Once in awhile I read a blog post or essay that actually changes the way I live. That’s happened more than once reading Steve Pavlina’s blog. While I don’t follow all of the practices he advocates (like raw veganism, or abstaining from coffee and alcohol), I consistently find that Steve hits the nail on the head when he writes about emotional processing, creating/manifesting the life you want, and generally following your heart path.
Steve makes a great point in a recent post; trying to set your priorities via logic alone will yield inconsistent and unhelpful results. Life priorities made from a purely logical basis, without achieving resonance from the heart, can leave us pursuing goals that we aren’t entirely committed to. From the post:
Generally the way you’ll notice that an adjustment is needed is that you’ll notice a nagging feeling that something isn’t right with the way you’re currently living.
Another clue is that you won’t seem to be making much progress in your top priorities. If you look at your actual results in those areas, you’ll see evidence that you’re drifting or even declining.
Often this happens because we like to assume that we can improve some area of life by making it the #1 priority. For instance, if you feel that your finances are weak, you may decide to focus on making more money for a while. But then a few years pass, and your finances don’t seem to be that much better. Overall you feel more stressed too. The main reason you failed here is that making money wasn’t a true priority. It was actually a distraction from a deeper, more important part of your life.
Coherence — Is It Real?
Steve suggests that we can set consistent, helpful priorities for our own life if we first achieve a state of coherence, which he describes as a state in which we experience unconditional love, compassion, appreciation, and gratitude. Steve also suggests that coherence is a physiological state that can be objectively measured by graphing heart rate variability.
Is there anything to this? I could only find a single reference in the scientific literature to the kind of cardiac coherence that Steve is referring to, but there are plenty of references to coherence in relation to breathing techniques and biofeedback. These sites suggest that coherence corresponds to a balancing of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems (the two aspects of your autonomic/involuntary nervous system), where both are active but neither is dominant.
For myself, if I focus on feelings of gratitude and compassion, I quickly experience physiological changes. My breathing slows down, my posture tends to improve, I feel more relaxed, and a sense of warmth spreads throughout my body (which might correspond to my blood vessels relaxing and opening up). I also feel alert and clear, not foggy or sleepy. I don’t see any reason to be overly skeptical of what Steve describes as coherence — I can experience it for myself easily enough.
Trying It Out For Myself
I did the experiment that Steve suggests (first achieving a state of coherence, then writing out my life priorities) several times. Each time I got more-or-less the same results. My own life priority list looks like this:
- Be a good person (loving, responsible, conscious-aware, helpful).
- Nurture important relationships and friendships.
- Write and widely share high-quality music, blog posts, and books that entertain and inspire.
- Live healthfully, intelligently, and efficiently.
- Enjoy all the good that life has to offer (sex, good food, social status, high quality entertainment, travel, a nice house, etc.).
The list is aspirational, not descriptive. I don’t always live my life according to these priorities — there are plenty of times when #5 jumps to the front of the line. But those priorities are the ones I want for myself — that’s the kind of life I want to live and I feel best when I do.
I don’t expect the list will always look like this — people change and priorities change. Also, I expect parts of the list might look weird to other people — the list is my own and your own priorities will no doubt be different.
I learned a few things about myself while putting this list together. For example:
- “Being happy” isn’t on the list — I guess I have internalized the idea that happiness is most elusive when pursued directly. Instead, things that I believe are correlated with happiness are on the list, like having strong relationships, living my life from a spiritual basis, and doing work that I find meaningful.
- My freelance programming/database work — a large part of my life — didn’t make the list explicitly. But I don’t think my clients need to worry. Being responsible and being helpful are important to me, and that work helps fill both of those emotional needs. Also, it makes good money, which I feel is part of being responsible, and also helps me enjoy the good things in life. If I didn’t need the money, would I fill my time with other activities? Eventually I would, but I wouldn’t leave my clients in the lurch.
- Creating and widely sharing high-quality works are both important to me, but I’m equally happy championing other people’s work. For example, this blog post, or releasing music by other artists on Loöq Records.
Priorities vs. Life Purpose
A few weeks ago I wrote about the importance of discovering/creating a life purpose as a modern life skill which is rarely taught.
So which is it, creating or discovering?
And how is life purpose different from life priorities?
First question first. I’m an atheist who believes in evolution as a general principle (I’m not a Teilhardian, but I do believe that it’s useful to think about evolution as an algorithm that applies to every level of reality [atomic, chemical, biological, cultural-memetic, etc.]). In any case, I don’t believe there’s any “grand plan” for the universe, or that any of us have any preordained part to play in life. We’re just smart animals, and we make it up as we go along. So the short answer is that we can create a life purpose. To use the word “discover” might imply that 1) there’s only one correct answer to the question, and 2) God put us on this planet to do something in particular. I don’t buy either premise.
Still, there’s an aspect of discovery and investigation to the process — it’s not a purely creative act (though I guess the same is true for all creative work). You’re looking for something that resonates with the core of your being. So it also makes sense to say that we can discover our life purpose.
The way I describe my own life purpose, in its shortest form, is to live well and help others live well.
If you haven’t created/discovered your own life purpose, and you feel the process might be helpful to you, then you might try this exercise, also from Steve Pavlina’s site.
But how does this relate to setting life priorities? I think setting priorities gets us closer to answer the question of “what do we do next?” Having a life purpose provides a useful guide when we’re making the big decisions in life, but it doesn’t necessarily help us with the nitty-gritty, day-in-day-out decision making. Life priorities come closer to providing a guide to making those decisions.
Since I did the “life priorities from an open heart” exercise, I’ve noticed my behavior has changed in a few ways:
- I’ve spent more time hanging out with my daughter, either reading stories, or just having a good time doing whatever.
- I’ve been thinking more about the “current state” of my most important relationships, and taking actions to correct course or improve the vibe when opportunities present themselves.
- I’ve been letting my emotional needs drive my actions, more than my logical/rational mind. So far this had led to more, not less productivity and effectiveness. By “emotional needs” I don’t mean just “doing what I want” in terms of following my mental or biological cravings for stimulation (to play Skyrim, or Minecraft, or watch TV, or eat ice-cream), but rather my emotional needs that relate to my own perceived life purpose; needs that resonate with my heart and spirit (as well as mind and body).
National and Global Priorities
Whenever I consider self-improvement principles, I also try to think about them on the level of community/group/planet.
Can the same exercise be applied to thinking about national and/or global priorities?
I don’t have (or aspire to have) explicit political power, but (like everyone else) the everyday decisions I make shape the world and help determine the destinies we share on various collective levels (community/national/global, etc.). I want to have some kind of framework for decision-making when I vote, choose what products to buy or not buy, choose what topics to write about, choose which organizations to donate money to, etc.
Usually political identities and political schisms are about methods, not priorities. We’re for or against particular methods, like taxation, or welfare, or abortion, or abstinence education.
If political conversations started with priorities, in some cases it would be easier to find common ground. Pro-choice and pro-life groups might agree that reducing unwanted teenage pregnancies is important. The conversation might then be about how to achieve that goal, rather than attacks on relative moral values.
Talking about priorities also makes us question our givens. For example, in conversations about the economy, it’s usually a given that increasing economic growth is important. But why is it important? Why isn’t increasing quality of life more important than economic growth? We might find that increasing economic growth is the only way to increase quality of life, but we might find a different solution (one that doesn’t drive civilization into a resource crisis).
So for what it’s worth, here’s what I came up with when I wrote up my own global priority list, from a state of coherence:
1. Achieve and maintain a minimum standard of living for all sentient creatures via environmental stewardship, human and animal rights, family planning, clean energy infrastructure, access to water, and efficient food production.
2. Achieve and maintain a high standard of living for all human beings via democracy, well-designed cities, effectively regulated more-free-than-not markets, and effective, efficient state services (education, health, and safety).
3. Make human culture and the human form better via scientific research, exploration, philosophical and ethical reflection, and technological/cultural innovation.
Items after the “via” in 1-3 are not priorities; rather they are methods (and thus will incur the most political disagreement). The short/priority only form might look like this: I think we shouldn’t trash the planet, we should find ways to all live well, and we should try to progress as a species (both culturally and morphologically).
What’s at the top of your “from the heart” priority list on a national and/or global level? Protecting personal freedoms? Religious redemption? Contacting aliens?