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

Post image for Why the hell would anyone want to live on Soylent?

Soylent has become a mainstream topic, mostly thanks to a recent feature article in The New Yorker.

For those who don’t know about it, Soylent is a nutritionally complete drink invented by Rob Rhinehart, a Bay-Area engineer and entrepreneur. It comes as a powder you mix with water and oil. Theoretically, it contains everything the body needs to thrive, without much of anything else.

Rob announced his invention in a blog post a year ago, entitled How I Stopped Eating Food, claiming that he had not eaten a bite of food in 30 days and felt better than ever.

After a lot of experimenting and refining, Soylent is officially on the market now, and customers are now experimenting with it. It’s early, but their results seem generally positive.

I first heard about it late last year from a friend of mine, who’s different from most of us in that she often finds eating to be a chore. She doesn’t particularly like preparing food for herself (although she does like preparing it for others) and usually only eats for sustenance. So to her Soylent sounded like a dream come true, and she’s been following its progress ever since.

When she told me about it, my reaction was, “That’s neat, but no thanks. I like food.” In fact, I like food so much that I want more opportunities to eat it, not fewer. Why would I want to waste a chance to eat by filling myself with an engineered bio-fuel, when I could be making a curry or fresh bread? Later I would find some compelling reasons.

The most hated beverage on the internet

After reading the New Yorker article, I spent quite a while on the web reading people’s opinions of Soylent. They seem to be mostly negative (although the accounts of early users are mostly positive.)

In the gloves-off world of internet “discussion,” most of the criticisms were, predictably, empty ad hominems directed at Rhinehart and the people who like his idea — “Too lazy to cook,” “Hate life so much they detest even food,” “Self-loathing hipsters who would give up their last remaining joy to find 90 more minutes a day to work on their iPhone app,” and even, “Just eat. Stop normalizing anorexia.”  Read More

Post image for The missing ingredient to happiness

Once my father was diagnosed we started having a lot more family dinners together.

We all knew quality time was a priority, but it never felt like we were trying too hard to make it happen. We didn’t have to talk about it, stressing how important it was to “make this time count” or anything like that. Over those few years, we just all had dinner together on a regular basis, and let other commitments get in the way much less often.

I remember how easy it was to be happy at these dinners. There was nothing particularly different about them than the thousands of other family dinners we’d had up till then, except that we were probably all less preoccupied, and when we were done eating nobody was in a rush to leave. Most of the time afterwards we would stay at the table for a while, telling stories and laughing about stuff.

It wasn’t sentimental or heavy at all, it was just nice. I really wasn’t thinking about the larger context of life and death or carpe diem or anything like that. My attention was just on the food and the people in the room.

These are the simplest and greatest luxuries. That table in that old suburban house often felt like the best place in the world to be. You’d think that it would be more common to experience this unfettered “niceness”, at least when you live a first-world life in which it’s never hard to find good food or good people to eat with.

We’ve each had the experience many times, of a moment that’s truly, perfectly fine, but this state is the exception, not the rule, in most people’s lives. Much of the rest of the time it seems like something needs to be fixed or addressed before the moment can be enjoyed for what it is.

When I was reading about personal finance a couple of years ago, I remember being confounded by another blogger’s brilliant question: “If you feel like your income is too low, how much more do you think you’d need before you don’t feel like that any more?” Often it seems like just a bit more (another 10k a year?) really would let you finally be happy with your finances. But then you remember that you probably thought that when you made half as much as you do now.

Something in us, some self-defeating thinking pattern, is constantly putting contentedness just out of reach, just behind a particular to-do being done or a particular problem being resolved. Yet all of the times you’ve felt contentedness, your life certainly contained unresolved problems and unfulfilled desires.

So if you’re not happy right now, what specifically is it that’s missing? What’s the thing (or things) that, if added to your current lot in life, would allow you to feel that “This really is nice and I’m very lucky to be here” feeling?

Usually the question, “What more could you need?” usually only comes up when you’re sitting by a pool with a friend and a margarita. And it’s meant to be a rhetorical question you’re not supposed to try to answer. But it’s a telling question to ask of yourself when you aren’t happy with the present. If this particular moment isn’t enough, then what is actually missing? Could you write it down?

Most of the time it seems like there really is some identifiable condition that stands between you and your being happy right now, as if your unhappiness has been well-examined and is truly justified. But what is this alleged difference-maker? Would your financial situation have to change in a certain way? Would a particular health issue have to go away? Would a certain person have to apologize to you?

This is an revealing exercise if you actually try it. You may notice how silly it is to insist on some particular change to the moment before you’re prepared to appreciate it. Maybe if you had that thing it wouldn’t change anything. Or maybe you can’t think of what it is at all.

Maybe something really is making it impossible to be grateful right now (perhaps a nail sticking through your foot) but often it’s just our habitual human pettiness making a dealbreaker out of a small preference.  Read More

Post image for It’s okay to be here

There are those of us who hate being late so much that we’re sometimes absurdly early for things, and have to walk around the block or sit in nearby parks until our appointments begin.

Yet sometimes even these people find themselves late. Most of my life, being late for work was a torturous experience for me. Stuck in construction-addled traffic, I’d watch the clock as I missed my target: 7:47, then 7:54, then 8:04, and I’d still be crawling along. I’d feel my insides start to boil. I’d get mad at whoever was causing the slow traffic (because it’s somehow easier if it’s someone’s fault.)

One day I was particularly worked up, still on the road to work at 8:15, and with my windows up I remember saying out loud, as if to explain to the traffic around me, “Hey! I need to be at work right now!”

It was such a dumb thing to say, and it struck me, somehow only for the first time, that it wasn’t true at all. I didn’t need to be at work. I couldn’t truly need to be at work at that moment, because I wasn’t — I was here, in my car. And aside from my super angry and fearful feelings, there was nothing particularly objectionable about being here.

Being where I actually was at the time (in the car) was an option after all, and in fact it was the only option. Obviously, at that moment I would have preferred to be at work over being in slow traffic, but it was really just a preference, not a need. I was in the car, and therefore at that moment it was impossible to be anywhere else. If it’s impossible, how could I need it? It would be like insisting I need a unicorn just to carry on.

Had I ever actually needed to be anywhere other than where I was? I guess not, because regardless of my preferences, I don’t believe I have ever, even once, been anywhere other than where I already was.

I had also never truly needed a coffee, or a hug, or the Seahawks to pull it out, or my stomach ache to go away, or any other form of having the moment go my way. I have certainly wanted all these things, sometimes very badly, but I’ve never needed them. And this was proven every time I didn’t get them.  Read More

Post image for The frightening thing you learn when you quit the 9 to 5

As most of you know I quit my day job last fall to transition to making a living through my writing.

When I was preparing to give my notice, I met a UK-born writer named Robert Wringham, who publishes an independent magazine for workforce escapees such as myself (or those who are thinking about it), called New Escapologist.

I loved it immediately: it’s smart, advertising-free and perfectly square. Given that I was in the “great escape” chapter of my own story, he asked me to write a piece for the magazine, which appears in the latest issue. I’ve reposted it below (edited slightly to fit a blog format.)

The months following my escape consisted of one lesson after another, as I expected, but the biggest lesson was quite a shock — and it’s something all 9-to-5ers should learn as early in their lives as possible. This piece is my warning to would-be escapees who are eternally waiting for the right time.


After leaving a jobsite, I drove to a nearby field and parked my car facing a row of corn. It was afternoon, on the day that I’d picked to finally do it, but I was still nervous. I sat there for about half an hour before pulling the trigger.

I phoned my boss and told him I was leaving the company to work for myself. I’d rehearsed for a confrontation, but he was very professional and understanding. The moment I hung up, laughter exploded out of me, like I’d just gotten a joke told to me years ago.

The drive home was euphoric, as I expected it would be. But two weeks later I would discover an unsettling side-effect of having been an employee so long.  Read More

Post image for Why most internet activists don’t change any minds

On Facebook I quietly unsubscribe from friends who regularly make angry issue-related posts, even if they’re right. I don’t want to be pummeled by “truth,” no matter how true it is.

I understand why they do it. I’ve done it. Ignorance — of overfishing, of puppy mills, of normalized sexism, of what vaccines can and can’t do — can be genuinely dangerous, and wanting to reduce this ignorance is understandable.

Some are able to do it carefully and diplomatically, and I have learned a lot from these people.

But most internet activists let contempt seep into the message. It becomes about making others wrong instead of trying to help them be right. Just visit virtually any issue-related message board. It’s adversarial. It’s normal to blame people for their ignorance.

Ignorance, if that’s what it really is, isn’t something people can fairly be blamed for. We don’t choose what not to grasp, what not to have been taught, what not to have understood the significance of.

Ignorance is blind to itself. When you’re trying to rectify ignorance in someone else, it’s easy to forget that you’re ignorant too, in ways you can’t know.

Whoever you are, you have to admit there’s a hell of a lot you don’t know, and you don’t know that you don’t know it. None of us are free of ignorance. So in our attempts to reduce ignorance we ought to approach others as fellow learners, rather than people worthy of blame.

The worst thing a person can do for their stance is to deliver it packaged with a moral judgment. This effectively eliminates the other person’s freedom to agree, and may even create a committed opponent to their cause. Doing this to a lot of people reduces the public’s receptivity to the cause altogether. Even if it is the truth, when you hurl it at someone it will bounce rather than stick.  Read More

blue morpho on a leaf

As some of you know, I’m going to be speaking at a week-long retreat in the foothills of Ecuador in late August. The one last year was a huge success, and after reading about it on Mr Money Mustache I wished I had been there.

I wasn’t though, and so I couldn’t give a lot of details earlier. So I’ve asked Cheryl Reed (the proprietor and one of the presenters) to talk about what the trip entails. At the end of this post I’ll go over what my presentation is about.

Cheryl first visted Ecuador seventeen years ago on a volunteer trip. She was extremely moved by both the exceptional hospitality and incredible poverty she witnessed there.

“I worked with disabled children whose parents couldn’t afford diapers, so they used sweaters covered by plastic bags. I watched as one father carried his 14-year old child with cerebral palsy on his back eight blocks to the center every day because she didn’t have a wheelchair. I returned to the States and nothing made sense to me anymore, especially my consumerist lifestyle. Six months later I left everything and moved to Ecuador and it was the best decision I ever made.”

Here’s Cheryl:

My dream since then has been to host week-long retreats in Ecuador in order to share her beauty, as well as what I’ve learned about following your dreams and finding happiness. Serendipity has always been on my side, and a financial blogger named Jim Collins contacted me and suggested adding bloggers to the list of presenters for the retreats.

Last year was our first chautauqua and it turned out better than I could have hoped. It was the perfect combination of twenty-seven like-minded people, spending time together in one of the most beautiful areas of Ecuador, discussing freedom, happiness and financial independence. I knew I was onto something special when people said it was life-changing.

This year, I decided to hold two chautauquas. The first one has a financial independence focus, with Jim Collins and Mr. Money Mustache (and is sold out.) For the second retreat, I wanted to delve more deeply into the topic of happiness and freedom, and to share the area where I liveRead More

post-it art building

Beside me on my desk at all times is a pad of sticky notes, which was the size of a Rubik’s cube when I bought it. Now it’s the size of a Melba Toast.

Whenever I think of something I might have to deal with, I write it down on one of these squares. The sheets alternate yellow and hot pink, so my inbox always looks like a tropical salad.

Every few days I process these little notes, which means I look at what I’ve written and decide what to do about it. Sometimes I neglect this duty for a while, and end up with a week’s worth (or two) of sticky notes.

I end up throwing most of them right into the recycling bin, because when it comes time to look at it, the thing I wrote down is no longer relevant, or I’ve already done it, or I don’t feel like anything has to be done about it.

Yet almost all of those notes were scrawled in a moment when I felt some kind of urgency or worry about something, as if my life was suddenly becoming more difficult. I have to ______! I need a new ______! What am I going to do about _____?!

We have these kinds of moments all the time. Things are going fine, and then they’re not, because you think of something you might have to deal with. The moment goes a bit dark. You wish you hadn’t thought of it. Another thing on your plate.

Problems emerge like that: a mental tapping on the shoulder, and a darkening of the emotions. I’ve become really interested in the exact moment this reaction happens, and watching what physical feelings creep in. It almost always does something to the body: the jaw hardens, the skin flushes, or a pit grows below the ribcage.

In those moments, it can be easy to forget (assuming you realize this in the first place) that most of these apparent problems will never have to be solved. They’ll never ripen into real-life dilemmas that require anything difficult from you. Chances are they’ll be sticky notes in the bin at the end of the week (if you’re organized enough to write them down.)

Over and over and over in my life, things that I think will be a big problem turn out not to be. Something else happens instead. Or, a moment I’m dreading comes and goes and it’s not that bad.

Most of the time, the only difficulty posed by a problem is dealing with the moment in which it occurs to you that you might have a problem. After watching thousands of my worries go straight to the bin, I’m getting better at noticing the “shoulder tap” when it happens, and reminding myself that this problem probably isn’t a problem.  Read More

Post image for The First World’s biggest addiction

My people have a ritual, and in fact I performed this ritual as I sat down to write what you’re reading.

It goes like this: I take a spoonful of special seeds and grind them down into a powder. I run hot water through the powder, and collect the dark liquid that seeps out. I take the cup of hot liquid and bring it to my desk because I believe drinking it will make for a better working experience.

Coming to the desk with this liquid is a tradition for millions of us because getting down to work first thing in the morning is traditionally a less-than-comfortable moment. We welcome anything that seems to make it more comfortable.

This liquid does that. As I drink it, I can feel it has immediate effects on my experience. I kind of feel like dancing, but instead of dancing, I type. I always look forward to the next time I have a chance to do it, sometimes even before I’m done. I don’t do it too often because I know that by the third time in a day, the ritual makes me tired and cranky.

I’ve made the ingestion of this substance an ordinary part of my day, and in fact I own specialized equipment for preparing it: one that grinds the beans into a powder for me, and another machine that makes the powder into the drinkable liquid. Mine is a fairly fancy one that makes a super-concentrated form of the liquid. If you don’t have one (or even if you do) there are also stores whose sole purpose is to have professionals make this liquid for you.

Interestingly, these seeds don’t grow within two thousand miles of me. But I have steady supply through a convoluted channel of farmers, marketers and middlemen. We call the seeds “beans” even though they are actually the pits of a tropical berry, which most of us have never seen.

The bean-liquid industry is worth 100 billion dollars worldwide, but there is another mind-altering liquid whose sales are expected to exceed 1 trillion dollars this year. It’s prepared differently, through fermenting plant materials. We have tried fermenting almost everything to make this stuff, and so there are all different types.

Its effects on your consciousness are a lot more dramatic. It gives you a certain confidence and sense of freedom. Its side-effects are quite reliably awful though. It makes you more careless and less intelligent. If you drink a lot of it (and it is common to drink this amount on purpose) it will make you nauseous, irresponsible and difficult to be around. Still, it is almost as popular as food.  Read More

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