Overcoming Habitual Reactivity by James Wilcox

Tell us a little bit about yourself:

I’m James and I grew up in Orlando, Florida. I’m 31 years old and live in Washington, D.C., where I work as management consultant helping government agencies modernize their policies and processes and improve workplace conditions for employees. I moved up to the D.C. area in 2015 to attend graduate school and begin my career.

During grad school and into my early career I began experiencing performance anxiety and general feelings of just not being good enough relative to my peers: not intelligent; disciplined; prepared; interesting enough, etc. I felt very much inadequate and compulsively tried to measure myself up against everyone around me in pretty much every social situation. This led me to develop a strong fear of failure and overall aversion to any criticism or negative feedback. I subconsciously tried to please everyone around me and sought validation/approval for everything I did. I couldn’t make decisions without obsessing over the “right/best” action to take and became increasingly depressed as I failed to live up to this exaggerated standard I’d created for myself.

This pattern led to a depression that continued to worsen through 2019 when I began trying out different ways to deal with my issues. I started seeing a therapist, got more consistent in the gym, went to yoga classes, got into journaling, learned about and began embracing frugalism and minimalism, and began trying different meditation apps. I thought if I focused all my attention on developing my perceived weaknesses, I’d no longer feel this overwhelming sense of inadequacy and could be happy.

What is your passion and how did you find it?

While these activities helped me feel a bit better, over time I noticed they weren’t quite addressing the root cause of my unhappiness. One day I was discussing one of the meditation apps with a work friend who mentioned he had some experience with vipassana meditation. I explained the app was helping a bit, but I was pretty sure I wasn’t meditating correctly since I spent the majority of my meditation time just completely lost in thought. I was a bit surprised when my friend laughed and said he could relate.

He told me his experience was largely identical to mine until he went on a 10-day silent vipassana meditation retreat. Intrigued, I looked up the organization offering these courses to learn more. I learned this organization offered vipassana courses at centers throughout the world, that the courses were highly rigorous—consisting of 10 days of about 10 hours of meditation a day, and most surprisingly that the courses were offered free of charge—each new course is entirely paid for by past students. While I was intimidated and unsure I’d manage to stay the whole time, I figured I had nothing to lose and signed up for a retreat in late January 2020.

During the first several days of my retreat, I found myself feeling largely uncomfortable pretty much all the time. I was impatient, though my schedule was clearly outlined and I had nowhere to be. I felt judgmental toward the other meditators, though I didn’t really know anything about them at all. And I felt intense frustration, anger, and desperation during meditation sessions. Mostly, I was upset with myself and what I thought was my inability to meditate. During one session, I had an emotional breakdown where my frustrations overwhelmed me and I felt defeated. Sobbing into my meditation blanket, I looked around the meditation hall and everyone else seemed so concentrated, so connected, so calm—completely unlike me.

Interestingly, it wasn’t until I resigned myself to failure that things began to fall into place and I began to connect with my mind and body. It wasn’t until I dropped my expectations of myself and what I thought my practice should be that I was able to begin to focus on actually meditating. Near the end of my retreat, I came to realize through experience that my anxieties and unhappiness ultimately stemmed from my inability to accept things as they are. I began to understand I could achieve the peace I sought if I could learn to let go of compulsively striving to attain every desire and avoid every fear that frequently arose in my mind.

Since then, I’ve maintained a daily practice that has proven very helpful for me. Of course, I still struggle with the same issues as before, but less often, at a lower intensity, and for less duration. I’ve become more aware of my thoughts and emotions, more patient, more compassionate, and less focused on myself and my perspective in social situations. I feel this practice is addressing the deep cause of my unhappiness and teaching me how to cultivate a calm, balanced mind and life.

What has been the biggest obstacle you had to overcome while pursuing your passion?

The biggest obstacle I’ve had to overcome is one that I continue to experience in my vipassana mediation practice, and that is the resistance to practice that arises. There are many times I find it hard to sit for various reasons. Somedays I find the practice boring and I’d rather do something more exciting, or sometimes work or family stress clouds my focus during meditation. After a year of daily practice, I continue to struggle with the same pattern as before—my mind subconsciously trying to change what is into what I would like it to be. The challenge when this arises is always to become aware and to accept; to stop pushing against my experience and to be with it in a balanced way. Once I accept, I can reconnect and resume my practice.

What has been the highlight moment of your passion project?

The highlight moment of my passion project was when I became aware that my meditation practice is a form of mental exercise, similar to how working out is form of physical exercise. I began to realize that the benefit of my practice would generally come in the form of imperceptibly small improves over time, as opposed to sudden breakthrough insights. I came to see my practice as a process to be engaged in regularly—as a form of hygiene that if maintained would bring benefits over the long run. This realization was tremendously helpful for me because it allowed me to understand that I just focused on the process—on maintaining my practice diligently every day—I’d surely attain the desired merits in time.

What's the next step in your passion project?

The next step in my meditation practice is to continue maintaining my daily practice. One aspect of my practice I really enjoy is its simplicity—I practice twice daily, once in the morning and once in the evening, and try to attend a 10-day retreat once a year. I plan to continue meditating to slowly break the habitual, emotional impulses that have steered my actions and reactions for the first 30 years of my life. I’m inspired to continue to develop in this practice to become increasingly in control of myself and to live more purposefully. To learn to let go, to accept, and to enjoy the beauty of what is.

What’s the one piece of advice you would give someone who is considering starting a passion project?

I think one very important thing to keep in mind whenever pursuing habits is to consider how much you enjoy the process as opposed to the desired results. Many of us begin habits or goals because we want a particular outcome and we work as hard to achieve that outcome. I think it’s very important to consider how you feel about the process for achieving that outcome because if you don’t enjoy the process, you’ll likely either give up before you realize the result, or you’ll be miserable throughout the journey. So I’d advise being wary of optimizing for effectiveness or efficiency if it means engaging in a process you don’t enjoy. I think in the long run it’s much better to engage in a process that may not as effectively or efficiently lead to the outcome but will be much more enjoyable in the meantime!

Speak now or forever hold your peace: Any other things you would like to tell us about your passion project?

I think the final thing I’ll say is a recommendation to try to keep your mind open to new ideas. It’s in our nature to cognitively/emotionally close off when faced with something we don’t quite understand. I remember feeling cynical during the first few days of my retreat when I encountered some of the more “spiritual” aspects of the guidance and feeling grateful and incredulous during the last few days when I’d experienced the benefits firsthand. While I think it’s a good idea to be moderately skeptical as a rule, I think it’s possible to go too far and to close yourself off from the life’s many wonders.

How can we connect with you?

I’m available and happy to discuss my passion project with anyone that’s interested. The best way to contact me is at wlcox.j@gmail.com. Thank you.

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