Discover your moral compass

Your thoughts and emotions are not the best guides. Discovering what truly matters to you – your values – will give you a more stable direction in life.

The Ambassadors by Henry James
The Ambassadors

If ever a man had come off tired Lambert Strether was that man; and hadn’t it been distinctly on the ground of his fatigue that his wonderful friend at home had so felt for him and so contrived? It seemed to him somehow at these instants that, could he only maintain with sufficient firmness his grasp of that truth, it might become in a manner his compass and his helm.”
Henry James. The Ambassadors

‘Thoughts about the past, emotions, bodily states, and the like are often very poor guides to action, especially when they are viewed in the contexts of literality, control, and reason giving. Chosen values provide a far more stable compass reading. This is true because thoughts and feelings often lead in contradictory directions, and they invite a focus on irrelevant process goals (e.g., getting rid of a certain feeling or having only certain thoughts). Values can motivate behavior even in the face of tremendous personal adversity.’

Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl, and Kelly G. Wilson. Learning ACT: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Skills-Training Manual for Therapists

Stay calm, don’t anticipate problems

Jules Verne (died this day 1905) knew that it doesn’t help to anticipate problems or dangers. It is much better to remain in the moment, stay calm, and only deal with the problem if it actually arises.

Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas by Jules VerneMeanwhile, Ned Land gave free vent to his indignation.

‘Confound it!’ cried he, ‘here are people who come up to the Scotch for hospitality. They only just miss being cannibals. I should not be surprised at it, but I declare that they shall not eat me without my protesting.’

‘Calm yourself, friend Ned, calm yourself,’ replied Conseil, quietly. ‘Do not cry out before you are hurt. We are not quite done for yet.’

‘Not quite,’ sharply replied the Canadian, ‘but pretty near, at all events. Things look black. Happily, my bowie-knife I have still, and I can always see well enough to use it. The first of these pirates who lays a hand on me – ‘

‘Do not excite yourself, Ned,’ I said to the harpooner, ‘and do not compromise us by useless violence. Who knows that they will not listen to us? Let us rather try to find out where we are.’

Jules Verne. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas.

‘If you find yourself anticipating distress, calculating your escape … your anxious thoughts will intensify. When this happens, try to stay in the now, and your panicky thoughts will settle down. Do what you can to return your focus to your immediate surroundings and your breath. You may notice people having a conversation nearby, or the texture of the carpet, or the colors in a poster.’

Bob Stahl and Wendy Millstine. Calming the Rush of Panic: A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Guide to Freeing Yourself from Panic Attacks and Living a Vital.

How to observe your own thoughts

Sometimes, when life gets a little too ‘soap opera’, it can be useful to step back and observe your thoughts and emotions.

Choke by Chuck PalahniukAt this point, how my life starts to feel is like I’m acting in a soap opera being watched by people on a soap opera being watched by people on a soap opera being watched by real people, somewhere.

Chuck Palahniuk. Choke

‘Once you’re relaxed, imagine yourself sitting in a movie theater. This is your own private theater. It’s safe and no one else is in it. You’re sitting several rows back from the screen, and it’s comfortably dark. Up on the screen you begin to see the thoughts, emotions, memories, and sensations that pass through your awareness.

Just sit and watch. Don’t follow any particular thought or emotion into the screen, just as you wouldn’t try to jump into the screen during a movie. Just watch without judgment, reaction, or distraction

As you observe your big deal mind, simply take note of what it presents; simply watch and name. Notice which thoughts have a pull on your attention and emotions. And also note any physical sensations you experience. Stay with this for a few minutes before moving on to the next part of the practice.

Now imagine that there’s another ‘you’ in this theater, sitting all the way in the back of the theater, in the very last row directly behind the first you. This second you is just sitting there watching the you up front, who is still just watching the screen.

Stay with this for a few minutes and notice what happens, paying particular attention to your emotional, physical, and mental reactions.

Now imagine that there is a third you, standing back the door of the theater. This third you is simply watching the second you, seated in the back row of the theater, who is still watching the you in the front, who is still watching all that is passing across the screen.’

Thomas Roberts. The Mindfulness Workbook: A Beginner’s Guide to Overcoming Fear and Embracing Compassion (New Harbinger Self-Help Workbook)

Memory isn’t a video

Memory doesn’t record life like a video camera. Instead, it adds associated details and becomes, like Arthur C. Clarke said, ‘a story-telling machine’.

The Light of Other Days by Arthur C Clarke and Stephen Baxter“What is human memory?” Manning asked. He gazed at the air as he spoke, as if lecturing an invisible audience – as perhaps he was. “It certainly is not a passive recording mechanism, like a digital disc or a tape. It is more like a story-telling machine. Sensory information is broken down into shards of perception, which are broken down again to be stored as memory fragments. And at night, as the body rests, these fragments are brought out from storage, reassembled and replayed. Each run-through etches them deeper into the brain’s neural structure. And each time a memory is rehearsed or recalled it is elaborated. We may add a little, lose a little, tinker with the logic, fill in sections that have faded, perhaps even conflate disparate events.

“In extreme cases, we refer to this as confabulation. The brain creates and recreates the past, producing, in the end, a version of events that may bear little resemblance to what actually occurred. To first order, I believe it’s true to say that everything I remember is false.”

Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter. The Light of Other Days

‘Memory doesn’t store everything we perceive, but instead takes what we have seen or heard and associates it with what we already know. These associations help us to discern what is important and to recall details about what we’ve seen. They provide “retrieval cues” that make our memories more fluent. In most cases, such cues are helpful. But these associations can also lead us astray, precisely because they lead to an inflated sense of the precision of memory. We cannot easily distinguish between what we recall verbatim and what we construct based on associations and knowledge.’

Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us