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Post image for Mindfulness Means Letting Things Surprise You

One of the hardest things about trying to be mindful is that it is often powerfully boring.

You’re trying to pay close and gentle attention to the ordinary experiences of life — sipping tea, opening a door, breathing in through your nose — and this is supposed to transform your life if you keep at it.

But it’s hard to pay this much attention to ordinary life stuff, because you already know what’s going to happen. You already know what it feels like to sip tea and walk down a sidewalk and pass through a door. It’s hard to give things more attention than they seem to need.

I’ve been practicing mindfulness for a long time, and it has transformed my life, and I still periodically run into this same problem. The rustle of leaves or the inner caress of the breath only seems to bear so much attention, so much looking and noticing, before you want to say, “Okay, I see it. What next?”

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smiley scrubby

In November, an article did the rounds—entitled “Actually, Let’s Not Be in the Moment”—in which the author describes, hilariously, a failed attempt at mindful dishwashing.

It’s quite relatable if you’ve ever tried to force yourself to “be with” some unpleasant domestic task like sorting recycling or scrubbing a drip tray. Even if you’re attracted to the idea of mindfulness, actually trying to commune with tedious or objectionable experiences often proves to be neither enlightening nor fulfilling.

The piece is mostly an exasperated rebuttal to the New Age tenet that we should force ourselves to “live in the moment”. It’s an understandable rant, and I think it represents an increasingly common sentiment in the self-improvement world: mindfulness is annoying.

At least, it’s annoying to try to be mindful all the time, and it’s annoying to be told to be mindful all the time. I receive emails expressing similar frustrations, from people who are tired of trying to find peace in the folding of laundry or the raking of litterboxes, even if they still believe it is somehow possible.

As the author, Ruth Whippman writes, “Mindfulness is supposed to be a defense against the pressures of modern life, but it’s starting to feel suspiciously like it’s adding to them.”  Read More

Post image for Mindfulness is the Opposite of Neediness

Whenever someone tries to convince you that eating breakfast prevents weight gain or that cold weather makes you sick , just send them one of Tyler Vigen’s charts. He graphs strange similarities between seemingly irrelevant statistics, demonstrating that you can find apparent links between all kinds of unrelated events.

Per capita cheese consumption appears to mirror the number accidental deaths due to being tangled in bedsheets. The number of pool drownings rises and falls with the number of films Nicholas Cage has appeared in that year. Tyler has written a book on this phenomenon, called Spurious Correlations.

Still, we can’t help but notice patterns in life, and they aren’t necessarily coincidence. I don’t have any data to back this up, but I’m convinced meditation makes your phone battery last longer.

I’ve tracked this relationship informally over a few years, and I believe there’s a causal effect. Whenever I get away from meditation practice, my phone needs charging earlier in the day. During the summer, I got inconsistent with my practice, and my phone’s battery died really fast. Now that I’m back to two brief sessions a day, I don’t have to charge it until bedtime.

The explanation is pretty simple, but it hints at something more profound going on. A simple usage-tracking app would surely confirm that the more consistently I meditate, the less time I spend dicking with my phone throughout the day.

There are other behavior changes I’m sure are related. I’m eating less junk food, I make fewer dumb purchases, I get out of bed with less fuss, I’m more attracted to work.

Basically, I’ve been much less impulsive. And that’s because regular meditation makes me more mindful throughout the day. Whenever you’re being mindful, the present moment doesn’t seem to need improvement.

This means there are fewer moments that I feel could be improved by pulling out my phone and checking my Twitter. So my phone stays in my pocket, I stay in the moment, and my battery stays green.  Read More

Post image for How Mindfulness Creates Freedom

Dan Harris, best known as the host of ABC’s Nightline, began his path to happiness by having an on-air panic attack.

He was reading the national news, live, when he lost the ability to speak coherently. For 35 awful seconds, he stumbled through a segment about statin drugs for cholesterol, saying related words but making no sense. With several stories still unread, he bailed out: “…that’s all for news right now, back to Robin and Charlie.”

The incident forced him to face his mounting stress problem. He explored the many forms of self-help, and during his stint as ABC’s faith reporter (even though he was a skeptic and an atheist) he found something that worked for him: meditation. Over the next few years he used it to transform his relationship to stress and his work, and still meditates daily.

But his go-getting type-A colleagues gave him a hard time for his “weird” habit, and he had trouble explaining to them what it did for him. To say it simply reduces stress was really selling it short; it does much more for a person than that. But to describe the benefits more specifically — that it allowed him to see the world the way it really is, or to see the mechanics of his bad habits, or to inquire into the nature of the self — hardly makes it sound attractive, and fails to convey its value anyway.

Eventually he came up with a stock response: “I do it because it makes me 10% happier,” although he admits this was both an understatement and an oversimplification.

Although I think his catchphrase makes meditation sound much less useful than it really is, I understand the problem he was trying to address. Meditation is still a hard sell in the Western world. It’s so unusual to us that it’s hard to make it appeal to materialistic Western sensibilities. But we all understand the value of a life with less anxiety and more happiness.

Meditation isn’t specifically about happiness, but more happiness is a likely side effect. One thing it does do, in my experience, is expand one’s freedom in a particular way, and this freedom can be used to pursue happiness and ease with much less trouble. I’ll show you what I mean.  Read More

Post image for Mindfulness lives in the sink

The antibiotics didn’t work, so next I’m going to try doing the dishes.

The illness I referred to in my last post two weeks ago — the one that I said has been impeding my consciousness, shrinking my world down to its most selfish and short-sighted concerns — is still going strong even after taking the whole course of pills prescribed by the doctor. It’s been almost a month altogether.

If it doesn’t get better in a few days I will consult modern medicine again, but in the mean time I’m going to start treating the symptoms in my own way. The coughing and fatigue are annoying, but by far the worst effect of this bout of sickness is that I’ve become a lot more reactive and stressed than normal, which I described in the last article as being stuck in the “lower latitudes” of the overall human spectrum of consciousness.

This lowered consciousness causes all kinds of secondary side-effects. I’m less patient about cleaning up properly, which leads to house-clutter, which in turn creates more mental clutter. I haven’t been especially pleasant to be around, which leads to a correspondingly ill social life, and a growing feeling of missing out. The mental fog makes writing a lot more difficult, and being more reactive means I’m quicker to throw out ideas before I give them a chance to develop. Together, these side-effects create an exaggerated sense that my life and all its little duties are beyond my current capacity to meet.

I normally derive a lot of my sense of stability and peace from the habit of mindfulness — the way in which I walk across parking lots and make tea — and since I’ve been sick it has not been very appealing. I tend to want all the normal moments to be over, or to not happen at all.

A month is a long time to be in such an impaired state and I’m alarmed at how far I’ve fallen in that respect. It’s normally very easy for me to just let my attention settle on an ordinary moment, and find that it reflects some peace or beauty back to me. But right now it only takes a few seconds before something annoys me: the pain in my chest, or the weird clamminess I have, or how it is almost mid-April and still freezing.

If my compromised physical state has created a compromised mental state, then I suppose that treating my current mental state is only going to improve my physical state. It certainly can’t hurt. I need a single, regular place to apply deliberate mindfulness every day.

Signs have been pointing to my sink. My mother’s dishwasher broke months ago, and she never bothered to fix it, because doing them by hand was almost as easy and nothing about it can break down. Read More

red door

When you sit back and reminisce about your life, it’s almost a given that the most enjoyable and memorable moments are the ones in which you were completely present. Do you look back with fondness all the times you spent thinking about work while you drove home, or pondered dinner while you wheeled down the frozen aisle?

Unfortunately most of life passes that way for most of us. We’re in one place doing one thing, thinking of things we aren’t doing and places we aren’t at.

The bottom line of almost all self-help, spiritual, or religious literature is that our ability to be happy is determined by our ability to stay in the present moment. The Buddhists, the Toltecs, the Bible, Eckhart Tolle, Ram Dass, Emerson, Thoreau — anyone at all who is known for having found a path to consistent, recurring joy — cites staying present as the essential teaching.

Only when we’re present do we see beauty, enjoy gratitude, and experience happiness. It’s the moments we’re present for that make life good, so it only stands to reason that being present is something we’d do well to get better at.

We all know this already. Yet most of us — normal people with errands, work and to-do lists — spend most of our time considering the past and future rather than the present. Why doesn’t it click? Read More

Post image for How to Stop Thinking Too Much

I appreciate Sam Harris’s apt analogy about inner monologues — being caught up in your own thinking is like having been kidnapped and held hostage by the most boring person on earth. You’re forced to listen, as though at gunpoint, to an internal commentator who insists on telling you its impressions of everything it notices or thinks about.

Nothing is too petty, too repetitive, or too obvious for the boring kidnapper’s ongoing monologue: Susan was wrong to criticize people who wear Crocs to the grocery store; a certain politician is the worst person alive and here’s why; your ex-partner was definitely out of line when he accused you of wasting dish detergent that time; the two halves of this Oreo don’t line up, but it would be so much nicer if they did.

If you’re ever able to step back from your own mental chatter, and listen to it with some critical distance, perhaps after a long meditation, or in one of those tired but insightful moments near the end of the day, you might find it indeed exhibits many of the characteristics of an extremely boring and self-absorbed person. It’s not that you yourself are this way — surely you don’t say everything that comes to mind. But the mind does.

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Post image for Raptitude Experiment No. 34 — A Day for the Highest Good

In this experiment I (and I hope you) see what happens when we live by a certain dictum one day a week:

At each moment from the moment you wake, do without hesitation the thing that most needs to be done at that moment, regardless of how appealing it is. Bring your full attention and whole heart to each such act as you do it, as though it’s your sole job on earth.

[Read the original post]

Or, if you prefer Marcus Aurelius’s more nuanced version:

Hour by hour resolve firmly, like a Roman and a man, to do what comes to hand with correct and natural dignity, and with humanity, independence, and justice. Allow your mind freedom from all other considerations. This you can do, if you will approach each action as though it were your last, dismissing the wayward thought, the emotional recoil from the commands of reason, the desire to create an impression, the admiration of the self, the discontent with your lot. See how little a man needs to master, for his days to flow on in quietness and piety: he has but to observe these few counsels, and the gods will ask nothing more.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations II.v

This is something I am doing regularly now, but I’ll make sure to do it on Tuesday, November 1, 8, 15, 22, and 29 because in the original post I proposed taking one day a week (perhaps Tuesday) to live this way.

I’ll record my experiences here, and I encourage you to share your own in the comments.

The Log

1 Nov 2022 (8:49am)

A quick note to anyone trying this today.

In the comments a number of people asked a good question I didn’t really answer in the post: how do you know what the thing that “most needs to be done” is?

I answered this several times in the comments, and here’s basically what I’ve been saying:

There are lots of ways to interpret the idea of the “right” thing. I’m talking about acting from a place of honesty about what you think probably is the best contribution you could make to the moment. Note that obsessing about what to do is not likely to be the best contribution. A way to simplify it is to question your motives — are you doing it because you actually think it’s right, or just because it’s convenient, or it makes you look good, or some other motive? This doesn’t have to be an elaborate thinking exercise, but just a quick check-in to assess where this prospective action is coming from, and to try to find an action that comes from the best place in you. This sense might have to be developed, but I think we all have it.

For the most part, you’re basically checking in with your conscience frequently about why you’re doing what you’re doing. I think most of us can tell immediately if we’re trying to get away with a compromise, or if we’re really doing what we know is best.

Another time-honored tool for self-guidance is to ask, “What would so-and-so do in this situation?” with so-and-so being a figure whose virtue and honesty you admire. You could use Jesus, Marcus Aurelius, your grandmother — whoever has always amazed you with their honesty and fortitude for doing the right thing.

2 Nov 2022 — Recap of the first Tuesday

Wonderful day, and I learned a lot. I got a lot done, and went to bed without remorse.

I had a to-do list for the day, and I did everything on it. That wasn’t precisely the goal of the day, but it was the result. Nothing came up that seemed honestly more important than finishing the list.

There were a lot of instances where I noticed the impulse to cut corners, to settle for doing a B-plus job. A lot of these instances were situations that come up a lot.

For example, on days when I don’t have time to go to the gym, I do a short dumbbell workout at home just before lunch. My standard is to do three exercises — nine sets in total. Quite often, the last exercise is something unpleasant, like squats, and I often bargain with myself to do it later in the day and just go ahead and have lunch — I’ll do those three quick last sets before dinner, I tell myself. Sometimes I end up fulfilling that halfhearted promise, sometimes I don’t.

I noticed this attempt to compromise, and did the last exercise anyway. Then, after doing the first two sets, I didn’t want to bother with the last one, and I already felt like I’d done enough. This is another compromise I often am tempted to make — who cares about that last set? I’ve already done enough. Maybe I’ll injure myself if I “push too hard.”

This is all self-deceptive nonsense, but I fall for it a lot because it really doesn’t seem all that important. I know that on any other day I would have sold myself short, not only on my intended workout, but on my own ability to properly do what I said I’d do.

The day was full of these sorts of encounters with my sneaky, ready-to-compromise-my-intentions self. I had the impulses to leave a few “harmless” dishes in the sink, to read a little longer and meditate a little less, and to indulge

I also had many, many instances in which my phone ended up in my hand due to habit, and instead of quickly checking my email or Instagram before putting it away, as I customarily do, I put it away immediately.

I by no means behaved perfectly, but that’s not the point. In each instance in which my conscience warned me against compromising my intention, I listened and did the right thing. That’s not to say there was no unnoticed self-deception, but I didn’t let myself do anything I knew to be less than the right thing to do. This was a little harder than living normally, on one level, but such a relief on another level. I didn’t have this sinking feeling (one I now realize I feel often) that I might not get away with the “probably good enough” choice I’m making.

Not least of all, I really enjoyed the day. I liked doing things with the “correct and natural dignity” Marcus Aurelius recommends. I did things one at a time, and felt comfortable making Thing Two wait while I did Thing One, feeling confident there was no better way. I also reverted to mindfulness whenever I noticed I was absorbed in aimless thinking, rather than indulge in it for a bit longer, as I often do.

Most of these little moral forks in the road were over small things, but the feeling of always taking the better fork whenever I noticed it was indeed a fork — that was no small thing. By bedtime I felt clear minded, remorseless, and proud of what I’d done, even though it was a modest day.

This morning I woke up and realized that I was no longer under any oath to do the right thing. I could take my time getting out of bed, and put on a Youtube video while I make coffee instead of mindfully meeting the cold and grogginess of getting up. I could eat a needlessly indulgent breakfast. The idea of exercising those freedoms felt deflating — am I really going back to the compromised version of myself so quickly? Why? Yesterday was great. I want more of that.

3 Nov 2022 — Thoughts about the day after

Yesterday was not such a productive day, which is interesting because I didn’t feel like I was behaving too differently than the day before. I still wanted to do the right thing, but I didn’t have a commitment to it. Doing the right thing returned to being an elective procedure, an option at each juncture, but I didn’t have to hold myself to it. And the day became one full of compromises and halfhearted follow-through, and in the end I wished I’d taken up the commitment again.

The difference seemed so small at each decision point — to do a thing a little later rather than now, to not worry about doing my best here, to “give myself a break” there… and the overall result was so mediocre. Not a disaster at all, but dramatically less rewarding and productive. I could see my outlook reflect this. Yesterday the future felt so bright because I knew I was making the best one I could, and today I felt the usual worry and uncertainty.

This difference brought a disturbing thought to the surface: the source of my worry about the future is not so much about what will happen to me, but whether I’ll do the right thing in response. I’m afraid the best version of me won’t show up when I need him. It’s possible that this is the central fear in my life, because that feeling was completely absent Tuesday.

The contrast between the two days was so obvious, it’s starting to seem like the “day dedicated to good” option is really the only sensible option.

Today is Thursday and I am doing it again. I will report.

Last week Tuesday went so well, and Wednesday was so comparatively “blah” that I had another Do The Right Thing All Day day on Thursday the 5th, and it also went really well. I kept my list with me all day, and referred to it constantly, until it was all done and then I felt naturally inclined to use my remaining hours well, because I was in such a good groove.

9 Nov 2022

The second official Tuesday was yesterday, and I struggled. In the intervening days I was living with varying levels of commitment to the original ideal, which meant accepting varying levels of laxity, and so by the time Tuesday came around, I had had an excellent week, but it had been a while since I had met the truly uncompromising standard I had aimed for the first Tuesday. I was doing “more than good enough” and I felt good about that, good about the future, but this is not at all the same as “doing without hesitation the thing that most needs to be done at each moment.” That way of being is its own animal, and I think I got it confused with “being better than usual.”

Yesterday (Tuesday the 8th) I felt quite tired and put-upon all day, and felt miles from the Stoic alignment I had kept on the 1st. By mid-afternoon I knew I wasn’t doing it, and so it felt like there was nothing to maintain. I finished up my work to a respectable standard but not the standard I had hoped. I say “hoped” instead of intended because I don’t think I quite began with the same pure intention I had the first day. I didn’t review the Stoic “mission statement” the practice is supposed to keep, and so I was just vaguely trying to do the right thing. I’m going to choose another day this week (before next Tuesday) to try again, emphasizing the proper spirit.

Still, this has been an amazingly productive nine days. Not a single day I’m not proud of.

10 Nov 2022

A quick thought I forgot to add yesterday. One element that’s easy to overlook, and may be at the heart of the Mode of Being afforded by this practice, is the “do each thing as thought it’s your sole job on earth.” I’ve been focusing on (as has most of the discussion) the “do the thing that most needs doing” part. It’s very hard to do that sometimes, but I think it is this second, more subtle aspect that enables you to do it.

To me, doing a thing — emptying an unfinished tea into the drain, opening a Word document, anything — as though it’s your sole job on earth entails a certain kind of attention. You’re not just getting the thing done, you’re attending to it as though the doing itself is important. You’re not daydreaming while you pour the tea down the drain, you’re attending to the pouring, with that “correct and simply dignity” referred to by Marcus Aurelius. It’s easy to lose sight of that aspect of this practice, and if you do, I think the result is the kind of day I had Tuesday, where I had little interest in doing the things I was supposed to do, I think precisely because I didn’t take an interest in the doing at all, just in the getting done.

16 Nov 2022 — Recap of the third Tuesday

This one went much better than last week’s, and I think I understand better what was missing.

In my last update I explored the idea that how you do things is as important as doing all the right things. Half of the instruction concerns the how rather than the what — ”do everything as though it were your sole job,” or “Do everything with a simple and quiet dignity”.

I now think this attitude towards doing, this way of doing, is more important than what you do. It’s a practice of the heart. The task needs to be treated like it’s important work, even if it’s just gathering the right spices from the pantry to make dahl. Doing the right thing cannot be accomplished just by logically identifying the right thing and then doing it with the habitual “get it over with” attitude. It has to be seen as the thing you’re on this earth to do, an act that fulfills your purpose. Otherwise it’s just a kind of grinding labor that you’re still conflicted about, because you can be doing it while simultaneously not really wanting to be doing it.

To achieve that elusive state of Stoic purpose and unconflictedness, we need to attend to the task as thought it’s the only thing that bears attention. Because really, it is — if there’s something more important, do that instead. If there isn’t, do this fully. Once you’ve identified what’s probably the best next action, the rest of the world is simply set aside to attend fully to it.

This takes a certain attentional effort. You have to bring your whole mind to the task, finding a certain dignified simplicity in putting the envelope in the mailbox, passing the salt, or whatever it is the moment calls for. We quite easily daydream or ruminate as we do something that doesn’t demand all of our attention — the dishes, rote spreadsheet work, etc. To do the right thing all day and go to bed remorseless, you need to appreciate the doing. It has to be enough for that moment. Splitting the attention by doing Task A while thinking about Task B makes for inner conflict. You’re unhappily doing the thing you should do with your body, while attending to something else in your head.

One way to keep your attention on the task, I’ve found, is to pretend it is literally the last thing you do. It is your last act on this earth, the last thing you get to do — sealing this envelope, wiping up this spill, sipping this water, typing out this sentence. When it’s the right thing to do, and you know it, and you honor the act by doing it with intention and awareness, it creates that dignified feeling that can carry you through a whole day.

So most of my day was like that. At the end of the day, I kind of drifted away from it. I had dinner and then sort of forgot. We had a D&D game, on Zoom because someone was sick, and I sort of shirked my duties there because I felt like I was “done” for the day. I don’t think that’s the way to do it. Even though it was a recreational activity, there are best things to do — to be a patient listener when someone’s talking, to take the lead when it is appreciated, and so on. These might be minor things, but it was very clear that by then I considered myself off duty. So when I went to bed, I didn’t quite have that remorseless feeling, because I saw the opportunities I had missed.

24 Nov 2022 – Recap of fourth Tuesday

Another good day. I was productive, but certain tasks (writing) did take longer than I thought, and in hindsight I could have been more efficient. However, there were no “crux” moments I noticed in which I was obviously choosing to do things in a substandard way, I just could have been more vigilant about how much was accomplished in each block of time. (I’ve been working scrupulously in 25-minute Blocks again).

Because I was absorbed in writing, a very mental and not very physical kind of work, I sort of got away from last week’s insight — bringing your full body and heart to each task, as though it’s the last thing you do. I suppose that’s why it felt productive but not exactly transcendental.

Still, on both Tuesdays and non-Tuesdays I frequently remember that attitude, and bring it to a single task here and there — emptying the garbage, chopping carrots, etc — which sometimes bleeds over into the next task and so on. That is really the key, and it seems to be just a matter of practice. It’s not identical to mindfulness, because it’s a kind of attitudinal thing rather than a cognitive thing, but it is definitely compatible.

One help in remembering this attitude was — don’t laugh — pretending that Marcus Aurelius was watching me. I pictured the old man watching me from above somehow, not knowing who I was, which was enough to awaken that hint of Stoic piety in me and return my mind and heart to the task. I respect the guy a lot and I’m grateful that his effect on the world was so resonant that it changes how I go about making dinner or dusting shelves.

30 Nov 2022 — Final Thoughts

Yesterday, the final Tuesday, was a home run as far as productivity was concerned. I did everything on my list, which is still a very rare feeling for me. Productivity, along with my ability to relax while I get things done, has increased throughout the whole month, partly due to this experiment and partly due to other factors (meditation going well, and the workload is more urgent these days).

Despite the raging productivity level of the day, I only felt the “Stoic groove” for parts of the day, when I was deliberately keeping undivided attention on the task. We don’t always need undivided attention to do a task, but it’s virtually always an option, and I think it’s the necessary ingredient to generate that beautiful Mode of Being/Doing that makes it all feel so light and rewarding.

Here are the main conclusions I’ve come to at this point, about this practice of Do-the-Best-Thing-All-Day-Long Tuesday:

There is an elusive mode you can find yourself in while you’re doing this practice, one that is very rewarding and self-sustaining, far beyond the everyday rewards of “doing your best” or “getting stuff done.” It’s a kind of perfect mental/emotional/somatic groove, which guides you to and through the next thing. It feels amazing. You’re free of a certain kind of existential pain, because you know you’re living the best you can right now; you’re naturally resistant to temptation, because few diversions seem better; the mind is quiet, because it’s devoted to the task; there’s a certain sense of piety, or devotion, or relief that you’re not only trying to improve your own lot but the Highest Good; and there’s a remorselessness throughout and at the end of the day, because you know you really lived.

How you do things is vital. The rewarding mode I described above (Eudaimonia? Ataraxis? Flow?) was elusive for me — sometimes I slipped into it (literally all day in one case) and other times I was going through the motions, grinding away at my to-do list.

About halfway through the experiment, I think I discovered what makes up most of the difference. At first glance, this practice appears to be all about getting the right things done — being honest about what you should be doing, and disciplined about doing it, and not backing off for a whole day. This is really just optimizing conventional productivity though. The practice we’re talking about requires you not just to do the task at hand in each moment, but to do it in a certain way (with no hesitation, with willingness, with undivided attention, as though it’s the last thing you do). This devotion to, or love for, the task at hand is what brings it all together, because it eliminates any divisions in your intentions — you can’t devote yourself to the task while you daydream, or wish you were doing something else, or resent your boss or the world or ponder whether you can justify a muffin as a reward when you’re done. All of that dilution of energy must be thrown out in favor of the task at hand. You need to get interested in the task, watch yourself doing it, watch your hands doing the work, and feel that sense of goodness flowing out of you into the world. That sounds dramatic, but remember that this is an expression of The Best Idea Humans Ever Had, and the stakes really couldn’t be higher.

This is why inspiration is great help, because it describes this elusive groove, this mode of doing that is so much more than our conventional modern way of “getting shit done.” I noticed, for example, that I derived a lot of energy from reading Marcus Aurelius’s version of the practice (Resolve firmly, hour by hour…!) than my own (…do without hesitation the thing that most needs to be done…). If I wasn’t checking in with Meditations throughout each Tuesday, or had never read it at all, I would be losing track of the right mindset constantly, as my habitual resentment and dread towards work took over the mind.

The “how” details matter, and great philosophers have done their best do describe them. Marcus Aurelius, in his version of the practice, lists five potential obstacles to dismiss during your efforts — the wayward thought, the emotional recoil from the commands of reason, the desire to create an impression, the admiration of the self, the discontent with your lot — and I think each needs to be ultimately recognized and addressed in turn if you’re going to do this consistently, because each can trick you in its own way.

You find this mode by trying things and circling in towards it. We all have our various familiar ways of “getting stuff done” the best we can, and you’ll inevitably begin this practice by trying those things. Ideally, you’ll start to notice which attitudes and modes of doing generate that certain elusive state, and you can sort of smell and taste your way to it, getting closer each Tuesday. Here’s how I described this iterative process in a comment:

. . . all of this experimentation is making me think that it’s less about trying to be the best version of yourself than it is doing things in a certain way (with full attention, with respect for yourself and the tools of the task / people involved, with a sense that this is why you’re here on this planet) and tuning in to the specific flavor of reward that this mode of doing creates. You get better and better at tuning into that particular mode of doing by noticing how it feels to do things in the whole gamut of ways (in a rushed way, in a deliberate way, in a half-distracted way, in a devoted way). You sort of zero in on that, with experience, in the way a chef zeroes in on the right taste for the soup, without having to think much about it or depend on a recipe.

After five Tuesdays, I’m just beginning to circle in to that mode of doing, just beginning to know what creates that self-sustaining reward flavor. But it does feel like I’m close enough to feel the direction of gravity.

Did you try this? How did it go for you?


Post image for You Are Always the Other Person

Imagine that when you die your life is converted into an extremely long, first-person YouTube video, which you may review at your leisure.

While you’re fast-forwarding through it, looking for certain memorable moments, one thing you’d see frequently is a person you know entering the room you’re in, talking with you for a while, and then leaving for a much longer while. Seeing people come and go like this might crystalize one of the poignant realities of living a human life: you’re the only one who’s there from start to finish.

In life, there’s you — the omnipresent Protagonist — and then countless Other People. Most of them are bit players, but some of these Other People are major characters in your story. They might spend quite a lot of time onscreen, but they always remain Other People. You never get to see inside their heads, you don’t get to choose their behavior, and ultimately you know them only by what they do and what they say. Most of the time, no matter how large their role in your story, they’re simply offscreen — somewhere out there in the world, doing who knows what.

I had a surreal moment, while having dinner with one of my favorite Other People, in which I realized that at that moment, as I sat across a Formica table in a local pizza place, that I was the Other Person. At least for my friend, I was the person who was not present most of the day, who at some point appeared at the door, smiled and sat down at the far side of the table, talked about what I’d been up to, ate some pizza, walked with her to the corner, said goodbye, and disappeared again into the distance. I am one of many Other People for her, just as she is for me.

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Post image for What to Do if You’re Not a Naturally Tenacious Person

Throughout my life, when faced with adversity, I’ve often wanted to magically become either a cat or an Olympic athlete.

Cats are enviable because they’re immune to worry and striving, and feel no pressure to accomplish long-term projects. They are completely satisfied to bask in a square of sunlight on the carpet, or squat on a dresser like a Zen chicken, blinking slowly and indifferently. It would be nice to have such a close alignment between one’s natural desires and one’s capabilities.

I’ve envied athletes for similar reasons, although they approach life very differently than cats do. Top athletes have clear goals and a kind of inner drive that seems able to move them through vast amounts of pain and difficulty. On some level they must want to get up at 5:00am to throw medicine balls against a wall. They want to run or ski or pommel-horse until their bodies – not their minds – threaten to quit on them, if that’s the cost of a shot at a gold medal.

I’ve never wanted a gold medal, but I’ve always wanted whatever quality it is that makes people want gold medals – or anything — that badly.

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