Red, Yellow, Green: A Tool for Mindfulness and Developing Self-Knowledge

Know Thyself. As many of us are aware, we are all… | by CMAHC Australia |  Medium

Know thyself. That’s what we are supposed to do, isn’t it? The image here, a screenshot from the 1999 film The Matrix, is, in part an exploration of knowing oneself. It’s a point when the character Neo, must confront his uncertainly, face his fears and discomfort and walk forward into difficult and seemingly impossible circumstances.

There is great power and wisdom in learning who you are, in how you move through the world. Knowing how you will react to something, can be a useful tool for a better life and for working in less than ideal circumstances. There are endless books and meditation masters who teach how to develop this kind of self-knowledge and wisdom. But it’s not easy, is it?

I’ve now been a practicing Buddhist for 6 years. But before that, I dabbled in pretty much every religion and religious teachings I could get my hands on. For me, Buddhism has turned out to be the best path for developing self-knowledge, but it’s certainly not for everyone. Different people require different tools and different methods to develop their self-awareness and no one tool is necessarily better than the other, they are just different. So, when I come across a new tool, or a series of encounters that creates some sort of alchemy in my brain and allows me to share what I think could be a useful one, I try to share it with people.

Recently my partner introduced me to the concept of Red, Yellow, and Green consent. That when you are doing things together, you can use that as a method to regulate experiences to gauge how you are feeling about things, and how to proceed. Then today, listening to Pema Chodron’s wonderful audio lectures Don’t Bite the Hook, it occurred to me that this method could be used for developing all sorts of mindfulness and personal awareness when working with your mind and emotions, especially in the realm of anger and frustration.

Red, Yellow, Green, the colors of a traffic light can tell us a lot about how we are feeling internally. So let’s break them down:

Red: I am absolutely not okay with this. It needs to stop immediately, it’s too much or too fast… or too something… and makes me deeply uncomfortable, afraid, or angry. I need to step back now and get out of this situation.

Yellow: This is pushing my boundaries and I am feeling some discomfort, but if we proceed cautiously I might be okay. However, I might need to stop and step back too. I had better check in with myself frequently as I proceed.

Green: I’m totally fine and this experience is going well. We can proceed with what we are doing or where we are going without worrying. I am feeling at peace with my outer circumstances.

This can be applied to anything. You can apply this to going out to a bar and meeting new people. You can apply it to deal with that difficult family member. How about that solo backpacking trip in another country where you don’t speak the language? I think it could also work extremely well in counseling or therapy, especially when trying to tackle painful experiences and trauma.

Knowing where you are at can be hard sometimes and sometimes you might not be sure. If you aren’t sure you are at it, you are likely in the yellow territory. It means you need to pay attention to your thoughts and your emotions as the situation develops. Honestly, a lot of life we spend in a kind of trepidatious code yellow don’t we? Some of us more than others. So much of our life is framed with expectations and assumptions and one thing you can do with the practice of looking at code yellow moments really digs into why you might be having those assumptions and expectations.

I often say, especially when discussing forthcoming books or films, expectations are the death of joy. If you are so filled up with expectations, you may miss something amazing because it didn’t go exactly how you thought it would. This is a lot of what Zen Master Suzuki Roshi was writing about all those years ago in his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. If we go into things like an open and positive beginner, much of life will be easier. But life can wound us, and if we aren’t careful, we fall into the expectation of it always wounding us, which can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.

Why is this method useful? Well, when you are venturing into uncharted waters, no matter what that form might take, a few breaths and checking in with yourself can be a really important way to stop things from escalating to the point of allowing them to get out of control. Sometimes when we are in the middle of something we can find ourselves swept into an experience that we don’t understand, or that will later be a source of trauma, depression, shame, guilt, or anger. So, if we can check in with ourselves as things are happening, we can develop self-knowledge about how different experiences impact our mental and emotional health.

But what if I don’t have a choice?

If you go into a situation that you don’t have a choice but to be in a yellow or red situation, say dealing with a really difficult family member, you can still use this method. How? Well you know going in, it’s already a code yellow situation. You know that you are wary, and in the past, you have had lots of negative encounters with spending time with this family member. So, knowing that in advance, you can build in breaks or moments of comfort.

Perhaps you can only handle this person for an hour before you need a break. So, set an alarm, or have a friend call or text you to remind you when it’s been an hour and you need a break. You could also just set hour-long meetings with them until you’re comfortable with longer. In any case, after that hour, you can have a strategy for escaping what’s happening. Perhaps you go step outside for five minutes and center yourself. Maybe you go and take a little bit longer in the bathroom and take some deep breaths, notice where you are keeping tension, (or if your Buddhist say some mantras or practice a compassion exercise), and try to just be with it. Many religions and spiritual traditions have different methods for handling things like this. Make a plan. You’d be surprised how much it helps.

The point is if you know you are going into a situation that is yellow you can prepare. If you find yourself in the Red, it can be more difficult. You may have to physically leave. If you have no choice but to go into a Code Red situation, maybe consider bringing an ally that will help keep you grounded, or at least set  clear boundaries for how things will proceed. Perhaps on the way there you listen to something calming and walk into the situation centered. We can’t always avoid these kinds of situations, but we can prepare ourselves and shift the way we think about them. As Pema Chodron says, (paraphrased) you can’t really avoid pain, but what you do with it, is what matters. Pain can be a powerful ally for personal growth and transformation if we let it be.

And of course, this tool may not work for you. It may work for very few people in general. But the point is, to work on learning about yourself. Practicing remembering where you are at, what you are doing, and what habits are further creating conflict in your life. Sometimes just noticing those things that upset you can be a doorway to something so much better.

The Great Risk of Truly Being

The Great Risk of Truly Being

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about my Buddhist spiritual path and also I’ve been rereading Children of Dune by Frank Herbert. This is because the Dune movie comes out in October 2021 and I wanted to be reminded of why I love that universe. This quote in particular stuck with me today in thinking about my own spiritual path and the way I live my life.

“You, Priest in your mufti, you are a chaplain to the self-satisfied. I come not to challenge Muad’Dib but to challenge you! Is your religion real when it costs you nothing and carries no risk? Is your religion real when you fatten upon it? Is your religion real when you commit atrocities in its name? Whence comes your downward degeneration from the original revelation? Answer me, Priest!” – Children of Dune by Frank Herbert

Children of Dune by Frank Herbert: 9780593201749 | PenguinRandomHouse.com:  Books

Now understand, if you haven’t read the Dune series, it is fundamentally about the nature and dangers of power and of messiahs/heroes. Paul Atreides, the main character in the first book, knows because of his ability to see the future, that a holy war will be waged in his name and there is little he can do about it. The book, and the series as a whole, asks us to consider what we believe, who we have mythologized, and what that says about humanity, power, love, compassion and asks what it means to be human. There is a reason that the book is considered a masterpiece by both the literary community and many sci-fi lovers. Dune is also the best-selling Sci-fi Novel of all time. Even if it’s not for you (because every great work has people who don’t like or understand it and there is nothing wrong with that), it has lots of powerful things to say about the way humans do things.

Stop right now, and think about your life path. Is your path about self-satisfaction? It is about serving your interests? Is it about the arrogance of being right above all others? Or, is your way of knowing the world about self-reflection? Is there a space for growth and change, the transformation into the best version of yourself? Are you taking the risk to truly be or are you buried in a series of identity markers and worried about defining who you are to everyone you meet? Do you focus on comparison? We all fall into these traps, I know I do sometimes and have to catch myself.

So many religious and non-religious people seek a philosophy not out of transformation and growth, but for comfort and safety. They like things that make their life feel cozy and warm. And while the benefits of community (notice the word unity at the end of the word) are important and worthwhile, I want you to sincerely ask yourself, what have you done to grow lately? Have you acknowledged the ways in which you are wrong or at least entertained the idea that you might be wrong? It can be powerful to look at your ideas and consider that you might be wrong about everything (even if you end up being correct) once in a while. Are you doing the work to be a better version of yourself or are you feeding the beast of arrogance and certainty?

You might be thinking, well isn’t a better version of myself a self-serving principle? It is not. Why? Because a better version of yourself will have better daily interactions. It will be less angry, less selfish/greedy. A better version of yourself will listen with patience to others rather than jumping to conclusions and is much more likely to help those in need. A better version will not only suffer less, but cause others to suffer less. A better version of yourself means that your part of the world, and potentially the whole world, is a little better. It might not add up to much, but imagine if everyone was doing this kind of work on at least a semi-regular basis.

So if your religion or ideology or philosophy (secular or non) is about what you can gain personally from others no matter the cost, then you might need to stop and reflect. What do you serve? Some of you might simply say God or Country, but if your service is exclusive only to those who believe what you do, or conditional on whether or not they will act and behave in the way you want them to, then you only serve an idol of the self and arrogance.

Another quote to consider from verse 8 of the Tao Te Ching:

“The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.”

If you are Christian, you can see a similar attitude in The Sermon on the Mount and a number of other places in the bible. If you’re Muslim, there are words like this in the Koran, or the Hindu Vedas, in many Buddhist Sutras, and so on. The teachings of many religious philosophies overlap in the idea of personal growth is vital, and yet, somehow the worship of the myth structure becomes far more important than the actual practice of working toward being a better person. We often view these ideas as a panacea for the poisons of living in a difficult world and forget that nothing comes without work.

Instead, we see so many religions (and secular ideologies) restrict people’s actions out of a false sense of morality or limited black and white thinking. But the world is full of shades of grey. Even really good people do terrible things. Really bad people sometimes show amazing acts of kindness and compassion. It is so easy to pin a group of people or a culture to a certain standard or ideology, rather than accepting the fact, that no matter where you go, people are just people and all are equally complex.

So ask yourself sincerely, what purpose does your religion or ideology serve? Is it about the betterment of yourself and humanity? If not, it’s just another object to be possessed, a kind of materialism, a limit to the way you think and approach the world. If your heart is closed because of what you subscribe to, then you very likely have missed the entire point.

The work is not comfortable. The work is not easy. The work isn’t about serving the self. The work is risky and sometimes dangerous to your identity. If you have summed up your identity in a few key terms (be it a religious identity, a political affiliation, a gender, a mental state, really anything), then you have forgotten that we are an ever-changing, ever-moving entity. You are not the same person you were when you started reading this short essay, even if you reject all of my ideas.

Personal growth, in my view, is the most important thing we can do. After all, using this life, this precious moment (no matter if you believe in one life or countless lives) seems to me, to be the reason why humans are on this planet. Let your spirituality or philosophy open you up to the wonders of the universe. After all, there is endless beauty and joy to be discovered both out there, and within. You need only take off the veils or masks that we all wear and look honestly.

Actually, You Probably Don’t Use Your Free Will

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What does Free Will Even Mean?

Do humans have free will? This is one of those great questions of the ages. I am not going to claim here that I have an answer, just some thoughts, and opinions on the topic. You have to make up your own mind about it. Nor am I going to claim that my particular thoughts on the subject are original. They probably aren’t, and certainly, some of them have been heavily influenced by the Eastern Philosophy that I have spent years reading.

So let’s refine this question. Does everyone have free will?

My answer? No.

Now once, when I was a young Catholic teenager I said this to one of my youth group leaders. She came over and punched me in the arm and said, I just expressed my free will, didn’t I? Being a young teenager and not really having the ability to articulate what I was saying, she won the argument. But if I was going to back now, I would argue, that what she did wasn’t an act of free will, but a reaction to a particular kind of external stimuli.

When I say that not everyone has free I am not going to make a claim that particular group is more capable of this than others, I don’t think that could possibly be true. What I mean, is that the majority of people are not present enough, not mindful enough to actually express their free will. They are just mindlessly reacting. That’s not will, that’s cultural programming and instinct.

Most of what we do in life is not of our conscious choice. Most of what we do is a reaction. What does that mean? It means that without the space and presence of mind to stop and actually make a conscious choice, we aren’t acting of our free will. Instead, we’re caught in a net of cause and effect. Someone with a true conscious choice, with true free will, can break free of the old patterns of cause and effect and completely change the game.

What do I a mean? Let’s use a fairly common example of a reactionary situation. I will use this example because even if it has never happened to you, you have certainly heard of a situation like this or seen it on tv or read it somewhere.

Imagine being held at up at gunpoint in the middle of a parking lot. It’s broad daylight. How do you react? I’ll give you a moment to think on it.

You are probably thinking, well I would just give the mugger what they want and they would go away. Maybe you have a background in combat or martial arts and you figure, I’d kick his ass. Maybe you are a gun-toting 2nd amendment stand up and fight kind of person and you would draw your gun the second you had a chance. No matter what you would do, all of those things are reactions, not choices. They feed the same tired old cause and effect. They don’t make things better, they just continue the status quo, the cycle, the pattern.

A rection is something that arises from emotions, from stress, from neurological patterns that you have spent a lifetime building. X input will result in Y reaction. It is why there are all kinds of mental games you can play with people’s thoughts. It’s how cold reading works.

But here is an article with an example of someone who was present in that situation, who did make a conscious choice. NPR A Victim Treats his Mugger Right

I’ll summarize for you real quick so you don’t have to go read it unless you want to. Basically, a mugger threatens a guy with a knife and as the mugger is walking away he offered the mugger his coat. They end up eating dinner together and the Mugger gives back his wallet and leaves his knife behind.

There is a difference here. This person with enough space and presence was not only able to change the course of the game but drastically alter it so that they were creating something entirely new. It is only in a true conscious choice that the space for real change can begin.

Now you might say well hell, what if the guy just killed him? What if it ended badly for both of them? No one said that free will is a safe course or a safe option. In fact, true transcendence of the simple reaction to any situation requires a large degree of courage and fearlessness. It requires that you leap into the unknown and accept that all situations are impermeant, that yes, you may die, but so what?

Your reaction is probably something like, but what about my family? What about the consequences of my death? What about all the things I will miss out on? Maybe I would have more time if I act a certain way? I am sure that you, like most people, fear death. This is a reaction, not a conscious choice.

But death doesn’t give a shit. It can come for you at any moment and in fact, for most of us, it will catch us completely off guard. It will sneak around the corner and end you and you can’t do a damn thing about it. You aren’t invincible. You will die. Playing it safe probably won’t help you. For example, a family member of mine was murdered working third shift at a convenience store when he was only a teenager. What does that mean? Nothing. Rationalize it with any theological argument you want, death is still coming for you.

It is good and right to contemplate this. You cannot truly live, you cannot truly have free will, you cannot be liberated from stagnation without accepting death as a concrete thing.

True free will is risky, it is dangerous, but it also contains in it a true power to remake the world. True free will is also hard work. It is uncomfortable and messy. You make lots of mistakes and you have to own up to them. But the amazing thing is, true free will is also what allows us to experiment, what allows people to come up with amazing solutions to complex and seemingly impossible problems.

It is the unthinking, unfeeling masses that bring upon terrible conditions in the world. Millions of people are starving in the streets and yet, nearly half of all food in the United States is discarded. We waste half our food

War, poverty, homelessness, so many of the ills of our world come from the lack of the exercise of our free will. Most of us just try to get through our day, apathetic to the consequences of our actions, of the things we do or use.

One of my current favorite authors, Anne Leckie, has a fantastic quote in her book Ancillary Justice. “Luxury always comes at someone else’s expense. One of the many advantages of civilization is that one doesn’t generally have to see that, if one doesn’t wish. You’re free to enjoy its benefits without troubling your conscience.”

So how do you become more conscious? You have to create a space of self-examination. You can do this through various activities. The easiest and most powerful way is meditation. It doesn’t matter which kind of meditation you do but the purpose of meditation is self-reflection. It is creating the space in your brain and in your experience to stop and act consciously. Meditation is training your brain to do just that, to have the focus and the presence of mind to detach from simple reactions and transform them into conscious choices.

The thing is, it doesn’t start happening overnight. It takes a long time for people to transform. Think of this way, if you are 20 years old, you built up 20 years of habits around the way you think and react. You create mental impressions and ideas of how to react based on certain situations. There is also a cultural level to this as well. By the way, this is what Karma is about. The concept of Karma is entirely misunderstood in the West. If you want to read a different piece I wrote over on Quora on Karma you can find it here.

So what does this all mean? Well as I said in my last entry, if you want freedom it requires discipline. Anyone can do this, but few actually embark on it. As humans, we can do better. We need to do better. We will do better. The world is ours to remake, if we can only be a little more conscious.

 

On Discipline, Desire, Suffering and Transformation

Dune Quote

Driving in Traffic this morning and listening to an audiobook I came across the quote above. I had to rewind the audiobook several times and listen to it over and over. Partly cause I was completely stopped for a good few minutes and needed to focus on something else for my sanity, and partly because I was just so captivated. Why? There’s so much to it. It is one of those small deep truths that we rarely fully understand. It is a kind of precious gem.

Ask yourself, what are you trying to achieve with your goals? What are your dreams and aspirations? My guess is that it has something to do with freedom. Most of us, in a capitalistic society, are chasing money, some out of survival and some out of sheer desire. But why are you chasing money? Freedom.

This could be freedom from harassment, freedom to travel, freedom to sleep in, freedom to spend time with your family, the freedom of owning a home, or many other things. But it always seemed to me, that the more we chase freedom the more we are caught in a web of desire.

Frank Herbert, the author of arguably one of the greatest science fiction novels (and I believe the best selling) integrated a lot of Zen ideas into his work. This is partly because he was fascinated by Zen and partly because he was a huge fan of the 1960’s Zen teacher Alan Watts.

For those of you who aren’t Buddhist, the core idea of Buddhism is the four noble truths. Now hold on, before you click away, this totally relates, I promise.

1. Life is dissatisfying and we suffer. This isn’t nihilistic, just an observation, like a doctor saying, hey you should probably stop eating copious amounts of sugar, cause it’s gonna cause problems.

2. The cause of suffering is clinging to stuff or trying to pin your happiness on something outside yourself. The problem with this is that stuff changes or disappears and good or bad, nothing lasts forever. Yes, even grandma’s eternal fruitcake or that Mcdonald’s sandwich that has been sitting in the open air for ages. Eventually, they will pass away, though probably not in my lifetime.

3. There is a path out. By the way, there are 2500 years of evidence that these methods do work. People have radically changed themselves through Buddhist practice and meditation.

4. The last of the noble truths is a series of practices and methods for the cultivation of discipline to get out of this sense of dissatisfaction and suffering. This is known as the 8-Fold Path.

So what does all this have to do with freedom and discipline? Well, if you are chasing after freedom, you’ll never find satisfaction. Either, you will, at some point, lose that freedom or you will always be chasing after more. It may also be the case that what you thought would bring you freedom, may actually only be freedom in perception, meaning that it wasn’t as good of a deal as you thought. That fixer-upper you bought because you were inspired by one of those reality tv-shows… you probably understand this pretty well.

If you really want to change your life, if you really want to find greater peace and internal freedom, then you must cultivate discipline. You would be amazed how one small act of discipline can change your life. I like to say, a little bit every day goes a very long way.

In the interest of transparency, I am not the most discipline personed in the world. Also, I haven’t been a formal practitioner of Buddhism for terribly long, only about 2 years. But I have noticed a significant change in my attitude and my ability to work with difficult situations.

But, I’m not saying you should run out and check out Buddhism. What I am suggesting is that if you want to make a real significant change in your life, find a way to establish some discipline. You see, what you will notice when you make a commitment to some kind of discipline is that it will start to spread to others areas of life. Shit, I just cleaned my bedroom because a few things were out of order. I would have never done that a year ago. I’m normally a two-pile kind of guy, one of clean clothes, one of dirty.

But look, it could be something small. Perhaps, like me, you want to be a writer and you make a commitment to write at least 500 words a day. By the way, you are reading my daily words right now. Or maybe you want to learn a language, you could download an app like Duolinguo and spend 15 minutes on there every single day. For me, it began with making a commitment to meditating. As of writing this I am currently on a 123-day streak of daily meditation and attempting to get to a full year.

I know it’s hard. I know you are tired from working multiple jobs and having a family. Believe me, I know all those things intimately. I’ve done both and still sometimes do. That’s why you need to create some accountability while you build a habit. Make a team on Duo-Lingo. Join the ‘My 500 Words’ Facebook group and post daily. If you want to get in shape, find a friend and sign up for an event so you have to train. I did this back in 2014 and signed up for a century-ride. It was a painful first ride attempt because I wasn’t as disciplined as needed. I have since learned my lesson.

Community is crazy important in establishing discipline. In fact, the Buddha recognized this 2500 years ago when he told his adepts that one of the most important things (we say one of the three jewels) is a community (Sangha). Community is there when you are too tired to continue. They are there when you just want to say, to hell with. They remind you what you are doing it all for. By the way, having a loving and supporting partner is also a bonus, but if you are like me and don’t, friends are also excellent at this. Tell them to bug you about it.

Of course, all of this is just advice. There is no shame in living an undisciplined life. Not everyone has the opportunity or the ability to make a radical change. Sometimes the conditions just aren’t there. Personal transformation isn’t easy, it isn’t comfortable and sometimes you are going to hate it. But that is how you know it’s working. If you find discipline, you will ultimately have to confront things about yourself that you don’t like. But this is the price for true freedom.

Feel free to share your stories about discipline or what you have been trying to build a habit around in the comments below. I am happy to discuss this more.