morts de rire

NOTE: Although feedback has been mostly positive, I have my misgivings about this post (as usual.) I don’t think I was as fair as I tried to be. Please just take it as another viewpoint among many different views available to you. Our right to access differing views, and to present our own, must be actively protected.

As a rule I don’t talk about current events on this blog, because they’re ephemeral, and I want readers to be able to draw something useful from every article I write, even if they read it years later.

Unfortunately, terrorism and threats to free speech aren’t strictly “current” events. They are also yesterday’s news, and will be tomorrow’s news too.

I’m not a journalist, and I have a lingering discomfort about publishing this post. But I guess I was more uncomfortable at the thought of not publishing it. Whenever people are murdered for expressing their opinions, the writers and creatives who survive them tend to want to say something about it, as we’ve seen. Bless them.

My hesitation wasn’t because I’m afraid of being shot, or flogged one thousand times, but because I’m always afraid of being wrong or unfair. This is a hyper-sensitive issue, and I want to be as fair and straightforward as I can.

Regular readers know I think all organized religion is fundamentally scary. It is terrifying to me that billions of people believe ancient books can give them absolute certainty about the fate of humanity, and that morality is a matter of obeying these books, rather than thinking rationally about the harm caused by our choices.

It is taboo to say that one religion is scarier than another, but there are noticeable and measurable differences between our religions, regarding the prevalence of certain beliefs. I am more worried about Islam in its current state than, say, Buddhism, as politically incorrect as it is to say so. But I think I have good reasons.

For what it’s worth, what scares me most about Islam isn’t terrorism, but the non-violent threat it currently poses to freedom of speech in Western countries. Polling data suggested that more than 75% of British Muslims believed that the Danish cartoonists should have been prosecuted for drawing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in 2005. Flaming embassies aside, if that figure is even close to the truth, that is a genuine threat to freedom of expression (but by no means the only one) and we deny it at our peril.  Read More

black

When I returned from my first trip to New York City, the moment I dropped my bags and stopped moving, my suburban apartment struck me as unnervingly quiet. It made me realize that in every moment for almost four weeks, my ears had been filled with some kind of background noise.

There’s no true quiet to be found in New York. Even when you’re alone and you become perfectly still, there are always traffic noises and muffled voices in the room with you.

Sleep is no respite from this, because the sounds penetrate that too. My dreams always contained whatever sound I would eventually wake up to — construction noises, honking, shouting, appliances running.

We spend our whole lives at the end of a firehose of sensory experience. It seems like it would be healthy to step out of that stream once in a while, if it were possible.

One afternoon a few weeks ago, I made my first attempt to do exactly that. It involved sealing myself, naked, in a darkened sensory deprivation tank. There’s a business a few blocks from me that offers 90-minute sessions.

Inside the car-sized tank, there’s about a foot of water thickened by a thousand pounds of dissolved Epsom salts, allowing you to float on your back safely while relaxing all of your muscles. The tank is soundproof and lightproof and warmed to skin temperature. Once you settle into position, you no longer feel the water, because it’s the same temperature as both the air and your skin. Without this temperature contrast, or light or sound, there’s virtually no sensory input happening at all.

Even though it was totally different than I expected, it turned out to be a fascinating and wonderful experience, and I will be doing it again.  Read More

colored lights on building

I always liked the end-of-the-year programming on TV when I was growing up. Running through lists of the best movies and the biggest news stories — and which celebrities didn’t survive — somehow helps us to look at the year as if from outside of it. That way we can get a sense that things are unfolding on a much bigger scale than our normal day- and week-focused thinking suggests.

Although it seems like we’ve experienced this ceremonial turnover of one year to the next countless times, we haven’t. In fact, we each keep an accurate tally of them, and we derive a significant part of our identity from that number. I’m 34, who are you?

As we are sometimes aware, nothing special actually happens when the clock hits midnight. It just goes on to the next moment — we don’t actually zip back to beginning of the calendar, to some point we’ve been before. Time is a long, twisting, one-way trail, not a short, familiar ski run with a chairlift at the bottom.

In any case, our culture likes to think of years as meaningful divisions of time, so as individuals we tend to reflect on how we’re doing in life every December. Many of us will try to become someone completely different, in some respect, from the moment we wake up on January 1st. From couch-pilot to gymgoer. From smoker to non-smoker.

I’m suspicious of New Year’s resolutions, even though I am still sometimes tempted to make them. If they work for you, great, but they don’t work for the vast majority. I’ve explained why I’m not a fan:

The problem with New Years-ing your resolution is that it gives undue weight to the idea of a clean slate. It seems like January 1st really does reset something, and that it’s important to harness that rare chance.

But of course, it’s just another tomorrow. There are no clean slates. Past failures will still visit you in your head, from whatever year. Bad internal dialogues will still occur, and you’ll still have the same preconceptions about yourself and the kinds of outcomes you can expect.

All of this stuff is real, and it doesn’t respect the Gregorian calendar.

Now, I am a big advocate of annual goals, which are not the same thing as resolutions. With a goal, you’re aiming for a specific outcome — lose 20 pounds over the next six months, say — and the end of the year isn’t a bad time to think about goals.

Resolutions usually come from a more emotional than practical place, and often have no real-life destination. Start going to the gym again. Stop watching TV every night. Essentially we’re just grabbing our own lapels and scolding ourselves to stop fucking things up the way we usually do.  Read More

Post image for The Best Response to Criticism

I learned early on that criticism feels about ten times as bad as praise feels good.

For a while I assumed this was a neurosis only I and other recovering pessimists had. But when I started blogging, I kept hearing the same thing from other writers: one critical comment makes you forget a dozen positive ones.

It turns out this is normal for human beings. Criticism just weighs more on our emotions than praise does. We remember negative events more vividly than positive ones, and we give more emotional weight to a loss than an equivalent gain.

This makes sense from a survival perspective, if you think about it. There’s more urgency to remember dangers vividly than rewards. The trauma of negative events — whether it’s from a pointed criticism or a stubbed toe — teaches you how to stay physically safe and in good standing with the tribe. Positive events are beneficial when you have them, and it’s helpful to remember how you got to them, but there’s no benefit in staying preoccupied with them for a long time.

“Bad emotions, bad parents and bad feedback have more impact than good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones,” wrote social psychology professor Roy Baumeister in a paper he co-authored, entitled “Bad is Stronger Than Good”.

A natural side-effect of this overvaluation of negativity is that we tend to be more passive in life than we would be if we weighed negativity and positivity the same. Bad outcomes seem to promise more in terms of punishment than good outcomes promise in terms of benefit, so it can seem sensible to speak out and try new things as infrequently as possible. As writer Elbert Hubbard put it, “To escape criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.”  Read More

Post image for Working for The Man Should Be a Last Resort

The following post will appear as the foreword to Robert Wringham’s upcoming book Escape Everything!

Every time I write a piece advocating escape from corporate servitude, I receive a few emails that contain a particular kind of scolding. They tell me that only an entitled brat could be unsatisfied with a stable job and a roof, in a world where so many pine for only these things.

If that’s the case, then we live in world built out of, and for, legions of such entitled brats, whether they choose to actually implement their escape plan, or only think about it all day. For all the financial prosperity of the modern working world, there is a certain poverty in our willingness to take pay for performing activities that have, typically, almost nothing to do with our personal values. As if there were no better ideas out there, we take up this yoke by the thousand, slotting ourselves in grids of grey squares, stacked fifty to a hundred high, sealed with a shiny glass exterior. A small forest of these shiny stacks is the first image we think of when we picture a modern city.

Even while the internet and its emerging subcultures continue to hint at newer, smarter modes of working and living, you may still be told it’s vain to insist on a station more fulfilling than a permanent stall in a well-reputed grid. According to my critics, even if you find your standard weekday boring, painful or unfulfilling, you ought to embrace it, simply because a third-world coal miner would kill for your benefits package. When so many have so little, attempting to escape a situation in which you can reliably feed yourself and fund a retirement could only be an act of the utmost ingratitude.

A minority of us believe the opposite is true — that escaping from an unfulfilling mainstream lifestyle isn’t a moral failing, but rather a moral imperative. It’s precisely because we have all the necessary freedoms at our fingertips (and because others don’t) that spending our lives in the stable isn’t just foolish, but wrong. To remain, voluntarily, in a life where your talents are wasted and your weekdays are obstacles is to be humble in all the wrong ways.  Read More

Post image for A Common Habit That Costs Us Friends

Just in time for my final year of college, a number of independently-moving disasters all converged to create an almost perfect rock-bottom scenario. On top of it, I lost all my friends.

I was studying a subject I didn’t care about, with a GPA of two-point-something (and falling), and I just couldn’t see myself ever doing it for a living. Since my cleverness was always my main source of self-esteem, my unprecedented academic troubles translated to an unprecedented collapse of personal confidence. In addition to this, my dad was sick, my sister was overseas, my cat was dead, terrorists had attacked New York City and my mom was trying to hold us all together.

As if by conspiracy, my best friends all moved away around that time. One had already gone, after his employment had dried up here, to live with his parents in Calgary. Not long after, another pair of them went to work menial jobs at a ski resort in the Rockies. Then a fourth one, whom I’d introduced to those two, thought it sounded pretty good and joined them.

So within a few months, I ended up with no confidence, a fragmented family, and a bleak future on the career front. What I needed most during this period was friends, and fate chose this time to show me what it was like, for the first time, to have none.

Given this unlikely collision of circumstances in my friends’ lives, I’m tempted to argue that it wasn’t my fault that I ended up friendless. But I know now that it was — I was taking an enormous risk by living with a particular habit, and you may be doing it too. In fact, I think it’s something millions of people do.  Read More

Post image for Two Very Different Reasons to Believe Something

As a kid, I was never taught there was an afterlife, so I didn’t believe there was one. Until I was 30.

By the time I was old enough to know that some people didn’t believe what I believed — which was that when you die, you really are dead — the common image of the afterlife sounded ridiculous to me. The notion that death merely transports you to a better place, where you can once again chat with grandma and play fetch with all of your dead pets, sounded exactly as plausible as the rumor that my Christmas gifts were manufactured at the North pole.

When I was thirty or so, I discovered a slightly more sophisticated case for an afterlife. It’s a fairly common one in Spritual-But-Not-Religious circles: consciousness seems to be an intrinsic property of the universe, not just of the human brain, so there’s no reason to think your experience ends when the brain does.

In meditation groups, they often describe a human life as a drop of consciousness, splashing up from an infinite ocean for a brief moment of 70 or 80 years, before dropping back into its source. It sounded good enough to me. Suffice it to say, after a bit of pondering I ended up cashing out the “Dead means dead” belief for “Consciousness probably survives death.”

Sometimes you’re told something you don’t want to hear, but it makes too much sense to deny, and eventually you have to let go of a belief you cherished. This happened a couple of years ago, when I was watching a panel debate about the afterlife.

A neuroscientist on the panel, Sam Harris, whom I would later come to know as one of the more reasonable voices on the topic of belief, said something that took the air right out of my new afterlife belief.

He explained that science isn’t committed to the idea that there’s no afterlife; if we found good reasons to believe it existed, then science would support those findings. But we do have good reasons to believe that consciousness ends when the brain does. We know that if you damage certain parts of the brain, you damage certain parts of the mind. You can damage the part that recognizes faces, the part that understands language, the part that remembers your childhood, or any other aspect of your consciousness. By claiming that it makes sense to believe in the afterlife, we’re claiming that it makes sense to believe that if you were to damage all of the brain so that it ceases to function, all of these faculties would suddenly come back, and you’d be able to recognize your dead relatives and speak to them in English.

So while we can’t yet be certain that consciousness doesn’t survive death, it seems extremely unlikely that this consciousness would resemble anything like life as we know it, or the afterlife as we imagine it. If the light somehow stays on, our identities are almost certainly obliterated, and nobody’s playing Frisbee with their late family dog. And there’s still no good reason to suspect that the light stays on at all.  Read More

guy with french horn

Something happens inside many of us when we’re seated on a plane and we see someone get on carrying a crying baby.

My normal reaction used to be a combination of low-level worry and indignation. Flying is uncomfortable enough, and adding a crying baby makes it worse. So I would find myself hoping that the baby and its parent would sit far away.

Intellectually, I know this reaction is ridiculous and self-absorbed. Babies need to travel sometimes. Babies need to cry sometimes. I was a crying baby at some point. Hoping that a boarding baby won’t sit near me is, essentially, hoping that other people would be annoyed instead of me. What a gentleman I am.

While I knew these were unfair thoughts and I didn’t act on them, I still didn’t know what to do with them. I honestly didn’t want a crying baby near me, and I ached with hope that there wouldn’t be one.

At some point, in the years between my flight to New Zealand and my flight to Ecuador, my reaction to other people’s airplane babies changed. Upon seeing a boarding infant, I still had the initial thought of, “Oh great, a BABY! That’s what we need on this airplane!” But that useless and selfish thought began to trigger a more useful (and more defensible) thought: May this baby have an easy and peaceful experience on this flight.

This is just a simple habit of cultivating compassion. After all, if the baby is crying, presumably it’s not having a particularly comfortable flight either. This is not only a more reasonable and diplomatic reaction, but on a totally selfish level it’s actually a better one, because it transforms what would have been an experience of annoyance and discomfort into one of peace and solidarity.

I experienced a softening of my entire flying experience (as well as virtually every other less-than-pleasant category of experience) between 2009 and 2014, and I know I owe it to the practices of meditation and mindfulness I learned during that time.

Something alarming happened during my most recent flight, a few weeks ago. I realized I had lost a step in my ability to stay peaceful and nonreactive. This time there was no baby. However, another common test of compassion was seated near me: a man who would not stop clearing his throat and coughing.  Read More

reflected sun

The inability to be heard is a very disorienting and disempowered state. You can learn that first-hand, as I did, if you accidentally sign up for a silent meditation retreat.

I didn’t know until I arrived on a remote, West coast island, that the course I had signed up for was essentially dawn-to-night Buddhist meditation, for almost a week. We were expected to remain silent the entire time, except when asking questions during the daily dharma talk. For six days we sat, walked, and ate in silence, even avoiding engaging others in eye contact.

The effect is profound. In a silent community, you suddenly find yourself without luxuries you didn’t know you had: the ability to ask questions, to apologize, to criticize, to consult with others, to make your viewpoint known, to suggest a better way to do something — and for others to do these things with you.

In retreats like these, there are practical reasons for this silence. It really aids the meditation, which is what you’re there to do. Discussion can always be had later. But at the same time it made me acutely aware of how vulnerable and isolated we become when we aren’t allowed to talk to each other.

That insight came flooding back to me one afternoon last week, as I listened to an interview between podcaster Dan Carlin, and historian Gwynne Dyer.

During the interview, Carlin asks Dyer whether human “progress” simply amounts to the world becoming more Western, or if we only presume that Western values are more “advanced” because they happen to be ours.

This is a huge, ugly political question and I know it doesn’t interest all of you. But huge questions require huge answers, and part of Dyer’s 20-minute response is fascinating. In a flash it threw my whole role as a writer and a human being into sharp perspective, and could probably do the same for your own too.  Read More

kitten

If a thousand people “Like” this post, Mark Zuckerberg will spare this kitten. Please share!

Chances are you have a friend or relative who is constantly posting dubious “facts” on social media: that you can charge your electronic devices by plugging them into an onion, that entering your PIN in reverse at an ATM summons the police, or that this year Halloween falls on a Friday the 13th for the first time in 666 years. (Think about that one for a moment.)

We can laugh all day at our paranoid friends and computer-illiterate aunts for falling for Facebook hoaxes, but the basic offense here — passing along information without any attempt to verify it — is something most of us probably do all the time.

Bad information isn’t always obvious, and it probably wouldn’t occur to you to investigate a claim unless it sounded untrue to you from the beginning. There’s pretty good evidence that we’re much more gullible than we think: we tend to believe what we hear, unless it initially strikes us as unlikely.

After a belief passes the front door, it usually doesn’t get much scrutiny. It becomes part of your “body of knowledge,” which is just another name for your impression of the way the world is, and it remains there until some new belief utterly clashes with it and you’re forced to reconsider. We easily forget our reasons (if we ever had any) for believing what we believe, and we’re seldom asked for them.

Don’t take my word for it, but you can be almost certain that a lot of the things you “know” aren’t really true. I would bet money that some of the facts of life you currently feel certain about can be found on this list of common misconceptions. It may surprise you to hear for example, that sugar doesn’t cause hyperactivity in children, and that fortune cookies are actually Danish in origin, not Chinese or Japanese or American.

We do learn quite a bit about the world from direct experience. But clearly, most of our learning amounts to believing the beliefs of other people, whether they’re expressed in a Facebook post or in a textbook. You hear or read something, and if it seems true you’ll probably believe it. In all likelihood you’ll never try to verify that belief unless someone else challenges it, and it may never occur to you that it might be wrong. Once a belief has established itself, we freely tell others what we know, or think we know, and the process repeats.  Read More


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