How to Become a Genius in Life (or: “Life Isn’t Hard Because You’re Doing It Wrong, Life Is Just Hard”)


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Life isn’t easy.

We want it to be. We wish that it were.

But it’s not.

Life is fundamentally not easy.  Life is hard.

But look around and listen to people, listen to ourselves, listen to what we say to ourselves in the privacy of our inner monologues—listen as we complain, as we bitch, as we whine, as we grumble and act cranky. And even though on the surface the object of our complaining, bitching, whining, crankiness, grumbliness may seem different, beneath it all resides the same assumption—that life is supposed to be easy. We feel justified in acting bitchy, grumpy, cranky, ornery, like a jerk, because deep down we think—wish, hope, believe, hold, assume—that life is supposed to be easy. One big gravy train. And somehow right now, at this moment when we’re being bitchy or acting like a hothead, life is somehow treating us unfairly, singling us out for no good reason and giving us a raw deal. Our kids are being difficult. Our job is too difficult (or tedious). Our clients are being difficult. The other drivers on the freeway are being difficult. Our partner or spouse is being difficult. Trying to understand him or her is too difficult. And so on.

“If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire, then you got a problem. Everything else is inconvenience.” – Robert Fulghum

And our greatest desire is to make it all go away—all, meaning the difficulty of it. When people say they can’t take “it” any more, the “it” to which they are referring isn’t life but the difficult nature of their lives—the poverty, loneliness, unhappiness, depression, anxiety, fear, and so on.

What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” – George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans)

But “it”—whatever the “it”—is difficult. Loneliness is difficult. Loss is difficult. Losing a job is difficult. Wrestling with our own mortality is difficult. Trying to be our best is difficult. Emotions are difficult. Relationships are difficult. Wrestling with our demons and not so savory tendencies is difficult. Chemotherapy is difficult. Rehab—rehabbing an injury or from an addiction—is difficult.

But that’s life.

Life is suffering,” said the Buddha. “Life is dukkha.”

Life is difficult,” wrote both Rilke and M. Scott Peck.

Love is difficult,” wrote Rilke.

Life isn’t pleasure, it’s constant struggle driven by relentless tension,” said Richard Rose.

Life is complex. . . . There are no easy answers,” wrote M. Scott Peck.

And yet as evident by the vast majority of our complaints we spend much of our time trying to live diametrically opposed to this truth—the truth that life is difficult.

We bitch and we whine and we lash out and we complain—and more importantly, we feel justified in doing so—because we think life is supposed to be easier than it is, simpler than it is, a lot less messier than it is, more pleasurable and fun than it is.

And when it’s not we get indignant about it, we mumble and grumble—or worse—about it.

For example, we get grumpy and self-righteous and indignant with elderly people—if not directly, then indirectly—who dare tell us (how dare they!) to relish our time with our children and enjoy it because this too will pass. And we get grumpy and indignant not because of what they’re saying to us but because fundamentally we’re living at odds with the fact that life IS difficult. We’re living in denial. If we actually knew life was difficult, then we’d be much more likely not to sweat so many things and not lose our cool so often and so easily. But because we think life is supposed to be easier than it is, because we’re living in denial, we think we are in the right and that it’s appropriate to bitch and complain about anyone who won’t sympathize with our plight whenever we’re feeling moody and give us a consoling there-there pat on the shoulder whenever we’re having a rough go of it with the kids, et cetera. We act as if our hardships and difficulties are unique and unprecedented on all the earth and thus our complaints—and our bitchiness and grumpiness—are entirely justified and appropriate. We think no parent has ever had so tough a go of it as we are having right now with our kids running amuck in the living room or in the aisles of Target or WalMart. How dare someone suggest that there might be a better way of looking at things!? How dare someone butt into our lives and tell us to enjoy these moments of parenthood because it all goes so fast!? That’s exactly what we want—for it—and this moment in particular—to go fast, to go much faster, for us to be able to go elsewhere, a place where life is easier, where we can sit down and rest and enjoy a little peace and quiet and a glass of red wine and something funny on the television, et cetera.

Easy, easy, easy. That’s our heart’s deepest desire—wishing things were easier, wishing that life wasn’t so (as in sooooo) difficult.

It’s been remarked (fairly often) that for we humans, one of the biggest pains (or difficulties) we have to deal with is the pain (or difficulty) of a new idea. And the idea that life actually is fundamentally, inescapably, and unavoidably difficult is at some point in each of our lives both a new and a painful idea. It comes as a quite a shock to us that perhaps life isn’t supposed to be that easy.

So what do we tend to do with this new and disturbing idea? What are we who have been raised and groomed on the assumption that life is supposed to be easy and that it can almost always be made easier to do with this idea that perhaps life actually is quite difficult?

Do we accept the idea with grace and equanimity? In other words, do we accept it easily?

Of course not.

If life is difficult and if accepting a new and potentially disturbing new idea or paradigm (way of looking at things) is difficult, why should accepting it and living in congruence with it be easy? Obviously acceptance too should be difficult—something quite difficult.

“Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.” – John Kenneth Galbraith, “Economics, Peace and Laughter” (1971), p. 50.

Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and accepting that life is difficult, versus proving that life is not difficult, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.

And for the vast majority of us that attempt at proof goes no further than our daily litany of complaints, laments, “why me?” moments, and frequent “ugh!” and “arrghh” and other much less civil not to mention much less printable yet sometimes quite colorful expressions and outbursts.

Life is difficult. And so is learning not to whine so much about it and become impatient and overheated—that too is difficult. It’s easier to live in denial and bitch and complain and vent and lose perspective and forget (deny) that life is difficult and messy and oftentimes requires a lot of effort and work and sacrifice and grit. Accepting that life is difficult—and learning (developing the self-control and perspective) not to whine and bitch and complain and take out our foul moods and weak-mindedness (ultimately that’s what it is, after all) on others—is not easy; it’s difficult—very difficult.

But—but—once we accept—actually, once we begin accepting more and more (because more often than not acceptance is not some grand pie in the sky moment, but a bit by bit, inch by inch, turf war) that life actually is difficult, once this becomes our mantra, once this becomes what we more and more tell ourselves or realize when our children or our partner or life is stressing us out, the paradox is that life becomes a bit less difficult. (Because we’re no longer making things even more difficult for ourselves than they already are through how we react to life.)

If our first thought in the morning was “Life is difficult. I’m ready for another difficult day. I want to rise to the challenge of my life and do my best and be my best. I wonder what difficulties and challenges I will be presented with today. I wonder what opportunities for bettering myself and others I will find or create amidst these difficulties?” that would set our hearts and minds in the right direction.

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” – Viktor E. Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning

But this way of thinking is likely the farthest thing from most of our hearts and minds first thing in the morning.

More likely we’re unconsciously hoping for an easy fun day.

Yet if we can begin by at least considering the idea that perhaps life isn’t supposed to be easy— and that if it were, we would never become who we’re supposed to be because we would never have cause to get stronger or wiser, and instead we would atrophy, soften, and become spoiled—if we can begin considering this and keeping this a bit more in mind, then perhaps life might paradoxically become a bit easier for us.

And not only might life become a bit easier the more we extend this realization and acceptance into different facets of our lives and live increasingly in alignment with it, life also might become proportionally a bit more joyful and wonderful. Because instead of our minds being bogged down so often bitching and complaining and wishing that life were easier, we would free up more space in our minds so we might actually enjoy (or embrace) life and some of its messiness and unease a bit more.

It’s a lot like that Seinfeld episode where George decides to be celibate for while his girlfriend (Louise) who has mono recuperates. . . .

[At Jerry’s apartment, George is sitting on couch, watching Jeopardy and playing with a Rubik’s cube while Jerry is talking to him.]

GEORGE: What is Tungsten or Wolfram?

ALEX TREBEK: We were looking for ‘What is Tungsten, or Wolfram’.

JERRY: Is this a repeat?

GEORGE: No, no, no. it’s just lately I’ve been thinking a lot clearer. Like this afternoon, (To television, “Jeopardy” is on) what is chicken Kiev, (Back to Jerry) I really enjoyed watching a documentary with Louise.

JERRY: Louise! That’s what’s doin’ it. You’re no longer pre-occupied with sex, so your mind is able to focus.

GEORGE: You think?

JERRY: Yeah. I mean, let’s say this is your brain. (Holds lettuce head) Okay, from what I know about you, your brain consists of two parts: the intellect, represented here (Pulls off tiny piece of lettuce), and the part obsessed with sex. (Shows whole lettuce head) Now granted, you have extracted an astonishing amount from this little scrap. But with no-sex-Louise, this previously useless lump, is now functioning for the first time in its existence. (Eats tiny piece of lettuce)

GEORGE: Oh my God. I just remembered where I left my retainer in second grade. I’ll see ya. (He throws finished Rubik’s cube to Jerry and he exits. Kramer enters)

So too it is with us. The space between our ears is for rent. And most of us unknowingly rent it out most of the time to what amounts to the lowest bidder—the path of least resistance, that part of us that wants life to be easy and simple and complains vocally whenever it isn’t. We live in an increasingly easier era where more and more things are being made easier, more convenient, more fun, et cetera. More and more of us are searching out ways to lose weight easier, to have more efficient and easier work-outs that will yield maximum results, to be able to eat more and more gluttonous sweet and or fatty foods without the consequences to our bodies.

So many of the things we take for granted—plumbing, refrigeration, microwaveable foods, drive-thrus, automobiles—were things that were unknown and even unimaginable to previous generations

And the dark side of it is that not only has all of this convenience and ease and abundance made life easier for us, but it likely has made us softer—another difficult idea to consider and accept.

“Wherever you look about you, in literature and in life, you see the celebrated names . . . the many benefactors of the age who know how to benefit mankind by making life easier and easier, some by railway, others by omnibuses and steamboats, others by telegraph, others by easily apprehended compendiums and short recitals of everything worth knowing, and finally the true benefactors of the age who by virtue of thought make spiritual existence systematically easier and easier. . . . You must do something, but inasmuch as with your limited capacities it will be impossible to make anything easier than it has become, you must with the same humanitarian enthusiasm as others, undertake to make something harder. . . . When all combine in every way to make everything easier and easier, there remains only one possible danger, namely, that the easiness might become . . . too great.” – Soren Kierkegaard, in “A Kierkegaard Anthology,” ed. Robert Bretall, pg. 194.

Yet as we begin to more and more accept that fundamentally life is not easy, things begin to shift inside for us. Instead of the part of our mind that is grateful, kind, loving, and that finds joy in life being relegated to a few tiny slivers of lettuce while the rest of the head is obsessed with assuming life to be easy and trying to make things less stressful and then spinning out and complaining whenever they aren’t, things begin to shift, the balance of power begins to shift within us. We begin to find our sanity. Life isn’t easy. We’ve been to see that we’ve been duped; we’ve been lied to; life was never supposed to be easy or simple or uncomplicated. And so the assumption that life ought to be easy no longer runs the show, is no longer our fundamental operating assumption and guiding thought. Instead more and more parts of our brain (more and more pieces of lettuce) are freed up to begin more deeply appreciating more of the little things in life that we’ve been missing and overlooking for so long because we’ve been mistakenly assuming that life was supposed to be easy!

Life is difficult. Write this a thousand times. Try repeating this to yourself a thousand times a day. Make this your new ground zero. Say it to yourself whenever the kids are trying your patience or your partner is getting on your last nerve. Life is difficult. Or “this too shall pass.”

In doing so—in realizing that life is difficult—it frees our minds up for more kairos (or vertical or soulful) moments of appreciation and wonder and gratitude.

The more we live expecting life to be easier than it is, the more we will miss these potential moments of real peace and perspective and grace.

“There is no doubt that the most radical division that it is possible to make of humanity is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be at every moment what they already are, without imposing upon themselves any efforts towards perfection—mere buoys that float on the waves. . . . The decisive matter is whether we attach [to] our life . . . a maximum or minimum of demands upon ourselves.” – Jose Ortega y Gasset, “The Revolt of the Masses,” pg. 15.

Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than its difficulty, so that, when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. Asceticism of this sort is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods. The tax does him no good at the time, and possibly may never bring him a return. But, if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin. So with the man who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast.”– William James, “The Principles of Psychology,” Chapter 4, “Habit,” pg. 126.

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Why Do We Think the Way We Think?


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Often, most of our serious “thinking” ends up being little more than an attempt to justify our current unthought-out conclusions and prejudgments.

Most of the time we already know where we want our thinking to take us—the conclusion we want to arrive at. And so our “thinking” merely falls in line with that preordained conclusion. —”The execution is over, all that’s left is the trial.”

So too it is with our own thinking most of the time: the conclusion is foregone, all that’s left are the rationalizations (rational lies) and lapses in logic that will get us there.

“People mistakenly assume that their thinking is done by their head; it is actually done by the heart which first dictates the conclusion, then commands the head to provide the reasoning that will defend it.” – Anthony de Mello

Defend it? Or pseudo-defend it and make our conclusion sound at least plausible and defensible?

And is this dictated by the heart? Maybe. Or maybe the ego. Or maybe these two things are closely related.

One way of looking at the ego is that it is armor, a protective shell that we use to cover over our heart and our sensitive raw and tender spots and emotional nerve endings. Meaning that it is largely a collection of defensive habits and tendencies that we employ unconsciously, automatically, reflexively, out of fear of getting hurt or having to feel or experience a past hurt again.

Thus I would render de Mello’s quote this way—

People mistakenly assume that their thinking is done by their head; it is actually done by their ego (their self-protective reality-denying apparatus) which first dictates which conclusion it thinks is most convenient and easiest to tolerate and least unsightly emotionally, and then commands the head to provide the reasoning that will defend it.

And much of our thinking occurs at this level—the level of ego or prejudice or emotion. It is emotional thinking, blatantly biased towards ourselves and towards justifying and defending our fears instead of forcing us to face them. —Which for us would represent a fate worse than death—or at least on par with it, because in many ways it is a form of death. Whenever we face something that truly frightens us and might possibly overwhelm us—whenever we force or coax ourselves to face and actually feel a deep-seated fear or terror—we are forcing ourselves (or some part of ourselves) to in some way die—we are forcing ourselves to die to what we know and what we are clinging to as safe and familiar and open up to something different—to what lies on the other side of that particular wall or barrier. Facing what frightens us or what might potentially overwhelm us or cause us a “nervous breakdown” psychologically is in many ways like facing our own execution or extinction.

“Let death—and let banishment, rejection, misfortune, and every other thing that appears appalling and terrifying and that you’d rather ignore—be before your eyes daily, but most of all death, and you will never again think anything petty or cowardly or mean, nor will you ever desire anything discursive or extravagant again.” – Epictetus

What does man want?—A quiet life or to truly work on himself? If he wants a quiet life he must never move out of his comfort zones, because there, in his usual roles, with his usual repertoire, he feels comfortable and in control, at peace. But if he wants to work on himself—if he truly wants to awaken—then he must destroy this sort of peace. Because to have both together—comfort and truth—is in no way possible. A person must make a choice.” – Gurdjieff, paraphrased from P.D. Ouspensky’s “In Search of the Miraculous,” pg. 240.

“Human beings are attached to everything in this life; attached to their imagination, attached to their thinking, attached to their patterns, attached to their stupidity, attached to their fears, attached even to their own suffering—and possibly to their own suffering more than anything else. A person must first free himself from attachment. Attachment to things, identification with things, keeps alive a thousand false I’s in a person. These I’s must die in order that the big I may be born. But how can they be made to die? They do not want to die.” Gurdjieff, quoted in P. D. Ouspensky’s “In Search of the Miraculous,” pg. 218.

And it’s not that that fear is a part of us or something we’re attached to, it’s just that the fear is so great, so daunting, that we’ll do anything to avoid having to face it. We want to stay in control—in control, meaning, not having to face our fear. That “in control” apparatus—mostly if not completely defensive, avoidant, controlling, not to mention deceptive and often unscrupulous and manipulative and irrational and unobjective in its logic—is the ego. And it’s what drives our thinking most of the time, and especially when we get stressed.

“Thinking is what a great many people think they are doing when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” – William James

Or justifying them.  Thinking is what a great many people think they are doing when they are merely trying to avoid dealing legitimately and honestly with their fears. 

Most of our thinking is defensive, self-protective, avoidant, and narcissistic. Most of the time when we think, we don’t so much think as we do justify our own prejudices and immaturities and patterned ways of facing our fears honestly. When we think we do so in order to justify our preset conclusions and underlying need/want of validation, safety, security, and the path of least resistance and least emotional upset and pain. And we’ll never be at a loss for finding and creating and developing arguments to support our prejudices/avoidant tendencies when we’re in this mode (or when our thinking is at this level).

So what’s the solution or alternative to having one’s thinking being driven by one’s ego or one’s false-/comfort-zone- self?

The overall solution is to learn how to think with one’s conscience (what’s best and healthiest and most sane and honest in oneself) and to let one’s conscience guide and or inform one’s thinking.

Which requires above all that we learn how to become (much) more objective and aware of and honest about our own thinking.

But this likely will not happen until we can slow down and look at our own thoughts and thinking from a different angle or from a less self-certain and in a more suspicious and skeptical light. Until we can take one of our own most cherished pet theories/conclusions/biases and play devil’s advocate—or what is more likely, God’s advocate—with it, meaning fight as fiercely to disprove our pet theory (or at least consider fiarly and honestly that the point of our line of reasoning may be to support what’s weakest and wounded and most avoidant and even pathological in us), we haven’t yet begun to actually think. We’re still just reasoning emotionally and immaturely, defensively and dishonestly.

I could not think without writing.” – Jean Piaget

I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” – Flannery O’Connor

Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills.”
– Czeslaw Milosz, from the poem “Love”

And the root of the majority of these “various ills” is our basic narcissism or egocentricism. And learning how to think objectively—learning how to step outside of ourselves, put some emotional distance between ourselves and our pet conclusions, learning to be not be so attached to the conclusion we want to reach or feel that we need to reach, but being more willing to reach a conclusion that is truer and more encompassing and actual—is what will free us from various ills. It’s thinking honestly and playing devils advocate with our own thoughts that will free us from various ills.  It may not feel at first like it is going to free us; at first being honest with ourselves and facing ourselves and our fear may feel rather terrifying and unsettling—we’re going to see all sorts of things we’d rather not see and face and feel—but—but—if we have the courage and grit and determination to stick with it—to stick with the truth and to stay honest and open and dedicated to reality—then the truth will set us free.  Not only that, it will become a source of genuine strength for us.

Writing is one of the best ways to start this process. It’s the first step in putting some actual tangible distance between ourselves and our thoughts. When we write or journal, when we put pen or pencil to paper or fingers to keyboard, we literally are getting outside of our own head. We are externalizing our own thoughts.

And when we put our thoughts in writing or on a computer screen, we can then start to think about our own thinking and examine it and critique it and do so differently—we can look at it as something no longer inside us but now outside us, an object. We can literally place it alongside other people’s thinking.

A few additional keys to thinking better and more clearly (in addition to writing) would include:

1. Learning about “projection”— reversing the situation and trying our judgments or criticisms of other on ourselves first for size;

2. Reality-testing the way we’re possibly justifying or rationalizing (rational lies) one of our courses of actions by seeing if the situation were reversed would we want what we’re doing to another done unto us, or what we’re not doing to another not done unto us—if we wouldn’t want it done or not done unto us, then we’re not thinking fairly and maturely, but unfairly and immaturely, we’re actually doing something that is likely wrong, if not evil;

3. Paying attention to our choice of words and look for unwarranted or nonfactual all or nothing, black or white, throwing the baby out with the bath water thinking. And also pay attention to our use of words and phrases such as “need to,” “have to,” “can’t,” et cetera.

4. Learning to identify when we’re stressed and or anxious and afraid, and learn to be more suspicious of our thinking during those times. The greater the stress, the more defensive and less true and less rational our thinking and the more prone it is to being hijacked by our amygdala.