Psychoadaptation V: Is real peace of mind possible?

I noted previously in my series of publications introducing the principles of psychoadaptation the rather perpetual fluctuation between equilibrium and disequilibrium, and how every time we think we’ve achieved peace, it evaporates as quickly as a bottle of soda left open. Indeed, it is said frequently by people all over the world that there is nothing constant but change. This applies well to the psyche. As soon as we have adapted our conceptions to the constraints of our environment, soon new demands appear and our equilibrium ends. We feel the pressure to adapt again. For some of us, this is sheer pleasure. I love adaptation. I enjoy challenge and really enjoy conquering challenge. To do so, one must place one self in difficult and unfamiliar contexts; the contexts requiring adaptation. I drop myself into these contexts, as if falling into a box with slippery walls in which escape is not possible. However, given time, my mind and self work together to turn those slippery walls into steps, and I climb casually out as if I had been there and done that so many times before.

Although the cycle of equilibrium and disequilibrium repeats itself over and again, by continuing to seek challenge, we eventually come to see the commonalities among different contexts. With time these commonalities become so evident that situations start blending. It’s like creating a smoothie. Although the strawberries are red and the blueberries blue, when blended together one no longer distinguishes the two but tastes a wonderful concoction with the right blend of sweet and sour.

Psychoadaptation is like blending different fruit and preparing a tasty smoothie. Instead of fruit we deal with situations. Instead of a smoothie, we drink life. Thus, the fourth principle of psychoadaptation is that as adaptation increases, the need to adapt decreases.

Imagine that you have lived a full life. As a young person, each day you sought to try something new, challenging your fears. Say you suffer from social anxiety and dealing with people face-to-face is uncomfortable. For one not living psychoadaptation, one would maintain equilibrium by eschewing challenge. This would mean staying within safe zones, zones in which one wouldn’t face others. However, inside that self could reside an outstanding orator for instance. Public speaking and social anxiety don’t mix well, one would think, and if one prescribes to a need to maintain equilibrium, that person is right. Yet, if one negates such nonsense, one would seek to challenge the self by forcing the self into discomfort and disequilibrium. This would entail, for instance, taking a course in which one must present work, volunteering for jobs that require greater face-to-face contact. This would be extremely uncomfortable. I can imagine the heart racing faster than Danica Patrick at the Indianapolis 500, and the intestines tightening up. Lips and facial muscles would twitch and the person may even feel faint. HOWEVER, once the individual adapts to the situation once, the self would find adapting to a similar situation a second time more simple. Then the third and the fourth times would be even simpler, and so on and on.

Each time we master one context we experience perfect equilibrium and that context is stored in our mental schema (framework for understanding) so that the next time we encounter that situation or a like situation, we will feel confident in our ability to adapt. Contexts are never the same, yet they are quite similar. For instance, as a professor/instructor, I have taught many hundreds of lectures. Although no two lecture is the same, even if covering the exact same content, and students differ, each time I taught a lecture I became more and more familiar with that context. I eventually reached the point where little that students asked or did phases me. I didn’t adapt to all of those contexts, but I had adapted to teaching and teaching underlies every lecture I ever deliver. Although I still have to adapt to each individual situation, adaptation becomes easier each time I adapt. As such, teaching, which once was a very frightening situation for me became simple and rather comfortable.

To attain happiness one must attain peace. To paraphrase Piaget, desire is disequilibrium. When we stop desiring, we no longer experience disequilibrium and we live in a perpetual state of peace. Although we may not experience the oceanic feeling each moment of each minute of each day, we feel quite satisfied with whom we are and what we have done. By coming to see life’s commonalities, we realize that there isn’t much left to desire, and that’s quite fine. We come to be content and we stop chasing false hope. It’s only then that we experience peace. There’s a saying that it’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. That saying encapsulates psychoadaptation perfectly. One lives and experiences, and even though not every experience ends happily, one is better for having had the experiences, and comes to realize quite happily that to have lived is enough.

I still have goals in life. I pursue them vigorously. Yet I am content. In discussing Erik Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development, I often tear up when delivering stage 8. According to Erikson, in that last stage when we are nearing the end of our physical presence on earth, we are confronted with a major question; did we live the best life we could have lived, and are we content? I have said that we don’t have to be old and grey to answer that question. Nor do we have to have achieved much. Indeed, if the grim reaper came to my doorstep right now, I should be able to answer that question with a resounding yes. Yes, I did live my life the best I could, for I sought to challenge myself always and to always better myself and how I relate to others. Although I haven’t accomplished every goal I desire, I am working on them and being on the road toward accomplishment in my book is the same as having accomplished the ends. I never stop. Then, I compose myself in front of my students and say. I hope you can say to yourselves right now, if your time to pass is here, that you have lived the best life you could have lived and that you are truly content. I feel sorry for those who cannot.

Living a life of adaptation, psychological adaptation that is, will ensure that in the end you pass without regrets. You will come to love challenge and embrace discomfort, as discomfort becomes comfort. Your world will turn upside down but in a good way. Imagine, attaining peace and doing so by living a full life instead of hiding in some temple and meditating normality away. This is psychoadaptation.

Psychoadaptation IV: Inner peace doesn’t last

The last time I discussed psychoadaptation, I wrote about the third principle and inner peace. Inner peace, while attainable through adaptation, does not last for long. Indeed, it’s as fleeting as a snow flake. It appears and then disappears just as quickly. Reality demands constant adaptation, and once we’ve adapted to our environments and the environment’s constraints, new demands arise and we are forced to adapt once again. That’s reality.

I recall writing once before about my experience with the oceanic feeling. I was attending a scholarly conference in Boston. It was SBM, the Society of Behavioral Medicine, my favorite conference of them all. At that time, all was perfect in my life. I had attained all the goals I wanted to attain, and had nothing pressing on my plate. I was at extreme congruence with my environment. As I walked through the city, my mind went blank. Actually, it didn’t go blank. Instead, I lost my sense of self and, like colors spilling from many paint cans into a single pool, I became one with my surroundings. Buildings were no more. Sidewalks and streets merged with parks and grass. Everything came together. For once in my life, everything made sense by not making sense. I was a single being, in perfect unity with the world. The world and I were one. I wasn’t high on a synthetic substance. Nor did I overdose on peyote or some fungal hallucinogen. I was just in perfect equilibrium. Yes, I didn’t need drugs to achieve it. I achieved it through hard work at actualizing all of my immediate goals. Not simple, but it’s the American way. It’s then that I actually termed this experience the American Zen.

Unfortunately, it’s also then that I learned that the oceanic feeling is fleeting. Thus, the fourth principle of psychoadaptation is that inner peace is ephemeral. Yes, it’s ephemeral but desirable. I desire it every day. I wish my whole life could be inner peace. However, the only way to achieve it is through adaptation. Thus, once inner peace disappears, I must figure out how to re-attain it once again. When it disappears, this means that there is something incongruous with the constraints of my environment. I hope by now that you are beginning to understand psychoadaptation. It’s a very simple science of living. You have the context. The context has its’ rules, what I call constraints. You either adapt to those constraints or ignore them. If you adapt to them, you experience equilibrium; inner peace. If you ignore them, you feel distress; disequilibrium. Equilibrium is inner peace, whereas disequilibrium is its opposite. I don’t care what you choose to call it, but it’s not pleasant.

Life is not kind. Life takes your personal happiness and turns it into another nano particle of nothingness. What is a grand achievement to you in a moment becomes life’s waste. I’m not being mean by saying this. I’m just being truthful. However, we can take charge of life and turn misery into pleasure. We have more control over life than we at times give ourselves credit for. We are exceptional beings. I am not a religious person and do not attribute anything to a god. Instead, I attribute success to personal effort. When we achieve success, it’s our own doing. We achieve inner peace by gaining mastery over our environments. We ask our contexts, “what is it that you want from us….dammit?” The context responds by giving us all sort of seemingly irrational demands. We ask in response, “Is that it?” Then we go about and do what is required, achieving the oceanic feeling again. Nothing could be simpler, right? Not so simple. I’m not stupid. However, I do know, if we dedicate ourselves to psychological adaptation, in the end we will achieve inner peace and happiness more often than not.

Inner peace, like the fizz in soda, doesn’t last. At least that’s what the title of this posting reads. Yet, we can make it a very regular occurrence. To do so, we must get to know our contexts and our context’s constraints, and adapt to those constraints. Given that inner peace is ephemeral, and that constraints change frequently, we must be prepared to adapt again, and again, and again. I’ve learned to do it a lot. I’ve become a sort of chameleon, and I like it. It’s hard for some readers to understand this, but I couldn’t care less. Living psychoadaptation requires the ability to change and change frequently. My goal is inner peace and health. The only way to achieve it is to avoid stress and stressors. I’ve given you a way to achieve it. The choice is yours, however, It’s completely up to you whether you select to live the way you’ve been living or to join the quest for true happiness. It’s up to you.

Evening thoughts

Almost time to go to bed after another hard day working on stuff. Life is full of duties. For the self motivated, I enjoy plunging into tasks. My tasks involve writing and data analysis, and now they involve teaching too. I enjoy pretty much everything I do because that’s the way I set up my life. I worked hard to get to where I am now, and have come to love working hard. When one works on what one loves, one loves work. It’s not as cool as other things one does, but I’m not worried about being cool. I just love being.

Sport Psychology for Recreational athletes

I love sport and I really love sport psychology. My love for sport psychology was born during my undergraduate studies at San Diego State University. I recall reading the Inner Game of Tennis on the old football stadium bleachers one afternoon, and imagining how I would use the methods discussed in that classic while playing tennis. For the next couple of years, while playing, I imagined where my serve would go, and as if by magic, my serve would land on that spot. That’s how I learned to love sport psychology.

Afterwards, I spent time working in a tennis academy in the Washington, D.C. area, the 4 Star Tennis Academy. I was employed to work with elite junior tennis players. What a wonderful opportunity to work with a great tennis coach, Bob Pass, and his players. I learned so much there and had a nice impact on many tennis players. Although not all of the young athletes appreciated sport psychology, many did. I  recall that during breaks at summer camp, I’d conduct imagery work, progressive relaxation, and even autogenic training with the young athletes. What an amazing experience. I am forever grateful to Bob Pass and the 4-Star staff for permitting me to work and learn there.

Since then, I graduated with my Ph.D. and went on to be a professor of sport psychology at Widener University. There, I learned to be an academic. I taught an introductory course as well as a course on the sport psychology of elite athletes. Both courses tended to focus on the elite athlete, though, as if other athletes didn’t matter. That’s not unusual, as most individuals in sport psychology are primarily interested in elite athletes. I don’t blame them, as who wouldn’t want to work with the best? I’d love to be on Djokovic’s team. I also imagine what it would be like to be in Buenos Aires working with Del Potro. That would be amazing. Yet, over the last couple of years, and specifically during the last few months, I’ve learned that recreational athletes are the ones most motivated to be their best. Further, they (or we) are the ones spending all the money on the fancy equipment and coaching. So, why not focus on these athletes instead of the elite athlete? It certainly makes financial sense for sport psychology to focus on regular people rather than the minority of elite athletes.

I am the recreational athlete. We are the ones desiring to be great. We don’t have the time or money to become our best. In reality, neither does the elite athlete. Indeed, the only reason the elite athlete has the ability to become elite is because of sponsorship, and investment in possibility. We, on the other hand, have to fit in our practice into our work schedules. For instance, I can only ski on weekends, and I play tennis after work, not during times when courts are more available, such as weekday mornings. Further, training costs money. Skiing is expensive. Even the cheapest intermediate level skis cost about 400 dollars. What individual has money to pay for this stuff? I’ll tell you who does, the recreational athlete. We want to be good, because in our dreams, when we play tennis we are playing in Wimbledon. When we ski, we are skiing in one of those rage films videos. Yes, each time we step on the court, tee off, or ski off the slope, we are living a fantasy. Moreover, we are willing to pay for it because we want to be good. No, we want to be the best, no matter what the cost, whether we can afford it or not.

I want to work with all athletes, children and adults. Yet, for our field of sport psychology to survive, we MUST focus on the individuals needing and using our services most, the recreational athlete. For those of you out there who want to be your best, I’m your man and I always will be. I am you and I feel what you feel every day. Believe me, if I could be on the tennis court all day, I’d be there. The kids are great but kids aren’t the only ones playing tennis, cycling, skiing, playing golf, or engaged in some athletic activity with desire. Indeed, most of them, including my son, are there because parents want them to be there. We, on the other hand are out there because we REALLY want to be there. We are out there too and want to be heard. I hear you.

Focus is fundamental

As all my readers know, tennis is a huge part of my life. Yet, although I am a novice at skiing, this winter sport is rapidly occupying a large part of my self. Since I discovered my son’s love for skiing, this Alpine sport has become a huge focus of my attention in the winter months. I want my son to be good at something athletically, and he love skiing. So, I invest my time (and money) in his skiing, which means that I also have to invest my time and money into my skiing so I can keep up with him as he’s learning to ski.

Skiing is not tennis. Tennis is a very physical sport. Playing tennis WELL requires great physical prowess. To the novice, tennis is as leisurely an activity as playing 9 holes of golf on a par 3 course. For good tennis players, however, tennis is as intense as any physical activity one can imagine. OK, it’s not an ultra marathon. However, it’s pretty exhaustive. The difference is that in tennis, one sprints between bouts of aerobic activity. Novice tennis players do not experience this. Indeed, they tend to just stand around as if waiting for something to happen. Seems pretty boring to me! Good tennis players, by contrast, make things happen!

Skiing is different. In skiing, the focus is on managing speed. I love sitting on lifts and watching good skiers traverse terrain. They are so fluid. Even at high speeds, they have great control and just seem to flow down the mountain like water in a stream. I’m definitely not there yet, but given what I’ve witnessed from my performance so far, I’ll get there.

The most important factor in good skiing is focus. The most important factor in good tennis is focus. In both cases, one must keep attention focused on one’s technique. In tennis, one focuses on hitting the ideal shot. If one fails to attend to one’s technique, one fails to hit the ideal shot. At that point, anything can happen, and what happens is usually not good. When I focus on striking the ball well, I hit it deep (past the service line) and with power and topspin (if that’s my aim). When skiing, I also focus heavily on technique. Good skiing at my novice level requires focusing on turning so that I can feel in control. I practice turning a lot, especially on steeper slopes. This allows me to feel that I have control over nature. The truth is that nature wants me to tumble down the slope and fall flat on my face. I say, “No!” I do so by digging my blades into the snow as I carve my way down. I only do so, however, by focusing on my technique. The beauty of it is that by focusing on technique, I keep my mind off of more pressing concerns, such as the steepness of the slope. Those slopes can get pretty steep!

Good tennis requires focusing my attention on my technique. When I serve a kick serve, I focus on tossing the ball to 1 O’Clock and hitting up, just the way my coach told me to do so. When skiing, I focus on carving my way down the hill, turning to maintain control. Focusing, in both sports, achieves the following objectives. It controls my fear by keeping my mind occupied on the task at hand. Further, it ensures that I execute my skills optimally! What more can one ask for? When I execute a skill correctly, I feel great! There’s no feeling like flowing down a mountain serenely and at high speed. There’s no feeling like hitting a serve that bounces higher than my opponent’s head!

Life is about focus. In all walks of life, one achieves peace through focus. When skiing, focusing on technique connects me to the sport, making my skis and me a single entity. When playing tennis, I become the racket and the ball, moving forcefully through space, and tearing out my opponent’s heart. In my academic career, it’s being fully absorbed in a lecture to the point that my students feel that I am channeling Jung or Winnicott. When conducting research, I am the computer and SAS (statistical program). I am the keyboard and the document. In martial arts, I am the strike and the movement. In focusing on the task at hand, one becomes the action.

Take time to attend to whatever it is you are doing. When your fears attempt to usurp your attention, tell them ever so kindly to “F off” and return your attention to the task at hand. Whatever it is that you are working on at the time, absorb yourself in it fully. For that’s the only way to truly experience the act and to achieve perfection. Well, I will never be able to ski like Bode Miller or Linsey Dyer, but by focusing on my technique, I will be the best Daniel skier I can be and that’s good enough for me.

Psychoadaptation III: Psychoadaptation and inner peace

Inner peace is attainable, and it does not require one to take on a reclusive lifestyle. When I was younger, I attended Zen practice at the Zen Center in Pacific Beach, San Diego. We worked hard to discipline the mind. Our Zen master would come around and strike us with a switch if we lost concentration. I didn’t like it, nor did I actually have enough discipline to achieve inner peace in that way. Thus, I didn’t last long there.

Interestingly, my short foray into Zen practice wasn’t uncommon. Indeed, the Zen master knew I would fail. Interviewing me for membership into the center, she threw cold water on my enthusiasm. I came into her room one morning, eager and ready to commit myself to an ascetic life. To my dismay, her response was lukewarm. Essentially she said, “Yeah, Yeah, I’ve heard it all before. I bet you won’t last more than a couple of days.” She was right. Americans have a hard time with Zen practice since it’s not the American way.

We Americans are highly motivated individuals, and we want to achieve. Inner peace the Eastern way requires that we abandon our American selves and take on an Eastern Self. The Eastern Self is very different from the Western Self. Indeed, in Hazel Markus’s work, she compared Western and Eastern Self perspectives. In the East, she found, people are more group oriented; they have more collective Self perspectives. In the West, by contrast, the Self is more individualistic. The two perspectives are so different that Eastern Selves tend to view us (Western Selves) as childish for our individualistic perspectives.

I am a product of the West. I am an American. Psychoadaptation is a very American perspective. I enjoyed my foray into Zen Buddhism. I failed however because I was not raised to eschew my selfishness. Americans are selfish by nature. Yet, this does not mean that we cannot attain inner peace. Indeed, inner peace is a fundamental property of the self, and it’s not all that hard to attain. It’s so easy to attain that my reader will feel foolish knowing just how easy it is to achieve. In fact, you have attained it many times over. Unfortunately, however, you probably have not noticed it when you’ve attained inner peace. After reading this entry into my blog, you WILL notice it from this point forward, and you will celebrate this accomplishment over and over again.

The third principle of Psychoadaptation is that inner peace a natural consequence of the adaptation process.

Inner peace occurs when there is a balance between desire and attainment. We are constantly desiring more than we have. When we attain our object, we are at peace, inner peace. It’s that simple. The problem is that we of course keep desiring more. The more we desire, the more effervescent is this perfect state. Like the bubbles in soda, inner peace pops and then goes away. Desiring too much, then, keeps inner peace perpetually at a distance. To capture it once in for all, we must curb our desire for more and be satisfied with what we have.

“Wait a minute”, one may stop me and ask, “I thought you said Psychoadpatation is an American philosophy of living, and desire is truly American???” Yes, I agree that we constantly desire more. However, desiring too much isn’t healthy and is in fact NOT the American way. In my first posting of this series, I argued that it is critical to understand the context. The American cultural context (American Macrosystem) does indeed allow for desire. However, it also places strict limits on what is permissible desire. Too much desire is unhealthy, particularly if one does not have the means to attain it. Temperance is also an American value. Learning to balance desire with resources is what  makes American entrepreneurship beautiful. The American entrepreneur knows how to balance want with resources, and therefore attains perfect balance. Doing so, the entrepreneur attains inner peace.

This is all well and good, yet it seems to be too philosophical, and I promised my faithful reader that Psychoadaptation was a system that was meant to be useful to everyone, not just scholars. Let’s get to the bread and butter of it, or bread and peanut butter in my case since I don’t eat butter. To attain inner peace, one must work towards attaining one’s personal goals. The first step then is to know one’s goals. Recall  that in my last posting I discussed the importance of self awareness. Self awareness means that one is aware of one’s self in relation to the environment. This includes one’s goals. Take some time to contemplate your goals. Write them down on paper. Then, evaluate how likely you are to achieve your goals. If they are achievable, keep them. If not, eliminate them. You will know whether or not your goals are achievable by contemplating them within your cultural context. Are they attainable within the constraints of your culture? Next, rank order your goals in terms of their importance to the self. For instance, writing a book is an important goal for me, as is hitting a great two-handed backhand. When I weigh the two of these goals, both are important, but writing the book is far more important to me at this time. Thus, I’d give it a higher priority.

Once your goals have been prioritized, start working on them in earnest. However, break them down into more proximal goals. Proximal goals are goals that are easier to achieve than distal goals. If my distal goal is writing a book, my proximal goal is writing a chapter of my book. Start by working towards those proximal goals. If possible, break those proximal down into even more proximal goals, such as writing for an hour a day. Then, evaluate your progress in terms of your success in achieving those proximal goals.

Now, I did say that attaining inner peace is easy. It is! Here’s how. Once you learn to work towards proximal goals, you will continue to reframe your long-term goals into smaller goals that are subsumed under your long term goals. Each time you achieve one of these goals, you will have attained that perfect balance between desire and attainment. That’s when you will experience inner peace, or the “Oceanic Feeling” as I like to call it. It is attained because for that brief moment, you have no desire. Having attained the goal, there is nothing to desire! Though effervescent  it’s still an amazing experience. In this effervescent state, we experience bliss.  Life is perfect, albeit for only a brief moment. Indeed, we have attained the sought after nirvana that the Buddhists monks work so hard to attain, except that for unlike our robed friends, we don’t have to give up normal human life to attain it. Indeed, we can continue living the American life with all of it’s putative disgusting excesses. Let the monks starve themselves while I eat a lobster roll, I say. I can attain the same inner peace by working towards my own personal goals. Why become an ascetic and give up my human desires to attain the same I can achieve while still having fun?

Good questions I ask because I’ve asked these question of my Self many times. I have learned to experience this perfect state, what I have come to term the American Zen, many times. I have done it and I continue to do it without eschewing my natural desire, hence the term “American Zen”. We Americans have come to grips with our human nature. Others try their best to avoid confronting our humanness. Humans are disgusting animals. We want to eat, drink, have sex, and play all day long. However, we also want to create and achieve. I accept what we are (what I am), and you should too. Accepting our Human Nature doesn’t mean that you are giving up on some lofty psycho-spiritual goal. It merely means that you have learned to deal with being a human being. I am human and I embrace being human. Embrace it first, then learn to achieve your human goals; what’s more lofty than that? Once you do so, and do so in a socially acceptable fashion (keeping in mind the importance of your context), you will have attained inner peace. Trust me, you won’t have to wear any silly robes to demonstrate your achievement:-)