It’s the end of another year!
Like many people, I am spending these last few days reflecting on how my year went. In 2021, I reflected on three key learnings: consciously give more praise, reflect on myself from other people’s faults, and use a to-be checklist every day. I can happily say that I’ve kept up those three things in 2022. This year, I reflected on five big lessons:
- The problem isn’t the external world or other people. The problem is inside my mind.
- The mark of a cultivated person is the ability to control your own emotions
- Be a role model, not a people pleaser
- Judge yourself on doing the best to make the right decision, not on the outcome
- Follow the Middle Way
1: The problem isn’t the external world or other people. The problem is inside my mind.
We all encounter problems and unhappiness in life. Like most people, I’ve always been focused on changing my external circumstances or other people to “solve” my problems. This past year, I’ve been studying ancient philosophies (i.e., Buddhism, Stoicism, Confucianism, Daoism), and I was astonished to see that all ancient sages said the same thing: the problem is not outside, the problem is inside my mind.
The Buddha said,
“Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.”
In the Sutra on the Ten Virtuous Karmas, the Buddha explained that if we correct our incorrect views, then we will not fall in the face of any difficulty. We will also gain “true virtuous joy” and “true virtuous friends.” Hence, Buddhism is all about using the Enlightened Mind.
The Daoist sage Lao Tzu said,
“The supreme good is like water. Water benefits all things without conflict.”
If you think about it, water does not fight or resist anything. When water in a river meets a rock, it simply flows around the rock. When you put water into a container, water takes on the shape of that container. Rather than trying to change external factors, water simply adapts to it.
The Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius said,
“Every rational person can convert any obstacle into the raw material for their own purpose.”
Instead of resisting and complaining about our situation, we can use our rational mind to convert that obstacle into fuel for our success and self-improvement. This is just like how a blacksmith can use his hammer (rational mind) to shape metal (the situation) into useful tools (for our own purpose).
“The way of a Superior Person is like archery: if you miss the target, reflect on yourself.”
In other words, if things are not going according to your hopes, don’t blame the bow or the arrow or the wind. Blame your own archery skills for not being good enough. Blame your mind for not being focused enough. When we focus on what’s in our control, we can then take productive action.
There were many times when I encountered difficulties and conflict this past year, which I wrote about in the article Upgrade Your Thinking. Before, I would complain and argue with people. This year, I reminded myself,
“Encountering difficulties and conflict is normal. The important thing is, am I going to fall or rise from this situation? If I resist and complain about it, I will fall. If I can accept it, find a way to flow around it, find a way to use it productively, find a way to improve my virtues from it, then I will rise and gain joy.”
2: The mark of a cultivated person is the ability to control your own emotions
Studying philosophy isn’t just for fun, nor is it for showing off. It’s for self-cultivation, and one of the most tangible benefits is better emotional control. We feel less negative emotions and more positive emotions. Emotional intelligence is a popular concept now, and I would say that studying philosophy improves our emotional intelligence and emotional self-regulation.
My mentor told me,
“If you are learning philosophy, then you should be able to remain calm, careful, and kind when others are emotional, flustered, and angry.”
This past year, I did some training:
- Annoyed to Careful: When I had really painful canker sores, to the point that eating was painful, I trained myself to not have a bad temper towards others
- Arrogance to Humility: When others misunderstand me or unfairly criticize me, I trained myself to not argue and instead thank them for advising me
- Impatience to Calm: When I am in a rush, I remind myself that slow is smooth, smooth is fast. If I can’t do the small stuff carefully, I won’t do the big stuff carefully.
- Tense to Relaxed: When I really want or really don’t want something, I remind myself to not be too attached. I am not the ruler of the universe. I just need to go with the flow and make the best of everything.
- Upset to Kind: When others behave unreasonably, I remind myself to focus on being a good person myself rather than demanding them to be a good person. I also remind myself of karma. They are treating me badly right now because I treated people badly in the past. But if I treat them well now, then in the future, people will treat me well. What I give out to the universe, the universe will eventually give back to me (is called the Law of Attraction in quantum physics).
I describe my emotional training in more detail in these two blog articles: My 21-Day No Complaint Challenge and 10 Reasons We Get Angry and Their Solutions. This kind of training is not easy, and I still have a long way to go. However, each incremental improvement is extremely satisfying and truly improves my quality of life.
3: Be a role model, not a people pleaser
Like many people, when I make decisions, I often worry about how others will judge me. For example, should I wear this or that? Should I go to that event? Should I accept this responsibility?
When we make our choices to seek other people’s approval, we are setting ourselves up for suffering. Firstly, people’s expectations are often unreasonable because they don’t understand our situation. They might think it is very easy for us to do something when in fact it is quite a hassle. Or they have different values from us. Secondly, regardless of whether or not we meet their expectations, we already feel empty inside. If we felt full and confident about who we are and what we stand for, we wouldn’t seek others’ approval. We would be happy regardless of what others’ think.
Just to be clear, there is a difference between people-pleasing and being considerate of others feelings. People-pleasing is self-focused and makes us feel worried. Being considerate of others is others-focused and makes us feel good because helping others is a good thing to do.
So how can we improve our self-confidence and reduce the urge to please others? A great way is to try to be a role model for the people around us. Confucius said,
“When sages do anything, they seek to improve the social norms, teaching the people to be good and virtuous.”
For example, in my class, some classmates dress very casually during a presentation. I dress very formally. They might think I am overly eager, but I am trying to set a good example. In the future, if they under-dress for a formal presentation and get scolded for it, I won’t feel guilty because I did not set a bad example for them.
To give another example, maybe I don’t want to attend a work event. A lot of colleagues want me to go. Instead of focusing on what I want or don’t want, I focus on what a good employee should do. So I attend the work event and try to help out wherever I can. If others all do the same, the event would be a big success. If instead, I didn’t go to this big event, or if I went begrudgingly and didn’t help out, then I would be setting a bad example.
To be a good role model, we need to learn from good role models, which is why I encourage people to learn from ancient philosophers. Whereas school teaches us knowledge for finding a job, ancient philosophers teach us how to be a good role model and to live a happy and productive life. I wrote about this in more detail in Upgrade Your Thinking.
4: Judge yourself on doing the best to make the right decision, not on the outcome
After making decisions, we often judge whether or not we were wise or stupid based on the outcome of the decision. That’s a sure way to create disappointment.
The contemporary Stoic Ryan Holiday said,
“We should take pleasure from our actions — in taking the right actions — rather than the results that come from them.”
For example, one time I picked a restaurant, and when we got there, the restaurant just happened to be closed that day. I thought, “I was stupid for choosing this restaurant.” But actually, my decision-making process was fine. We always go to this restaurant, and that day was a normal day. There was no reason to assume they would be closed, so there is no need to be upset. I could do better by calling and making a reservation next time if it is a very important occasion.
Another time, I accompanied my grandpa to the hospital late at night because his gum wouldn’t stop bleeding after a tooth had been pulled. We had been waiting for many hours, and he was worried that he would wait all this time just for the doctor to say, “You’re fine, just keep biting on gauze.” After five hours, we saw the doctor, and he basically said, “You’re fine. Just keep biting harder on gauze.” Although it might seem like we wasted five hours, but actually, we made the best decision with the best available information at the time, and that’s what matters.
At the hospital, I was hungry, and I wasn’t sure if I should buy a snack or not. I decided to go buy a snack from the vending machine because I didn’t know how much longer I would need to wait, and it’s best to take care of my health. After I purchased the snack bar, it got stuck.
I thought, “Wow I made the wrong choice.” But actually, there was nothing wrong with my reasoning. Hence, I bought the snack bar again, and two snack bars came out. I ate both and solved my hunger problem.
5: Follow the Middle Way
People naturally like to categorize things as “good” or “bad”. But the Middle Way states that something might not be inherently good or bad. Rather, it is good if we use it correctly and in the appropriate amount. It is bad if we use it incorrectly or in an inappropriate amount.
The great philosopher Aristotle explained the Middle Way like this:
“Anyone can get angry — that is easy — or spend money or give it away; but to do all this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right manner, is not a thing that everyone can do, and is not easy.”
My Chinese medicine mentor emphasizes the Middle Way to me all the time, saying,
“This medicine or treatment method is to bring you from disharmony back into equilibrium. If you use it too much, you will tip the other way, and that will lead to other problems. If you use too little, then the effect won’t be enough. Also, everyone’s situation is different. Just because this medicine is good for you does not mean it will be good for someone else. Just because this medicine works well for you now does not mean it will work well for you later. We need to constantly adjust to stay in equilibrium.”
This past year, I practiced the Middle Way in many ways:
- Food: Eating to 80% full instead of 100% full. Adding the right amount of seasoning and sauce when cooking.
- Sleep: Trying to sleep at the best time (10PM — 2AM)
- Exercise: Getting in more exercise (I exercise too little)
- Speech: Speaking slower (because I naturally speak fast), but obviously not too slow
- Kindness: Being strict when I need to be strict to avoid spoiling the other person (I am usually too nice)
- Attention-to-detail: Aim for 90% quality rather than perfection for the sake of time and practicality (I have a tendency to overthink things)
The Middle Way is not easy. In my experience, there are two big obstacles to achieving the Middle Way. First is habit. For example, I have a habit of eating until 100% full, so when I eat until 80%, I think I am still hungry, and then I eat a bit more. Or I try to speak slower, but then I lose awareness and start speaking fast again. Fixing this takes a lot of conscious training.
The second problem is jumping to the other extreme. For example, when I found out I am too kind, I jumped to being too strict. When I felt like I’m being too much of a perfectionist, I jumped to being negligent and uncaring. This is often the result of negative emotions. I feel bad and self-critical when making a mistake, so then I jump to the other extreme. So we need to often remind ourselves that most things are not inherently “good” or “bad”, but rather we need to use them in the right amount and in the right way.
The great philosopher Socrates said,
“Just as one person delights in improving his farm, and another his horse, so I delight in attending to my own improvement day by day.”
I don’t know if I improve every single day, but at the very least I can improve every year, and it is indeed a delight to reflect on one’s own improvement. This year, my main areas of focus were
- Cultivating the mind
- Improving emotional self-regulation
- Being a role model instead of a people pleaser
- Affirming my good decisions despite bad results
- Following the Middle Way
I still have a lot I can improve in these areas, so the cultivation continues in 2023!