Leo Babauta has inspired millions through his writing on Zen Habits, where he's shared his experiences in building up great habits, cutting clutter and junkfood from his life, learning about great parenting and building a wonderful family, eliminating debt, increasing his income and productivity, and living a life that's more happy through and through.
Leo is now graciously participating in GiveGetWin with a practical class on "action-oriented contentment", and he sat down with Sebastian Marshall to share his thoughts on what motivates him, around what contentment is, on trusting yourself, on being compassionate and compassion as an impetus for action, on self-compassion and treating yourself well, and happiness in general. Enjoy:
"Practical, Action-Oriented Contentment and Compassion" by Leo Babauta, as told to Sebastian Marshall
What drives me really boils down to trying to help other people, especially when I see them with some kind of suffering… it doesn't have to be starvation; even just the anxiety of work, debt, or having too much going on around them.
Seeing people suffer makes me kind of wake up. I think, "What do I have that can best help other people?" There's obviously lots of needs I can't fulfill, but I look for the ones I can meet.
I got here as an evolution, it's hard to define one point. My blog definitely changed everything for me. I went from trying to change myself and help myself overcome these problems, to looking to help others do the same. The blog connected me with them. It's been a magical process -- through some simple words on a webpage and people being able to respond, all of a sudden we're connected, and I'm now more connected to what's become my life purpose -- seeing the same problems I have, and trying to help others with those same problems.
The blog kind of woke me up to that. Over time, as people asked me questions and gave me feedback on what's helped them, I've been evolving what it is that I do, and clarifying that is important to me.
I used to have all kinds of goals.
Now it's boiled down to something much more narrow.
It even applies to my personal life -- I see a friend, and think how I can help them. I think how I can help my kids and my wife, read to my children… it's fun to have a really simple purpose that can be applied throughout your life.
It's a little more complicated than that, in that people aren't always either ready for the help that you can give them, or they don't want it, which presents a problem because I still see them suffering and want to help them. And I think there's things I can share that might help, but sometimes they don't want to hear it. My challenge then is to either let it go and let them find it on their own, or do I remain stubborn and try to find a way to reach them even if they don't want to be reached?
It happens because a lot of times people don't want to believe there is a problem, they don't want to believe there is anything wrong with what they do. And they don't see the pain they cause in themselves and others -- which may be minor, but it's still pain. They think, "oh, it's not a problem" but really, they're hurting their relationships and they're hurting themselves.
But people don't like to hear bad things about themselves.
I'm not different. I like hearing the good things too.
But when I look back on the times I look back on when I made a positive change, it was only because I was able to admit to myself and hear what others were telling. Admit to myself that there was something that was causing suffering.
When I was smoking, I used to think it was not a problem, it was a stress relief, it was enjoyment, and there's nothing wrong with enjoying myself. We have these ways of rationalizing what we want to do. But when I really took an honest look at it, I was really making myself sick. At the same time, I was enabling my wife who was also a smoker, and so I was also making her sick through my implicitness. And worse, I was setting a really bad example of my kids, and the kids of smokers often grow to be smokers with a high correlation. So I'd be making them sick in the future. Once I admitted that to myself, I was able to take some action.
Changing is tough because there's some pain in changing. When you have a problem, there is the pain it causes in your life, but there's also a pain of trying to change it. When the pay off of trying to change is outweighed by the pay off of continuing the old way, people stick with what they're comfortable with.
Change is very uncomfortable for most people, it's overwhelming, it's difficult, you have to stick with something for a long time, and when people see all of that, sometimes they'd rather stay with what they know even if they know it's a problem. So my task is to convince them that change is not as hard as they think.
It's almost a mantra on my site, "Start small, start with one thing at a time, design to make the change easier" -- you want to make changing the path of least resistance, because change usually isn't for most people.
A lot of people might think I'm giving easy to digest articles; it's actually meant to be easy to digest and easy to overcome. Change is supposed to be easy to digest, at least through my approach. I think that's a revolution for some people -- they actually don't need all the steps, once they realize change is not that hard. It's eye opening to see change as not that hard.
The idea of it not being that hard to change is important to take the first step. Once you take that first step, you have a bit of forward moment.
My personal change process isn't always as clear as I make it sound on the site. I've found certain things that work, but how I apply them is a really highly varying mixture. Let's say I feel like I've been eating way too much sweets, there's a number of things I can do. One of my favorite ways to change is to set a challenge between myself and someone else, for instance, my wife. The two of us stick to the challenge for a while. The challenge itself isn't as important… it's more an impetus for an experiment. I see all my personal changes as a little experiment, my life is a laboratory… a change lab.
One experiment is, "Is this actually a change I want to make?" I set out on the challenge, and stick with it for a while, and then I see if it's actually good or if it's not as good in reality as I had hoped.
Then I look at the effects on the rest of my life -- because any change doesn't have one effect, it has a whole variety of effects. How does not eating sweets change how I eat with my family? Does it mean I can't get ice cream with them? But also, they'll ask me why I'm doing it, so that gives me an opportunity to educate and talk with my kids about eating.
The challenge with a buddy gives me accountability. Starting small is important for me; some people like to do drastic, all-at-once changes, but for me that's not so good. I'll meditate for 5 minutes a day, if I want to do yoga I'll decide to do just two yoga poses. After you do two yoga poses for a week or two, then doing 4-5 yoga poses becomes as easy as doing 2 yoga poses. You gradually adjust to what your new normal is.
I've found this through every change that I made; how changes become your "new normal" over time is really an amazing process. I'm sure you've experienced it too. If you make a drastic change, it feels really hard and really different, and not something you can stick to for very long. But if you can…
Here's an example. I used to drink lots of sugar in my coffee. I used to think there was nothing wrong with that, but eventually I realized I was making an excuse for putting crap in my body.
I started by putting half a teaspoon less in my coffee. At first, it was slightly less good. But after a few days, it tasted exactly like normal, like what I was used to. And then I took out another half a teaspoon, and it was slightly less good for a while, and then after a while it was exactly what I was used to. Our minds tend to adjust. It's kind of like those ideas of a lottery winner becoming ecstatic at first, and then going back to normal.
Our minds adjust over time. That's my change process -- I gradually adjust whats normal to me. Eventually I didn't need any sugar in my coffee, and it was just as good for me, I didn't have all that crap, and I enjoyed it the same.
You can do this with anything -- exercise, meditation, procrastination. Gradually adjust what feels like normal to you.
Take procrastination -- say, breaking off from working to check email or Facebook or Hacker News. What we're doing is moving away from the thing that's really uncomfortable, like some really hard work that we know we want to do. So what you want to do is take the hard, uncomfortable work in small doses.
We throw ourselves at these huge projects, and wonder why we can't stick with it. It's like going from lots of sugar to no sugar. So instead, see if you can stick with it for 1 minute. If you know you're only going to do it for 1 minute, it's easy to wrap your mind around it. It's hard to wrap your mind around something that's hard that will take several days, but you can do 1 minute. Eventually it becomes easy and you can expand from there.
Sometimes I say, "All I've got to do is start!" To me, just starting is really important. Get a little forward momentum. Once you feel like quitting, you can quit. Later, you can do something similar to what I learned in meditation -- quit on the second or third time you feel a desire to quit. So the first time you feel it, you just watch the urge to quit, and let it pass. The second time you want to quit, then you quit. Over time, you can push yourself to quit even later, when it's your new normal.
Something like anger is a little different, in that it has variable triggers. You never know when it's going to happen - when you're going to be interrupted in the middle of something important, and then you're angry. You're so close to the impulse, when the impulse and reaction are simultaneous it doesn't give you time to think about how you should act. With anger, one important thing is to get a little bit of distance. In the beginning, all you have to do is watch when you become angry. Watch for the inner anger, become more aware of the triggers. If you lash out, that's fine. At first. Eventually, once you become more aware of the triggers, give yourself a little space to walk away. Take some deep breaths. Calm down and consider your actions before you do anything. Once you develop that space, you give yourself that room to adjust what's normal.
As a side note, do you know what's amazing about anger? When we become angry, it's almost always because of selfishness. Sometimes, rarely, it's if you see someone being bullied and it makes you angry. But almost always in our daily lives, anger happens because someone has interrupted me when I wanted to do something, and they wanted something that I thought was less important than I wanted to do.
Or let's say your girlfriend or boyfriend won't have a sex with you. You might think, "Why won't they have sex with me?" You might think, "Why can't they behave the way I want them to behave?" Or similarly, "Why can't the world give me what I want? It's not giving me the job I want, the life I want." But once we pause and take a wider view and see more people's perspectives, we realize our little selfish view of life is causing the anger. It's unnecessary and limiting. I'm as much a victim of this as anyone else, but when I'm getting angry I pause and ask what's going on here -- it's usually some selfish thing, "I want what I want" and someone's not giving it to me. It's a childish reaction (but all adults do it!).
A really useful exercise to widen the envelope of your perspective is to see what you're getting mad at. Even if you think someone else is being a complete jerk, if you can see it from their perspective, you might realize they're having a hard day, or maybe even a hard life. That doesn't excuse whatever they're doing, but you can have some more empathy and compassion for them. If you can have an envelope of compassion for yourself and others, it helps with anger, frustration, and disappointment.
Now, that's a hard thing to do on a regular basis. As you widen your envelope of awareness, it's like reducing the sugar in the coffee. Gradually.
But I don't like to talk about compassion much, because it makes me feel like I'm full of myself.
When I talk about me trying to live a life of compassion, it feels like I'm putting myself up in the space with the Dalai Lama, Buddha, and Gandhi. You know what I mean? While that's a great space to be in, I don't feel like I've reached that. I don't even necessarily even want to be there. I want to be down here, figuring stuff out with everyone else. So I can easily talk about changing habits, because that's not Gandhi-like. He didn't talk about the seven steps to changing habits. But I don't like to put myself up as a guru, as this person who has reached enlightenment. However, that said, learning compassion is one of the most important things in my life. I just don't write about it much because of it.
There's already an ideal people have of me. Ask my wife and kids who I am -- I'm goofy, I'll skip on the street with them, I'll tell jokes. But when I put myself out there as a person who is looking to live ideals, people get a high idea of me and putting me up on this kind of fantasy of who I am. And then, what happens is, first -- it's completely not real. I'm just a regular person. Maybe I've figured a couple things out, but there's still so much I haven't figured out.
And I'm trying to reach people. When you're up there in an ideal fantasy area, you're unreachable. You're not an example for people, you become an almost godlike creature with amazing powers and can do anything. So people are like, "of yeah, YOU can do that, but I can't" -- but the truth is, I'm like anyone else. I struggle and mess up all the time, doubt myself, and so the point is the steps that I take are not in some rarified air. They're on the same ground everyone else walks on, and everyone else can take those exact same steps. I don't want to be idealized. I don't want people to think they can't do what I do. That's a major problem, they idealize me sometimes. I don't do enough to dispel that. Actually, it's really important to be that I not be idealized.
I think we tend to do that, though. With people who we read or watch. They become not real. And better than us, almost? We see the flaws in ourselves, but only see the good in people who have done some cool things. Even the Gandhi and the Dalai Lama were real people, are real people. We only see this aura that's been created around them, maybe they created that or maybe we created it for them. It's really important to me that I don't create that. I'm careful to try to write with a little humility and humanity so I not create this idealized image people get of me. I try and be careful with that. It can really stand in the way of what I'm trying to do.
As for compassion, it becomes a pre-loaded word. A lot of people talk about it, but don't actually do it. When you start talking about it, people might start to turn off. Not because they don't like the idea, but because they don't like to be preached to. But I do think it's one of the most important things to work on (even while trying to figure out what it all means).
The simple definition of compassion is feeling and understanding the pain of others, and then wanting to reduce that suffering.
In practice, it's a lot harder. How do you understand the pain of others? If I see something about you, it's based on very limited information, only what you've shown me -- and often, based on very limited interactions. So I have to project a story that I make up about you, and the truth is, it's probably wrong. But sometimes that's all we have to work with, and then gain more information once we've started to apply it. Or you can start out by saying, "I don't know that much, I'm going to learn more" and try to dive in, but even that can be very difficult. For example, let's say I want to apply compassion to my readership. Well, that's hundreds of thousands of people. How do I find empathy with all of them? It's almost impossible. Even if I pick out one individual reader, I can ask specific questions, but we're still separated by thousands of miles and I can't replicate that with everyone. So you see that applied compassion can become a complex thing. Much more easily applied on an individual basis.
Even then, let's say there's me and my wife. I try to have compassion for who she's feeling. If she's feeling a little sick, or a little overwhelmed, I can try to help her with that. That means a constant trying to understand what she's going through. At the same time, I'm trying to understand what I'm going through and what my kids are going through. So once you have more than one person, it becomes almost impossible to understand what they're going through. So you have to work through a limited model of each person.
So what you tend to do is, build up a certain trigger reaction way of working with that. So if I see you look confused, my way of dealing with that is see if I can ease that confusion. Even if I don't know you're confused, that simple trigger of seeing that look on your face, you develop a whole range of that. Over time, you have to build up certain patterns you can work with on a day-to-day basis. And again, it becomes more complex when talking about how to ease others' suffering.
Let's say you want to ease someone's suffering, how do you do that? That's not something you can just do. People want to have control over their own lives, they're not just objects you can act on. Sometimes you want people to let you solve their problems. Yet, a better way might be to show them and give them the tools that you've used, and let them know you'll help them if they want help using those tools.
To practice compassionate actions, you start with yourself. A lot of people see suffering in the world and feel bad about it, but they don't know how to take action. The only way to take action is to take action with yourself. The only person you can control with any degree of success is yourself. So there is actually immense suffering in ourselves, and we can start to ease that, and when we do, we then now have a model for applying that to others. To one other person, to a thousand, or to the world.
It's really interesting when you start to work with self-compassion. You then become a model for everybody else. If I can be compassionate with myself, then I know how I did it. Here's the amazing results. And here's how you can also do it. Then you have a model that can be replicated, and they can apply that to themselves, and then you have compassion being made on a large scale, just by starting with yourself.
Will my way work for everyone on Planet Earth? No. But it'll work for some people, who can replicate it and then they can show their way to others, try each other's methods, and create new methods to try with others. Kind of an open source compassion network.
I think that's the only way to do it. For instance, on my blog, I constantly try to help people change habits, get out of debt, or realize that there's awesomeness within themselves. I'm constantly doing that, but I start with me and show how I did it. Then show how they can replicate it within their own lives. I can also act in ways that I believe are compassionate to the people right in front of me, and you might think, "Isn't that compassion for others?" But really, it's compassion for myself in another form. It's another self-compassion method. You talk about the pain you feel when you see someone else suffering, that's just as much suffering as you see others suffering. Yet, most people don't actually ease that suffering. So, how do you ease that suffering in yourself when you see someone else suffering? That's a daily occurrence, and I think the only way to reach out, empathize, make a connection, and look for a way to both suffer less. If the other person opens up, that's great. If not, that helps too because you've reached out and let them know that you too suffer when you see them suffer. That's a powerful thing.
It's a selfish sort of compassion ;) but I think it's the only way to do it.
I think self-compassion makes you happier. Self-compassion, and just compassion in general makes you happier. However, more important for happiness is contentment.
Contentment, for me, is really about being happy with who you are. Which I think most people are not. Most people are driven by the need or desire to improve themselves, to fix certain things about themselves that they don't like. While that can definitely be a place for driving some changes, it's not a good place to start from with those kinds of changes.
What happens is that, if you feel there's something wrong with you that needs to be improved, you're going to be driven to improve yourself. Now, you may or may not succeed. Let's say you fail in your habit change. Then you start to feel worse about yourself, and you're then on a downward spiral where every time you try to improve, you fail, and so you feel worse about yourself, and then you're on the downward spiral. You start to self-sabotage your changes, because you really don't believe that you can do them. Based on past evidence, you don't trust yourself that you can do it. And that makes you feel worse.
That's if you fail.
But let's say you happen to succeed, and you're really good at succeeding.
So you succeed -- maybe you lost weight, maybe you don't feel as bad about your body now. But what happens is, if you start in this place of fixing what's wrong with you, you keep looking for what else is wrong with you, what else you need to improve. So maybe now feel like you don't have enough muscles, or six pack abs, or you think your calves don't look good, or if it's not about your body, you'll find something else.
So it's this never-ending cycle for your entire life. You never reach it. If you start with a place of wanting to improve yourself and feeling stuck, even if you're constantly successful and improving, you're always looking for happiness from external sources. You don't find the happiness from within, so you look to other things.
Say productivity is your thing -- you make great changes, you're productive, but then for whatever reason, the thing you've been successful at stops. It could be a job loss, it could be you got ill, maybe you had to travel, or there's some kind of disruption in your routine. It could be other people getting sick, or a life crisis. When the external thing that makes you happy and fulfilled is no longer there, you feel like crap, and that'll always be true if you look for happiness is externally.
But really, if productivity drives you and you're driven to productivity because it makes you happy, you want more of it. So people seek happiness in productivity wind up working way too much, and it has detrimental effects on their relationships and health.
If you're externally looking for happiness, it's easy to get too into food, or shopping, or partying to try to be happy.
If instead, you can find contentment within and not need external sources of happiness, then (1) you'll never have those unreliable things, and (2) you'll never have to rely on things like junk food, partying, alcohol, or drugs to be happy. I find that to be a much better place to be than relying on external sources of happiness.
I think the question a lot of people have is, "If you find contentment, won't you just lay around on the beach, not improving the world, not doing anything?" But I think that's a misunderstanding of what contentment is.
You can be content and lay around, but you can also be content and want to help others. You can be content and also compassionate to others, and want to help them. You can be happy with who you are, but at the same time want to help other people and ease their suffering. And that way, you can offer yourself to the world and do great works in the world, but not necessarily need that to be happy.
Even if for some reason, your work was taken away from you, you'd still have that inner contentment.
The question is how to get there. How to go from being unhappy with yourself to being content?
The first problem is if you don't trust yourself. That's an important area to work with.
Your relationship with yourself is like your relationship with anyone else. If you have a friend who is constantly late and breaking his word, not showing up when he says he will, eventually you'll stop trusting that friend. It's like that with yourself, too. It's hard to like someone you don't trust, and it's hard to like yourself if you don't trust yourself.
The only way to fix it is small steps. If you the unreliable friend wants to rebuild trust with you, the right way is not for him to say, "Now, trust me with your life" -- instead, it's to start building trust in small steps. Do little things, and see if the trust is held up. Over time, you open yourself up more and more.
What I usually do to build trust is to start with small things that I'm totally certain I can do -- drinking a glass of water every day is an easy example. I want to drink more water, so I set a bunch of reminders to drink a glass of water when I want to wake up. If you can keep that up for a week or two, it helps you trust yourself.
Most people try to change hard stuff, fail, and then the trust is gone. So start with the small stuff.
Once you've built up trust in yourself, the other problem for finding contentment is that we're constantly feeling bad about ourselves, because the reality of ourselves does not meet some ideal we hold. That ideal could come from mass media, looking at magazines and movie stars. Or it could just come from some idea about how perfect we should be. When it comes to productivity or how our bodies should look.
The truth is, the reality of ourselves is not bad, it's only in bad in relation to the ideal that we have about ourselves. When we let go of the ideal, we're left with the reality that can be judged as perfectly great. It's a unique human being who is beautiful in its own way.
The problem is, then, how do we not compare ourselves to these ideals? Well, ideals can be useful as a starting point. If I want to work 10 hours per day on a world changing project, but wind up working 6 hours per day on the project, it's still a huge contribution to the world, but a failure in relation to that ideal.
So ask if you're failing bad about who you are and how you did. If so, it's because of the ideal. To recognize that takes awareness first, and then you let go of the ideal. The only way to let go of the ideal is to see the pain that it's causing in yourself and realize you want to end that pain, and letting go of an ideal that's hurting you is self-compassion.
You can find Leo Babauta at Zen Habits, where he shares his lessons and thoughts on good habits, minimalism, living well, parenting, getting out of debt, expressing yourself creatively, health and fitness, motivation, and much more geared towards living an enjoyable and happy life.
Leo has graciously agreed to participate at GiveGetWin, and he's offering a class for up to 10 people to learn from him and each other about some practicalities of contentment, action-oriented compassion, trusting yourself, and meditation. Please find more about that by clicking here, and thanks for your support.