Stillness: The Key to Success

For the sake of examining both sides of the coin, this post is meant to be complimentary to one I published previously, advocating for action-taking.

Here I am championing non-action and introspection. Both have their place in the life of a balanced, centered individual. The key is to be a go-getter, but also pick and choose your battles. To achieve this, tranquility and reflection are paramount.

Interoception is defined as ‘the sense of the internal state of the body.’ While introspection in concerned with taking stock of the qualities of the mind and emotional state, these two processes are far from mutually-exclusive.

On the contrary, they very much go hand-in-hand. By evaluating with the mind our internal physical state and the movement and feelings of our physiology, we improve our awareness—of our external environment as well as the internal.

The soul and the heart-mind and it’s processes are one, and you can be content with just being after practice focusing your intention to your anima (internal world).

Staying grounded in both the physical and mental sense brings your attention to the body (body awareness) and the present moment (breath awareness), respectively. We can thus tap into our ‘internal pilot light’ or intuitive intelligence, and allow it to guide us on what we should or shouldn’t do.

This is the foundational principle behind the Taoist concept of ‘wu wei.’

Wu Wei

When your body is not aligned [形不正],
The inner power will not come.
When you are not tranquil within [中不靜],
Your mind will not be well ordered.
Align your body, assist the inner power [正形攝德],
Then it will gradually come on its own.

Guanzi, Original Tao: Inward Training (Nei-yeh) and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism

Wu wei is loosely translated as ‘effortless action’ or ‘not forcing’. It is essentially non-attachment and non-resistance. The goal of wu wei is to effectively move smoothly with spontaneity and intelligence. 

In this state, you don’t push back against obstacles, and instead act as a key gently trying to open a door. Meaning you may absorb the pressure of an obstacle, but because you don’t resist it, you overcome it without forcing the outcome.

The concept can also be likened to a boulder in a river. Instead of moving against a current, or floating with it, the rock just is.

“When there is no interference from the over-analytical cold cognition system of the mind, you express the spontaneity of human nature intelligently. Intelligent spontaneity, then, is a fully-embodied mental state where one is perfectly calibrated to the environment.”

Wu wei means being at peace while engaged in the most frenetic tasks, so one can carry these out with maximum skill and efficiency.

Eastern Philosophy: Wu Wei

The Dangers of a Productivity Mindset

As alluded to briefly in the previous post, there can be many pitfalls with the en vogue ‘productivity mindset’ or ‘hustle culture.’

One of the biggest is that by setting out to be ‘productive’ you can easily decrease immersion in a particular activity. Preoccupation with productivity or other things you need to do will counteract your ability to engage in wu wei or simply be present, and thus you will require more time to reach proficiency as a result.

Deliberation or intent in your actions is a great way to not expend energy beyond what is required. In both skill-building and generalized learning, being mindful of the task at hand improves attention span and stamina, since you are not divesting energy to other thoughts or actions.

Additionally, it will improve your retention of memory or motor function regarding that particular activity.

The other drawback of focusing solely on ‘hustle’ or being productive is that it creates internal friction, activating the monkey mind. It can become difficult to focus on what you set out to do, or you may be liable to lose sight of your goal altogether, as I mentioned in the proceeding post happened to me.

One example of this from my life occurred when I was still working in an office. I would play DJ mixes recently-posted on Soundcloud as I worked, mainly as a way to discover new music for my DJ repertoire, but also to achieve playback for a long timespan without having to cue a new track or skip between commercial breaks.

Somewhere along the way I lost sight of the forest for the trees. I became primarily concerned with organizing and cuing the mixes over finding the most moving tracks themselves, and letting them stick.

I got bogged down with cataloging mixes and the tracks I found within them, adding them to my wantlist on Discogs (an online vinyl record database and marketplace) but never really coming back to listen to or appreciate the tracks—which is what I set out to do in the first place.

It shouldn’t be about ‘hacking’ a skill to master it in the shortest amount of time. Rather, your focus should be on enjoying the activity, being present and thus creating the highest level of immersion in it possible by reduction friction. In this way, we progress more rapidly when developing skills or reaching goals.

One proven method to reduce friction from external distraction and improve your concentration and enjoyment of a task or activity is through the use of intermittent reward schedules.

Intermittent Reward Scheduling

This technique for controlling stimuli and the release of the hormone/neurotransmitter dopamine revolves around the concept of ‘dopamine reward prediction error.’ For those unfamiliar, dopamine is an externally-focused “molecule of more”—of seeking, motivation and reward. It also is a precursor to adrenaline.

The dopamine reward prediction error occurs when an actual reward from engaging with something is less or more than the perceived reward was.

One practical example of this is finding $60 in your wallet when you thought there was $40, resulting in a pleasant surprise and an increased release of dopamine.

However, it also can work in the opposite manner, in which the reward we actually received was less pleasurable than what we perceived it would be.

When we expect something to happen, we are extremely motivated to pursue it. And if it does occur or we get the desired result, we are more likely to engage in that behavior again.

‘Intermittent reward scheduling’ leverages this theory by delivering dopamine intermittently and at random (or at least perceived to be random by you mind). When this occurs, we are again likely to continue the behavior, especially if the increase in dopamine was more than we perceived it would be.

This is the foundation on which ‘the house’ of casinos is built, and how they keep you coming back and make their money.

We can employ this concept to better engage with an activity and enjoy it more. As a result, we will feel more fulfilled and appreciate that thing that much more. The key to this is to not expect or chase a high level of dopamine release every time we engage in an activity.

For example, say someone is undertaking a somewhat unfavorable task. Often, to make the activity more appealing or palatable, the individual will engage with other dopamine triggers—think listening to music or watching a sitcom while working out.

This person, most likely unbeknownst to them, is increasing the number of conditions required to attain the same level of pleasure from that activity during subsequent attempts.

This phenomenon also translates to pastimes one enjoys. The more stimulation you brought into the mix, the more you will need to achieve the same level of satisfaction the next time.

Personally, when I have the insight that I need a given something in order to undertake a task or engage in an activity – or that activity has just become ingrained as part of a routine – is about the time I decide I need for a break from that something.

Or when I catch myself fantasizing about it. For example, watching every single Minnesota Wild game over the course of an 82-game season. When that night’s game is all I would think about and look forward to throughout the day, I realized it was time for a break.

The ‘random’ element of the intermittent reward schedule is the most critical to achieving intermittency. Your mind cannot be privy to when and how much dopamine will be released while partaking in an activity.

One way to make it random is to flip a coin to determine if you’ll be including the secondary stimuli as part of the routine. For example, flip a coin to determine if you will listen to music during a workout or not.

Another thing you can do is to just remove that secondary stimuli as soon as you have the recognition that it has become engrained as a necessary condition as part of the routine along with the primary activity, like in my case.

Though this latter route doesn’t technically work at random, it is still intermittent in the sense it was not premeditated that you would remove the condition prior to having the insight that it had become ingrained.

However, with this technique, you also must have no determined time for when you will add that element back into the mix, otherwise you defeat the purpose—it makes the schedule predictable, rather than random, though still considered intermittent.

For example, if you tell yourself you’re not going to have a bowl of popcorn with your favorite sitcom this evening, but your mind is under the assumption you will resume your favorite post-dinner snack the next night, your just delaying the reward, and likely making your cravings for it and the bond between it and you that thing much stronger.

Cutting out these external, perceived pleasure-providing elements, will help you appreciate the present moment and what you are engaging with more, and aid you in become in tune with your internal spontaneous intelligence.

Conclusion

By focusing our awareness on our internal world, rather than external motivations and stimuli, we are able to better tap into our intuition. And when we have this ability, we will know what to do or not do in the moment by just listening to it.

The anima is an intelligent system—it knows what is best for us, and can nudge us in the right direction. We simply need to quiet the (often ir)rationale psyche in order to hear it.

– CC

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