❝Life is a never-ending stream of problems that must be confronted, surmounted, or solved ... Problems are what keep us occupied and give our lives meaning.❞ -Mark Manson
I'm in the middle of a meditation training session when the topic of problems and setbacks comes up. In meditation, especially in the beginning, we are taught to focus our attention on the breath. It can be frustrating for beginning meditators because it's hard to take more than a couple of breaths without becoming lost in thought. This is even worse when the meditator is experiencing a problem in his or her life while trying to meditate.
The teacher reassures us that it's okay to have problems. Instead of being mindful of our breath, he instructs us to simply be mindful of our problem. Pay attention to the thoughts themselves. Pay attention to any emotions we feel because of these problems. Pay attention to the raw sensations in our bodies that result from these problems.
We learn that when we pay close attention to everything we experience, negative rumination tends to go away. It helps break the automatic negative thought that we have that it's unfair that this problem is happening to us. It breaks the catastrophic thinking that comes along with the feeling that we didn't get our way.
I'm reminded of my teenage years when I was horribly rebellious. I was always getting in trouble in general, but specifically, I would get in trouble with my mother...a lot. More than several times, I would complain about how it was unfair that something was happening to me. Her response, quite consistently, was that I should get used to it because life's a struggle (except she didn't say struggle).
As I'm learning about paying attention to problems while meditating, I'm struck by how I've never learned the profound nature of her statement before. "Life's a struggle" does not mean the world is out to get me, and then I am some kind of victim. "Life is a struggle" means it's a struggle for everyone. It's part of the human condition.
This realization changed how I think about life in general, but especially the role money plays in our lives.
There's an old saying that the only things for sure in life are death and taxes. Yet we can add one more with confidence; problems or setbacks. You know there will be problems for you to solve, and yet much of all of our suffering is due to our desire to have a life that is free from problems.
Imagine a book or movie where everybody was happy all the time, and nobody had any problems to solve. You would not be interested in that story. Likewise, imagine a video game where there are no obstacles. You simply run your character from one side of the world to the other. You wouldn't play that video game. Without problems and challenges, life would be boring. Some go so far as to say that we would invent problems to solve in a world without problems.
A strange thing happens when you shift your mindset away from hoping there will be no problems to expecting problems. For example, you have probably experienced frustration and anger while driving. Perhaps you got cut off by somebody who clearly was trying to take advantage of you. Our natural instinct is to become upset because some part of us was hoping for a perfect commute. If instead, we set out on our journey expecting somebody to cut us off, then we can calmly say to ourselves, "There he is."
Shifting our mindset helps us remain calm.
YOUR MINDSET MATTERS
With this new mindset of accepting problems, you now get to view your life as presenting you with interesting and fun puzzles to solve. You can even think of it as a game if that's helpful. Some like to imagine a higher power testing them. This higher power knows that you can succeed in this challenge. The simple reframe changes your mindset and helps you with the realization that whether you complain about it or not, at that moment, you have something that needs your attention. It turns it into a forward-looking situation.
FOCUS ON THE JOURNEY
Psychologists talk about hedonic adaptation. This is effectively the idea that humans are very good at getting used to their surroundings. In other words, once we achieve a goal that we set out to accomplish, we very quickly get used to this. Any happiness that we gain is fleeting. Then we have to set a new goal and set out to accomplish it so that we can get another shot of fleeting happiness at some point in the future. This never-ending stream of goals that we hope will give us happiness is sometimes called a hedonic treadmill.
It stands to reason, then, that the endless pursuit of goals is not the ticket to happiness. Not only does getting to your destination (achieving a goal) only provide you a short fleeting amount of happiness, but it's easy to view the journey on the way as something that's in your way. It's easy to get upset at all of the setbacks we have to address on the journey.