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April 2020

Post image for How to Get Out of a Rut in About 20 Minutes

If naturalists were studying me in my home, they’d quickly recognize my natural migratory cycle. I’ll work in my home office for several months, until my desk accumulates a horseshoe-shaped wall of unfiled papers and half-read books. Then I’ll move my laptop to the kitchen table and stop going in my office at all.

In the kitchen, whatever good habits I had start to break down. I begin work later, get less done, and interrupt myself more often. Each time I attempt to get something done I can feel the encroaching undergrowth of every other unstarted or unfinished project. A certain psychic encumbrance descends on my mind. Everything I do feels like it’s not the thing I need to be doing.

This spiral worsens for a month or two. At some point, I get fed up with everything being such a slog. I spend a day clearing my virtual and actual desktops, and the cycle starts anew.

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Post image for How to Take a Break from Your Mind

Movies frequently scared me when I was a kid. Certain moments in Gremlins, The Secret of Nimh, and even Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory made my insides clench with fear. It was the worst of all feelings.

Most other kids seemed completely unperturbed by these movies, which created the additional pressure, in certain birthday party or sleepover situations, of having to pretend I was totally not scared and in fact was quite enjoying myself.

While I wasn’t brave, I was clever. At some point I discovered a wonderfully effective trick for becoming invulnerable to movie scariness without looking away or covering my eyes.

I would continue to look at the screen, but slightly cross my eyes, putting the screen out of focus.

This subtle move instantly broke any movie’s spell. Threatening gremlins and sword-wielding rats became soupy blurs, accompanied by disembodied sound effects. In an instant, I could dissolve the scary tale and turn it into moving shapes and sounds, freeing myself from the story’s emotional grip.

In reality, the movies were only shapes and sounds, but now I had a way of choosing whether my emotions were tied to the events depicted by them. Whenever I wanted to, I could exit the swirling sea of emotional tumult — or jump back in.

I had no idea I was doing something I’d later learn in meditation halls: deconstructing a narrative experience into a sensory one, and moving my attention between these two levels on purpose.

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Post image for Take The Long View

In 2011, on a tour of Mauna Kea’s summit, I looked at Saturn through a large reflecting telescope and it blew my mind.

When you’ve seen a thousand pictures of something, you feel like you’ve seen it before. What I saw through the eyepiece was entirely new. I expected another picture of Saturn, but instead I saw a real object—a small, grey-orange ball, fixed in the center of a perfect, razor-flat ring. I could even sense the empty, airless space around it. It looked impossible. But there it was.

In recent weeks I’ve found comfort in revisiting that image in my mind, and the feeling of vastness it gave me.

For me it’s a simple reminder of context. No matter what my current worries are, they ultimately concern a small part of my entire life, and my life is one of many billions of lives on Earth, each with its own concerns. And no matter what happens in any of those lives, Saturn is still out there, looking gorgeous, unconcerned with coronavirus, the S&P 500, and any of our grey hairs.

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