Transformative Experience: Changing Thoughts and Feelings Through Action

Approximate Read Time: 16 minutes

“These waters must be troubled before they can exert their virtues.” –Edmund Burke

“Reed’s car keeps stalling out,” my wife informs me as I come in from work. “It will start after a jump, but then dies mid-drive. We left it parked in the Starbucks off 157. It’s less than a mile from a Pep Boys, but I was afraid if he tried to drive there, it would die on 157 and he’d be stuck. I couldn’t just leave the kids in the car and push with him, you know? Will you take care of it?”

Reed is my brother-in-law. A recent graduate of the University of Texas, he has been the most loving, competent, over-qualified childcare imaginable these past 5 months. “Of course. I’m on it! Let’s go, Reed.”

Fast forward thirty-minutes. My wife’s fears prove warranted. Reed and I are in the middle of 157 pushing a 2008 Honda Accord, while three lanes of northbound travel converge into two, furiously passing us on the right. Standing in the middle of rush-hour traffic, you can’t help but feel exposed. Driving is usually more like a video game. Rain bounces away. Dust and bugs are evaporated imperceptibly. There is no real sense of the speed you’re travelling; no bite from the external temperature; no connection to the terrain, or the violence of the cars passing by—you are completely insulated often to the point of becoming mindless. But that veneer of security is ripped away as soon as your feet hit the pavement. Suddenly, there is a keen awareness that contact with any one of these two-ton beasts would be your end. Senses are heightened. The mind completely present and adaptable—unconcerned with the past and future. It is go time.

Here in the eye of the storm, it suddenly dawns on me that I am smiling euphorically. To passersby I must appear unhinged, but I feel downright giddy. Our mission is clear. Pep boys stands about 600 meters up a mild incline. In 500 meters we can veer into the safety of a left turn lane before crossing three lanes of traffic to arrive at our destination.

A man in his mid-30’s runs across the street to join. He is instantly my brother. All the normal pleasantries are somehow hilarious transposed against our current challenge. “Oh you’re in consumer finance. I bet that’s interesting.” We quickly find ourselves joking and laughing despite the lactic burn that fills our legs.

The three of us now push as one, never considering fatigue or self-pity. If anything I pity the masses streaming by. Daydreaming through their daily rhythms, absent of the vivid intensity gifted by our predicament. As we draw nearer our excitement mixes with anxiety. How the hell are we going to make this left turn against the flow of three lanes? No one says anything about it, however. Not until a slight opening emerges. “That’s as good as its gonna look! Push!” I don’t know who ushered the command (probably me; I’m a bossy bastard), but we all dug in and sprinted against the vehicle with surprising effectiveness. The car cleared all traffic and pulled into Pep Boys with time to spare. Or so I thought until I saw my comrades foot….

Just kidding. We were all fine, so we bid each other ado and I headed home to watch Game of Thrones.

“These (peak experiences) are moments in which you are lifted out of the daily grind and you sense that there is something larger and more sublime in life that you have been missing…. These moments can come from exerting yourself past what you thought were your limits. They can come from overcoming great obstacles…. You want to deliberately go in search of such moments. Stimulate them if you can. They have the effect… of altering your attitude for good. They expand what you think about your possibilities and about life itself, and the memory is something you will always return to for extreme inspiration.” –Robert Greene

Experiences like these are far too rare in our convenient, safe world. It is all too easy and common to sleepwalk through our days doing empty, paycheck driven work in pursuit of more comfort and security, all the while distracting ourselves with sweets and tweets. Purpose grows rare. Purchases and easy pleasures serve to numb the angst of meaninglessness.

Our large, highly-developed infrastructures preclude the need for rising to any occasion or banding together to get a job done. We’re conditioned to expect the government or AAA to step in and solve each problem. Occupations compartmentalize. Communities isolate. We drive on stressed, busy, and engulfed in shit we hardly care about.  

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Then on rare occasions there is a great storm. Trees fall. We come out of our houses, talk to our neighbors and connect through shared experience and a common mission. As Sebastian Junger shows in his amazing book, Tribe, over and over again humanity rallies together in times of war, natural disaster, and general chaos to find purpose and improved mental well-being. When the trial ends, people almost universally look back fondly and claim to miss it. Upon reflection, they find that before this event they were not fully activated. The stasis that defined their lives was not full living. If we were only fortunate enough to have disaster strike with some regularity, we might transcend the mental desperation of our time and live more fully.

I’m not so deluded as to be ignorant of the death and destruction wrought by disasters. I don’t actually hope for war or typhoons. But I do wish we could all have intermittent, unpredictable chaos that forces us to rise to the occasion and remember that we should strive to be capable of more. Just as I want my children to face pains and struggles so they grow up truly empathetic, competent, interesting, and well-adjusted, I wish a healthy degree of adversity for you.

As usual the ideal is a balance, only perceptible when we appreciate the nuance. I love my routines and the productivity they endear. An introvert, I crave silent mornings to write and calm evenings at home alone with my wife and children. I’m delighted to live in a world with low infant mortality and infinite access to information. Our good is oh so good, but that does not negate the growing challenge of purposelessness and alienation that defines our time. Depression, anxiety, obesity, drug overdoses, and suicide are all at unprecedented highs and the growth curves show no signs of leveling.

While there is great joy to be found in simple daily rhythms and inner calm, we require intermittent strife and time outside our comfort zone in order to grow and be fulfilled. Even more, there is a large difference between a sense of calm which only follows true confidence and the far more common apathetic, mindless malaise that is usually accompanied by hidden anxiety.

The Standard Model

“The disease of our times is that we live on the surface. We’re like the Platte River, a mile wide and an inch deep.” – Steven Pressfield

The challenges of modernity find their origins in the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. Western society began to question all its traditional institutions and the structure of society changed radically. Populations exploded, transportation quickened, people moved to cities, and life took on a frenetic pace. All of a sudden our world offered boundless possible beliefs and a seemingly infinite number of career options. The world, today, has only moved further in this direction. Soren Kierkegaard, a 19th century Danish philosopher found that most people responded to this immense freedom by becoming both lost in the infinite and lost in the finite.

To be lost in the infinite is to be paralyzed by the abundance of options. For most of human history, there weren’t options. You hunted, gathered and helped the tribe survive. More recently, you took on the family farm after your father died, or married a farmer and raised children. Today you could be anything—a doctor, lawyer, real-estate agent, salesman, teacher, engineer, entrepreneur, or any of a billion other options, all of which come with their own pros and cons. You can move anywhere, adopt any religion, love anyone, say anything, and, generally, live any way you want.

The cruel twist to all this freedom is that the more choices we have, the more irrational those decisions become and the more unsatisfied we are with each decision. Each choice is subject to far greater buyer’s remorse as we remember the upside of all those other options we could have selected. Most importantly, as psychologist, Barry Schwartz, details in his book, The Paradox of Choice, we are far less likely to make any decision. Overwhelmed by the number of choices we spin our wheels in infinite analysis. This is what it means to be lost in the infinite. Picture the 22-year-old college grad who moves back home and spends his days scrolling through social media, playing video games, defining every disadvantage, critiquing everyone, and waxing prolific about things he might someday do.

It’s far easier to lose ourselves in voyeurism and point out where everyone else is wrong than to take any action. Action invites failure, pain, critique, and all those antecedents of growth and purpose. Most today, employed or otherwise, find themselves frequently lost in the infinite—pointing out the flaws in other people’s efforts and everywhere society falls short of utopia, all the while avoiding life in favor of mindless distractions. The masses are hypnotized by social media’s infinite scroll of redundant self-promotion and outrage. Which brings me to the finite.

To be lost in the finite is to be lost in the Standard Model (yeah it’s capitalized—we, henceforth, dub thee a proper noun). For those unfamiliar with this central IHD concept, the Standard Model is society’s norms as we know them. It is the promise of happiness and fulfillment if you just follow the expected and “normal” path through Western life. You know… get good grades, go to college, study a practical subject, get a job, buy nice things, get married, buy bigger, nicer things, have kids, overprovide for and overprotect those kids while indoctrinating them in this standard model, retire, spoil your kids’ kids, die. That’s the macro picture. The micro looks more like this:  

Wake, work, TV, bed.

Wake, work, TV, bed.

Wake, work, TV, bed.

Sprinkle in a little social media, a lot of food, some commuter stress, and a few thousand birthday celebrations, gender reveal parties, and awards ceremonies, and that is the Standard Model.

Not that any part of this is inherently wrong. Marriage, kids, college or any other Standard Model choices could be profoundly positive decisions in your life—but, usually, only once you have analyzed how they are typically practiced and defined a more constructive, thoughtful approach. Furthermore, everything from TV and social media to awards banquets can be wonderful given the right spirit and dosage. Yet, guided by the chief values of our Standard Model—comfort, convenience, being liked, being right, and having more—this finite path leaves the masses living, to quote Thoreau, “lives of quiet desperation.”

Social proof pulls us towards both the finite and the infinite. To escape this broken model, we must act, despite our choice overload, and we must act differently, driven by a more fulfilling set of values. This is extremely difficult. Most want to be normal and accepted. Deciding to chart our own course not only invites criticism, but guarantees repeated failure. Yet, this is the only route to growth and creating a more inspired existence.

Escaping the Standard Model

Values are the operating system that determines most of our decisions. They are a preference hierarchy that grows more sophisticated as we mature. My two-year-old son gets into everything. He must experience the world so he can determine preferences—ice cream tastes better than broccoli. As kids mature they become capable of valuing more than just immediate gratification. Teenagers tend to value peer feedback over parental advice. Adulthood is about developing complex values—everyone wants me to go to the bar, but I’m more worried about feeling decent for my morning workout and being productive tomorrow.

The most common path to rewiring our values—the operating system that determines most of our decisions—is to identify the characteristics of good and bad values, reflect on your past actions and the values they indicate, and then define new values and the actions they necessitate. It’s a useful process that I recommend for everyone. Still, all that work tends to be very wordy and abstract. Values have trouble taking root without a lot of reflection. There tends to be a large gap between our logical mind’s detached musings and the reality of daily living where we are governed far more by emotion. Values are not tangible, yet their outcomes are. Thus, a more effective avenue for re-coding values is to start at the endpoint—action.

Put another way, self-development is usually conceived as an intellectual pursuit. You read the right things, listen to the right messages, reflect, mentally rehearse, and expect change to follow. Thoughts are supposed to change feelings and actions. But, we should look to work the process in reverse, as well. The right actions are even more effective at changing our feelings and thoughts. A powerful experience will often do more to change values than any workbook.

We’ve all known someone who was hopelessly immature and destined to go nowhere. Life was a party and she seemed to only care about seeking more pleasure and debauchery. And then you bump into her five years later and, as if by magic, she is a freaking inspiration. She has cleaned up, quit smoking, and now heads a non-profit dedicated to anti-malaria efforts across Africa. “What happened?” you ask. “On a whim, I joined a trip to Uganda to help hang Mosquito nets. It was summer, I was bored, and I figured it was a way to travel and get my parents off my back. Once I got there and saw the immense need something got into me.” Her experience triggered a chain reaction of unconscious value transformations that changed every pattern in her life. Similarly, the video-game junkie, gone Marine may have heard the words discipline, duty, and resiliency before, but they didn’t take tangible form until boot camp. He now lives according to a clearly defined code, but only because of the physical exhaustion, the meticulous inspections, the arduous punishments, and the brotherhood these fostered.

Talk is cheap. It’s easy to intellectually conclude that X is a better value than Y—health over immediate gratification; trust over promiscuity; learning over dependency. But emotions usually drive our actions and they don’t speak in words. Emotion is literally a physical manifestation. As any meditator can attest, each has its own sensations. Emotion speaks in feelings. It listens to action and changes through experience. So, the question is, what actions drive the development of more fulfilling values? Now we’re getting somewhere.

Truth Through Trial  

“Tao (the way) that can be spoken of is not the constant Tao.” –Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Reading, self-educating, and studying, while essential to the development of the human spirit, particularly in this age of artificiality, are still not sufficient for our self-realization. Yes, we must play with ideas and continue to cultivate the mind, but there is far more than just the theoretical.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, a 20th century British philosopher, posited that objective truth existed, but language was entirely insufficient for revealing that truth. In his mind asking someone to describe love, flow, beauty, purpose or any of life’s most important concepts is like asking them to build you a house with a bottle of Windex. Or, as host of the Philosophize This podcast, Stephen West, put it, “To Wittgenstein, asking a question like what is the meaning of my life is like inquiring: How much red paint would it take to be funnier than sound waves? It just instantly shows the person’s hand as someone that is confused about the limitations of language.” 

Truth feels paradoxical, because life is endlessly complex. By acting you confront what is real. To be lost in the infinite is to be consumed by the maze of linguistic possibility, constantly confronting the dead-end of utopian delusions. Absent of a path that can be perfectly defined, the only safe route is in identifying the errors of others while living passively. We live in a world of critics, too afraid to jump into the arena.

The modern world works hard to remove hard experiences and allow people to avoid as much discomfort as possible. Yet, these conditions leave us ill-suited to create a meaningful life. It is hard to be a real, authentic person or to even know oneself until you face some real shit. As Jordan Peterson says, “You don’t know yourself, until you test yourself.”  

In the face of inconceivable convenience and impulse overload, we need to get out of the car and reconnect with the chaos of reality. By entering this raw, vulnerable space life can take on vivid depth and color. It isn’t just philosophical musing. In my next piece, I’ll advocate a structured path to spur meaningful, purpose-cultivating actions. It turns out societies have always had traditions for prompting those universal human experiences that unlock deeper existence, lodge values, and reveal more than words ever could. For now, I’ll introduce these universals and clarify the human needs that necessitate such practices.  

Your Mission if You Choose to Accept It

Humans are tribal animals. Like all animals we are driven by instinct. As my father, the philosophy professor, often mused, our primary instinctive behavioral responses include: fighting, feeding, fleeing, and intercourse. The four F’s. Above these instincts are the human needs, which each of us try to meet in a variety of manners. The most obvious are the physical needs: water, food, shelter, and fire.

Unlike simpler animals, however, our complex brains go far beyond these survival needs. We have emotional needs that are every bit as vital. Tony Robbins believes we have four needs of the personality: certainty, variety, connection, and significance. He contends that we must meet these needs via growth and contribution or we will be unfulfilled.  Sebastian Junger distills these needs down to: connection, competency, and authenticity.

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Despite the semantic differences between Robbins’ and Junger’s theories, they basically say the same thing. It all starts with parental and tribal love. That is the foundation for our growth—the stability that both allows and should prompt us to get out of our comfort zone in pursuit of becoming more capable. That process will reveal purpose, forge emotional intelligence, and enable authenticity. Continuing to grow in pursuit of our purpose builds self-awareness and makes us capable of contributing to others. 

In the modern world our physical needs are met so effortlessly that we are rarely prompted to essential experiences that make us capable of meeting our emotional needs.  Without deep challenge we remain a shell of ourselves. That safe, comfortable cocoon is a breeding ground for neuroses and depression.

Lasting fulfillment requires that we struggle against an ever-evolving series of worthy opponents, both literal and figurative. We all want to be the hero of our own story. Integral to the archetypical hero’s journey, is that we all must confront our deepest fears. It could be that certification test you’ve always needed to pass, a risky project, or a business you’re too terrified to start because you subconsciously know you’ll have to learn through a lot of failure. There may be a real physical challenge you’ve always shied away from—a marathon, the Go Ruck challenge, or something more solitary. Maybe it is just moving out on your own or moving cities so you are finally forced to stand on our own two feet. Whatever it is, it will be a little painful. A part of you has to die for a greater you to emerge.

Yet, again, we can get so lost that we struggle to decipher what challenges we authentically want and what just sounds good from within the Standard Model. Self-discovery is a process. Action tends to reveal and spur greater inspiration. Thus, societies have always centered around universal experiences central to growth and maturation at all ages.

The universal experiences that, until recently, have been shared across all peoples, religions, and tribes include:

  • Fasting

  • Fighting

  • Finding Food

  • Foot-driven trek

  • Frequent and extended time in nature

  • Building/creating

  • Art

  • Giving to charity

  • Meditation

  • Gratitude or prayer

  • Play

  • Fellowship

From now on I’ll refer to these as Pillar Experiences. Clearly some of these can and should overlap. I’ll expand on each in my next article, but lets just focus on the broader picture. 

These exercises were ritualized and practiced in most human societies. After years of training, elements were combined into a Rite of Passage. This deeply challenging experience would demonstrate an individual’s maturation into a capable, honorable, and self-actualized member. As such, successful completion warranted both the perks and expectations of full membership. This ensured both the survival of the tribe and the fulfillment of the individual.

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As industrialized societies grew more stable and affluent, it became possible for civilizations to operate without every member becoming brave, virtuous, and useful. Consequently, cultures have slowly moved away from these expectations. Yet, in doing so they are neglecting the essentiality of these developmental experiences for the individual’s fulfillment.  

This is what religions and moral philosophies have always known: we are in need of self-discovery and self-mastery, and this only comes through practice.

"A soft, easy life is not worth living, if it impairs the fibre of brain and heart and muscle. We must dare to be great; and we must realize that greatness is the fruit of toil and sacrifice and high courage... For us is the life of action, of strenuous performance of duty; let us live in the harness, striving mightily; let us rather run the risk of wearing out than rusting out." –Teddy Roosevelt

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By identifying the principles behind the pillar experiences, Justin and I aim to create a structured model for incorporating these practices into life. Shared experiences can, then, foster a community that supports one another in pursuing meaningful work and escaping the Standard Model. After all, being the weirdo is far easier when you know there are others like you.

Still, no one can act for you or tell you the way. Purpose and passion only follow action and sacrifice. We have to invest ourselves towards worthy causes. What is worth struggling for? What task scares you, yet badgers your subconscious—taunting you to become what you’re capable of? Is it not the perfect time? It never will be. You could build your own Rite of Passage, explore our Essential Guide to Self-Mastery, or investigate any of the pillar actions for yourself. No plan is perfect. Act anyway.

The path of least resistance may be normal and easy, but it leaves us feeling empty. Life is too short to be normal. When we find ourselves listlessly lost in the scroll, perhaps the answer is a question: What is the mission?

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