Fear: a millennial perspective

Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level

Ernest Becker

Fear of the passage of time

I recently came across the term chronophobia in the context of people doing exams: knowing that exam day is ever closer makes people anxious. Chronophobia was defined as an experience of unease and anxiety about time, a feeling that events are moving too fast and are thus hard to make sense of, in “Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s” by Pamela Lee.

Chronophobia isn’t a formal diagnosis, neither does it feature in scientific literature. In other words, it’s not really a phobia. It is more of an unpleasant feeling – one that is often expressed in art.

It is common in prison inmates, students in long academic programs and the elderly. When one is anxious, it is not only possible to be anxious about the event, but also its inescapable approach. Chronophobia is less about the doom and more about it being impending.

chronophobia anxiety about passage of time
Salvador Dali: The Persistence of Memory, 1931. The melting clock describes the feeling of chronophobia rather well

Chronophobia appears to be connected with heightened awareness of the passage of time that is inherent in distant deadlines for significant events.

This morning during my 10 minutes of mindfulness, something interesting bubbled up. I randomly remembered myself on an airplane travelling back to Moscow to visit family about 2 years ago. I felt a strong urge to be that person again, a bit like when I’m on vacation and towards the end, with a sigh, I think back to how liberating the first day off felt. Or when I reach the last bite of some dopamine-explosive dessert, I think back to how happy I felt when it was just put in front of me. We all love vacation and desert. However, my wish to be 2 years younger makes little sense. I was in the throes of a challenging 70-80 hours per week medical rota. It took much ingenuity to carve out enough time to travel. Is it regret? It wouldn’t be fair to say that the last 2 years were somehow a waste of time in any regard. Why do I feel so drawn to the thought of going back in time?

fear of the passage of time chronophobia
Salvador Dali: The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, 1954. Dali saw the fish as a symbol of life

Fear of opportunity cost

Aged 27, I frequently contemplate what it would go back to a previous point in time. I think it’s the understanding of the limited nature of time. I also worry about opportunity cost. In economics, there is the term opportunity (alternative) cost is the value of the option that we don’t choose when making a decision. [If I have 1 euro and buy a 1 euro can of Coke, I would have to forego the 1 euro Mars bar in order to have it. I would thus potentially worry about what it would have been like if they got a Mars bar instead.] The feeling is different to decision-anxiety. It’s not even about second guessing one’s choice, but more about imagining alternative paths.

The word decision literally means the cutting off – of other options. Thinking of the alternatives always reminds us of the unyielding nature of choice and how we really can’t literally “have it all”.

Robert Frost’s famous (infamous?) “The Road Not Taken” is a brilliant and often misinterpreted examination of the nature of choice. It is important to recognise the speaker’s deliberation: he says the roads are much the same: “just as fair”, “really about the same”, “equally lay”.

“The Road Not Taken”, a frequent feature of post-card philosophy, is often oversimplified to say that the speaker chose the less travelled road – and, woohoo, that’s amazing. It’s more complex than that.

The speaker admits that he left the first road “for another day”. While he knew he would never go back, the torment of admitting the final nature of choice is just too much. 

One can get very detailed when describing their particular fear. I certainly don’t support the idea of including “fear of opportunity cost”, “fear of the passage of time” or even “fear of choice” as phobias into the DSM. Indeed, this is perfect ground for thinking by induction. Is there a common thread here?

fear of death emotional coping mechanisms
Hans Holbein the Younger: The Ambassadors, 1533. Note the anamorphic skull in the foreground. It surely is a reminder of death

Boiling down fears to a common denominator: could it be death?

Why does chronophobia affect students? Time forces them to deal with events that will affect serious aspects of their lives such as their future careers – and thus even more permanent things like social class, the kind of people they will be likely to marry and so on. Exam results’ effects are by no means definitive, but probabilistically they are significant.

It has become popular to say that there are only 2 human emotions: fear and love.

Everything negative is a form of fear. It kind of makes sense: anger is a way of defending one’s point of view, property or whatever other boundary. Being sad is a fear that one will never be as happy as they were before as a result of an event (not talking about depression here). Disgust is a fear that something will negatively impact one’s existence. You get the gist.

The other popular thought is that all fear is a form of the ultimate fear – of death.

Going back to chronophobia again, why does it affect the elderly? Time threatens the existence of the elderly. It threatens all of our’s existence, but the elderly are more aware of it – mostly for social and cultural reasons. Now, none of us are deluded enough to actually think we’re not going to die. However, as Ernest Becker points out:

we have 2 ideas of the self: the physical and the symbolic.

In my opinion, our rationality only extends as far as the physical self. We are preoccupied with ways to immortalise our symbolic self. As per the “Mahabharata”:

“The most wondrous thing in the world is that although every day innumerable creatures go to the abode of death, still man thinks that he is immortal”.

fear of being insignificant
Salvador Dali: Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937. Dali had an interest in psychiatry

The recent debate that followed my discussion of the role of validation in our self-esteem sparked some follow on thoughts. In short, it showed that people with narcissistic tendencies experience much emptiness or even self-hatred – and validation is used to take the edge off. However, as all creatures who make choices, people with narcissistic tendencies are subject to avoiding pain and seeking pleasure (thank you, Dr. Freud). Clearly, they find narcissism more tolerable that the alternative. How could this be?

What if those who crave validation to feel good about themselves chose to be this way because the alternative – knowing that one is inherently valuable, without any validation – makes the thought of inevitable death absolutely intolerable? If one feels that they’re not that valuable, dying isn’t quite as scary or tragic.

Realising that a person is valuable, getting attached and then letting go is much harder than never getting attached – in this case to your self, as is the case with death. This devaluation allows people to cope with the fear of death. At the same time, the person with narcissistic tendencies maintains the upside of being able to work on “their immortality projects”, like winning medals and getting promotions. This is just a hypothesis of mine. I understand that I have no idea what Steve Jobs was really like. A lot of people say that he was an obnoxious narcissist. He said this, which happens to be congruent with my hypothesis:

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

There are other psychologically sneaky ways that we deal with the fear of death that have stood the test of time (well, since 1974 or so when “Denial of Death” was published):

Becker argues that everything we do: writing books, starting businesses, having children are all ways to transcend – and not have to deal with – death.

It makes sense too: the thought that everything one ever does will disappear into oblivion is so hard to accept that in order to keep going we find ways to defy death’s erasure of our existence by leaving a legacy.

fear of being insignificant

One’s own death is hard to imagine. It is as if we believe we will still be alive on some level after we die, but unable to act on our dreams and stuck reminiscing of the time we were alive and lamenting we didn’t do more.

If leaving a legacy isn’t an option, then one can choose to believe in the afterlife to help themselves cope with the concept death.

Paradoxically, dying may be a way to transcend death. Physical death could be a route to symbolic immortality. Just think of war heroes.

While death could explain a lot of our autopilot behaviour, we don’t seem to want to think about it very often. We are told to think positive thoughts instead.

To think, or not to think – about death

all fear is fear of death
...what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil…

Constant reminders of death were common all throughout the last millennium: having a skull on one’s desk was kind of like having sticky notes or an extra mouse. An experiment where people were asked to write about death before they were asked about their country’s war efforts showed that thinking of death made people more enthusiastic about war -as it adds meaning, purpose, a sense of belonging, a feeling of impact…

The Stoics came up with a variety of reasons and hacks to not fear death such as the symmetry argument: fearing death is like fearing the fact that one wasn’t alive before one was born. I won’t go down the rabbit hole of explaining how to fear death less.

The purpose of my reflection isn’t to say we shouldn’t fear death, and it will all be fine. It is more of an inquiry into what behaviours of ours are motivated by the fundamental, underlying fear, which so far appears to be that of death. However,…

It’s not death we fear, it is not having an impact

Is it really death we fear? I think a better way of putting it is that we fear that we’re inconsequential, insignificant, that we made no difference through our existence.

For those who insist that it is a fear of death: it’s that of the symbolic self. For those who insist that our biggest fear is to not be loved: to have someone love one is probably the biggest impact one can have on another human being. Perhaps, it is the ultimate, or the one that really count. I am not sure. However, my point remains: it is about impact.

It could just be a millennial’s take on it. With a lesser role of traditional religion in today’s society, millennials have the unfulfilled need for meaning – and have a habit of finding it in the most peculiar places.

My recent discussion of meaning according to Nietzsche prompted many to comment that the fact that we die and that the universe will ultimately end (something to do with the Sun and physics) implies that there could be no meaning in our lives. I don’t follow this argument. To me, it is like saying there’s no point in eating because you’ll get hungry again. Clearly though,

for a lot of people death is the ultimate enemy in a game rigged against them.

I used the word impact above for a reason. I could have said consequence or meaning, but something stopped me. Both of those words are overused and call to mind all kinds of associations. Furthermore, I thought of animals. They are driven largely by the same evolutionary forces as we are, and I think we overestimate the extent to which animals are different. They may not have insight, but they are a reflection at least of how nature intended things. To illustrate, I will use an example I recall from watching a BBC documentary on giraffes. Two massive male giraffes were fighting for a female. How on earth do giraffes fight, I hear you ask. Well, they violently swing their entire necks to strike. The force of the swing is enough to shatter their skulls. The battle went on to the point of near death… for the sake of a female. The giraffes decided/were driven by nature to go that far just to reproduce – so death is less important than an opportunity to have impact, which, for giraffes I think is reasonable to assume, is to have progeny.

I don’t think that the fear of not having an impact is the same as the fear of failure. One can fail, but still achieve a lot and have an impact. Failure is defined in terms of a percentage of the way to realising a dream. Impact, or lack thereof, is much more real.

I feel that a human being on their death bed is likely to think of what impact they have had, not where they ranked compared to their dream.

fear of not making a difference
Salvador Dali: The Elephants, 1948. Not quite giraffes, but close enough

On the bright side…

There is a “cure” for fear of choice

Going back to my own ENTP-torment of being more interested in talking about choices rather than actually making them, I am looking for some kind of resolution. N. N. Taleb, a favourite writer of mine, is popularising the concept of optionality. He argues that having options is a great thing:

Optionality is the property of asymmetric upside (preferably unlimited) with correspondingly limited downside (preferably tiny).

It’s not really a way to get out of making choices. Instead, it is a way to do what you were going to do anyway, but leaving cheap enough nets here and there to see if one day something nice washes up in one of them such that covers the cost of having had the nets n times over.

He argues against specialisation (i.e. going down too far in the decision tree of choices or going down to the end of just one branch). We are all familiar with specialisation success stories. The Nobel Prize goes to the person who studied a particular enzyme for 30 years. The startup that solves a specific problem in one particular niche is the one that does well. Kim Kardashian has one thing going for her, and she’s taken over the world…

Taleb reminds us that there are cemeteries of specialised ventures and people. Just because the successes that make into the media are specialised, doesn’t mean all of them are. Specialisation comes from the propensity to make choices. It is not the only way to achieve something. Hence, it is possible that the act of making choices is overvalued.

Richard Branson has over 400 companies. Is it because he is greedy – or perhaps because he understands that specialisation is a dangerous game to play? Venture capitalists and angel investors back things in a non-specialised way. All financial investors do. It may look like it is specialised on the surface, but it really isn’t. Biotech, or robotics, isn’t a specialisation. These are incredibly broad fields. It’s like saying blogging is a specialisation. Investors take directional bets once is a while, i.e. ones that really require a choice, but they do so in a way that for every 1 euro they invest, they stand to gain 10, and only invest a tiny fraction of their euros into these schemes. This is exactly congruent with Taleb’s definition of optionality.

I have fabulously rationalised away the pressure to make choices here. However, the real work is in putting oneself into situations where optionality can be exercised.

The older I get, the more I realise that there’s quite a lot of engineering involved in all of this. It’s not so much about going after specific visions, but creating situations where visions can flourish – and ultimately have an impact.

millennials fear not having an impact
Maybe, the millennial/Gen Y variety of man (and woman) are a bit different…

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The pain of dreaming big

Every commencement speech tells you to dream big. I want to clarify that dreaming big specifically relates to who you become – not what you have. Fantasising about Ferraris doesn’t count. In this model, they are a possible side effect of delivering something valuable to the world.

Dreaming big comes naturally to those who are ambitious, but some people don’t. Why don’t they? Freud is my friend here. Not dreaming big is less painful than dreaming big. Big accomplishments come with increased responsibility, hassle and resentful friends. Nobody likes those things. I think every human being can relate to this. At the same time, convincing yourself that something that is out of reach isn’t worth it has a name. In Ancient Rome, they called it sour grapes. Literally, the expression comes from this: you cannot reach the grapes, so you convince yourself that they are sour – so you don’t have to keep reaching. It’s a form of nihilism: “it’s not worth it anyway.” Personally, I never suffered from this. Grapes are yummy. However, I have another issue.

is it better to dream big or be realistic

Dreaming big focuses on the future. It stretches you. It sets a vision on what should be in your head. However, when you snap out of the big dream – it really hurts. Looking at reality will inevitably cause you to question what is responsible for the discrepancy. This may be another reason that stops people from dreaming big. Furthermore, even if you have the audacity to dream big, feeling bad about yourself in this manner hampers your chances of achieving your dream.

Happiness is most certainly a function of expectations, not reality. In fact, to make it nice and mechanical, let’s (over)simplify: Happiness = reality – expectations.

It is easy to be happy if you have no sense of entitlement. This is a nice way of saying it. It is stoicism in a sentence. Let’s try this: it is easy to be happy if you have low expectations. Hmmm. This calls into question the idea of dreaming big. It seems that reality hurts more when you have big dreams as happiness becomes a negative “number”. While there is technically a difference between a dream and an expectation, but I think for anyone who really believes in their dreams, it is kind of the same thing.

The only solution I can think of is patience. Patience means that you don’t expect is all and expect it now. I recall dreaming of being a doctor. I knew no bigger dream at the time. It didn’t hurt so much when I was 17 and on track – though the dream was still only a dream. It becomes more complex when you are an adult. When you see others who achieve humongous things at an exceptionally young age, when you start comparing yourself to others – your patience seems to die a sudden death. For me, thinking about Mark Zuckerberg or the chap who came up with Snapchat makes me feel like I am already late to the party.

is it better to dream or not

Another bit of common wisdom comes to mind – don’t not compare yourself to others. Is it good advice? Comparing yourself to others is part of understanding reality. I believe that self-awareness and awareness of reality are paramount – hence my interest in mindfulness. So comparing yourself to others it’s at least in part useful. However, it has to be balanced with feeling good about yourself – I don’t think anyone ever achieved anything through hating themselves. In fact, comparing yourself to others could even be pleasant – look at you doing better than some of your classmates. Twisted, but true. Apparently, that’s the same mechanism behind people watching the Kardashians being ridiculous. I don’t know. I’ve never gone there. Looking up to a role model – our fundamental way of learning – is a form of comparing yourself to others, only here you strongly believe that one day you can become a version of this person.

I think it is good advice in the sense that in the long run, you’re only ever fighting against your former self. If you are trending upwards, it doesn’t really matter where you rank in the short term.

Lastly, it is important to get good at dealing with failure. It is my rule that if something hurts too much – a rejection, a failure, whatever – I am taking it personally. The only way to approach this is like a game. A sort of hobby. The moment you begin to take it personally, you lost. There is a temptation, especially among overachievers, to bet their self-esteem on achievements. Bad idea. Just like in negotiating – you should never put yourself in a situation where you can’t walk away from a deal. The way to do that when it comes to expectations is to remember that you are distinct from your mission – no matter how much you love it.

After all, dreaming big is about who you become. Winning is a long game, so big dreams, patience and a good understanding of reality will be required.

Should we avoid losing?

Freud is famous for all kinds of weird reasons. I believe it is more of a reflection on society than it is on Freud. He got some stuff right and some stuff wrong. One of the things that he managed to articulate incredibly well is this simple concept: we are driven by wanting pleasure and avoiding pain. In this simple equation, avoiding pain is much more important. In other words, we will forego pleasure in order to avoid pain. I remember learning that lesson when I was 7: I am sure I’ve done a lot to learn it through my own mistakes, but what got really etched into my brain was my cat’s behaviour. My lovely cat, she was probably about 5 months old then, got on top of the kitchen counter while no one was looking. I may have been an accomplice in her trespassing. She speedily made her way to the divine smelling milk that was getting heated up on the hob. As she put her pus into the pan, she must have burnt herself off the edge of the pot. She jumped right down with a loud meow. She didn’t get seriously hurt. What fascinated me though is that she never went near the hob again. Ever. Even if I put her regular cat food bowl on the switched off cold hob. She would just proudly sit there and wait for me to put it back where it belongs. My cat made a decision – and it was final. Avoiding pain is key.

mindfulness fear of failure losing

If you come to associate something with pain, you will probably fear it to some extent. So the question is: should you be afraid of losing and associate it with pain? On the one hand, it means that you will avoid losing. Is that the bottom line though? Winning isn’t the same as never losing.

I don’t know whether losing in some shape or form is part of the obstacle course. Maybe you can just get through a life of poetry in motion without ever losing. I don’t think I can think of any examples of it though. It is important to remember that the people we think of when we think of success generally have some control of what is put out in the world about them. So we are looking at a highlight reel. However, considering some really famous actors, politicians and business people – it is easy to think of things that were outright flops. Cringy films, awkward public statements, bad investments, a personal life that could be on Jeremy Kyle – it all seems part of everyone’s journey.

As somebody who has a clear sense of agency and whatever control that humans can have over their own lives, I envisage life as a series of option trees. Every time there is a fork in the road – that’s when life is shaped. Moments of choice are what shapes that part of our lives that we can control. However, I have been making the assumption that if I make the right choices, I will never experience losing. Hence, losing equals bad choice – my bad choice. I am starting to question that assumption. 

It is important to take a step back and consider what we call losing. What do we call failure? Is failing simply falling short of our expectations? In that case, for anybody who likes philosophy and mindfulness, it is immediately obvious that losing happens in our heads – not in real life. Expectations are great, but a dose of humility can be a real treat when we get so carried away so as to believe that we are owed our preferences at all times.

Not to sugar coat it – because it is true – but losses now can mean large gains later. While that’s a metaphor for our experience, it is quite literally a description of an investment: debit now for credit later. To continue with the investment analogy what really matters is how you compound it. Does a loss mean new learning and information that adds to your overall game or does it mean debilitating poison that stops you from carrying on? It is clear that the latter option is better. So maybe being afraid of losing in and of itself is damaging. I don’t know for certain that losing is unavoidable. A consultant psychiatrist I used to work with and revere used to use this metaphor: if you want to box, prepare to get punched. 

It’s not easy though, to find a balance. If you focus too much on being OK with losing, you will get too comfortable with low standards. This seems to logically make sense. There’s an interesting analogy I would like to draw. I have discussed the Stoic attitude to death in this article. Essentially, not fearing death is one of the most liberating things that a person can do. This goes against all logic: surely, if you stop fearing death you are more likely to die? Yes and no. It seems that literal life-or-death situations are thankfully exceedingly rare for most people. Unless you actively seek out dangerous situations, you are unlikely to die prematurely because you adopt this belief. However, you are more likely to take small risks – as now, they are framed in this bigger perspective and seem not that huge at all. So could it be that by de-vilifying failure, it is possible to make better decisions rather than worse ones? 

If you focus too much on always winning, losing becomes too scary to deal with. I don’t think it is better to assume that losing is inevitable than to assume it is possible to avoid it. Assuming anything is always risky business though necessary to simplify things. Sometimes we will lose because the timing isn’t right, sometimes it will be completely beyond our control – but we have to keep our eyes on that part of it that is within our control. I think the key is to not think of losing as detracting from your final wins – that are surely ahead of us. Winning is a long game and losing is just a lesson that refines our approach and let’s us know how to do better next time. Failure is a form of constructive criticism or a reflection of conditions beyond our control. Should we be afraid of failure? All in all, I think it is too high a price to pay as it constricts our ability to get to the big wins. Should we avoid losing? I don’t even know if that’s completely necessary. It’s not the actual end result. If you make a P&L statement analogy, high costs don’t mean no profit.

In medical ethics, they often talk about an act of commission and acts of omission. In other words, to act and to not act are equally consequential. In the medical context it is something like this: you cannot euthanise a person by actively injecting potassium chloride in their veins, but you can allow someone to die by choosing to not instigate active treatment (in most parts of the world). In our culture, we have come to see failure as a negative consequence of an act of commission. Doing something outside of what is prescribed is an act of commission, meaning it takes more deliberation and implies more responsibility. It is much more likely to cause strong emotions if it doesn’t go right than ending up with the same result from doing nothing. So what about acts of omission? The definition of failure has to allow for acts of omission. I think failing to invest in something worthwhile or to tell someone you love them is as bad as investing with poor returns or being rejected. However, if we only concentrate on avoiding losing, we are bound to miss out.

Moving from Freud to Frankl, it’s important to consider the meaning of failure. I think the visceral fear of failure comes from the meaning people have been conditioned to attach to failure: you are failing because you aren’t good enough. I mean you may as well take a gun and shoot your sense of self. What is enough? Enough is completely in our heads. Maybe you are failing because you aren’t that good yet. It’s describing the same facts, but the way it makes you feel is completely different. A much better question to ask would be: how can I use this? Looking at failure from more than one angle instead of fixating on a bunch of assumptions is going to help. If you can make use of it, then there’s nothing to be afraid of.

Our brains are somehow wired to move towards the thing we think about the most. Those who survive car accidents tell how they could only think about the thing that they crashed into – rather than thinking of the gap that they may have been able to drive through safely. Budgeting for the downside is good, but once a decision is made, it has to be a fleeting thought at the back of your mind. You can’t focus on avoiding failure and expect success. Even in those forms of financial investments where avoiding losses is the foundation of all success, the game is to put yourself in situations where losses are least likely – rather than trying to predict them, e.g. in trading. In venture capital, it’s the opposite – you only need one smashing success. While we can’t be completely unaware of our surroundings, the focus has to simply be on winning.

I think it is time to start letting go of the fear of losing because that way we’re risking missing out on something really great. Losing requires humility to accept our own mistakes non-judgementally and use them. Only this way, we have a chance of winning in the long term.

Mindfulness and fear of failure

What is dealing with losing like for people? I am not talking about dealing with rejection. When other people are involved – that’s different. Losing, failure. This kind of thing.

I think the practice of mindfulness has taught me something really valuable on this front: we shouldn’t be quick to judge. In reality, calling something a success or a failure is quite closed-minded. It was easy back in school and college: if you get an A you’ve won, anything else – you’ve lost. If you score a goal, you’ve won – and so on. It’s not that clear cut in academics and sport in the medium term, and it certainly isn’t clear cut in life – because its a long game. I won’t really know what was a success and what was a failure until I am on my deathbed.

fear of failure mindfulness

Looking back, things that seemed like overwhelming successes in the past lead me down pathways I soon abandoned. Being the best at something, winning competitions – the conventional definition of success – often leads to a tree of really tough choices and pressure of other people’s expectations. Success brings it’s own set of challenges, hence it is difficult to sustain it.

On the other hand, what seemed like giving into my weaknesses turned out to be huge wins. Giving up on relationships – huge relationships that really mattered in my life – at the time it seemed like shameful quitting, like a black mark that I could never wash away – yet I am liberated by my choices everyday. Getting invested into other relationships without knowing where it is going, uncovering my vulnerabilities – that felt like it could only end it tears, but in reality it turned out to be the biggest gift. Career pivots felt like controlled failure. Nasty people judge you, and nice people pity you. Of course, knowing what you want makes it all irrelevant, but nobody likes to feel that lonely.

The other things that matters when thinking about fear of failure is what do we actually fear? Who is the toughest judge? The career pivots were experiences in my life when other people felt I was failing whereas I knew I wasn’t. That taught me something: I fear not trying more than I fear letting irrelevant people down. I think a lot of people worry about letting people they care about down: their family and significant others. We make this erroneous assumption that we can make other people happy without doing what’s right for ourselves in the long run. 

Martyrdom is a hiding place. Hiding from judgement; hiding from the accountability that going after our dreams brings. It’s a way to blame others for not doing what’s really hard. The most ironic thing is that it will probably come as no surprise to the people we are trying to please that we’re not happy, but they will never even suspect the weight and severity that we assigned to their opinion. There’s nothing malicious in this. In fact, the harm is done by ourselves: assuming that the people who are meant to care about us simply won’t understand. There’s a way to present our troubles in a way that is open and vulnerable rather than an acid test. Chances are that the people who care will come around to see our reasons.

Mindfulness is the best way to uncover our assumptions, that’s why I love it so much. No amount of reading or soul-searching will help to understand what’s going on inside unless we practice. Reflection to mindfulness is like stretching is to exercise. They go incredibly well together, but let’s not skimp on our practice either.

The overflowing cup

I heard this Asian parable today. A student wanted to learn from a master. He already considered himself a good student and quite intelligent. The master sat him down for tea. The master started pouring him tea. He filled the cup, but did not stop. The tea was spilling and running down the students legs. Eventually, baffled, the students exclaimed – what are you doing?! The master explained: you cannot fill a cup if it already full.


Asian culture is so interesting. Modern day Asia and the US value achievement. Modern day Europe and history book Asia value savouring and contemplation. The culture of letting go that is so central to the teachings of Asian religions and meditative practices seems counter-intuitive at first. Will you learn if you let go? Are you giving up? What is the difference between letting go and giving up?

It’s not like we are as finite as a cup. However, the most accessed memories are references are probably quite a small portion of everything we know. I think that above all it is letting go of stuff that’s not relevant any more. There’s learning and then there’s going around in filtered – not tinted – filtered glasses. Past experiences create distorting filters that add meanings to things that aren’t necessarily there. Staying in touch with reality is our biggest job. It is the one thing that allows people to figure out how to make their dreams come true: you need to always be aware of the ever-changing direction of the wind so that you can adjust the sails in order to get to where you need to be. You also need have a map, however. You need to learn to predict the weather – as much as it is possible.

The trick is to constantly reassess what should be in your cup. Beliefs shouldn’t just be formed by your own experiences, but constantly change with incoming information. An awareness of outside data is important, but an awareness of your own internal software is equally as important – that’s what mindfulness is for. It’s not just garbage in – garbage out. It is good data in – garbage out if the software is garbage. Every day is an iteration in testing both perception and our inner workings.