The Intensive Journal™ Process — The Period Log

We begin the Intensive Journal™ process by answering one question: Where am I now in my life? 

Ira Progoff, author of At a Journal Workshop, defines now as “the current period in our life.” This includes any events in the past that set the primary context for our current experience. 

Often now begins with a recent and major life event — a new job, marriage, the birth of a child, divorce, or a cancer diagnosis. Sometimes, however, the primary context comes from an experience that’s lasted for years. For example, a person who’s lived with major depression for a decade might define that period as his now.

Following are Progoff’s instructions for revealing your personal now and getting current with yourself.

1 Date your entry

At the top of a blank page in the Period Log section of your journal, write today’s date.  

2 Enter a meditative state

Sit in silence with eyes closed. Breathe slowly and deeply. Allow the body and mind to become still. 

3 Allow answers to surface

What is the present period in your life? Don’t respond to this question by thinking about it. Instead, feel the movement of your recent life and let answers emerge from “behind” your conscious mind. Then write those answers down in your journal with no self-judgment or censorship. 

Sometimes answers come in the form of an image, a metaphor, a single word, or a feeling tone. One person saw an underground seed beginning to grow. Another saw an airplane flying through turbulent clouds into clear, sunny skies. Other people have heard strains of music or felt waves of emotion with strong physical sensations. 

4 List the primary details of this period in your life

When did it begin? What are the key events that followed? What are this period’s primary characteristics?

Record your answers in your Journal. Be brief, summarizing events in a single word or phrase. Again, avoid self-judgment or censorship. 

In addition, don’t worry about literary style. Your aim in this step, says Progoff, is not to produce “good” writing. It is to record “basic, unvarnished statements” of your inner experience, free of analysis and interpretation.

5 Ask questions to evoke more details about your current period

  • Were any personal relationships important during this time?  
  • Were work-related projects, non-work projects, or other sustained activities important to you during this period?  
  • Did any changes in your body or specific health concerns surface during this time?  
  • Did you get involved with social or political issues? 
  • During this period, were there works of art that affected you in a significant way?
  • Was there a single event or set of events that set your life in a new direction?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, record the details in your journal. 

The Intensive Journal™ Process —  Writing in Three Dimensions

After letting At a Journal Workshop by Ira Progoff languish on my bookshelf for decades, I finally read it this spring. The Intensive Journal™ process it describes strikes me as a tool of precision and power. I am anxious to experiment with it.

Thousands of people have learned this process during an in-person workshop led by Progoff or one of his certified trainers. This workshop is still offered (mainly online), and fortunately we also have At a Journal Workshop as a resource.

This is the first in a series of posts that will summarize the 1975 edition of the book. I’ll begin with underlying principles before diving into Progoff’s specific instructions for journaling.

Note: I have not done the Intensive Journal™ workshop. And my posts are no substitute for the original text. For complete instructions and many examples of journal entries, please read At a Journal Workshop.

Opening to deeper wisdom

Progoff thought that traditional journaling — writing chronological records of daily events and our immediate reactions to them — is not a process that promotes insight and behavior change. His Intensive Journal™ system is designed to overcome these limitations by helping us: 

  • Access intuitive wisdom from our non-conscious mind. 
  • Bring different areas of our life into relationship with each other. 
  • Respond to immediate problems in a larger, long-term, and open-ended context. 
  • Connect to a consistent source of direction during times of crisis and change. 
  • Make choices in a way that transcends traditional decision making.

Revealing a dynamic process

According to Progoff, the Intensive Journal™ process reveals the direction that our life is already taking and aligns us with it. Journal work allows “all the events and relationships of our life to show us what they were for, what their purpose was in our lives, and what they wish to tell us for our future.”

The key is to access inner processes that are already in motion. By working in our journal, says Progoff, we allow these processes to unfold without hindrance, on a timeline that is uniquely our own. 

Opening to all experiences 

Progoff believed that the peaks and valleys of life are equally important. Periods of despair can set the stage for profound and positive change. Even when we feel “stuck” in life, seismic changes can be taking place at a non-conscious level.

During difficult times, says Progoff, the Intensive Journal™ process becomes “the eye of a hurricane, a quiet place at the center of life, a free, unconditioned moment of opportunity.”

Three dimensions of experience

Progoff describes three kinds of “inner movement”:

  • In the Dialogue Dimension we open up to non-conscious messages from many sources — people, events, works of art, our body, and more. 
  • In the Depth Dimension we record dreams and other symbolic images. 
  • In the Life/Time Dimension we reconstruct our life history.  

If you attend an Intensive Journal™ workshop, you’ll get a physical notebook full of blank paper which is divided into sections based on those three dimensions:

  • Period Log
  • Daily Log
  • Dialogue Dimension: Special Personal Sections
    • Dialogue With Persons
    • Dialogue with Works
    • Dialogue with Society: Group Experiences
    • Dialogue with Events: Situations and Circumstances
    • Dialogue with the Body
  • Depth Dimension: Ways of Symbolic Contact 
    • Dream Log: Descriptions, Context, Associations
    • Dream Enlargements
    • Twilight Imagery Log
    • Imagery Extensions
    • Inner Wisdom Dialogue
  • Life/Time Dimension: Inner Perspectives
    • Life History Log: Recapitulations and Rememberings
    • Stepping Stones
    • Intersections: Roads Taken and Not Taken
    • Now: The Open Moment.

Journal entries in all sections are written by hand. 

Notice that Progoff labeled some of the subsections as logs. These are places where we briefly record the facts of our daily life without judgment or interpretation. 

Logs provide the raw material for feedback subsections. There we integrate conscious and non-conscious streams of experience, transforming raw data into life-changing insights. 

The whole process begins with the Period Log.

The ‘Big Book’ Sets a Standard for Self-Help

Years ago, Dr. Norman Miller and I wrote a pamphlet about the disease concept of alcoholism that was published by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

During our collaboration, Norman told me that Alcoholics Anonymous remains the best book ever written for a general audience about alcoholism.

I’ve never forgotten that remark. And after rereading the book recently, I still agree.

First published in 1939, the “Big Book” — as it’s known to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) members — has gone through four editions and sold over 20 million copies.  

AA doesn’t conduct research or collect personal information about members. Yet I’m willing to venture that millions of people owe their sobriety and sanity to the ideas first expressed in this book.

It still speaks

Turning the pages of the Big Book, I was surprised to discover how fresh it seems.

Many of the elements I expect to find in a contemporary self-help book are already present here: Personal stories. Suggested action steps. Slogans that summarize key points. (See Wear the World Like a Loose Garment.) And a clear organizing schema that gives readers “pegs” on which to hang the basic ideas — in this case, the Twelve Steps.

But there’s something more going on here — a quality that lies behind the pages and beneath the words. It’s hard to pin down.

The closest I can come is to say that the Big Book speaks with a human voice. And this has everything to do with its primary author and co-founder of AA — Bill W.

Bill’s accomplishment

As a writer, I stand in awe of what Bill achieved in the the Big Book. He outlined a program that is specific and compelling, explained with an aching acknowledgment of human frailty and the possibility of fundamental healing.

Bill did this with a respect for the diversity of AA members — including atheists and agnostics — giving them permission to “take what works and leave the rest.”

That kind of balance is hard to maintain for one paragraph, let alone 575 pages.

Moreover, Bill’s voice still rings true, sounding through the pages of a book published more than 80 years ago.

In this age of ghostwritten, derivative, and content-free “advice” literature, the Big Book remains a beacon. It validates Alain de Botton’s claim that self-help can rise to the level of timeless literature.

Bill’s choice

Chapter 1 of the Big Book is wholly devoted to Bill’s first-person account of alcohol debauchery and eventual recovery.

These pages set an example of radical self-disclosure that you can still find in good AA meetings. Bill tells his story with the kind of grit and insight that’s only possible for someone who’s “been there.”

Bill nearly drank himself to death. Recalling one phase of his drinking life — still laced with denial — he wrote that:

Liquor ceased to be a luxury; it became a necessity. “Bathtub” gin, two bottles a day, and often three, got to be routine. Sometimes a small deal would net a few hundred dollars, and I would pay my bills at the bars and delicatessens. This went on endlessly, and I began to waken very early in the morning shaking violently. A tumbler of gin followed by half a dozen bottles of beer would be required if I were to eat any breakfast. Nevertheless, I still thought I could control the situation….

This continued for months, culminating in Bill’s third “detox” at Town’s Hospital in New York.

The doctor gave Bill a choice: Either quit drinking. Or die.

Bill’s “white light” experience

The Big Book alludes to this event, but my favorite description of it comes from Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age:

My depression deepened unbearably and finally it seemed to me as though I were at the bottom of the pit. I still gagged badly on the notion of a Power greater than myself, but finally, just for the moment, the last vestige of my proud obstinacy was crushed. All at once I found myself crying out, “If there is a God, let Him show Himself! I am ready to do anything, anything!”

Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words to describe. It seemed to me, in my mind’s eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man. 

After the white light, Bill stayed sober for the rest of his life. This alone is remarkable. But what astonishes me is how it ever happened in the first place, given Bill’s history of religious skepticism.

While confessing a grudging admiration for Jesus, Bill had dismissed Christianity as a whole: “The wars that had been fought, the burnings and chicanery that religious dispute had facilitated, made me sick.” He wanted no part of churches and creeds.

How does a man make the leap from that attitude to beholding “the God of the preachers?”

The answer is crucial to Bill’s story — and the founding of AA.

How Bill met his Higher Power

One day, while he was still drinking heavily, Bill got a surprise visit from an old classmate and former drinking buddy named Ebby.

They sat down in Bill’s kitchen to talk.

Bill cordially offered Ebby a drink.

Ebby tactfully refused it. He smiled and said that a change had come over him: “I’ve got religion.”

Also, he was two months sober.

Bill recoiled at the revelation:

I was aghast. So that was it — last summer an alcoholic crackpot; now, I suspected, a little cracked about religion. He had that starry-eyed look. Yes, the old boy was on fire all right. But bless his heart, let him rant! Besides, my gin would last longer than his preaching.

Ebby persisted, however, revealing that he’d sobered up through a community of drinkers who joined the Oxford Group and embraced its practices. These included a “moral inventory” based on “absolute honesty” and making amends (all eventually adopted by AA).

Bill listened to his friend, impressed that that Ebby “did no ranting.” Yet Bill’s mind closed to the notion of a personal God who granted sobriety to alcoholics.

“I could go for such conceptions as Creative Intelligence, Universal Mind or Spirit of Nature but I resisted the thought of a Czar of the Heavens, however loving his sway might be,” Bill recalled.

That was an opening, and it was all that Ebby needed.

“Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?” Ebby said.

This statement “floored” Bill: “It melted the icy intellectual mountain in whose shadow I had lived and shivered for many years.”

The conversation continued for hours as Bill gradually surrendered to the simplicity of Ebby’s message:

It was only a matter of being willing to believe in a Power greater than myself. Nothing more was required of me to make my beginning…. Would I have it? Of course I would!

Spiritual, not religious

I tell this story to anyone who struggles with the religious tone of the Twelve Steps. At one point I, too, linked their “God language” to desiccating doctrine, suppression of dissent, and soul-destroying conformity.

Yes, the Oxford Group was a Christian movement. Yet it was also an open-minded Christianity — something that’s hard to conceive given the brutal fundamentalism of the church’s far right wing.

The concept of a “Higher Power” is what makes all the difference. Yes, the term can refer to the God of mainstream Christianity. But it can also refer to your AA group, your mentor, your family, your favorite spot in nature — or any other source of help outside yourself.

Once you accept this wide-open notion of a Higher Power, the whole AA program starts to unfold itself to you.

This notion is what allows atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, and church-goers to all sit in the same room for a Twelve Step meeting, discover what they have in common, and help each other stay sober.

And it all started with the Big Book.

The Zen of Werner Erhard

I find Werner Erhard to be a continuing source of inspiration (and occasional irritation). I’ve posted about his est workshops and the core distinctions of the Landmark Forum, est’s successor. 

Recently I’ve had some aha! moments about how Werner’s ideas overlap with Buddhism. Following are points of convergence. 

Releasing monkey mind

Anyone who tries to meditate has a direct experience of “monkey mind” — the restless inner voice that comments on every experience, filling our mind with negative chatter. 

This internal chaos opens the door to a liberating insight, however: We do not have thoughts. Rather, thoughts have us

In meditation we see that the thoughts claimed as “ours” actually well up from an unconscious source that we do not control. 

Werner says it well in Speaking Being: Werner Erhard, Martin Heidegger, and a New Possibility of Being Human: It thinks, “and you are having the thoughts it thinks.”

Here is a portal to anatta, or no-self — one of the Buddha’s core teachings. Seeing the impersonal nature of thought allows us to step back from the inner voice, observe it dispassionately, and free ourselves from its tyranny.  

Releasing story — and suffering

I’ve described enlightenment as sinking into sensation — seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and feeling without an overlay of interpretation and judgment. Werner refers to that overlay as story and urges us to distinguish it from the bare facts of our experience. 

Remembering this distinction has reduced my suffering during some fairly unpleasant experiences. One was a recent prostate biopsy, which involved two distinct streams of experience. 

First was what the Buddha called mental proliferation — an avalanche of thoughts about how invasive the procedure was, how unfortunate I was to undergo it, and the absolute necessity of ending it immediately. 

Near the end of the biopsy it suddenly occurred to me: I could drop the whole self-centered story taking place in my mind and simply open up to the experience. And then, while laying half-naked on a table with a needle inserted into my rectum, I entered the second stream of experience — relief. 

This is not to say that I was free of physical discomfort. But I did drop a thick layer of resistance to what was happening, and this reduced my suffering. 

Entering the ‘clearing’ 

One day, while driving to work across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, Werner had a spontaneous and radical experience of nothingness. He described it to his biographer as releasing personal identity — seeing, in fact, any identity as false. 

This opened up a mental space that Werner describes as the clearing, in which experiences arise and pass away. No experience defines us, he realized. We are simply the context in which experiences occur. 

“Self is the projector,” said Werner, “and everything else is the movie.” 

In Buddhism this is described as insight into emptiness, a sacred spaciousness that is pregnant with possibility. 

When we see that identity is constructed and arbitrary, we are released from the stories that have defined us. We are free to speak and act in ways that are not constrained by the past.

Transforming  here and now 

Raised as an evangelical Lutheran, I believed that my salvation was sourced in the past (Christ’s crucifixion). And, my redemption was deferred to the future (after death, in heaven). 

Werner’s work and Buddhist practices lifts us out of linear time and plant us in the present moment. Transformation takes place here and now, in this mind and body. 

Two things are involved here. 

One is the experience of nothingness — for Werner, the clearing; in Buddhism, nonduality

Second is compassion — translating insight into behaviors that help rather than harm. The Buddha gave us the Eightfold Path for this purpose. Werner offers seven distinctions of being an unreasonable and extraordinary human being

Embracing the unseen and unspoken 

Teachings from the Buddha and from Werner are soaked in paradox. Though enlightenment is timeless, for example, we are called to sustained practice over time — and a healthy dose of confusion along the way. 

In Zen they say that the path is “something round and rolling, slippery and slick” — that nirvana cannot be seen, heard, or captured in words. 

Werner asks us to dwell in distinctions (such as the difference between story and fact) without trying to remember, apply, or even explain them. For a long time, we don’t “get” it. And then — suddenly — we get it all at once. 

Sounds like enlightenment. 

Note: The concept of the clearing as described by Werner — i.e., the observer who stands separate from experiences and stories about them — has no precise analogue in Buddhism. 

According to nondual teachings, there is no permanent observer. Rather, there is only observing, which waxes and wanes, arising and passing like all other experiences. 

How interesting that Werner and the Buddha differ so profoundly on this key point. 

Everything I Know About Buddhism

There is no such thing as Buddhism. Any “ism” is clinging to ideas.

Hence, the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths:

And the Eightfold Path:

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However, there are teachings credited to the Buddha. These are noble (provisional, not ultimate) teachings. They take us to the place where no teachings are needed.

Buddhism is a story that changes your relationship to all other stories.

Therapy is about changing your story for the better. Buddhism is seeing through your story — rendering it transparent, not taking it so seriously.

Psychotherapy yields insights that apply to you. Spiritual practice yields insights that apply to everybody.

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The path starts with skepticism.

In the Sutra of Dense Array, Buddha says:

…just as a goldsmith would test his gold by burning, cutting, and rubbing it, so you must examine my words and accept them, but not merely out of reverence for me.

I grew up Lutheran. Did my minister ever ask me to set aside reverence and examine everything he said?

No. He would have been fired.

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This post is everything I’ve been able to verify about Buddhism through personal testing.

There’s not a lot here — under 2,000 words. But they point to something liberating.

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The big picture: Cling to nothing as I, me, or mine.

According to the Buddha, anyone who understands this also understands the whole teaching and practice.

This is what the Buddha taught a dying man.

For more details, see Kenneth Folk’s quick start guide to enlightenment.

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Even simpler: Forget Buddhism. Simply notice what happens in body and mind when suffering arises.

Also notice what happens when suffering passes.

That’s it.

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First Noble Truth: Suffering exists.

There is a saying: Each of us has shed more tears over countless lifetimes than there is water in all the oceans.

Whenever you feel pissed off at someone, remember: They’re probably going through something.

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The First Noble Truth is sometimes expressed as: Shit happens.

That’s not quite it.

It’s more like: Stuff happens and then we react.

We see the world through the lens of our requirements. When people and events violate our requirements, we call it shit.

But this reaction comes from the mind that distinguishes between shit and non-shit. If we release this distinction, then there’s no shit.

Notice all your requirements. Then be willing to let them go.

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Dukkha is often rendered as suffering, but that’s a poor translation.

Sometimes teachers talk about stress or dissatisfaction instead.

That’s not quite it, either. Dukkha can involve pleasure, too, if you get attached to it.

Dukkha is a deep-seated and pervasive discontent. It’s the sneaking suspicion that something is missing in life, that we are fundamentally lacking in some mysterious way.

Our reflexive response is to fill this gap by seeking, by looking outside ourselves.

We try to change our circumstances to align with our desires. We distract ourselves with chemicals, entertainment, and perpetual busyness.

But circumstances and contentment are not directly correlated. We can be miserable in the midst of pristine circumstances.

The source of discontentment is in our heart-mind.

Let’s discover the heart-mind that is free of suffering in any circumstance.

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The Second and Third Noble Truths remind us that suffering arises when we cling — that is, when we push and pull on experience.

Pleasure feels good. We try to pull it closer and make it last.

Discomfort doesn’t feel good. We try to push it away.

Man, that’s a lot of work. We do it to get happy, but — ironically — this effort is the source of unhappiness.

Our effort springs from ignorance of dukkha’s true source.

Dukkha is something that we are actively doing. It’s all that pushing and pulling.

Want to stop suffering? Then notice when you’re pushing and pulling, and be willing to stop.

Stop demanding that things be anything other than what they are in this moment.

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There is a path to releasing clinging — the Eightfold Path, the subject of the Fourth Noble Truth.

This path includes three sets of practices:

  • Sila, the harmony of relationships; practicing ethical behavior, non-harming, kindness, generosity
  • Samhadi — the taste of tranquility; practicing meditation; a quiet mind; a unified mind, alert and open to anything
  • Panna — insight that deepens into wisdom; practicing with an intention to wake up

In short, the path is about purifying behavior, attention, and understanding.

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Anicca is the bedrock of Buddhism. This word refers to change, to impermanence. The Buddha called it the first sign of existence.

People, circumstances, and mind states come and go constantly. Whatever arises, passes.

Anything that comes and goes cannot satisfy you permanently. That’s dukkha again, also called the second sign of existence.

In addition, anything that comes and goes is not you. Your identity is based on personal traits that don’t change. What if none of those can be found? That’s anatta, the third sign of existence.

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Our practice is to stop controlling and start noticing.

Just let mind states be what they are. Let them come and go.

Whatever you’re feeling right now, it will change.

Just notice what all those mind states disappear into. There is a source of serenity that doesn’t depend on pushing and pulling, on doing or having.

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Keeping the practice simple is…a real practice.

Here is one approach:

  1. Start with a few minutes of metta meditation.
  2. Anchor the attention on the breath or another object.
  3. Drop the anchor and simply notice whatever arises in body and mind, letting it come and go.

Also practice on the run, throughout the day:

  • Remember: There is always another way to respond to what’s happening right now.
  • Every time you state your opinion, end with the words… or not.
  • Do noting practice at any time. Naming mental states — without judgment — can help us release them. It can be as simple as saying to yourself…Ah, this.

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Practice makes us accidentally prone to insight.

Insights that occur during meditation are creativity attacks.

Insight just happens. Nobody “does” it.

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Experiences such as sex and sports offer a taste of samhadi — focused attention, a mind unified in the present moment.

A unified mind is the opposite of a distracted mind, of going on auto-pilot.

A unified mind is “in sync” — not scattered, not working against itself.

The mind can be unified in the service of anything — listening to music, mastering a skill, selling something, stealing something, killing something, whatever.

The wisdom of the Eightfold Path is that it starts with ethical behavior. That’s the foundation. First, do no harm. Second, park your ass firmly on your cushion and meditate. But never forget: The order is important.

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We practice to unify the mind in the service of one skill — releasing clinging.

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Bringing a unified mind to ordinary pleasures makes them richer and deeper. Even one mindful sip of coffee is bliss.

Why was I searching so far and wide for happiness?

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(This teaching is from Mark Nunberg at Common Ground Meditation Center.)

Q: What is the place of social activism in Buddhism?

A: It has no special place apart from the rest of the teaching. Practice changes the world.

A: The Buddha was a social activist. He rejected the caste system and animal sacrifice. He accepted women as monks.

If the Buddha were alive today, he might caution us against drama (The world is ending tomorrow…) and condemnation (…because of denial and corrupt politicians).

Reality is lawful. It unfolds from myriad causes and conditions. Why blame any particular person?

Given what’s already happened, how could the world be other than what it is?

Our practice is to respond naturally and appropriately to any condition that arises. Such a response does not arise out of anger, fear, or sadness.

✻ ✻ ✻

What would the Buddha say about global warming, for instance?

Maybe this:

  • Global warming is a natural phenomenon. The earth is experiencing an infestation of human beings who produce too much carbon dioxide. In response, the earth will change in order to survive.
  • This might mean creating conditions that exclude human life. Mother Nature can be a real mother.
  • Even the earth will die someday. Like every other phenomenon, it is impermanent.
  • Don’t worry about it. There will be other worlds to practice in.

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There’s a world of difference between:

  1. I am angry and
  2. Ah, there’s anger again.

The first statement is identifying with a passing mind state. The second is noticing a passing mind state.

The first statement is taking anger personally as I, me, and mine. The second statement is taking anger impersonally.

Thoughts and feelings are impersonal. They are natural events like sunshine, snow, and rain. They arise and pass away beyond our control.

Seeing things impersonally helps us to be impartial — less reactive, more kind.

When you take things personally, you descend into hell.

Anything that you can notice is not you. It is just something being known.

Be the knowing.

✻ ✻ ✻

I hear people describe meditation as getting centered. It’s more like getting un-centered.

Years ago, while sitting during a meditation retreat, I experienced this. The borders of my body disappeared. There was experience with no center — no separate me localized in space.

Waves of feeling followed — fear, then curiosity, then peace. There was no fear of death. There was no question of wanting anything. I was everything.

There’s no center to an ocean or the sky. Likewise, boundless expanse is our true nature.

There are no nouns — no separate people or objects. There’s just constant movement and change (verbs).

Seeing ourselves as the center of the universe and separate from everything else takes a lot of work. What a relief to drop that effort.

✻ ✻ ✻

Enlightenment means being able to see the world from two perspectives — with distinctions when appropriate, and without distinctions otherwise.

Enlightenment is no big deal. It’s the booby prize. It won’t solve your problems or make you a nice person.

I don’t practice to get enlightened. I practice to notice toxic mind states before they turn into toxic behaviors.

It’s hard to tell when someone is enlightened. “Enlightened” people can still be jerks.

It’s easier to tell when someone is being kind.

Buddhism is practicing kindness.

How to Write a Summary

Is it possible to reduce a 50,000- to 100,000-word book to a single page or paragraph of pure power — enough to capture what truly matters to you?

I am currently obsessed with this question.

The key thing to ask about any information you consume is: What’s most important? The answer is a summary.

Most of what I read and hear disappears without a trace in memory unless I take the time to write a summary. This skill is essential to learning just about anything.

I want to get way better at summarizing. It helps me a lot to think in terms of:

  • Unstructured summaries
  • Pragmatic summaries
  • Progressive summaries

Unstructured summaries

Peter Elbow, author of Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process suggests a simple (though not always easy) way to summarize:

If you want to digest and remember what you are reading, try writing about it instead of taking notes. Stop periodically — at the end of each chapter or when something important strikes you — and simply write about what you have read and your reactions to it. This procedure may make you nervous at first because you can’t ‘cover’ as many points or make something as neatly organized as when you take notes. But you will remember more. Perfectly organized notes that cover everything are beautiful, but they live on paper, not in your mind.

Though Peter refers to summarizing reading, his idea applies to summarizing anything — e.g., presentations, podcasts, videos, meetings, and conversations.

This is the kind of summary I’m most likely to write — especially when pressed for time. I end up expressing ideas in my own words, too, which helps me to understand and remember the content.

Of course, you can always revise your unstructured summary. You can also check its accuracy by comparing it to the source. (This is key to the Fenyman technique.)

Pragmatic summaries

What to do you want to take away from an article, book, conversation, or presentation?

For years I assumed that the only answer to that question is a complete summary — all the possible take aways from a source.

However, some people are not interested in completeness. They want usefulness — ideas that make an immediate difference in how they think and behave. If this amounts to only a fraction of the source content, no problem.

For example, you can summarize to capture only:

  • Ideas that are new and surprising to you (as in book notes by Derek Sivers)
  • A simple checklist of things to do, minus all the explanations and supporting information (another idea from Derek)
  • An even shorter list of “marching orders” — three new habits (hat tip to Seth Godin)
  • The one idea or suggested behavior change that would have the most positive impact on your life right now.

Remember that you can return to any source in the future to create a new list of take aways.

Progressive summaries

Progressive summarization is the brain child of Tiago Forte, author of Building a Second Brain. This method is geared to taking notes on digital, text-based sources.

There are five stages:

  1. Capture the key excerpts from a source.
  2. Boldface the most important excerpts.
  3. Highlight the most important passages that you boldfaced.
  4. Based on the previous steps, write a summary in your own words at the top of your note.
  5. Use your summaries — along with your own ideas — to produce articles, books, presentations, courses, products, and other creative projects.

For examples, see Tiago’s series on progressive summarization.

Notice how this method contrasts with the previous two. Progressive summarization is the most structured and complete. It might be useful for sources that you want to thoroughly absorb and apply.

Look for the transformation

I agree with Ariel Curry and Liz Morrow: “All books are about transformation”:

  • Fiction describes a character’s efforts to resolve a complication — a struggle that permanently changes the character.
  • Memoirs offer first-person, nonfiction stories of personal change.
  • Prescriptive nonfiction (self-help and business-related) holds out the promise of change to the reader and explains how to achieve it.

This suggests a strategy for writing any kind of summary: Look for the transformation.

For example, here’s my transformation summary of a business book — Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Productivity by David Allen:

We feel overwhelmed and untrustworthy when we fail to clarify our commitments and try to hold them all in our head. The solution is to put all that unprocessed “stuff” in writing, translate it into clear lists of outcomes and actions, and update those lists weekly. The result is relaxed engagement with life, a clear head, and alignment with our life purpose.

This is an unstructured summary. For a deeper dive into the content, I might follow up with a pragmatic or progressive summary .

The key in any case is to play with summaries. They are for intellectual adventure and lifelong learning. Share your summaries online, and don’t feel obligated to summarize everything. We summarizers just want to have fun.

Note: Artificial intelligence (AI) software can absorb massive amounts of text and spit out summaries. But depending on technology is like hiring someone else to go to the gym for you — foregoing the mental exercise of writing your own summaries.  

Like Shane Parrish says: Even with AI, we still need to write.

Links to learn more

Merlin Mann’s Wisdom Project is the most ambitious summary project I’ve seen. He attempts to distill high-level insights into a bulleted list of aphorisms.

For progressive summarization on steroids, see The Ultimate Guide To Summarizing Books: How To Distill Ideas To Accelerate Your Learning by Tiago Forte.

Elizabeth Butler offers similar ideas for How to take notes on a book.

Some people like templates for book summaries. See this example from Michael Hyatt.

Brian Johnson’s Philosophers Notes prove that summaries can be fun to read.

I like Cedric Chin’s post about three kinds of non-fiction books, including those can be summarized in one sentence.

Josh Kaufman’s book notes are sophisticated “top 10” lists.

Francis Miller thinks deeply and well about summaries. Start with his paper on multi-level summaries for nonfiction books.

Summarizing fiction poses unique challenges. See Jane Friedman on how to write a synopsis for a novel. Also see how scriptwriters summarize their projects with loglines and beat sheets.

How to Write a List That Changes Your Life

For several years I did Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, which combines dialogue, meditation, and supported yoga postures. My therapist was kind enough to keep a list memorable of things I said during sessions, which she gave to me the last time that we met.

Years later I ran across that list by accident. It included items such as:

  • Feeling good is not a once-in-a-while luxury.
  • Life doesn’t have to be that hard.
  • Peace is always here when you need it. It is one breath away: It is this breath.

These were things that I’d actually said — and forgotten.

Seeing them again was a love letter from a past incarnation of myself — the very teacher I needed at that moment. And the teacher appeared in the form of a simple list.

The power of lists

Since receiving that gift from my therapist, I’ve become a fan of lists.

Lists can be liberating. Umberto Eco, novelist and philosopher, boldly described lists as “the origin of culture.”

I learned this from Maria Popova, creator of The Marginalian and a herself a great lover of lists.

In JourneyNotes: Writing for Recovery and Spiritual Growth, Richard Solly and Roseann Lloyd include a whole chapter about journaling with lists. The authors note that even a humble shopping list is a “symbol of a world greater than itself”:

…a summary of what you need, want, or have, or see at a particular moment in time. It’s an overview, a summary of the crucial facts of the state of one aspect of your life. It’s a kind of blueprint that can be a guide to the future.

Can the simple practice of keeping lists help us to get organized, gain insight, change our behavior, and even deepen our spiritual practice?

The answer to all these questions is yes.

When people tell me that they want to start a journal but have no idea what to write, I suggest making lists. Any of the following can work.

People who matter

Bronnie Ware, a nurse who worked in hospice care, wrote Regrets of the Dying. One thing that many patients told her was “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”

If ever there was a prompt for a powerful list, this is one. Write down the names of family members and friends that you want to contact regularly. On your death bed, you’ll be glad you did.

Mistakes made, lessons learned

I’ve learned as much from my mistakes as from anything I’ve ever read or heard. My journal includes a running list of mistakes and the life-changing insights they produced. This is a fairly long section.

My goal is to avoid repeating past mistakes — and to make more interesting and instructive mistakes in the future.

Habits to practice

By consciously choosing your habits, you can create new outcomes in your life.

Psychologist BJ Fogg — who specializes in behavior change — suggests that you create a running list of Tiny Habits. These are behaviors that:

  • You do at least once a day
  • Take less than 30 seconds
  • Require little effort

For example: After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth.

That sounds like an absurdly small behavior. But Fogg consistently finds that small behaviors expand naturally. If you succeed at consistently flossing one tooth, for example, you’re likely to floss more of them.

Other examples of Tiny Habits are:

  • After I pour my morning coffee, I will text my mom.
  • After I start the dishwasher, I will read one sentence from a book.
  • After I walk in my door from work, I will get out my workout clothes.
  • After I sit down on the train, I will open my sketch notebook.
  • After I hear any phone ring, I will exhale and relax for 2 seconds.
  • After I put my head on the pillow, I will think of one good thing from my day.

Learn more by taking the free Tiny Habits course.

Open loops

Write about the points in life where you feel stuck — questions that remain unanswered, problems that remain unsolved, decisions waiting to be made. These are open loops. The mere act of listing them yields some clarity and relief.

Return to this list and see if you can add a next action for closing each of those loops.

Things to read, watch, hear, and learn

Start with the vast collection of free audiobooks, ebook, movies, and courses at Open Culture. They can keep you busy for the rest of your life.

Build your own list as well. When people mention a book, movie, album, or podcast that particularly moved them, write it down.

Text playlist

I got this idea from a wonderful post by Leo Babauta. He defines a text playlist as “a series of articles I come back to and read on a regular basis, for inspiration or as a reminder.”

See Leo’s list here. Also check out examples from Liz Danzico.

The 10-ideas-per-day list

James Altucher is an author, entrepreneur, and angel investor who turns list-making into a daily practice. His goal is to be an “idea machine.”

James lists 10 ideas every day. These can be ideas for anything — books to write, businesses to start, jobs to apply for, problems to solve, habits to start, habits to stop, and much more.

“Ideas are the currency of life,” Altucher writes. “Not money”:

Money gets depleted until you go broke. But good ideas buy you good experiences, buy you better ideas, buy you better experiences, buy you more time, save your life. Financial wealth is a side effect of the “runner’s high” of your idea muscle.

You might hear people say that ideas are worthless unless they are implemented. Fine. Then create lists of ideas for how to implement your best ideas.

Lists for moving from thinking to action

One of my favorite self-discovery lists comes from a wonderful podcast by meditation teacher Jonathan Foust. He offers a list of questions for moving from personal insight to intentional action:

  • What are you not willing to pay attention to right now?
  • What are you feeling right now?
  • What are you not willing to feel?
  • Are you willing to be with this?
  • What are you most excited about right now?
  • What could be great about this?
  • What’s not perfect about your life yet?
  • What are you willing to do about this?
  • What are you no longer willing to do about this?
  • How can you resolve this and have a great time doing it?

Lists for recovery

People in recovery from addiction make lists of fears to face, resentments to release and amends to make. They also write gratitude lists.

In Japan, people in treatment for addiction sometimes do Naikan practice. This is based on listing answers to three questions:

  • What have I received from others?
  • What have I given to others?
  • What troubles and difficulties have I caused others?

Yoshimoto Ishin, creator of Naikan, emphasized the third question. This one helps us overcome our natural self-centeredness and open our heart to other people.

To get started, make a list of the people who were affected when you procrastinated on a task or failed to meet a deadline. Seeing the names in front of you is an inducement to change your behavior in the future.

Lists to warm up for writing

Dealing with writer’s block? In JourneyNotes, Richard and Roseann suggest that you make lists of:

  • What you would write about if you weren’t feeling blocked
  • Your favorite words and phrases
  • Images that you find mysterious
  • What you’re thinking and feeling at the present moment
  • Sensory details—what you’re seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, or tasting right now
  • Quotes from a conversation that you’re overhearing (or overheard recently) that could become dialogue between characters in a story

Emergency lists

This is another idea from JourneyNotes. Emergency lists are created to keep you sane during bouts of confusion, fear, anger, or sadness.

For instance, people who feel lonely can list ways to recognize their isolation. They can also list friends and relatives who are open to calls and visits.

Richard and Roseann note that an emergency list can become a lifeline:

When we are in a downward spiral, we forget what we know. We panic, go blank, split, numb out. If we have a list — in a familiar place, like the first page of a journal, or taped by the wall by the phone — we are more likely to catch ourselves before we fall.

Lists for periodic reviews

Lists can help you slow down, reflect on what’s working and what’s not, and choose your next steps. Consider doing this on a daily, weekly, monthly, or annual basis.

For daily reviews, Anne-Laure Le Cunff recommends interstitial journaling. Whenever you take a break, open up your journal and list the time. Then add a sentence about the task you just did, how you felt about it, and what will help you with your next task. See this example.

For weekly reviews, consider Anne-Laure’s Plus Minus Next Journal:

  1. Create a table with three columns — “+” for what worked, “–” for what didn’t go so well, and “→” for what you plan to do next.
  2. Fill each column with a list of events from the previous week.
  3. If your “→” list gets too long, then delete any tasks that are not important and not urgent.

I like the monthly review template in the Full Focus Journal. It includes question-based prompts such as:

  • What’s been happening?
  • What are some recent wins?
  • How are you feeling?
  • What are you grateful for?
  • What are you learning?
  • What decisions have you made?
  • What can you do to advance your goals?

David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, offers a template for a year-end review. I like this because it includes prompts to list your “wins” in the past year and what you’re looking foward to in the coming year.

At any point you can review your habits. Just list your answers to three questions:

  • What habits do you want to stop?
  • What habits do you want to start?
  • What habits do you want to continue?

‘Eternal Truths’

I got this idea from An Eschatological Laundry List: A Partial Register of the 927 (or was it 928?) Eternal Truths by Sheldon Kopp.

Of course, I don’t claim to teach any eternal truths. But I do hold certain high-level insights close to my heart as signposts for daily living. One is my list of Constructive Living slogans.

Another is the list of aphorisms from The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment by Thaddeus Golas. For example, Tad reminds me that:

  • We are always in the company of our equals.
  • Enlightenment doesn’t care how you get there.
  • All states of consciousness are available right now.

These lines have saved my butt on several occasions.

Don’t underestimate the power of your own “eternal truths.” If your journal was simply a list of reminders with the power to instantly shift your mental and emotional state, you would be repaid for your efforts a thousand times over.

Journaling With Powerful Questions

I never cease to be surprised by the raw power of journaling.

The first thing I do every morning (after starting coffee) is to open my journal and start writing. This is best done when I am not thoroughly awake and still hovering in a dream state — a portal to potential revelations.

The process is absurdly simple: Open a plain text file. Add the current date. Dump whatever’s on my mind.

That’s it. Often I’m surprised by what comes through my fingers as I type.

Journaling in three dimensions

Lately I’m learning from Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby, author, and speaker. He keeps a daily diary that documents what he’s doing and how he’s feeling.

In a separate journal, he collects his evolving thoughts on a variety of topics that interest him. In addition, Derek engages in Socratic dialogue by posing questions that prompt him to see things from a variety of perspectives.

I like this system a lot. I call it journaling in three dimensions — documenting what you’re doing, feeling, and thinking.

I’d like to build on Derek’s suggestions with two questions that can prompt life-changing insights.

How did I create this?

Whenever something breaks down in my life, I ask a bizarre and useful question: How did I create this?

Of course, part of me rebels against this question. I’d rather blame the breakdown on something or someone else. If I miss a deadline, for example, I’d rather blame it on the client, a technical glitch, the weather, an act of God — anything other than my own behavior.

Yet when I break through this resistance and tell the truth, I often discover a way to change my behavior and create new outcomes. Some ways that I can create a missed deadline are:

  • Agreeing to a deadline that was unrealistic
  • Neglecting to negotiate a new deadline
  • Taking on too much work in the first place

How did I create this? does not suggest that I bear total responsibility for every breakdown in my life. Sometimes they do result from factors I don’t control.

But life is messy, and many factors conspire to create any situation. How did I create this? prompts me to look for the factors that relate to me. Armed with this question, I can live the Serenity Prayer.

What does this experience make possible?

I got this from Michael Hyatt, who wrote about the experience of breaking his ankle after slipping on a set of stairs in his house. This accident forced him to take 10 days off work shortly after he was named president of Thomas Nelson, a major book publisher.

His first reaction to was to ask disempowering questions such as:

  • Why am I so clumsy?
  • Why does this have to happen now?
  • What did I do to deserve this?

Eventually he asked a better question, one that oriented him to the present and future rather than the past: What does this experience make possible?

And he discovered plenty of answers. Besides gaining time to catch up on sleep, Michael used his down time to set up a new blog and start posting — a side project that turned into a new career.

Something like this happened to me after getting diagnosed with prostate cancer. My first reaction was: Why me? But eventually possibilities opened up.

My diagnosis became a reset button for my life — an incentive to savor the present moment, celebrate what I have, and change my behavior in ways to prevent this cancer from spreading.

Links for learning more

There’s are so many good ideas for upgrading our questions.

Start with this list of journal prompts — questions to promote self-discovery.

Also see Josh Kaufman’s 49 Questions to Improve Your Results and How to Ask Useful Questions.

David Allen, creator of the Getting Things Done method, offers a list of questions for doing an annual review.

We can take this practice to deep levels. For example, there’s Naikan, a structured method of reflection developed by Yoshimoto Ishin. It’s based on three questions:

  • What have I received from others?
  • What have I given to others?
  • What difficulties have I caused others?

Yoshimoto described Naikan as developing “a thankful heart in order to prepare for death.”

Byron Katie, author of Loving What Is and other books, developed a method for releasing any thought that creates suffering. It’s based on four questions:

  • Is it true?
  • Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
  • How do you react when you believe that thought?
  • And, who would you be without that thought?

I like this one, too: What soothes you?

May you be blessed with a lifetime of liberating questions.

Why I Gave Up on Personal Knowledge Management — and What I Do Instead

Once upon a time, I was hooked on personal knowledge management (PKM) — building a second brain, a personal Wikipedia, a centralized collection of notes with all the information that matters most to me.

This was a deep rabbit hole, and I went all the way down. I blogged about PKM extensively. I also spent hours consuming books, podcasts, videos about other people’s PKM systems. (You would not believe how many of these exist.)

In addition, I tried to invent the perfect PKM system of my own, hoping to increase my creative output while reducing my writing time.

PKM is often sold as a life-changing practice. For me, it changed only one thing: Taking notes involved lots of friction.

Over time I came to understand why — and what to do about it.

Problems with PKM

When I analyzed what went wrong, I discovered some specifics:

  • I spent as much time tweaking my PKM system as actually writing — in effect reducing my overall output.
  • I switched from one note-taking and writing app to others, shuttling data between different and sometimes incompatible file formats.
  • This switching became a time and money suck that screwed up my files and riddled me with guilt.
  • Some apps locked me into a proprietary format — meaning that if the developer added unnecessary features, imposed a subscription fee, or abandoned the project, I was hosed.
  • Over time I amassed hundreds of files, most of them hiding in folders that I never opened.
  • Organizing and maintaining all those files became huge tasks that I put off.
  • In the process of accumulating so many notes, I spent more time consuming the work of other creators than producing original work of my own.

Tiago Forte once expressed the ideal state for PKM: “Imagine if every interesting idea or useful fact you’ve ever encountered was accessible any time you needed it.”

I no longer believe that this is possible. I am not sure it is even desirable.

In short, I bottomed out with PKM. (And I’m not alone: See the links at the bottom of this post.)

Releasing the PKM paradigm

But it’s all good. Perhaps bottoming out is exactly what I needed. Finally I was able to come up for air, let go of the past, and begin anew.

And that was key — starting fresh. Rather than simply tweaking my PKM system, I went straight to the roots: I released the whole PKM paradigm and replaced it with something much simpler.

In this post I share what works for me. Perhaps you can use it to avoid the problems I encountered and jumpstart your own creative process.

Before you spend real money on PKM apps and courses, consider the following options. They’re all free.

Start with one Big Ass File

The hardest decision to make after writing a note is choosing what to do with it. Many PKM systems break down here, right from the start.

So let’s prevent this problem immediately: Put all your notes in one Big Ass File (BAF).

This file can be created with a note-taking app, writing app, or outliner. Whenever possible, choose an app you already own and like to use — preferably one with a snappy mobile version and robust export features (in case you want to change apps in the future).

Whatever app you use, start with just one file. This answers the toughest question up front: Where do I put notes after I create them?

The answer is easy. There’s only one place for notes to go — the BAF. Just dump ideas there, add the current date, and then get on with your life.

Don’t organize

Another tough question is How do I organize my notes? My answer: In the beginning, don’t worry about it. As Dan Shipper points out, most notes defy organization anyway.

To locate information in your BAF, just browse the file or use your app’s search function.

If the notes in your BAF are dated, then they are already organized by time. That is a big plus, since many of our memories are encoded that way.

Like Tiago Forte says: “Organize as little as possible, as late as possible.”


Consider your BAF to be a work in progress — a file that you update and revise over time. Three specific kinds of revision can make a huge difference.

First, look for ways to reduce your notes. Distill them to their essence, and delete any that you’re unlikely to use in the future.

Reducing helps you manage file size and ease navigation. It also promotes clarity. When I truly understand something, I can often express it in fewer words.

Second, restructure. Over time you’ll discover patterns in your BAF. For example, you might notice that a lot of your notes cluster in groups such as:

  • Daily events and how you felt about them (a personal diary)
  • Thoughts on topics that interest you
  • Tasks to do
  • Possible creative projects — such as blog posts and books you could write, products you could develop, and services you could sell

Consider moving each group of notes to a separate section of your BAF — or to a separate file.

The key is to let new sections or files emerge organically based on clear and personal use cases. Instead of adopting someone else’s system, notice how your own notes “ask” to be organized.

Finally, use your own words whenever possible. This deepens comprehension and prevents one of the major problems with PKM — the collector’s fallacy.

When starting PKM, I copy-pasted a lot of quoted material into my BAF. I also collected hundreds of files filled with book highlights, full-text articles, and book chapters.

Once in a while I took the time to summarize sources in my own words up front. These are pure distilled gems — the notes that I actually use. The quoted material is gathering dust in an archive and possibly headed for the trash.

Take your own path

Many of the people who teach PKM are brilliant and well-intentioned. And yet much of what they say amounts to legislating personal preferences as absolute requirements.

Take any PKM technique as a possibility rather than a prescription. Eventually you will create a system that’s uniquely your own.

And that’s perfect. The only system that works is the one you will actually use.

Most of all, focus on outcomes. Taking notes is not an end in itself. The whole point is to harness information in the service of results. If your workflow violates every sacred cow of PKM and yet works for you, then ignore PKM and follow your heart. You are in contact with a deeper wisdom.

Where to learn more

My ideas align closely with these principles of incremental note-taking:

  • Create new notes with no friction.
  • Add new notes rather than revise or replace previous notes (append only).
  • Choose an app with great search features.
  • Organize notes by time.

I cannot imagine using paper for PKM, but some people swear by it. Christine Dodrill has good ideas.

I’m fascinated by the growing backlash against PKM. Check out:

For other takes on note-taking, see:

The BAF is not a new idea, by the way. It was originally called a Big Ass Text File. I’m simply reviving the idea and tweaking it. Enjoy.

Taming Your Gremlin: A Guide to Everyday Joy

Rick Carson’s Taming Your Gremlin: A Guide to Enjoying Yourself begins by announcing its modest aim:

This book is not intended to guide you to enlightenment, to eternal bliss, or to riches. It will, however, help you enjoy yourself more and more each day.

Rick Carson is a psychotherapist, executive coach, and trainer who works with mental health professionals, businesses, and nonprofit organizations. He is a former faculty member at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School and an approved supervisor for the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

Carson’s premise is that we enter this world as beings who are capable of constant enjoyment. Yet by the time we become adults, this innate capacity is long forgotten.

How does this happen?

Enter your gremlin.

Recognize the gremlin

Carson defines your gremlin as “the narrator inside your head.” This is the constant stream of thinking that interprets your experience and evaluates each event in your life.

The problem is that the gremlin is:

  • constantly active
  • highly critical
  • committed to making you believe that his arbitrary interpretations are absolutely true

According to Carson, your gremlin is happiest when you worry about the future, rehash events from the past, dwell on failures, and analyze other people’s faults.

Of course, the gremlin is simply a metaphor for the systems of irrational beliefs that cognitive psychologists have explored in such detail.

Carson’s gift is suggesting that we visualize those belief systems as pesky little demons and give them comical names.

An example is The Reverend:

Katherine is 40. Her gremlin looks like her grandfather only he engages her by preaching to her from the New Testament. He especially likes to make appearances when Katherine is having sex with someone. Until Katherine began to tame her gremlin, she was not only good and righteous, but lonely, emotionally isolated, and unable to have an orgasm.

Other gremlins include:

  • The General
  • The Hulk
  • The Big Ugly
  • The Grim Reaper

Labels such as these allow us to detach from gremlins and loosen their grip.

What gremlins say

While everyone’s gremlin is unique, none of them are wholly original. In fact, gremlins tend to hammer on some core messages. For example:

  • Your true self is unlovable.
  • You can only enjoy yourself for short periods of time.
  • Fast is good and slow is bad.
  • To show sadness is to be weak or childish or unreliable or overly dependent.
  • Asking for what you want is selfish.
  • To show anger is to be sinful, childish, unprofessional, and/or out of control.
  • To express uncensored joy is to be silly or unprofessional.
  • Not acknowledging and/or not expressing feelings will make them go away.

How the gremlin wins

Our natural response to a gremlin is to argue with him — to deny, resist, and refute our irrational beliefs.

According to Carson, this attempt is doomed to failure.

Why? Because the gremlin thrives on attention and opposition.

He is also a master debater. The moment that you engage with him in intellectual battle is the very moment that he wins—and you lose.

Simply noticing

The alternative to arguing with your gremlin is simple (though not easy). It is to simply notice the gremlin at work.

Awareness of the gremlin — not thinking or arguing — is your most powerful response.

Carson reminds us that:

…as you begin to simply notice your gremlin, you will become acutely sensitive to the fact that you are not your gremlin, but rather his observer. You will see clearly that your gremlin has no real hold you. As this awareness develops, you will begin to enjoy yourself more an more. It is to you, the observer, that this book is written.

Here Carson aligns with the newer schools of cognitive behavioral therapy, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. With these approaches, clients learn to greet their irrational beliefs with mindful attention rather than refute those beliefs and replace them with more rational alternatives.

In brief, Carson writes: “I change not by trying to be something other than I am. I change by being fully aware of how I am.”

Playing with options

One of the most refreshing aspects of Taming Your Gremlin is Carson’s approach to behavior change. He suggests ways to do this without creating a new gremlin.

Trying hard and attempting to figure everything out are not recommended. Instead:

  • Simply notice emotions as physical sensations.
  • Relax and let those sensations circulate through your body.
  • From that state of relaxed power, choose what to do next.
  • Do all of this in the spirit of being in process and playing with options.

Carson reminds us that we can choose a new behavior in any moment. And we can change for today rather than worrying about changing forever.

So long as you are willing to ground yourself and simply notice, you will never lose the vantage point of the current moment, and from this home base of operation you can always choose to tame your gremlin. Every moment holds the potential for compete self-enjoyment and for complete misery. The choice is yours.