The Most Difficult Thing in the World

Mindfulness and Letting Things Be

Let’s look at some of the things people tell me they are looking for in a mindfulness practice:

  • Calm
  • Peace
  • Joy
  • Happiness
  • Freedom from difficult emotions

Now let’s look at some of the most common words and concepts associated with mindfulness when it is discussed by experts and masters:

  • Awareness
  • Wakefulness
  • Presence
  • Bare attention
  • Non-interference
  • Acceptance
  • Just Sitting

You’ll notice a distinct difference here: people are hoping mindfulness will make things different, but mindfulness seems to be oriented toward allowing things to be as they are. This is probably the most frequent complaint I get from people.

It’s odd, but the simplest thing we can do – let things be they are – is probably also the most challenging thing we can do. We have this amazing thing called a brain, and its whole job is to keep us alive and fix problems and make sure we are getting the best deal possible. This is awesome and perfect when we are lost in the woods or trying to find food to eat, it’s less so when we are mad at our kids for leaving their room a mess or wondering what to do about a douchebag boss.

Comparisons and the Death of Joy

Comparisons are necessary.

Should I get the minivan or a new truck? I need to backseat room, but I also need to haul things back and forth from Home Depot.

Should I drink a coke or water?

Do I take this new job offer, or stay where I am?

Without the ability to compare, we would wind up in trouble very quickly. The problem is that there is always something to compare to, and it is rarely essential. Even worse, what we get is often out of our hands.

Ugh, my internet is down. I wanted to watch Netflix all day. 

Ugh, it’s raining, I wanted to go ride my bike.

Ugh, the Patriots are going to the Super Bowl, and I like the Cowboys. 




None of these things are really positive or negative, they are as they are. This is true about all sorts of stuff, but we filter everything through the lens of what we want and what we think is good for us.

These comparisons can turn positive things into negative things, neutral things into negative things, and negative things into suffering.

Oh, but wait, I thought everything was neutral, James.

In general, I believe this, but there will always be some things that we don’t like, and others that we are wired to dislike. This is biological. This also becomes dicey when we try to apply it to other people – I do not think it is fair to put the idea of things as neutral on everyone, especially if they are experiencing something we have not. That being said, as a rule, everything someone experiences is different from what we have experienced, because we all process things differently. So, putting our way of doing things on others never works out.

Making the Worse the Worst

Some things suck.

Think of things like pain, disappointment, betrayal, heartbreak, and sickness.

None of us like these.

We are wired to dislike them, and we would have to skew reality to see them as inherently positive.

But, there is a difference between the pain they can cause us, and the suffering we cause ourselves.

We’ll walk through them:

My neck hurts all the time. This is painful. But, it only causes me suffering when I complain about it, wish I had done things differently, or fall into blame/resentment toward my doctors for not offering perfect solutions.

I thought I was going to Dallas with my wife, but plans changed. I had the initial “pain” of not getting what I thought I was going to get but only turned to suffering when thoughts of how things “should” be or questioning the circumstances, which were beyond my control, began to emerge.

Someone breaks up with us, cheats on us, or leaves our life completely – this will always hurt, always cause us pain, and we will never like it, but none of them have to cause us to suffer. If we can accept the things that are beyond our control, we will not suffer as much. If we can embrace them, suffering becomes even more difficult. If we can recognize them as neutral, as things playing out as they play out, suffering becomes something we have to try to do.

“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati….Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it – all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary – but love it.”


The Nerve

If we think about it, it’s kind of weird that we have an opinion on any of this.

Think about it.

We come into this consciousness that we did nothing to earn or create, and there is all sorts of stuff already here.

Our bodies are premade and have their ways of doing things preprogrammed – they grow and need food and water and sleep and heal from cuts all by themselves. We didn’t do anything for that.

Things like the weather and gravity and the planets and nature are all already here, doing their thing, like they always have, paying no mind to us, and needing nothing from us.

To make it even weirder, we don’t even walk into all of this, but we emerge from it. Our bodies are made up of materials from the environment around us, and who we are – this idea of me – only emerges in relationship to other people.

We depend on and are created by all of this stuff that was here way before us and will exist a long time after us and isn’t dependent on us in any way, and yet we complain. We complain, and we have this idea of how things are supposed to work, and this supposed-to is based entirely on what we want and what we think is best for us, and we expect the universe to get on board.

It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic.

A Way Out

And this, right here, is the toughest thing in the world, partly because it is so simple. We have this ego that gives us the idea that everything revolves around us, and that leads us to have strong opinions about a great number of things that we have no control over. Further, we have opinions about things that are essentially neutral but are inconvenient to us. This keeps us in opposition to reality, which is the definition of suffering.

There is a way out, though. The same brain that thinks us into this opposition can help think us out by training ourselves to ask a few questions over and over, especially when we are distressed or unhappy with something:

What am I judging right now?

What am I comparing this to?

What is intrinsically negative or bad about this?

What would this situation be like without my thoughts about it?

Is this bad or inconvenient?

Is this something that actually has anything to do with me?

And so on – you’ll find your own relevant questions emerging as you practice.

Try it out, see if it works.

Throw it away if it doesn’t.

Want more? I write a lot. I also have a podcast and post videos and mini-blogs on Instagram.

6 Simple Self-Care Tips for When Things are Overwhelming.

I think the self-care tips on this list are available to most everybody, but please feel free to change and adapt them according to your specific limitations/environment/situation. This was written specifically for the time under quarantine, but I think it is useful anytime we may be in the house for an extended period of time, or on a day off when we are feeling down.

1.  Don’t sleep all day. Our bodies seem to like it when we get up at a certain time, and by our very nature we are meant to be awake during the day. Get up like you have something to do, because you do. This one thing changed my life more than anything else and now I look forward to the morning. Self-care sometimes means training ourselves into a habit we may not like at first.

2.  Move around, even if only for a little while. Stretch, do some squats, do some jumping jacks, do some yoga. Walk around your neighborhood if that is wise. As I mentioned in the video on this topic, with chronic pain this is probably even more important. The ego will keep us stationary to conserve calories, but that’s a holdover from back when survival was the primary problem. These days, not moving is the villain.

3.  Take care of your hygiene. Pretend like you have somewhere to go – shave, shower or bathe, brush your teeth, comb your hair. It’s shocking how much better these little things can make us feel. We dismiss this because we feel compelled (or even coerced) to get up and get dressed every day, so laying around in our pajamas feels like a privilege. One way to take our power back is to take care of ourselves every day – we shouldn’t reserve our best self-care only for our employers,

4.  Get some natural light in your life. Just taking a walk outside is fantastic if you can, but something as simple as opening the curtains or blinds or sitting on your front step can make a huge difference if you are homebound. I do think that one good thing that will come out of this pandemic is a general understanding that we need the things that are most basic to our nature as a species, and the sun is one of them.

5.  Keep your space clean. It’s a strange paradox, but the more free time we have the less we get done for some reason. Pick up the trash, do the laundry, do the dishes, vacuum, and then see if you don’t feel a little bit better. This is one of my go-to ways to deal with depression and anxiety and I always feel a little better after.

6.  Stay as social as possible. Video chatting or calling someone feels a lot more connected than texting them – make a point to do this, especially if you live alone, or if they live alone. Get out of your own head and reach out. It’s easy to turn in on ourselves in times of stress or crisis, but this only magnifies the problem. Think about it: we are obsessed with thoughts and feelings about what is going on, and our natural tendency is to focus on these very same things. Talking to other people is an easy way to remember that there is a larger world out there, and doing something kind for them will always bring us to a better place mentally and emotionally.

None of these are meant to come from a place of judgment or criticism and it’s not some rise & grind bullshit. These things are basic to our existence as humans and they will make you feel better – that’s the nature of self-care and that’s what matters right now.

Take care of yourself, this is temporary and the world needs you at your best.

Want more? I write a lot. I also have a podcast and post videos and mini-blogs on Instagram.