What Do You Learn in Addiction Treatment? Answers From David Foster Wallace

Do you know Infinite Jest—the brilliant, sprawling, and maddening novel by David Foster Wallace?

Weighing in at over 1,000 pages (after editing), this book is about . . . well, almost everything: Tennis. Football. Nuclear war. Mass media. Mental illness. And much more.

It’s also about addiction treatment. Wallace writes about this with sardonic humor, great feeling, and a knowledge of Twelve Step fellowships that could only come from direct contact.

There’s a long, juicy section where Wallace lists the lessons offered by addiction treatment. Following are examples:

That it takes effort to pay attention to any one stimulus for more than a few seconds.

That most Substance-addicted people are also addicted to thinking, meaning they have a compulsive and unhealthy relationship with their own thinking. That the cute Boston AA term for addictive-type thinking is: Analysis-Paralysis.

In short that 99% of the head’s thinking activity consists of trying to scare the everliving shit out of itself.

That you don’t have to hit somebody even if you really really want to.

That no single, individual moment is in and of itself unendurable.

That other people can often see things about you that you yourself cannot see, even if those people are stupid.

That ‘acceptance’ is usually more a matter of fatigue than anything else.

That, perversely, it is often more fun to want something than to have it.

That if you do something nice for somebody in secret, anonymously, without letting the person you did it for know it was you or anybody else know what it was you did or in any way or form trying to get credit for it, it’s almost its own form of intoxicating buzz.

That there might not be angels, but there are people who might as well be angels.

A Song For My Father

Psychologist B J Fogg has a habit of saying “Today’s going to be a great day” as soon as he gets up in the morning. I do that, too, and here’s why.

My dad, Don Toft, is a guiding light to me.

He laughed a lot. He played music. He sang. He painted pictures. He wrote poems.

He loved me very much. I know that because he told me.

My dad was a commercial artist who worked from home during the 1960s — long before anyone considered that normal.

I remember his office in the basement of our house on Seneca Avenue in Des Moines, Iowa. It was filled with paper and paints, triangles and T-squares. It was all so exotic.

I remember standing in that office one night when I was 10 or 11 and staring at every object, trying to figure out what each one was for.

When I was 14, my dad bought me my first electric guitar — a solid body, 3/4-size Fender Duo-Sonic. It was painted cherry red and had a neck of polished wood that felt like velvet. Next to a sunset, it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

I will never forget that guitar. It was a Christmas present. At midnight on Christmas Eve that year, I snuck out of bed to peek under the tree. I saw the long, flat case wrapped up in bright green paper with a red ribbon on top. I knew exactly what was inside.

The next morning, when we opened presents, I pretended to be surprised.

During the years after that Christmas, my dad got sick from time to time.

Real sick, actually.

When I was in 8th grade, he was hospitalized for ulcerative colitis. None of the adults told us was what was really going on. I found out years later that he almost died then.

Fortunately dad had more years of good health while I finished high school and college.

Then, in 1974, he started developing symptoms of Lou Gehrig’s disease.

It was the beginning of a long, slow decline. I pray that you and all the people you love never ever have to go through something like that.

During the 1970s I went to college. I studied philosophy and religion and wondered how I could use my studies to help my dad.

Meanwhile, he was slowly losing the ability to walk and talk.

Finally, I sat in my room one night and wrote a letter to him. It was a short letter. I told him that I loved him and didn’t want him to die.

That was all, basically: The fruit of my tuition payments. The sum of my knowledge.

It was the truest thing I ever said to anybody.

I am glad I wrote that letter. Mom said that that dad kept it in his desk drawer and pulled it out to read over and over again.

Watching my dad die taught me not to put off saying the important things that are hard to say to the people who the matter most. You never know when they will be taken away from you. Forever.

My dad died on Mother’s Day, 1982. He was 53 years old.

Even after all this time, I can hardly believe that he’s gone. When I think about it, I still get stabbing sensations in my stomach.

There is still a part of me that thinks dad will call me on the phone or knock on my door.

There is a small child in each of us who never gives up hope.

When my dad died, I promised myself that I would think of him every day. I have never broken that promise.

Every morning, when I get out of bed, I check to see if I can still walk and talk. Then I remember my dad. And then I know that no matter what happens, today will be a great day.

Moving from Blame to Personal Responsibility: How Did I Create This?

Whenever something breaks down in my life, I ask a bizarre and useful question: How did I create this?

Of course, part of me rebels against this question. If I miss a deadline, for example, I’d rather blame it on the client, a technical glitch, the weather, an act of God—anything other than my own behavior. Yet when I break through this resistance, I discover the power to change.

Three ways to pose the question

In How The Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey suggest that we pose the following question about any of our major commitments: What are you doing or not doing that is keeping your commitment from being more fully realized?

This can be restated in a more pointed way: If you put together a quick list of the people you see as responsible for your commitment not being fully realized, would your name appear?

Or simply: How did I create this?

An example

Kegan and Lahey offer an example about a person who complains about being overwhelmed at work. So, how did she create this result? With a little self-observation, she discovered answers:

  • Agreeing to take on too many projects
  • Refusing to delegate tasks
  • Trying to complete projects without asking for the resources she needed

Whenever I complain about a situation in my life, I can usually make a similar list.

What is not implied by this question

This question is not suggesting that you bear all or even most of the responsibility for any breakdown in your life. In fact, your own behavior might have little to do with the problem. Actually, you might be doing a lot to prevent and solve breakdowns.

Life is messy, and many factors conspire to create any situation. How did I create this? simply prompts me to look for the factors that relate to me.

The good news

As Kegan and Lahey note, the language of personal responsibility “directs our attention to places where we have maximum influence.” If we’re doing something to create a problem, then we also have the power to stop doing it. And here we get a taste of freedom.

Other posts in this series:

Creating Plans That Work — The Power of Implementation Intentions

There’s a lot of folk wisdom about failed intentions. The road to hell is paved with plenty of good ones, we’re told. Even Saint Paul struggled with self-control: “For I do not do the good that I wish, but the bad that I do not wish is what I practice” (Romans 7:15).

Fortunately there’s a healthy body of research about creating intentions that actually lead to behavior change. These include the theory of planned behavior, BJ Fogg’s work on Tiny Habits, and Peter M. Gollwitzer’s studies of implementation intentions.

Implementation intentions specify the context in which a planned behavior will occur. They are stated in a “if-then” format — context first, behavior second.

Some examples that Gollwitzer gives are:

  • If it is 5pm on Monday, then I will jog home from work.
  • If it is Saturday at 10am, then I will select 5 low-fat dishes from my cook book to make during the week.
  • If I start to think about my favorite snack, then I will immediately ignore that thought.
  • If I have walked up one flight of stairs and see the elevator, then I will tell myself “I can do it! I can take the stairs all the way up to my office.”
  • If my heart starts to race, then I will start my breathing exercise.

Implementation intentions are designed to overcome two big problems with changing our behavior.

One is simply getting started. We can frame the most beautiful intention in the world — and then forget to act on it. Or, we might have second thoughts about the intention at a critical moment and miss an opportune moment to act.

The other challenge is sustaining a planned behavior. Here the obstacles are getting distracted and reverting to existing habits — especially when we feel distress or other negative emotions.

When done well, implementation intentions solve both problems. The planned behavior is cued automatically at a critical moment — without the need for deliberation, willpower, or motivation.

Implementation intentions are useful for your personal experiments in behavior change. You can also use them to create sentence completion exercises for readers.

The trick in either case is stating intentions effectively. Gollwitzer offer these guidelines:

  • Tailor your intentions to the specific challenges that you face — starting a new behavior, sustaining it, or both.
  • Write out your intentions using the if-then sentence structure.
  • State contexts and behaviors with details about exactly what you will do, where you will do it, and when.
  • Choose a context that you’re sure to encounter.
  • Plan a behavior that you can actually do in that context.
  • Make sure that each context cues only one planned behavior.
  • Make sure that your values, goals, and intentions are all aligned.

To learn more about implementation intentions, see:

More Slogans for Constructive Living

David Reynolds, author of Constructive Living and many other books, is fond of slogans. I find them to be powerful tools for immediately shifting my attention and changing my behavior.

In a previous post, I presented five of my favorite slogans. Following are more.

Behavior wags the tail of feelings

This is a way to deal with procrastination. For example, don’t wait to do yoga until you feel like doing it. Waiting probably won’t generate the desire to get moving. Rolling out your mat, and doing one simple stretch might. But even if it doesn’t, you’ll still be doing yoga.

Give and give until you wave goodbye

We might feel tempted to disengage from a relationship long before it ends. Doing so is not necessary, and it can make matters worse.

Another option is to do everything possible to resolve the conflict until it’s clear that leaving is a wise choice. There’s inherent value in acting impeccably in difficult circumstances — and with difficult people. And if we eventually choose to end the relationship, we can do without regrets, knowing that we did our best.

A variation of this slogan: Flounder with full attention.

Many “me’s

You are a bundle of different identities. When with your parents, you might revert to a childhood role. At work, you might be competent and assertive. At a party with friends, another version of you emerges. Behavior depends on context.

This is useful to remember when you’re tempted to label someone in your life as “toxic” or “neurotic.” No single behavior or set of behaviors defines a person in an ultimate way. All of us have neurotic moments. Even “toxic” people have moments of clarity and compassion.

Every moment is fresh

Whatever you did just a second ago has already flowed into the stream of the past. The present moment brings a new possibility. Even something that you’ve already done a thousand times can be done in a slightly different way, with greater attention and more precision.

Unpleasant doesn’t mean “bad

Many difficulties arise from positive intentions. Someone who feels anxiety public speaking wants to perform well. The person with a phobia about air travel wants to stay safe.

Remembering this can help us endure discomfort and temper judgments of people. It can also free up energy for taking constructive action.

Action brings experience; experiential knowledge is dependable

Anxiety and depression can lead to over-thinking and under-acting. We waste time by spinning scenarios in our mind and predicting negative outcomes.

Taking action breaks this cycle. Some ideas can be understood only when implemented.

When reading self-help books, I look for ideas that I can turn into behaviors. I often wonder if the authors have ever done what they’re suggesting that I do.

Testing ideas through our own behavior gives us reliable knowledge about what works for us.

Also see:

Further Notes on the Landmark Forum

This post is a response to requests from readers who asked for my notes on the Landmark Forum.

The Forum is philosophical, not scientific or research-based. It’s about epiphany rather than planned behavior change. I often doubt its usefulness. And, it is fun to play with. Please don’t take it too seriously.

When people ask you about the Forum, I was told, don’t summarize the content. Just explain what you got out of it. What I mainly got was:

  • Freedom from fear of what other people think
  • The experience of being a blank slate (nothing) — releasing my personal identity that was based on past events and all my made-up stories about them
  • Freedom to create new possibilities simply by speaking them from that blank slate
  • A reminder to act with integrity by aligning my behavior with my speaking

In essence: Get to nothing. Create from nothing. Act with integrity. 

This is simple, not easy. In my notes, I fleshed out these ideas with a “distinctionary” — an alphabetical list of the main concepts that I took away from the Forum.

Interestingly, Werner Erhard has carried forward many of these ideas into his latest teachings about leadership. My notes might make more sense in that context. To learn more, see WernerErhard.is.

More than anything else, what lingers for me from the Forum is something that Werner Erhard wrote about Erhard Seminars Training (est), a primary source of the Forum. Noting that est was not about solving problems and that no one really needed it, he added:

Each of us has experienced moments in our lives when we are fully alive —when we know — without thinking — that life is exactly as it is in this moment. In such moments, we have no wish for it to be different, or better, or more. We have no disappointment, no comparison with ideals, no sense that it is not what we worked for. We feel no protective or defensive urge — and have no desire to hold on — to store up — or to save. Such moments are perfect in themselves. We experience them as being complete.

If I get there once in a while, I’m satisfied.

OK — some caveats about what follows:

  • These are simply my personal reflections on a course that I took ten years ago.
  • I am publishing these notes basically “as is” with minimal revision. You might find them cryptic. That’s because they are cryptic.
  • I have no affiliation with Landmark Eduction, and these notes have not been reviewed or approved by that organization.


We live absurd, small lives based on suppressed emotions, irrational decisions, hiding what we truly think and feel, and a total absence of integrity.

We live with a constant fear of looking bad in front of other people while we pretending that we aren’t really afraid.

Our whole existence is based on pretense and being inauthentic; on failing to keep our agreements; on settling for reasons, rationalizations, and excuses rather than results; and on irrational decisions that we made as children.

We make up stories about what happens in life, and we use those stories to justify breaking our agreements, holding back, and avoiding risk.

We are machines that are based on automatic reactions—complex chains of stimulus-response pairs.

You get to struggle with your inauthenticity for the rest of your life. And then you die.

Start by taking responsibility for being inauthentic. This creates a new realm of possibility.

You can be right or be in relationship. You can have reasons or results. You choose.


The Forum distinguishes between:

  • What you know that you know
  • What you know that you don’t know
  • What you don’t know that you don’t know — blind spots.

Blind spots produce constraints. They are also points of access to breakthrough.


In the face of breakdown, skip the conversation about what’s wrong. Just re-commit to the possibility that you originally spoke and find ways to act in alignment with the possibility.


The Forum does not give you a new set of beliefs or certainties. Look for whatever you’re certain about. There is where you’ve stopped learning.


Change is based in the past — getting more or less of what you had in the past; doing what you did in the past but in a different way. Change is playing the old game in a new way.

In contrast, transformation creates a new realm of possibility (not just one possibility) that is independent of the past.

There is the game of change and the game of transformation. These are different games.

Conventional goal setting is grounded in change, not transformation.


Choosing is independent of reasons. I choose chocolate because I choose chocolate. No reasons. No decisions.


To commit is to stand for.

Commiting to a new possibility in the future changes our actions in the present. Action based on commitment produces results.

In short:

  • Commitment —> Actions —> Results
  • Being —> Doing —> Having
  • Future —> Present —> Past

This is the opposite of the way that we usually think about the relationship between past, present, and future.

Create a new possibility by speaking it. Then ask how you want that possibility to show up in your life. State it as a SMART goal — in specific, measurable terms. Set yearly goals and then translate them into semi-annual goals and monthly goals.

Remember that you don’t create results in order to become happy. You are happy and then you create results.


Creating a new context creates a new view of life and new possibilities for action.

A new context —> new commitments —> new actions —> new results.

Transformation comes from new contexts, not from new circumstances.


Human beings are clearings for conversations to occur, much like a blackboard is a clearing for writing with chalk to occur.

Organizations are clearings for networks of conversations.


To distinguish is not the same as to define.

To distinguish is to call something into the foreground through your use of language — something that was undifferentiated and not noticed before.


To enroll is to create possibilities and inspire people.

To register is to ask people to make a commitment to act.

The “I have a dream speech” is enrollment. Asking people to march to Selma is registration.

Enrollment is the heart of transformation. And enrollment starts with being authentic with someone about how you’ve been inauthentic.

Sharing is the basis for new results and enrollment.

Stop trying to fix or change people. Enroll them instead.


We often live as spectators. We’re in the stands rather than on the court. We avoid risks and stay in our comfort zone.

Instead of sitting on the sidelines and just observing, play full out. Be in the game rather than in the stands.

Taking risks brings aliveness.

The talking that happens between players during a game is a form of action. The talk that happens in the stands — explanations and excuses — does not change what happens in the game.

A game is based on rules and declarations. In baseball, a strike happens when the umpire declares a strike.

We are playing a game where the stakes appear to be the highest imaginable — death. But we forget that we are playing a game and that we invented the rules.

We also forget that we are nothing — and therefore everything — and can never die.

The Forum is a game. The leader is a coach. Be coachable. When others share, listen for ways to apply it to yourself.


Insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting new results.


Integrity means being complete, whole, and powerful. Levels of integrity include:

  • Following the rules (less power)
  • Being true to your values (more power)
  • Honoring your word as yourself (even more power)

Your word has creative power. You declare a new possibility by speaking about it and then aligning your behavior with it. Being powerful means that your word produces new results.

Keeping your agreements allows you to access transformation.

Keeping your agreements is not right or wrong; it just works. Failing to keep your agreements is not right or wrong; it just does not work.


You are a jerk when your life is about dominating other people through making them wrong and making yourself right. You do this at the cost of being in relationship with other people.


We are machines. Our behavior is based on reflexes — chains of stimulus-response patterns.

Like machines, we respond automatically to stimuli. We do not consciously choose to act. We simply react.

You are a machine. You don’t act. IT acts.

When a machine observes itself, it stops being a machine in that moment.

You stop being a machine in isolated moments — while meditating, for example — and while you sleep. But in the midst of your daily life, you go back to being a machine.


Life is empty and meaningless.

The fact that life is empty and meaningless is in itself empty and meaningless.

Even so, we are machines that make meaning. The meaning that we make is defined by our rackets and our strong suits.


It’s not the amount of money you have that produces suffering; it’s the meaning you make up about the amount of money you have.

Don’t look for money to bring fulfillment. Be fulfilled and then make money.


When you see through your rackets and strong suits, you are left without an identity. You are left with nothing.

This is what you get out of the Forum: nothing.

Nothing is an open space. Nothing is a clearing that allows for all possibilities. From nothing you can declare a way of being. That way of being comes into existence solely through your declaration.

Everything that we’ve learned tells us that the most important factor in shaping who are is the past. This is wrong. You can choose and create possibilities independently of the past. Starting from nothing, you can create anything.

Sartre saw nothingness and it left him with nausea.

We see nothingness and then create a new realm of possibility.


We define possibility in a new way — as inspiration and bringing something new into life.

Your view of life determines what’s possible for you.

A possibility changes you in the moment that it occurs. A possibility changes you in the present as you take action based on that possibility.

The future that you’re living into creates your experience of the present. You bring your future into the present.

Create possibilities that draw you forward: I invent the possibility that…. I create the possibility of being…. The possibility I am inventing for myself and my life is the possibility of being… .

Some ways to complete those sentences are:

  • fully alive
  • authentic
  • connected
  • self-expressed
  • complete with the past
  • contributing
  • present
  • satisfied
  • someone who shares and invites other to share
  • an extraordinary human being.
  • a space where love happens
  • a space where negativity disappears
  • free from judgments
  • free from fear of looking bad


People tell you that your life will really start someday, such as when:

  • You graduate from grade school.
  • You get your drivers license.
  • You graduate from high school.
  • You graduate from college.
  • You get married.
  • You have kids.
  • You retire.

This means that life never actually starts. We keep living a “practice” life in preparation for the real thing.

Give up someday. Stop becoming and start being.

We get it now or we don’t get it at all.


Solutions creates new problems. The result is an endless series of problems — a problem-solution mass.

Problems happen. So find a bigger problem — one that is worthy of your attention and action.


You run rackets by complaining constantly about circumstances while receiving a payoff from those circumstances.


To enroll is to create possibility and inspire.

To register is to ask people to make a commitment to act.

The “I have a dream speech” is enrollment.

Asking people to march to Selma is registration.

Enrollment is the heart of transformation.


Give up looking for yourself or trying to find yourself. You won’t find anything. Just declare a possibility and then be that.


Be unreasonable in the sense of going beyond your reasons — your excuses for not getting new results in your life.

Be unreasonable in the sense of producing extraordinary results. Being reasonable leads to smaller results.

Remember that going beyond your reasons does not mean being irrational.

The seven distinctions of an unreasonable and extraordinary human being are:

  • Integrity. Honor your word. Follow rules. Make and keep promises that make a difference. Clean up messes from broken promises and then make new promises.
  • Racket-free. Notice the early warning signs of a racket, such as losing your sense of humor. Give up being right all the time — even when you are. If you are right, then get off it sooner.
  • Powerful. Instead of using force, pressure, begging, or conning, produce new results through straight communication and taking what you get
  • Courageous. Feel fear, acknowledge it, and act on your word anyway.
  • Peaceful. Be centered in the midst of chaos. Deal with what is rather than what “should” be. Give up the interpretation that something is wrong. Be free and unconstrained no matter what life throws at you. Greet criticism or attack with non-resistance.
  • Charismatic. Be present. Be here now. Give up trying to get somewhere.
  • Enrolling. Share possibilities that touch, move, and inspire others.


The truth about sex is that you’re hot when you’re hot — and you’re not when you’re not.

Sex is pure machinery.

Don’t confuse sex with love. Love is unconditional acceptance — not simultaneous orgasm.

Don’t look for love or sex to bring fulfillment. Bring fulfillment to love and sex.


Give up the myth of “someday.”

Transformation happens now — not “someday.”

You don’t create results in order to become happy someday. Rather, you are happy and then you create results.

Procrastination rests on “someday.”


We routinely collapse the distinction between what actually happens and our stories about what happens. The stories are our interpretations of the facts.

For example: Your mother-in-law asks you to not call her “mother.” You make up a story that this means that she doesn’t love you. From then on, your actions are based on this story. You pretend that your story is what actually happened.

Actually, your mother-in-law never rejected you. You just made up a story that she rejected you.

When you forget the distinction between what actually happened and your stories, you become inauthentic. You lose power.

Feelings are a part of what happens, not the story.


Your strong suits are the decisions you made in certain situations:

  • During childhood, you experienced a time when you weren’t good enough, and you decided to be…. (fill in the blank)
  • During adolescence, you experienced a time when you didn’t belong, and you decided to be…. (fill in the blank)
  • As a young adult, you experienced a time when you realized you were on your own, and you decided to be…. (fill in the blank)

These decisions are often random, hasty, irrational, even absurd. Yet they can shape our thinking and action for a lifetime.


Transformation is the genesis of a whole new realm of possibility — not just one possibility.

Transformation is about a new context, not a new set of circumstances.

Creating a new context creates a new view of life and new possibilities for action.

A new context —> new commitments —> new actions —> new results.

A new use of language creates access to transformation. Transformation happens via a conversation that creates a new future in the present.

Transformation happens through Socratic inquiry.

In transformation, you create your life rather than just react.

The purpose of the Forum is for people to transform.

Anyone can be transformed.

Gaining more information or more money or different circumstances is about change — not transformation.


All that will remain of your body-mind after you die is a pile of ashes.

So, live your life as if your life depended on it.

Live powerfully and create a life that you love.

Does Meditation Change Behavior?

In 2008, the Zen Studies Society in New York reeled with a revelation: Eido Shimano, the community’s abbott (head teacher) had sex with various students and other women over a period of 40 years. (See the New York Times article here.)

In 2002, Michael Downing published his classic Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center. It’s a spiritual page-turner—the story of Richard Baker Roshi, a visionary and charismatic abbott who had sex with students and staff members at the Center.

For years, I devoured the books of J. Krishnamurti—only to find that he had a decades-long affair with Rosalind Williams Rajagopal, a married woman. Radha Rajagopal Sloss (Rajagopal’s daughter) reveals the details in Lives in the Shadow with J. Krishnamurti.

I also admired Trungpa Tulku Chogyam Trungpa, author of Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and a major teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. In Stripping the Gurus: Sex, Violence, Abuse and Enlightenment, however, Geoffrey D. Falk makes the case that Trungpa was an alcoholic.

If meditation is such a powerful practice, then how are these stories possible?

Downing credibly estimates that Baker logged over 10,000 hours of sitting meditation. And still Baker violated numerous boundaries.

I’m getting some useful answers from Scott Edelstein’s book, Sex and the Spiritual Teacher: Why It Happens, When It’s a Problem, and What We All Can Do.

For now, I conclude that:

  • Genuine insight, decades of meditation experience, and unethical behavior can coexist in the same person. Students need to be discerning. Don’t put any teacher on a pedestal.
  • There’s more to the spiritual life than meditation. Ethical behavior is not necessarily the fruit of meditation. Rather, it’s a pre-requisite.

Five Handy Slogans for Constructive Living

David K. Reynolds wrote Constructive Living and many other wonderful books. He champions an approach to behavior change and mental health that draws from two Japanese traditions.

One is Morita psychotherapy, which emphasizes the value of accepting our feelings — no matter what they are — and continuing to act in ways that align with our values. This is the active element of Constructive Living.

The second is Naikan reflection, which is based on asking yourself three questions:

  • What have I received from others?
  • What have I given to others?
  • What difficulties have I caused others?

This is the reflective element of Constructive Living.

One cool aspect of Constructive Living is Reynolds’s fondness for aphorisms — slogans that crystallize simple, useful, and profound ideas. Following are five of my favorites.

Have it be the way it is

A variant on this one is: “Things turn out the way they do.” Cars get stuck in snow banks. People get laid off from their jobs. Accidents take place. Why pretend that reality is anything other than what actually happened?

If a problem surfaces, accept it. That is, permit yourself to have it for right now. Then continue to the next slogan.

I’m feeling… . ; what needs doing now?

There’s one aspect of being human that’s profound, easy to verify, and easy to forget: When appropriate, we can separate feelings from actions.

We can feel sad and still do the laundry.

We can feel stage fright and still give a speech.

We can dread doing our taxes and still sort our receipts.

We can feel angry with someone and still listen to what they say.

If we wait to take important actions until we “feel motivated,” then we could end up waiting a long time. Maybe a lifetime.

All I can do is … the next thing and the next thing and the next

“Moment by moment,” writes Reynolds, “reality brings us tasks in just this order.”

Here’s the deal: There is no such thing as multitasking. When people say that they’re multi-tasking, they’re not really doing several things at once. They’re actually doing one thing for a few seconds, then another thing for a few seconds, and then another … ad infinitum.

The problem with this is that rapid switching between tasks imposes cognitive burdens that our poor brain is not designed to bear.

How much better it is — and how much more fun — to do one thing at a time with full attention.

Stick it in your hara

Hara is a Japanese word for your lower abdomen. In certain spiritual traditions, this part of your body is considered the seat of wisdom — not your head. Americans might say that hara is “gut wisdom.”

The suggestion here is to refrain from acting impulsively, especially when your actions could alienate or hurt other people. Let your intention sit in your hara for a while. Act only after your gut wisdom has spoken.

Every moment is fresh

Who among us could bear being held accountable for every mistake we’ve ever made? Our past actions are beyond our control.

All we can do is apologize, make amends — and use the present moment to make a choice that sets a new direction.

Also see:

Remembering the Landmark Forum — Understanding Our Core Issues

In 2005 I attended the Landmark Forum. Can it really be that long ago? Have I changed since then? If so, how? Even though the Forum is not scientific, does it offer useful distinctions?

In this series of posts I dust off my memories and document what still resonates with me. I did not take notes during the sessions. But I did write about the experience afterward in my journal.

NOTE: These are only my personal reflections. Also, my memory is not perfect. And I have no formal connection to Landmark Worldwide.

To distill the essence of any teaching, start with diagnosis. How does it describe our fundamental problems?

The Buddha started with dukkha — often translated as suffering or dissatisfaction. Christians often start with original sin and separation from God.

Taking cues from Gurdjieff and Existentialism, the Forum starts with the fundamental absurdity of our lives:

  • Our whole existence is based on pretense. We fear looking bad in front of other people — and then pretend that we aren’t afraid. We routinely suppress our emotions and hide what we truly think and feel. We get to struggle with our inauthenticity for our whole life, and then we die.
  • We live without integrity — failing to keep our agreements and settling for reasons, rationalizations, and excuses rather than results.
  • We make up irrational stories about events, make decisions on the basis of those stories, and then use them to justify our broken agreements.
  • We try to dominate other people through making them wrong and ourselves right. This comes at the the cost of being in real relationship with them. We’d rather be “right” than be in relationship.
  • We run rackets by complaining constantly about our circumstances — even as we receive payoffs from those circumstances.
  • We are machines. Few of our behaviors are consciously chosen. Our actions are driven by unconscious reactions and stimulus-response conditioning.

Cheery stuff, right? Fortunately, the Forum offers solutions that I highlight in other posts:

Loosening the Grip of Compulsive Behavior — Creating a Space Between Stimulus and Response

Our behavior is driven by unconscious urges. We roll through our days like robots, our actions largely determined by stimulus-response chains.

For example, I see a photo of a large café mocha made with whole milk and dark chocolate, topped with mounds of whipped cream (stimulus).

I feel a desire that starts in my gut and practically makes me drool (response).

The urge to immediately act on that desire — before I even know what’s going on inside me — is strong. If I do give in, the cost is five dollars, 500 calories, and God knows how much saturated fat.

Despite those costs, I give in to the urge and go for the drink.

Or, I’m walking through an intersection and almost get hit by a driver who’s speeding and runs a red light (stimulus).

I retreat to the curb and feel an urge to immediately scream at the driver (response).

Acting on that urge won’t change the driver’s behavior, of course. But it will raise my blood pressure, strain my voice, and infect me with an emotional negativity that lingers for hours.

So much of my life unfolds in this manner. I see the automatic chain of events from stimulus to response. Yet I often fail to act on what I see. I coast through life on a sub-human level, moving through a waking sleep.

No wonder that Gurdjieff described us as “machines among machines.”

Waking up with metacognition

There is another option: To become aware. To live like a conscious human being. To wake up.

The key is putting a space between stimulus and response.

There’s a useful expression of this idea in an interview conducted by Kevin Griffin, author of One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps.

Griffin spoke with the late Alan Marlatt, director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington.

Marlatt developed Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP). This method helps recovering alcoholics and addicts avoid acting on urges to drink alcohol or use other drugs.

The essence of MBRP is metacognition. Marlatt described this as “the ability to stand back, observe what is happening and think about what you are doing rather than being on automatic pilot.”

Creating SOBER space

Marlatt goes on to explain a handy technique for metacognition. He summarizes the steps in this technique with an acronym — SOBER.

Suppose that a recovering alcoholic walks by a bar he used to visit. A thought arises: I could just step inside and see if anyone I know is there.

That thought is a stimulus, triggering a craving for alcohol. And a likely response is falling off the wagon.

The SOBER alternative is to:

  • Stop walking.
  • Observe thoughts and feelings.
  • Breathe with mindful awareness.
  • Expand awareness and visualize the likely result of entering the bar.
  • Respond in a way that sustains recovery—such as walking quickly away from the bar.

This is a simple and practical way to deal with cravings of any type. The essence is to stop, breathe, and cultivate a moment of self-awareness.

That’s all it takes to introduce a sacred space between stimulus and response.

Like the old saying goes: What you are aware of, you can control. What you are not aware of, controls you.