Breaking through information overwhelm with the problem, theory, action principle

Once upon a time I had the problem of realizing I was overweight. The initial inspiration aside, the process was fairly simple. For a day or two, I spent a couple of hours researching solutions, and then I spent the next year and a half putting it into practice diligently.

I noticed there was an immediate problem that needs attending (problem), I discovered solutions and expertise that described how to do it (theory), and then I put it into practice and adjusted variables until I got the intended result (action). This basic system of problem -> theory -> action can work really well in this order. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t go so smoothly.

I. Books, courses and seminars, oh my!

There are seemingly infinite resources on every topic imaginable. Imagine you want to start a business. There are books on starting, marketing & advertising, hiring the right people, keeping your best talent, scaling, outsourcing, and likely quite a few books on why all of those books are wrong. It would seem miraculous that anyone ever manages to be successful! Unfortunately this can quickly become problem -> theory -> theory -> theory-> theory -> theory.

One book tells you how to advertise (theory), it refers to the principles of some advertising guru. Next, you go to read the book written by this guru (theory), and he says how simple his process is, and maybe even watch a few of his videos (theory). He mentions that he’s merely following the basics of psychology and how the mind works, and so you grab a book on introductory psychology (theory) to understand that better too. Obviously it’s not enough to read one school of thought, you’re clever, so you’ll read the opposing schools too (theory), so you can get a complete picture.

I’ve likely spent as much as an entire year of my life bouncing from subject to subject to subject, without ever taking time to put them into practice and see how valid they are for real life. Perhaps the next thing I read is the thing that will inspire me to take massive action! If only it worked that way.

II. Why Does It Happen?

There are a lot of possible answers for this, and it may vary greatly from person to person, but let’s take a look at some common ones. A problem typically has a negative association to it, it is something that cannot be immediately resolved with the available resources. Perhaps with enough trial and error it could be, though you may not have time for that.

The same way one may binge on a Netflix show to avoid a complicated problem with a partner, one may avoid returning to the initial problem by continuously exposing themselves to more and more theory. The real issue with the latter is that it certainly feels so productive. Look at me, I’m learning marketing and I can tell you how to scale your business 10X, yet I haven’t even started thinking about what kind of business I’d even create and certainly haven’t made $1 off of it yet. It feels so much better to be off learning about the psychology of how people make purchases, than to face the risky potential that kicking off a business may lead to failure.

You may also just be an incredibly curious person who loves to learn, this is of course alright, but a proper balance is still required to actually get something physically created in the real world. Scheduling time dedicated to studying and learning, and other time to putting it into practice is the simplest solution to this problem.

III. The Problem, Theory, Action Principle

The way out is relatively simple once you take a step back. It’s the same way I was able to make progress towards my weight loss and it’s the same way you’ve consciously or unconsciously accomplished anything you were unfamiliar with in the past.

If you’re trying to work on an assignment in university and you hit a wall (problem) then you’ll likely check around on the internet or ask your friends (theory) and once you find the answer, you try it out (action).

If you did your university assignments the way most people operate in personal development, you’d start by trying to solve a syntax problem in a script, and finish with knowing the morning routine of the man who created the first computer, having entirely forgotten what you were trying to solve in the first place.

IV. What Now?

If you are currently caught up in the midst of bouncing between seminars or books, the simple solution is to follow the thread back to the start. To find the problem you were trying to solve in the beginning.

If you got into spirituality because you suffered a great loss or wanted to better manage your day to day stress, perhaps have accumulated piles of books and hundreds of hours watching gurus on YouTube (guilty), without ever having actually established a meditation or yoga practice. The next step would be to move into setting aside some time daily to meditate (action), and break the endless theory -> theory -> theory cycle. You may find incredible relief and boundless additional free time in switching out dozens or even hundreds of hours of reading for a simple 10-20 minute daily practice.

If you’ve wanted to start a business, take new opportunities in your current job or find a new job, perhaps you’re reading about how to get more clients, how to network better, how to outsource, or anything in-between. Consider seriously what your problem is at the current moment. Return to the root of all of this searching, and see if you now have the skills and resources to solve the problem that initially triggered your search. If you do, work on solving that problem, and move onto the next one, with more awareness and while avoiding falling into a theory loop. If you do not, search specifically for the right resource, whether it be a mentor or a book, to solve that exact problem only.

I’ve met countless people who’ve gotten into learning and studying various subjects for reasons starting from I want to be learn to manage my anger better, to I want to increase my sales, or even as simple as, I want to be a better programmer. Whether soft skills or technical skills, I’ve never seen a bigger trap in my own life or those of others, than falling into an endless cycle of theory. One may hate their 9-5 job, but spend the entirety of their free time learning everything imaginable about how to start and manage their own business without ever taking a single action, dispassionately looking back on the last 10 years wondering where the years have gone.

Return to the root of the problem, find out where it all started, solve that problem, and move onto the next. Use your awareness to not fall into another theory trap. While you’re in a long bout of studying, constantly return to the forefront of your mind the problem you are working on solving and honestly determine whether you have what you need to at least make an attempt at solving it. Two people of equal talent and knowledge may have vastly different levels of success, simply because one decided to take action before having entirely mastered a subject, and allowed themselves to fail and adjust along the way, returning to theory only when they’ve hit a wall.

The choice of what to do next, is yours alone.

How To Be A Better Emperor

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Last week I introduced the idea of Emperor Meditation, an idea that’s based around creating a map of your psyche by comparing your body to a country, and your mind to the palace which rules it. It came from an inspiration which was a mix of studying Eastern traditions, as well as from the belief that if these processes were a little more fun, they may be engaged with by more people!

“If you are conscious at the same time that you observe, the line of your attention will resemble two arrows, one showing attention directed on the thing you observe and another on yourself.” – Ouspensky (20th c. Fourth Way teacher)

When taking an audience with citizens like desire or anxiety, sense inside yourself just as much as you listen to what they say (as the arrow with two heads). This way you are not led astray by their words, and will not retreat and let one of them take the throne. [Feel fully the sensations as they come up, and do not fight against them.] Fully listen to the words of your countrymen, but do not judge or add extra meaning to it. This way you remain a compassionate ruler, and not one who fights against his people.

The issue is not to only allow certain citizens into your palace, as trying to toss them out will just make them return over and over, and with a vengeance, but to fully listen to them, and respond effectively. [Focus on the sensations created by an idea or emotion, but don’t add meaning to it. Watch how quickly it dissipates when the sensation is observed instead of avoided.]

An ancient said, “When people are in the midst of the disturbance, this is a good time to apply effort to keep independent.” Stay comprehensively alert in the immediate present, and suddenly an awakening will open up an experience in the midst of it all that is millions of times better than that of quiet sitting. – Huang Yuan-ch’i

Once you realize how simple it can be to keep the peace of your citizens and country, you may also begin to explore the glorious palace of your subconscious. There are so many doors! Behind some you will find beautiful new things you had no idea were there, and behind others, misfortune of the past you had shut away.

Behind the doors of misfortune are simply events from when you gave up your rule. Thankfully, with your new emperor powers of feeling sensations without judgement, you can deal with them with ease. Maybe you gave an embarrassingly bad presentation as a kid and everyone laughed at you, and then you were afraid to run meetings at work or speak to crowds. The embarrassment, the shame, merely citizens who were running your country at the time, who had no idea how to rule. Allow your adult emperor self to return to that time, and feel those sensations fully, without letting embarrassment and shame take control this time, and see how these sensations melt away as well.

As you’ve seen above, it’s possible to rule your palace without giving control up to reactive emotions and ideas. You may allow them an audience, listen to them, perhaps have a cup of tea with them, and then kindly inviting them to keep walking.

Huike said to Bodhidharma, “My mind is anxious. Please pacify it.” Bodhidharma replied, “Bring me your mind, and I will pacify it.” Huike said, “Having looked for my mind, I realize it cannot be grasped.” “There,” Bodhidharma replied, “I have pacified your mind.”

The real fun starts with the other doors of the palace. The ones which open to beauty you didn’t even know about. Take a second and think about things you would like to do that seemed too anxiety inducing before. Perhaps public speaking, comedy, going to more social events, asking out that cute girl/guy in class/at work. As emperor, these things become easier and easier, as you continuously return to being the master of your palace. You no longer allow your country to be ruled by every passing thought or idea. These are the citizens that will gladly bend a knee when the master returns. None of them want to rule your country anyways, they’ve clearly proven they have no idea how!

Emperor Meditation

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you know for yourselves that these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness, then accept it and live up to it.”Buddha (Kalama Sutra)

Let’s take a quick look at the concept of meditation. Often times, it is thought to be about spending hours alone in a dark room, in silent contemplation, trying to shut away your thoughts. While this practice is helpful as a form of training, it is not really the goal of meditation.

“If you want to attain the Way by shutting the door and sitting quietly with a blank mind, that is like shutting the doors and shutters and hoping to see the sun. What “way” does that accomplish? It must be the way of dark rooms, I guess . Only when you mix with the ordinary people, integrating illumination, living in the cities and towns, are you activating great use of great potential. This is the real function of practicing and holding the Great Way.” – Liu Yiming, 1734-1821, Taoist master (Awakening the Tao)

Thankfully there is more to it then that! How silly would it be to spend hours in quiet contemplation, then re-enter the world, and return to your old habits. If you have a spiritual practice, and it has no real-world benefit, there is little point to it! This is why the real goal of meditation, is to always be sitting in meditation.

“Good friends, what does the term sitting meditation mean? When mind and thought are not aroused over any good or bad object or situations in the external world this is called sitting. When you see in the immutability of your own essential nature inwardly, this is called meditation.” – Huineng (6th Partriarch of Zen Buddhism, 7th c.)

And so, let us create a new pathway now, to introduce a new form of meditation. Based off the practices and imagery of several Eastern traditions, I call it Emperor Meditation.

Now imagine a large beautiful country, thousands of homes, large fields of green and trees, and at the center of it, a palace. This is a massive palace, it can be seen from far and wide across the country, it towers over the whole of the country. It hosts thousands of citizens. Soldiers, chefs and wait staff, cleaners, various noble families. It gets quite hectic inside!

This country is your body, with the palace being your mind which rules over it. The citizens are joy, desire, temptation, anxiety, fear, love, lust, and all the other emotions one can fathom.

It turns out that the emperor has vanished. No one knows where he could have gone. The country is in chaos. One by one, the occupants step up to rule the country, though only temporarily, as being the false rulers that they are, they cannot last long. Eventually the emperor returns, and the citizens step back in line. They take audience with the emperor when they want to propose something, but the emperor has absolute veto power while he sits on his throne.

When one is not aware, the swirling of thoughts and emotions inside of you will take control. The sensations in your body lead you to believe you are anxious of a situation, now anxiety sits in your throne. As anxiety rules, the sensations become worse, and the rule of anxiety grows more intense. Anxiety doesn’t know how to rule your country, therefore, the country is thrown into chaos during his reign. He’s quickly tossed out by the other citizens, but without the emperor to keep things in order, he’ll return in due time.

When one is aware, the thoughts and emotions can be observed. As the emperor sits on his throne, and observes the disturbances going on in his country, he can take control of the situation. He is able to observe the sensations, and notice them for a simple disturbance, he does not add new meaning to them, or throw himself into panic. As anxiety comes to take audience with the emperor, the emperor will hear him out, let him speak his peace, and then reject his proposal.

Alright, so now that you may have some idea of what I mean by emperor (or empress!) meditation, let’s take a quick look at two practical ways to incorporate it.

First, there is a benefit to taking 10 or 15 minutes a day, morning or night, or both, and practicing to know what it’s like to sit in your throne. To build knowledge in the sensations of your body, and be able to direct your thoughts in times of chaos. It’s only by the emperor being away that another citizen can take the throne. He cannot be usurped from his position, in this context, he is literally immortal and invincible. The only troubles arise when he is away, when awareness has vanished.

Second, the true meditation exists in the real world. The emperor must be there at all times to rule his country correctly. He cannot give up the throne even for a second, to those occupants of the palace who will do nothing other then plunge the country into chaos. Though, when he recognizes having given up control, he can return to his throne immediately, and return the country to peace and prosperity.

Meditation doesn’t need to be stuffy and serious, instead, take charge of your mind as an emperor would in his palace. There is no benefit to a meditation that is only performed while one is at home in a dark room! The words of the Buddha at the start of this post hint at the right way to rule your country, anything else is the gossip of your citizens, who you can’t trust to run your palace.

Tune in next week for a follow up article on “How To Be A Better Emperor”!