Post image for Making Things Clear

Yesterday I finally released my new meditation guide, via email, to the early-bird crowd. Feedback has been awesome again. Thank you everyone — I’m so glad you’re enjoying it.

So today, Making Things Clear: A Brief Guide For People Who Think Meditation is Hard is available to everybody else. Some of you have been waiting for this guide and already know what it’s about. If so, you can get it here.

For those who don’t know, Making Things Clear is a non-denominational, no-experience-necessary guide to meditation. It spells everything out in simple terms, with no spiritual pretensions. It’s meant for those who are new to meditation, or who aren’t but still resist doing it on a regular basis.

I’ve been singing the praises of meditation since I started this blog, and I know some of you do it regularly. I believe it’s one of the most versatile, universally beneficial activities human beings have discovered so far. Even our science community has gotten over its skepticism about meditation’s benefits. Read More

food

Here in the so-called First World, we give up a lot because of an exaggerated fear of a particular feeling.

It’s usually pretty subtle, but I see this fear made explicit whenever Mr Money Mustache or other early-retirement advocates get national news coverage. The comment sections of these major publications are always vile, and I don’t recommend you read them, but if you do you will notice a trend. Even when Pete explains the shockingly simple math that proves early retirement is possible for people of average incomes, commenters insist they would prefer to leave their lifestyle costs unchanged than retire twenty years earlier but “live a life of deprivation”.

This unexamined fear of deprivation has a huge effect on our lives. Consumers go into debt because they’re afraid of going without something they’re used to. We eat too much because we’re afraid of being disappointed by small portions. We continue bad habits for years because the thought of disallowing ourselves to do something we enjoy feels oppressive. “We deserve it!” we tell ourselves. Or at least advertisers tell us to tell ourselves that.

The strange thing is that usually it’s not even real deprivation. These are all choices. The big purchase, the extra calories, and the indulgent habit are always available to you to take or leave.

We’re faced with this kind of choice — “Do I let myself have it or not?” — all the time. Particularly when we’re in the midst of some kind of self-improvement effort, we often feel like we’re stuck between a familiar rock and hard place: do the unhealthy thing and feel guilty, or do the healthy thing and feel deprived. You can get the salad instead of the fries, but then you have to watch people eating their fries while you eat your sad little salad.

These kinds of lifestyle choices are about a lot more than simply weighing the respective costs and benefits of excess calories and culinary envy. Going the self-deprivation route feels like we’re renouncing pleasure and comfort as parts of our lives. Such a life of constraint seems awful, so we often choose what looks like freedom. And if freedom is deep-fried, then so be it.  Read More

lucky charms

When I was a kid in the 1980s, I learned from my television that Lucky Charms contained seven essential nutrients and was part of a complete breakfast. At the end of the commercial it would show this complete breakfast: a modest bowl of sugary cereal in the middle of a spread of traditional foods, including a plate of toast with jam, a glass of orange juice, a glass of milk and a plate of fruit.

I don’t think I ever had a “complete breakfast” as defined by General Mills, but that image is what appeared in my mind whenever somebody said, as everyone did, that breakfast was the most important meal of the day. I was never tempted to doubt that maxim, because I loved food so much that I couldn’t imagine somebody voluntarily going to school or work without eating something.

When I did my liquid food experiment last year, the response taught me something that seems obvious in hindsight. I learned how stubbornly people will defend their beliefs about food even when they cannot tell you why they believe those things. I found that the more certainty people expressed about their food beliefs, the less able they were to provide evidence supporting those beliefs when asked. Claims of certainty make me skeptical.

Where did the “three meals a day” axiom come from? It probably has more to do with what time daily mass was held in the Middle Ages than anything related to nutrition.  But tell someone you’re not eating lunch today, and they might prepare an intervention.

“If you can’t pronounce the ingredients, you shouldn’t be eating it!” is a more recent favorite. But it has some strange implications: well-read people can tolerate obscure ingredients that would harm others, and the illiterate shouldn’t be eating anything at all.

I am gradually coming to the conclusion that most of our popular notions about eating are nothing more than unexamined folklore — all culture and no science, bolstered selectively by food marketers wherever it suits them.  Read More

Post image for Freedom Comes From How You Live

Dan Harris, best known as the host of ABC’s Nightline, began his path to happiness by having an on-air panic attack.

He was reading the national news, live, when he lost the ability to speak coherently. For 35 awful seconds, he stumbled through a segment about statin drugs for cholesterol, saying related words but making no sense. With several stories still unread, he bailed out: “…that’s all for news right now, back to Robin and Charlie.”

The incident forced him to face his mounting stress problem. He explored the many forms of self-help, and during his stint as ABC’s faith reporter (even though he was a skeptic and an atheist) he found something that worked for him: meditation. Over the next few years he used it to transform his relationship to stress and his work, and still meditates daily.

But his go-getting type-A colleagues gave him a hard time for his “weird” habit, and he had trouble explaining to them what it did for him. To say it simply reduces stress was really selling it short; it does much more for a person than that. But to describe the benefits more specifically — that it allowed him to see the world the way it really is, or to see the mechanics of his bad habits, or to inquire into the nature of the self — hardly makes it sound attractive, and fails to convey its value anyway.

Eventually he came up with a stock response: “I do it because it makes me 10% happier,” although he admits this was both an understatement and an oversimplification.

Although I think his catchphrase makes meditation sound much less useful than it really is, I understand the problem he was trying to address. Meditation is still a hard sell in the Western world. It’s so unusual to us that it’s hard to make it appeal to materialistic Western sensibilities. But we all understand the value of a life with less anxiety and more happiness.

Meditation isn’t specifically about happiness, but more happiness is a likely side effect. One thing it does do, in my experience, is expand one’s freedom in a particular way, and this freedom can be used to pursue happiness and ease with much less trouble. I’ll show you what I mean.  Read More

Post image for How to Make Bad Days Okay

We human beings suffer from a persistent illusion that creates a huge amount of needless stress: we see today as much bigger and more significant than other days.

It seems like we should. Today is the only day we’re able to actually do anything, and the only day we can experience the consequences of what we’ve already done. In that sense, today is pivotal: what you have to do today is clearly much more relevant to your life than what you had to do on the same date ten years ago. This seems like common sense.

But this common feeling overlooks a crucial fact that would save us a lot of suffering if we could only stay aware of it: other days are “today” too. In fact, it’s the only kind of day there is. Chances are, whatever was looming huge in your mind ten years ago today had no more absolute importance to your life as whatever is stressing you out this morning.

It doesn’t feel like it though, because it seems like the person you were back then — the person those problems belonged to — wasn’t quite you yet. You were still on your way to becoming who you are. You still had some bad habits you no longer have; you were still in a job or a relationship that was all wrong for you; you hadn’t yet discovered the joy of running every morning, reading before bed, eating mostly vegetables, or a lot of the other things that might seem essential to who you are now.

Of course, ten years from now it will feel the same way. You’ll be a different person, and your life as it is today will seem distant, and not particularly relevant.

Research shows that we consistently overrate the importance of today in the scope of our lives. In 2012, a group of psychologists published a study in which they asked more than 19,000 people about how they had changed over time, and how much they expected to change in the future. The subjects were asked about their preferences, habits, and values, and how those things had changed over the last ten years. They were also asked to estimate how much they expected to change over the next ten.

The researchers found that at all ages, people consistently underestimated how much they would change in the future. For example, 40-year-olds looking back at their 30s saw that they had changed quite radically in the intervening decade, while 30-year-olds predicted relatively little change in the decade ahead of them.

From the abstract of the study:

“People, it seems, regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives.”

It turns out that at every age — or perhaps on every day — we feel like we have reached the end of history. Today always seems so enormous, so significant in a way other days never were. Everything before today’s problems, which we see as our real problems, was backstory, relevant only in how it informs what happens today.

The extra significance that seems unique to right now was there all along, in every experience you ever had. And today, this day on which you’re sitting here reading this article — along with all the worldly concerns currently weighing on you — is happening on a date that used to be tiny in your mind, just another square on the calendar, and will soon be tiny again.

It’s not that today isn’t significant, only that life’s other days are more or less equally significant, even if it doesn’t seem like it from where you stand now. Today you might look back on your high-school breakup, and all of the fretting and sobbing that came with it, as silly or even cute. But when you were there it was happening now, and it was excruciating.  Read More

cinema

Most of us were taught as children never to talk to strangers. At face value this is bad life advice — we can never know people we never talk to. But we know it’s only meant to arm children with a basic skepticism about unknown people, so that they’re less likely to accept a ride from that rare person who really is dangerous.

It’s a crude but effective policy, something like how Wal-Mart used to pay “greeters” to stand near the entrance and tape shut any bags you’re carrying; they wanted to prevent shoplifting, so they simply treated all their customers like thieves.

Unfortunately, the word “stranger” isn’t used only between teachers and schoolchildren, it’s our normal word for referring to the overwhelming proportion of the population whom we don’t know anything about. It implies that our default view of everyday passers-by should be at least a little bit suspicious. We need a bit of evidence that they are worthy of our respect — let alone our love or caring — before we give it. We assume no obligation to feel anything for them, or to care how their lives are going.

A minority of the time, I’ll be out in public and that air of indifference won’t be there. Instead, I’ll feel an indiscriminate warmth towards my fellow citizens. There is a certain appreciation, even love, for everyone I see, without any of them showing a similar appreciation for me. Often this happens just after seeing a poignant film, or receiving some good news, or having some other experience that has temporarily dissolved that sense of unknown people being irrelevant.

It’s almost a custom in our society, to dismiss by default the idea of actually caring for people we don’t know, at least before we’ve been given a reason. Our comedy is built on this casual disdain for the other guy. We share anecdotes about “idiots” we ran into earlier. Sartre says “Hell is other people” and we nod knowingly, fully misunderstanding what he meant.

With people we already know, we can easily forgive mistakes. Strangers, however, enter our lives already under suspicion. We disqualify entire human beings from the possibility of our respect or forgiveness the moment they fail to use a turn signal, or wear a baseball cap in the wrong kind of eating establishment.

To quote humorist Jack Handey: “A man doesn’t automatically get my respect. He has to get down in the dirt and beg for it.”

In our culture, the default is to treat strangers with indifference at best. It isn’t normal, for example, to spend a moment quietly wishing your fellow bus passengers a good day at work or school. When we find ourselves in a grocery store aisle with some other human beings, we’re more likely to be annoyed by them than we are to sympathize with them.  Read More

Post image for How to Get Yourself to Do Things

I have a special sympathy for sufferers of a particular human problem, and I get more emails about it than just about any other topic.

There are normal people, who get overwhelmed on those occasions when they have more obligations to fulfill than time in which to fulfill them. Then there are us procrastinators, who are constantly overwhelmed, because even when we do have time, we don’t make use of it until we no longer have enough of it.

Procrastinators are familiar with the perverse feeling of watching oneself create trouble out of nothing, essentially volunteering for penalties, embarrassment and regret. We’re kind of like those people who are so predictably, stupidly late for everything that the rest of us learn to tell them to arrive at seven o’clock for what is actually an eight o’clock appointment.

The difference is that the appointments we miss are with ourselves, which means there are no social consequences to limit the scope of our delinquency. We leave things on our lists for months. We let ourselves down in ways we would never let down others.

There is something diabolical about procrastination, and I don’t claim to have cured it. But I have somehow maintained a self-employed existence for almost two years now, which has required me to get better at managing it than I used to be.

I’ve had a bit of a breakthrough recently that I want to share with you fellow sufferers. I now see the problem in a much simpler way, and it is working.  Read More

guitarist

I don’t think my father took days off. He must have, but I don’t think I ever witnessed it. I cannot picture him getting up and doing anything besides some kind of work.

When I would drag myself to the couch at 8am on a Saturday to watch cartoons, he was apparently in the middle of his day, already having built or fixed something.

He would permit himself to read books or watch TV later in the day. But I think the idea of taking a proper day off — where he didn’t build, organize, or otherwise try to advance his lot in life at all — was kind of foreign to him.

I don’t have half the work ethic he did, but recently I noticed I do the same thing: I see my weekends, my days “off,” as additional space for getting a bit more done, even if it’s only the kinds of work I enjoy.

A few weeks ago I found myself taking a true Day Off, in which I deliberately spent the day doing things that have absolutely nothing to do with improving, or even maintaining, my position in life. I had decided spontaneously the evening before: no work, no goals, no attempt to gain anything.

I ended up spending a lot of time outside, and visiting with four separate groups of loved ones, never rushing between them and never thinking much, at any point, about the rest of the day. I spent the morning with my girlfriend, lunch with a friend, the afternoon out walking with my mother, dinner with my sister’s family, and the evening with a book.

I went to bed feeling intensely grateful that my lot in life was such that I could have a day like that, and I slept very well.

If that wasn’t a perfect day then there are none. The biggest difference between that day and a normal weekend day, I realize now, was that I paid little attention to the advance of time. I suspended all aspirations to shaping the future. The only goal was to enjoy the setting and characters of every moment I found myself in, which is refreshingly easy when you’re not trying to get anywhere else.

The next day I went back to work, but I didn’t feel my usual resistance to it, and I got a lot done. The unhurried quality of my Proper Day Off seemed to carry into the following workday. It gave me a distinct feeling of being fine where I was, of not needing to be past what I was currently working on.

The Lost Art of the Day Off

It now seems absurd to let a week go by without a Proper Day Off, and I have quickly become an ambassador for the mostly-lost idea of protecting an entire day from one’s own toil. A lot of us never actually do, whether or not we realize it. We habitually give ourselves jobs on the weekend, and if we accidentally get nothing done, we feel guilty.

Stepping deliberately out of “getting ahead” mode reminds you that you already are “ahead” in all sorts of ways. What’s the point of getting ahead if we never have the experience of being ahead?

Before going on we should clarify what a Proper Day Off actually is. A day off what exactly?

It’s a day off of all the things we do for money, acclaim, position, or out of social obligation; off of treating time like a commodity to be invested or traded for future benefits.

A Proper Day Off isn’t an invitation for laziness, or the shirking of responsibilities. In fact, a Proper Day Off is a day for exploring a certain other class of responsibilities: being a relaxed and present friend, parent, son or daughter, or stranger.

It’s also a time for being a grateful member of civilization. A Proper Day Off is particularly suited to experiencing the highlights of human development: enjoying art, music and public spaces, particularly if we spend the other six days mostly butting heads with the worst parts: inhuman corporations, corrupt governments, vapid celebrity culture, and a news media that delivers only bad news.

6 Principles of a Proper Day Off

A few general rules, to keep your Day Off uncompromised:

1) No work, no “getting ahead”

If getting ahead has any use, it’s so that you can be ahead. A Proper Day Off is reserved for this experience of being ahead — appreciating the fruits of your labor (and that of others) — rather than for laboring even more.

Essentially this means, “Today, do things for now, not for later.” That means no errands, no utilitarian purchases, and definitely no major purchases. In fact, what are you doing in Home Depot at all? Go to the park. And although recreational shopping is a favorite pastime for many people, it is completely inappropriate on a Proper Day Off. Consumer shopping has too many emotional ties to the working world. Refraining from “getting ahead” doesn’t mean a Day Off is best spent getting needlessly behind, by liquidating your hours of labor (and therefore your precious time on this earth) for a low-brow shopper’s high.

Visiting an antique shop, or a farmers market, or a garage sale, is quite suitable for a Day Off — visiting a department store, or (God forbid) a Wal-Mart, is not.  Read More

stairs

A year ago I published a post called How to stop your mind from talking all the time, and it was an unexpected hit. When I linked to it the other day on Facebook, it got five times the normal amount of attention, so evidently a lot of you are going mad from the voices in your head.

I laud mindfulness so often on this blog that I suspect some people are tired of hearing about it. Part of the reason I’m so persistent is because I know I leave questions unanswered every time. Mindfulness is counter-intuitive and resists analogies, and seems to require a lot of words to explain why someone might want to do it, let alone what it actually accomplishes (which is why I wrote a 30,000-word guide about it.)

After my recent posting of How to stop your mind, a reader asked a great question, which I now realize might be a pretty common hangup:

Do you notice that when we travel we don’t think so much? We just observe the present. We are connected with the “now.” But it is easy because the “now” is interesting. Now the problem is: How is it possible to be excited by a “now” you know so well? The mind tries to escape from the present to fight boredom. I don’t know if there is a solution to that. [Edited for clarity]

There are a lot of reasons we keep our mental dialogues going almost perpetually. The main reason might be that we aren’t aware of an alternative to constant thinking, or even that we are thinking at all. (Hint: if you think you’re not thinking most of the time, then you are definitely thinking nearly all the time.)

We also often presume that any thought about something “important” — our health, our finances, our relationship — must itself be important to explore, when it’s probably just more needless worrying that offers no solutions and suggests no actions.

At any given time, your attention is trained either on the physical world, or your internal mental world. Unless you’re experiencing the present with deliberate mindfulness, or you’re currently held rapt by a sunset, conversation, television show, cheesecake, or some other sufficiently intense sensory experience, it’s safe to say you are occupied by your thinking.  Read More

fishbowl

When future anthropologists study us, they will learn a lot about what’s important to us by looking at our newspapers.

A minority of our news stories cover what’s truly new: scientific discoveries, thriving business startups, or groundbreaking legislation. But most of our news stories are about some human being (or group of human beings) failing, in a very familiar way, to be kind, fair, or honest. Politician caught lying! Violence erupts between Group A and Group B! Company misleads customers for profit! Details at 6.

If we sat down to think about what’s really important to us, we might come up with qualities like fairness, kindness, responsibility, loyalty, and mutual respect. It seems like all of the major problems in the world are caused by a small contingent of bad apples, who simply shun these important qualities and ruin it for kind, responsible, honest and fair people like ourselves.

I think this is wishful thinking. The truth is that all of us — even those of us who feel like good people — are almost comically terrible at achieving these qualities, yet we expect them as a matter of course from each other and ourselves. Our incredulous response to scandal and selfishness suggests that we believe any of us could, at any moment, snap out of our self-interest and dysfunction, and make the world the place it should have been all along.

What makes us distinct from other species, more than anything, is that we’re able to move beyond being impulse-driven, self-interested animals, at least a little bit. We can reflect, we can refrain, we can empathize, we can plan. We can feel our impulses while at the same time understanding that they aren’t always leading us to good things.

In the relatively short time we’ve been able to explore this higher territory, we’ve come to really value these lofty qualities, and we’ve become preoccupied with public figures failing to achieve them. After all, we know it is virtues like fairness, honesty, discipline and kindness that are going to make it easier to be human, to deal with suffering and loss and all the stark realities that come with knowing you’re a vulnerable, animated bag of meat. We desperately want to get ourselves (but especially others) to embody these higher human qualities, which promise to save us from cruelty and misery. But as much as we covet them, we forget that these new capacities are in fact skills, and that as a species we’re generally not very good at them.

Essentially, this higher territory is what we call morality, and I think we tend to greatly overestimate how good we are at it. We’re a species who, as I point out frequently, can barely uphold our New Year’s commitments to ourselves, yet we seem to expect everyone else to be more or less upstanding and incorruptible. Why am I so frequently appalled by how thoughtlessly other people park their cars, when I don’t think twice about spending thirty dollars on beer instead of feeding the starving?

You can make up excuses for this kind of behavior — cognitive dissonance, meritocratic economics, drop-in-the-bucket syndrome — but I think all of that is avoiding the truth about human beings, which is that we are pitifully underdeveloped when it comes to morality. We just happen to be living in that awkward and painful stage where we recognize its supreme importance to our well-being, yet we’re so bad at it we can barely stand ourselves.  Read More


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