A few weeks ago, I felt the overwhelming need to be by the water. So, on a beautiful Saturday morning, I hopped onto a bus to a nearby town, with the aim of just sitting by the Ocean and perhaps writing a bit. While there, with sand in my toes and the waves gently crashing against the shore, I found myself lost in thought, pondering various aspects of life, my life. This experience was strangely therapeutic. Here are some of the lessons I gleaned, from these moments of sweeping clarity.
1. Thoughts: Being watchful of what I expend mental energy on is a crucial part of living a peaceful life. Yes, it is only human to search for meaning in temporary spaces, but we have to understand the fruitlessness of these exercises. What are we focusing on today that would not matter six months from now? Is it a job, an object, a person or something someone said? Everything passes, eventually. The prevailing circumstances might not be ideal but how we choose to construct meaning from them is entirely up to us.
A few people I know have experienced varying levels of depression and this seems to be more common these days, perhaps thanks to increased social media saturation. From our discussions on these, I am left wondering: what if we chose to re-frame our view of depression, not as a persistent state of mind, but as an underlying tendency to overthinking and underacting? What if we decide to view the problems we face, not as immovable boulders but as surmountable hurdles? Would that change anything? I do not know, for sure. I think, though, that if we act more on the positive fruits of our thinking, we would have less to obsess about and more results to assess and gradually improve upon.
2. Mindfulness: Developing a healthy relationship with myself means seeing myself for who I really am and then moving forward to deconstruct the surrounding falsehoods that constantly threaten to becloud this truth. We have to watch the stories we tell ourselves and listen to ourselves when we respond to those stories. Mindfulness is aimed at finding quiet amidst the never ending noise of society. There is so much noise out there that it is easy to lose our voices. It might help to listen to ourselves a bit more when we talk. Do we recognize that person? Is that the person we want to be?
For mindfulness to be effective, we have to first recognize our flaws and limitations, and then be willing to take the little daily steps to become more integrated. Establishing a healthy relationship with ourselves is perhaps the most important of all relationships. Nemo dat quod non habet ― no one can give what he does not have. Do not be afraid of the silence, for it is there that you find yourself.
3. Time: Spending time on things that do not matter takes away from the time that can be spent on creative and productive thinking and action. It is a fairly mutually exclusive scenario. We know this but we never act on this knowledge. Since it is harder to change thoughts than action, being disciplined about what we think about starts with being disciplined about what we do and this continues until the loop reverts. By developing action habits, we condition ourselves to think deliberate, reinforcing thoughts, which in turn drive the positive actions.
The goal is to be a relentless learner, not just accumulate lots of information. The habits we develop are the minutiae, the little things done in the morning, during the day and at night. As Annie Dillard remarked, how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. We cannot spend time being paralyzed by negativity, focused on the inconsequential, and expect to live productive and happy lives. We cannot spend our days steeped in halfhearted, mediocre actions and expect to have excellent lives, whatever that means for us. Excellence is not the end-result. It is the process.
4. Creation: I believe we derive our highest sense of self-worth when engaged in acts of creation. Tapping into the well of creativity and merging that with a sense of purpose, bringing something to life out of a void of nothingness, these bring us to our highest points of being. Creation is the marriage of unfettered thought and consistent application.
It is a given that while engaging in the process of creation, failure would be encountered. This is true. But failure also acts as a call to grow and thus can lead to considerable progress. What I have found is that optimism is a very valuable asset to have. It is good to believe that things would work if we create the right environment for them to. These days, I strive to attain what Steve Jobs termed realistic optimism, considering the facts objectively at all times, but once you set your heart to something, giving it all you can. Life does not reward kindly halfhearted action. The only way to move forward really is to move forward.
5. Feedback loops: It is necessary to be clear on what it is we want to achieve, else we end up hacking at the leaves, rather than at the root. Starting out the day with the simple question, “What do I want to achieve today?” and at the end, “did I achieve that?” can be a powerful way of measuring progress. That way, you do not get stuck in mindless action (or inaction).
Always maintain short feedback loops which represent chances to assess our actions and improve upon them. Think-Act-Assess-Improve (TAAI). Do not get stuck at the level of just thinking. Overthinking is not a strength if it hinders your ability to progressively learn and act. Fail if you must, but act still. And have people around you who are willing to give your honest feedback, people who are willing to call out your BS in plain language.
6. Future: The uncertainty of what is yet to come can prevent us from fully enjoying and appreciating what is. We bother a lot about the unknown and this makes us wander through time, like zombies, without feeling the miracle of each moment. What is to come would come if we decide to create it. There are some things we have control over and there are others that we do not. Knowing what these are and acting accordingly saves us from worrying endlessly. A head full of fears has no space for dreams.
I do not think about changing the world anymore. This is not because I do not care about the world, no. I just have realized that changing the world means changing myself, growing into the space that I know I can inhabit. It means finding myself, a little bit more, every day. This takes humility, focus, application and a willingness to constantly strip myself of ego and delusions of grandeur. We can change the world, yes, and we should, starting from embracing the process of personal change.
7. We are not special: Of all the things I learnt, looking out at the infinite expanse of water, the one that stuck out the most was how un-special we really are. There have probably been at least 107 Billion different humans who have at one point or the other lived on Earth. We are all different in our unique ways, but in the ways that really matter ‒ we all live and die ‒ we are the same. So, what really is there to be afraid of? Death? Here’s a little secret: we all will die someday. So why let that impair you? Failure? We cannot avoid it; we fail at many things just about every day. Not reaching our potential? Well, we probably would never reach our full potential because we cannot definitely know where our potential starts or stops at.
When we acknowledge these, we realize that we drown ourselves in a series of what-ifs and forget to live in the moment. We forget that what matters is not what we will do tomorrow or what happened yesterday, but what is happening right now. What we need is a little more kindness, to ourselves and to others.
These lessons are ones that I have had to learn throughout my life. Sitting by the water, I experienced a degree of clarity about them which I had struggled with, for a while. Yes, they may seem like self-evident ideas, but it was necessary to remind myself anew. Of all the people I have met and would meet, the only one I cannot shake off is myself. It makes no sense to be too hard on myself when I am stuck with the man in the mirror. It is much easier to appreciate my uniqueness, strengths, weaknesses and everything between. It is easier to do the work than count the costs of inaction. That is the only way to make this experiment we call life bearable, interesting even.
At the end of my water-gazing ruminations, here is what I resolved to do: Take in the fresh air every morning, appreciate that I am alive and act like I won’t see this moment again. Because every moment is unique. Why waste it?
– This article was written by Chidozie Akakuru and was first published on Medium.