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Post image for The Gentle Art of Self-Control

After somebody threw a flask of acid on the Mona Lisa in 1956, they put her behind bulletproof (and presumably acid-proof) glass. Same with Picasso’s Guernica, after a man spray-painted “Kill all lies” in giant red letters across the canvas.

I have always found it unbelievable that most very famous paintings have no physical barrier between them and the visitors. At MoMA in New York, I wandered around a small wall, turned, and was alarmed to discover Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, hardly more than an arm’s length away from my distracted, clumsy body.

The hundred-million-dollar painting is protected only by a line of tape on the floor about two feet from the wall, presumably marking the distance at which your communion with the painting becomes too intimate and the security guard must lean in and scold you.

The vast majority of famous artworks on display are protected only by similar lines of tape, shin-high string fences, or in more extreme cases, velvet ropes. Amazingly, these non-barriers are sufficient to keep the vast majority of gallery visitors from mucking with the world’s most valuable art. None of these boundaries could stop a determined vandal, but they do seem to prevent nearly 100% of the rest of us from getting inappropriately close. (The guards would quickly tackle you of course, but I’m pretty sure they aren’t allowed to tackle you before you start clawing at the artwork.)  Read More

Post image for Could I convince you to meditate with a single sentence?

I think maybe!

I am a fan of the information-age truism called Bettridge’s Law of Headlines, which states, “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” For some of you it will hold true in this case, but not everyone.

Registration for Camp Calm’s fifth season opened earlier today. Another group of eager, fledgling meditators is forming, and naturally I’d be thrilled if you would consider joining it.

Over the past two years it’s become increasingly clear to me that I’ll be spending much of my life trying to get people to try meditation. When you are an enthusiastic advocate for something, it’s easy to be long-winded. There are so many great things to say, so many reasons to give.

So I thought about how to be short-winded instead. What would I say, for example, if I had to restrict my mindfulness evangelism to one sentence?  Read More

surprised owl

In March I published a post explaining—and diagramming with stick figures—how I’d become enamored with Stoicism.

The ideas resonated with others too. The post made the front page of Reddit, and whenever someone in real life tells me they read this blog, that’s the article they mention.

The title was “The Only Thing You Need to Get Good At”, referring to the Stoic skill of continually returning your attention to the small number of things you can control, and leaving the rest of your worries to fate.

Six months later, I can report that I did not get good at it. I am still constantly becoming fixated on what I can’t control and overlooking what I can, and I don’t believe I could “march to the gallows in good cheer.”

Not only do I forget to respond Stoically to emerging dilemmas in life, it’s hard to locate even a whiff of that fate-loving sense of empowerment I seemed to embody so easily for those few weeks.

I’m not worried about this, however, for reasons I’ll explain. I know what ingredient was missing.

This is a pretty common human pattern, especially for self-improvement hobbyists. You read about a new perspective that immediately clicks with your intuitions, triggering a so-called “Aha!” moment. Armed with this insight, you enjoy a few weeks of newfound enthusiasm and ease. Then, when you’re not looking, this “New You” disappears into your old patterns.

The “Aha” moment is it’s own unique emotion: a feeling of “Ah! That makes so much sense!” It feels like you’ve gained possession of a new lens, through which everything in your life looks tidier and more manageable: your work, your relationships, your health, your finances, and yourself.

The lens might be Stoicism, emotional literacy, frugality, non-procrastination, living in the present moment, reframing criticism, or some other perspective. We get really excited about our new perspective, see its potential everywhere, and maybe do some light proselytizing.

Then the epiphany’s afterglow fades. Soon you feel like you’ve forgotten how to look at the world that way. You might even reread the material that gave you the insight in the first place, and maybe a hint of the feeling returns. But over time it starts to seem irretrievable.

Occasionally, after an “Aha” moment, we really do turn over a new leaf, but much more often we return to old patterns without ever deciding to. So when they do stick, what makes them stick?

The missing ingredient

Since most of my day job is to offer exactly these sorts of epiphany-inducing perspectives, I receive a lot of emails from people in the middle of epiphanies. I often wonder how many of them become lasting changes, and how many fizzle after a short burst of enthusiasm.

I received a number of these excited messages in July, after I published “The Alternative to Thinking All the Time.” The post argued that when we’re not attending to our present-moment sensory world, we’re probably just ruminating uselessly. Therefore we should invest in a habit of frequently returning to our sensory experience.

Readers reported that after reading the article, they went for blissful walks, basked in gentle breezes, ate transcendent sandwiches, marveled at the steam swirling up from their coffee, and otherwise lived in the present moment in a way they usually don’t. They expressed excitement at more days like this, presumably to come.

But I wondered how many people took to heart the bottom half of the article, which argues explicitly that we don’t have a hope of living that way, at least with any consistency, unless we have some kind of regular practice. We are so strongly conditioned to live in our heads that we simply will not remember to live in our sensory experience when we haven’t just read an article about it.

The absence of a daily practice is why my Stoicism kick didn’t change me for long. Since I have decades of experience fixating on what I can’t control, after that first few weeks of enthusiasm I barely noticed the possibility of responding Stoically during setbacks. I acted out my old ways so reflexively that I never gained any appreciable experience with the new way, and no momentum could build.

You Need a Practice

To start living in a new way, we need a practice—some way to gain experience noticing the moments when we’re about to do thing A, and then do thing B instead, even while it’s still exceedingly easy and comfortable to do thing A. Just a few “reps” every day is enough to get a foothold, and start to dissolve the reflexive nature of the old behavior.

In the case of Stoicism, a simple practice might have been this: every morning I list everything I’m worried about that day. Then, from that, I make a (much smaller) list of the things I can actually control. Doing this practice, and checking the second list while I work, would give me a small but regular bit of training at focusing on what I can control (B) when I normally would be focusing on what I can’t (A).

That’s the skeleton of any effective practice: recognizing moments where you can change an A to B, on a regular basis, over time.

In the case of living in the present, I already have a practice. Twice a day, I sit and observe my present moment experience: sounds, bodily feelings and emotions. When I notice I’ve become preoccupied (A) I come back to noticing the unfolding of the present moment (B). That’s meditation. Over time, this practice has completely transformed my life.

Doing even a little bit of B starts to break down the automaticity of doing A. The new way occurs to you more often. Each of these moments creates another chance to practice. Gradually the new way becomes natural.

Epiphanies, or “Aha!” moments, awaken us to the possibility of living differently, but they don’t illuminate those crucial moments when we need to remember that possibility, and they don’t make the new way feel easy or natural.

We tend to think that big changes happen in life when we discover a better way to live. But that discovery is not the moment of change. You really change when this new way of living starts to feel natural, and for that to happen, you need a practice.

***

A few times a year I offer a simple, 30-day mindfulness course called Camp Calm. The idea is to develop a modest but consistent meditation practice and a few mindful living habits, at a gentle pace of about ten minutes a day. You should check it out. Registration is opening this week. [More info here]

Photo by Quentin Dr
Post image for The Case For Not Knowing What Time It Is

Since I started experimenting with short stretches of idleness throughout my otherwise very busy summer days, I’ve become convinced that we’d probably get more done, and enjoy our lives more, if we encountered fewer clocks.

Even without clocks, we know what part of the day we’re in—early morning, late morning, mid-afternoon—and that’s usually enough to know what we ought to be doing right now. We can set alarms for appointments easily. So why do we need the time displayed on every electronic device, at all times?

That much clockage might be more than just unnecessary. Maybe there’s such thing as being too aware of the exact hour and minute. If there is, we must be well past that point.

As I’ve hidden and disabled the clocks around me, the days seem to flow better. Without question, I’m more efficient with my time, even though I’m unsure of exactly how much of it goes where. It simply feels healthier to operate with the vague sense that it’s mid-morning than to know it’s 10:24.

Almost everyone reading this remembers living in an era where you had to make some effort to check the time. You had to look around to see which room had a clock. If you were out on the street, you had to ask someone. I can’t help but feel like back then we had a healthier relationship to time. Read More

Post image for I Have Another Blog

One of my obscure fantasies is that after you die you get a compendium of statistics and charts on how you spent your life—a complete list of dates you went on, total days spent on vacation, bedtimes and wake-up times graphed over years, that kind of thing. Pages and pages of it.

The thought excites me because of how statistics always surprise us. Each of us would be shocked by our reports. Did you really only go to your “favorite” restaurant eleven times? Did you really spend 3.1 years with a phone in your hand?

After doing some daydreaming in that vein yesterday morning, I grabbed my Casio and calculated that I’ve been writing for Raptitude for 23 per cent of my life. I couldn’t believe it. A quarter of my time on this earth.

In that eight and a half years, writing has become a huge part of my identity. It is now my work, my creative outlet, and a major channel of connection with other people. You could say it’s been my primary contribution to our species, whatever that says about me.  Read More

Post image for The Long Lost Thrill of Doing Nothing

Many text messages between my friends and me take roughly this form: “Are you busy tomorrow? We should do something.”

That something often isn’t defined at the time. But when we arrive in each other’s physical presence, after we’ve caught up, eventually one of us has to ask: “So… what do you wanna do?”

Then we have to decide. We could for a walk, go eat, play a board game, check out what’s happening in the city, just chat, or something else.

One of my friends—and only one—sometimes throws me a curveball here, and suggests that we don’t do anything, at least not yet. We can just lounge here in the living room. Or not quite lounge, but just relax and do nothing.

I’m struggling to pick a verb for it. “Laze” and “lounge” both have moral connotations, as do “chill” or “veg.” “Hang out” is too general, and could mean switching on the TV, opening a bottle of something, or catching up.

I’m talking about just being in the room and not doing anything in particular, usually while reclining your body in some way, with no regard for the time and no idea of what to do next. Real idleness.  Read More

Post image for When You Can’t Stop Looking Ahead, Look Backwards

There’s a particular emotion we all know, but I don’t think it has a name. It’s the distinct, perplexing feeling of remembering the first hours after waking up, and finding it unbelievable that that happened today.

It’s most obvious late in an eventful day, particularly if you woke up unusually early. Usually it’s a “big day” in some sense, with a lot at stake—an exam, a wedding, an early flight, a presentation.

You’ve probably felt it while traveling, especially on the first day of a trip, when you made an early departure, arrived in a new city by afternoon, and then started sightseeing before dinner. By bedtime, the memory of waking at dawn and loading the car, back in your own driveway, in your home city, seems so distant to the present moment that it couldn’t have been today.

Read More

Post image for The Cost of a Free Lunch

Last Summer, out of morbid curiosity, my friend Hélène and I attended a motivational seminar at our local convention center. She had obtained free tickets by clicking, against every fibre of her being, on a gaudy Facebook ad.

Hélène is, among other things, a reformed workaholic and rat-race escapee, who now writes about living life strictly on your own terms. With a background in marketing, she was curious where such a smarmy ad might ultimately lead those who click on it—and who those clickers are.

Both of those questions were answered for us, during the terrible and fascinating experience that followed a few weeks later.

There’s something to be said for inserting yourself into an environment that all of your natural impulses would have you avoid. You learn so much when you’re outside your normal channels. The experience was a gold mine of insights for people like Hélène and me, who chronicle the human condition professionally.  Read More

Post image for Wise People Have Rules For Themselves

Every time I post a new behavioral experiment, or share a personal resolution of some kind, I get a few emails telling me not to be so strict with myself.

They always say something like “It’s not good to be so hard on yourself!” or “We shouldn’t be forcing ourselves to do things!”

This is a common thing to hear in our improvement-focused culture. I used to think it was a reasonable caution, but now I think it’s generally bad advice.

It seems well-meaning in most cases—people sometimes do go overboard with exercise, frugality, and personal efficiency. But I think it’s much more common for people to go under-board in some or all of those areas, and you can bet the person giving you a hard time is one of them.

We often hear about the importance of “balance” in our self-improvement efforts. But what exactly are we balancing? Good behaviors and bad ones? Are we looking for lives that are equal parts wisdom and recklessness?

Can you imagine someone saying “I don’t think we should force ourselves to brush our teeth every day. You have to live a little!”

You might have noticed a pattern in the most successful people around you. Wherever they excel, they tend to have personal rules that they take very seriously.  Read More

pink donut

The Main Street strip in Mount Pleasant, Vancouver, is a mile-long stretch offering every sense pleasure you could think of. Craft beer. Sushi. Third-wave coffee. Trendy clothes. Pizza and burgers. Ergonomic furniture. Artisanal ice cream.

Last month, on my first night back in civilization after a seven-day silent retreat, I spent most of the evening slowly walking that strip.

Still hyper-aware and hyper-patient from the retreat, I kept noticing something my mind usually only does in the background. Maybe fifteen or twenty separate times, I noticed myself getting really excited about acquiring something—a slice of pizza, a book, a dessert, a coffee—and then I noticed that feeling dissipate.

Each of these cravings came and went in turn, and the experience was the same every time. There were five or ten seconds of really intense wanting—Yes! That! I could have that! Then there was a minute or so of lingering enthusiasm, maybe some money-related rationalization about acquiring the tweed-faced notebook or blueberry-lavender ice cream in question.

But if I just kept walking past the storefront, the feeling ran out of steam very quickly. Five minutes later, I could remember it, but the emotional pull was all but gone.

Desires begin vanishing as soon as they arrive, yet our responses to them can have far reaching consequences. What we tend to do during those pivotal seconds can make all the difference between good health or poor health, retiring at 40 or at 70, and being generally happy or generally miserable.  Read More

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