Where does stress come from?

Everyone knows that odd feeling. You’re kind of tensed, unfocused, probably biting your lip, scratching your face and your neck, your abdominal muscles are rigid, you breathe shallowly… It’s stress.

The evolution of the human brain has given us many benefits. Indeed, the neocortex, “the logical brain” is what differentiates between us and our animal comrades. We have the capacity to think, to plan, to analyse, to deduce. This is what allows us to make bridges, build instruments, write books and surf 9gag. But the original feeling of stress every animal experiences is still here, and there is something weirdly annoying going on with it.

If you look at the symptoms I listed, and if you google the medical definition of stress (“a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension” source), you see that these are the manifestations of the same “fight or flight” response, namely, “a complex reaction of neurologic and endocrinologic systems.”

So in a nutshell, stress is when something makes your body produce a lot of weird chemicals in order to keep you strong and fast, and thereby, alive.

Let’s see what’s wrong with this picture.

On the left hand side, this is your genetically more or less identical great-great-great-(…)-grandmom. On the right hand side is what caused her stress.

I credit Wait But Why with the idea of drawing ancestor stickmen in Paint.

I credit Wait But Why with the idea of drawing ancestor stickmen in Paint.

You would be pretty callous to blame your great great great grandmom for being stressed out with no reason. During her time, it was good that she’d feel stressed because if she ever got into contact with an animal instrument of death and destruction, that stress would be what got her out of that situation. She would be stronger and faster, and quite honestly, that’s what made us survive in the first place.

Now let’s see what’s usually going on today. On your left hand side is you. On your right hand side is what is (usually) your greatest stressor.

Notice any similarities?

Notice any similarities?

Do you ever notice the connection between thoughts and stress? Usually, stress is accompanied by a disarray of thoughts – stupid, unnecessary thoughts. Many claim that getting in control of your thoughts (through meditation) gets you in control of your stress.

I think it’s only a part of the equation.

You see, this sort of stress, which is not induced by big fucking animals trying to eat you, is basically always perceived stress.

Usually, a situation is not stressful in and by itself: it’s perceived as stressful. Some people do fine in situations other people see as stressful. It’s pretty clear-cut: we create our own stress through our perception of the world.

If you see the world as inherently stressful, you will be stressed out by it. If you see the world as inherently peaceful, you won’t be stressed out by it. Sounds simple, but it’s a bit hard to get there.

Studies like this one have shown that mindfulness meditation helps with diminishing our perception of stress and increasing the sense of control. So if it were only as simple as meditating and starting to perceive the world as non-stressful, it would be all the solution we need.

But I fear not. You see, there is another component to stress, at least in my personal case. It’s the problem of conflicted motivation. I’ll explain on my personal example with time:

The first and basic conflict is this: I want to have free time, and I want to have fulfilled time. Obviously, this is not possible, for if you have one, then, by definition, you cannot have the other. The second conflict is this: when doing something, I want to do another thing. And since it would be highly ineffective to try to do both at the same time, I must do one or the other, thereby losing time for the thing I’m not working on.

For some reason, I feel stressed by this. I feel as if Time flies by, and I’m slow in doing whatever I’m doing and I’m losing my time and I’m wasting my life.

This kind of thinking is dumb. Pure and simple. It’s dumb because it’s not true.

Buddhists would say that in order to solve this problem, I should get rid of my wants and wishes, for they are the cause of my suffering. I don’t think so. Wanting something means that you have a will for something. If you never want anything at all, it means that you have no will for anything at all, and such a life I’m not inclined to live.

The solution to this problem (which I believe many people have, but not all are aware of) is actually pretty simple:

Give weight to your decisions.

You basically freak out because you think you should be doing the other thing, and if you were doing the other thing, you’d freak out because you think you should be doing the first thing. Stop doing so through DECIDING for one course of action and acknowledging that it was the best decision and that anything else is just lying to yourself.

If you have to do A and B, and you can only do one, give it some thought, figure out which has the priority and then proceed with doing whatever it is that has the greater priority. Simply forget about B if your working on A. Give your decision to work on A some weight. Don’t treat it like “oh… but maybe I could have gone with B… I dunno…”

No.

If you chose A, then you chose A, period, full stop, end of story. If you chose B, you chose B.

Do not fret over if it was a bad decision and do not falter in your decision – unless you get new information that makes you change your mind.

Otherwise, chose one or the other, and stick to your decision. This technique, however, has a problem in it. It demands complete honesty. If you are not capable of admitting to yourself why you are choosing a certain course of action, you might not do the good thing if you employ this technique. It is key that you are always absolutely honest in why you decide A and not B, and B and not A.

For example, this morning, I was presented by a choice: write this blog post or study for an upcoming exam. I find that both are equally valuable choices and I can only do one at a time. I want to write this post because I haven’t written any in the preceding weeks, and I want to study for the exam because I want to get rid of it. Both are good options, both are necessary, both are valuable… Seeing that I do have some time on my hands before the exam, I decided to write the post. I did not stop every 5 minutes thinking if I should maybe stop and go study. I will study afterwards (and while doing so, I will not wonder every 5 minutes if I should maybe be exercising).

Decide and then do, don’t question yourself. Change your course of action only if you have new information that changes your mind. Otherwise, keep going.



The idea for the Paint drawings was taken from the page Wait But Why which I wholeheartedly recommend as it is both hilarious and highly educating.

Plotting in the real world

Okay, first things first, if you’re a Harry Potter fan (and quite honestly, if you’re not, I don’t understand you as a human being) there is this incredible fanfiction called Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality and believe me when I say it’s one of the best new things I’ve read in a long, long time. And I do not say such things lightly. The reason why this fanfic is so great is that it challenges my ideas about the world. Might be that I’m just getting old and my brain is getting calcified, but I’d wager that there’s not so much out there that is challenging – not to read, but challenging to the mind. (There are, naturally, a lot of books challenging to read, but absolutely debilitating to the mind – complicated doesn’t necessarily mean smart.)

So anyway, go and check it out. You might like it, you might not, I personally don’t like the style, but there are many wonderful things on that website and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Inspired by this fanfic, I’ve thought about today’s problem – plotting.

Plot (noun): a secret plan or scheme to accomplish some purpose, especially hostile, unlawful, or evil purpose: a plot to overthrow the government. (source)

I’ve never been much of a plotter. Whole my life I’ve lived in a world where people are nice when they want to be nice and where they are rude when they want to be rude. In a world where you get invited to a cup of coffee because that person actually wants to hear from you, not to accomplish some hidden goal. As I grow older, I grow wiser, and I begin to see that around me, people have hidden agendas, hidden goals, hidden wishes and wants. And they plot. Without being cynical and saying everyone does it – even though, quite honestly, everyone does it to a certain extent – I’ll say that there are real plotters among us and that they do plot.

First thought that comes to mind: who gives a fuck? Let them plot, I won’t be a part of their game.

Response: not so easy. You can chose to remain on the outside, but if you don’t understand what’s going on around you, you’re a pawn and that means you’re the weakest figure in their game.

So the only responsible thing for an aspiring overhuman is to understand plotting. I’m not saying practice it. Pracitice it, maybe yes, to a certain extent, somewhere, sometimes. But understand it as good as the best plotter would.

Petyr Baelish - one of the best plotters I know.

Petyr Baelish – one of the best plotters I know.

Who are these plotters among us? Well, obviously, politicians. But also people around you, people you wouldn’t even suspect. I’ve written a post on the matter: The secrets of the everyday. Just to give you a short version: there is always something around you to discover, something other people don’t want you to know, and you have to 1. accept this fact, 2. perceive what goes around you and 3. ask the right questions. There are secrets to unveil. Some might find this worrisome, I find it beautiful. This means that your little stupid boring everyday is everything but not that. But I digress. Politicians. They plot and you’re an idiot if you think you’re not a part of their plot. Do you want to be blindlessly carried and pushed and controled? Or do you want to actually understand the game that’s being played? Because even if you live in a cottage in the mountains, having no contact with the state, the state can still decide to make a mine of your precious mountain, or cut down your precious forest. Ignorance is never a good strategy. You might be thinking “well, it’s not fair, why do I have to know about these things? Why can’t I just live my own life and have fun and enjoy?”. Why indeed. My response is more or less the same as for the question of martial arts (“Why do I have to learn the martial arts, why must I give away precious time and energy to learn to fight when there are many more interesting and better things to do than to fight other people, like reading, or building a house, or discovering a cure for cancer? It’s not fair!”)

It is not fair. It would be better to do these other wonderful things with your time, and not, well, waste it on plotting or fighting. But you know the cliché: the world’s not fair. If you just accept it right away, it’ll make the transition much easier.

But there is a catch. Nietzsche says:

He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.

If you do decide to do the only rational thing and learn to fight and learn to plot, do not become a person who solves their troubles through fighting or plotting. These things are bad, but they must be known. They must be understood. But they really are very bad.

One big issue with plotting is that it becomes the cultural norm. This relates to the previous quote – people that usually wouldn’t resort to plotting do it but then it becomes something normal to do, the regular way to do things. Let me be clear on this: plot only when you have to. The truth is a better weapon than empty lies. Open dialogue, truthfulness, discussions, honesty – everything should be tried before escalating to plotting, that is the only way plotting doesn’t become the norm, and we don’t want a bad thing to become a norm. In other words, if you’re in an organization where there is a culture of open dialogue, make sure that you do not destroy that culture. If however you’re in a plotting culture, try to turn it away from the dark side and begin a practice of honesty. Plotting is the last resort, something you do if you have no other way.

Plotting is always a way to gain power. It basically goes like this: I have a great idea, I want to change the world to fit to this idea, I see I need power to change the world, I go after power, I plot to get power. Some do it because of their ideals, others because of money and self-interest, but basically everyone goes through these steps and that’s how the current political situation has come to be.

Let’s summarize:

Understand that there are plots all around you.

Understand who benefits from what.

Learn techniques and strategies that really good plotters would use.

Identify the smartest people around you and among them, identify the smartest plotters. Keep an eye on them.

Question all motives.

Don’t become paranoid.

Plotting is always a way of getting power, so understand the relations of power around you.

Some practical exercises you might do:

  • Read the politics section in the newspaper and imagine that what happened is the intended result. Ask yourself who benefits from this result.
  • Whenever somebody wants something, question their motives and try to discover true motives if you have a feeling that they’re lying.
  • Identify powerful people around you and discover how they rose to power.
  • Whenever there’s a confrontation, ask yourself if that’s  just a part of a bigger picture i.e. if somebody provoked this confrontation deliberately.
  • Look for signs of deliberateness everywhere around you.

Become the best plotter you can without actually plotting and you will see that it’s a whole new world that just opens up if you look at it the right way.

No rest for the wicked

If I still have a noticeably weak side, it’s sleep. Man, I have to get my beauty sleep. Going without food or water can make me a bit cranky, still being all under control and cool – but man, I become a different person without my sleep. So that’s an issue I’ve been working on for some time now and I feel like it’s going well.

One of the things that needed to change was not only how much I sleep but how I sleep. I have a natural ability to fall tight asleep and not hear my surroundings while sleeping which is probably OK and even a good thing for a peaceful city dweller, but it’s a strategic weakness that has got to go – or I have no place talking about becoming overhuman.

You know how you always hear about supernatural abilities of ninjas? One of their amazing abilities is their capacity for light sleep. Even while resting, even while sleeping, there is still an awareness, a trained primal awareness that expects an imminent attack. Not claiming that all of it (or any of it) is true, I would say that it’s a thing worth examining and trying before rejecting as impossible. And that’s what I’m doing at the moment. To be sincere, that’s what I wanted to do before, but I didn’t know how. How can you train something while you’re sleeping?

And after some time I found the technique, and the technique is as follows:

Listening meditation.

So firstly, you’re going to have to accept the fact that this thing is no quick fix. If you’ve never meditated before it’s not going to work that well for you, so I suggest you start meditating on your own (or you can wait for my 30-day meditation program to get you through a month, but you might wait for some time in that case. :) )

Secondly, even if you’re an experienced meditator, it’s going to take some time in order for the technique to really show itself while you’re sleeping. It’s like training your body an entirely new trick, and that takes time and effort.

What you do couldn’t be simpler: you focus your awareness on sounds you can hear. It’s what you naturally do as a kid when you’re afraid in the dark, and you heard a weird cracking sound in the room next door. Only this is deliberate, whereas a child’s fear is by no means under control. You listen, and then you listen some more, and you take time to acknowledge each and every sound you hear, be it indoors, outdoors, near or far away from you – you acknowledge it and listen on.

As you go on through your listening meditation, your thoughts will start to wander naturally because there’s basically nothing interesting going on – or apparently nothing interesting is going on. Here’s where your experience in meditation kicks in – you are (or at least should be) able to put these first few waves of wandering thoughts under rein.

Then you’re slowly falling asleep, losing awareness and letting thoughtdreams flow over you – this is a natural process. Let’s just take a moment and appreciate the word ‘thoughtdreams’. Okay, we can go on now. What then? Well, at this point you’ve lost control and it’s going to happen for a while, better just accept it than try to fight it. Just keep on listening every night and you’ll realize that at one point, even though you’re not conscious, even if you’re fast asleep, you’ll be able to hear what goes on around you.

Test it: ask your friends and family to walk around at night at random times if they’re the night type, or if you have someone to train this with, ask him/her to sneak around you at night at random times. Later during the day, talk about when they sneaked around you, how many times during the night and so on. You’ve heard the person 2/3 of the times? Good job. Keep on training.

The quality we’re after here is that shallowness of sleep which let’s us go from full rest mode to full fighting mode in a matter of seconds. Naturally, sleep comes in stages and in some stages of deep sleep, I’m not even sure it’s possible to do this, but in all other stages, I’m pretty much positive that we can be much more strategic about them.

Stages of sleep. In stage 3 and 4, I think it's going to be near impossible or impossible to make this technique work, but I have to do some research on that before claiming anything.

Stages of sleep. In stage 3 and 4, I think it’s going to be near impossible or impossible to make this technique work, but I have to do some research on that before claiming anything.

As for the health implications of such sleep habits, I have yet to experience drawbacks. I get the same amount of rest – but that might be because I’m new to this technique and it’s necessary for some time to pass so that I can evaluate this. I don’t know if it’s healthy, but I think it’s worth a try. What I know for sure is that getting killed while you sleep is certainly not healthy.

Good night!

Thinking

Modern common belief, especially amongst the wisdom-seeking population, would have it that we’re thinking too much. After all, if meditation is removing thoughts or at least distancing yourself from them, and meditation is what you should be doing if you’re looking for self-improvement, then the conclusion that we’re thinking too much and feeling (or meditating) too little is quite logical to make.

But I disagree. I think we’re not thinking quite enough. What meditation proponents call for “too much thinking”, I would call “too much non-mindful thinking”. See, when have you last spent some time just thinking? If you haven’t, do you know someone that has, or does on a regular basis? Do we actually have a specific time, designated solely for the purpose of thinking? It is my belief that for the most people, thinking just happens along the way and that nobody has a time for thinking. Maybe it’s not that we don’t have time for thinking, we just don’t have a time for thinking.

le penseur

Thinking is an evolutionary gift, a necessity imposed to us by our environment. Instead of running away from thinking, we should strive to improve it, and meditation is, among its other uses, a way of improving our thinking. Through meditation, we learn mindfulness, and mindfulness in thinking is what stops you from analyzing a problem and making a mental turn towards that funny cat video you saw yesterday or imagining what you would say in an argument with that jerk that you dislike so much. Of course, meditation is only one of the ways we can improve our thinking. Designating a specific time for it, stating “Now I’m going to think” and seeing what happens is also one of the tools. Nootropics, chemicals that enhance your cognitive capabilities are also one of the tools. Surely there are many other tools people use. Maybe you think best while playing an instrument or while just picking at the strings, or maybe you think best while walking or while knitting, but the point is that there is a way to improve your thinking in terms of results.

Don’t avoid thinking and rely on feeling alone. Feeling is great, but it’s not all there is to the human mind. We have these cold, logical machines inside our heads, each and every one of us, yet many of us don’t use them as much as they could, or maybe should. Some out of pure inertia or ignorance (bluntly put, because they’re stupid) and some out of personal conviction, because they believe the thinking, cold, logical mind is not good. Neither are commendable, but the people that intentionally lessen the importance of logical, analytical thinking are blameworthy, in the same way that exclusive reasoners shun feeling and emotions. Only through accepting the both sides will the mind flourish in its entirety.

Think!

Unworm your ear

Earworm: A song that sticks in your mind, and will not leave no matter how much you try. (source: Urban Dictionary)

If you’re okay with earworms and they don’t bother you, stop reading and go on with your day.

If you mind earworms, if they bug you (wow much pun amaze lol wow), then keep reading.

I'm getting better and better at this stuff.

I’m getting better and better at this stuff.

I dislike earworms because there is essentially nothing different between an earworm and a thought. And I haven’t been meditating for the last 3 years for nothing. Nagging thoughts that repeatedly resurface and you can’t seem to let go of them – meditation is for you. You learn to observe and not think; perceive and not judge; feel and not reason. This is all good, but how do you meditate, how do you do such a thing, if there is a tune stuck in your mind and whatever you do, you just keep hearing it over and over and over again?

Well, luckily for you, I’ve come up with a technique (two actually). And they both work.

The first one is sleeping: I’ve come to realize that I have earworms when I’m tired. And what should you do when you’re tired? That’s right, rest. So rest. Sleep. That’s number one.

The second one is a variation on classical Zen meditation. In Zen meditation, you observe the feeling you get from your breath. In your “unworming” meditation, you close your eyes and listen to the world around you. To the birds, the trees, the wind, the cars, the people. If it’s silent, you just listen to silence (silence actually has a sound, that was amazing for me to realize, there’s this extremely silent constant beep or screech that you never perceive because it’s so impossibly silent. But I digress.) If you do this, you don’t listen to the song in your mind but to your surroundings, which also has a tactical positive side: you learn to mind the sounds around you. Think of cats – have you ever seen a cat that ignored a sound? I haven’t. They always react to sounds, even when they’re sleeping their ears move around, listening for danger. Try to be more like a cat.

That’s it. Next time your earworm starts bugging you (oh I’m just so funny), do one or both of these things and you’ll be fine in no time.

Crying under the shower

This knowledge is useful, so read this well – it took me more than 3 years in order to find this technique, I hope you will discover it in yourself in much less time.

What’s this about?

Basically, your body and mind, in one word, being, is more often than not under some form of stress, be it physical or psychological. Any kind of stress will result in emotions. You can be stressed by a hammer hitting you on the finger (a physical stress) but the end-result is emotions (in this case, probably anger).

This stress will resurface every now and then, depending on your lifestyle, but it will resurface in form of emotions. Imagine yourself as a pressure valve – you accumulate (emotional) pressure and then, if you don’t have a way of releasing it, and mind you, an effective way, you break apart, release a lot of it in a spur and then you’re empty. And then you start accumulating stress again.

Well, after 3 years of being aware of this fact and convincing myself that playing drums or writing or meditation or boxing would help me get it out, I realized that they might, but none come as close as simply crying under the shower.

plač

le paint art

 

Yup. That’s right. I cry under the shower when I’m feeling stressed out because that’s my natural way of releasing all the shit outside without freaking anybody out. You know, you could cry in the park or in the street or near another person, but I hope you have someone cry-worthy for that then.

(Wow! Cry-worthy! That’s my new favorite word!)

But yeah, cry under the shower because it muffles the sound, no one wonders why you’re all alone (I sincerely hope you can at least shower alone), and the warm water feels nice. The symbolic cleansing accompanied by a real one, you know, the whole package!

I think that girls generally have this part really nicely covered because the societal expectations on them aren’t the same as for boys. That shit about boys not crying is shit. We feel the same pain and respond in the same manner. Crying is, for a lot of men, still a taboo, even when they’re all alone, with no one to make fun of them. It’s just something they try never to do, ignoring the fact that, one day, they will cry, regardless of do they want it or not. It’s the same attitude people used to have towards sexuality (at least in highly orthodox countries). You know, masturbation wasn’t something you were supposed to do. Well, this is the same, after a fashion. People act like they don’t have to do it, then break apart, do it, and then the circle starts again and people act like they don’t have to do it again.

In my view, this is a very limiting mindset which possibly makes you chose situations that won’t result in you crying. I have no proof of this – this is just a stab in the dark – but it does seem true (we should probably have studies comparing lifestyles of people that cry and of those that don’t). But even if you don’t unintentionally chose non-stressful situations because you’re afraid to cry, you still have a big disadvantage: you’re emotionally more unstable than your crying counterparts. You’re maybe two heated sentences away from crying as a baby and maybe it’s not strategically best. Maybe you need to assert control in front of a group of people. Maybe you just need to show that you’re strong. Maybe something else. Maybe it’s okay to cry – but then it should be you who decides, not the pressure valve. You can’t get rid of it (actually you can, lobotomy works great) but you can learn how to use it and control it.

So there, I gave you a great tool in order to manage your emotional self. Use it. Get used to your crying self. Note which muscles contract when you cry, and why your throat hurts when you do. Become acquainted with your crying self. It’s as important as your industrious, hard-working self, and infinitely more important than your persona.

Party hard, cry harder.

 

Unorthodox use of weapons

For the next week or two, I’ll be working on an old concept that I’ve only recently re-discovered: Unorthodox use of weapons.

As we’ve previously discussed in the article There is no difference between armed and unarmed combat, there are certain unspoken rules and conventions that arise during physical confrontations which we are not aware of. For example, a person wanting to attack us will often just attack with his or her body – fists, feet, elbows etc, but not throw sand in our eyes or use a pencil as a stabbing tool. Despite the fact that the attacker might want to do something similar, he/she will often not do anything like that because it’s unconventional and unorthodox. There are some that will do such things and they are fearsome opponents because their creativity lets them do things other people wouldn’t.

That is why I often attack with a practice knife that I grab in the middle of a sparring session. My sparring partner is sparring with me and often doesn’t count on a knife attack happening because, you know, we’re just sparring. This mindset needs to be erased and reshaped into one that expects the unexpected. Even my knife attacks in the middle of sparring are quite conventional because knives are conventional weapons. An unconventional attack might involve throwing a focus pad on my partner in order to distract him, and then attack with something even more unconventional. This way my partner trains his/her response to creative attacks and I train my creativity in the middle of a fight. One friend of mine has told me that on several occasions, it happened to him that his sparring partner threw an unexpected strike at him, from up high, or a rotational/jumping kick, and that he just froze, not out of fear, but out of lack of expectation. This frame of mind needs to be changed.

So, what is unorthodox use of weapons?

It is a practical science as well as a philosophy. As regards philosophy, the main ideas have already been mentioned: through unorthodox use of weapons, you employ your creativity in order to give you more tools than you would have had. Thus a Muay Thai fighter will not only use his eight limbs but bottles, credit cards, keys, chains, teeth, fingers, sand, water, the blinding effect of the sun – to his advantage. Thus a person with a gun will not only shoot from it but use it as a striking and thrusting implement, and, with sufficient knowledge, as an explosive. Through unorthodox use of weapons, you are given many more tools and a mindset that expects attacks of a similar nature. Simply put, you are a better and a more realistic fighter.

As regards the practicality of it, some ideas have already been mentioned, and I will mention others too, but the main point is to invent your own unorthodox uses of weapons. One thing to hold in mind is realism: some unorthodox attacks are simply not effective or effective enough. Know what you gain from each attack. If it is better to simply punch and kick, then by all means, punch and kick.

But learning to use everything close to us as a weapon is a good habit. Form no favorites: learn to use each weapon and then discard it. If you are more inclined to some weapons than others, you already became a specialist, and not a generalist, and a generalist is in this context much better than a specialist.

Practical ideas for training:

(let this be only an inspiration, not a definite guide)

  • when sparring unarmed, attack with a weapon
  • when sparring armed, try to not use the weapon but only your body
  • when sparring in a room, subtly move towards the lights switch and turn the ligths off, and then attack
  • throw stuff at your partner before you attack
  • use other people as shields, or unexpectedly attack your partner together with someone else that wasn’t suposed to participate
  • look at the things in your room and try to figure out a way to weaponize them:
    • a pencil might be used for stabbing
    • a deodorant might be used for spraying into someone’s eyes, or hitting
    • shoestrings could be used to trap arms or legs, or to suffocate someone
    • a flashlight could blind someone in the dark, making a good introduction to a fight
  • yell at your training partner. Voice can in itself be a formidable tool.
Some ideas on the unorthodox use of weapons. How would you weaponize these everyday objects?

Some ideas on the unorthodox use of weapons. How would you weaponize these everyday objects?

Keep this in mind: if it saves your life only once, it was worth all the training.