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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 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 Let Go

The easiest advice to give—and the hardest to use—is “Let it go.”

Didn’t get the job? Let it go. Still thinking about your awkward speech last week? Let it go.

All the Paul McCartney tickets were bought up in seconds by scalper-bots? Let it go.

Life will go on, after all. Just put it out of your mind!

Of course we’d let go if we could. If we had the ability to simply drop worry, or anger, or a throbbing in the temples, we wouldn’t need to be told. And being told to let go tends to make the feeling even more stubborn.

Letting go is possible. But it’s done differently than we usually think.

We humans tend to overlook a very useful fact: every experience does go, at some point. Every sight, sound, taste, or feeling you’ve ever had is gone, except what’s happening right now as you look at this screen.

The pleasure of the last chocolate treat you ate… where is it now? The pain of the last time you singed your finger on the stovetop… where is it? Itchy mosquito bites, stress over past deadlines, uneasiness about where that wedding toast was going… gone.  Read More

Post image for How to Slow Down Time

As I moved from my twenties to thirties I noticed a certain psychological miscalculation happening more often: a day that feels like it was three or four months ago was actually a year ago.

Or I would think back to what I was doing this time last year, then realize that what I’m remembering happened two years ago.

Almost everyone says this effect only gets stronger—time seems to speed up as you age, right until you die. Apparently, by the time you’re ninety, you make breakfast, and once you’ve tidied up the dishes it’s mid-afternoon. Then you read a book for a bit, and when you look up it’s dark.

Supposedly, this speeding-up sensation is unavoidable, because it’s linked inextricably to how increasingly small a year is in comparison to your age. To a one-year-old, a year is a lifetime, but to a fifty-year-old, it’s only 2% of a lifetime. This growing disparity makes it feel like time is slipping away ever more quickly.

That’s the popular explanation anyway—the one I heard, and repeated, for years.

But it’s pure bunk. It doesn’t make any sense when you think about it. How long an hour, a week, or a year feels is something that changes all the time. Five days spent traveling in a foreign country tends to feel much longer than a regular workweek. An hour spent coping with tragic news can feel deadeningly slow, while an hour of frantic cleaning before guests arrive slips away like draining bathwater.  Read More

Post image for The Value of Practicing Awareness

Last week I sang the praises of the countless tiny, private experiences that enrich our day: the stripes of sunlight that fall on the staff room table, the steam billowing from your coffee machine, the warmth of the cat in your lap.

We all love that stuff, and it’s happening all day long, even on “uneventful” days. Every day contains potentially unlimited objects of gratitude, but connecting with them requires a somewhat persistent awareness of the present moment.

This persistent awareness doesn’t come naturally to us. Typically, for 21st century adults, any free attention is usually captured by habitual thinking—an ongoing, meandering inner monologue about things that will happen later, or have happened already, or should happen. Worries, rehearsals, diatribes, imagined conversations.

Maybe it sounds dramatic, but I see this the great tragedy of the modern human mind: we miss the moments that make up our lives because our attention is dominated by remembered or imagined experiences—hypothetical moments we’d like to have, or more often, avoid having.  Read More

Post image for Gratitude Comes From Noticing Your Life, Not From Thinking About It

Every gratitude exercise I’ve ever done asks you to think about what you have to be grateful for. In other words, you brainstorm reasons you ought to feel grateful, whether or not you do.

You’ve probably done one of these before: writing five things you’re grateful for every night, recalling past good luck during difficult moments, or trying to remember, as often as possible, your privileges and advantages in life.

These exercises might be worthwhile on some level, but most of the time they don’t create much of a real-time, felt sense of gratitude. They just remind you of certain encouraging rote facts: on paper, your situation is pretty good; many parts of your life would be enviable to others; things could be worse.

As you might have noticed, simply making the case to ourselves that we have reasons to feel grateful doesn’t necessarily make us feel grateful.

Gratitude, when we do genuinely feel it, arises from experiences we are currently having, not from evaluating our lives in our heads. When you feel lonely, for example, simply remembering that you have friends is a dull, nominal comfort compared to how wonderful it feels when one of those friends calls you out of the blue. Reflecting on the good fortune of having a fixed address is nice, but stepping inside your front door after a cold and rainy walk home is sublime.  Read More

Post image for It’s Time to Put The Internet Back Into a Box in The Basement

My first online interaction, circa 1992, fascinated but also terrified me. I should have taken it as a warning.

At the time, computers were just machines you had in your basement. They had programs in them, and you would sit in a chair and use those programs for a while, then go do something else. The whole time you used this machine you remained, both physically and psychologically, in your own house.

Nobody had the internet yet really, but there were Bulletin Board Systems. Your computer could phone another computer, presumably in someone else’s basement, and access a virtual space for posting messages, designed by that computer’s owner. No images, just bare text. Only one person could visit at a time, because it occupied the owner’s phone line.

One time I was using a BBS, believing I was alone in my basement, when some strange text started appearing on my screen, letter by letter. Someone else was typing—on my screen, in my basement. The text asked if I was enjoying his BBS.

My heart pounded. What was happening was impossible. Seeing that alien text crawl onto my screen felt like a seeing ghost appear before you inside your locked bedroom.

I did not yet have any sense of what it meant to be “online.” At the time, everything was offline. Life consisted of physical objects in physical locations. (We had TV and phones of course—which must have similarly amazed and unsettled those who were alive when they were introduced—but in my case they were an established part of the universe from birth.)

Still, for years afterward, going online was something you did in one place—at the home computer, or more likely, at the one in the school library—for a small part of the day, if at all. The online world was a novel and small part of life, and you almost never thought about it when you weren’t sitting in a computer chair.

Twenty-some years later, the internet seems present in almost every room, vehicle and public space—and I want that old feeling back. I want life to once again feel like it takes place in an immediate, local, physical world.

While living in this physical world, you can, if you choose, occasionally use a special computer device that allows you to look things up, learn a bit of news from afar, entertain yourself, and send important messages.  Read More

Post image for If It’s Important, Learn It Repeatedly

A little more than a year ago, a friend took me for lunch in downtown Toronto, and we talked mostly about what we’d been reading. Immediately afterward she marched me to a nearby bookstore and insisted I buy Cal Newport’s Deep Work.

She was the second person that week to describe it to me as potentially life-changing, so I bought it with great enthusiasm. Later that day, I sat reading it in a tea shop for two hours, riveted by the possibilities of working in the uncompromising, undistracted way Newport described.

I’ve had that feeling many times while reading non-fiction books—the “hot lightbulb effect” of being aware you’re reading the right ideas at the right moment in your life. I’d stopped in Toronto on the way home from an inspiring chautauqua experience in Ecuador. The trip that had culminated in an unforgettably moving group discussion, during which each of us declared heartfelt resolutions about how we wanted to live the rest of our lives. I was determined to return to work with unprecedented focus and clarity, and now I’d found the perfect guide to doing exactly that.

The window to act on a timely idea is very small. The heat of inspiration only lasts a few days, or even hours, and if it runs out before you’ve formed and implemented a plan, you’re essentially back at the status quo.  Read More

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