Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Only Thoughts and Actions Can be Controlled, Not Outcomes

"For the uncontrolled there is no wisdom, nor for the uncontrolled is there the power of concentration; and for him without concentration there is no peace. And for the unpeaceful, how can there be happiness?"--passage from the Bhagavad Gita, as quoted in Jerzy Kosinski's Steps

"The man who is secure within himself has no need to prove anything with force, so he can walk away from a fight with dignity and pride. He is the true martial artist--a man so strong inside that he has no need to demonstrate his power."--Ed Parker

I have always had a strong feeling about the importance of doing things the right way and I have always been greatly bothered by any situation in which things are not done the right way (or what I perceive to be the right way) but there can be a negative result from being so focused on trying to fix every perceived injustice: "Too much [yetzer hatov] leads to premature saintliness. If one is overly righteous, one is likely to become suicidal."

Almost every person in my life has disappointed me to some extent but I am the person who has disappointed myself the most--and after some deep reflection about various situations I now realize the reason for all of this disappointment is very clear: heightened, unrealistic expectations about life and a desire for perfection inevitably lead to self-inflicted suffering.

In his monograph Life Was Never Meant to Be a Struggle, Stuart Wilde wrote:

Are you struggling to fix the world? If so, why? It's a bit of an ego trip when people think they can fix things. If you can see the world as an evolution--the way God would see it--you would know it's more or less perfect and does not need fixing. It's only when we view the world within the finite context of our emotions and ego that it looks less than perfect.

You can instantly become happy and free by deciding to leave the world alone and concentrate instead on yourself. By strengthening yourself, you serve all humanity. Each of us is linked to one another.

I do not agree with Wilde that the world is "more or less perfect"--in fact, I vigorously disagree with that notion--but I agree with him about the importance of self-improvement. I have no power to change the things that people say and do that make no sense to me but I have the power to control my reactions to the world's irrationality; I can choose to focus on enjoying my life and being as productive as I am capable of being, as opposed to dwelling on the world's problems and imperfections. When I first read the above quote from the Bhagavad Gita, I understood it to refer to self-control as a precursor to being able to control events and outcomes but now I understand self-control to be a worthy end in and of itself.

During the fateful lightsaber duel between Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, a force field temporarily separated the two combatants; Darth Maul paced back and forth like a predator poised to kill its prey, while Qui-Gon Jinn knelt down, closed his eyes and meditated: Qui-Gon Jinn knew that his whole life and his entire training had culminated at this moment and that he needed to control his emotions, embrace concentration and focus his energies. The way that Qui-Gon Jinn maintained such equanimity and poise while facing a devil-horned opponent brandishing a double-sided lightsaber is a great example of how one should face all of life's challenges, great and small: trust your training and your instincts, do your best and accept the outcome. That particular outcome was not good for Qui-Gon Jinn--Darth Maul killed him--but Qui-Gon Jinn's apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi immediately killed Darth Maul and Kenobi's apprentice Luke Skywalker eventually brought down the evil Galactic Empire. Qui-Gon Jinn's influence resonated long after his death because of the way that he lived his life.

In a recent chess tournament, I won a game because my opponent responded to my blunder ...Nxe5 with the blunder Nxf7 instead of playing Nb5, which would have given him a winning position. Winning chess games used to make me feel very happy, while losing chess games used to make me feel very upset but those reactions are too extreme. A better, more balanced path is to prepare properly before the event, concentrate fully during the event, enjoy the entire process and not overreact to the result. All that a person can control is his own actions; outcomes and results are influenced by factors that a person cannot control: the results of other games affect who I get paired against--which means that I could face someone whose style is a good matchup or someone whose style is a difficult matchup--and my opponent's training, discipline and outlook affect the quality of his moves, so unless I play perfect moves 100% of the time I cannot control the outcome of the game. Of course, the better that I play the more influence I can exert over that outcome and that is one of the most seductive qualities of chess: the illusion that with only a little more knowledge and discipline a person can completely control his destiny (echoes of that illusion can be heard in the famous concluding words of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby). The difference between winning a game and losing a game and the difference between winning a tournament and finishing in the middle of the pack is sometimes just one move, one flickering of a neuron in someone's mind. 

If I had been more well-rested and/or if I had studied more before the tournament then perhaps I would have played a different move but I have many interests and I enjoy the time/energy that I devote to those interests; I am not making excuses about that blunder or any other chess blunder, just stating the truth. At that moment under those conditions, ...Nxe5 was the best move I could find; I did not play impatiently and I thought that I had considered all of the relevant tactics. A minute or two after I played ...Nxe5, I saw the Nb5 idea; while I waited to see which move my opponent would play, I pondered the folly of basing one's emotional state on what happened next: I knew that the outcome of the game would likely be determined by his move and that if I was not careful then I could permit that outcome to affect my mood for the next several days. I vowed that, whatever happened, I would not overreact. I tried my best and ...Nxe5 is the move that I played, so there is nothing to be elated about and nothing to be upset about; winning the game after my opponent blundered did not "prove" anything about me (or about my opponent).

My opponent also did not rush and I assume that he did the best that he could under his individual circumstances. I have deliberately not given the complete move list or provided a diagram of the game position, because this particular game and these particular moves are just vibrations of a much larger cosmic string. If my opponent or I had vibrated the string a bit differently then we would have played a different melody but--regardless of the melody we created--there is nothing to cry about here. I should celebrate that I have been playing tournament chess for more than 25 years and that I am capable of playing chess at a higher level than 97% of all rated players; my young opponent should celebrate that he is already a strong player and that if he stays on his current path then he likely will become a chess master. No, it is even simpler than that: regardless of years spent or rating points obtained, the enjoyment of playing the game in the moment is the height of ecstasy; the game result is logically determined by the combined mental and psychological states of both players and there is no reason to become emotional about that logically determined outcome: if you have a succession of outcomes that you deem to be unsatisfactory then it is necessary to adjust your life pattern (sleep habits, study habits, etc.) to maximize the chance that you will enjoy better outcomes in the future.

Easy to say, hard to do but very necessary. My opponent looked distraught when he realized that he had blundered and I understand that feeling all too well. Chess is a very violent game; it may not be possible to completely eradicate the suffering one feels after a loss but I think that determined, focused concentration can result in a modified perspective.

In his aforementioned book, Stuart Wilde declared, "Conflict is always just a divergence of opinions. Are you struggling to convince others that your opinion is right? And if you are right, so what? To win a moral victory at the expense of your sanity is dumb." This article represents my attempt to explain my mental, emotional and psychological evolution as I understand and perceive this ongoing process; it contains insights that have helped me achieve greater tranquility and balance and I believe that those insights could help other open-minded people as well: I welcome the opportunity to interact with introspective people who are thinking about these issues but, following Wilde's sage advice, I have no interest in trying to convince anyone that anything that I have written is true, important or even relevant.

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Thursday, June 13, 2013


Turning Failure Into Success

When Smart People Fail: Rebuilding Yourself for Success (Penguin, 1988) by Carole Hyatt and Linda Gottlieb contains some excellent insights about how to perceive failure not as a permanent condition but rather as a life experience from which we can learn valuable lessons; this is similar to Garret Kramer's Stillpower concept that differentiates between "life" and "life situations": Kramer explains, "Your life is a constant," while "life situations" are things that happen that you cannot control and that therefore should not change how you view your life.

Hyatt and Gottlieb assert, "Failure does not lie in the event; it lies in the judgment of the event." For instance, William L. Shirer felt devastated when he was fired by CBS; it seemed like his once-promising career had been derailed but he learned to view what happened not as a setback but rather as an opportunity to pursue other goals:

"In the final analysis it has to do with what your values are. I was never ambitious to be vice president in charge of news or the number one person in status or pay. I was not ambitious to be more than a good journalist and a good writer. My inner life was the most important thing for me. That, and the value of the work itself. The main thing is living with yourself.

In the end, getting fired from CBS was a blessing, which I did not appreciate for a long time. What it set me to doing was what I had always wanted to do, which was to write books. When you're working for a big paper or a big network and you're making a lot of money, you keep putting off the time you are going to write that big book."

Shirer spent nearly 10 years writing The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, draining his savings and persevering despite the objections of friends and colleagues who told him that no one would buy a 1200 page book about this topic. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich sold out its entire first printing on the day it was released and it became the top selling book in the history of the Book-of-the-Month-Club. Shirer transformed what looked like failure at CBS into a great success story.

In addition to refocusing one's external direction after a setback, one can also refocus one's internal perspective; as Hyatt and Gottlieb put it, "Excellence of craft is the issue, not reviews or medals." Do what you do because you are passionate about doing it, not because you are seeking money and/or praise.

Actress Barbara Babcock told Hyatt and Gottlieb about her mentality:

"For me the most important part of my career is the process, not the result. The most satisfying stage is generally the rehearsal, working on a role rather than performing it. That is one of the ways I have coped with the concept of failure. I think failure is always goal-oriented--what has happened as a result, and not the process of getting there. I measure myself against the process--did I do the scene well? Did I find something interesting about the character? Did the moment feel alive for me? These are the satisfactions that sustain me."

Hyatt and Gottlieb point out that this approach can be applied to any walk of life: "Even in sports, it's a matter of balance, of perspective. The striving for success, the fierce desire to win, have to coexist, with a larger sense of self, an acceptance of the possibility of loss, an understanding that neither winning nor losing are the real measures of ourselves."

Julius Erving endured six years of frustrating playoff setbacks before winning an NBA championship and throughout that period he stayed true to his core belief: "I've always tried to tell myself that the work itself is the thing, that win, lose or draw, the work is really what counts. As hard as it was to make myself believe that sometimes, it was the only thing I had to cling to every year--that every game, every night, I did the best I could."

Hyatt and Gottlieb note, "You cannot prevent failure because you cannot control results. But you can control process. You can learn to become involved in what you do in a different way, so that your emphasis is on the pride and pleasure you take in the work rather than on the results. In doing that, you will have changed the basis for measuring your own success and failure."

Benjamin Barber, a political science professor at Rutgers, told Hyatt and Gottlieb that the most important trait is the ability/willingness to learn and grow:

"I don't divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures, those who make it or those who don't. I don't even divide the world into the extroverted and the introverted, or those who hear the inner voice or the outer voice, because we all hear some of both.

I divide the world into learners and nonlearners.

There are people who learn, who are open to what happens around them, who listen, who hear the lessons. When they do something stupid, they don't do it again. And when they do something that works a little bit, they do it even better and harder the next time.

The question to ask is not whether you are a success or a failure, but whether you are a learner or a nonlearner."

Hyatt and Gottlieb conclude, "If you refuse to feel like a victim, if you take responsibility for your life, if you understand that you can change, you begin to act differently. And once you begin to act differently, other people begin to perceive you differently, other people begin to perceive you in a powerful, not powerless, way."

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Saturday, June 8, 2013


The Good Inclination and the Bad Inclination

"And what is it that makes one man an exceptional leader? We see here indications that it's his negative side which makes him strong, that his evil side, if you will, properly controlled and disciplined, is vital to his strength."--Mr. Spock, in the Star Trek episode "The Enemy Within"

In the Star Trek episode "The Enemy Within," a transporter malfunction splits Captain James Kirk into two separate people, a "good" Kirk and a "bad" Kirk. The "good" Kirk turns out to be an ineffective Captain because even though he desperately wants to do the right thing he lacks the strength of will to make tough command decisions, while the "evil" Kirk is so corrupted by his uncontrolled lust for power and sex that he is too ruthless and self-centered to be an effective Captain. Both sides of Captain Kirk's personality--what Jewish philosophy calls the yetzer hatov (good inclination) and the yetzer hara (evil inclination)--are essential for him to be a great leader but the secret to Captain Kirk's greatness is that both sides balance each other; however, it is one thing for a fictional character to maintain such balance and quite another thing for a person to maintain such balance in real life.

I am not the first person to observe that the plot of "The Enemy Within" depicts the conflict between yetzer hara and yetzer hatov (and there is at least one other Jewish element in Star Trek: Leonard Nimoy borrowed the now-famous Vulcan "Live Long and Prosper" hand sign from the Jewish Priestly Blessing); David Holzel writes, "Viewed through a Jewish lens, this episode is an allegory of a man whose yetzer hara, or evil inclination, is split from his yetzer hatov, or good inclination...Far from a demonic force that needs to be destroyed, yetzer hara represents creativity, ambition and will. It is more morally neutral than its name suggests...Yetzer hara is our sneaking suspicion, or out-and-out conviction, that this life is all there is. It pulls us from the holy to the corporeal. To defy death, our yetzer hara stirs us to build monuments to ourselves--families, businesses, works of art. These, we know, will survive us. (Why else do captains of the starship Enterprise leave detailed mission logs? Why else are there reruns?)."

Just as the yetzer hara is not a manifestation of pure evil, the yetzer hatov is not a manifestation of pure good; Holzel quotes a rabbi who warns that the two inclinations must be in balance, because "Too much [yetzer hatov] leads to premature saintliness. If one is overly righteous, one is likely to become suicidal." Trying to make perfect decisions that lead to 100% positive outcomes in all possible scenarios is a recipe for disaster whether you are the fictional Captain Kirk or whether you are facing tough choices in your personal and/or professional life; doing the best you can do and then accepting the outcome is a recipe for maximizing one's likelihood for success. "Do your best" is one of the themes of Don Miguel Ruiz' "The Four Agreements":

"Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.

Doing your best means enjoying the action without expecting a reward. The pleasure comes from doing what you like in life and having fun, not from how much you get paid. Enjoy the path traveled and the destination will take care of itself."

It is possible to make a subtle but significant shift in one's mindset, to change one's goal from seeking perfection to having a wider perspective: "Striving for greatness is important and meaningful but there can be a high price to pay for such striving and few people who attain greatness avoid paying for it in some fashion; that does not mean that anyone should settle for mediocrity but rather that those who strive for greatness must have tremendous self-awareness and must concentrate on maintaining proper balance mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically."

During "The Enemy Within," Dr. McCoy tells the "good" Kirk, "The intelligence, the logic. It appears your half has most of that. And perhaps that's where man's essential courage comes from." Mr. Spock has a deep understanding of such inner conflicts: "Being split in two halves is no theory with me, doctor. I have a human half, you see, as well as an alien half, submerged, constantly at war with each other. Personal experience, doctor. I survive it because my intelligence wins over both, makes them live together."

There is a very fine line between a winning life strategy and a losing one; the tools for a winning life strategy include intelligence, logic, the subtle yet vital distinction between seeking perfection/having a wider perspective and "adaptability in the face of serious survival challenges."

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