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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 Discipline is Underrated

One thing humans do sometimes is attribute undesirable qualities to a person who’s doing something that seems overboard or unnecessary. It’s still common to hear that people who work out a lot are “obsessed with their bodies,” or that people who drive expensive cars are snooty or vain.

I’m sure I’ve thought and repeated these things myself, and a lot more. They’re flippant judgments to make, but they seemed true enough, from what I knew.

One inference I made a lot was that super-organized people who keep strict routines are “control freaks” or are otherwise anal-retentive. They must be afraid of to the tiniest amount of uncertainty or disorder. I always believed a more relaxed, free-form approach to work and household was healthier – not letting things fall completely to the floor, of course, but also not needing to have every little thing in its place all the time.

I didn’t see a connection at the time between my dismissive opinions on this subject, and the fact that I had always suffered immensely from my own inability to stay on top of my basic affairs of work and household.

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Post image for The Ancient Art of Turning Walls into Doors

Last year I wrote a post asking readers to consider how much they’d pay for a hypothetical miracle medicine that lengthens your life, makes you happier, reduces anxiety, lowers risk of disease and injury, increases personal confidence, and literally makes you more attractive, along with dozens of other benefits.

The only catch is that you can’t pay money for it, not directly. You gain and maintain access to it by doing a few hours of manual labor per week.

The punchline was that this miracle medicine deal isn’t actually hypothetical; it exists in our world and is available on precisely the above basis. It’s called “regular physical exercise.”

Not everybody takes this deal –- a few hours of labor per week for incalculable benefits – which is crazy when you frame it this way. We pay a lot more for things that don’t provide anything approaching the same return. But humans are like that.

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Post image for How to Become Wise

On Twitter the other day someone asked why he should continue to experiment with mindfulness meditation — specifically, what does it do for you when you’re not meditating?

Others and I gave the usual replies: you don’t get stuck in rumination as easily, you better appreciate the ordinary sensations that make up life, and it helps you suffer less over your pains and get less addicted to your pleasures. It seems to shift your natural inclination towards healthy behaviors, and away from unhealthy/self-defeating behaviors.

However, saying all that doesn’t clarify why mindfulness meditation might do those things. Does closely observing the flow of your experience just make you a better person somehow?

I would say… yes, probably. A wiser person, at least. Meditation makes you wise, and wisdom makes better ways of living feel more natural, and worse ways feel less natural.

But how? Reflecting later on how my response didn’t answer the poster’s real question, I thought of an analogy that might do a better job.

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Post image for Getting Better at Being Human

In biology class, you learn that every life form adopts a niche: a little role in some corner of the ecosystem, where it earns its daily bread by doing a rather specific thing.    

For example, the dung beetle collects animal poo, presumably because nobody else was already doing that, then rolls it into balls and lays its eggs inside of them, giving its larvae a handy source of nutrients.

The beaver gnaws at trees until they fall over, then drags the logs into piles. These piles dam streams and rivers, creating artificial ponds, which hide the beavers from predators and expand their access to food.

Squirrels, being better climbers than mice, once fed themselves by collecting seeds from hard-to-reach branches, and now specialize in stealing cherry tomatoes from my garden.

In blogging school, you learn the same principle: every little blog trying to make its way in the vast content ocean must establish itself in a niche. It needs to stake out a little corner of the action, a little field it can work, so to speak.

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