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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: spirituality

Positivity: the antidote to perfectionism

Stephen H. Provost

For all the talk about positivity, bad news has a bigger impact – and sticks with you longer – than good news.

That’s why it’s important to be even more positive: because the alternative isn’t a whole lot of fun. Trust me, I know. That alternative, or at least one of them, is becoming a perfectionist, living your life in a minefield of hesitance and fear. That minefield has been my life for far too long, and I’m just now realizing why.

It’s no mystery why politicians use negative ads or the news media highlight negative news stories. They work. They attract attention. For all the hand-wringing about attack ads in politics and bloody car crashes on the 6 o’clock news, people still watch them more than the positive ads and feel-good stories they say they want.

It makes sense why they work, too. It’s evolution. Think of yourself as a gazelle at the watering hole. Are you going to be thinking to yourself, “What a nice day it is outside! The tall grass is so wonderfully green and silky! The birds are singing such a lovely song!” Or are you going to be thinking. “There’s a pride of lions around here. Somewhere. And if I don’t pay attention, I’m going to end up as someone’s lunch meat.”

Right. This is why political ads aren’t just negative, they’re scary. The scarier the better, to appeal to your internal gazelle. Hordes of immigrants are massing at the border, planning a full-scale invasion! If Goldwater’s elected, he’ll get us into a nuclear war with the Soviets (cue video of H-bomb exploding)! Dukakis let a convicted murderer out on furlough! They’ll take away your guns! Your health care! Your religious freedom!

On and on it goes. Whether there’s truth to any of this is beside the point. The point is what’s being emphasized – the negative – and why.

The fairness factor

All this fear and negativity will drive you crazy. So, as a would-be antidote, we came up with the concept of fairness. This concept, we tell our children, will insulate us to some extent from the mean ol’ world out there. The police will protect us. The courts will protect us. Our institutions will protect us. And if all else fails, we’ll get justice at the pearly gates or karma will kick in.  

Excuse me for being blunt about this but ... what a crock of bull.

Life ain’t fair. Police corruption is real. So is judicial corruption, gridlock and bias. Our institutions? They’d work a lot better if the people in charge would support them rather than trying to find loopholes and undermine them to further their own agendas. The hereafter may or may not exist, and it’s a bit long to wait for justice even if it does. As to karma, whether you believe in it or not, it has zero to do with protecting people, doling out vengeance or righting wrongs.

Fairness is, in short, a placebo we take to convince ourselves that life isn’t as dangerous as it really is.

(Hey, Provost, you talked about positivity. Hold your horses, I’ll get there. Eventually.)

The ‘perfect’ solution

If we’re paying attention, we realize soon enough that all these external controls meant to guarantee fairness are no guarantee at all. So, we take matters into our own hands by doubling down on something else our parents told us. Call it the Protestant work ethic, the American Dream or pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Whatever you call it, it promises that, if you work hard, you’ll get ahead. If you graduate from college, you’ll get a good job. If you excel, you’ll get rewarded.

It’s automatic.

Pardon me if I repeat myself, but ... what a crock of bull!

Hard work can facilitate success, but guarantee it? Not in this world. You’re far more likely to lose your job because of the boss wants to pad his bottom line than you are for subpar performance. It’s far easier to lay people off because you want to make more (or lose less) money than it is for “cause,” which can precipitate lawsuits and cost the company even more! Perish the thought! Is it any wonder that some mediocre employees survive cost-cutting while some who excel are led to the unemployment line?

Oh, and if you embarrass the company publicly, it’s even worse. You say it was unintentional? That you’re an otherwise exemplary employee? It doesn’t matter. The minute some segment of the public starts calling for your head, you become the sacrificial lamb du jour. (If you’re lucky enough to have your faux pas featured on Twitter, you’ll probably get death threats, too.) Forgiveness? That’s for patsies. Zero tolerance is the name of the game.

The illusion of control

Still, as soon as you realize that the external “guardians of fairness” – ordinances, karma, the legal system, etc. – don’t work on any consistent basis, your only real option is to buy into the “hard work” approach. At least it offers you the illusion of control. And if you can just avoid making that one catastrophic mistake, then maybe, just maybe, you’ll survive.

If you can just be good enough, maybe you can rise above it all. Sounds a bit egotistical when you put it like that, doesn’t it? And really, even if you were to succeed (hint: you can’t), is that any way to live? Now, you’re not just a gazelle at the watering hole, you’re a deer in the headlights. Welcome to the continual stress and panic of perfectionism.

Truth be told, we don’t live at watering holes anymore. Life is still dangerous, but the dangers are different. Simple fight-or-flight responses don’t work as well in the modern world, where lions are no longer a threat, but stress-related illnesses such as strokes or heart attacks certainly are.

No matter how hard you try, you can’t control everything. You will make mistakes. And even if you lived a “perfect” life (whatever that means) the entire rest of your days, some external factor could bring you down. Even if you made zero mistakes, someone would always be there to accuse you of something you didn’t do, or blame you for their own mistakes and insecurities, because it’s easier than looking at themselves.

You don’t just stop being a perfectionist in one day, though. It’s a learned defense mechanism that you’ve reinforced over several years in your quest to survive. Ironically, if you were to demand this of yourself, you’d be setting the same kind of expectation that made you a perfectionist in the first place!

So, what’s a recovering perfectionist to do? If negative news takes a big bite out of our attention, the best possible course, it seems to me, is to overwhelm it with positivity. With appreciation. With wonder. With creativity. With beauty. This works, really, whether you’re a perfectionist or not. So do the following ideas for perfectionists and those who are around them.

Perfectionism is the placebo. Positivity is the antidote.

Tips for perfectionists

  • Let go of the expectation that hard work guarantees success. But don’t stop working hard. Pursue your dreams. Enjoy the process. Savor each moment as a success in and of itself.

  • Don’t dwell on past failures or past injustices. Process them, learn from them, then move on.

  • Focus on the positive. You don’t live at the watering hole anymore. You can afford to look around at the soft green grass and listen to the birds singing. That’s a great gift.

  • Remember that you are not your mistakes. They are not your identity. Don’t personalize them.

  • Acknowledge your inherent worth as a unique and gifted individual. Value yourself for who you are, not what you can do!

  • Instead of working to avoid mistakes, work to create beauty.

  • Embrace your sensitivity. Don’t apologize for it. Instead, make it work for you by creating empathy toward others and an awareness of the world at large.

  • Be thankful. Learn to appreciate the good things in life and focus on those. Since bad news makes more of an impact on us, overwhelm it with an avalanche of positivity.

  • Don’t expect others to be perfect. Some perfectionists direct their demands outward, but if they’re unrealistic for you, they’re just as unrealistic for others.

  • Stop worrying. Start living. Let the chips fall where they may.

Tips for dealing with a perfectionist

  • Focus on his or her positive attributes. Perfectionists become so committed to avoiding mistakes, they often define their self-worth based on what they do rather than who they are. Support them in turning that around.

  • Avoid nitpicking and micromanaging. Don’t look over their shoulder while they’re working. This only magnifies their fear of failure. Unless something’s important, don’t make a big deal about it.

  • Remember that it takes a lot of good words to overcome a few bad ones, so be effusive with your praise and selective with your criticism.

  • Keep criticism constructive; present it as an opportunity to improve rather than a condemnation for past behavior.

  • Don’t bring up past failures repeatedly. As a perfectionist, the person’s first instinct is to try to “fix” the problem, but since the past can’t be fixed, the person is likely to feel hopeless.

  • Don’t criticize the person for being too sensitive or call them names. And avoid making fun of them. Sensitivity isn’t a crime. Encourage them to use it as an asset.

  • Don’t project your own frustrations with yourself or unrelated issues onto them. They’re already their own worst critic; making them responsible for more things they can’t control can feel debilitating.

  • If they do something nice for you, thank them. Don’t immediately tell them how you think it could have been done better.

  • If you disagree on something, don’t be dismissive: Instead of saying the person is wrong, ask how they came to think the way they do. Show an interest and listen to the answer. Even if you still disagree, affirm the other person’s right to self-expression.

What is Empyreanism? A brief overview of the fire inside

Stephen H. Provost

Note: This is an excerpt from my book Timeless Now: The Empyrean Gate, available as an ebook for 99 cents on Amazon.

Empyreanism is an approach to life that pursues self-awareness with the goal of understanding and connecting with the world around us. It takes its name from the Empyrean, defined by Claudius Ptolemy as the highest heaven or celestial realm, which translates literally as “the place in fire” (em-pyr). Its core principle is derived from a saying attributed to Jesus in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “The kingdom is within you and all around you.”

The recognition that the highest good — the Empyrean or “fire inside” — resides within us leads to the recognition of its presence in everything around us. Hence the symbol of Empyreanism, the flaming heart: the crucible in which the inner realm of self is forged and brought into harmony with the outer realm of the universe. When this is accomplished, the distinction between the realm “within you” and “all around you” loses its meaning: The two are reconciled as one.

Indeed, the inner and outer realms have always been one: Not just spiritually, but physically. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson points out that “the atoms of our bodies are traceable to stars that manufactured them in their cores and exploded these enriched ingredients across our galaxy, billions of years ago.

“For this reason,” he says, “we are biologically connected to every other living thing in the world. We are chemically connected to all molecules on Earth. And we are atomically connected to all atoms in the universe. We are not figuratively, but literally stardust.”

The process of becoming aware of this, however, begins within. As the Buddha said: “The Way is not in the sky; the Way is in the heart.”

And it is a process that is alwaysoccurring, from moment to moment and day to day.

Empyreanism is simply a name for that process. It is not dogmatic, but dynamic: dedicated to the idea of continual growth. It is not a religion, but rather seeks to find commonality in core principles shared by many belief systems, both spiritual and secular. It can be practiced by people of any faith or philosophy, by people of spirit and of science. After all, Jesus spoke of a kingdom of heaven — a celestial realm — within each of us, and Neil deGrasse Tyson agrees: We are made of stardust.

Empyreanism calls upon us to acknowledge this connection and recognize that which we share at the core of our being. It therefore focuses on shared principles such as compassion, empathy, the quest for truth, openness, reverence for nature and respect for others. In doing so, it seeks to build bridges of awareness between diverse individuals, breaking down barriers that obscure our commonality and suppress our connection: barriers such as prejudice and fear.

Such barriers are the result of focusing on our differences, and guarding them jealousy as though they define who we are. But when, conversely, we focus on what we have in common, we gain the freedom to embrace those differences without fear, because we recognize them as new and vibrant manifestations of the same shared spirit.

The bridges we build in doing so stimulate more rapid growth by exposing us to new perspectives. This dynamic process of building bridges and crossing them to explore new, yet somehow familiar wonders is both the goal and the nature of Empyreanism.


The essence of Empyreanism is expressed in a number of sayings from around the world. Here are just a few of them:

“The kingdom is within you, and all around you.” — Jesus the Galilean

“Awakening is not changing who you are, but discarding who you are not.” — Deepak Chopra

“He who is filled with love is filled with God himself.” — Augustine of Hippo

“Who looks outside dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.” — Carl Jung

“The Way is not in the sky; the Way is in the heart.” — Buddha

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” — Albert Einstein

“Each star is a mirror reflecting the truth inside you.” — Aberjhani

“Rather than being your thoughts and emotions, be the awareness behind them.” — Eckhart Tolle

“Re-examine all you have been told. Dismiss what insults your soul.” — Walt Whitman

“To find the journey’s end in every good step of the road ... is wisdom.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” — Jesus

“Love is the bridge between you and everything.” — Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi

“Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” — Roald Dahl

“That which is to you hateful, do not to your neighbor.” — Rabbi Hillel

“You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.” — Rumi

“We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out — and we have only just begun.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson

 “E pluribus unum. (Out of many, one.)” — Pierre Eugene du Simitiere

“All things are bound together. All things connect.” — Chief Seattle

“You are the universe in ecstatic motion.” — Rumi

“Peace cannot be achieved through violence; it can only be attained through understanding.” — Emerson

Awareness and religion: Your path or someone else's

Stephen H. Provost

What’s the difference between religion and spirituality – or, more specifically, between doctrine and awareness? A lot of people have tried to answer this question over the years, but I’ve decided to offer my own perspective.

Religious groups often appoint a priesthood or hierarchy to administer their rituals and oversee dogma. Hence the term “organized religion.” But without that dogma and without those rituals, the hierarchy simply wouldn’t be necessary.

It’s not the priesthood that defines religion, in my view, it’s the rulebook ... which the priesthood uses to remain in power.

Spark of awareness

Religions often coalesce around a spark of awareness – a basic idea that’s powerful enough to gain a foothold in the imaginations of more than a few people. That idea isn’t the problem; it’s the “coalescing” factor. It tends to produce a rigid us-versus-them mentality that’s fortified by an ever-growing list of dos and don’ts.

These rules serve to separate people into two categories: the faithful and the heathen. They define who’s “accepted” and who’s not, but they don’t really do much else ... except to justify the existence of a priesthood (whose members benefit by being in power) – and to dim the spark of awareness that started fire in the first place.

From time to time, a reformer will come along and try to peel away the layers of dogma that have buried the original idea – and they’re usually castigated for it. Jesus the Galilean, for instance, said all the law and the prophetic utterances in Israel could be distilled into two simple principles: love God and love your neighbor. Martin Luther argued that Christian believers could have direct access to the divine, with no need of a priestly middleman.

The existing religious hierarchy, perceiving a threat to its power structure, did its best to silence them both.

The fact is, if you boil all the dogmatic dos and don’ts down into one or two simple principles that apply to everyone, two things happen. You discover you don’t need a hierarchy. And you focus on commonality, building bridges rather than walls. The priests obviously don’t like the first of these two repercussions. But they don’t like the second much, either, because they thrive off false us-versus-them distinctions – the kind of distinctions that leave the impression that “we’re better than they are.”

The priests can then lead the faithful into battle and claim credit for waging “spiritual warfare” against evil.

Ironically, these complex, Byzantine rules and restrictions create a simplistic, black-and-white dichotomy that pits the saints against the sinners, the chosen against the damned, the clean against the unclean. Such false simple-minded distinctions make the “in” group feel superior to those on the outside – who become dehumanized in the process. The entire process is akin to offering snake oil as a treatment for personal insecurity.

The spark remains

None of this means there’s no value in religion. Most religions, after all, are based on that positive spark of awareness that’s still there under all the dogma. And that spark can motivate people to do wonderful things in spite of all the spiritual red tape inherent in hierarchies and commandments.

But wouldn’t it be a lot easier to cut through that red tape to the heart of the matter?

That’s the idea behind Empyreanism. It’s based on two simple principles: awareness of self and awareness of the world outside. One leads to the other. There’s no map on how to get there, though, no set of prescribed rituals to follow or approved commandments to keep. Some people might use moral codes as guides. Others might make use of meditation. Or nature walks. Or conversations with close friends. Or being of service to others. Or some combination of the above and other tools not mentioned.

Some of these guides, or tools, will be of more help to one person than another, and that’s fine, because our paths are all different and our journeys uniquely our own. Guides can accompany us on those journeys, but they cannot walk the path for us. If we think they can, we doom ourselves to go no further and instead be diverted onto a path someone else has chosen – a path that is theirs, not ours.

Religion is someone else’s path, but awareness is uniquely our own. That’s the difference.

Everything else is just red tape.