There’s a simple – possibly universal – truth to that, even though it sounds like yet another groan-inducing pseudospiritual platitude on par with the tiresome works of David Wolfe. What makes it stand out, I think, is that it need not be over-encumbered with the fluffy, insubstantial nonsense that fills most self-help books, to pad the page count and justify a higher price.
Let’s be realistic, most self-help books would be MORE helpful if their simple and often useful advise were presented in a pamphlet. Don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Four Agreements is a wonderful example. Everything you need to know in order to adapt it to your lifestyle to great positive effect is already right there on the official page. Trust in your ability to discern and think critically, and you can figure it out and apply it to your day-to-day behavior. It’s really not difficult, it’s nothing more than a creative reframing of great advice that seems like it should be common sense. Don’t get me wrong, Ruiz is a wonderful, sweet, compassionate man; I just feel his distilled teachings of ancient Toltec wisdom needn’t be quite so wordy.
How this differs is that A House with Four Rooms is not is not a self-help book, it’s an autobiography. Any useful life skills to be gleaned from it are secondary to this woman explaining how she lived her life, and what she learned from having done so. I would like to read it, and I intend to add it to my library soon; you know, when I’m done reading the million other books I’m already halfway finished with (a re-read of Stephen King’s The Talisman, Tim Ferris’ The 4 Hour Body, The Brain Warrior’s Way, by Daniel and Tana Amen, and Robert Anton Wilson’s Quantum Psychology, just to name a few). Not to mention the million movies, TV shows, and documentaries I’ve been meaning to watch on Netflix. I’m going to need a couple additional lifetimes to absorb all of that.
At any rate, I have assimilated the simple quote above into my life, and have reworked and rephrased it thusly:
There are four posts which act as the foundation of our being: Mind, Body, Heart, and Soul. Each is equally important, and each should be exercised – like a muscle – daily at the very least. These four posts are only as strong as we allow them to be, and required proper maintenance and attention, lest they begin to rot, and the firmament of our being become unstable. Instability may not directly lead to a collapse in and of itself, but a stiff breeze could knock the whole thing to the ground. This is why addicts, for example, could be said to hit rock bottom. Sometimes the rot is so bad that nothing short of tearing the whole thing down can fix it.
Let’s look at each of these posts:
If we want to look at this from the a different framework, we could consider the mind to be our operating system. The thing about an operating system is that one must be aware of how it works to have any hope of keeping it in working order. If you’re ignorant or apathetic to it, all sorts of nasty infections and viruses can easily take root, memory leaks can occur, the computer can even fail entirely. Bad thinking, poor logic, the inability or unwillingness to think outside of one’s biases or to accept new evidence, and more than anything else, the refusal to self-observe, are all examples of this.
Like anything else, these are habits, and any habit can be overwritten. A popular concept these days is neuroplasticity. Simply put, the reason why we hold to our habits is a matter of the path of least resistance. Every time one engages in a new behavior set, a new synaptic pathway is created. The more one repeats said behavior set, the more that given pathway becomes reinforced. Given enough time, it becomes the default reaction to a given stimuli. By engaging in practices that improve the ability to self-observe (more on that in a moment), combined with the will to replace or modify a habit, one can slowly but reliably train one’s brain to create and reinforce a new behavior set. With enough time, this behavior set will replace the old one as the default.
The old synaptic pathways remain, however, which is why it is so easy to backslide into old habits. And some habits are easier to develop than others, especially if there’s a great deal of reward (i.e. the dopamine reaction that governs each and every addiction in the human condition, from drugs and alcohol, to sex and gambling, to more benign highs such as ecstatic religious states, the endorphin rush experienced by endurance runners and weightlifters, and the simple pleasure of a job well done.
One way of improving one’s ability to self-observe is through mindfulness practices, such as breathing exercises and meditation. Meditation is beginning to be scrutinized by the scientific community, and some studies (I don’t have them handy, so please forgive any unintentional pseudoscientific claims) suggest a correlation between these practices and lower blood pressure, a lowering of cortisol production in the body (reducing stress and aiding in the body’s natural healing processes), improved sleep, higher tolerance to both emotional and physical pain (including symptoms presented by mental illnesses such as clinical depression and bipolar disorder), and the ability to withstand cravings associated with addiction.
In the future, I’ll be sharing some of the mindfulness practices I have found helpful, but in the meantime, if you would like a simple breathing exercise that you can do in under ten minutes, check out this article on Nadi Shodna Pranayama (also known as alternative nostril breathing). Please note that I am in no way, shape, or form a medical professional, I hold no licenses or professional accreditation in the field of medicine, and any advice I offer is merely based on my own experience. I also must stress that you please never attempt this sort of thing while operating heavy machinery or driving a vehicle, as diverting attention away from such activities is very dangerous. More advanced breathing techniques (such as the Wim Hof Method) can make you light-headed as well. Bottom line: safety first! Do your homework and talk to your doctor.
It cannot have escaped you that the above section slowly edged toward the body. There is a curious connection between the mind and the body that defies conventional scientific understanding, and which highlights our very limited understanding of what consciousness is and how it works. Phenomena such as the placebo effect are poorly understood, but it seems that even when one is aware that the treatment they are undergoing is only a placebo effect, it still works. Something is happening on a subconscious level that the active, conscious areas of the mind cannot touch; at least not in any way we currently understand.
With this in mind, please realize that any physical activity you partake in, whether beneficial to the body, or detrimental to it, with have similar effects on the mind.
The good thing is that the attending to the body, while not easy, is rather simple. For example, if you are hoping to lose weight, you can forget fad diets and popular exercise trends. The old axiom holds true: to lose weight, you must burn more calories than you eat (CI/CO). It seems like it shouldn’t be that simple, but it really is.
But weight loss isn’t necessarily an ideal goal, at least not by itself. While being obese or even overweight can put enormous strain on your joints, and visceral fat and high LDL cholesterol and triglycerides (common to obesity, but not necessarily ubiquitous) can ravage your internal organs, leading to stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and so on).
Throw away the concept of weight loss and replace it with fat loss. That’s a fine goal. Weight is not as important as body composition, and while BMI is a good general guidepost, realistically, muscle mass and tone, waist, hip, and neck measurements, and the way your clothing fits are much better guides as to progress. Ultimately, fat loss is a positive side-effect of a healthy diet and exercise routine.
In the future, I’ll be talking about my exercise routines and how I figure my caloric needs and balance my macro and micronutrient levels, but for now, I’ll break down the basics:
- Aerobic Exercise: High-Intensity Interval Training (or H.I.I.T.) has been show to burn more calories per hour than a sustained aerobic effort. By switching between short periods of high level aerobic exercise followed by shorter rest periods, you can exert more overall effort, prime your metabolism, and more effectively improve your cardiovascular and respiratory health.
- Anaerobic Exercise: Some swear by yoga. I’ve never found it particularly useful, and vastly prefer weight lifting, but the general rule is simply that any exercise that encourages lean muscle growth will result in overall better health. Lean muscle burns more calories in a resting state than fat, a pound of muscle takes up significantly less space than a pound of fat, a lean body better supports the skeleton and puts less stress on vital organs, and it provides more energy, more endurance, and more strength than a less muscular body. Also, if attaining a lean, tight physique is among your fitness goals, understand that low body fat without muscle mass will result in a soft, doughy appearance, commonly known as “skinny-fat”. If you’re okay with that, that’s perfectly fine! You don’t have to adhere to some arbitrary standard of beauty. But if you want that lean, muscular look, you’re going to need to train your muscles; there’s just no way around it.
As always, consult your doctor and do some research. If you join a gym, make an appointment with a trainer, who can help you develop a plan (if you don’t have a plan, you’re just going to drift around the gym aimlessly, waste a lot of time that could be spent elsewhere, and your workouts won’t be as efficient).
Now we stray into less measurable territory. What is heart? Despite the Soul post, I view heart as spirituality. That may seem incongruous, but hear me out. Heart is the measure of your character, how you treat others, how you view life, your values, your morality.
Some will insist that you must have religion in your life to be well-guided in this area. Some will, in fact, insist that you must have THEIR religion specifically. While I will never begrudge someone their beliefs, that doesn’t mean I agree with them, or even respect them. And in the case of those that would view themselves as superior to others for their beliefs, I can conjure little respect. But most religious people I have met are not like that, and I say, if your beliefs serve you well and keep you compassionate to both yourself and others, help you to respect all living things, and keep you charitable in thought, word, and deed, then they can hardly be deemed harmful.
For me, heart is simply a matter of viewing all living things of equal intrinsic value, and not finding myself superior to anyone or anything. That’s difficult, and I struggle with it daily. Bipolar disorder, misophonia, chronic sleep issues, and a lifetime of social trauma add combine to make me very irritable, easily angered, and quick to judge. It’s an uphill battle, and one I lose frequently. But every time I am challenged is a new opportunity to overcome this shortcoming, and as long as I keep trying, I don’t view it as a failure so much as a setback.
Ultimately, it’s about love. I am fond of saying, “I love you, even if I don’t like you.” I needn’t agree with a person, respect their behavior or beliefs, condone their actions, or even view them as anything less than a monster. Some people barely qualify as human; serial killers, tyrants, dictators, our current president. Sorry, didn’t mean to get political, but if the shoe fits. I miss Obama. I’m not a fan of politicians, but at least he is a demonstrably good man as far as I can discern. At any rate, I can find love for even the most soulless of monsters. It’s a key component in not becoming a monster yourself, and it ultimately stems from being able to love yourself.
I don’t think this has much to do with spirituality; as I stated above, it seems unintuitive, but heart as more to do with spirituality than soul. Soul is the core of who you are, underneath all the social constructs, the physical vessel that contains your essence, your assumptions, your beliefs, your fears. It is something that cannot be described without losing meaning. Language is only a symbol set, after all, and is a poor substitute for the real thing. To quote Alfred Korzybski, “The map is not the territory”.
So while I cannot properly convey what the soul is or isn’t, I feel that I can explain how it is expressed: quite simply, it is expressed through creation. I consider myself more of a agnostic nihilist with strong Discordian and Buddhist leanings, but I do not at all discount the concept of God (I just define it in a more Gnostic way). When I hear the phrase, “God created us in His image,”, I take that to mean that this indescribably, unknowable forced which we contain within a linguistic, social construct called “God” imbued us with the power to create. So when I think of a pure expression of the soul – divorced of any religious context – it is language, math, music, painting, sculpture, film, photography, and kind of craft, even bringing a life into the world. Its value is utterly subjective, but its source is always the same; it is something coming from the core of the universe, formulated through thought, expressed via word, and writ into physical existence through deed. It is an expression of a holy trinity.
Perhaps it’s spiritual after all.