philosophy

“Be Yourself” is Bad Advice

“Be yourself!”

You hear this advice a lot.

There are some things about your personality that might be so deep they're practically impossible to change.

Get to know yourself! Embrace the person you find!

Okay.

If you think about it a little more, there are aspects of your personality that you think are ingrained but can be changed.

Invisible scripts you follow because “that's how I do things”. Patterns of thinking that seem like they can’t be changed.

“Be yourself” implies that you are a finished product.

How about, be the best parts of yourself. You can take the worst parts of yourself and try to change those.

Sure, on some level there is a process of learning to differentiate between your needs and desires and those of someone else.

But don't think of yourself as a persistent “I”.

The very cells of your body and just about every other aspect of your being is constantly in flux.

You are always a work in progress.

Even better than being the best parts of yourself, you can find the power to CREATE yourself.

“Create yourself.”

That's better.

Eating Slowly is Awesome for Eating Well

Putting mindfulness into practice

Yesterday, I wrote about how mindfulness and simple self-awareness can change body, brain, and behaviour.

I want to tell you about a straightforward thing you can do today to help you get a better sense of your bodily experience.

It’s simple... But it’s not easy.

It’s also incredible how transformational this can be.

Eat slowly

That’s it.

Eat slowly.

It’s that simple.

Try:

  • Putting your fork down between bites.
  • Relax. Breathe. Take a few extra moments before you pick the fork up again.
  • Set a timer if you need to — start with 15 minutes per meal as a basic goal. Work up to 20 or even 30.
  • Chew a few more times than you think you need to.
  • Enjoy and savour each bite. If you’re eating something delicious, take pleasure in it. Notice smells, flavours, and textures.
  • Eat mindfully without distractions such as TV, smartphones, or the computer. (Pleasant conversation with friends and family is, of course, welcome.)

Yes. I’m serious. Eat slowly!

When I ask my clients to do this, they’re often surprised. “It’s too easy,” they say. Before admitting that they don’t eat slowly already.

As I said, this is simple, not necessarily easy.

Why slow eating is awesome

Slow eating does some important things!

Slow eating creates mindfulness. Mindfulness creates awareness.

A lot of people eat poorly simply because they’re unaware. They’re unaware of how to eat well, of what poor (or good) eating feels like, of how their body responds to different food choices.

The thing is, being ‘aware’ is a one-way street. Once you’re aware, you can’t go back to unaware.

A lot of people who want to lose weight know they need to eat less. And they almost always rely on external things to help them eat less. I’m talking about things like calorie counting or eating strict portions. I’ve been here - for a time; I weighed all the food I ate. And of course, as you might expect, I didn’t keep doing it in the long run. Remember the elephant?

Luckily, I learned to get the hang of slow eating and body cues so that I was aware when I overate. And you can too.

You see, slow, aware over-eating (and its aftermath) isn’t fun. You’ll notice when you do it.

Slow eating means you enjoy your food more

Eating slowly attunes you to flavours, textures, and smells of food. You’ll become more aware of holistic food quality.

Junk food tastes like shit when you eat it slowly. It’s disappointing, empty, unsatisfying - even downright disgusting.

But, real food often tastes even better when you eat it slowly.

Driven by taste, you’ll instinctively start to seek out better choices.

That emotional brain elephant is gently guided, rather than wrenched unwillingly.

Slow eating provides important information to the GI tract and gives satiety hormones time to kick in.

This might sound weird, but smelling, chewing, tasting, and swallowing food is all part of eating. I know, I know; stating the obvious.

The thing is, all of those parts of eating are involved in communicating with the rest of the gastrointestinal (GI) system. They all give essential data to the whole system.

Ever noticed how smelling something cooking makes you salivate? Well, it goes further than that - our bodies get ready for digestion by releasing enzymes and hormones and kicking off processes to get the process going. Also, retronasal olfaction (the smell that wafts up into your nasal passages via the back of your throat when you chew) is a crucial component of satiety.

If you rush, you don’t smell, taste, or texturally experience your food. Your body doesn’t notice stuff getting shoved into the pipeline until it’s too late.

However, when you eat slowly, your satiety hormones have time to work. You can stop eating naturally, earlier.

Slow eating helps with digestion.

As I alluded to above, awareness of the information your food is giving you helps your body to cue digestive activity properly, so the GI system isn’t caught off guard. Your gut will be ready to deal with something, and if you’ve eaten slowly, it’ll know more about what you ate and what to do with it.

So you’ll feel better after you eat.

You might even find that your heartburn and indigestion seem to go away magically.

Slow eating doesn’t depend on controlling what you eat.

This is a big one. You can eat slowly anywhere, at any time, with any food. Whether it’s a huge Christmas lunch, an important family dinner, or a business lunch. No matter what’s on your plate or who’s around you, you can eat slowly.

You can be doing something mindful for your health while not feeling restrictive or deprived. And we all know that emotional-brain elephant hates being deprived. You can even do this while eating a cheat meal or an emotional eating episode.

Slow eating makes your body the boss.

This is pretty cool.

Getting good at slow eating means that eventually, you won’t need to rely on external controls like weighing food or calorie counting. You’ll know what’s right for you, and even if you’re unsure at the start of the meal, you’ll be aware enough to know while you’re eating. You’ll feel much less anxious about calories and much more self-assured when you eat.

As I learned when I stopped weighing my food, relinquishing (external) control gives you much more real control.

Mindfulness is the path to this outcome.

Simple, but not easy

As I said at the start, eating slowly is simple, but it’s not easy. I listed some strategies you can use - go back and take a look if you want to give this a go!

Eating slowly is easy to understand. The ways you can do it are simple. But it’s not easy to do them. As usual, it’s not so much the ‘what’ to do, but the ‘how’ to do it that’s hard. It’s entirely normal for you to find this difficult - I know I do!

You might notice some resistance in things like:

  • You don’t love your favourite junk foods as much as you thought. Be prepared for some grief and loss here.
  • You are rushing and stressed much of the time anyway. Trying to eat slowly stresses you out because you “don’t have time”. Start with eating slowly just one meal a day. Ask yourself, am I really so busy I can’t take 15 minutes to eat?
  • It’s hard to be alone and quiet with yourself while eating. Maybe you rushed lunch before because you were avoiding being alone. I encourage you to try for a few minutes and sit with any discomfort. Be curious about the discomfort.

Even slowing down by a minute or two in a meal is a victory. Focus on when you could eat slowly rather than when you couldn’t. You haven’t failed at eating slowly if you rushed the first half of the meal but slowed down for the second half. Once you’re aware, you can’t go back to being unaware.

I’d love to hear how you go trying to eat slowly. Let me know in the comments, or send me an email! I’m curious, do you have any other strategies to eat slowly?

Everyday Mindfulness: Notice and Name

While studying for my Precision Nutrition Level 2 certification, I came across this cool metaphor for the relationship between our frontal cortex (‘thinking’ brain) and our deeper emotional brain. It’s from the book ‘Switch’ by Chip and Dan Heath. I think it’s a great way to describe the challenges you face when you’re trying to make a change in your life.

The elephant and the rider

  • The rider is logical, planning, judging, ‘thinky’ brain. It controls the direction of the elephant... sort of.
  • The elephant is the deeper emotional brain, as well as the more basic physical sensations and impulses devoted to survival. It’s powerful and the rider can only direct it for so long.
  • The path is the environment. The path can affect the elephants movements much more strongly than the rider can, and usually unconsciously.

As the rider, you believe yourself to be in control. So you try to ‘control’ the emotional-brain elephant. You will be met with disastrous consequences when you try to force the elephant to go somewhere it doesn’t want to go (or indeed, if something surprises the elephant on the path).

Instead, your job as the rider is to observe and guide the elephant to navigate the path carefully. You can do this through mindfulness - observing your emotional brain and your environment and acting accordingly.

Speaking to the rider alone is a waste of time. The rider will be overwhelmed by the elephant at some point and the elephant is constrained by the path. Instead, you must talk to the rider, guide the elephant, and shape the path.

Noticing and Naming

You can start doing this with a basic mindfullness strategy called “noticing and naming”. This helps the rider (thinky brain) observe the elephants (emotional brain) movements and the paths contribution so you can respond rather than react.

Noticing is about observing and describing something at the most basic level. Naming is taking that description further and putting language (or imagery/metaphor) to it.

This should happen before you decide how to respond.

Give it a go. Ask yourself three questions today:

  1. What am I noticing?
  2. What would I name the thing I’m observing?
  3. How will I choose to respond?

Human Needs aren't Dependent on Human Biology

All human needs, including sexuality, lie beyond the animal world. They are historically determined and historically mutable.

I circled this quote on the reading because I had no idea what it meant.

I have started going to a weekly reading group where we bring interesting articles, lectures, or any media to discuss. This quote is from what I’m told is a famous lecture by Herbert Marcuse, first delivered in 1967, called “The End of Utopia”. I know I ostensibly write about philosophy on this blog, but I would say that the breadth of my knowledge is woeful - attending this reading group is part of how I am educating myself.

Luckily for me, the person who brings the reading to the group leads the discussion. So I confessed my ignorance of Marxist philosophy and asked for an explanation of the quote.

What followed was incredibly though provoking for me.

Marcuse is saying that human needs are determined by culture. What we refer to as needs are all a level above the “animal world” needs like water or breathing. He argues that our needs are not defined by our biology and are infinitely open to change.

If your needs are not defined by your biology, then how are they defined? The world around you is the primary driver. Above any beyond the most basic needs, what you know and can perceive defines what you need. Aristotle has a useful model (check out this summary if you’re interested: Aristotle on the soul) for this idea in his degrees of soul hierarchy.

Aristotle's model on the soul. 

Aristotle's model on the soul. 

  1. The nutritive soul (plants): Growth, nutrition (reproduction)
  2. The sensitive soul (all animals): Movement and perception
  3. Rational soul (humans): Intellect and thought.

This model is a useful way to think about how you navigate the world as a human. There is an immediate connection between sensing something and action. How can you act if you don’t sense something? You need to be able to see it, smell it, feel it, touch it, or perceive it in some way before you can do anything about it. So, your sensitive soul defines your needs. How you move through the world defines your needs. You can change what you need by changing what you perceive.

Changing how you move and going outside to see new things is a really good way to change your perceptions and reset your needs a little. 

Changing how you move and going outside to see new things is a really good way to change your perceptions and reset your needs a little. 

Humans have the capacity for intellect and thought too. Needs derived from thinking are just as real as needs derived from the lower levels of the soul hierarchy. And yet, the basis of the needs derived from thought are affected by the lower levels.

I don’t know where I’m going with this yet. I have questions: to what extent is this theory is based on a Western perspective? Is there a way to figure out our biological needs apart from what would be torture? Do the Levels of the Soul really matter when the individual experiences needs as real regardless of what level the need derives from? This is weird to think about. How do you think about your needs? Let me know in the comments!

Photo by Anthony Intraversato on Unsplash

Ego Incompetence

A few days ago I was telling a friend of mine about how I had been feeling incompetent in my new job. Everything is new, I’m not sure what I’ve got myself into and I’m questioning whether I can even do this job. Her response was interesting:

Being new is the worst. I feel incompetent even now and I have been at my job for a year! I wonder if you ever get good at these things.

This got me thinking. Why exactly do you feel incompetent in new jobs? Is it because you actually are incompetent? Have they made a mistake in hiring you? This line of thinking feels awfully familiar. It’s a protective way of thinking while in a vulnerable position. Your ego has reared its head again!

You’re so distracted by whether you appear to be competent to your new boss, that you forget to be competent at the job.

Ryan Holiday put it perfectly:

Just one thing keeps ego around—since it certainly doesn’t serve any productive purpose. It is comfort. Pursuing great work—whether in sports, art, or business— is often terrifying. Ego soothes that fear. It’s a salve to our insecurity. Replacing the rational and aware parts of our psyche with bluster and self-absorption, ego tells us what we want to hear, when we want to hear it.

But it is a short- term fix with a long- term consequence. Which is why we must fight it.

Look, I’ll admit it. It’s easier said than done to fight this feeling. I only ask that when you notice your own mind calling you names like ‘incompetent’ when you’re trying new things, try telling it that you appreciate its opinion, but you’re trying this new thing anyway thank you very much. You have to let it tell you its opinion (or it’ll never shut up) but you don’t have to act on it.

On Grieving, Festivals, and Fasting

An Aside

The last 18 months or so has been particularly challenging. Things are different now and they’ll never be the same again. I’m okay, change isn't all bad but I’m grieving for the loss. I’m being cryptic about what exactly I’m talking about here because I’m simultaneously embarrassed about the triviality of my problems and learning to accept that they have been serious problems for me. I’m not embarrassed to say that I’ve sought quite a lot of help from friends, family, and medical professionals. It has meant the world to me and I thank each and every one of them for what they’ve done.

While this is still going on, I’m not ready to talk openly about it. But I do intend to share later - I think my experiences can help you. As for right now, I want to talk to you about some of the philosophy that is helping me. Seneca[1] and stoic philosophy might help you too.


Seneca’s letter on Grief and the Key to Resilience in the Face of Loss

This post was prompted when I received the excellent Brain Pickings newsletter that included a write up of Seneca’s letter to his mother on Grief and the Key to Resilience in the Face of Loss. Most striking to me was this section on taking things for granted:

No man has been shattered by the blows of Fortune unless he was first deceived by her favours. Those who loved her gifts as if they were their own for ever, who wanted to be admired on account of them, are laid low and grieve when the false and transient pleasures desert their vain and childish minds, ignorant of every stable pleasure. But the man who is not puffed up in good times does not collapse either when they change. His fortitude is already tested and he maintains a mind unconquered in the face of either condition: for in the midst of prosperity he has tried his own strength against adversity.

This is not a call to simply expect the worst all the time and remain cynical about all good times; but rather a call to use fortunate times to prepare oneself for bad times. Enjoy the good times, but do not take them for granted as though they will last forever. This will not only let you enjoy the good times more thoroughly, but also prepare you for when they may pass.

Seneca’s Moral Letters to Lucilius - On Festivals and Fasting

In another of his letters (to Lucilius), Seneca touches on this same idea.

Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence.

I read this passage for the first time about two years ago. As it turns out, I’ve had quite a few days in the past 18 months where I have asked myself “is this the condition that I feared?” Even though I was not purposefully putting myself through hardship as Seneca is suggesting to Lucilius, this question was still helpful to step outside my experience, even for a moment so I could observe it for what it was. Seneca is saying that one should practice this skill so that it comes more easily in times of hardship.

Ride the Wave of your Experiences

Seneca’s letter to his mother on grief recommends that it is better to ride the wave of our experiences rather than avoid them:

It is better to conquer our grief than to deceive it. For if it has withdrawn, being merely beguiled by pleasures and preoccupations, it starts up again and from its very respite gains force to savage us. But the grief that has been conquered by reason is calmed for ever. I am not therefore going to prescribe for you those remedies which I know many people have used, that you divert or cheer yourself by a long or pleasant journey abroad, or spend a lot of time carefully going through your accounts and administering your estate, or constantly be involved in some new activity. All those things help only for a short time; they do not cure grief but hinder it. But I would rather end it than distract it.

This applies for many emotional experiences. Anxiety about emotions can rise rapidly and avoiding them feels good in the moment. In this way, we are rewarded each time we avoid, further reinforcing that behaviour. But the problem is, it doesn’t deal with the emotions that are troubling us. If anything, avoiding the emotions can make them larger and harder to tackle.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. I’m bad at this. But I try to use Seneca’s question to pull myself out of the experience so I can observe it: “is this the condition that I feared?”


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Image: morhamedufmg