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Why the non-fiction genre of self-improvement might be for you

By Harleen Mundi, September 21 2021—

I remember the first time I tried meditation. 

To be fair, I have been exposed to and have been practicing meditation my entire life without realizing it but an eleventh grade World Religions class seemed just the place to start. We sat down in our separate corners with instrumental music dancing in the background. All I could think about was how uncomfortable it was to sit on the floor or open my eyes periodically to watch if other students were taking it seriously.  

My mind lived in a constant state of chatter and at the time and I believed that to be a good thing. It meant that, as my sister jokes, I was able to live in my safe little world because my imagination distanced me from reality. What that also meant was that when I would be asked to grab milk from the fridge, I would be so caught up in my daydreams that I’d come back with bread and be branded as insane by my family. It sounds humorous but what I lacked was mindfulness and as my dad always says, “everything is good in moderation.” Therefore, even imagination, like everything, comes with a price. That price can look like forgetfulness but it can also be when the story in your head shifts from How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days to Insidious 3

Desperate to maintain mindfulness, decrease anxiousness, improve my overall well-being and keep my mind in a romantic comedy, I catapulted into a literary genre I had never dared to venture into before — “self-help” and “self-improvement.” In no time my life would resemble a movie montage of the characters who decide to change their lives overnight and spend the next few months going on runs every morning, picking up weights while simultaneously reading and listening to podcasts while cooking. This. Was. It. 

It’s important to realize that when we are navigating the self-help genre, we’ll also have to accept that not everything will resonate with us. That’s probably the most captivating part of it all. We can choose what serves us best whether that’s between the texts or within a text itself. The readings I mention in this article are more about ways to improve your mindset than anything else. It’s up to you to decide what will be your main takeaways and the following are three of mine. 

Atomic Habits by James Clear

It is 2021 and I have become that much more acquainted with meditation than I was during my World Religions class in 2018. During the beginning of the pandemic, I struggled to make a habit out of it. There were days when I felt perfectly fine and did not make the effort to sit down. On harder days, meditation came about more naturally. Now I’m aware that for it to truly make a difference, I have to make a disciplined habit out of it. I wake up around 7:30 a.m. to 8:00 a.m., sit outside and meditate every morning using a variety of sources, my favourites being Headspace and Balance. I expect that in no time restlessness will be a long-forgotten memory but as the famous saying goes, “the day you plant the seed is not the day you will eat the fruit.”

In a book I recently started called Atomic Habits, James Clear speaks on the “Plateau of Latent Potential,” a certain “threshold” we have to pass for our habits to truly make a difference. In other words, he focuses on the concept of delayed gratification, how small habits can accumulate to become something great over time. It’s as if we are doing “1% better every day” which seems like an insignificant quantity, something as atomic as picking up a coffee mug that’s been on your bedside table for days now. However, it prevents us from doing “1% worse every day” and eventually ending up with stacks of dishes in our bedrooms. 

Of course, when we don’t instantly witness the benefits of these habits, we are less motivated to continue to pursue them in the long term. Clear refers to this as the “Valley of Disappointment.” By this, he means when we expect progress to be “linear” and to follow a certain time-frame, we suffer from disappointment. Or as he later writes, when we confuse “motion” with “ action,” we set up the false idea that we are making any progress at all. In preparation for this article, I revisited books that have impacted me and also all the highlights and markings that I made on them to brainstorm what I wanted to write about— that is motion. However, here I am actively writing the article and that is action. Often we get caught up in disappointments and lack of progress that we don’t realize it is the effort of acquiring seeds, getting the right soil, watering the plants and having the right weather conditions that we can finally see our flowers start to grow. It takes persistence to achieve what Clear calls our “breakthrough moment.” 

101 Essays That Will Change the Way You Think by Brianna Wiest

I have never been one for routines. Growing up I regarded them as boring and incapable of spontaneity. Nevertheless, I still subconsciously took part in them. Brianna Wiest’s book is packed with essays that surround emotional intelligence, expectations and subconscious behaviours. Particularly, her essay on the “Psychology of Daily Routine” teaches us that when we become habituated to our routines we can increase our “sense of safety” and stability by “deactivating our fight or flight” and “fear of the unknown.” Implicit in Wiest’s essay is that routine also reduces decision fatigue, a concept Jay Shetty shares in his podcast “On Purpose.” Psychologically we can save our energy when small decisions such as when to have lunch are already entrenched into our day. In all my years of schooling before post-secondary education, I wore uniforms. Cut to the first year of university and it took real energy to choose what to wear. Therefore, when we practice “habitualness,” we can preserve energy for bigger decisions in our day and give ourselves the freedom to be spontaneous in those moments. 

Think Like a Monk by Jay Shetty 

Shetty’s comparison between a “monkey mind” and “monk mind,” along with the fact that we have around “seventy thousand thoughts each day” provided the basis for my analysis when it came to my own mind as well. For starters, it was easily distracted, succumbed to procrastination and overthought little things. My main focus when I came across this genre, was clearing the white noise or as Shetty terms it “the dust” that “obscures our true selves” because that is what it means to “think like a monk.” From exercises the book introduced that audited my negative thoughts to ones that allowed me to rate my fears, I learned that in reality —some thoughts are just thoughts. 

As simple as it sounds, we don’t need to judge them, analyze them or prove them right or wrong. Andy Puddicome, founder of the digital meditation app Headspace often offers the analogy that meditation is like “sitting on the side of the road and watching the traffic go by.” We don’t try to jump in front of the traffic or stop the cars. We just peacefully watch them go by.   Kevin from  “Fearcast Podcast” insists that thoughts are quite neutral and their presence alone is not enough to convince us that they are true but when we fear them and attach them to a strong emotional response, we program ourselves to hold onto them. Furthermore, Think Like a Monk references the analogy of a “charioteer” from the Bhagavad Gita, describing the reins a charioteer uses to direct horses as a metaphor for the mind. 

In the end, once we sit back and explore things objectively without expectations and judgements, build discipline with habits and routine we can truly take control of the reins or the mind and steer our life into the direction that best serves and resonates with us.

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