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May 2012

Post image for How to become aroused by yourself (in 20 minutes or less)

I started cooking around 5, unaware it would start an argument. I was in Auckland, running out of money, overwhelmed by the prospect of a job search with no contacts in a foreign country. My whole life, job searching had terrified me at the best of times. This was not the best of times.

I’d been loafing in the same K-Road hostel for about three weeks, and with both my cash and confidence dwindling, the best part of my day had become the hard-boiled egg with spaghetti and pesto I had for every dinner.

“Dinner at 5? Not very sexy!” the Italian girl said, hovering behind me somewhere. I didn’t disagree, but I don’t eat dinner to be sexy. Before I could think of something clever to say, the middle-aged Bostonian appeared at the counter.

“Oh, we know, you Europeans are very uptight about appearing relaxed, and so you eat when the people you think you’re superior to are thinking about going to bed. Americans eat at six o’clock.” He looked to me and nodded.

“Five is too early. Six is too early,” said Tommy, the Irishman who funded his travels by live betting on soccer and cricket. He was glued to the TV but listening.

“I’m hungry,” I explained.

I could hear Alessandra roll her gigantic eyes. The American repeated himself, this time thumping his fist on the counter for each word. “Americans eat at six o’clock.”

Alessandra flung her hands up in the air and called us “Fucking yankees,” which was the second of three times I would be called a fucking yankee on that trip.

“I’m Canadian,” I said. “But I eat when I’m hungry, which is usually six o’clock.”

She started into it again and I left it to the the Bostonian. In the ensuing argument a whole list of stolen Italian cultural icons came up from both sides: espresso, gelati, mafia archetypes, Christopher Columbus, sports cars. I wished they would leave. They were ruining the best part of my day, which was already pretty bleak.

This inane, inter-cultural debate was the last thing I remember before I was struck with what might have been the biggest revelation of my life. I remember tuning out the arguing, and staring into my pesto, and having an extremely dark thought: after I ate my dinner, the best part of my day would be over, and it was all shit until the next time I made dinner.

The thought made me so sad I felt dizzy. I went out on the balcony even though it was grey and drizzling. I breathed and reminded myself just to watch my breathing and let my thoughts talk themselves in circles if they wanted to.

In a minute or two, (or ten?) the jabbering of the argument in the kitchen seemed like a long time ago and the ambient sound of the city took over. Cars driving on wet streets, distant honking, wind.

My mind was clear and I could see that the look and sound of the city represented the facts of things, and the mess of fearful thoughts that had momentarily left me represented the negative spin I habitually put on all of it.

I had always assumed I was an optimist, because I was so hopeful. But clearly I was preoccupied with the negative side of everything and had been all my life. This was a shock to me but it sure explained a lot.  Read More

Post image for How to do the right thing, for sinners like you and me

Growing up in a culturally mainstream (but non-religious) family, sinning wasn’t something I thought about much. It was something the church people dealt with and talked about.

But I did sin and still do. I now see myself as someone who sins on a regular basis, and I’m working on that.

The word means something different for me than it does in contemporary culture. As a child I learned (and you probably did too) that to sin is to do something really bad. If you look it up you’ll find it usually refers to a violation of a religious code of conduct.

So by this definition if you’re not religious, you can’t really sin, because you have no religious code of conduct to violate.

But I still think it’s a useful concept to the non-religious. As I’ve mentioned before, I think religions are essentially self-improvement methodologies that have lost track of themselves. They’re philosophies and mythologies meant to help us navigate human life in such a way as to cause the least harm possible, to ourselves and others. [For a more thorough explanation of why I think so, read this.]

Christianity’s infamous “Seven Deadlies”, for example, aren’t different in purpose than Buddhism’s prohibitions of sexual acts that cause harm, or lying, or stealing. They are all clear warnings that certain categories of behavior lead almost invariably to suffering for you and others, and so if you’re not into suffering you might want to avoid doing those things. The well-defined sin exists to create a red flag in your mind when you’re about to do something harmful. They can be pretty helpful, as a tool for becoming a better person.

The word got a bit loaded somewhere along the line though, and the S-word became a word to use almost exclusively in indictments of other people, as I’ll explain. Sinners!

It’s becoming more commonly known that the word sin derives from a word that meant “to miss the mark.” Not to do something bad per se, but to make a mistake. In modern terms, maybe the closest phrase to the original meaning of sin is “to fuck up.”

It doesn’t have to have such dire moral baggage strapped to it, even though it does imply that you’ve done something that causes harm. And whenever we cause harm, you could say there is a moral issue at play somewhere. Morality is nothing but the consideration of the harm caused by a particular action, right?

But I think instead of regarding sins as something “against the rules”, which we’ll be punished for (by Whoever or Whatever invented these rules) it’s more useful to think of sins as moral transgressions against ourselvesRead More

Post image for It’s not who you are, it’s what you do

Last week I asked readers to answer the question, “Where are you right now in life, at this moment?” Including emails there are almost 200 responses so far. Read them here.

Each person seems to be right in the middle of a pretty dramatic story. Certain themes emerged. A lot of people said they were in a difficult or unsure position, not sure where to go from here. A lot of others seem to have just passed from one stage of life to a new, unfamiliar one — just graduated, just left a relationship, just suffered a tragedy.

It almost seems like there is a disproportionately high incidence of worry and uncertainty. But maybe it’s more normal than we think. These tough moments seem exceptional while they’re happening to us, as if we can’t wait to get back to regular life, to what we often imagine is normal.

Normal could be a mirage though. When you run into someone you know at a party or something, and they ask how you are, what you’re up to, you probably have a tendency to “normalize” the answer — “Oh I’m still working at [X company], playing racquetball once a week now, planning a trip to Hawaii. Things are good.” You’ll probably leave out any angst you feel about where your life actually is, who you actually are, where you think you might actually be headed, even though those thoughts are a big part of life for most people.

If you read all those people’s different accounts of where they actually are right there, drama and uncertainty are normal, if the word normal means anything.

Even though I think I know better, I’m often guilty of believing that I’m about to “round the corner” and finally hit the straightaway of my life. It’s some kind of neurosis we seem to have — that there is a point to be reached in life when nothing significant is unsettled. Well I guess there is, but it’s the day of your funeral. The human condition can be managed but it has no real cure. That can be fantastically liberating news if you’re ready to let go of the idea of finally rounding the corner one day.

There are, however, breakthroughs. Sometimes when they happen they feel like “The Answer,” but that euphoria wears off when you run into your next bout of problems. They can change the trajectory of your life, though, leaving a permanent difference in how you deal with things, and stopping you from ever suffering a particular kind of pain again. It’s like “leveling up” your quality-of-life skills.

Breakthroughs tend to come in the form of forehead slapping moments where you realize that you’ve been creating a problem for yourself your whole life, and you realize you don’t have to any more. Often it’s a simple insight you read or hear someone say.

After a major breakthrough, familiar problems can look different, and some no longer strike you as problems at all. You can bring your new perspective to bear on every chronic issue in your life, and maybe it will solve it, maybe not. But things will change.

I had one recently that explains a huge amount of seemingly unnecessary difficulty I’ve had with life. I think it will be relevant to some of you.  Read More

Post image for It’s another Monday morning, do you know where you are?

I have no tattoos, but I’ve always loved them on other people. I just haven’t found anything yet that I’m sure I want on my skin forever. An English backpacker I knew, who had dozens of tattoos visible, told me over bubble tea that he loves his because each one reminds him of where he was in life when he got it.

Trying not to be rude, I asked him why he needed those reminders to be permanent features of his body.

His answer was that there was nothing more important to him than to never forget that his life used to be something really different than it is now, and that it was real. They remind him that right now is real, even though life will look really different to him when he looks at them a year later.

“If I’m going really let myself enjoy life and not stress I need to know at least that,” he said. “That I had a lot of lives already and still have heaps to go.” I didn’t quite understand and he seemed to sense that, but finally the right thought found him: “My tattoos make me remember I’m here.”

A year ago I asked a quick question of you and the response blew me away. I wanted to know where you are right now in life, what little “corner of time” you were in, and how you got there.

My corner right now looks so different than this time last year, including where I am physically, what’s on my mind, what’s on the horizon and what’s behind me.

It fascinates me that we’re all so complex and yet it’s so rare that we get someone’s own words about where they are in life right now. Everyone walking down the street has a complete setting and backstory for the very moment they’re in, and it’s always a total mystery to us. Except right now, if you’ll share with us. Read More

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