On Cognitive Dissonance

(Above: Untitled by Jean Michel Basquiat)

Routine is comfortable. Developing a consistent routine allows one to seemingly minimize unexpected events and safeguard against discomfort or problematic situations. This approach seems efficient, economical, and safe. The risks are mitigated as one is able to remain within one’s now well-established comfort zone.

The problem with this seemingly innocuous approach, however, is that is prohibits growth. By taking careful steps to minimize the potential for risk, one is minimizing the potential for the unexpected. The unexpected and risk are synonymous, where the only thing that distinguishes the two is one’s mindset. Risk possesses a negative connotation. It is associated with substantial loss–whether monetary, time-oriented, or otherwise–and is seen as a step backwards from one’s goal. The unexpected, while it can still be perceived as negative, should be regarded as quite the opposite. Unexpected events are spontaneous. Most of these events are nonfatal and can actually provide a wonderful opportunity to grow. It is important to remain open to such events rather than trying to mitigate the probability of them occurring, for this will most likely only lead to stagnation.

Routine can certainly be a positive thing. It becomes dangerous when one is unable to deviate from his or her routine when needed. There is certainly an important distinction to be highlighted here. Person A may develop a rather rigid routine but is able to stay consistent and significantly control the probability of any potentially unforeseen setbacks. This rigidity allows Person A to remain comfortable yet stagnant. Person B also has a consistent routine, but when he feels stagnation creeping in, he readily alters his routine, or briefly abandons it altogether, in order to keep life exciting and to preserve a healthy sense of spontaneity. When an unexpected event occurs, Person B celebrates it as an opportunity to learn and grow, whereas Person A is left feeling flustered and hopeless, as he is unable to deviate from his routine in the slightest. In this instance, as in regard to life as a whole, balance is key.

Perhaps it is rather confusing that I have not yet mentioned cognitive dissonance, but I promise that this is all connected.

I believe that a rigid routine is a breeding ground for the limitations of cognitive dissonance. This mental state of mind occurs when one wants to do something that another part of herself feels is abnormal or not okay. There is an internal battle that results. Usually, such a feeling occurs when an urge or behavior contradicts one’s previous beliefs or actions. This is where routine becomes dangerous. When one possesses a strict routine, any unexpected event or other occurrence that may require a deviation from this routine is a major stressor. One will likely lack the necessary mental strength to deal with such events because of the extreme discomfort felt as a result of novelty.

I have certainly struggled with this concept. Routine need not be work or action-related. One can just as easily develop a mental routine. This is arguably more common. Humans are social creatures. We possess an evolutionary urge to find a tribe and thus tend to compartmentalize ourselves in order to fit in these certain specific tribes. In high school, for instance, there tends to be those enjoy band and theatre, those who enjoy sports, those who enjoy drugs on the weekends, and those who are primarily focused on their studies. This is certainly an over-generalization, and now more than ever before, it is increasingly acceptable to straddle different groups, not having to define oneself according to a single stereotype. Nevertheless, high school provides an easy example of the modern tribalistic mentality.

I always wanted to identify with the group of school-oriented students. Thus, I experienced strong cognitive dissonance whenever I was presented with an opportunity that contradicted this rather rigid self-identity. Any party or kickback or social event was off-limits because I considered these as unexpected events–ones which did not align with my self-designated compartment. I had developed a strict mental routine that prohibited me from growing and learning in ways that did involve grades and assignments. Cognitive dissonance prevented me from exploring the other parts of myself. It was simply too uncomfortable and even guilt-provoking to do something that deviated from the “bookworm mentality.” Such a deviation would threaten my very comfortable routine and force me to step outside of my well-established comfort zone.

Well, after maturing a little and after lots and lots of therapy, it became easier to accept the multiple facets of my personality and to appreciates the diversity in other individuals as well. It is important to remember the phrase: both can be true. One can appreciate Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and J. Cole. One can admire the beauty in the art of Caravaggio and Basquiat. One can smoke the occasional joint while also maintaining impeccable grades. One can be the valedictorian but still allow himself to enjoy South Park whenever he feels like it. You can be a good student and attend parties. Both can be true. 

Things are often not mutually exclusive. It took me quite a while to realize this. While I still certainly experience cognitive dissonance on occasion, it is not nearly as crippling nor prohibitive as it once was. A rigid routine enables cognitive dissonance to prevent learning opportunities. It can certainly be a good thing indeed (both can be true)! But more often than not, this universal fear of challenging the traditional perception of oneself is really what is holding back any potential advancements.

So, while routine can be beneficial, please don’t hesitate to deviate from it every now and then. Please don’t fear novelty or the unfamiliar, for this is where growth occurs. And most importantly, please don’t limit yourself to a single rigid perception. Instead, embrace the multifaceted being that you are. No matter how bizarre your conglomeration of beliefs, interests, and values may seem, I assure you that it is the primary source of your impeccable beauty.

Book Review: Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

It is difficult to even attempt to understand the experiences of the prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps during World War II. One can try to imagine the horrors of the gas chambers or the ready incineration of supposedly “weak” prisoners, but it is perhaps more difficult to ponder the daily routines at such camps–the habits of the prisoners and guards. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl provides much insight on the brutal nuances of the concentration camps which render them even more horrific than once believed. The long barefoot treks in the snow, the urine-soaked straw bunks, the sharp pang of constant hunger, and the lack of basic personal provisions are but a few of the more specific details which made the prisoners’ experience all the more nightmarish.

Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist, provides a highly detailed account of what life was truly like as a camp prisoner. Several of such accounts indeed exist today, but he retells his story through a psychological lens. By sharing the behaviors of the guards and prisoners, the physical conditions, and several anecdotes, Frankl analyzes human behavior and seeks to optimize human life by learning from such behavior.

Suffering is a central point of discussion in the book. Frankl asserts that one’s meaning can indeed be fulfilled in the presence of suffering, yet such fulfillment is certainly not contingent upon it. He states that if the source of the suffering can be removed, it is selfish and irrational not to remove it. However, if suffering is beyond one’s control, one can find peace amid the chaos and still proceed to live a meaningful life.

Most human beings wish to live a meaningful life. It is sometimes difficult, however, to find such meaning or to even define what meaning is. Frankl takes a far more reasonable approach to this profound question. Rather than asking what our meaning is in life, we must realize that life is asking us this very question. Therefore, we must discover life’s meaning for ourselves. Life need not divulge this to us, for we are the ones intended to discover it. Life consistently questions us. Instead of doubting it, we should learn to listen and answer back.

One of Friedrich Nietzsche’s most famous quotes is, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” Frankl repeats this statement several times throughout his book. It is pleasantly simple and easy to understand, and yet it is something that humans constantly struggle with. In order to find the “why” that is unique to an individual, one must be willing to answer the questions life is asking us.

Man’s Search for Meaning certainly inspired me to live life differently with more love, gratitude, and enjoyment of each moment. If every person could attempt to live like Frankl, the world would instantly improve in every respect. Please be ready to answer life’s questions, remember that necessary suffering does not prevent one from finding meaning, that having a “why” makes life far more endurable, and that love transcends physical existence and is indeed just as, if not more, powerful than death.

Boredom: the Ultimate Enemy

In Tim Ferriss’s book, The Four Hour Workweekhe states that sadness is not the opposite of happiness. Instead, the opposite of happiness is something that plagues too many people: boredom.

Tim’s argument is truly compelling and indeed true. Sadness is a necessary and helpful human emotion and thus benefits one’s life. Humans need sadness as a form of catharsis, a means of connection, a powerful method of reflection, a way to ground oneself, and as a vessel by which to express other emotions such as love. Happiness cannot occur without sadness. It makes sense, then, when Tim states how happiness and sadness are not opposites.

Boredom, in contrast, is utterly unhelpful. There are no benefits one can reasonably obtain as a result of boredom. Sam Harris defines boredom as a lack of attention. This definition may seem rather simplistic, but it is incredibly profound. Boredom, the ultimate source of discontent, results from one’s inability to pay attention. The human mind craves constant stimulation. Humans need this stimulation to escape the dreaded fear of becoming “unhappy”. In reality, however, we are subconsciously escaping boredom.

This is why society praises being “busy” all of the time. When one is busy, one does not have a reason to be bored. How toxic a trend! The fact that humans are afraid to be still due to the fear of a potential bout of boredom is saddening. I have been there, and still experience such feelings today. I have recently developed the belief, however, that boredom is an unacceptable emotion. When it hits, I know that I am not being present enough nor am I taking advantage of all the opportunities available.

This epiphany, of boredom being unacceptable, occurred after listening to Joe Rogan on his amazing podcast. On one particular episode, he had Sam Harris and Dan Harris on. They talked about several different topics, but one statement that really grabbed my attention was the fact that a recent survey asked various people if they would rather be alone with their thoughts or receive an electric shock. An alarming percentage of the participants chose the latter! I believe that this relates back to the fear of boredom. Sam went on to describe that when one feels bored, if one were to simply observe this emotion and grow curious about it, the boredom is instantly eliminated. Because this dangerous feeling results from a lack of attention, directing all of one’s attention to the feeling itself strips it of its power. Sam explained this so effortlessly, resulting in my drastic change in attitude.

I believe that the practice of meditation has been shown to be so effective because of the above reasoning. Meditation is simply the act of noticing. One can focus their attention on the breath, on the sounds of nature, on the body, or even on discomfort or pain. What the mind focuses on does not matter. What is truly important is the fact that the mind is focusing its attention at all. Thus it is impossible to be bored when practicing mediation because focused attention is imperative to the exercise. Perhaps this is why mediation helps alleviate depression, as it disables the quickest pathway to discontent: inattention (ie: boredom).

In realizing just how powerful boredom is, I have grown more aware of when it begins to creep up. This is certainly still a work in progress, as I sometimes find myself at the mercy of its firm grasp. It helps to look at this phenomenon from an evolutionary perspective. When humans existed as hunters and gatherers, their primary motive for the majority of their actions was the need to survive. Their minds were thus always occupied with thoughts intended to optimize survival. Food availability and reproduction were the most important things one could think about. However, as humans have evolved over time, survival has become incredibly easier. We no longer have to worry about the availability of food, and reproduction has now gone in the opposite direction as there are too many people on Earth. The human mind no longer needs to constantly think about what our ancestors thought about. This created more space, but instead of taking advantage of such space, boredom evolved with us.

The good news is that by simply noticing the fact that we are bored, we take away its power and eliminate it altogether. It is time that humans occupy this relatively new abundance of mental space with things that bring us joy. This will be different for everyone and can include things such as art, music, movies, books, science, math, nature, physical activity, meditation, language, travel, community service, and more. There is so much in this world with which we can occupy the space in our minds. How blessed we are to have such an abundance of options! In simply realizing this fact, we have taken the first step towards defeating boredom, and as a result unhappiness, once and for all.

How do you determine your self-worth?

There seems to be a modern obsession with numbers.

Numbers are often utilized as the currency by which one’s “worth” is determined. The number on a scale, the percentage received on a test, the number of AP classes one signs up for, an SAT/ACT score, the number of calories consumed in a day, clothing size, yearly income, the number of social media followers, the number of likes on a photo, and college acceptance rates are but a few examples of how numbers are used to establish esteemed social standing and acceptance.

The problem is that, in total alignment with the laws of mathematics, numbers constantly fluctuate. This phenomenon is absolutely guaranteed. If numbers are our only source of self and social acceptance, we are destined to be disappointed due to the natural lack of continuity.  This involves depending solely on external forces over which we have no control.

It is quite evident that such a way of living is a recipe for disaster. We cannot control the ever-fluctuating world of numbers, but we can control our inner feelings–our inner sense of worth. This can remain constant. Rather than searching for love through numbers and social acceptance, it is more rational (and fulfilling) to begin searching within oneself. As cliché as this may sound, I have found that all of the qualms of life are far more easier to deal with when one possesses a strong and loving personal foundation. I definitely have lacked such a foundation, but reason has been a life saver in that it has aided me in realizing the destructive nature of some of my personal habits. Rather than finding gratification in external sources (grades, weight, calories, size), one must turn to internal sources.

Please think about your character traits, your interests, your positive habits, your beautiful talents, your curiosity or passion for learning. Recognize the beauty in simply being alive. Your body allows you to move, feel, taste, and love. Your brain is capable of storing memories–both happy and sad–while also allowing you to learn in a world of infinite learning opportunities. Think of how complex your endocrine system is, or how your muscular-skeletal system collaborates to gift you with a dynamic life. Please don’t forget how miraculous you are. Your complexity is truly astounding, but your unique personality and character are far more flabbergasting (in the best way possible of course).

Things such as the above should be our primary source of self-worth. When we pause to really consider the miracle that is human life, we can realize that the numbers everyone cares so much about are actually rather trivial. While numbers themselves are truly beautiful (being the nerd that I am, I LOVE math), they are NOT beautiful when used to develop inconsistent and irrational factors for determining a human’s intrinsic value.

Recognize the beauty in simply being YOU. That is a far more accurate indicator of value–true, meaningful value–than any number society has arbitrarily deemed as “ideal”.

Hotel Review: Angama Mara

When we landed on the small patch of dirt which constituted the Maasai Mara airstrip, we were kindly escorted to dsc_1460-1.jpegAngama Mara, a beautiful hotel consisting of wonderfully private safari “tents.” However, the rooms were far more sophisticated than any generic tent. The walls were canvas, yes, but a large portion of the walls were composed of bricks. In addition, there existed large glass windows equipped with a sliding door that led to a balcony overlooking the plush mountains that bejeweled the flat and grassy Maasai Mara.

Each room included a large bathtub and open shower with beautiful vintage gold faucets. The toilet was located in its own little enclave with brick walls and a window that revealed the natural beauty of the Mara, but because each room waIMG_4389.JPGs so private, one never feared the presence of prying eyes. The amenities were also impeccable. All-natural Africology products IMG_0104.jpegincluding bug spray, bubble bath, lotion, soap, shampoo and conditioner added to the luxurious atmosphere of the room.

At Angama, the small details were what truly made it special. In the privacy of each room, one could read Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa, or delve into a book covering animal behavior or indigenous plants of the Mara. There were stamped postcards ready to be filled out and sent to loved ones, a whistle to be used to summon a guide should one feel the need for an escort, and a blow-horn for any potential (but highly unlikely) emergency.

All of the food was spectacularly fresh and healthy. Buffets were happily absent, and at each meal, guests had the opportunity to choose from a daily menu of wholesome dishes. For breakfast, one could pack a scrumptious picnic to be taken with them on the morning game drive. Dining in the open-air lobby was also available. I really appreciated their breakfast because there was a selection of fresh fruit, yogurt, muesli, smoothies and juices brought to the table, IMG_4040.JPGbut also a menu complete with warm dishes. I ordered egg shakshouka which was absolutely divine–two baked eggs in a skillet of spiced tomato sauce with feta and Middle Eastern spices. From chilled avocado soup to tabbouleh salad with grilled halloumi to a selection of fresh salads, lunch was a delightful respite after a long morning game drive. As for dinner, a simple and unfussy menu was prepared with few–but perfectly executed– options. For me, fewer options ensures greater quality.  My family and I also had the opportunity to participate in a traditional Swahili barbecue which was located at a site a few minutes away from the hotel. Among a small grouping of trees, tIMG_4438he staff had set up wooden tables with padded benches. String lights zig-zagged among the tree tops and kerosene lamps added to the magical ambiance. Appetizers such as chapati, local cheese, hummus, a garden salad, traditional Swahili tomato “salsa”, avocados, tomatoes, and more commenced the delicious meal. Then we chose between chicken, prawns, or beef as a grilled-to-order main course. The night was truly magical.

Though the amenities and meals were incredible, the staff at Angama made the entire experience far more memorable. It is difficult to articulate just how kind, hospitable, welcoming, and caring they were. Each party of guests had their own “butler.” I don’t like to use this term because it demeans the staff members. For my family and I, each staff member treated us like a member of their own family. Rather than referring to them as “butlers”, I believe that “dear friends” is a far more accurate descriptor. They knew all of us by name, and we learned theirs as well . This special first name basis added to the familial culture of the hotel. Calling it a hotel even seems inappropriate, as it was more like a home away from home.

You are a Masterpiece

Hello!

As the first blog post of this site, I thought it would be appropriate to first indicate that this is a safe place–somewhere that welcomes all people. The primary intent of this site is to let all of you know that you are beautiful human beings. Oftentimes people are belittled or made to feel worthless. I want this blog to do exactly the opposite. If you constantly find your triumphs being hastily breezed over, your every setback magnified, I hope this blog will help you find recognition and validation. If you are struggling with a crippling eating disorder and wish to discover a community who understands what you are enduring, I pray that this blog will provide that. If you are intellectually curious but lack a place to discuss and share your ideas, this is the site for you. I mean it when I say that everyone is welcome here. It would be such an honor to have you join me as we explore restaurants and hotels, breathtaking travel destinations, books and movies, art and fashion, recipes, science and math, and everything in between! Here is a place that seeks to celebrate all that makes life worth living–to delve into la beauté d’être, that is, the beauty of living. I want to ignite within you an insatiable curiosity that compels you to learn from each and every experience no matter how seemingly trivial it may be. Learning is the zest of life–it is what adds excitement and adventure. Through this blog, we will learn together, laugh together, cry together, and constantly rediscover our self-worth together. Thank you for being here and please enjoy the journey.