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Pick Your Pieces - Chapter 1

Chapter 1

Mental Machinery



Have you ever noticed that most of your mental and physical activity is completely automated? It’s true. That amazing brain of yours is constantly creating mental circuits that reduce the need for you to think. 

     When it comes to physical activities, we understand this process as “learning how” to do something. Take riding a bike for example. If you plan on acquiring this skill, it’s going to take some serious focus, thought and effort at first. But then, like magic, the thinking stops, the wobbling stops, the falling over stops, and suddenly you’ve got it. From then forward, staying upright and in control is practically effortless. But how did this happen? Well, without realizing it, you helped your brain grow new physical connections that didn’t exist before. Those new mental circuits are now doing what they were programmed to do so that you can focus your conscious mind on other things. 

     OK, that’s how it works with physical activities, but what about activities that are purely mental? What about the inner voice that reacts to a news headline, a social media post, aches and pains, or the death of a loved one? What about bad mental habits; common inner narratives and impulses that inevitably lead to unnecessary suffering? Unfortunately, your brain automates these things too. And once the unhealthy circuit is established (just like riding a bike), it’ll effortlessly bypass your conscious mind and take you for a ride. But there’s a very important difference.

     Unlike riding a bike, you never consciously choose to create many of the circuits that influence your daily thoughts, feelings, impulses, and behaviors. Instead, you picked them up unconsciously, when you were young, before you possessed the maturity and wisdom to assess their value. And now, those circuits continue doing what they were designed to do, regardless of whether or not it’s a good idea.   

     It’s just a fact of human biology: We’re born with a brain that will automate anything, including unhealthy mental activity. But the good news is, we can teach our brain to recognize and uninstall its unhealthy circuits; we can replace them with circuits of our choosing. This is absolutely one of the greatest powers that human beings possess. Scientists call it self-directed neuroplasticity; I call it choosing to rewire your mind. Whatever you want to call it, discover and strengthen your ability to do this. It’ll improve your life in ways that you can hardly imagine. 



Our mental programs express the personality and level of consciousness that created them.



You have one very important job in this life: Recognize that YOU are the programmer, not the programs. You are the one who can identify undesirable circuits in your brain and, through deliberate conscious effort, weaken and replace them.  



Deliberate transformation begins with imagining ourselves as the person we want to be. By visualizing the desired traits of our future self, we create a map in our mind, a map that illustrates our path and the distance we’ve yet to travel. Suddenly, habits that impede our progress become obvious. They clash with the vision we’ve created, and they force the mind to choose: Abandon the vision, or continue eliminating bad habits that stand in its way. If you struggle to imagine who you want to be, start by imagining who you don’t want to be. This too will reveal habits that need to be eliminated. 



My typical stages of intentional rewiring:

Stage 1: I suddenly notice a mental and/or physical habit that I should change. (Prior to that moment, I wasn’t consciously aware of the problem.)

Stage 2: I eventually commit to change and begin the process by consistently challenging the unwanted habit of thought or behavior, and by consistently engaging in a more desirable one.

Stage 3: I win some, I lose some, but the struggle builds strength. I gain insight that helps me continue to improve. 

Stage 4: My trajectory stabilizes; wins become more common. 

Stage 5: Abstinence or adherence (depending on the goal), becomes increasingly “automatic.” 

Stage 6: Similar to how I suddenly noticed there was something I should change; I suddenly notice that I have changed. I’ve integrated the new habit into my identity, and the newly established “circuits” in my mind take care of the rest.


Sins, Sinners, and Suffering


The word “sin” conjures an image of a crime, an act that must be punished. But what if this image is wrong? What if sin would be better understood as “error”? And what if, by using the word error, we gain a more useful perspective? Take the seven deadly sins as an example: pride, lust, greed, gluttony, sloth, envy, wrath. They are errors because they lead to suffering—not in the afterlife, but here and now. The suffering isn’t a punishment; it is simply an unavoidable consequence of the error we’ve embraced. And if we accept that perspective, we may discover other errors as well; fear, hatred, and judgement come immediately to mind. 



I suffer when I sin; therefore, I suffer when I judge. 



The goal is to acknowledge what is, without poisoning yourself with judgement and other forms of negative energy. 



It’s possible to explain that a person lies or cheats or steals or manipulates (or worse), without feeding something unhealthy in yourself. It’s possible to acknowledge the reality of what they do, and acknowledge that it constitutes unacceptable behavior, without filling yourself with self-righteous indignation. When dealing with dishonest and dangerous people, discernment and self-defense are always necessary, but celebrating assumed superiority is not. 



Supremacism is driven by a common and pernicious human desire: to acquire status and the “right” to demean or dominate others. Ironically, it’s not uncommon for supremacists to falsely accuse others of “supremacism” in order to signal, and satisfy their own lust for, supremacy. 



Everyone enters this world with different errors to overcome. Defend yourself against the “dregs of humanity,” but don’t waste time pondering their moral inferiority. Especially when you see traits in them that, within your lifetime, once existed in you. 



It is not my job to judge others. It is not my job to convince others not to judge me. However, it is my job to judge myself honestly and correct errors when I find them. That’s where my focus belongs.



What if extremely annoying people and circumstances serve a purpose? What if that purpose is to teach you the benefits of becoming less easily annoyed? 



Certain emotions deduct value from the quality of your life. Aggravation, hatred, depression, fear, etc. These emotions come at a high cost, and you’re offered the opportunity to pay that cost on a daily basis. If you seek greater peace and happiness, you must learn to reject the offer. And if you’re unable to reply with a firm no, you should insist on negotiating a discount. Ask yourself: “How could I view this situation so that my cost is 20% lower? How could I view this in such a way that it cuts my cost in half? Can I find a perspective that produces no cost at all?” And if you fail to reduce the initial intensity of the emotion, then cut your costs by limiting its duration. “How long should I accept this state of mind? Five more minutes? Five more hours? Five more days? Five more weeks? Five more years? Should I embrace and nourish this unhealthy state until the day I die, or should I find a better way?”  


Finding Fulfilment


It’s better to be laughed at for trying than to be accepted for not.



Healthy and unhealthy paths to fulfillment:

Healthy: establishing self-control. 

Unhealthy: seeking to control others.

Healthy: a primary focus on becoming better than you are.  

Unhealthy: a primary focus on being seen as “better than” others. 

Healthy:  cultivating a habit of gratitude.

Unhealthy: cultivating a habit of resentment.



We’re born helpless and remain vulnerable for many years. As such, it’s understandable that children establish a habit of approval-seeking behavior. But the habits of a child aren’t sufficient to meet the needs of a healthy adult. Adults must mature beyond the fear of rejection. They must relinquish the need for constant reassurance and encouragement while strengthening their ability to endure the opposite. 



A psychologically healthy person is not easily manipulated by praise or insults.



Whether you’re fit or fat, strong or weak, black or white, tall or short, you will be judged. The clothes you choose, the music you like, the people you respect, the things you believe or don’t believe—all of these will bring ridicule or praise depending on the spectator. For this reason, approval-seeking behavior is a foolish game. Learn to recognize and eliminate your errors (“know thyself”) and those who judge you will have an increasingly insignificant effect on your peace of mind.  



If you really believe in what you’re doing, the ridicule of others is no reason to stop. Likewise, if you despise what you’re doing, the encouragement of others is a terrible reason to continue. 



Let them think less of you. And while you’re at it, don’t waste your time thinking less of them; you’ll only poison yourself with negative energy. Besides, it’s foolish to expect others to see you the way you wish to be seen. Even if you could force them, you shouldn’t; you have no right. So, let them think less of you. Don’t waste your time thinking less of them, and taking it one step further, let them think more of themselves for whatever ridiculous reason they choose. To the extent they need to feel superior, they reveal their suffering, not their superiority. Don’t pretend otherwise.



Want to make progress and feel empowered? Focus on things that are under your control. Want to stagnate and feel helpless? Focus on things that aren’t.



Identify and eliminate the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that weaken you. Identify and cultivate the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that empower you. That’s enough to keep you busy for a lifetime. 



We were born with an immune system that protects our body from pathogens. Unfortunately, we weren’t born with a psychological immune system. If we want to protect ourselves from pathogenic thoughts, we must develop psychological immunity on our own.  



We get better at what we practice, for better or worse. 



If we choose to embrace ugliness, we increase our ability to embrace it again. If we choose to reject ugliness, we increase our ability to reject it again. Either choice increases our ability; it’s just a matter of deciding which ability we’d rather strengthen.



What will fulfill us more than anything in this life? Maybe we don’t know, but we can probably guess what won’t. Our greatest fulfilment won’t come from anger or resentment or jealousy. It won’t come from greed or lust or vengeance. It definitely won’t come from fear, insecurity, or depression. So, if nothing else, maybe we should stop practicing these states of being. In their absence, we’re likely to find something better.



Develop traits that can be improved for a lifetime: patience, honesty, compassion, humility, gratitude, determination, fearlessness, self-control, personal responsibility…You’ll never run out of work or rewards. 



Unfortunately, most of us overreact when confronted with minor inconveniences, disagreements, or rejection. It’s foolish. With just a little effort, we can put things in a healthier perspective and dramatically improve our experience. Why not develop this skill? It’s extremely valuable, especially when dealing with much bigger challenges. 



Beneficial transformation can occur naturally over time, or it can occur through deliberate choice and effort. The deliberate path is more reliable, and it leads to amazing benefits that last a lifetime.



Eliminating even a single self-destructive habit (like compulsive drinking, eating, shopping, gambling, judging, worrying, complaining, etc.), will have an enormous positive impact on the quality of your life. 


“Be the change that you’d like to see in the world” is great advice, but avoid making it an unhealthy ego thing. Don’t use your progress as an excuse to dehumanize “the others” who are unable or unwilling to change. (That ruins everything.) Instead, keep striving to become a healthier human, contribute what you feel compelled to contribute, and try to leave the people and things you touch a little better off than they were. That’s all that can be expected, and in all honesty, it’s one hell of an accomplishment.


Some high achievers seem obsessed with making others feel less than, whereas others convey no such desire. This illustrates how primary objectives matter. Are you primarily motivated to become your best and potentially inspire others in the process, or are you primarily motivated to intimidate others and prove you’re better than them? I believe the first requires self-confidence, and the latter is driven by insecurity. 


Personal Experiences, Dreams, Meditations


While meditating last night, I went back in time to 1981. Rush’s “Moving Pictures” album had only been out for a couple of weeks, and there I was standing in the living room of our two-bedroom apartment with my very own copy. I was 11 years old and couldn’t wait to hear the entire album—again. So, as I’d already done a dozen times before, I carefully removed the album from its cover, put it on the turntable, dropped the needle, and cranked it up. Instant bliss. 

     Listening to Tom Sawyer, Limelight, Red Barchetta, YYZ, The Camera Eye; each song stirred amazing feelings in the 11-year-old child. Rush was on top of the world, and the member I identified with most (drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart) was in the prime of his life. Neil was 28 years old, touring the globe and living his dream. I held the vision of that moment in time and its euphoric feelings for a few minutes. Then, by simply changing my focus, I left the past and returned to the present moment...In an instant, 40 years were gone, and my 28-year-old hero, Neil, had reached the age of 67 and then passed away. 

     I emerged with two thoughts: 1. Our physical lives, whether we live to 9 or 99, are short. Our trip will be over in the blink of an eye. 2. The boundless joy and enthusiastic energy of our youth is always available to us. We simply need to give ourselves permission to experience it again—perhaps by listening to an old song, remembering an old friend, or simply recognizing the profound gift and opportunity contained in each breath.



I struggled with serious bouts of depression for more than a decade and, like many depressed people, I considered it something that I just had to live with. Then, after a lot of unnecessary suffering, I finally figured out what was going on. I realized that I was doing it to myself; that a dysfunctional piece of my personality actually wanted to be depressed. It enjoyed the certainty of its hopeless perspectives, and it fed on negative energy. When this became clear (that a worthless circuit in my head was actively trying to create and sustain depression), I was able to isolate and attack it. From then on, it became progressively easier for me to recognize its voice. It became easier for me to say, in essence, “I’m not doing that to myself anymore. Fuck off.” It wasn’t about ignoring difficult challenges; it was about choosing less dramatic, healthier ways to respond. 



I refuse to engage in approval-seeking behavior; it’s not honest and it’s not me. If somebody wants to think less of me for this (despite the fact that I haven’t done anything wrong to them or even projected an ill thought in their general direction), they’re perfectly within their right to do so. In fact, I prefer this to having them “like me” for pretending to be something I’m not.



I was a druggy, a liar, and a thief. I was a dangerous drunk, a cheater, and a bully. I hurt people. I wish it weren’t true, but it is. Then, I stopped ignoring my conscience and, over a period of time, I became a different person. By age 16, I'd made a lot of progress. By age 21, I was no longer any of those things. The thought of weakening myself with drugs or alcohol disgusted me. The thought of lying, cheating, or stealing disgusted me. The thought of bullying somebody (trying to make a person feel less than) disgusted me. By learning to identify those thoughts as the enemy, I was able to destroy their influence. I believe everyone can do the same. I hope to help in some way.


How To


Whenever a task (big or small) requires more effort than expected, it’s easy to respond with impatience and aggravation. But does that response have any value? Does it help you in any way? Of course not. If you’re struggling to get something done, there’s only one thing that you need to focus on, one question that you need to ask: “What is the next step?” Keep asking and answering that question and you’ll finish the task without needless suffering and wasted energy. Even if you decide that the next step is to temporarily (or permanently) stop trying, the same principle applies. That single question, “What is the next step?” fills the space that might otherwise fill up with impatience and aggravation. It diverts the mind away from idiocy and back toward a productive use of your energy.    



“Do and observe.” This is a story about a phrase I programmed into my mind in 2014. (Before I came up with “What is the next step.”) Its purpose was to help me deal with a four-GPU-cryptocurrency mining rig that wouldn’t stop crashing. 

     When I started the project, I figured it would only take about two or three hours to build the rig and get it running. Six hours later, I was still trying to get it going and I noticed two intense points of stress. First, I felt stress prior to testing each new “fix” (because I desperately wanted the fix to work), and second, I felt stress each time the fix failed. 

     This repeating pattern of stress wasn’t helping anything. Worse, it was draining me of the energy and focus I needed to figure out the problem. Fortunately, the idea of “letting go of the outcome” entered my mind, and it presented itself as a statement: “Do and observe.” 

     Basically, “do and observe” meant that I could act with intent, but anything beyond that was out of my control. Do, observe, assess what is and then take the next step. Maybe this is what the guru’s mean when they say, “Accept what is.” Acceptance, in this context, doesn’t mean “do nothing.” It means “don’t poison yourself with stress while deciding what to do,” and certainly “don’t poison yourself with stress when your attempted fix doesn’t work.” If you’re committed to getting something done, “do and observe” until you observe the result you’ve set out to achieve, or until you decide to move on to something else. 



Don’t ask if your response is justified; humans can justify almost anything.  Don’t ask if your response is normal; in a world gone mad, normal isn’t an acceptable standard. Instead, simply ask yourself: Is this response helpful? If the answer is no, focus less on what prompted the response, and focus more on how you can improve it. 


General Observations


Either you’re going to do the work or you’re not. If you’re going to do it, complaining about the process only drains energy that could be put to better use. If you’re not going to do it, well, then you’ve got nothing to complain about.


Greatness comes in all shapes and sizes, colors, ages, and backgrounds. It discriminates only against those who expect it to be given rather than earned.



When it comes to dealing with problems, people usually choose between three options. Here they are, listed from best to worst:  

Option 1: They relentlessly seek ways to improve or solve their problems. They begin with looking at how they might be causing or making problems worse, and they correct those errors.  

Option 2: They pretend their problems don’t exist. They hope their problems go away without requiring any change in behavior.   

Option 3: They exploit each problem’s ability to garner attention, diminished expectations, or perpetual “help” from others. They effectively convert their problems into an asset, a form of currency they use to acquire what they want.

Those who work to solve their problems inevitably become stronger, more independent, and develop a habit of not causing problems for themselves and others. Those who hope their problems go away without any effort will sometimes get lucky, but it’s likely their bad problems will eventually get worse. Last but not least, those who choose to turn their problems into assets become weaker, less independent, and develop a habit of causing endless additional problems for themselves and others. The distance between the life they could have had and the life they end up with is enormous. They pay a terrible price. 




When I stopped embracing negative thoughts and energy, I gradually acquired the ability to explore and relate to spiritual ideas. (Meaning and purpose, loss of fear, a sense of connection to something greater; something eternal.) It wasn’t intentional, it just happened. As if negativity and spirituality carry an opposite charge. Where one is firmly rooted in the mind, the other cannot go.  



When it comes to health, spiritual is the most important form. It paves the way for all others and eases suffering in their absence. 



Our spirit enters this world to overcome challenges that do not exist on the other side—challenges like hatred, fear, depression, insecurity, and craving. In the process of overcoming these, we gain spiritual strength that serves us here and beyond. Our progress is the one thing we get to take with us.  



I understand the general concept, and I have no problem accepting that (in the end) “we’re all one.” I won’t be surprised at all to discover that, when we die, we shed our misinterpretations and once again experience our universal connectedness. In fact, I hope that’s the case. However, I don’t believe this means we should pretend that our physical and post-physical reality are the same. They’re not. If they were the same, there’d be no point for us to be here. 

     On this physical side of existence, all living things are in differentiated form. The lion and gazelle are different. The serial killer and the healer are different. The abuser and the abused are different. Each are having very different experiences. Therefore, most people will intuitively, and rightfully, dismiss the guru who suggests “we’re all the same; there is no difference.” We might be inevitably heading toward that end, but we can’t pretend we’re already there. We have lessons to learn on this journey, and our differences are what provide us the opportunity to do so. 



Every challenge provides an opportunity to prove fidelity to your conscience. I honestly believe that’s the point of all this. It’s less about winning the external battles (though we should certainly try). It’s more about winning the inner battles, eliminating the errors that weaken and separate us from our higher selves. To the extent we make progress there, we’re winning. 



It’s interesting to imagine that we choose the circumstances into which we’re born. While thinking about that spiritual concept, I attempted to reconcile the difference between people who suffer as a result of poor life choices that they refuse to correct, versus those who suffer as a result of things beyond their control. In the case of those who suffer by choice, I can only assume they entered this life expecting to overcome the challenges they’ve encountered, but perhaps they underestimated the required level of commitment. It’s OK, they’ll get another chance. For the others, it’s more complicated. Why would anyone choose to be born into suffering they couldn’t do anything about? For instance, why would somebody choose to grow up as a Jew in 1920s Germany only to suffer and die in the Nazi concentration camps? If I were to imagine an answer, it would go something like this: Those who would choose to endure that level of suffering would only do so for the betterment of mankind, to show how fear and hate are used to obtain unrestrained power. To expose the inevitable consequences of allowing the seekers of unrestrained power to acquire it. They would do it to contribute to the evolution of human consciousness and to hopefully prevent billions from being enslaved, experimented on, starved, controlled, or killed in the future.


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