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Post image for Feel The Air Fully

The Shingon monks of Japan have a very pragmatic way of encouraging the development of inner calm. They expose themselves to extreme cold, such as by squatting under an icy waterfall, while attempting to remain as present and composed as they might be in a warm, dry meditation hall.

Shinzen Young, my favorite Western meditation teacher, endured a version of this when he trained with the Shingon in the 1970s. Starting on the winter solstice, he spent 100 days in isolation, emerging three times daily to break the ice on a frozen-over cistern and dump several bucketfuls of its water over his head.

Being a California native, he found this task excruciating, but quickly learned the secret to getting through it without abject suffering. Before going to the cistern, he would meditate intently enough that he could be completely present for the experience. If any part of him was unwilling to embrace the full extent of the cold, it went from unpleasant to horrific.

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Post image for Care Deeply, Not Passionately

Sometime around my grade four year—1990 or so—it suddenly became very popular to talk about saving the planet.

I remember an explosion of environment-focused messaging, especially about whales, recycling, and ozone holes. It was on our classroom posters, TV shows, t-shirts, even school supplies.

But it was the tropical rainforest, at least to us fourth-graders, that became the central icon of this abstract thing adults called “the environment.” Saving the world meant saving the rainforest. We drew posters of endangered monkeys and tree frogs, with rhyming slogans at the top.

The energy felt really positive. Even things like shampoo bottles started having rainforest imagery on them, which seemed to be a good thing. Everyone was joining the fight!

What I don’t remember is when that energy went away. I didn’t decide to stop caring, but I guess I did. I don’t think it occurred to me until I saw a gag on the Simpsons, five years later, when Homer referred to “that rainforest scare a few years back.”

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Post image for The Only Dependable Source of Happiness

I once wrote about a peculiar practice I do to help me become a less judgmental person. Whenever I’m out in public and I catch myself judging a stranger—for such offenses as poor sidewalk-sharing, or imprecise parking—I resolve instead to temporarily become their secret ally.

Unbeknownst to the other person, I’ve gone from silently resenting them to silently watching out for them. For the short time we’re in the same vicinity, I’m prepared to leap into action should they need any sort of help. If they appeared to need directions, I’d offer. If their grocery bags were to tear, I’d help collect the rolling fruit.

I’ve almost never had to actually spring into action, aside from helping people reach things in grocery stores, but that’s not the main purpose. Essentially I’m training myself to view others with goodwill, rather than judgment.

And it works. My helping reflex is stronger and my judging reflex is weaker. Becoming a secret ally also makes me feel happier right in that moment.

Part of what’s so empowering about this practice is that it’s totally portable and self-contained. It doesn’t matter what happens, or what the other person does. Simply assuming the role of a helpful person, in any situation, helps me become a more naturally helpful person, and also creates an immediate sense of well-being. It’s like I’m making goodness out of nothing. It almost feels like cheating, like some kind of alchemical secret.

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Post image for Why We Can’t Sit Quietly In A Room Alone

I’ve always liked the Blaise Pascal quote, “I have discovered that all the miseries of men derive from one single fact: that they cannot sit quietly in their own room.”

People interpret this famous pronouncement all sorts of ways, but if you look up the context, it’s clear he’s saying “we prefer the chase over the quarry.” In other words, we live more easily in a state of pursuing future experiences than settling into the experience we’re having.

It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. We’re less likely to be descended from easily-contented hunter-gatherers than from the ones who got antsy if they took too long to go out hunting and gathering again.

You could say that this persistent restlessness is nature’s way of keeping a little fire under our butts—one that makes “elsewhere and later” seem like a more suitable site for happiness than here and now.

This is a delusional belief, however, because once you get to that particular “elsewhere,” it’s already become another “here,” complete with that same fire of discontent under your butt. Another future-based haven soon forms in your mind’s eye, and you’re off trying to make that your new present.

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Post image for How To See Things As They Are

I’m in the back room of a coffee shop right now, switching between writing and another mental exercise: pretending I’m not here.

I don’t mean I’m wearing a disguise, or hiding behind a potted plant. I’m doing a perspective-shifting practice that I’d recommend to anyone: now and then, wherever you are, look at the scene in front of you as though it’s happening without you. 

From any seat, or standing spot, anywhere—in an office, a breakfast diner, a public square, a waiting room—see your surroundings just as they’d be if you weren’t here to see them.

Focus on the look and feel of the setting. The way the light lays across things. Take it in like a shot from a movie. Notice the movement and speech of people or animals, the soundscape and overall ambiance. It’s just a little corner of the world where things are unfolding, and you’re not here. Maybe nobody is.

When you do this, you might notice a certain lightness or simplicity arising. Things are more poignant. Everything seems less complicated, because it’s just stuff happening, not stuff happening to you.

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Post image for Hanging Out is Essential To Our Health

My whole life, no matter where I’ve lived, what my job was, or what I was preoccupied with, one consistent source of comfort and peace has been idly hanging around with other people at the end of the day.

I’ve always appreciated the calming effect of slow evening hangouts with friends or family. But recently I’ve come to think of it as something essential to our health.

The location doesn’t matter really. A back porch. A coffee place. A front step. A bench facing some kind of water. You just need to be with one or more people you like, and you need it to be the latter hours of the day.

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Post image for This Post Will Change Your Life

At breakfast one morning, on a silent retreat in Nanaimo, my friend Marc was looking out the window at a lawn sprinkler when he glimpsed a tiny detail he would later write about.  

The sprinkler was the ratchet kind, the sort that goes “chh-chh-chh-chh” as it rotates and shoots water, then winds itself back up and does it again. At one particular position in its arc, one particular “chh,” he saw a little rainbow flash across the spray and disappear.

Presumably I was elsewhere in that same room at this time, no rainbows in sight, contemplating my boiled egg and muffin.

He wrote a blog post about the momentary rainbow, describing it as a perfect example of something contemplatives call dependent arising—the idea that every phenomenon emerges from the vast sea of causes and conditions that came before it.

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Post image for Let’s Talk Like We Used To

A few weeks ago someone commented on my new post, saying they had just stumbled across my blog, and that it was “very old school.”

I took that as a compliment, and got to reminiscing about what old school blogging really felt like, compared to today. Something’s definitely gone missing—some quality that made it vivid and exciting, and I want it back.

When I started in 2009, and for years afterward, I just wrote stuff, having absolutely no idea if anyone would relate. I wrote as well as I could, but there was a wonderful off-the-cuff feel to the process. If it was interesting to me, it might be to someone else. So I would write something about it. The incomparable joy of campfires. The rich history of a particular dent in my car.

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Post image for Two Ways To Get Better At Something

For whatever reason, whenever I resolve to get good at something, I habitually take a “boot camp” sort of approach. I draw up a challenging regimen, to be followed by hell or high water—for 30 days or so.

The regimen is always way too much to sustain forever, and I know that. The hope is that an intense period of focused striving will catapult me to new, higher realms of prowess and confidence, so that when I return to baseline, that baseline will be higher.   

It works, sort of, sometimes. You can look at my experiment logs to get a sense of the mixed outcomes. Some have been abject failures, almost comically so. Write at least a thousand words a day! (Result: “Outright failure.”) Read a book a week for a year! (Result: “Catastrophe.”)

And those are only the immediate outcomes. Longer term, the results are probably weaker. On many occasions, I soared through the boot camp period, declared myself permanently improved, and then quietly slid back to the baseline, which apparently had not moved.

For a long time I assumed that this pattern was due purely to my own personal bumbling, and not a problem with the method. After all, a boot camp style approach can be found for anything you want to get good at. There are programs that identify as “boot camps” for novel writing, personal budgeting, dating, poker, building a YouTube channel, reading the Russian masters, and of course hundreds of fitness programs.

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Post image for Smartphones Are Toys First, Tools Second

If you time-traveled to the 1960s, or even the 1980s, and tried to describe smartphones to the people you met, they wouldn’t believe you.

It would simply seem too good to be true—an affordable, pocket-sized device that provides:

instant telegrams or phone calls, from anywhere to anywhere, usually free maps of virtually every city or rural area, even showing current traffic conditions searchable encyclopedias up-to-the-minute news about anything in the world step-by-step instructions for doing virtually anything quick translations between dozens of languages endless articles, courses, movies and TV shows a camera that takes stills and video, and can transmit them to anyone instantly the means for anyone to create their own regular column or newsletter, or audio or video broadcasts the ability to adopt new functions at any time, usually for free

These are just a few basic smartphone functions, but to your new friends, they would all sound like life-changing superpowers. Their imaginations would run wild at how much easier such powers could make their lives.

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