Reacting to criticism and provocation.
Reacting to something I find offensive (especially on the internet).
Reacting to someone who’s publicly trying to one-up me.
One word can sum up all these (re)actions — futile. But there’s another word to sum them up, one that resonates with many people — tempting.
For a long time, I gave into this futile temptation at the drop of a hat. I was an unpredictable-in-a-bad way kind of person. I felt insulted at the slightest snub and kept trying to get back at people. My words and actions were nothing to be proud of. I had no friends.
This negatively impacted my physical and mental health. I didn’t accomplish anything worth mention. I spent so much energy on anger that I had none left to focus on anything constructive. The result was unhappiness, which fueled more anger. Life was a vicious circle.
With deliberate practice, I’ve got better at not giving into this temptation.
As a practitioner of sthita prajna (or stoicism), I’ve learned that I only control my perceptions, actions, and willpower. I strive to emulate people who give their 100 percent to something and then walk away because they believe, “What others think of me is none of my business.” I use my willpower to control my thoughts because those thoughts translate into speech and/or action.
Doing this is easier said than done. Rumination — ruing over events, over what people said, or worrying about the future — is a bad habit which comes naturally to human beings. And like other bad habits, it doesn’t just go away. It must be replaced with a better one.
That better habit is to bring our minds back to the present moment.
Living in the present moment presents many benefits. It increases our self-belief and ability to handle stressful situations. It enables us to respond rather than react. And it makes us happier because we feel more in control of our lives.
A technique that I follow to bring myself to the present moment each time I drift into the past or future or feel tempted to react to what’s outside my locus of control is to ask, “What’s on my to-do list right now?” Maybe I have to plan a campaign for a client. Maybe I have to learn a new skill or improve an existing one. Maybe I have to practice a tune I’m working out on the guitar. Maybe I have to hit the gym. Maybe I have to complete this article.
Once I’ve identified the task, I do it.
Present moment awareness allows emotions to flow through me. It helps me divert my energy on actions where I can make a difference and avoid wasting time on futile ones like responding to internet trolls. It makes me calmer and happier.
But I Don’t Always Succeed.
Like I said, letting go is easier said than done.
On many instances, I feel tempted to respond, even if I don’t actually respond. Although I know its futility, my ego tempts me to react, or imagine how it would feel.
I type comments that I don’t post, write emails and IM’s that I don’t send, overthink the perfect response to someone who “hurt” me, and how their jaws would drop because they would have no answer. It makes me feel good at the moment. But it takes up a lot of mind space. And sometimes, I still revert to the old me and say things that I regret later.
Self- and present-moment awareness is tough. Zig Ziglar equated motivation to taking a shower — something we must do every day. But being self-aware is tougher than taking a shower. You don’t have to be mindful while taking a shower or brushing your teeth. But responding to a situation instead of reacting to it demands conscious, mindful effort.
This is where journaling proves immensely useful. It helps you make sense of the thoughts in your head, clear the cobwebs, and see the direction you’re headed in.
At the end of most days, I mentally run through events and write my takeaways in bullet points. These include lessons learned, instances when I slipped up and how to avoid them, and future action plans.
Some lessons I’ve learned while journaling are:
- If someone agrees to work with you but doesn’t follow through, it’s not rejection. It just means their priorities lie elsewhere.
- You, not anyone else, will decide how you feel at any given time.
- Rather than worrying over whether things will go as planned, think about what you’ll do if they don’t. Always have plans B and C.
You can react each time someone criticizes or challenges you, and stay miserable. Or you can ask yourself, “What’s in my control right now?” and make your inner self stronger.
You can complain about how hard life is and feel “brave” about how you fake-smile to make it through each day. Or you can train yourself to upgrade the quality of your life.
You can spend a lifetime trying to change people and fail. Or you can change (rather evolve) yourself and live a fulfilling life.
In each case, the former is easier but toxic both in the present and the long run. The latter is tougher but fulfilling because it puts you in command of your life. Such a life is within your reach. All you have to do is live in the present moment and let go of what lies outside your locus of control.
What’s on your to-do list right now?