The Antidote
The Antidote

The Antidote

And tranquility was to be achieved not by strenuously chasing after enjoyable experiences, but by cultivating a kind of calm indifference towards one’s circumstances. One way to do this, the Stoics argued, was by turning towards negative emotions and experiences; not shunning them, but examining them closely instead. (Location 416)

Indeed, nothing outside your own mind can properly be described as negative or positive at all. What actually causes suffering are the beliefs you hold about those things. (Location 435)

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‘Our perturbations come only from the opinion which is within.’ (Location 440)

‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,’ (Location 443)

“Is it other people that bother me? Or the judgment I make about other people?”.’ (Location 452)

As Seneca frequently observes, we habitually act as if our control over the world were much greater than it really is. (Location 562)

But unhappy times bring home the truth of the matter. Jobs are lost; plans go wrong; people die. If your strategy for happiness depends on bending circumstances to your will, this is terrible news: the best you can do is to pray that not all that much will go wrong, and try to distract yourself when it does. (Location 567)

You cannot control the situation, so reacting with fury against that reality is irrational. Your irritation, moreover, is almost certainly out of all proportion to the actual harm – if any – that has been done to you by the inconvenience; there are no grounds for taking it personally. (Location 588)

Seeing thoughts as similar to the other five senses makes non-attachment seem much more approachable as a goal. (Location 891)

‘had taught them that distractions, feelings and emotions are momentary, [and] don’t require a label or judgment, because the moment is already over. With the meditation training, they would acknowledge the pain, they realise what it is, but they let it go. (Location 913)

The problem with all these motivational tips and tricks is that they aren’t really about ‘how to get things done’ at all. They’re about how to feel in the mood for getting things done. (Location 943)

Taking a non-attached stance towards procrastination, by contrast, starts from a different question: who says you need to wait until you ‘feel like’ doing something in order to start doing it? The problem, from this perspective, isn’t that you don’t feel motivated; it’s that you imagine you need to feel motivated. (Location 959)

If you can regard your thoughts and emotions about whatever you’re procrastinating on as passing weather, you’ll realise that your reluctance about working isn’t something that needs to be eradicated, or transformed into positivity. You can coexist with it. You can note the procrastinatory feelings, and act anyway. (Location 962)

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It is illuminating to note, here, how the daily rituals and working routines of prolific authors and artists – people who really do get a lot done – very rarely include techniques for ‘getting motivated’ or ‘feeling inspired’. Quite the opposite: they tend to emphasise the mechanics of the working process, focusing not on generating the right mood, but on accomplishing certain physical actions, regardless of mood. (Location 964)

Anthony Trollope wrote for three hours each morning, before leaving to go to his job as an executive at the post office; if he finished a novel within a three-hour period, he simply moved on to the next. (He wrote forty-seven novels over the course of his life.) The routines of almost all famous writers, from Charles Darwin to John Grisham, similarly emphasise specific starting times, or number of hours worked, or words written. Such rituals provide a structure to work in, whether or not the feeling of motivation or inspiration happens to be present. They let people work alongside negative or positive emotions, instead of getting distracted by the effort of cultivating only positive ones. ‘Inspiration is for amateurs,’ the artist Chuck Close once memorably observed. ‘The rest of us just show up and get to work.’ (Location 967)

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‘People . . . think that they should always like what they do, and that their lives should be trouble-free,’ Maria wrote. ‘Consequently, their mental energy is wasted by their impossible attempts to avoid feelings of displeasure or boredom.’ (Location 976)

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Our life experience teaches that it is not necessary to change our feelings in order to take action . . . Once we learn to accept our feelings, we find that we can take action without changing our feeling-states.’ We can feel the fear, and do it anyway. (Location 982)

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‘Clear mind is like the full moon in the sky,’ Seung Sahn, a Korean Zen master of the old school, who carried a hitting-stick, told one audience in America in the 1970s. ‘Sometimes clouds come and cover it, but the moon is always behind them. Clouds go away, then the moon shines brightly. So don’t worry about clear mind; it is always there. When thinking comes, behind it is clear mind. When thinking goes, there is only clear mind. Thinking comes and goes, comes and goes. You must not be attached to the coming and going.’ (Location 1026)

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It is alarming to consider how many major life decisions we take primarily in order to minimise present-moment emotional discomfort. (Location 1194)

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‘Causally minded’ people, to use Sarasvathy’s terminology, are those who select or are given a specific goal, and then choose from whatever means are available to make a plan for achieving it. Effectually minded people, on the other hand, examine what means and materials are at their disposal, then imagine what possible ends, or provisional next directions, those means might make possible. The (Location 1352)

A second is the ‘principle of affordable loss’: don’t be guided by thoughts of how wonderful the rewards might be if you were spectacularly successful at any given next step. Instead – and there are distinct echoes, here, of the Stoic focus on the worst-case scenario – ask how big the loss would be if you failed. So long as it would be tolerable, that’s all you need to know. Take that next step, and see what happens. (Location 1359)

‘There is this complete identification with the thoughts that go through your head,’ (Location 1501)

We’re not only distressed by our thoughts; we imagine that we are those thoughts. The ego that results from this identification has a life of its own. It sustains itself through dissatisfaction – through the friction it creates against the present moment, by opposing itself to what’s happening, and by constantly projecting into the future, so that happiness is always some other time, never now. (Location 1533)

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The ego, Tolle likes to say, thrives on drama, because compulsive thinking can sink its teeth into drama. The ego also thrives on focusing on the future, since it’s much easier to think compulsively about the future than about the present. (It’s really quite tricky, when you try it, to think compulsively about right now.) (Location 1536)

If all this is correct, we have inadvertently sentenced ourselves to unhappiness. Compulsive thinking is what we take to be the core of our being – and yet compulsive thinking relies on our feeling dissatisfied. (Location 1538)

The way out of this trap is not to stop thinking – thinking, Tolle agrees, is exceedingly useful – but to disidentify from thoughts: to stop taking your thoughts to be you, to realise, in the words of The Power of Now, that ‘you are not your mind’. We should start using the mind as a tool, he argues, instead of letting the mind use us, which is the normal state of affairs. When Descartes said ‘I think, therefore I am,’ he had not discovered ‘the most fundamental truth’, Tolle insists; instead, he had given expression to ‘the most basic error’. (Location 1540)

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Sit like a cat at a mouse-hole, Tolle advises, waiting to see what your next thought will be. ‘When you listen to a thought,’ he explains, ‘you are aware not only of the thought, but also of yourself as the witness of the thought. A new dimension of consciousness has come in. As you listen to the thought, you feel a conscious presence – your deeper self – behind or underneath the thought, as it were. (Location 1562)

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Instead of seeking ways to solve your problems in the future, it can be illuminating to try asking yourself if you have any problems right now. The answer, unless you’re currently in physical pain, is very likely to be ‘No’. (Location 1586)

Most problems, by definition, involve thoughts about how something might turn out badly in the future, whether in five minutes or in five years, or thoughts about things that happened in the past. It can be curiously difficult to identify any problems that afflict you at this very moment, in the present – and it is always the present. (Location 1588)

We spend our lives failing to realise this obvious truth, and thus anxiously seeking to fortify our boundaries, to build our egos and assert our superiority over others, as if we could separate ourselves from them, without realising that interdependence makes us what we are. (Location 1661)

That phrase ‘they are different’ is important. The case being made here is not that boundaries don’t exist – that the ‘true’ way to perceive the world would be as some big, boundary-less mess of stuff, like half-melted ice-cream. The fact that ‘you’ and ‘everything else’ are intrinsically interconnected needn’t mean you don’t exist. Our sanity depends on maintaining a coherent sense of self, and on setting healthy boundaries between ourselves and others – and neither Alan Watts nor Eckhart Tolle wishes to imperil your sanity. Instead, the conclusion to which both their thinking leads is that the self is best thought of as some kind of a fiction, albeit an extremely useful one – and that realising this, instead of doing everything we can to deny it, might be the route to fulfilment. (Location 1666)

a terrorist who had reconciled himself to suicide would always have the upper hand against people who were unwilling to die – no matter which specific objects had been banned. (Location 1717)

‘The truth that many people never understand’, he wrote, ‘is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt.’ (Location 1836)

In fact, her point is that when things fall apart, however painful the experience, it’s a good thing; the collapse of your apparent security represents a confrontation with life as it really is. (Location 1847)

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‘Things are not permanent, they don’t last, there is no final security,’ she says. What makes us miserable is not this truth, but our efforts to escape it. (Location 1849)

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A related one is based on the (true) observation that happiness is relative: people who aren’t surrounded by examples of more pleasant lifestyles don’t rank their own situation so poorly. (Location 1929)

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But it’s surely undeniable that if you don’t have it, it’s much harder to overinvest emotionally in it. (Location 1942)

The same goes for prestigious jobs, material possessions, or impressive educational qualifications: when you have little chance of obtaining them, you won’t be misled into thinking they bring more happiness than they do. More (Location 1943)

But living with fewer illusions meant facing reality head on. (Location 1964)

Life inside the castle walls proves lonely and isolating. ‘We discover [not only] that there is no safety, [and] that seeking it is painful, [but] that when we imagine we have found it, we don’t like it.’ (Location 2006)

But on closer inspection this assumption collapses. Trying to flee from insecurity to security, from uncertainty to certainty, is an attempt to find an exit from the very system that makes us who we are in the first place. (Location 2023)

The real reason why human life can be so utterly exasperating and frustrating is not because there are facts called death, pain, fear, or hunger. The madness of the thing is that when such facts are present, we circle, buzz, writhe, and whirl, trying to get the ‘I’ out of the experience . . . Sanity, wholeness and integration lie in the realisation that we are not divided, that man and his present experience are one, and that no separate ‘I’ or mind can be found . . . [Life] is a dance, and when you are dancing, you are not intent on getting somewhere. The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance. (Location 2027)

Note: wat drives us to be better then ?

This, then, is the deep truth about insecurity: it is another word for life. That doesn’t mean it’s not wise to protect yourself, as far as you can, from certain specific dangers. But it does mean that feeling secure and really living life are, in some ultimate sense, opposites. And that you can no more succeed in achieving perfect security than a wave could succeed in leaving the ocean. (Location 2032)

At its pathological extreme, this fear of failure is known as ‘kakorrhaphiophobia’, the symptoms of which can include heart palpitations, hyperventilation and dizziness. (Location 2144)

This problem, which is known as ‘survivor bias’ or the ‘undersampling of failure’, is already extremely familiar in many areas of scholarship, and of life. (Location 2208)

As Christopher Kayes’s notion of ‘goalodicy’ suggests, we too often make our goals into parts of our identities, so that failure becomes an attack on who we are. Or, as Albert Ellis understood, we alight upon some desired outcome – being happily married, for example, or finding fulfilling work – and elevate it into one we feel we must attain, so that failing at it becomes not just sad but catastrophic. To use the Buddhist language of attachment and non-attachment, we become attached to success. (Location 2337)

(There is a greater correlation between perfectionism and suicide, research suggests, than between feelings of hopelessness and suicide.) To fully embrace the experience of failure, not merely to tolerate it as a stepping-stone to success, is to abandon this constant straining never to put a foot wrong. It is to relax. (Location 2344)

‘Incremental theory’ people are different. Because they think of abilities as emerging through tackling challenges, the experience of failure has a completely different meaning for them: it’s evidence that they are stretching themselves to their current limit. (Location 2362)

Should you wish to encourage an incremental outlook rather than a fixed one in your children, Dweck advises, take care to praise them for their effort rather than for their intelligence. (Location 2370)

Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me . . . I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive. [Failure] gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations . . . Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned. (Location 2404)

If I had my life over I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death . . . without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs. (Location 2411)

‘The most wondrous thing in the world is that although, every day, innumerable creatures go to the abode of Death, still man thinks that he is immortal.’ (Location 2417)

‘One of the main reasons that it is so easy to march men off to war’, Becker observes, bleakly, ‘is that deep down, each of them feels sorry for the man next to him who will die. Each protects himself in this fantasy until the shock that he is bleeding.’ (Location 2467)

It may be hard to swallow the idea that we should spend more time contemplating death, but there are some powerful and pragmatic arguments for doing so. Consider, for example, the Stoic technique of the ‘premeditation of evils’. Death is going to happen, Seneca would say, and so it must be preferable to be mentally prepared for its approach, instead of shocked into the sudden realisation that it is imminent. (Location 2531)

But fearing being dead yourself makes no sense. Death spells the end of the experiencing subject, and thus the end of any capacity for experiencing the state we fear. Or as Einstein put it: ‘The fear of death is the most unjustified of all fears, for there’s no risk of accident to one who’s dead.’ (Location 2559)

The one great fear that governs our lives, from this perspective, stands exposed as a kind of error. It’s as if, instead of imagining death, we had all along been imagining something more like being buried alive – deprived of all the benefits of existence, yet somehow still forced to experience the deprivation. (Location 2561)

There’s another problem with all these efforts to make being dead a less frightening prospect, which is this: who says that being dead is the problem in the first place? When we contemplate our own personal mortality, the real sting is surely that we’re going to stop being alive, and lose all the benefits we enjoy as a result of living. ‘People don’t generally come to me because they fear the oblivion of being dead,’ Tillinghast said. ‘But the idea of everything that makes life lifely drawing to a close – well, that’s a much greater source of anxiety.’ (Location 2577)

On the other hand, trying to embrace death as a good thing would seem to be asking far too much of yourself. It might not necessarily even be desirable, since it could cause you to place less value on being alive. (Location 2589)

But coming to understand death as something that there is no reason to fear, yet which is still bad because of what it brings to an end, might be the ideal middle path. The argument is a thoroughly down-to-earth, pragmatic, and Stoic one: the more that you remain aware of life’s finitude, the more you will cherish it, and the less likely you will be to fritter it away on distractions. (Location 2591)

‘All external expectations, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important,’ (Location 2611)

‘Remembering that you are going to die is the best way that I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked.’ (Location 2614)

You need not engage in cemetery vigils to practise memento mori, however. You can start much smaller. The psychologist Russ Harris suggests a simple exercise: imagine you are eighty years old – assuming you’re not eighty already, that is; if you are, you’ll have to pick an older age – and then complete the sentences ‘I wish I’d spent more time on . . . ’, and ‘I wish I’d spent less time on . . . ’. This turns out to be a surprisingly effective way to achieve mortality awareness in short order. (Location 2743)

The strains of the mariachi band drifted over from the other side of the cemetery. Some families, I noticed, had built small wood fires to keep warm; a few feet away, Francisco clapped his arms around himself in an effort to generate heat. I looked out over the cemetery, strewn with marigolds and crowded with huddled figures. Beyond its edges, no lights illuminated the blackness, but inside, the fires and the hundreds of flickering candles lent the night a kind of cosiness, despite the chill. The musicians carried on playing. Death was in the air, and all was well. (Location 2756)

I had not a dispute but a disquisition, with Dilke on various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously: I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason . . . (Location 2768)

At this point in our journey along the negative path to happiness, however, the outline of what he was saying ought at least to sound familiar. Sometimes, the most valuable of all talents is to be able not to seek resolution; to notice the craving for completeness or certainty or comfort, and not to feel compelled to follow where it leads. (Location 2776)

What they all shared was this same turn of mind, which I came to visualise as a sort of graceful mental dance step: a willingness to adopt an oblique stance towards one’s own inner life; to pause and take a step back; to turn to face what others might flee from; and to realise that the shortest apparent route to a positive mood is rarely a sure path to a more profound kind of happiness. (Location 2783)

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For the Stoics, the realisation that we can often choose not to be distressed by events, even if we can’t choose events themselves, is the foundation of tranquility. (Location 2798)

For the Buddhists, a willingness to observe the ‘inner weather’ of your thoughts and emotions is the key to understanding that they need not dictate your actions. (Location 2800)

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‘Proficiency and the results of proficiency’, wrote Aldous Huxley, ‘come only to those who have learned the paradoxical art of doing and not doing, of combining relaxation with activity, of letting go as a person in order that the immanent and transcendent Unknown Quantity may take hold.’ (Location 2810)

‘Stoic pause’ – which is all that it takes to remember that it’s my judgment about the infuriating colleague, or the heavy traffic, or the burned food, that is the cause of my distress, not the situation itself. (Location 2829)

Even five or ten minutes’ vipassana meditation, meanwhile, which I manage most mornings, is sufficient to feel as if I’ve applied a squirt of WD-40 to my mental machinery: for the rest of the day, problematic thoughts and emotions slip by with far less friction. (Location 2831)

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Eckhart Tolle’s deceptively simple-sounding question – ‘Do you have a problem right now?’ – is a marvellous antidote to low-level stress. (Location 2833)

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And I certainly could never have finished writing this book without Shoma Morita’s insight that there’s no need to ‘get motivated’ (or Get Motivated!) before you get on and act. (Location 2834)

And at least once a week, I have reason to call to mind Albert Ellis’s distinction between a very bad outcome and an absolutely terrible one. Imagining worst-case scenarios is one of my greatest sources of solace in life, actually. (Location 2836)

‘A good traveller has no fixed plans,’ says the Chinese sage Lao Tzu, ‘and is not intent upon arriving.’ There could be no better way to make the journey. (Location 2858)

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