Achieving the Impossible

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

—Arthur Schopenhauer, German philosopher (1788 – 1860)

I am willing to bet that at some point in your life you have already achieved the impossible.  How am I so sure?  One simple reason: the concept of impossibility tends to be both subjective and malleable. 

If you were sent back in time (I know, that’s “impossible”, but humor me) a mere 120 years and told anyone you encountered that during your lifetime you had traveled in an “airplane” and that this kind of thing is routine and happens all the time where you’re from, you would probably be dismissed as a nutcase.  Human flight, not so long ago, was widely considered “impossible”.

Go back 400 years – not even a perceptible blink in geologic time – and try explaining to the powers that be that it is a provable fact that the earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around, and you might very well be putting your life in jeopardy.

Or, if you’re a Generation Xer like myself (or older), just imagine your childhood self’s reaction to the reality of finding any piece of existing information you are curious about within seconds…on your phone…which, incidentally, isn’t even plugged into a wall!

Sure, these are examples of huge breakthroughs that for most of human history seemed impossible to the collective yet are now taken for granted every day by many of us. 

But the same idea applies on an individual level, as well. 

If you’ve been around for even a decade (let alone two or more), what once seemed impossible for you, personally, eventually became not just possible but something you actually achieved.  This is because you changed physically, you developed some skills, and/or something in your environment changed.  As a result, your concept of what was possible also changed.  Maybe it happened incidentally, or even accidentally, but you somehow were able to achieve something that earlier in life you never imagined you would or could.

You became tall, or nimble, enough to reach the cookie jar.  Someone showed you how to throw a ball, read, write, send an e-mail, cook something, ride a bike, drive a car, or play a particular song on a particular musical instrument, and you practiced doing it until it became automatic.  The Internet became available to you and you learned how to navigate it.  You developed the capacity to teach yourself things.  You explored: your neighborhood, a part of the world far away from your neighborhood, a growing interest, an aspect of your own potential.  You read a particular book or were introduced to a particular person and this blew open your worldview and forever changed you.

And now, looking back, you can see that your prior worldview, which you once were convinced was The Truth, turned out to be seriously flawed and severely limiting. 

I’m here to tell you that your worldview is still seriously flawed and severely limiting. 

So is mine!!!

The tricky part – I find – is in dropping my egoic defenses long enough for my current belief systems to be punctured so that a more expansive sense of possibility can seep in. 

We often have plenty of conditioning to overcome, as well, before we can accept the reality of greater possibilities for ourselves. 

Once we are able to break through these barriers, however, all kinds of “impossible” things suddenly become possible.

From Impossible to Possible: Step by Step

In his book Be Iron Fit, Don Fink describes the process of achieving the impossible as having four distinct psychological stages or phases.  These phases are progressive and predictable.  Using the example of an ordinary person considering the prospect of completing an Ironman triathlon, he describes this process as follows (the underlining is mine):

The first phase is Nonbelief.  For most of us, the first triathlon we see is the Hawaii Ironman on television…And the first thought that comes to your mind as you stare at the screen is, “That’s impossible.”

You learn the exact distances: a 2.4-mile ocean swim, followed by a 112-mile bike race, and then a full 26.2-mile marathon – back-to-back and all in the same day…

The second phase is Realization.  You watch more of the race…You get pulled into it.  “Wow, there are people who can actually do this!”  The impossible starts to become possible…at least it becomes possible for these people.

The third phase is Curiosity.  You start asking questions.  Why do these people do this?  What motivates them?  How do they do it?  How do they train?

Then comes the final stage, The Dream.  You ask yourself the big question: I wonder if I could ever do it?  I wonder if I could ever be an Ironman?

That’s it! …In a short period, you go from believing that something is definitely not possible to believing that it is possible.  In fact, you begin to think that it might even be possible for you.

Having experienced this process for myself, in the specific context of becoming an “Ironman” and otherwise, I can attest to its truth. 

Yet, I still personally struggle with applying the lessons learned to certain other aspects of my life.  Chalk it up to one of the challenges of being human (i.e., it never stops being challenging!).  Certainly, practice with moving through this process in any realm is of great benefit, and a success in one area can bolster one’s confidence and help facilitate breakthroughs in other ones.  But because the notion of impossibility can be so subjective, and learned helplessness can be so pervasive, it is clear to me that the psychological hold our subconscious beliefs have on us can be treacherous regardless of who we are, what we may already have accomplished, and where we might be in our particular life’s journey. 

I therefore write this post as much for myself as for you – as a reminder that our ideas about impossibility must be systematically and deliberately and consciously and persistently challenged if they are ever to be conquered. 

How to Dislodge Stubborn (Unhelpful) Beliefs

We are typically only motivated to bother taking initiative in a particular direction when we believe that it is (or might be) possible for us to achieve a desired result.  If we are convinced that the desired result is impossible, we most likely will not take any action at all.  If we are not sure about the possibility of achieving something but are curious about it, we may take a few tentative, exploratory steps.  The stronger our conviction and confidence about the achievability of something we aspire to, the more likely we are to take action, especially massive action.  And massive action is usually what it takes to achieve the impossible.

Whether or not we are conscious of what our beliefs about what is possible even are, it is those beliefs that dictate our behavior.  Therefore, if we want to carve inroads towards expanding our sense of the possible, we must confuse our subconscious by taking action where and when we normally would not.  We need to act as if something were possible, even if we don’t fully believe it yet.  This is how we chip away at what is potentially merely an illusion (even if a compelling one) of impossibility.

Think of it as reverse engineering an incredible accomplishment so that the perceived-to-be-impossible goal is transformed into something you soon enough believe might be possible (and therefore worth taking action towards).  This is commonly known as the “fake it ‘til you make it” strategy, and it can be very effective.  To this day when I am nervous, say, before performing onstage, I simply act as if I am perfectly calm and at ease.  Before long, it becomes the truth.  And, of course, repeated experiences of successfully implementing this technique only serve to reinforce its usefulness.

The fact is you undoubtedly already have achieved something you previously believed was impossible (for you, if not in general) once before.  Maybe it was a degree that you earned.  A desired relationship you found/fostered/co-created.  An addiction or bad habit you overcame.  Some overwhelming emotional pain you survived.  Debt you climbed out of.  A skill you acquired.  A fear you conquered or abated.  A problem or challenge you met.  A place of contentment or well-being you reached.  Search your personal history thoroughly and honestly and you are bound to encounter examples of this.  You may not be able to recall many of them (or you may discount them) if you are, say, in a very depressed state, but I can all but guarantee you they are there.

So, let yourself dream about those things you desire most.  Relax your insistence on their impossibility, just for a moment (you can always reinstate your nonbelief at a later time!).  Do this regularly.  Daily, at least.

Think of something you strongly desire but that currently seems, or feels, impossible for you, personally, to realize.  How would someone else – someone who was in your position but believed without a doubt that achieving this goal was totally possible – behave?  What kinds of things might (s)he do?  Make a list.  Pick the easiest one.  Do it.  See where it leads.  Then repeat this process until you die.  What do you have to lose?  You might just amaze yourself – and others – by shaking the realm of the impossible at its core and blasting open the realm of the possible.

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Why Are We Here?

If you watch any number of nature documentaries – or, perhaps, simply observe the world around you – it becomes readily apparent that we exist in both a nurturing and an incredibly harsh environment. The earth is supportive of our being here (to a point), but is also a notoriously dangerous place. For example, living beings eat and are eaten by each other all the time, often under violent circumstances. The cycle of life is such that each species is impelled to preserve and perpetuate itself, inevitably at the expense of other living things. There is no more dramatic an example of this than with a species known as Homo sapiens (Latin for, believe it or not, “wise man” – but then…who named us?).

If you are among the planet’s bipeds, equipped with a large-ish brain and the ability to ponder the vicissitudes of daily existence, you have probably at some point (if not regularly) asked yourself a question that has confounded even the most brilliant minds of all time:

Why are we here?

Life, on this planet alone, and speaking just to the degree that we hominids have acquired knowledge about it, is incredibly and spectacularly diverse. A stunning array of creatures of all shapes, sizes, and dispositions cohabitates here – all part of a vast, intricate, and ever changing eco-system.

But if every life form that exists does so (at least, in part) in order to sustain those life forms that subsist off of it, while simultaneously trying to avoid becoming food itself, what is the point of any of it? Why is anything here at all? (Including us?)

Before I explore this Big Question any further (and so as not to disappoint the reader any more than absolutely necessary), I must provide a SPOILER ALERT:

I have no idea.

I am also inherently wary of anyone who claims, with absolute and unwavering certainty, to know the Answer.

That said, I don’t believe it best to flat-out ignore the question. Since we are here, it seems to me worth spending some time and energy periodically thinking about why this might be. Even if we never arrive at a completely satisfying, comprehensive, confidence-inducing Answer, keeping the Question alive at the very least keeps us engaged and curious, rather than resigned or mentally checked out.

Perhaps, in the exploration, we might arrive at a philosophy of life that works for us, even if it requires that we revisit and revise it from time to time (which it likely will).

A Reason, or No Reason at All?

First off, we must acknowledge that maybe there is a reason for our being here, but maybe there is not. Maybe we simply happen to be. This, of course, runs counter to our tendency toward self-importance, but it is as legitimate a possibility as any. (The real question, then, is how should this possibility affect – if at all – how we go about living? But more on that in the final section of this post.)

Next, even if there is a preordained reason for our existence, how are we supposed to know exactly what that is?

There are, of course, plenty of people – especially within organizations and institutions that are also interested in self-preservation (if not world dominance – or, at the very least, accruing an insane amount of monetary wealth) – who are more than willing to give you an authoritative Answer to this question.

This, understandably, might provide you with some sense of relief. If you swallow a given Answer whole, you don’t have to think about it anymore, and don’t have to deal with the inherent anxiety that accompanies uncertainty like a pesky younger sibling that won’t stop following you around.

The only problem here is: what if the Answer you are given (and accept) as Truth happens to be wrong, or incomplete? There is, it turns out, much debate and contradiction among many people and institutions (and even within given institutions) who all claim absolute certainty on the matter. What makes any one of them any more credible an authority than any other? People are capable of believing a wide variety of things with intense conviction, even without substantial proof (or even when substantial proof actually falsifies their convictions).

There will always be someone out there more than willing to provide (or “sell”) you an Answer. But only you can determine for yourself whether or not it is a satisfactory one. Does it ring true for you all the time, in light of and in spite of everything you have experienced for yourself?

Despite our advances in technology (and, sometimes, because of them), life is ultimately unpredictable, and much remains a mystery to us. The greater wisdom seems to be not in our claiming to know things, but rather in our having the humility to acknowledge when we do not. And, perhaps even more, to be okay with that.

John Lennon, in his song “Instant Karma”, sang: “Why on earth are we here? Surely not to live in pain and fear.”

I love this lyric, because it doesn’t make any definitive claim. He simply says, in so many words: I have no idea why we are here. But of all possible reasons, it hardly seems likely that the Answer is just to suffer.

The Best Answer I Can Come Up With at Age 43

On a most basic level, it seems to me that we are here (if for no other reason than) to have experiences.

It’s hard to say what the nature of capital “R” Reality is – for instance, what is “real” versus what is a “dream” (our dreams that occur while sleeping often feel just as real to us as does everyday reality, when we are supposedly not).

But, here’s what most of us (believe we) know for sure:

We exist in bodies, in a physical world in which there is continuity (even if, also, constant and rapid change). Our bodies do much of the work of keeping us alive automatically. An incredibly complex system of interconnected subsystems keeps us afloat, unassisted, in any given moment.

We also have instincts, drives, and the capacity to reason – all of which serve to help keep us alive and have still more experiences.

As for our experiences themselves, we take in information about our environment via (up to) five senses. Depending on the functionality of our bodies (which itself is subject to change), we see and/or hear and/or smell and/or touch and/or taste things. These experiences, as well as our internal thoughts and emotions connected to them, appear to be very real, if only to our individual selves. (We tend to believe that we are, in fact, individuals, separate from all other things – which may or may not, ultimately, even be the case…but I digress!)

Life, then, might best be described in a single word: experience. (Presumably, the end of a life means the end of experience, at least for/within that particular form of life.)

Our biological impulses to survive and procreate (so that we, and our progeny, may continue having experience, or “life”) aside, are we here for something more than that? To learn and “grow” from our experiences, for instance? To use them toward some higher purpose(s), aim(s), goal(s), or end(s)? Or just, simply, to have them? The former would seem a more interesting scenario than the latter, but who’s to say?

Comedian and social critic George Carlin, in a commentary on the earth and man’s relationship to it, offered this speculation:

“Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place: it wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us.”

Whether or not Mr. Carlin stumbled onto our Ultimate Purpose, his comment speaks to the fact that we are here under certain conditions and without any regard to how we might feel about them (we age, as just one example). Like other living things, we are “programmed” by our genetics to exist and behave in certain ways, both individually and collectively. And our environment dictates to a large degree what we can and cannot do, as well. There is much debate among philosophers, in fact, as to how much free will human beings even have (if any!) versus what is predetermined, either by genes or by simply a chain of causalities.

Either way, though, with a measure of free will or not, it is hard to deny that what we are doing when we are alive is having experiences.

To recap:

We cannot say for sure if we are here for a specific reason(s) other than happenstance.

Even if there is a preordained reason for our being here, we may or may not be capable of assessing what that is (or what they are, if there are multiple ones). We collectively have many opinions on the matter, many beliefs, but no certainty.

We cannot say for sure how much control we have, individually or collectively, in shaping our (individual or collective) destinies. We cannot even say for sure whether or not free will exists – and exactly what its limitations might be, if it does. It is possible that we cannot not fulfill our purpose for being here, even if that purpose is never revealed to us or is never fully understood by us.

We cannot even say for sure whether what we perceive to be reality IS reality. What we take to be reality might be a dream, or a simulation of some kind. At the very least, a mere five senses (with limited ranges of each) with which to perceive everything that is going on around us at any given time can probably only ever give us a tiny glimpse of the “whole story”.

About all we can say with anything even approximating certainty is that we are here (wherever and whatever “here” is). And being here – for some grand purpose or not, and with any significant control over our destiny or not – means having experiences.

So, my best answer to the age-old Question is that we are here to have experiences. We know this because we are here, and being here means having experiences.

Anything beyond this, it seems to me, is mere conjecture.

A Philosophy Created Out of Much Uncertainty

An obvious question, then, in consideration of the above is: what can we do with such information/lack of information about why we exist? What is the best way to live our lives amid such uncertainty, if all we know is that being alive means having experiences, with or without any greater point?

A few things, it seems to me:

1) We can increase our mindfulness or “presence” to whatever degree we can. In other words, while we are here having experiences, we can pay close (or closer) attention to them. We can savor them. Really take them in. We can do our best to actually be present to our experience, as opposed to just being lost in our thoughts and obsessing about the past or the future while missing out on what is actually happening in this moment. (Note: this takes practice!) We can pay attention to our experiences and, as much as possible, enjoy them (or, at least, appreciate them).

2) In seeming contradiction to #1 above – but, I would counter, in addition to it – we can make observations about our experiences and reflect on them. We can take actions after careful, measured, thinking that is in accordance with our best reasoning abilities and deeply considered values. We can comprehend that our actions – that all actions, in fact – have consequences, whether or not they are the ones we are hoping for or intending to produce. Through reflection (and practice), maybe we can improve at certain things. We can reflect on our experiences.

3) We can create our own purpose. We can decide, from our perspective (even if ultimately to the indifference of the Universe at Large), what our lives are to be about. For example, we can decide that our lives are about creating things, recognizing/seeking/appreciating beauty, being kind simply for the sake of increasing kindness in the world, etc. We can assign our own meaning to our experiences, and create our own life purpose(s) for ourselves.

4) We can exert the control that we (appear to) have to (attempt to) make the world in which we have our experiences a “better place”. We can make efforts to improve the quality of life for ourselves and others. In fact, one of the best ways to improve our own life experiences is to improve the quality of the experiences of others around us. This is both practically true, in terms of cause and effect (people tend to be friendlier to you when you behave in friendly ways toward them) and true in terms of how it makes us feel to be useful/helpful/of service.

The writer Kurt Vonnegut once asked his son, Mark, what the point of our lives is.

Mark replied to his dad, “We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”

This is as good an answer as any I have heard. Whether or not the Universe has a plan for us (and whether or not it even cares about our fate), helping each other makes for a better experience for all of us while we’re here, in a number of ways.

We are here, now, for whatever reason or lack thereof. So we might as well make the best of it. We might as well make the most of it. We might as well take the best care of ourselves and the best care of each other that we can, while we can. One might even say that these two things are really one and the same.

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Prescription for a Bad Mood

The Problem

As a hominid (if you are reading this, you probably are one), you – like the rest of us – are subject to bad moods. Our moods are in a constant state of flux, and can be affected by many factors, including:

– Whether or not we’ve eaten
– What, and how much, we’ve eaten
– How much sleep we have (or have not) gotten
– The quality (or lack thereof) of the sleep we did get
– Any physical pain or discomfort we may be suffering from
– The behavior of other hominids (!)
– A million or so other things, some of which we may have some degree of control over, but many, or most, of which we probably do not.

It’s easy to get down on ourselves – even if it’s unfair, unreasonable, or unhelpful to do so. It’s easy to be frustrated by our circumstances, the state of the world, or simply not getting what we (think we) want at any given moment. This is very much part of the bipedal experience (if not also the quadrupedal, or any-other-pedal [or lack-of-pedal] experience). As far as I can tell, no one is immune.

While it occasionally may come in handy to be in a bad mood (such as when we use it to elicit sympathy from others, or to excuse ourselves from some unappealing task, chore, or prior commitment), for the most part, none of us would consciously choose this state.

Yet, it shows up. And, by definition, we are none too happy about it.

So, if bad moods are inevitable, and we can agree that they suck, what – if anything – can we do about them?

I like this question. Tackling it puts me in a better mood. 🙂

The Solution

Here is the good news about bad moods:

1) Like everything else in the known world, they don’t last. They are temporary. They will pass. Thank goodness.

2) It is possible, at least sometimes, to disrupt or even dismantle a bad mood through taking some deliberate action to counter it.

3) It is also possible, at least sometimes, to use a bad mood as a catalyst for positive action.

My recommendations for tackling bad moods all boil down to this: be prepared for them.

Do this by creating your own personalized menu of mood-lifting activities. Like any chef/restaurateur, you can add or subtract items from your menu as you see fit. The idea, though, is to assemble a list of go-to positive things to do that you know, from experience, will help you feel better.

Then, keep this menu close at hand.

And make sure, as is the case with any good menu, that it contains enough variety. Sometimes not all of the ingredients for a particular item will be available, or in season. You might also get tired of always ordering the same thing, no matter how good it is.

One of the notorious aspects of a bad mood is that our decision-making skills are compromised when we are in one. This is the purpose of having a menu. You won’t have to dream up solutions on the spot. You’ll have already done so, from a much better frame of mind. Of course, as delectable as its offerings may be, no menu can deliver a satisfying meal on its own. A selection must be made, and action in that direction taken.

Getting started – overcoming inertia – is the hardest part. It can be challenging enough to motivate ourselves under the best of conditions, let alone when we are cranky, irritable, or downright depressed. But if you can get past that hurdle and initiate action, you can then ride the glorious wave of momentum and very likely transform your mood as a result. The more you build experiential knowledge of things you find genuinely helpful, the more you can draw (and act) upon this, even when you are feeling really lousy:

“I don’t feel like doing ANYTHING right now, but I KNOW (from experience) that I will feel better if I do this.” And, so, you do.

Taking action based on this deeper understanding of yourself, rather than succumbing to or even wallowing in misery, is the embodiment of wisdom and maturity. When you do this, you are utilizing your capacity to respond rather than simply react. It’s a skill that, like any other, is developed, and strengthened, through practice.

Important note: You don’t want to beat yourself up on those occasions when you find yourself unable to muster up the resolve or the wherewithal to do this. Welcome to humanity! (Self-compassion is what’s called for in these instances – another skill that may require a good bit of practice). But you do want to acknowledge yourself each time you are able to pull this (pretty incredible) feat off. After all, you are building fortitude, character…perhaps even destiny-shaping self-determination. You are reinforcing highly desirable neural pathways with each “rep”. Each success in this regard, however seemingly small, is a triumph of the will, a victory for the soul (however you care to define that). It is a proclamation of power over circumstance.

Guidelines for Your Menu

Here are some general recommendations for things to include on your menu:

1. Take Care of the Basics: Nutrition & Sleep. Sometimes something as simple as eating well, hydrating, or getting sufficient sleep is all that is required to subjugate irritability. Be sure to make regular self-care a top priority.

2. Exercise/Move Your Body: Just begin. Your mood will likely change for the better before you’re even aware of it. As for specifics, find what you like. Experiment. It could be yoga stretches, stair-climbing, dancing, weight-lifting, gymnastics, or just getting outside and going for a walk. In my opinion, exercise is the easiest/quickest/most sure-fire way to overcome a bad mood (assuming #1 above has been addressed). It is something you can do alone, with a partner, or in a group setting. Best to have a bunch of options on your menu from this category, to suit every conceivable occasion (such as access [or lack thereof] to workout equipment, other people or classes; varying weather conditions, etc.). In a mere twenty minutes, a miracle can sometimes transpire mood-wise.

3. Connect: We hominids are social creatures. We crave connection. So, connect. Call a friend. Visit a friend. Exercise with a friend. Talk to someone new and make a friend. There are few gifts in life like friendship. A friendship need not be lifelong, either. A daylong (or even shorter) kinship, created solely through shared circumstance, can be immensely valuable. Also, connections need not be limited to other hominids. Connect with a pet (yours or someone else’s). Visit an animal shelter. Befriend a member of another species, if only for an hour. Let your mood be transformed through beneficent interaction.

4. Lift Someone Else: One of the most effective things on my personal menu for overcoming a bad mood is to volunteer. Specifically: I play music for hospital patients (and their families and friends, hospital staff, etc.). It’s an awesome gig and privilege. I don’t even have to adhere to a schedule. I can pretty much just show up with my guitar and do my thing, wandering from room to room as I please (and, of course, as people are receptive). The hardest part, hands down, is getting my ass into the car and getting myself there. But each and every time I do this, I end up having a fantastic time. By brightening someone else’s day (not to mention playing and singing, which in and of themselves are mood-bolstering),*I* feel better. It’s a win/win scenario. There are countless ways to lift other people, limited only by your imagination. If you’re at a loss for ideas, Google “random acts of kindness”.

5. Spend Some Time in Nature. (Self-explanatory.)

6. Lighten Up/Laugh: Laughter alters your body chemistry. It feels good. Norman Cousins claimed to have actually healed himself from illness through, in large part, laughter therapy. Watch Groundhog Day or The Big Lebowski, or go to YouTube and find videos suited to your particular funny bone. 🙂

7. Listen to Music, While Doing Nothing Else: I have a distinct memory from my teenage years of being utterly miserable over who-knows-what (okay, I have many such distinct memories, but I’m thinking of one in particular). I was in my room, and I sat up on my bed wearing a pair of headphones, and put on The Beatles’ White Album (probably at a pretty high volume). By the time the first side (of the vinyl record) was over, I was cured. It felt like I had taken some kind of miracle drug. I’m not sure why this particular listening experience was so powerful, but it probably had something to do with the quality of my attention (and the fact that it was the White Album couldn’t have hurt). The music wasn’t simply on in the background, though; I was immersed in it. I remember feeling invigorated by the sheer creativity, exuberance, inventiveness, and spirit of these ridiculously talented lads from Liverpool. I had gone from a “1” to a “10” mood-wise in almost no time. Great music has, over the years, moved me so deeply on so many occasions. It is perhaps the ultimate means of human expression and communication. Without question, it has healing properties. It’s powerful, powerful stuff.

8. Write Something. It could be a journal entry, a poem, a song, a letter, or a blog post. Sort out your your thoughts. Redirect your attention toward solving some kind of problem or tackling some creative challenge. (Alternatively: bake something, draw something, paint something, repair something, organize something.)

9. Get Some Perspective. To paraphrase something a friend said to me recently: We’re on a rock circling a ball of fire that doesn’t even register as visible if you get far enough away from it (not far, really, by the scale of outer space), and which itself is only here for a short while in the bigger scheme of things. In other words: Relax. And enjoy the ride!


I am by no means infallible at putting all of this into practice, but I find that the more experiences I accumulate doing the above kinds of things – and feeling better as a result – the more likely I am able to use them as self-prescribed interventions when I am grumpy or ornery.

And, of course, a bad mood is not a prerequisite for doing any of these things. Make your own menu items staples of your life and you might drastically reduce the frequency of bad moods to begin with. As Ben Franklin famously put it: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”


Nothing I’ve mentioned above is all that revolutionary. You probably already know all of this stuff. But sometimes a reminder is helpful. That is the whole point of having a readily accessible menu. The mere power of suggestion is often our tipping point into action. Advertisers count on this fact, so why not use the same psychology on yourself (but in your own best interest)?

In short, by attending to your body and refocusing your attention you can improve your mood, sometimes rapidly and sometimes profoundly.

I’m always interested in hearing what works for other people, and adding items to my own menu if I find that they work for me. So, feel free to share what you find to be effective in combating your own bad moods in the Comments section below.

Posted in Lifestyle, Philosophical Musings | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Which Super Power Would You Choose?

I love to entertain provocative, if ultimately pointless, questions (perhaps I should have been a philosophy major). Case in point:

If you could choose any one – but only one – super power, what would it be?

It’s a great question because “super powers” speak to some of our deepest, if often subconscious, desires. Part of everyday human experience inevitably involves brushing up against our own limitations (real or perceived). But super powers – by definition – allow for the glorious possibility of easily transcending those things about which we tend to feel the most powerless.

It makes sense that superheroes have such wide appeal among youngsters, whose limitations are (at least in some ways) more overt. But superhero stories clearly resonate with adults, too.

So, which super power would you choose, if you could?

Some common answers to this question include:

1) To be invisible at will. This would allow you to sneak into, say, a very high-priced concert, or some exclusive event, for free, anytime you want. Moreover, it would allow you to hear what is said or watch what is done by anyone “behind closed doors”. (Be careful what you wish for!) This super power would probably appeal to those who, more than anything, are seekers of the truth – people who want access to information they feel is otherwise not available to them, or perhaps those with trust issues.

2) To fly. Not only would you have the freedom to travel (at high speeds, of course) wherever and whenever you want, but what could be more exhilarating than flying through the air, high up in the sky, under your own power and direction? You could flee from any dangerous or unappealing situation in an instant. (The only downside would be you could still be chased by others if they, too, had this ability.) I honestly can’t imagine anyone not wanting this super power. It looks like a hell of a lot of fun! However, the desire for it could indicate having problems dealing with reality head-on (e.g., regularly feeling the urge to escape…from, oh, I don’t know, say…an office job. 😉 )

3) To have incredible physical strength. Anyone who feels physically oppressed, bullied, or abused would understandably choose this super power. The desire for it might also stem from wishing to set others free who are being mistreated. Justice- and/or revenge-seekers might choose this super power. But it could also betray a feeling of not being taken seriously, not being treated with respect, or of not being able to exert influence over the world around you.

4) To be able to change form, shape, or size. This super power would enable you incredible flexibility in maneuvering through the physical world. The applications are seemingly endless (as are the ways in which you could impress others!). This might be the super power for you if your dream is to be in Cirque du Soleil, because it would afford you the ability to perform incredible physical feats, limited only by your imagination. As for underlying psychological issues this choice could be indicative of, it might hold strong appeal to someone who is unhappy with his/her own body as it is, or who feels lacking in the ability to innovate creative solutions to everyday problems.

5) To travel through time. This would seem like another universally sought-after super power. It could certainly satisfy countless curiosities and countless fantasies. However, there are plenty of potential hazards/downsides (really, just choose almost any time travel movie and see for yourself). While there are plenty of playful motivations for this super power, and even noble ones (preventing disasters and tragedies from occurring, for instance), it might also be chosen by someone who has perfectionistic tendencies, control issues, or who is haunted by regret.

6) To have superhuman powers of perception/intuition. This one has lots of potential applications, as well – everything from reading minds to selecting great stock picks to sensing when trouble is brewing somewhere and being able to intercede accordingly. Choosing this super power, though, might also suggest a shadow of people-pleasing tendencies or a fear of not being able to navigate life successfully enough with your perceptive powers as they are.

7) To read and retain information at lightning speed. This super power would give you clear advantages, for sure. Think of what you could do with a near-endless memory and capacity for learning. Perhaps choosing this super power above all others, though, is a signal of overwhelm – feeling unable to keep up with the rapid pace of change and the increasingly intimidating body of knowledge that none of us can ever even come close to grasping or absorbing in a lifetime (or many lifetimes). Or, it might be indicative of feeling that you are always missing out on something due to lack of information.

There are numerous other possible super powers, of course, and my goal is not to come up with a comprehensive list here.

Nor is it my intention to judge or condemn those who would choose any one of the above super powers over any other. Clearly, the underlying fears, vulnerabilities, frustrations, and insecurities they shed light on are experienced by probably all of us, even if some may resonate more deeply with me and others more deeply with you.

Bottom line:

Who doesn’t want to feel more powerful, more in control, more capable, or more extraordinary?

While I am sure I would very much enjoy the opportunity to sample any or all of the above super powers, none of them would actually be my first choice.

My Answer to the Super Power Question

You may have noticed that, in all superhero stories, the hero – regardless of his/her (but, let’s face it, usually his) powers – is still plagued, if not downright haunted and tormented, by deep psychological scars. (S/he has to be, really, because this is what makes the character compelling and relatable.) Apparently, none of the above-mentioned super powers is enough to fully compensate for mental anguish or turmoil.

That is why, in my estimation, the ultimate super power is this:

The ability to find contentment, regardless of circumstances.

Imagine if you could transcend your pain or suffering, at any given moment, no matter what the situation, simply by applying skillful thought and/or behavior? It would look something like this:

Rather than dwell on the downside of any given situation, you could immediately hone in on a positive opportunity therein and leverage things to your (and other people’s) advantage.

Rather than curse your circumstances (we often do this over the most minor inconveniences, i.e., “first-world problems”), you would feel genuine appreciation for them, and be able to accept them…completely, as is.

Rather than have things outside of your control determine your mood, degree of happiness, or sense of satisfaction with life, you could determine these things for yourself through a simple (but masterful) adjustment in attitude and perspective.

Rather than resign yourself to feeling helpless, ineffectual, inadequate, or despondent, you would be filled with curiosity, awe, gratitude, and delight for the endless number of wonderful possibilities that your super power allows you to tune in to.

This is not to say you would become a mindless, complacent, naive, insufferable fool. Quite the opposite. You would actually live in a constant state of creativity, vitality, thankfulness, mindfulness, humility, joy, and peace.

No matter what happens, you could and would find contentment. Now THAT is a super power worth having. Or, as a mere mortal, worth pursuing.

Even if Contented Man would hardly make for great bank at the box office…

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My Wish For You

The following is my wish for you, wherever and whenever you happen to be reading this:

May you be filled with loving kindness, toward yourself and toward others.
May you be healthy, in body and mind.
May you live with ease, as much and as often as possible.
May you be and feel: fully supported, and deeply loved, valued, cherished, and cared for.
May you be truly happy, peaceful, content, and fulfilled.


The practice of “metta” or “lovingkindness” is simple, but profound. It essentially consists of silently, and heartfully, wishing yourself and others well. It can be done as part of a formal sitting meditation practice, or it can be done as you move about in the world in your everyday life.

Formal Practice

It can be very powerful to take time out of your day – even a short amount – and devote it to nothing but the cultivation of compassion toward yourself and others, or lovingkindness. If you are brand new to this practice (or even if you’re not), I highly recommend being guided through it. Probably the easiest and most inexpensive way to find a “guide” is to use an audio program, such as this one by Jack Kornfield (which I have recommended before and highly recommend once again):

Guided Meditation: Six Essential Practices to Cultivate Love, Awareness, and Wisdom

The practice goes like this:

Once you are in a calm and relaxed state, after sitting still for a few moments and perhaps taking several deep breaths, you focus your attention on simple phrases that you repeat silently to yourself:

May I be happy. May I be well. May I be peaceful. May I be free from suffering.

Use whatever words resonate best with you. Feel free to experiment and change them up from time to time as you find useful or helpful. You can use some or all of the ones I wrote for you at the top of this post, if you like, or modify them in any way that suits you.

It is typical to begin “formal” practice with yourself as the object of these wishes. This can be more difficult than it sounds, especially if you have a tendency to be hard on yourself. Stick with it as best you can. Things change from day to day. Some days the words might seem utterly hollow to you. Other days they might move you to tears. Whatever happens, and whatever you feel or don’t feel, it’s okay.

After you spend some time doing this, you move on to extending the same wishes to others. You think of someone who has been kind and nurturing to you in some way, and silently extend the same wishes to her/him:

May you be happy. May you be well. May you be peaceful. May you be free from harm (or suffering).

You then move on to someone you care about, perhaps a significant other or close friend, and silently repeat the above phrases (or your own variation of them), holding this person in your mind and your heart.

You can repeat this with another friend, and another, if you want to. Perhaps you want to direct your lovingkindness to someone you know is going through a particularly difficult time.

Then try extending the same wishes to someone you know, but not very well, perhaps only as an acquaintance, or perhaps someone you’ve only ever seen but never actually spoken to.

THEN, eventually, you try extending these wishes to a “difficult” person – someone who really gets on your nerves/pushes your buttons. Do the best you can. If this proves to be too much of a challenge, then redirect your lovingkindness toward yourself, since you are the one, at the moment, having a difficult time.

Then extend the same benevolent wishes to all of those around you – say, in your neighborhood, community, or workplace. Keep branching out further and further to include more and more people, known and unknown. (And even beings other than people – because, it turns out, there are many!)

And finally: extend lovingkindness to all beings everywhere.

The above is just a guideline. You, of course, can alter this practice in any way you choose.

Just know this: reading about doing this and actually doing it are two very, very different experiences. I encourage you to try it out for yourself. Experiment with it.

Starting your day with a practice like this can set the tone for your day, before you get caught up in the relentless pull of things to do. You can think of it as a means of calibrating, or recalibrating, your heart. Of centering yourself. Of setting a loving intention before you get distracted, and then swept away, by the activities of everyday life.

Informal Practice

During the course of your day – as you pass a stranger on the street, for example – you can silently wish him well: May you be happy. May you be peaceful. Use whatever language or word choice feels right and, to whatever degree possible, make it not just “lip service” but make it from your heart. You can practice this anywhere and at anytime. It’s easy to do. It just has to occur to you to do it.

Why Do This?

Why do this at all? Isn’t is pointless? What impact does it have? Is it anything other than, quite literally, “wishful thinking”? Isn’t “the road to hell” paved with good intentions such as these?

It is impossible for me to say with any degree of certainty whether or not silent wishes – whomever or wherever they are directed, and however well meaning – have any direct effect on the object(s) of these wishes. However, I will say this:

•   In a world in which we are bombarded with stories of violence, turmoil, and suffering, can it really do any harm to wish others well, even privately? Imagine if everyone silently and sincerely wished each other well throughout the day as they passed one another in the halls, on the streets, or even (gasp!) in traffic. I’d like to live in a world like that.

•   Even if wishing others well has no direct effect whatsoever on them, it certainly is bound to have an effect on us. At the very least it awakens us, in that moment, to the reality that all beings everywhere have this in common: we all want to be happy, and we all want to be free from suffering. As we go through our days, it’s all too easy to lose sight of this, as we get caught up in our own goals, needs, and desires. Perhaps practicing lovingkindness makes us treat others a bit more gently as a result. Perhaps it can be the difference that gets us to extend ourselves to someone else in a way we otherwise wouldn’t have, out of the slightest bit of added concern for that person’s well-being (in recognition of the fact that she seeks exactly the same basic things that we do). Such a gesture is bound to have some ripple effects. And, again, imagine if everyone did this, even just once in a while. How many heinous acts might be prevented if someone took the time to show a potential perpetrator that he was loved and valued, for instance? That someone cared about him? If practicing lovingkindness prevented ONE such tragedy, think of all the needless suffering that would be avoided.

While the practice of “metta” stems from the Buddhist tradition, it can be done by any person from any religious tradition, or from none at all. It is a way to feel more connected to yourself and to others around you. To be a bit more sensitive to your own suffering and the suffering of others. To open up your heart and access the kindness and love within it. To become a happier person.

May you be filled with loving kindness, toward yourself and toward others.
May you be healthy, in body and mind.
May you live with ease, as much and as often as possible.
May you be and feel: fully supported, and deeply loved, valued, cherished, and cared for.
May you be truly happy, peaceful, content, and fulfilled.

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It’s Not Too Late

When I was eighteen, I did (arguably) a very silly thing. I went to college.

All I really knew of life at that point was school. How could I possibly even come close to taking full advantage of what a university as large as the one I went to (Penn State) had to offer?

Sure, I inevitably got some things out of my four years there. I was exposed to new ideas and people. I had a handful of wonderful professors and matured maybe a smidge. But college (for me) was more or less a holding period before entering the so-called “real world” (where I would do significantly more learning and growing, and at a much more rapid pace).

The opportunities were there for me, as an undergrad, to explore all kinds of interests. I could have, for instance:

• Taken a Basic Film Production class
• Hiked Mt. Nittany
• Auditioned for a play
• Applied to be a columnist for The Daily Collegian (the student-run newspaper)
• Joined (or started) a club
• Joined (or started) a band
• Played an intramural sport
• Studied abroad for a semester (that’s “abroad” – one word)

I was interested in all of these things; I did none of them.

Looking back, I think there is one simple, overarching explanation for this: I didn’t yet have the necessary life skills. I wasn’t ready. Wasn’t personally developed enough. (In defense of my younger self: how many people are at that age?)

Kind of sad, huh?

But here’s the good news. Those interests you had when you were younger, but never pursued? There’s no reason you can’t do so now. You’re older, sure. You have more responsibilities, no doubt. But in almost every way, you’re better equipped now. You know yourself better. You’re not as insecure. You have life experience to bring to the table. You’ve seen a commitment or two through, and know how that’s done.

Though I did none of the things I listed above as an undergrad, I am proud to say that I didn’t bury all of those interests permanently:

•  I may not have hiked to the top of Mt. Nittany, but I have hiked to the top of Mt. Whitney.
•  I may not have auditioned for a play back then, but I’ve done some community theater since.
•  I may not have had my own newspaper column, but I now have this blog.
•  I may not have joined any clubs, but I’ve since joined – and had rich, rewarding experiences with – the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Sierra Club.
•  I may not have played an intramural sport, but I did take a volleyball class through an adult education program.
•  I may not have studied abroad, but I’ve since traveled to other countries.

And it’s still not too late for me to do some version of any of a host of other things I was once interested in, should I still wish to.

Maybe…one day…I’ll even get around to…choosing a major.  🙂

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The Bite Takes Hold…


Four months ago I wrote a post about feeling like a kid again, entitled Bitten by a Radioactive Spider. It was about how I stumbled onto the “Traveling Rings” at Santa Monica Beach, and how the many athletic feats performed there on a daily basis by everyday people filled me with excitement and awe.

To me, it’s a very encouraging sign that I can still be captivated by new things and develop new interests, hobbies, and even passions well into adulthood – that this experience is not exclusively the domain of the young. (After all, in geologic time, we’re all young, right?)

Still, one of the advantages that kids generally have over “grown-ups” is they tend to have a much higher tolerance for being a beginner at something. And, of course, if you’re not willing to try something new – and to be terrible at it initially – then the possibility of getting good, or even just enjoying it, completely disappears.

For whatever reason, I was so intrigued with what I saw people doing on the rings that it infected me with the desire to do it, too. And I was perfectly okay with being a clumsy beginner.

Fortunately for me, there is a wonderful sense of camaraderie down at the original home of “Muscle Beach” – it’s an incredibly positive atmosphere where people stretch themselves (both literally and figuratively), welcome and encourage newbies, freely share what they know, and are in it (from what I’ve seen) just for the sheer joy of it. People connect over a shared love of physical challenge, regardless of their skill level, and they help each other out instinctively.

Imagine if the whole world operated that way.

The other point worth noting is that the rings are FUN! Remember playing outside and making friends with whoever else was out there playing, too? It’s like that, except – at age 42 – I don’t have to go back inside at my mom’s beck and call.

Adulthood rules.

I’ve got a long way to go on the rings: much still to learn, and much fun still to have. But I’ve made a lot of progress since my first go at it. My childhood dream of being like Spider-Man just may come true, after all…

(The below video was recorded this morning by my devoted wife and videographer, Samantha):

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