If you’re anything like me, there’s a small (or large) part of you that gets a minor bad taste in your mouth at the idea of rules. It’s comparable to a mental stiff arm. This is completely understandable. I grew up as a kid who loved the rush of adrenaline when “breaking” rules, and some old mental habits are hard to kick as we find out as adults. Rules to most are the antithesis of freedom, and rightfully so. Rules constrict and confine. It’s therefore perfectly logical to formulate that the absence or avoidance of rules equals more freedom, right? To an extent yes, but not exactly.
We all have an ideal of ourselves that we constantly compare ourselves to and, hopefully, are working towards. You’ll quickly learn that you won’t get there doing whatever you want, whenever you want to. You know this by experience. We’re navigating through our lives constantly making decisions, decisions which either bring you closer to, or further from, your “ideal you”. We know we’d like to be healthier, so we say no more cigarettes and less sugar. We want to be better parents, so we reallocate some time from work to our family. We want to be happier and sharper mentally, so we read books, practice mindfulness, exercise daily. We set these boundaries for ourselves because we have to. We don’t get away with anything, and life is constantly needing to remind us by depositing more body fat around your midsection, or less energy throughout the day, or marital problems. It’s the way life is set up, and there’s no way around it. You have to play by the rules, or face the consequences.
Rules provide structure. They tell you what you can’t or shouldn’t do in order for whatever they’re built for to function properly. Assuming we want our lives to function properly, we have to determine what it is we have to do to get there, and what we can’t do. We have to set boundaries and follow a path, the path towards your goal. Rules provide the structure of the path. Without them, the path would lead nowhere and everywhere at the same time, and oftentimes this could be somewhere you wish you never landed yourself. Therefore, rules, when chosen properly, will lead you to freedom and prosperity. Yours will vary because your goals and potential are uniquely yours. Nonetheless, I’ve never come across a set of rules that lay the foundation to any positive pursuit more than the following.
Avoid what is unskillful
This may seem very obvious and simple, almost too obvious and simple to give any focus to. While yes it’s true that this is a very basic concept that we all just know by now, it’s not so easy to live in accordance with and follow all of the time. First, we need to define “unskillful” as it’s meant in this manner. Unskillful can loosely translate to not being good at something. At this deeper level, unskillful is actually used to mean behavior which is harmful or unwholesome.
Your ideal version of you that has reached his or her potential is wholesome and good, whatever that means and looks like to you. That ideal you hasn’t reached that pinnacle of positive energy and abundance by walking an unskillful, harmful path. Let’s look at 2 extremes to put this concept into perspective. Imagine yourself behaving only in an unwholesome, harmful manner for the next 5 years, eating nothing but junk food, drinking alcohol, smoking, taking drugs, and being mean to everybody you encounter every single day for 5 years. This probably paints a very dark picture for your future, full of inevitable pain and suffering. On the contrary, imagine yourself living perfectly for the next 5 years, perfectly as in everything you aspire to do now. Maybe this means eating a whole foods diet rich in greens, cutting out sugar, cutting out alcohol, weed, or cigarettes, exercising daily, meditating daily, traveling the world, volunteer work, more time in nature, being a more present parent. Whatever your unique path would be to you, the path that would take you to your best self, imagine living that everyday for 5 years without any slips or detours. While it’s nearly impossible to live perfectly since we’re all human, that bright picture you saw of your future is very possible if you avoid what is unskillful, as much and as consistently as possible.
One thing is true about mistakes – they are learning experiences, or more aptly put, opportunities where learning is possible. Mistakes are therefore a necessary and inevitable part of life. But it’s important that we learn from our mistakes, that we are aware of where we made the wrong turn, and are able to prevent it from happening again. It requires a very acute level of awareness to catch those subtle moments, those subtle moments where you’re at the crossroads of a potentially good or bad decision. Without awareness being present, your action or reaction will likely be to take the road you most frequently travel, which is the habit pattern that is already wired deeply in your brain circuitry. This doesn’t always work well if you’re trying to change for the good, if you’re trying to improve in one aspect or another. This lack of awareness could be what is allowing you to continue acting and living unskillfully. It could be catching yourself before you would naturally lash out and verbally attack your partner, or deciding that there’s no use in upsetting yourself yelling at the car which just cut you off. Maybe you ask yourself if it’s skillful spending so much time mindlessly scrolling through social media, which inevitably gives you a sense of underlying anxiety, instead of being more constructive with your time. It could be more subtle, which would require an even higher awareness, such as choosing to feel grateful instead of constantly focusing on what you don’t have, accepting somebody’s flawed self instead of mentally judging, or carrying tension versus actively letting go and releasing yourself to the present moment. These minor adjustments will ever so slightly change your current moment, which can change your day with consistency, and will eventually accumulate into a brighter potential.
Good decisions come from experience, experience comes from making bad decisions.Mark Twain
Do what is good
These rules are seemingly getting more simple and even more obvious. Everybody knows this is what you should do, it’s a no-brainer. How would reading anything on this subject help you at all? Well, maybe because it’s so obvious, and for the fact that it is a no-brainer, that we literally dedicate no brain space to applying this in our lives. Granted, it’s wired into us to naturally know if what we are doing is a good or bad thing, but life has unfortunately clouded or skewed some part of our judgment, or maybe we sometimes lack the awareness or experience to know better. It’s never a good idea to assume that everything we do is right, good, and doesn’t need to change; that’s what ignorance is. This is why it’s good to check in with ourselves from time to time. Take inventory of our lives. Look in those dark corners that we often push aside and neglect in order to not have to face the monster of truth, or to avoid the uncertainty of change.
There’s no use in defining bad, or providing examples of bad actions or habits. But just because you’re not doing anything bad, doesn’t necessarily mean what you’re doing is good. This is what usually slips between the cracks of our awareness. A prime example of this could be doing just enough to get by in whatever you do. You finish just the right amount of work you need to get your job done and keep your position, but you never extend yourself to help your coworkers or team. You take care of your household duties and talk about work with your spouse at the end of the day, but you don’t go the extra mile on any occasion aside from Valentines Day, your anniversary and their birthday to show them how special they are to you. Sure, you’re not doing anything bad per se, but it takes some self-awareness to realize that maybe your lack of “doing” may actually be what is harming you or keeping that aspect of your life stagnant and void of energy.
We should always strive for the good, no matter how difficult it may be. Doing good is often difficult as it requires strength. It takes strength to kick that bad habit, to smile at somebody who is projecting their negative thoughts onto you, to wake up at 5 am to work out or meditate, to be patient with your children who are thrashing about because they really just need your love, presence and guidance in that moment. It takes strength to let go of pain, to forgive somebody who has hurt you. But keep in mind, while all of these may be seemingly difficult, especially when you’re lacking the strength or motivation in that moment, the reverse will also be difficult, if not more so. It’s hard to go through life holding onto pain, lashing out at everybody when you lack patience, not taking care of your physical and mental well being and dealing with the resulting unhealthiness and dis-ease, not being able to respond with compassion in the face of negativity, but instead allowing yourself to react and be dragged along with it. Choose your “hard”. Elevate your level of awareness, so that you may consciously choose to opt for the good path, instead of mindlessly wandering between good, bad and complacent. No matter where you end up, it’s going to be a difficult time. At least set yourself up for more favorable difficulties by simply doing what is good.
You’re in hell to the extent that you’re distanced from the good.Jordan B. Peterson
Purify the mind
We’re going to end where it all begins; the mind. This is where most of your life experience is processed and stored. Everything taken in through the senses from your external world is fed through the wiring of your brain, and a thought and/or reaction is then generated. Which thought or reaction is generated depends on numerous factors, factors that include fears, trauma, strength, confidence, health, etc., which can all be summed up simply as your mental conditioning. We adopt good mental habits, outlooks, and reactions to certain external stimuli. We add on to what wisdom we have and grow as we mature. But we also accumulate a considerable amount of debris over time, and this debris shapes our thoughts and reactions accordingly. We painfully begin to realize at some point in our adult life that we need to start cleaning our internal rooms, the rooms we reside in literally our whole life, as we notice the garbage pile stacking higher and higher, covering the cleanliness and purity with accumulated junk. Our minds are like gardens. We need to plant flowers and seeds, and pull the weeds. If you don’t put any effort into caring for your garden, it will eventually become overrun with weeds.
Your mind’s conditioning runs all the way back to your childhood. What events took place, environment you were in, trauma you experienced, and habits you picked up are uniquely yours. Making the assumption that your life hasn’t been filled with a long stream of purity and perfectness since you were born, it’s safe to say there may be a few weeds in your garden. The addictive habits, the insecurities, the lack of patience and acceptance, or whatever it may be, all stem from how your mind has been uniquely molded by your life experience. One person may be able to remain patient and firm where you would’ve simply lost it, while the next person might be extremely nervous in social situations where you feel at ease and in the flow. You might be more prone to addictive behavior that satisfies your urges short term while being unhealthy and self destructive long term. Or you may be untrusting of people of a certain gender or race, or even hateful. These flaws and defects are part of being human, but they also bring us great suffering.
Simply put, purifying your mind will purify your experience of life as it is. Luckily for us, just as we were designed with the ability to accumulate junk, we were also provided the tools to clear and remove the unwanted debris, and to rearrange our mental furniture. Not repeating the habits and reactions that create your suffering is what is required, but this is easier said than done, especially considering the fact that we are literally going against ourselves. Practicing mindfulness is a great tool for this, as it increases your level of awareness which is required to even notice which habits and thought patterns need to be let go of, while also strengthening the mental muscle that is responsible for being less reactive, and allowing space for a chosen response rather than an automatic, mindless reaction. As Daniel Goleman states, “One definition of maturity is widening the gap between impulse and action”. By widening this gap, you allow yourself the chance to decide which words will be more constructive, which action will be more beneficial, and which impulses to not act on. By applying mindfulness in this way, you will weaken the pathways in your brain associated with the negative unwanted behavior, while simultaneously creating or strengthening the “good action” pathways. This self-work could also be supplemented with using resources such as therapy to help unravel trauma, deal with repressed emotions, and open your perspective to promote more openness of thought.
What work is needed is special and specific to you. With the right, consistent effort and the aim to do good, each weed will be pulled, one by one, allowing more space for your pure, unobstructed self to emerge in each moment. Avoid what is unskillful to prevent further damage and suffering. Replace what is unskillful with doing what is good to promote growth, abundance and love. Purify the mind to purify your actions, so that what you think, say and do are in alignment with your highest potential.
Purity and simplicity are the two wings with which man soars above the earth and all temporary nature.Thomas A. Kempis