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July 2014

Post image for You Are Here

Yesterday I released my new mindfulness guide, via private email, to the small group of early-birds who signed up for email updates on it.

It was a huge hit. I really couldn’t believe it. Thank you so much everybody! I spent pretty much the whole day interacting with readers, it was just fantastic. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

Today, You Are Here: A Modern Person’s Guide to Living in the Present is available to everybody else. (Early-birds, this is basically what was sent to you yesterday — check your inbox!)

I know a lot of you have been waiting for this guide for a while, so if you want to skip the preamble and get it now, you can get it here.

But some of you will want to know more about it first.

If you read this blog you’ve definitely heard me rave about the endless benefits of mindfulness. Nothing has made a bigger difference in my quality of life, and I make this point over and over again with different anecdotes and points of view. I’m now more confident, more calm, less frazzled and less worried. Mindfulness has even made my cooking better.  Read More

Post image for 5 Easily-Overlooked Truths About Thinking

People don’t talk about thinking very much. We talk about what we’re thinking about all the time, but rarely do we talk about thinking itself. Thinking is a huge part of our lives, maybe the most prominent part of our experience.

It affects everything else in life too. It affects your actions, your self-image, your possibilities in life, your stress levels and your health. Your thinking habits determine whether your predominant experience in life is one of fear, excitement, abundance or scarcity.

My life got a hell of a lot better when I started paying attention to the role of my thoughts in life. There was a time when I would have balked at the following five truths about thinking, but now I’d consider them to be pretty basic facts of life.

1) We are thinking almost all the time.

Young children are great observers. Most of the time their attention is occupied by what they’re currently seeing and hearing. They can definitely think and ruminate, but the present-moment sensory world seems to be more important to them. It’s not unusual to see an adult lost in thought, barely aware that he’s there, but it would be strange to see a two-year-old in with that same glazed, absent look.

By the time we reach adulthood, thought occupies the foreground of our experience nearly all the time. Even when we’re actively paying attention to the sensory world, we’re constantly interpreting, predicting and judging.

As children get older, they devote more and more attention to their own internal “mapping” of the world, until it becomes more important than making fresh observations of the present moment.

Imagine tourists walking around, navigating with a map held out in front of them. They see the real-world landmarks beyond the map, but they use them only as a reference to find out where they are on the map, and how they can get to other places on the map. Most adults engage with the world in the same way, out of habit — the contents of our thoughts and impressions make the main landscape, and the present-moment sensory experience is secondary.

2) Most of our thoughts don’t really accomplish anything.

We absolutely need to think, and our minds can do amazing things. But most trains of thought aren’t leading to any kind of decision or insight that’s applicable in the real world. They’re just kind of kicking up dirt.

One thought always leads to another, but following a train of thought is something like following a trail of randomly-growing flowers, rather than a trail of purpose-placed breadcrumbs.  Read More

cat in a hammock not giving a shit

During a very famous moment, Krishnamurti asked the audience if they wanted to know his secret. The lecture hall went silent, and everyone leaned forward.

“You see,” he said, “I don’t give a shit.”

I’m paraphrasing. By most accounts he said “You see, I don’t mind what happens,” but he could have easily said either, and not giving a shit is a concept more people can identify with. I apologize for the vulgarity of the phrase — I will use it a lot in this article — but nothing else captures this piece of wisdom quite as well.

When you tell people to “not mind what happens,” they’ll probably look at you funny unless they’re the type of person who would be in the audience at a Krishnamurti lecture. But everyone understands that there are times in life when the best way to respond to an unpleasant event is to not give a shit.

Giving a shit really just amounts to thinking about what happened. If someone was rude to you on the phone, and you think a lot about it, you are giving a shit. If you hang up and shrug and then go for a bike ride, then you are successfully not giving a shit.

Giving a shit does not necessarily mean you’re doing anything useful, but it makes it seem like you are. It feels like there’s some kind of justice that you’re getting closer to with every moment you give a shit. But that’s not true, because giving a shit, by itself, is only thinking — and thinking has little use aside from figuring out what to do.

This illuminates one of our most stubborn, silly beliefs about human thinking: that most of it is worthwhile, that it’s actually getting you somewhere. Most thoughts just fill up your head and distance you from the life that’s still unfolding in front of you. They’re not leading to any important decisions or insights, they’re just taking over your present moment, and possibly shortening your life on the other end too.

We often believe that our thoughts are accomplishing something just because they’re emotionally charged, or because they’re “about” something we consider important, like fairness, respect, or the state of society.

No. They are useful only insofar as they get you to move your body and do something useful.  Read More

acorn in hand

It probably doesn’t occur to most people that their lives have only ever happened one moment at time. Being in more than one place at once is obviously impossible, yet most of us have difficulty fully allowing ourselves to be only in the one place where we really are: here.

We often talk about having a dozen things to do at once, when in fact we seldom do more than one thing at once, or need to. Your to-do list only gets done one moment at a time, whether your moment-to-moment experience is a frantic and complex one, or a calm and simple one.

We would do very well to simply look at the present moment, ask ourselves what it requires, then calmly do that. It’s hard to imagine an instance in life where this wouldn’t be the best thing to do. Yet life usually seems so much more complicated than that.

Any moment you experience can be broken down into three simple qualities:

1) Your immediate physical surroundings right now

2) The physical feelings in your body right now

3) What you’re thinking about right now

Your whole life is just a gradual turnover of these three aspects of experience. It seems more complicated than that because the third part (your thoughts) can create the appearance all kinds of content that isn’t actually happening. You can lose track of what’s real quite easily when you don’t notice that you’re only thinking.

You can be walking down a quiet street, with a cool breeze and a nice sunset as your backdrop, and be completely consumed by thoughts about something that happened earlier. On the way home from work, a driver in a pickup truck honked at you and gave you the finger, and you don’t think you did anything wrong.

Without deciding to, you imagine a confrontation with this person. You start to get mad about society’s entitlement issues around big vehicles and fossil fuels, and you think about how your car doesn’t use that much gas compared to a truck, but one day you want to quit the long commute altogether. But you know that to do that you’d have to move closer to work, which probably means moving into a high-rise, which you think you could get used to if it meant no more traffic jams, but your spouse would never go for it, and they probably don’t allow dogs…

This happens all the time. We get completely overcome by our thoughts, and the content of the thoughts seems nearer and more relevant than what’s actually happening — the quiet street is almost gone from your experience, even though it’s right there. Usually we solve nothing with this kind of haphazard rumination.  Read More

tea for two

I’m sharing these general policies not because I want to tell people what to do, but because I’ve gained so much in a short time from trying to follow them. There’s nothing difficult about actually doing any of these things. The trouble is remembering.

1. Before you meet up with someone, decide you’ll be a good experience for that person today

When I’m about to head out and meet someone, usually the act of shutting off the lights and collecting my keys reminds me to do something: to leave with the intention of being especially good company when I arrive. Sometimes I forget by then, but most of the time that intention seems to affect me the whole way there.

More than anything, being a good experience for someone means giving thought to what that person might have been hoping to get out of this visit with you. They probably want to see a relatively pleasant (and present) version of their friend, not a preoccupied or distracted version. They probably want to have some of their thoughts validated or at least listened to.

When I don’t do this, presumably I end up mostly concerned with my end of the experience, and it probably goes okay. But when I remember to consider what “good company” might be for this person I’m with right now, visits with people can leave us both on a better trajectory for the day, and maybe for our friendship too.

Sometimes you just won’t be in this space. You may need to vent or ruminate aloud about something and that’s fine — that’s what friends are for. But make sure you notice when it’s the other person who needs that.

2. Don’t make comments or jokes about people’s names or bodies

If you can be certain about anything in life, it’s that anyone named April or June has heard a thousand idiotic calendar jokes. Don’t be another idiot.

Jim Schwartzenberger already knows his name is really long and hard to spell, and he doesn’t want hear it in your fake Austrian accent.

John knows he weighs more than most people, but he may not want to be called “Big Guy.” Even though he’s too polite to say so, he doesn’t want to hear anyone’s lighthearted ribbing about all-you-can-eat buffets and broken chairs.

Dan has already noticed he’s really tall. He doesn’t want to try out for the Lakers. He also probably doesn’t especially like being called Daniel Boone or Dan the Man. People usually love hearing their own name, as Dale Carnegie famously told us 80 years ago now, but stick to the version they use themselves.

There is just so little to gain by making light of people’s names or bodies, and so many ways it can annoy, bore or hurt people. Somehow it’s still really common. Few of us like having these two extremely personal things evaluated or made into a topic of conversation. Just don’t go there, as a rule.  Read More

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