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November 2010

Post image for Where is Your Mind Right Now?

“Amazing, isn’t it?”

The words caught me off guard, but they were clearly addressed to me, and seemed to match my thoughts exactly. A moment earlier a blond-headed little boy had, in plain view of his parents and a half dozen passers-by, pitched a half-eaten ice cream at the garbage can, missing completely and hitting the retaining wall not far from my seat on the bench. They continued down the boardwalk without a word.

When the stranger spoke I think I nodded or harrumphed or made some other corresponding gesture of disapproval. But when I looked up, I was surprised to see the old man was smiling and gesturing at the ocean, and had either missed or ignored the minor injustice that had me so appalled. The sarcastic tone I heard in his comment belonged entirely to my train of thought. He meant only what he said.

I still don’t know exactly why he bothered to stoop and say that to me — unless my preoccupied state was obvious to him even through my poker face and sunglasses, and he knew exactly what to say to reset my perspective.

After speaking to me, he turned back to the ocean and I followed his gaze. It was too ordinary for a postcard: blue sky, blue ocean, no clouds. But it had me like the dancing plastic bag in American Beauty.

My train of thought had been effectively derailed, and I was able to forget myself for a moment, thanks to that random man who said the right thing at the right time. I had been totally lost, for most of the day. It was like when a noisy fan clicks off, which you never realize was running until the moment it no longer is, leaving the most unexpectedly silent silence.

I believe life with that noisy fan is the normal state of human consciousness. This was my thirtieth day on the coast of Australia. I’d been to the beach every day. It was a sunny one like most of them, and at a casual glance this ocean scene wasn’t especially captivating, particularly for coastal Australians who see it every day. Yet he was completely taken in, and so was I.

Thought-killing moments like that do happen, but often it takes something that’s particularly forceful on one’s attention. A flaming sunset, say, is exclusive and dramatic enough to wrest anyone’s attention away from their preoccupations, at least for the fleeting few minutes when it’s at its loudest, visually.

But just as often, I’ve looked at something much more ordinary at the precise moment my head-chatter cuts out, and found myself captivated in the exact same way. A dog sniffing a curb. A old playing card in a garbage can. A swirl in my coffee. There is an unmistakable significance that can be seen in all of them, but usually we’re not really looking.

This kind of moment has been happening more and more often. The most encouraging part of it is that it doesn’t seem to matter what the content of the scene is, only whether I’m aware enough to absorb it without assessing its implications to my personal interests. When my interests and preferences aren’t informing the picture — when I am not looking at it in terms of what it’s adding or taking away from me — it’s like I can watch it without being there. I am alive and aware without the normal heaviness of being a needy, self-obsessed human being. And that is where beauty is found.

I know now that this captivating quality is always there to be seen, not just in classically picturesque locations like beaches but in parking lots, produce aisles, snowbanks and people’s faces. But it can only be noticed when thinking isn’t the prominent feature of the landscape.

This state is an anomaly for almost everyone, but I think we all know it to some degree, as an occasional acquaintance. Trains of thought seem to be bent on creating new ones constantly. I suspect that for most of us, our thinking is the prominent feature of the landscape, almost all of the time.

Our thinking is such a prominent feature of nearly every scene we witness, it can be hard to imagine that we can still be there to see the world when thought isn’t around. Indeed, most people probably live and die without ever detecting a distinction between their thinking minds and themselves.

Next time you think of it, ask yourself: Where is my mind right now? Where has it been this last hour? Are my thoughts the prominent feature in my current landscape?

I’m convinced that this same, captivating significance is present in every scene, waiting to speak to you whenever you offer it a chance. It’s unbelievably patient. It could wait a lifetime.

Photo by David Cain

Post image for You Must Go Do the Next Thing

I had the privilege of being present at my father’s death. It was not like I expected.

With illness you see the person — the personality — fade over time, and you come to expect that death will simply be what you call it when there’s nothing left. In light of this it’s easy to imagine that a life can taper down to nothing without any hard edges. But death itself does come down to a single moment. He was breathing, and a moment later he was not.

Having been aware of his prognosis for five years or so, I had already envisioned the moment many times, but I had it all wrong. I expected it to trigger intense grief, hysterics.

Instead, I found I felt intensely happy for him. He had arrived the finish line, and I was there to witness it. It struck me, with all the suddenness of a lightning flash, that he was the only one in the room with no problems at all. Not a trace. All his uncertainties, needs and worries evaporated, while ours still filled the room. I watched intently as he was freed from the enormous weight of simply being alive, an unbelievably heavy thing which I’d somehow lost track of until that moment.

That heaviness is something I had never fully appreciated until I saw somebody being liberated from it. The four of us at his bedside very clearly still carried it. It hung in the room like wet laundry. It was in the hallway too — in the nurse’s faces, in the other patients, in their weary families. And we were grieving for… who? The man with no more troubles.

I do forget it sometimes — that life is a constant, forceful mixture of push and pull, a ceaseless assault of needs and hopes. As pervasive as it is, we appreciate the weight of this tumult about as often as a goldfish thinks about water. Life’s current is heavy and unpredictable and bigger than us, and as long as we’re alive we are at its mercy.

Altogether I do think it’s worthwhile to be in it, for most of us, most of the time. Not that we asked for it, but our fate is to dance with this immense force until it lets us go. So we better learn to dance.  Read More

Post image for If the election really mattered to you, you’d do more than just vote

Being Canadian, I’m not able to vote in the US Midterm Elections tomorrow. I don’t think I would though.

I’ve always been a faithful voter, but last week my city voted for mayor, and I didn’t go. I think I may be done with voting forever.

It wasn’t to make a stand. It wasn’t to pronounce my disgust with the candidates. I didn’t tell anybody who didn’t ask.

Last May in Australia I found myself in an argument with a clean cut, politically-conscious English traveler about the usefulness of voting. With simple logic and simple math, he shot down every pro-voting argument I made. I didn’t like it one bit, and never admitted defeat, but I had no leg to stand on. Before we parted, he pointed me to an article (written by beloved economist Steven Levitt) that made me finally let go of my stubborn belief that my habit of voting is a useful one.

I grew up in a family where it was a forgone conclusion that good people voted, lazy and cynical people didn’t, and that’s all there was to it. Including municipal, provincial and federal elections, I think I’ve only missed one since I turned 18. I’ve been a committed voter for years and not one of my votes ever made any difference.

You see, I have never voted in an election that was decided by one vote. So looking at it rationally, in every single one of the elections I’ve voted in, the result would have been the same whether I voted or not.

Elections that are truly close are exceedingly rare. Around the world, there are about a half-dozen public elections on record that were decided by one vote, but these were all tiny elections: 3 or 4 thousand total votes. Even on that scale, the vast majority of elections are decided by a margin that dwarfs the entirety of any individual’s voting power.

For your vote to have made any difference to the outcome, the election must have been decided by your single vote. Knowing the odds of influencing an election, it makes no rational sense to vote. I’m not the first person to point this out.

Okay. Fair enough. Your vote never affected the outcome. Most of us can accept that. But that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to vote, does it?

I have not found a convincing reason. But here are the typical arguments: Read More

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