AF. I can't embed the video for you here, so go check it out on JP's website:

Owning your Truth through Mirroring

I’m not a subscriber to Premium AF (I’ve thought about it, but I’m trying not to add new things to my life at the moment even if they look great), so I’m glad he decided to share this stuff about mirroring.

Understanding yourself and being authentic is really hard. It’s especially hard because you have blind spots as big as trucks all over the place. Things you don’t even realise, stories you tell yourself (they could be positive, negative, or anywhere in between), and patterns you can’t see. It’s okay, we all have this shit.

As a psychological term, mirroring is the behaviour in which one person subconsciously imitates the gesture, speech pattern, or attitude of another. Mirroring often occurs in social situations, particularly in the company of close friends or family. (This definition is from the Wikipedia page for mirroring)

JP Sears presents mirroring as a tool you can use to catch a glimpse of your big-as-a-truck blind spots. By first owning the fact that your perceptions of others are your perceptions and not necessarily reality, you can unpack what those perceptions might say about you. You really have to own your perceptions for this to work. It can feel pretty selfish, but for the sake of this exercise you’re going to assume that it’s 100% about you.

For example, one perception I have of my partner Ashley is that sometimes she spends too much time using social media on her phone. What that says about me is that I’m scared that my decision to spend less time on social media is hurting me somehow and that I’ll end up lonely AF.

Another perception I have of my partner Ashley is that she is generous in giving back to the community by volunteering at Lifeline. What that says about me is that I want to be much more generous in my community and I’m looking for ways I can give back in my own way. Her volunteering also requires an incredible amount of empathy and I’m learning that true empathy without martyrdom is something I’ve got a lot to learn about.

Both of my examples are things I couldn’t really see without looking in the mirror of Ashley first. It’s a powerful tool! JP gives some other examples in the video - I recommend you go watch it!

Here’s a quick recap of the tool:

  1. Look at a person in your life and own your perceptions of them (one thing that challenges you about them and one thing that you like about them).
  2. State the perception you have of them.
  3. State what that perception says about you as though your perception of them is 100% about you. (For the sake of this exercise, we’re assuming that it’s 100% about you!)

If you want to see more tools like this I find around the place, you can sign up below to get my monthly journal where I share my explorations.

When Theories Become Dogma

I’ve been loving Seth Godins blog lately:

We can fall into a few traps with our theories about humans:

  1. We can come to believe that they are ironclad guarantees, not merely our best guess about the future.
  2. We can refuse to understand the mechanics behind a theory and instead accept the word of an authority figure. If we fail to do the math on our own, we lose agency and the ability to develop an even more nuanced understanding of how the world works.
  3. We can become superstitious, ignoring evidence that runs counter to our theory and instead doubling down on random causes and their unrelated effects.
  4. We can hesitate to verbalize our theories, afraid to share them with others, particularly those we deem as higher in authority or status.
  5. We can go to our jobs and do all four of these things at once.

Emptiness and Quickness in a Movement Practice

We’re working on emptiness and quickness in movement practice this month at Praksis. These ideas are just two of the varying qualities and modes of practice I’ve been learning there.

Since emptiness is something I haven’t ever heard about before, I wanted to tell you about it. This is my first time trying to explain this, so bear with me.

Training emptiness is about training to let go and not use the muscles for movement. For me, it’s easiest to think about this in your shoulders. Almost all of us hold a lot of tension in our shoulders - you’re probably doing it right now! Relax!

An emptiness drill for the shoulders as shown in one of Ido Portal's movement camps (see the Facebook post I got this photo from here). Keep your shoulders loose and heavy and create the swinging movement by turning your hips. If you're doing it right, your arms will start to feel heavy.  Eventually you should be able to be empty enough that you'll feel heavy in the shoulders and maybe get the sensation of your scapulae (shoulder blades) wrapping around your spine.  

An emptiness drill for the shoulders as shown in one of Ido Portal's movement camps (see the Facebook post I got this photo from here). Keep your shoulders loose and heavy and create the swinging movement by turning your hips. If you're doing it right, your arms will start to feel heavy.  Eventually you should be able to be empty enough that you'll feel heavy in the shoulders and maybe get the sensation of your scapulae (shoulder blades) wrapping around your spine.  

Emptiness is the state of no tension. When it’s coupled with a moment of tension at the start, you can use this state to move very quickly. Think of a whip cracking or that finger slapping noise you might’ve heard.

This stuff is completely new to me. As a naturally anxious person who is learning to let go, I’m in the habit of holding a lot of tension. Not to mention that most of the training I’ve done has been for strength and mobility. And whilst emptiness is related to mobility, you don’t get good at emptiness by stretching. It’s its own thing.

We'll be working on this until the end of January. Although this could be something easier to learn about in person, I'm looking forward to sharing more as I learn more about it. You can sign up below to get my monthly newsletter where I cover this stuff and more.