Post image for 5 Easily-Overlooked Truths About Thinking

People don’t talk about thinking very much. We talk about what we’re thinking about all the time, but rarely do we talk about thinking itself. Thinking is a huge part of our lives, maybe the most prominent part of our experience.

It affects everything else in life too. It affects your actions, your self-image, your possibilities in life, your stress levels and your health. Your thinking habits determine whether your predominant experience in life is one of fear, excitement, abundance or scarcity.

My life got a hell of a lot better when I started paying attention to the role of my thoughts in life. There was a time when I would have balked at the following five truths about thinking, but now I’d consider them to be pretty basic facts of life.

1) We are thinking almost all the time.

Young children are great observers. Most of the time their attention is occupied by what they’re currently seeing and hearing. They can definitely think and ruminate, but the present-moment sensory world seems to be more important to them. It’s not unusual to see an adult lost in thought, barely aware that he’s there, but it would be strange to see a two-year-old in with that same glazed, absent look.

By the time we reach adulthood, thought occupies the foreground of our experience nearly all the time. Even when we’re actively paying attention to the sensory world, we’re constantly interpreting, predicting and judging.

As children get older, they devote more and more attention to their own internal “mapping” of the world, until it becomes more important than making fresh observations of the present moment.

Imagine tourists walking around, navigating with a map held out in front of them. They see the real-world landmarks beyond the map, but they use them only as a reference to find out where they are on the map, and how they can get to other places on the map. Most adults engage with the world in the same way, out of habit — the contents of our thoughts and impressions make the main landscape, and the present-moment sensory experience is secondary.

2) Most of our thoughts don’t really accomplish anything.

We absolutely need to think, and our minds can do amazing things. But most trains of thought aren’t leading to any kind of decision or insight that’s applicable in the real world. They’re just kind of kicking up dirt.

One thought always leads to another, but following a train of thought is something like following a trail of randomly-growing flowers, rather than a trail of purpose-placed breadcrumbs.  Read More

cat in a hammock not giving a shit

During a very famous moment, Krishnamurti asked the audience if they wanted to know his secret. The lecture hall went silent, and everyone leaned forward.

“You see,” he said, “I don’t give a shit.”

I’m paraphrasing. By most accounts he said “You see, I don’t mind what happens,” but he could have easily said either, and not giving a shit is a concept more people can identify with. I apologize for the vulgarity of the phrase — I will use it a lot in this article — but nothing else captures this piece of wisdom quite as well.

When you tell people to “not mind what happens,” they’ll probably look at you funny unless they’re the type of person who would be in the audience at a Krishnamurti lecture. But everyone understands that there are times in life when the best way to respond to an unpleasant event is to not give a shit.

Giving a shit really just amounts to thinking about what happened. If someone was rude to you on the phone, and you think a lot about it, you are giving a shit. If you hang up and shrug and then go for a bike ride, then you are successfully not giving a shit.

Giving a shit does not necessarily mean you’re doing anything useful, but it makes it seem like you are. It feels like there’s some kind of justice that you’re getting closer to with every moment you give a shit. But that’s not true, because giving a shit, by itself, is only thinking — and thinking has little use aside from figuring out what to do.

This illuminates one of our most stubborn, silly beliefs about human thinking: that most of it is worthwhile, that it’s actually getting you somewhere. Most thoughts just fill up your head and distance you from the life that’s still unfolding in front of you. They’re not leading to any important decisions or insights, they’re just taking over your present moment, and possibly shortening your life on the other end too.

We often believe that our thoughts are accomplishing something just because they’re emotionally charged, or because they’re “about” something we consider important, like fairness, respect, or the state of society.

No. They are useful only insofar as they get you to move your body and do something useful.  Read More

acorn in hand

It probably doesn’t occur to most people that their lives have only ever happened one moment at time. Being in more than one place at once is obviously impossible, yet most of us have difficulty fully allowing ourselves to be only in the one place where we really are: here.

We often talk about having a dozen things to do at once, when in fact we seldom do more than one thing at once, or need to. Your to-do list only gets done one moment at a time, whether your moment-to-moment experience is a frantic and complex one, or a calm and simple one.

We would do very well to simply look at the present moment, ask ourselves what it requires, then calmly do that. It’s hard to imagine an instance in life where this wouldn’t be the best thing to do. Yet life usually seems so much more complicated than that.

Any moment you experience can be broken down into three simple qualities:

1) Your immediate physical surroundings right now

2) The physical feelings in your body right now

3) What you’re thinking about right now

Your whole life is just a gradual turnover of these three aspects of experience. It seems more complicated than that because the third part (your thoughts) can create the appearance all kinds of content that isn’t actually happening. You can lose track of what’s real quite easily when you don’t notice that you’re only thinking.

You can be walking down a quiet street, with a cool breeze and a nice sunset as your backdrop, and be completely consumed by thoughts about something that happened earlier. On the way home from work, a driver in a pickup truck honked at you and gave you the finger, and you don’t think you did anything wrong.

Without deciding to, you imagine a confrontation with this person. You start to get mad about society’s entitlement issues around big vehicles and fossil fuels, and you think about how your car doesn’t use that much gas compared to a truck, but one day you want to quit the long commute altogether. But you know that to do that you’d have to move closer to work, which probably means moving into a high-rise, which you think you could get used to if it meant no more traffic jams, but your spouse would never go for it, and they probably don’t allow dogs…

This happens all the time. We get completely overcome by our thoughts, and the content of the thoughts seems nearer and more relevant than what’s actually happening — the quiet street is almost gone from your experience, even though it’s right there. Usually we solve nothing with this kind of haphazard rumination.  Read More

tea for two

I’m sharing these general policies not because I want to tell people what to do, but because I’ve gained so much in a short time from trying to follow them. There’s nothing difficult about actually doing any of these things. The trouble is remembering.

1. Before you meet up with someone, decide you’ll be a good experience for that person today

When I’m about to head out and meet someone, usually the act of shutting off the lights and collecting my keys reminds me to do something: to leave with the intention of being especially good company when I arrive. Sometimes I forget by then, but most of the time that intention seems to affect me the whole way there.

More than anything, being a good experience for someone means giving thought to what that person might have been hoping to get out of this visit with you. They probably want to see a relatively pleasant (and present) version of their friend, not a preoccupied or distracted version. They probably want to have some of their thoughts validated or at least listened to.

When I don’t do this, presumably I end up mostly concerned with my end of the experience, and it probably goes okay. But when I remember to consider what “good company” might be for this person I’m with right now, visits with people can leave us both on a better trajectory for the day, and maybe for our friendship too.

Sometimes you just won’t be in this space. You may need to vent or ruminate aloud about something and that’s fine — that’s what friends are for. But make sure you notice when it’s the other person who needs that.

2. Don’t make comments or jokes about people’s names or bodies

If you can be certain about anything in life, it’s that anyone named April or June has heard a thousand idiotic calendar jokes. Don’t be another idiot.

Jim Schwartzenberger already knows his name is really long and hard to spell, and he doesn’t want hear it in your fake Austrian accent.

John knows he weighs more than most people, but he may not want to be called “Big Guy.” Even though he’s too polite to say so, he doesn’t want to hear anyone’s lighthearted ribbing about all-you-can-eat buffets and broken chairs.

Dan has already noticed he’s really tall. He doesn’t want to try out for the Lakers. He also probably doesn’t especially like being called Daniel Boone or Dan the Man. People usually love hearing their own name, as Dale Carnegie famously told us 80 years ago now, but stick to the version they use themselves.

There is just so little to gain by making light of people’s names or bodies, and so many ways it can annoy, bore or hurt people. Somehow it’s still really common. Few of us like having these two extremely personal things evaluated or made into a topic of conversation. Just don’t go there, as a rule.  Read More

Post image for Fear is your mind at its dumbest

If you’re a normal person, you probably suffer about a hundred times as much from fearing bad outcomes as you do from the ones that do happen to come true.

And it’s unlikely that the sleepless night spent fearing a bombed job interview served as useful experience for when it did happen. It probably made it worse, and maybe even caused it to happen in the first place.

You probably didn’t notice that the 99 other things you feared that day never became real. If you had a ledger for all the fears in your life, and on the left you wrote down the what you feared would happen, and on the right you wrote down what actually happened, anybody reading it would laugh.

There are no real outcomes anyway. We worry so much about “ending up” in a particular bad way. But even the fears that do (more or less) come true have no finality about them, they’re just a new place from which to work for now. For all you know this new place sits on a better path than the result you had hoped for.

Was sadness and disappointment the final, permanent outcome of your rejected novel? Was it the end of happiness in your life? The “outcome” of any particular endeavor is just another middle chapter, just another starting point for something else. There’s nothing damning about the middle of any story, and unless you’re dead, you’re in the middle. (So I guess there is one true outcome, but there’s no uncertainty about whether it will happen, and it has the virtue of ending all your worries anyway.)

Everyone has a past riddled with bombed exams, awkward job interviews, bad dates, lost wallets, and birthdays with low turnouts, and few of those fears-come-true continue to cripple us today. Mostly they consist of an awful few minutes followed by an ordinary bad mood, maybe an inconvenient new errand to complete or a new parameter to work under, and some unpleasant rumination later on, if you choose to bother with that.

Of course, most of the unpleasant developments in life are the ones it didn’t occur to you to worry about anyway. They “blindside you at 4pm on an idle Tuesday,” as Mary Schmich put it in her famous column-turned-book. (The one about wearing sunscreen.)

When you decide you’ll walk into your moments of truth — your project launches, race days and blind dates — with an unconditional willingness to see what happens, fear doesn’t have much to do.

For some reason we interpret the presence of fear as a trustworthy reason to be tentative, to delay our arrival at a result. This gives fear time to make the unhappiest possibilities bigger in our minds, seemingly more worthy of respect. Yet fear is your mind at its dumbest and least articulate. All it knows how to do is shout “Get away!”  Read More

Post image for Two ways of viewing the world

There are two utterly different ways to view the world around you in any given moment. We can call them Inward and Outward.

An Inward orientation is noticing as much as you can of the moment. It means being receptive to what’s there, being interested in what’s there. Inwardness means you’re primarily observing — bringing the world into you.

An Outward orientation is applying your views and wishes to the moment, by adding your opinion to it, or trying to change something about it, or evaluating whether it’s probably good for you or bad for you. It means you’re seeing the world (or at least this instance of it) in terms of your interests, where it fits in your story. Outwardness means you’re primarily assessing and commentating — putting your interests out into the world.

Talking is an example of outwardness, listening is an example of inwardness.

Watching inwardly is simply observing. Watching outwardly is hoping.

Viewing the world outwardly will inevitably add anxiousness to our lives, because it keeps us looking to judge, modify, improve, comment on, approve of or disapprove of what we see. This creates a background of neediness to most moments, because we’re invested in seeing them change in a certain way, or stay the same in a certain way.

Viewing the world inwardly is simply doing your best to see what’s there before we make any judgments, to simply observe how it looks, feels, and sounds. All you’re applying to the moment is attention.

Neither is a strictly good or bad thing, and we need to employ both to some extent. An inward orientation has the virtue of reducing neediness and angst, because we’re refraining from making value judgments when not necessary. We need to adopt an outward orientation, however, to establish goals, make improvements, build a vision for our lives, or even just to assert things or ask for things.

But we do those outward things ultimately so that we have an easier time living inwardly later. Some unconscious part of us knows that real happiness and equanimity only come when we find ourselves completely inward towards the moment — completely receptive to how it is right now. Our brains know, on some level, that with certain goals achieved and certain arrangements made, it will be easier to do that.

It’s not unusual to work 50 straight weeks in an outward mode to be able to buy two weeks in a place that almost forces one to experience that time inwardly: a place with palm trees, pools, servants, drinks, or anything else that’s hard to find fault with or improve upon.  Read More

Post image for Effort alone isn’t enough

When you decide to become somebody who goes running three days a week, your first real test will probably be when one of your running days lands on a rainy day.

This is where the running newbie begins bargaining. He bumps the commitment to the next day, with a vow to give it an extra special effort. Then it rains that day too, and he’s essentially back to non-runner status until he decides to start again.

Meanwhile, to veteran runners it’s just another day, because they’re runners, not wanna-be runners.

But this creates a bit of a paradox when it comes to getting from beginner to veteran, in running or anything else. You want to develop enough discipline that you can run when you don’t particularly feel like it — but to do that, you have to run when you don’t particularly feel like it.

This is what makes major changes so difficult to pull off — every new pursuit seems to be at its most “uphill” at the beginning, when you have fewer skills and less confidence than you’re likely to have for the entire rest of the path (assuming you make it anywhere.)

The traditional approach is the “baby steps” philosophy, where each time, you do a little bit more than feels comfortable and natural to you, and gradually, what was once difficult and intimidating becomes manageable.

Most people who are already good at something will tell you that baby steps is how they got there. But this approach still takes a considerable level of discipline at the outset — you have to consistently draw more from yourself than feels natural. It requires you to find willpower every time you look for it, and doing that probably requires some unseen luck.

The real difference-maker

Two equally talented, equally motivated friends living in different cities decide on the same day to begin a running regimen. (Apologies for the running theme if it isn’t your thing — substitute anything you like.) A year later, Friend A has become an experienced runner, and Friend B has reverted to couch potato, and is about try to “get on the wagon” again. The difference was only that Friend B began his endeavor when his city was experiencing a brutal cold snap, and therefore much more willpower was required of him than was ever required of Friend A, in order to get to cruising altitude.

Meanwhile, both of them now believe B is just intrinsically lazy, and that A “has what it takes.” Both are unaware that circumstances ultimately made the difference in this case, because they had the same capacity for effort. Friend A goes on to run marathons. Friend B goes on to build a Blu-Ray collection.  Read More

Post image for In defense of the serious bucket list

Waking up is a wonderful experience when it’s a day you’re going to do something on your bucket list. An impending check-mark is what made a rainy morning feel like a sunny one when I opened my eyes in a downtown Sydney hostel four years ago.

It never occurred to me that I might actually fail at doing this task, given that it was hands-down the easiest item on my list, and that I’d set the entire day aside for it.

Every bucket list item, if it’s a half-serious list, comes down to an actual moment in time when you realize you’re in the midst of the thing. It’s never quite like you expected but there’s a wonderful consciousness that this is it — you made this one thing, if nothing else, real.

And sometimes it is transcendent. I’ll never forget seeing the Manhattan skyline come into view as my cab rose onto the Williamsburg Bridge, or the Student Loans clerk congratulating me over the phone when I made my last payment.

Not that these goals have to be difficult. My objective that day in Sydney was to simply see a movie by myself. There’s nothing at all hard about it, but it seemed like an important symbol of having graduated from the severe self-consciousness that made it seem unthinkable when I was a teenager.

I bought a ticket to see a 3D surfing documentary at the IMAX at Darling Harbour (which is the biggest cinema screen in the world) and when I went up to stand in line, I happened to run into six people I knew, even though I only knew about eight people in Australia. “How great is this?!” one of them said. “You can see the movie with us!”

Anyway, people have been asking whether I’ve abandoned my bucket list, because I took down the link on my nav bar above, and also because I still haven’t gone to see a movie by myself.

The list is still alive and well. It did need a major edit because it was starting to get crusty with goals that seem silly or unimportant to me now. (Eat a baguette in France?) Anyway, I did those edits and the list is up hereRead More

Post image for What inner peace actually is

If you’re someone who reads books or blogs about well-being or spirituality, one idea you’ll run into a lot is that there’s a background of peace or stillness behind everything, and attentive people can “tap into” it or “vibrate” with it or otherwise experience it.

This is enough to trip the BS-alarm of many people, because it suggests some kind of benevolence or personality behind the universe.

But in my experience there’s definitely something to this notion. I do find this “background peace” on a regular basis, and it doesn’t seem to matter much what’s going on in the foreground. When I’m upset or otherwise inattentive I won’t find it (or remember to look for it.) When I do locate it, it’s just as likely to be behind a busy street scene as a quiet park.

I think the “out-there” status of the peace-in-the-background idea is just another example of kookiness-by-association — many people who talk about it might also talk matter-of-factly about healing crystals and communion with trees, and so the skeptically-minded person sees it as more of the same. A lot of useful ideas probably get dismissed this way.

But there’s no reason to take it as a supernatural claim. It’s just a shift in our way of observing, similar to how we can shift between perceiving the plot of a novel and words printed on its pages.

I remember riding in a car somewhere with three friends, and two of them were in a heated argument. I could feel myself getting perturbed by the increasing anger and noise as they carried on. We’ve all had this kind of contagious chaos happen to us, by hearing a violent news story or the radio, or just being around vindictive people. Upset in the world around you tends to stir things up, correspondingly, inside you.

But then something shifted in my perception and I felt this link dissolve. I slipped back into tune with whatever peace or quiet was there before my friends started up, because it seemed to be still there behind the words and noise.

With this anecdote I’m not trying to describe some life-changing moment, just one example of hundreds or more, of touching this background peace. Sometimes it finds me by accident, but more often I find it because it occured to me at that moment to look for it.  Read More

Post image for How to get un-stuck in about 20 minutes

After we read the diary of Anne Frank in junior high, I started my own diary because I figured it would make me more interesting than I felt at the time.

It was really boring, describing the TV shows and street hockey games that constituted my life at the time. After a week or two, it occurred to me that it would never be studied and admired by future students, and that nobody was even going to read it, including me. So I stopped.

It was years before I could even begin to understand why anyone would write in a journal if they weren’t hiding from an occupying army. Clearly I was missing the point. Journaling has a much more immediate and universal benefit.

One of the most common questions I get emailed about is how to get “un-stuck,” in the general life-situation sense, and I’ve been promising to write about it for a while. These days I do a certain form of journaling, which is by far the most consistently effective way I’ve ever found to get over the feeling of being stuck. It works every time unless I forget to do it. I kind of stumbled across it through blogging but anyone can do it.  Read More


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