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January 30, 2020

My Experiment in Creating a Mindful Life

What is happiness? This is a question I’ve been pondering since… well, my whole life.

A little over a year ago, I walked away from my soul-sucking, 9-5 corporate life in Big Pharma, moved to Costa Rica for six months, and conducted an experiment in breaking out of unhappy mental patterns. The experiment, for the most part, was a success, I’m no longer miserable. (I documented my experiences during this experiment in my blog.) I’m figuring out that happiness, to me, is feeling fully present and engaged in my life.

However, my life still isn’t quite what I want it to be. I have a part-time, remote job curating immunology research for a biology database. In many respects this gig is ideal: it’s super low-stress, allows me to work from anywhere, and pays the bills (provided my expenses aren’t too high). Although the job can be interesting and engaging at times, it’s not work I’m passionate about. I often find myself looking at the clock, just trying to get my hours in so I can move on to the things I actually want to do. When I’m forcing myself to work like that, I’m not fully present, I’m just waiting for time to pass. When I’m in that state, it really sucks the life out of me, leaving me with no energy to pursue my personal interests.

I realize there’s a catch here, I’ve been studying meditation and mindfulness for over a decade;  our experience of the world is largely determined by our mind. In theory, I should be able to be fully present and engaged in whatever I’m doing. But I’m no there yet, and my experiences have taught me that external circumstances are an important factor, the environment can make it easier or harder to be present. When I started my first experiment, I wondered if blowing up my life would have any effect on my mood, or if I would just take the unhappiness with me. Fortunately, the experiment proved to me that drastically altering my environment did help me create a life that wasn’t miserable, provided I consciously guided my mind in the right direction as well.

Now it’s time for another experiment, which I shall call Experiment B. I want to take it further, I want to feel more engaged and present, and I also want to feel like the work I’m doing is personally fulfilling. At this moment I find myself in a new situation that might combine two of my passions: writing and meditation. I’m signed up for a two-month writing program with Elephant Journal. In one of those happy coincidences that reaffirm my belief in the harmony of the universe, I already had plans to spend those two months back in Costa Rica, in the quiet little beach town of Uvita. A new program, in a new location, this sounds like a perfect opportunity to create a life of engaged presence.

We’ll see how it goes. I suspect there is a part of me, the Shadow (as some call it), that fears success. If I can establish myself as a writer, spending my time doing what I love, and I’m still unhappy, then what? The Shadow finds security in unconsciously creating the conditions of my own unhappiness, because then it feels in control. Better to suffer from conditions you can control, than to risk suffering from conditions beyond your control, the Shadow reasons.

A frequent self-sabotage tactic my Shadow employs is creating a perceived need to spend more time working. I’m going to a music festival for a week, so I need to earn more money. The dive trip planned for May will be pricey, so I should work extra now. These tactics work because they’re based on the real need to support myself. But sometimes the shadow tips it further, exaggerating it into an excuse to not pursue more fulfilling activities, thereby reinforcing the mental trap keeping me from living the life I want to live.

In this new experiment, writing will be my first priority for the next two months, work will come second. My job will serve my life, rather than my life serving my job. My hypothesis: if I spend more time on work that inspires me, I’ll be more present and engaged in my life, and happier in general.

I’m exceedingly blessed to be in a position that allows this experiment, and I’m going to make the most of it. I hope my documentation of this experiment can provide insight for other people figuring out their own lives.

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