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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 15 unexpected side-benefits to living in the present moment

Keeping your attention in the present is the world’s most useful (and underrated) skill. Last week’s post on shutting up your mind throughout the day was a big hit, but it only hinted at the benefits.

The presence habit does much more than make for a peaceful walk to the store. There are actually hundreds of practical applications to practicing everyday mindfulness, even if you have no spiritual aspirations at all.

Here are just a few:

1. Cravings become obvious and easier to overcome.

All you have to do to quit smoking is notice when you’re having a craving, and respond to it by doing anything other than putting a cigarette in your mouth. That is the entirety of the goal, and it’s small enough to be achievable any time. If you lose sight of that, you might misunderstand quitting as some big, abstract goal that can never be done now, such as “Maintain perfect self-control for the rest of your life.” It works the same with anything else.

2. It takes the edge off physical pain.

It’s the last thing you might think, but turning your awareness towards the feeling in your stubbed toe or aching stomach makes it much easier to bear. If you’re turning away from a sensation of pain, it gets mixed with resentment, wishing, blame, and other kinds of mental neediness. This is what makes pain into suffering. When you put your attention right onto the pain, it’s remarkable how it takes the edge off. It’s still pain, but you know you’re handling it.

3. Working out gets a lot easier.

Your workout might sometimes seem like a big, long grueling thing, but that’s only when you’re thinking about it. When you’re actually doing it, you’re never required to do more than a single moment’s action. You never have to actually “do” a whole workout at all, or even a set — and in fact you can’t. At no point do you have to do any more than complete the current rep. Keep your mind there.

4. Big projects stop being scary.

For the same reason that you can’t actually do a whole workout, you can’t actually do a whole project. All projects consist of single actions, most of which are no tougher than dialing a phone, explaining something to someone, Googling someone’s contact info, or sketching up a model. Once you have a plan, it’s easy to make progress if you stay zoomed in on the requirements of the moment, and only zoom out in order to figure out what they are.

5. Food tastes better and you eat less of it.

Try paying full attention to all the sensations of eating a bite of food. Put your fork down between bites to remind you. For most people this is a much more intimate and involved eating experience than they’re used to. It takes longer, it tastes better, and for some reason you become satisfied sooner. It’s also easier to negotiate that moment when you decide to stop eating, because you’re not already leaning mentally towards the next bite.  Read More

Post image for The Vanishing Point

On road trips as a kid, I often ended up watching the mesmerizing rise and fall of power lines that lined the road. This was usually after I had exhausted the more accessible modes of entertainment I had with me — usually Mad Libs and 1001-facts-type books — and perhaps after a boredom-induced tantrum or two.

There was something pacifying about this silent rising and falling pattern. I would ignore the poles and just watch the endless black wire itself, staring right at the point where it met edge of the van’s window. The wire would dip down gracefully, like a figure skater about to swing her leg up into a double axel. Then it would accelerate up to its peak, and immediately swoop back down again.

That peak, that crest, would only last an instant, but there was a certain surreal thrill about it, like seeing a fish jump, or a shooting star. It was gone before you could really look at it, but you absolutely saw it, and in that silent instant of vanishing there seemed to be a wink of magic.  

Years later, as a mindfulness-curious adult, I learned that human beings have been observing these moments of vanishing, on purpose, for a very long time. By noticing the instant where a thing disappears – a drop of water into the bath, a firefly’s glow winking out – people in various cultural traditions have tried to catch glimpses of whatever that bit of magic was that I first noticed on those endless rural car rides.

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Post image for Raptitude Experiment Log No. 32 — Fasting

In this experiment I challenge the convention that the human body is best served by three meals a day. For six weeks I will eat between zero and two meals each day, including a few two-day fasts and one three-day fast.

[Link to original post]

This experiment started Monday April 11 and will end May 22.

The schedule is below. The number is the number of meals that day.

0 = no eating1 = one meal, which is dinner (eating window of about two hours)2 = two meals, which are lunch and dinner (eating window of six or seven hours)1 or 2 = will choose based on how I feel SunMonTueWedThuFriSatWeek 1 – Apr 111 or 2202121Week 2 – Apr 181 or 2202121Week 3 – Apr 251 or 2201121Week 4 – May 21 or 2201121Week 5 – May 91 or 2200121Week 6 – May 161 or 2202121

One note that may make this look less drastic: I am capable of eating an enormous amount of food in one sitting. It astonishes people. I will not have a problem getting enough calories.

I will retain a bit of flexibility in the schedule. If I feel like I need to eat, I will eat. If it’s better to switch a day around for social reasons, I will do that.

I’ll post updates whenever I have something worth saying, which won’t be every day but probably a few times a week. Follow me on Twitter to be linked to every update.

Days 1-2

Day 1 was a normal day for me — no breakfast, all eating taking place between 12 and 7pm — so there’s not much to say.

Day 2 was extraordinary. I’m pretty sure it was the first time in my forty-one years I have not consumed a calorie between waking and bedtime. There were a few occasions when I noticed hunger — such as when I went grocery shopping, and when I opened the fridge afterward to put my groceries away — but these moments were very fleeting. They also weren’t painful or difficult. More than anything I felt excited to eat tomorrow, knowing I’d have the time to make something really nice, with garnish and maybe a pickle on the side.

That was one benefit I didn’t think about beforehand — eating less often means I can eat and prepare my meals more deliberately. I don’t need to rush the preparation process because I’ve already saved several hours. Not only that, but waiting that long to eat made me feel more grateful for foods that I often view as utilitarian. Even raw red pepper seemed appetizing. (And when I finally ate it the next day, it delivered on its promise.) That day of fasting seemed to recalibrate my relationship with food so that it became something exciting again, rather than obligatory, or inevitable.

I already said in my blog posts that it was surreal to be able to use the whole day. I don’t know if I can express how big a difference this made. The time was there to finish tasks that would normally run into a meal time and have to be continued later, which inevitably pushes out the task I was hoping to begin right after lunch. It was far easier to fit the “big rocks” and the countless pebbles into the day, because it was a great big jar, rather than several small ones. I had no trouble accomplishing all of the tiny maintenance tasks I’ve struggled with my whole life. If something needed doing I could just do it right then, instead of batching it for later so that I don’t squeeze the big rocks out of their morning, afternoon, or evening slots.

The day just stretched on and on, and for the first time probably ever, I did not feel like I ran out of runway. I got a lot done, but I also fit in social activity, physical activity, reading, meditation, creative work — all of the supposedly essential supports to a happy and productive life, without having them compete with my work obligations, as they seemingly have every single day of my adult life.

I’ll give you an example. I normally go to the gym at 11:20 and arrive at 11:30. That time feels non-negotiable. If I go any earlier, I barely have time to get any work done in the morning. If I go later, by the time I work out, get home, and finish lunch and get back to work, it’s already midafternoon and only a couple of hours before the dinner process has to start. Combine this with my ADHD-related difficulties in getting tasks started and finished, and I can lose half or whole days because I didn’t perfectly navigate the delicate structure of my workday. Quite often, my morning work could benefit immensely from an extra half hour, but I can’t give it that without endangering the afternoon’s prospects. Without the imposition of mealtimes and their necessary spacing, I can start and stop tasks at more natural places, and not waste so much time.

A few curious things to note:

Energy level stayed high throughout the day. I felt like working and doing. My body felt a bit buzzy, like I had just the right amount of coffee without the unpleasant effects.

I felt more mindful and empathetic. Could just be mood.

My mind was clearer and quicker. I could think through ideas more clearly, read without losing my place so much, and — this sounds odd — music sounded better. Part of that could be mood, but I’m frequently in a good mood and this doesn’t happen often. It was remarkably similar to the effect ADHD medication had on me when it still worked — it felt like I was better able to stay on the same attentional wavelength, the same mental speed, as the music.

Day 3

I finally ate an omelet with peppers and onions as an early lunch. It was delicious. I ate it slowly, and I felt like I could have done with something smaller and lighter. I didn’t expect this, but my sense of taste was heightened quite dramatically. It was almost too flavorful. (This has remained — even on Day 4 everything seems to taste more strongly.)

Afterward, two things happened. My digestive system kicked into gear immediately — indicating strongly that I needed to “move things through,” so I did that. Apparently this is a well-known occurrence after a fast of a day or more. The other thing was a familiar drop in energy. The energetic glow of the past 36 hours dissipated, although the sense of empathy and mindfulness remained (again that might be unrelated). This energy drop wasn’t too bad, but it did return me to how I’ve always felt most of the time, and I suppose that’s just what the body feels like when it’s digesting. I never thought of digestion as a particularly demanding process, but by all accounts it is, and now I have a subjective point of contrast to appreciate just how dramatic. What I had always assumed to be my “normal” state has actually been the compromised state digestion produces in the body and mind. Digestion is a great thing, and I appreciate it more now, but it is costly and should be taken seriously. I don’t want to spend most of my life digesting.

It’s early in the experiment but I can see myself doing best with a one-meal-a-day regimen, which would occur at six or seven pm, after I’ve done everything demanding, and can then do my eating and digestion without affecting everything I want to use my mind and body for during the day.

Day 4

Already, four days in, I’ve had a profound insight about my life. It’s become clear how large a role regular mealtimes have had on my lifelong productivity difficulties.

I’ll explain what I mean by that. The basic effect of ADHD is that it makes it difficult to begin and sustain efforts to complete complex tasks. That makes all but the simplest tasks feel like monsters — they’re not just things you don’t particularly want to do, they threaten your sense of well-being and autonomy. There’s a danger you won’t get anywhere, and just waste a few more hours learning that you’re even less competent than you thought. There’s a danger you will make the situation worse. There’s a danger you’ll regret trying — you should have done something else, and hoped that circumstances will change so as to make the complex task easier while you’re not working on it.

So there’s a strong tendency to delay the beginning of many tasks, and a strong tendency to quit while you’re still contending with the hard part. Still, you know that you do have to begin, and once you’ve begun it makes sense to continue until you’re past the hard part, or you face the same trouble tomorrow, only with even more time pressure. As hard as these tasks are for the ADHD mind, you have a certain adult awareness that they are ultimately easier when you start them now rather than later, and push through the hard part rather than quit and have to confront them later.

Conventional mealtimes have always served as a kind of “safe haven” from this responsibility to begin or continue such painful tasks. Because the world says it’s lunchtime, nobody can begrudge you quitting this awful task (for now), because the body needs food! If it’s close enough to noon, it’s completely justifiable to not start this task, or not continue with it.

For me this has led to a tendency to take lunch early, and prolong it as much as possible. I also try to add other routine tasks — exercise, getting outdoors — onto the lunchtime break, to avoid adding yet another productivity-destroying partition to the day.

The more of these “safe havens” there are to partition the day, the less I get done. Lunch has ended up being almost three hours — including going to the gym and doing lunch dishes, and sometimes a short walk — and that assumes I get right back to work when I intend to, which I usually fail to do.

Without these mid-day partitions, I can keep at a task until I’ve really got something done, then go to the gym. I can break the work in more sensible places, and there’s no “safe haven island” to cling to or look forward to. Instead, there’s nothing to do but make use of the day, and there’s enough temporal space to get myself into a task and get somewhere with it before I do something else.

Combine the savings from this non-partitioning effect with the time reclaimed from cooking, eating, and cleaning up three times a day, and the actual productive time is two or three times greater. But even better, I feel like there’s space to direct the day in a way that makes sense for me.

I can see a new eating regimen drastically improving how much I get done. So far my experience has borne this out. On Day Two, and Day Four, with its single meal at 6pm, were devoid of the obligatory expanses of non-work, and the day felt enormous. I felt like I really had time to sit and work out an article idea, to debug problems, to put things back where they belong before going on to the next part of the day.

It’s early on in the experiment and I don’t know how this will settle out in terms of my lifestyle. But I already know I’ve found a way to greatly increase the amount of usable time in a day. I’ve also recognized how mealtimes have become these black holes of productivity for me.

Day 5

One issue I’ve become aware of is the impulse to indulge too much after a full or half-day fast. If I haven’t eaten all day, it can feel as though I’ve “earned” a particularly rich or unhealthy meal. Last night I ordered out, and while it was good, it was unnecessary and probably less satisfying than taking the time to prepare a nice but modest meal for myself.

When I broke my 36-hour fast, on Wednesday, I just made a nice two-egg omelet for myself, garnished with peppers and parsley, and it was completely satisfying. I’ll try to remember this impulse to overdo it, and reward myself instead with a carefully prepared meal rich in nutrients.

Day 6

Saturday, which is a one-meal-a-day day. I ran into a bit of social issue today. I had planned to have a busy day including some errands and a trip to the gym, and to begin dinner around 5pm. At about 4pm a friend invited me for dinner — at 7:00. I hadn’t planned on fasting an additional two hours — because I live by myself and work from home I have pretty much absolute control over when I do eat, and had depended on that. My decision was to have something small at 4pm rather than continue fasting. (I also know that my friend would be serving a lighter supper than I would have made for myself, given that I would be getting all my calories from this meal.

Dinner was even smaller than I thought, and by the time I got home I realized I would be subsisting on only about 800 calories today. So I ate a third small meal fairly late (9pm) to try to meet my intended intake. This is later than I like to eat and then I didn’t sleep particularly well.

I’m not sure what the right choice here was. The point is that social obligations easily give shape to our eating choices, and thankfully I don’t have many such food-influencing obligations. But it is something I will have to contend with and have some heuristics for in the future.

Day 7 – 8

Both Sunday and Monday I had two meals, which is my default anyway. One question that has come up for me is whether to observe a strict “eating window” on the days with two meals. I never have my first meal before noon, but sometimes I will have a drink or a snack after my usual 7pm stopping time, which is often convenient socially.

Given that on Mondays I’m following this last eating instance with a long fast, it doesn’t seem as crucial to begin fasting right at 7pm rather than, say 9pm — a 40-hour fast becomes a 38-hour one. However, if the next day is a 2-meal day, I’ll probably avoid it.

Day 9 – 10

So I’m learning some things by making mistakes. Day 9 (Tuesday) was supposed to be my complete fast day, but I had our usual D&D game in the evening, so I made the snap decision to move the fast day to Wednesday so that I could participate in some social eating with my friends. But then I have a roast in the fridge that needs to be cooked today so I put it in the pressure cooker, and decided to eat it for dinner instead of fasting while my house smells like Christmas dinner and then devoting 100% of it to leftovers. So fast day will be tomorrow instead.

In hindsight Tuesday is probably still the best day for the all-day fast. The “social eating” at D&D is really just junk food and alcohol, and in fact it’s the only regular occasion when I eat junk food (and eat after 7pm). When I’m fasting I’m more tempted by real food than junk food anyway so it’s probably the perfect day to opt out. It will also give me some practice having food around without partaking at all. So I’ll fast tomorrow and again next Tuesday.

Day 11

Today is finally this week’s all-day fast day. It’s been about 20 hours since I last ate and I’ll try to describe how I feel.

There’s a kind of energetic quality to it. A buzzing in the body — kind of pleasant but also a little jittery. I feel very light, vaguely like my body is less dense. I also feel calm, like a certain usual agitation is not present. I feel less reactive, less prone to being drawn into rumination. My mind seems quieter generally, but also a little… ragged? …slow? I am also cold — this could be due to fluctuations in the temperature of my house (it’s automated and kind of unpredictable) but some people do report that.

I felt this strange combination of feelings last week as well. Mood is not as great as last week, but I think that has more to do with my poor randomly poor sleep last night than anything else. Still, the body feels good. I’m interested to see if this effect deepens with longer fasts when I do them, or if I get used to it and it feels subjectively milder.

Also, I wanted to discuss some bad science reporting. The New York Times published an article today entitled Scientists Find No Benefit from Time-Restricted Eating. The headline suggests that a recent study has shown TRE doesn’t work.

The study gave 139 obese patients one of two eating protocols:

Restrict calories every day for a yearRestrict calories, and eat only between 8am and 4pm, every day for a year

Calories were restricted to 1500-1800 for men and 1200-1500 for women, for all participants. The researchers say 119 participants completed the protocol, and both groups lost weight but there was no statistically significant difference, therefore there was no benefit from time restricted eating. The TRE group lost an average of 8.0kg compared to the control group’s 6.3kg, but this difference is apparently not significant.

I think it’s quite impressive that the 8-hour eating window resulted in a 20% increase in weight loss, given that fasting advocates say it’s only after about 16 hours of not eating that the benefits begin. I would like them to test groups with 6-hour, 4-hour, and 2-hour eating windows.

This kind of reporting is a common trend in science journalism — take a culturally-popular new intervention with a growing body of research, cite a dubious contrarian study, and headline it, “Scientists Find No Benefit in Latest Thing.”

Days 12-14

The 40-hour fast ended Friday at lunchtime, and went pretty well. After about 16 hours of fasting, the low-sugar feeling starts coming and going, and I’m getting used to it. It feels like adrenaline is heightened, which I think is true, and I feel a bit spacey at times. I’ve noticed that I do well with cardio in this state, and weights I’m not sure. I feel like I have more energy (which is the adrenaline) but sometimes I feel like I should keep it light too. I’ll see how it goes this week.

So far both nights where I didn’t eat anything all day, my sleep seemed not great. I slept deeply, judging by the depth of my dreams, and how few times I woke up, but there was a kind adrenal edge to it and my dreams were stressful. Still a small sample size but I wouldn’t be surprised if this isn’t unusual.

Saturday and Sunday I ate twice, for social reasons, and will again tomorrow because my next long fast begins Monday night. I’m going to keep it as nutritious as possible to prepare the body. This will be my first 48 hour fast (or really 46-47) as I won’t be eating lunch on Wednesday. Week 3 here we go.

Days 15-16

I’m about in the middle of the 48 hour fast and I have an observation. It’s 5pm and I’m done working — I’m not particularly hungry, even though I haven’t eaten for 22 hours. I do want to eat, but I can tell that it’s entirely psychological. I’m not craving food, but I want the break, the reward, the ritual of dinner. Without it I don’t quite know what to do with myself at this time of day. There are lots of things I can do — read, meditate, call someone, work on something fun — but those all feel like square pegs for the round hole that is the absence of dinner. Perhaps that’s just because I don’t have a ritual to replace it yet. It might be a great time of day to go for a walk.

I think dinner is a pretty good after-work ritual, and when this experiment is done I will be eating only the dinner meal most days. It fits so well. The day is for doing, then the evening begins the recharging and rest period with a meal, then some lightly active evening time, then sleep. Repeat. That works for me.

So far I’m down 7 pounds and my skin looks less puffy and bloated. I’m consuming a lot of water (and decaf coffee) and supplementing with electrolytes.

I think I’ll use the dinner hour today for showering and grooming.

Day 17

Nearing the end of my first 48-hour fast and I feel great. I experienced very little of the spacey feeling I mentioned during last week’s extended fast, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps my body is getting used to the fasted state, or maybe I’m doing a better job at electrolyte supplementation, or maybe I just got a better sleep. Sleep was probably better last night, but it still has that edgy/annoyed sort of quality I don’t love.

Another interesting thing — stomach rumbling and other physical hunger symptoms tend to be infrequent, but so far they always happen a few hours before the end of an extended fast. It’s like my stomach knows food is coming. At this point I’m pretty convinced most of what we interpret as hunger is psychological, or at least psychologically-driven physical phenomena. Overall though I am less hungry and less interested in food than on the shorter fast.

I ran 5k today not having eaten for 40 hours and it felt great. The uncanny calmness/easygoingness continues — similar to how I feel after a daylong or weekend mediation retreat — and this sort of equanimity really helps me settle into the discomfort of cardio training. This also might be a coincidence.

I had an interesting test last night. It was D&D night again, which often involves snacks, so I wanted to see how it would be not to partake while snacking was going on around me. Someone brought a homemade birthday cake which looked amazing. I declined and drank my water while the others ate, and noticed a few things. It wasn’t difficult to watch people eat cake (or drink beer and whiskey for that matter) but it did get me excited about having something delicious later. I have been appreciating food more now that I eat less often (and only when I’m hungry), and I’ve found I really like deciding consciously what I’m going to have, rather than just eat what comes along if I feel I can justify it. The guilt element is gone because I’m not constantly consuming things I know on some level I don’t need. I get more enjoyment out of each bite of food, I find it more satisfying, and I’m not inclined towards large portions. It feels as though my natural impulses toward food and eating are being recalibrated to a place more in line with what my body needs.

I also noticed how quickly the cake was gone. Everybody had a piece, and within four or five minutes it was all gone, and now none of us had cake. It’s so easy to fixate so strongly on the idea of having a piece of cake or a beer or some other awesome thing that we easily overlook how ephemeral eating really is. The costs of overdoing it are long lasting though.

Day 22

Already into the second half of the experiment. Today is Monday and tomorrow I start another 48-hour fast.

There’s not much to report, as I’m getting used to this. I ate two meals (instead of the scheduled one) on Thursday and Saturday, because in both cases I was eating dinner out and didn’t want my first meal to be the chicken wings and pizza that I had planned with others. I felt it was best to give the digestive system some plants first. It was not otherwise a particularly healthy-eating weekend and I can definitely feel it. Looking forward to the next fast tomorrow.

Day 29

Week Five has begun — the week I have a 72-hour fast scheduled. Before I get to that, I need to recap last week.

Last week was supposed to include a 48-hour fast, but I bailed because I was concerned that my electrolyte formula didn’t include magnesium, which is recommended for extended fasts. Initially I had intended to take magnesium supplements in pill form, but then remembered how unpleasant taking vitamins can be on an empty stomach, and indeed the bottle says to take it with a meal. So I delayed until I could locate magnesium in a more palatable form. But I’m having trouble finding it. I ended up pushing it back until it was next week. So basically I ate normally this week — 2 meals a day, occasionally only one.

It’s Tuesday now, and I’ve officially begun the 72-hour fast, although I haven’t yet found the magnesium supplement. If I can’t find any by tomorrow I may push the 72-hour fast till next week and instead do two shorter 36-hour fasts this week. [UPDATE: I have a source and will grab some today]

Other than that there isn’t much to report. I am learning to manage the social challenges of fasting, and also harness its advantages — it’s much easier to eat no snacks at get-togethers than to try eat some but not too much. Same with alcoholic beverages.

Going from fasted state to fed state on different days continues to clarify the contrast between the two states, especially on the mind and overall well-being. I just feel better and more able when I’m not digesting food. Meals are still more enjoyable in proximity to my fasts (and not just the one I break the fast with) and I’m inclined towards more reasonable portions and a greater variety of foods.

Day 35

I accidentally broke the 72-hour fast 24 hours in. I had an international guest (a French backer via couchsurfing.com) and I took her sightseeing. Not much was open so we went to the Forks Common, and then we had beers, and only halfway through mine did I realize I hadn’t eaten anything all day and that I’d broken my fast. When we got home I served soup, so all I ate that day was a pint of beer and a soup.

There hasn’t been a good place to reschedule the 72-hour fast. It’s the last week now, and in three days I’m taking a road trip for May long weekend. So it will have to wait till I get back. It’s remarkably difficult to fit 72 hours of not-eating in a busyish social life, but I’m determined to do it.

So I’m going to extend the experiment to the week of the 23rd, during which I will do this fast. I’ve been looking forward to it. In the mean time I will continue to eat 1-2 meals a day.

Other than that there is little to report. I have lost some weight. I feel good. My days are longer. Sleep is better.

Day 44

So we are in week 7 now, which is supposed to the week I do the three day fast. I am able to fit it around my social obligations this week, but I have a major hesitation, which is that so far I have not slept terribly well on nights when I fast. My hope is that sleep improves on the second and third night. So far most of the discomforts associated with fasting go away quickly.

So I’ve decided to begin the 72-hour fast at dinnertime tonight, which is Tuesday the 24th, and break the fast Friday evening, accepting all incidental discomforts.

After that period I will make my final report.

***

Post image for Experiment Log No. 30 — Full-time Stoicism

The purpose of this experiment is to see what happens when I try to live in alignment with Stoic values for 30 days. The part I’m going to document here is my relationship with entertainment and other activities done only for pleasure. In the Stoic view, pleasure and comfort are okay, but they’re not experience that are worth sacrificing anything for. Living a virtuous live produces them as byproducts, but they aren’t good motives on their own.

For more details, see this post.

This experiment begins on Monday, April 12, 2021, and concludes May 11, 2021. Updates should be posted every few days.

The Log

Day One

Some early observations on the first day.

There’s an interesting relationship between the equanimity Stoic practice allows and the normal ups and downs of mood. It’s a blustery, snowy day here, and I didn’t sleep well, so my mood isn’t great, but the equanimity is still present. I haven’t made perfectly rational choices all day, but I don’t think I’ve done anything “on tilt” and I don’t think I’ve shirked any important duties. For the most part I feel equanimous towards my tired body and dull mood.

I also really enjoyed lunch. Just beforehand I listened to William B Irvine talking about the practice of doing things while keeping in mind that you may be doing them for the last time. It’s a very simple practice. When you’re doing something enjoyable, take a moment to contemplate the fact that it may be the last time you do it. People are constantly doing things for the last time — eating a pizza, picking up their child, talking to a loved one — having no idea that there will not be another time, either because something changes in their lives, or they die before it happens again.

I ate a nice salad and a coconut curry soup, and enjoyed it with the awareness that I would maybe never have it again. It works with everything, and reveals how habitually we take for granted that this particular experience doesn’t matter that much because there’s always another one coming. If we were aware that it was, or even that it could be, we’d appreciate it much more.

Day Two

Two days in I feel pretty great. It’s been easy to say no to the usual types of diversions I fall into.

Most of the time doing the “virtuous” thing was no problem, because succumbing to time-wasting activities feels instantly bad, and it’s such a relief to just drop the impulse and go back to doing the next thing.

Slightly more difficult (but even more rewarding) is attending to a mundane task when it’s something that doesn’t quite demand the attention. Spooning leftovers into tupperware can be done with the body alone, while the mind ruminates or reminisces. Each time I notice the mind going elsewhere, I bring it back to the details of the task, as though I’m watching an arthouse movie, observing the little clumps of rice tumble down into the container, then my hands pushing on the lid with a satisfying thwump. I drop my normal habit of monologuing while I do “mindless” tasks, and the result is that I’m much less agitated, and life feels much more quiet. I feel a lot like I feel on a silent retreat, but somehow even more stable.

There is an interesting synergy between mindfulness practice and Stoic doing. The intentional doing doesn’t allow mental chatter to ever really get going, and because it’s more active than mindfulness, it is more effective at keeping the mind stably in the moment, at least so far. My meditation sits have suddenly become better, as well, which feeds back into the stability of mind during the day. There are many layers going on here — I’m coming out of a winter funk and an even longer depression, and during that time my meditation practice has been in a lull. It’s coming back strong now, and the Stoic practice seems to be an almost perfect catalyst.

On the other end of the equation, my mindfulness experience is what is even allowing me to do this. I don’t know how I’d be able to drop mental chatter so readily if I wasn’t a regular meditator. I’m quite aware of mental talk when it is happening, so when I slip into it after spending most of the day in mental quiet, it’s very obvious.

I have a ton more to say but I’ll leave it at that for today.

Day Three

I’ve reached my first interesting challenge. I’m feeling dull today. I might be sick. Or perhaps the return of winter (it has snowed for three days) and the subsequent lack of activity has caused a mood dip. For what it’s worth, my morning meditation was excellent – best sit I’ve had in months – and I’m very calm. While I’m still conducting myself with the Stoic attitude, I’m not feeling very get-up-and-go. I will deal with this fluctuation Stoically – attending to the moment, dullness and all, as the work of a human being.

I’m experiencing many urges to compromise the day, by pushing the work I was going to do to another day, to take it easy – essentially to come back to ‘the work of a human being’ tomorrow. That’s my usual response. Procrastination. Rationalizing that it is a perfect time for indulgence and stepping away from responsibility.

Instead, I’m trying to take this as an opportunity to practice. It’s hard to find the same intuitive Stoic motivation that came so easily on Days 1 and 2, but a certain Stoic aphorism keeps coming to me: nothing that can happen to me can make me worse, only I can do that. I get to choose how I will field this onset of dullness (which I do attribute to the effects of the April blizzard – lack of real human contact, lack of activity and exercise, lack of sunshine – further evidence of the importance of those things to my well-being). Regardless of what is happening inside and out, I get to choose the values by which I live. I am shifting around the tasks I intend to do — doing more physical things today rather than writing/thinking tasks — but the values will remain the same. I am about to do some fruitful “Bodybuilding of the Will,” which is the whole point of this exercise.

Whatever I do, I’ll do I with full intention and honesty. Right now I’m exercising, writing this between sets. A nap might even be appropriate later. Lapsing into self-comfort is the only clearly wrong choice.

I’m noticing how incredibly clear and persistent that one familiar thought is – “I can give myself a break and get back to this later, when it’s easier.” It is the familiar refrain of a lifelong procrastinator, and the path forward for me is practicing better ways of responding to it. A marble bust appears at my right ear: “Nothing can happen to you that can make you worse, since your will is always yours.”

Days Four and Five

Days 3 and 4 presented an interesting challenge. The Stoic mindset was very obvious to me on Days 1 and 2, and got kind of cloudy on Days 3 and 4. I have still been living Stoically, but I’ve had to consciously think about what it makes sense to do at a given moment, rather than operate intuitively from the guiding mindset.

This happens in life, but I think ADHD makes it happen more. One of the subtle but significant challenges of ADHD is that you are prone to losing track of the feeling of a given intention. You can remember what you wanted to do, or even write it down, but the emotional/intuitive sense of what you wanted to do is gone. You know what actions you plan to take, but can’t recall how it felt to want to do them, so you have no intuition to guide you on a moment-to-moment basis through the appropriate actions. Instead you have to rely on thinking and reasoning your way through it, step-by-step, which is slow and devoid of momentum. (My pet hypothesis is that “intuition of doing” is part of what dopamine does for us, so if you’re low on dopamine you lose it more often. I’ve written about this idea here – scroll down to the heading, 3. Organizing your thoughts is really hard).

Today is Day 5 and I feel better. I am finding my way back to that intuitive alignment with the Stoic mindset. The next action seems more obvious than yesterday. Reading and listening to the Stoics helps guide me there. It is also sunny today and the snow is melting, which seems to have a major effect on my mood.

In the meantime, it only makes sense to use my Stoic tools to contend with this challenge, both now and when it inevitably returns throughout my life. Part of the strategy is to ask myself more frequently questions like “Is this [i.e. what I’m doing now] what I intend to spend this life on?”

Another trick is to do a quick series of small tasks – tidy this room, take out the garbage, look up this one research question. That helps me re-enter that mode of doing a task fully to completion with undivided intention and purpose, and to experience again the satisfaction of it.

Another insight I’ve had over the first few days is that Stoic living is guided by a sort of always-on intention to find equanimity with what is happening. Equanimity is a skill that’s also central to meditation practice. I’ve written about it here – it’s the ability to allow present moment experience to come and go naturally without fighting with it. In other words you’re consciously opening up to the experience of right now, rather than let yourself be driven away by what you find aversive about it or sucked in by what’s pleasurable about it. The essential act of Stoicism is practicing equanimity with what is happening now, as you do the things you rationally determine need doing.

As far as I can tell, what guides Stoic alignment more than anything is this fine-edged intention to be equanimous with whatever it feels like to do what has to be done right now – slipping the dishgloves on when you’re looking at dishes filled with tepid soup-water, to finish the assignment when you want to click over to Reddit. The duty of living Stoically seems to always be to engage willingly with this next moment of equanimity practice.

I remember this with the motto “My job here is to be as equanimous as possible with this moment.” It is basically always true and represents the Stoic mindset as well as anything. An example from a moment ago — when you save a page in WordPress, the browser often loads for an excruciatingly long time — fifteen or twenty seconds. It’s one thing to grumpily endure this, and it’s quite another to open up completely to it as though it’s your purpose. Halfway through the most recent period of loading, I remembered that, and the sense of alignment came back.

Equanimity also requires that you be present for what you’re doing. You really have to embody the task, because part of equanimity is coming to terms with how your body feels while you do it. That’s why Stoicism has been so helpful for my mindfulness practice (and not just vice-versa) – because it requires conscious, ongoing attentiveness. There’s really no room for split attention.

The same attitude is required for every task, fun or no fun, so all you have to do is practice it. That’s one of the great strengths of Stoicism – there are very few things you ultimately need to get good at.

Day Six and Seven

A full week has gone by, and it’s been one of the best weeks in a long time. Nothing particularly fortuitous has happened to me, and I had my share of low moods and setbacks, yet I had a pretty wonderful week. I’ve stayed engaged with what I’m doing for the most part, and I’ve been going to bed more or less pleased with my day.

I am getting more done, but that’s kind of beside the point. I feel like I’m really living my days. I’m appreciating more of what happens, I’m less afraid of the future — not only of what might happen to me, but of what I will do, or fail to do. So far it seems like this is the right philosophy for me, at least by this point in my life.

There were two separate breakdowns — days where I got frustrated enough that I sulked, and ended up watching some fairly pointless YouTube videos and clicking around on the web with no intentions really. I also ordered delivery, almost as a kind of protest. When I realized what I was doing, which didn’t take long, I tried to bring my new tools to the situation. Rather than immediately try to wrestle myself back to being on track, I just paid attention to how it felt to live reactively like this. It felt pleasurable in a small sense, but it also felt kind of absurd — like I was trying to step away from life for a bit, which isn’t really possible, since we’re always just making choices about how to spend the present moment. After my bad mood cooled off, I was excited to get back to living purposefully again, because it just feels better.

There were many smaller instances of going astray — I find myself looking at Instagram, with no real intention to learn anything or connect with anyone, and within a few seconds that feeling of aimlessness becomes conspicuous, and I close it up and feel some relief. I expected this experiment to feel different, as though I would be constantly policing myself, with my usual diversions becoming more and more tempting. But they’re getting less tempting. They don’t even deliver much in the short term, and they come with this obvious feeling that I’m not living the life I want to live.

I’ll write more about this in future updates, but my focus is shifting away from following rules about how I spend my time — e.g. no shows/movies, no food just for pleasure — to monitoring my intentions when I do anything. The rules-based approach is too clumsy and leaves me questioning everything. There isn’t a fine line between eating for pleasure and not, for example. I’m eating oatmeal for breakfast, but am I crossing a line by adding raisins? Salt? Maple syrup? Nuts? If instead of trying to follow rules, I’m continually questioning my impressions and my intentions — is this in alignment with the Good Life as I am conceiving it here, or not? That is clearer than having personal statues about certain activities.

Two instances came up in which I had planned to watch a movie with someone else, and Covid concerns prevented us from getting together. One was a movie — we had planned to watch a movie at the same time and then talk on the phone about it afterward. As we were trying to select one, it became clear to me that I didn’t want to watch one. It’s too long and I had other things to do. We went for a walk the next day instead. The other instance concerned a 55-minute architecture documentary, which I did watch, and we talked about it afterward. The whole thing was a positive experience. However, as I watched it, I frequently had the desire to do more active things and I took a few breaks. It made me realize I’m seldom compelled by a movie for long. Might be an ADHD thing, or a temperament thing. Even when I see a movie in the theatre I am constantly going on diversions in my head, about the production, the actor’s lives, the economics of movie theatres and so on. In any case, passive entertainment isn’t something I can easily do with a sense of undivided intention.

I have a lot more to share but this is a longish update so I’ll save it. Next time I’ll share my revised thoughts on “background” entertainment, and whether it has a place.

Day Eight and Nine

I am currently figuring out how to contend skillfully with two questions that are somewhat related:

What to do when I can’t locate the Stoic sense of purpose and alignmentHow hard to push myself when I don’t feel up to the decidedly rational thing to do at this moment

I’m working on a well-overdue project that has proven to be much harder than I expected, and so I am constantly making ambitious schedules that I soon fall behind. I’m trying to interrupt that pattern and just crunch till the end. However that makes me vulnerable to a certain mode of reactivity that really sends me into a tailspin. When I don’t get done what I expected, and the schedule holds little room for error, it triggers some deep shame and guilt in me that is undoubtedly due to having experienced a lifetime of repeated ADHD-related self-disappointment.

When those particular emotions begin to arise, I fall into a familiar sense of “All bets are off” where I (historically tend to) retreat into a sort of who-cares apathy/anger/indulgence state that is utterly the opposite of Stoicism.

That started to happen yesterday and I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. I did my best to apply my Stoic skills and attitude to the appearance of this pattern, and it did help. I stopped, thought about what I could control that made sense to do next, but I was unable to relocate that sense of engaged alignment with my values that has been so accessible throughout Week One. This “alignment” as I’m calling it is so hard to describe – a kind of contentment and assuredness that I am doing the right thing, and a moment-to-moment awareness. In any case, there are times, when I’m triggered by my self-regulation-related trauma, when I just can’t find the Stoic mindset and I am going through the motions.

When I fall into that “wounded” state, I almost know that I will not do the right thing, or at least I fear that I won’t. My frustration tolerance becomes low. Trying to do something too challenging in those moments feels liable to send me over the edge into that apathy/anger state. This danger is a very familiar feeling to me – this sense that I am not really in control of my actions, that I simply cannot sufficiently “step up” and therefore I am doomed to disappoint myself and others forever. I genuinely don’t know how much power a person possesses to bring their own will to bear on itself — whether volition is truly in our hands as the Stoics say, or never actually in our hands, or somewhere in between. Epictetus’s dichotomy of control (i.e. some things are in our control and some aren’t) has boundaries that are not categorically clear – when it comes to will and intention, when are you pushing the river and when are you steering the best you can given the current?

Anyway, that is one hell of a philosophical rabbit hole, and I don’t need to figure it out in order to navigate this challenge. All I need is a strategy for bridging those tough patches without collapsing into bad habits and self-destructive behavior (as I frequently did before I knew about my ADHD).

Here’s what seems to help:

Making prudent concessions in the plan for the day – if I can’t do the “truly” rational best thing, I can rotate in something that is less pertinent but not as triggeringDoing physical, simple tasks that have to be done anyway — these are easier to bring full intention and equanimity to than more complex knowledge-work tasksClearing up my space, so as to clear the mind of clutterWriting the moment’s most pertinent need on a little sticky note beside me, or saying it out loud

The only trouble is that some of these concessions can also be a sneaky form of needless procrastination. I have spent a lifetime convincing myself that the truly hard thing doesn’t need to be done today. It is a difficult line to ride, between sensible compromise and procrastination, but Stoic practice is helping me zero in on it.

Another way of saying all of this:

I think what I learned in the last two days is that human beings are only capable of a certain amount of courage and temperance in a given moment, and the challenge is to manage that reality rationally, but also assess it honestly.

On the whole, I am accomplishing more than I ever have, and Stoicism seems to be an ideal philosophy for me. My experiment just happens to be coinciding with a very difficult time-crunching project. That’s probably a good thing.

Day Ten

The “central conflict” of my Stoic experiment story so far is remembering how to find, and find again, the particular mindset that makes Stoic living intuitive. I remember what to do objectively – do what has to be done when it has to be done, with undivided attention, while practicing equanimity with the moment – but there’s a certain perspective, a cognitive mode, a groove to settle into, that makes operating that way relatively easy to maintain, and much more rewarding. I keep losing and regaining that intuitive groove.

When I’m in the groove, everything seems to unfold naturally. It’s an almost magical sort of state – I’m attuned to the moment in front of me, as though I’m looking out onto the moment from a clear window — and I see my desk, the kitchen counter, my hands folding a tea towel, or whatever is happening. I perform the necessary action, feeling desire and aversion but without being pushed or pulled by them. It feels like I am truly living, really surfing the wave of being alive, even if I’m just opening a cupboard, or peeling a sticky note from its pad.

This state is very obvious when it’s happening. I’m not sure if it’s what the Stoics refer to as ataraxia, or eudaimonia, or some other named quality. It’s certainly productive, but it’s also tranquil, meaningful, free of guilt, and it casts everything that happens in a beautiful light (sometimes literally) like a lovingly shot film.

At times I can’t locate this state, so I try to go through the motions of Stoic living, which is difficult, but better than collapsing into habit. Sometimes hearing or reading the right kernel Stoic wisdom at the right time precipitates this state. Other times I feel like I’m fishing around in murky water for something that is isn’t there.

It is definitely real though. It keeps coming back, so I’m trying to figure out what conditions give rise to it. One thing that seems to be strongly associated with it is a particular way of viewing the world visually, which I’ve been practicing haphazardly for many years. I watch the moment unfolding – my hands hanging up my jacket, my pencil forming words — as though it is a memory, or some kind of privileged glimpse of life, from a time and place where such things don’t happen –- such as the eons of non-aliveness that stretch on after death or before life begins. This way of seeing instills the moment, no matter how dull by ordinary standards, with a sense of preciousness. The hanging up of the coat, with all its sensory richness, deserves my full attention, because it could just as easily not be happening. I believe this sense of preciousness is what makes Stoic living so intuitive to maintain, when you’ve hit that groove – logically, it’s a no-brainer to appreciate the moment, and your chance to live it well, when it seems special that a moment is happening at all.

This is a very specific kind of gratitude – not for any particular event or thing but for the fact that you are experiencing events and things, and you could easily not be.

I’ve written about other ways to achieve this point of view fleetingly (here, here, and here for example) and I suspect the resulting state was a large part of what motivated the Stoics. This experiment is helping me slowly zero in a way to live from it nearly all the time.

The sages really were onto something – not just a more rational way to conduct yourself, but a moment-to-moment way of being that changes everything about what it is like to live a human life. I feel like a detective, combing through the evidence centuries later, picking up on the scent.

Days Eleven to Thirteen

Two excellent weeks almost in the books now. I’m still getting a lot out of each day, but I have noticed a quiet reversion of habits creeping in.

Existing habits are like water to a fish, so they can advance quite far without any sense that you’ve drifted away from the original course. Today I noticed how much less “stoic” my behavior has been in the last few days than earlier on, even though both days were filled with many moments of practice and insight. I’ve kind of started coasting a bit.

Basically, I’ve had to switch to a new strategy, but hadn’t done it consciously, so I was kind of drifting. When I began the experiment, it was with a very clear vision of how I wanted to live my hours and days, and my strategy was to attempt to embody that vision unceasingly. Of course I wouldn’t always succeed, but I would always aim for that ideal in every moment – mistakes were okay, but no conscious concessions.

After having practiced for a few weeks, this approach doesn’t seem to make sense, because (as I’ve discovered) there are a lot of times when I simply have no intention of trying to be perfectly Stoical, or I can’t find the mindset and can only go through the motions, which leads to resentment and possibly rebellion.

It seems to me that you not only have to practice Stoic alignment in each moment, but you have to cultivate an appetite for practice as the same time. It’s analogous to physical exercise. You begin wanting to just go, go, go – You think you’re willing to run till you drop, and lift till you can’t lift any more. And for a while you might. But to make it sustainable, you have to develop not only the skills and conditioning to exercise that much, but the desire to be that active in the long term, because otherwise you’ll have a day where you’re supposed to run ten miles, but you simply refuse to enact your own plan – the intention is just not there to max out your effort.

Instead, I’ve moved to a different approach that seems more promising. I adopt the Stoic mindset whenever it is available, and practice moment-to-moment as a default. When I can’t locate the mindset or intention to do that, I do short, intentional periods of practice, many times throughout the day. For example, I’ll practice for the time it takes to do the dishes, to walk to the store. After that, I’m allowed to drop intentional practice. Often I keep going anyway, but at least it no longer feels like I’m trying to do something indefinitely that I can’t do indefinitely.

(Incidentally, this is exactly the approach I tell people to use for meditation – practice for short periods and string them together, shrinking the gaps over time, so that you’re repeatedly succeeding instead of repeatedly failing.)

So far this has worked well. I can bridge the gaps in intention with these smaller, more achievable stretches, and soon enough the inclination for perpetual practice returns.

I’ll clarify what I mean by “practicing” because its elements are pretty clear to me now. When I’m practicing Stoicism moment to moment, primarily I am attempting to:

Do the thing that makes the most sense to do right nowWhile attending to it fully (i.e. not splitting my attention or thinking about anything else)While practicing equanimity towards the experience of itWhile appreciating the fact that I am having an experience at all

Practicing equanimity means allowing all aspects of experience (feelings, sensations, impressions, etc) to come and go without resisting the unpleasant or grasping at the pleasant. I’ve written about it here.

There’s a lot more to Stoic practice this, but this summarizes the default mode of operation as I interpret it.  

Days Fourteen to Nineteen

The experiment is still going well, despite some hiccups, which I will discuss below.

On mental quiet

Firstly, I can say that this experiment has brought me to a new place with respect to quiet-of-mind — i.e. absence of mental monologuing and rumination. Even during the times my meditation practice has been the strongest, I’ve never quite had this much mental quiet. The reason is that it is impossible to entertain an irrelevant mental monologue while you are attempting to do something with full attention. The Stoic intention to attend fully to the task conflicts directly with habitual monologuing, so I just drop it.

What’s interesting is that all my years of mindfulness practice did not achieve this effect. There’s no question my practice experience is what is allowing me to have such good results on this front, but novice-level Stoic practice did something veteran-level mindfulness practice didn’t do, at least in my particular brain. I’ve spent a lot of time on meditation retreats with similar levels of mental quiet, but in daily life, the monologuing quickly reasserts itself, because it isn’t as directly necessary.

On health and medication challenges

This week has been a bit weird. My medication is giving me a side effect so I spent some of the week off it, and the difference kind of throws me for a loop, physically and emotionally. At least a couple of days this week came with low mood and a fair amount of “all bets are off” state, with similar results to what I described in the Day 8-9 update. With these kinds of drastic shifts in mood and outlook, it’s hard to settle into a mode of operation with respect to practicing Stoicism. Different kinds of effort are required at different times, and what’s possible behaviorally or emotionally keeps changing, so it’s hard to calibrate.

I have been more successful in bringing the tools of Stoicism to the challenges of practicing Stoicism itself, if that makes sense. I’ve become less strict with myself, with makes it surprisingly easier to practice consistently. The first few days I was managing a pretty strict moment-to-moment commitment to living Stoically, which was incredible, but impossible to sustain. Since then I’ve given myself a much longer leash, which means I drift into a state where I feel like it’s become impossible to “practice” as I know it, and have to bide my time until I locate the mindset or mood to practice more diligently.

On reading and writing Stoic wisdom

Reading and listening to and about the Stoics has been tremendously helpful in keeping the philosophy close to mind. I will often play my audio version of Meditations throughout the day, a few passages at a time. I read at least one installment from Epictetus’s Discourses each day, often on my deck with a cup of tea, and I try to read a daily letter from Seneca. I’m also reading Bill Irvine’s book A Guide to the Good Life.

I’m also journaling a lot about my experiences, using a typewriter, which really helps me keep my thoughts clear and intentional compared to a computer. This journaling is helping me to articulate exactly what it is I’m trying to do, which helps me remember to do it in the moment. It also helps me work out what my challenges are and what I might try differently. I see why Marcus Aurelius wrote the Meditations. He was reminding himself of what he wouldn’t be able to remember if he kept it in his head.

Days Twenty to Twenty-three

As I round the corner towards the end of the experiment, I want to reflect on its overall arc. I’ve reached what I think is a pretty good cruising trajectory with Stoicism, although I also want to ramp it up. I’ll explain what I mean.

During my first few days of the experiment, I came at the day intending to practice in every moment, and felt reasonably successful in this. I tried to live the whole day in this manner:

Doing whatever the moment called for (according to my most honest assessment)Doing it with undivided attention and intentionPracticing equanimity with my experience while doing this thing

The results were very powerful. But after a few days I ran into trouble. At first I was struggling to find the mindset of living this way, which seemed so obvious and intuitive at first. My solution, when I couldn’t locate the mindset, was to go through the motions the best I can, periodically asking myself “Is this how I intend to spend my life?” or “Is the why I’m on this earth?” to consciously examine my actions.

Then I started to struggle with the intention issue. You can’t do something you don’t intend to do, and you can’t will yourself to generate an intention, or if you can I don’t know how. As far as I can tell, you can only cultivate and nurture your better impulses, which has the effect of generating intentions more in alignment with your values. This to me is totally in the spirit of Stoicism, although I’m not as confident as the ancients that we have complete control of our will.

Lulls in intention are a major thing with ADHD. The brain is short on the engagement/intention-related chemical dopamine, and it can feel like you’re just on the outside of the possibility of intentional living. It is very hard to describe.

My response has been to use external supports as much as possible, and using practice periods, where I will take a task and practice doing it in the fully Stoic manner, then let up the efforting at the end. I repeat this all day. This has worked well – it’s like interval training for the cardinal virtues.

I said I want to “ramp it up.” If I go back to the “first principles expressed in my blog post, my original goal was to make myself into a quasi-religious devotee of Stoicism, and that’s still my goal. I mean “quasi-religious” in a positive way – devoting myself to Stoicism the way some people devote themselves to athletics, academics, or their church — I don’t mean I want to become a zealot.

To the extent I can accomplish this level of devotion, it makes sense to me, because everything else I truly value flows from the Stoic mindset – social connection, doing important work, mindfulness, appreciating without indulging, and many other (more subtle) habits and personal qualities. Devoting myself to Stoicism is the same as devoting myself to everything that’s important to me.

One thing I haven’t done, which would be an important first step, is establish solid morning and evening routines. The typical Stoic morning reflection involves looking forward to the day, perhaps doing negative visualization, or the view from above, and committing oneself anew to doing the work of a human. The evening reflection consists of three questions: What did I do well today? What could I have done better? What will I do differently tomorrow? I have done this haphazardly but it should be at least as regular as brushing my teeth. (Maybe I should tie it into my dental hygiene routine.)

I have begun adding to my daily plan (I plan each day on a sheet of looseleaf) a little section at the bottom with a variety of Stoic practices and tasks, including readings. Beside each is a checkbox, or really a circle that I fill in, like on a multiple choice test, if I do it. Most of them take a few minutes (do a negative visualization, do a task with end-to-end Stoic intention, read a chapter of Discourses) so whenever I’m not sure what to do next, I do one of them. I really get a lot out of filling in the circles. It has added many more Stoic-philosophy touchstones throughout the day. The mindset stays with me and the momentum keeps up too.

I’m a week away from the end of the 30 days, but I will absolutely continue to live this way. I think I will also continue to update this log, because it helps me sort out my thoughts and people seem to appreciate the updates.   

Really feeling like I’m in a great place for this final week.

Day 30 Final Thoughts

The thirty days is up!

As I’ve said several times already, this was my favorite experiment ever. The Stoic philosophy aligns with my aspirations in every important area – social, spiritual, sensory, behavioral. To the degree I have succeeded in practicing it, I have been a very calm and happy person.

Today I’ll give you my thoughts on the experiment as a whole and what I picture Stoicism’s role being in the future.

At the beginning, my intention was to practice Stoicism in every moment, at least the best I could. This resulted in several very memorable days in which I was doing one thing at a time while practicing equanimity.

The days that went like that were harder in one sense, but overall it was far easier to operate that way, as it freed me from the conflict of trying to get away with knowingly not doing the decidedly sensible thing in the moment.

This is what I pictured doing every day, but after a few days I hit a pretty bad mood dip and could not find a way to live in the same Stoic alignment as at first. I was still consciously doing my best, or going through the motions at least but I couldn’t find that intuitive sense that was so accessible at first. I then had weird complications with my medication, resulting in me going on and off it several times this month, which is not ideal for consistency of outlook, or behavior.

Still, I worked with these challenges the best I could, acting on my daily readings of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus. Unevenness aside, I’ve gotten so much out of this new practice. I haven’t experienced this level of presence and ordinary-moment-related joy in at least a few years.

There are two particularly significant achievements that I attribute to this experiment:

The first was a major change in how I relate to other people. I began to question every negative impression I experienced when I’m out and about, with both strangers and people I know. I now explicitly question my initial feeling – maybe they aren’t actually doing anything wrong, or if they are, maybe they don’t know how to do otherwise. The Stoic method of questioning impressions in this way is very logical, since we rarely do have all the information required to justifiably condemn a person. I feel like I’ve become a lot fairer and more patient with people, which has made most social experiences far happier on my end, and presumably theirs. Because I spend much less of my energy being annoyed, I derive a lot more joy from being around people, no matter what they’re doing.

The second huge gain is more particular to me — I have stopped my lifelong habit of idly monologuing/dialoguing. As long as I can remember, I have, all day long, repeatedly slipped into internal and sometimes external self-talk. I now understand this to be a form of hyperfocus arising from ADHD – my brain is looking for something rewarding it can do consistently, so it latches onto a salient thought, resulting in my constantly talking to myself. When I’m alone it’s out loud, and in public it’s internal. (I wrote about this in more detail on my What ADHD is Like page.) I have essentially stopped doing this, and I think it’s permanent. It was always splitting my attention from the task at hand, making it completely incompatible with Stoicism. So I halted it every time I noticed it, and that seems to have broken the momentum. My brain doesn’t reach for this old pacifier very often now, and when it does, I just stop, and – here’s the part that makes me think it is permanent – stopping feels better than continuing.

I don’t expect this development to mean much to anyone else, but for me it has been life-changing. I really can’t believe it. I spent YEARS absorbed in this behavior, and I basically don’t do it anymore, and it seems like a lifetime ago when I did do it. There were undoubtedly other factors at work here – my life is changing in many ways since my diagnosis – but Stoic practice was apparently a pivotal catalyst.

One other major thing: I developed an excellent habit of practicing the “last time” meditation, as recommended by Bill Irvine, many times a day. I wrote about this practice on Day 10 — I am continually becoming conscious that I am alive right now, experiencing things, and there is a truly limited amount of that aliveness left. Each time I remember that, I become aware that I am in that short and precious window where it is still possible to do whatever I’m doing, whether it’s eating a carrot, ascending a staircase, or petting a dog. Just being alive is so wonderful, and Stoicism has helped me not just remember that as a concept, but realize its wonderfulness again and again throughout the day.

Despite these victories, I never quite returned to that all-day in-every-moment practice I was attempting at the beginning. It is certainly possible, and I think the only issue was settling into a rather successfully partway sort of practice. There is such potential in every-moment practice that I’m going to schedule days and half-days where I practice like that again, because it sure is fruitful when I can find the groove of it.

I think I will leave my report at that. This was a wonderful experiment and I’m looking forward to living the rest of my days as a Stoic.

***

Post image for What Raptitude Has Always Been About

NOTE: This post is a very personal one, even for this blog. It describes a major revelation I recently experienced (a positive one) and what it means for Raptitude readers. It’s the longest post I’ve written in years. There is also a small chance it will lead to a similar bombshell discovery in your own life.

***

In the Truman Show, Jim Carrey’s character is a reality TV star but doesn’t know it. Every person he interacts with is an actor. His hometown is a set.

Truman nearly reaches middle age without finding out, despite many indications that something is going on. A stage light falls from the sky onto the street beside him. His wife excitedly recommends certain household products, even when there’s no one around to hear her. His plans to leave town are always thwarted by sudden storms or road construction.

His life has been characterized by such missed hints. To Truman, however, they’re just unexplained quirks of normal life, which other people presumably experience too.

Ideally, you wouldn’t know any of this before you watch The Truman Show, so that you could experience some part of Truman’s paradigm shift along with him as he finally realizes what’s been going on.

Although I didn’t make the connection at the time I saw the movie, I’ve frequently had a similar sense that I’m experiencing life differently than almost everyone I know.

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Post image for Experiment Log No. 29 — Calorie Tracking

In this experiment I intend to track all caloric intake for 30 days. The idea is that the act of tracking the numbers behind my eating behavior will lead to a kind of habitual, non-moralistic evaluation of my eating choices. The idea is “What gets measured gets managed.”

The Terms

I’m going to track all caloric intake each day between August 6th and September 4th, and report it here, along with anything I learn in the process.

I’ll be using the popular MyFitnessPal app to do the tracking. It has a large database of food data, as well as a barcode-scanning feature to add new foods in. I’ve tracked calories this way before and it’s remarkably simple. I also have a kitchen scale if I need it.

Hypothesis

As I mentioned in the original article, I don’t have a target intake I’m trying to meet, although I’m aware that 2200ish calories is probably about right for me, and will result in a healthy weight, and so on some level I will probably see that as ideal. I expect that I will gravitate towards that number, probably erring on the high side of that.

I am starting at a weight of 194.0 lbs, which is 12 pounds above my maintenance weight most of last year. Over the 30 days I’d guess I’ll lose about 5.0 of those pounds.

The Log

Day 1 – Aug 6

Day one is in the books now. Interestingly, I only totaled 1629 calories, which is very low for me.

I attribute this deficit to a few factors:

I basically didn’t snack. There were a few times I had the thought that I should eat something (toast, cereal, nuts), and I usually would have, even though it would be clearly not a response to hunger but to indecisiveness about what to do next — I finish something at work, get up from my desk, and… turn to the fridge for some reason. Each time I did that, the thought of “Okay am I really going to eat something now?” became conscious, and the easiest thing seemed to be to close the fridge and do something else. The day didn’t present any “extra” opportunities to consume. Nobody offered me a beer, or asked to go for ice cream. I didn’t go grocery shopping and throw a snackish item in the cart. It happened to be a day without many of the usual contingencies that lead to higher consumption. These irregular eating situations are a part of life and need to fit in somewhere, it just didn’t happen to be a day that contained any.

I was also generally conscious of portion size and whether to include sauces and other options with my food. My meals were pretty healthy — I made a batch of lentil dahl, which is nutritious and filling for not being very calorically dense.

The biggest factor, though, clearly, was having fewer moments in which I decided to eat something. Almost every day during the pandemic I will at some point have a handful of almonds, a random plate of toast and peanut butter, cereal, or something worse, at least once or twice. None of these snacks seem too bad in isolation, but the habit can easily add 500-800 calories a day, which are serious, body-changing numbers.

Eating 1600 calories is well into deficit territory for me, and I will not go that low most days. The average is what matters though, and overage from some days needs a space into which it can fit.

So maybe it makes sense that a typical day would include less than I think it “should” to make room for the inevitable excesses on the odd day. In other words, if say 2200 calories is the optimal daily consumption for a person’s health and well-being, it makes no sense to eat 2200 calories most days, because then there’s no room to ever eat more than that. That means a stable status quo would require the typical day to involve fewer calories than the optimal average, unless you are trying to never overindulge, which I think is a mistake even if it is possible.

***

Day 2 – Aug 7

Day two is finished now and I’m feeling good. 1804 calories total, which included a burger from a local Greek place.

I’m surprised the first two days were at such a deficit. Obviously I’m trying not to eat too much, but I’m not trying to minimize calories either.

As with Day 1, there happened to be no “extras” today, which for me is mostly beer and ice cream. I also noticed and dismissed several impulses to eat something “just because” and I think this is the biggest difference between the last two days and the previous… six months? So many needless meals.

Mostly it’s a matter of asking “is this necessary?” each time I have the thought to eat something, which is apparently all the time. The answer is usually obvious, and usually no.

I plan to update every two or three days.

***

Day 4 – Aug 9

Day 3 was 1946 kcal and Day 4 was 2277.

Still in deficit range and that feels okay. Yesterday (Day 4) I had a get-together which included two pints of beer.

Stray observations:It’s becoming increasingly clear how often I have been eating as a response to indecision or procrastination. I am a lifelong procrastinator, and one of my (now obvious) tactics is to reason that it’s a good time for a break, which could entail some toast, ramen noodles, or whatever else is kicking around and easy to prepare. There’s no need to eat this way, and I feel better (and work better) when I short-circuit that impulse.

This relationship between food and my ongoing productivity struggles is becoming clearer.

***

Day 7 – Aug 12

The last three days had higher totals than previous days: 2179, 2296, 2696.

The primary difference has been that the “extras” my first few days were devoid of started showing up. Beer namely. I had a “Zoom drink” with a friend, a backyard D&D session with craft beer, and a minor dessert.

All of these things are okay. Yesterday was the only day I think I went overboard, with a greasy meal and two beers. No worries.

So far it’s become quite clear, even in the moment, which eating occasions are necessary, and which are habitual responses to something else. The triggering event tends to be a feeling of stuckness with what I’m working on, which happens a lot for me.

I’m still figuring out what that means. Eating in response to not knowing how to move forward with a work item isn’t really about food so much as taking a justified-feeling break from work, and “I have to eat sometime, right?” is one way I justify the refusal to work through the problem, at least right now. I have had major procrastination issues my whole life, and I didn’t recognize how strongly food figures into it.

It’s definitely been a habit for a long time. Of course, I’ve felt much better having to be more conscious (this week) of when I’m choosing to eat something. I feel better on the psychological level when I’m refraining from this unhealthy behavior, but I also feel better physically from not eating more than my body seems to want.

***

Day 11 – Aug 16

Last four daily totals: 2112, 1734, 2175, 2150

I believe I have made the most important discovery of the experiment so far. The effect of tracking is greatly diminished if there’s a delay between the behavior and the tracking of it.

As the experiment has gone on, I’ve started tracking in batches, rather than every time I eat something. For example, I’ve eaten lunch and not worried about tracking it immediately, knowing that at dinner time I’ll be accounting for everything. So the calories do get tracked (assuming I haven’t forgotten anything), so what’s the difference?

The difference of course is that the tracking itself is what creates the moment of reflection — the moment of “Is this necessary?” If you track it later, the though is “It doesn’t matter as long as it gets tracked.

That makes quite a difference! So I’m back to tracking as I prepare the food. It probably even makes sense to make a policy of always completing the tracking process (i.e. entering it in the app) before eating anything. That way the evaluation happens before the behavior.

***

Day 15 – August 20

Totals from last three days: 2348, 2633, 1709.

The general pattern continues: not worrying too much about what I’m consuming, but a lot of needless “meals” aren’t happening.

For the most part I know roughly how many calories are in many foods, but I’m occasionally surprised. Craft beer has been a staple of Zoom get-togethers among my circle of friends, and often I will buy a pint can or two for such events. I assumed beer is pretty much always close to 150 calories per 12oz can, which would make a 16oz can (the new standard among those of us who don’t bother with non-local beer anymore) 200 calories. But I’ve learned it varies widely, and tends to veer higher among the heavier, 6%+ brews I tend to drink.

That means the choice to have two such drinks, which seems like a minor thing — once upon a time I would have six or eight or ten such drinks in a night! — can add up to 500 of the emptiest calories to a day.

I also ordered my customary pizza for the first time during this experiment, not quite realizing that the official published calorie count is 300 calories per slice, of which I can easily eat five or six in a sitting. My thinking previously was that a pizza dinner is only slightly larger calorically than the 800-1000 calorie dinner I tend to have on easygoing days. But it’s close to double.

I’m not at all sure where the equilibrium mark is for me, given my current lifestyle of sedentary job plus three runs, a few bike rides, and many walks a week. Tomorrow I will weigh myself first thing.

Day 19 – August 24

Last days’ totals: 2039, 1906, 1924, 2200.

When I weighed myself I had lost 4 pounds since the beginning. It’s hard to know how much of that is normal water-based fluctuation but I’m not surprised it’s lower.

It’s clear now that the time to track calories is while preparing but before eating food, although I still don’t always do that. Tracking after the fact (e.g at the end of the day) gives up the great benefit of tracking, which is a real-time evaluation of eating choices.

In light of the occasional instance of delayed tracking, I suspect I have missed recording a meal or major snack on one of the last days. The totals above are quite lean for me but I don’t feel like I’ve been especially stingy with my calories over the weekend. I can’t think of anything I’m missing, it just seems weird. And that brings up an unavoidable fact about any behavior tracking (which I first discovered on my no-complaining experiment back in 2010): you can never quite be certain you tracked everything, especially when it comes to habitual, muscle-memory-involved behaviors.

All in all the experiment is going well. I’ve almost eliminated the biggest problem, which was needless meals of toast and cereal eaten for procrastinatory reasons, and I’ve discovered how much I was underestimating the significance of my “occasional” drink or two.

***

Day 25 – Aug 29

I’ve reached a point in this experiment, which I think I reach in most, where I feel like I’ve made the changes I want to make, and then my interest in the experiment itself wanes. I have disrupted the needless eating patterns I’d fallen into and I just want to go by my intuition from here on in.

I feel healthy and no longer “on tilt,” and there’s something about that that has created an intense aversion to tracking scrupulously. I feel like I’ve accomplished what I’ve set out to do, and tracking now feels like going through the motions, in an almost dishonest way, like I’m pretending I am still interested in the numbers. I will continue to track for the remaining five days for the sake of completeness but I wanted to report this attitude shift, because it’s such a common phenomenon with my experiments. I’m also not sure if anyone reads these updates, which makes the tracking feel doubly redundant.

I’ll do one more report at the end, with bullet-point summaries of what I’ve learned.

***

Conclusion – Sept 7

So this experiment kind of fizzled. I reached a place where I’d quit most of the questionable habits I’d fallen into, and then developed an intense aversion to both continuing to track food intake, and writing about it here.

Some things I’ve learned:

Most important discovery (i.e. if you read anything, read this): The effective part of tracking calories (or anything else) is that you cannot track a choice you are making (e.g. eating something, buying something) without evaluating that choice. But that means that the tracking must occur close to the choice, and preferably before the choice is performed. If you only track calories at the end of the day, it seems like a formality disconnected from the experience of making a choice. You might realize you went overboard, but only in an abstract sense of, “Whoops, I’ll do better tomorrow.” If you track while you are deciding, the behavior and its cost become connected in the mind, which is the whole point. The goal is for your awareness of the cost of the choice to inform the choice — you want to feel that cost as you incur it.I tend to start experiments because I want to change a behavior. Often I notice an immediate change when I begin, and often that results in the motivation for the experiment being gone. Certain foods are a much better “deal” than others, as in delivering much more taste/satiation/pleasure per calorie. Seasoned vegetables are excellent, and adding a large amount of them to a meal that includes a small amount of calorically dense foods is a winning strategy. The worst deal are hyper-palatable foods that have open-ended portions: chips, fries, pizza, chocolates, chicken nuggets, and so on. Another outstanding “deal” is to eliminate any unnecessary eating occasions. I got into the habit of a midmorning bowl of fibre cereal with a banana. It’s not an unhealthy food, but it was completely unnecessary. not only does nixing it get rid of 300ish calories every single day, but it also reduces the number of times I decide to take caloric energy into my body. I’m not a person who EVER misses breakfast, lunch, or dinner, so there’s no danger of misguidedly cutting those out. But I don’t need random habitual meals that first appeared as responses to lockdown boredom, or procrastination at work.

Overall, I’ve found tracking to be a useful tool. I’ll employ it now and then to disrupt creeping bad habits. I suspect each person would have a slightly (or greatly) different experience with it, but it sure works for me. Thank you for following my experiment.

***

Post image for A Complete Guide To Actually Getting Somewhere With Meditation

It seems as though we’ve entered the “What do I do with myself?” phase of social distancing. Over the last week or two, several billion daily routines essentially evaporated, and now each of us has to make a new one. Indoors.

The wonderful comments from last week’s post offer a glimpse into the still-forming routines of more than 500 people. A major theme is getting back to things that ground us and keep us present: reading, arts and crafts, phoning old friends, yoga, baking, and meditation.

Basically, everyone’s trying to stay healthy, sane, connected, and as helpful as they can be from home. My hope is that we’ll come out of this experience changed in exactly those ways: some degree healthier, saner, more connected and more helpful.

Not everyone has more time these days, but with everything closed, we have fewer ways to spend it. So it’s a good time to dive into home-based pursuits that make us healthier and more resilient. As one person put it, “It’s bad time for many things, but it’s a good time to read the classics, bake bread, and learn to meditate.”

Read More

In this experiment I challenge Pascal’s claim that the human being cannot sit quietly in a room alone.

For seven days, I’m going to meditate for increasingly long periods, sometimes employing the tradition of aditthana, which means staying perfectly still throughout any discomfort that arises.

Day 1 is Monday, August 19. Day 7 is Sunday August 25.

Here are the planned sits:

Day One – 60 mins, no intentional movement (aditthana)Day Two – 90 mins, minimal movementDay Three – 75 mins, no intentional movementDay Four – two hours, minimal movement (using a recorded guided practice from Shinzen Young)Day Five – 90 mins, no intentional movementDay Six – two hours, minimal movementDay Seven – 3 hours, no intentional movement (if possible)

I’ll report after each sit how it went and what I learned.

What I’m interested in finding out:

Can I actually do the long sits at the end of the week? I have no idea.How the increasing tranquility and increasing discomfort/restlessness that tend to come with long sittings interactWhat else happens when I sit for long periods during a regular workweek

If you have a meditation practice and want to experiment with longer sittings, I’d love to hear how it goes for you in the comments. Don’t hurt yourself though!

The Daily Log

Day 1

60 Minute meditation — no intentional movement

So sixty minutes isn’t an especially long sit for me these days, but I normally allow myself to adjust my posture, shift and resettle, and scratch itches most of the time.

Today I didn’t, I just sat.

For some reason I was quite tired this morning. I’m usually well awake and alert by the time I get to the cushion, but I didn’t get the greatest sleep last night, and so I was groggy. Standard doctrine is to work with whatever is present, so I did. Throughout the hour I tried a number of different techniques — noting, choiceless awareness, breath concentration — to try to figure out what practice was best suited for my dull state.

I never reached the point of actually falling asleep, I just calmly worked with the fatigue and dullness the best I could. Gradually some concentration developed, and mental talk quieted a bit. I didn’t voluntarily move during the session, and I could see the benefit in this — in those moments when I had the impulse to move but instead just became aware of the body’s current position, I felt a whiff of equanimity come on. I guess when you move the body, you train the mind to subtly reject its position, and expect relief from this. When you refrain, you train the mind to accept it. I could feel the wisdom in that as I sat.

I also decided to keep the timer visible during the sit, and did peek a number of times because the grogginess made me wonder what I was in for exactly. I peeked with 49 minutes remaining, 27, 14, and 6 minutes. I’m not sure whether I should or shouldn’t do this for future sits. I think it’s better to have it visible, because then at least I know where I’m at. I will try to peek less often though. But there’s something unsettling about having no idea if the timer is seconds from going off, or if you’ve got another 35 minutes, and the longer the sessions are the more likely that is to be a factor.

So far so good, although I hope I’m less tired tomorrow.

Day 2

90 minute meditation, minimal movement

No grogginess today, which was great. I woke up with some significant anxiety, however, which I sometimes do. I just sat with it and it quickly fell into the background and then faded to almost nothing.

By the end of the session I was experiencing many of the interesting effects of long sittings:

There was some decent concentration (a.k.a. samadhi, a.k.a. indistractibility) which is always a pleasant and calming quality. There was a lot of equanimity, even with the butt-soreness, and the physical remnants of the anxiety. Mental talk slowed quite a bit, which always has the effect of apparently magnifying the peaceful neighborhood sounds of birds chirping and leaves blowing. My visual field (behind my closed eyes) had brightened and become easy to pay attention to, which is an interesting side effect of concentration. There was also some disidentification with the body, which sounds alarming but it’s a good thing — essentially it’s what happens when you start to recognize that your experience of your own body is only a parade of changing sensations, not fundamentally different from external sensations such as sound and light. The awareness of all this remains, however, you aren’t caught up in the mental model of “I am a meditator noticing all this.”

Now — the session was supposed to one with “minimal movement” but I did encounter an issue I hadn’t thought of: the need to go to the bathroom. So I went, and practiced the monastic tradition of continuing the meditation technique throughout the process. I don’t think this trip downstairs was hugely disruptive to the flow of the practice, and I don’t think it’s good for the body to hold it in. I will try to go before each long session, but sometimes it can’t be avoided. I wonder if this will come into play on Sunday’s three-hour session. There is a reason movies as long as Titanic often have intermissions.

Getting up to use the facilities (at about the halfway mark) did give my butt a break from the persistent pressure, so I don’t know how it will fare for an uninterrupted 90 minutes. Tomorrow is 75 minutes, with strong determination, so I’m sure I’ll get a clue.

Day 3

75 minutes, no voluntary movement

Today was a little rough, even though it was shorter than yesterday. Concentration did not come easily, and I wasn’t in a great mood.

Mood is an unpredictable thing, and sometimes a bad one is present when it’s time to meditate. So that’s not unusual or necessarily problematic. You work with what’s there.

But a low mood often amplifies physical discomfort, and one form of discomfort I experienced today was being too warm. I sit upstairs in an attic-like space, and it was cool this morning but I didn’t open the windows. So it was slightly stuffy. Expecting it to be cool, I made the fatal mistake of not removing my hoodie before settling in. After that, I had made a vow to not move, so it was too late.

It wasn’t hot by any means, just slightly warm. I kept experiencing recurring urges, many dozens of them, to shed my hoodie. This is something I would have done without a second thought in any other sitting. But I couldn’t. So I had to work with the discomfort of a steamy torso, because my attention kept getting drawn there. I tried to allow and study this discomfort, the attachment to the slightly-improved circumstance of not having that layer.

Several times I noticed that I was wishing the session would end, which rarely happens in my hope practice. I’ve had that experience many times on retreat, when you’re sitting with others and it’s perfectly silent and you feel some social pressure not to even swallow. Everyone who’s ever gone on retreat knows the feeling of sitting there, completely fed up, dying to hear that bell. I wasn’t quite dying but I sure was happy to hear the gong.

The whole experience illuminated the value of this project. Being slightly too warm is a kind of discomfort I would have normally just alleviated — what’s the harm in removing the hoodie and carrying on? Well, maybe none, but there is value in working voluntarily with the discomfort, and the aditthana vow is what enabled that. Despite the difficulty of the session, I know I got some very productive work in that would not have been achievable under normal circumstances.

Tomorrow is two hours, but I have the luxury of my teacher guiding me, which makes things easier and somehow more comfortable. Sunday’s mega-sit looms in the distance.

Day 4

2 hours, minimal movement, with audio guidance

Today’s sit was a completely different story. I began by listening to a 2-hour pre-recorded home-retreat program from Shinzen Young. He conducts home-based retreats, which students can listen to live, or listen to the recording later. (This is called the Home Practice Program).

Anyway, I practiced with the guidance for the first… 40 minutes? (I didn’t look at the timer today) then turned it off because I wanted to practice a different technique. I was able to settle in and generate some pretty strong samadhi. I hadn’t experienced anything quite as strong since my last residential retreat, last June.

I did move and shift a fair bit, more to kindly bring circulation to the numb parts than as a direct response to discomfort. Two hours of strong determination would have been a lot more challenging, but probably even more fruitful.

Tomorrow is 90 minutes of adhittana practice, which I’m looking forward to. I want to practice straightforward breath concentration practice, which I seldom do.

Day 5

90 minutes, no voluntary movement

Another relatively easy and fruitful session. I did compromise my “no movement” vow very early on, rationalizing it because it was so early into the session. About 5 minutes in, I had an idea for an article, and toyed with the idea of letting it go. This is something I’m sure many people who both meditate and write struggle with. Good ideas are notorious for striking in the middle of a shower, or a 5-mile run, where you have no hope of capturing it without counting on your memory. While meditating, you do have a choice — interrupt this session to jot down the idea, or use this as an opportunity to let go, trusting that you will have enough ideas later, even though this one may be lost forever.

I decided to jot it down, knowing that I would still be sitting 85 minutes without moving. And I did. I’m not sure it was the wrong decision. (Now that I think of it my original plan was to tack 5 minutes to the end of the session to bring it back up to 90 but I forgot.)

Anyway, the session felt like a good one. By the end, butt-numbness was quite strong, and I did my best to fully let it go. However some part of me kept thinking, “Do I know I am not harming by body by ignoring this discomfort?” And even though I was pretty sure it was safe to ignore, and have felt the same thing many times with no ill effects, some part of me could not quite let go into it. It was quite interesting internally, to be releasing, releasing, allowing the sensations to come and go, the familiar precursor feelings to tranquility lapping at the edges of my awareness. I was completely okay with the intensity of the discomfort, but I was just a little too hesitant to let go into tranquility (or passadhi).

This brings up an interesting point about our evolutionary heritage. We’re programmed to see pain as something to get away from — if it hurts to do X, stop doing X. If you feel pain when you go to Y place, get away from Y place. Same thing the other way with pleasure. This algorithm is crude, however. There are times when it makes sense to release our resentment for pain, and to renounce pleasure. Our difficulty in doing that is why we harm ourselves with consumer debt, poor eating habits, drugs, destructive relationships, procrastination and so on. We do have a rational faculty that potentially allows us to determine if this is likely to be one of those circumstances. And if you deem it is, then you have the option of renouncing the tempting thing, or opening to the unpleasant thing, for your own betterment or the betterment of someone else. Part of mindfulness is developing those particular skills.

Having got up from my sitting with no ill effects, I now know my butt wasn’t in any real danger, so if I experience that level of soreness again in the next sitting I will go ahead and let myself settle fully to it. But it is fascinating to watch the mind contending with unpleasantness — it’s so habituated to go “get away, get away!” But it is possible to relax that reflex to the point where you can actually know pain with absolutely no suffering, which is what happens when you completely let go of aversion. The ability to cultivate equanimity in the presence of strong displeasure (or temptation) is an incredible human capacity and it is such a fascinating experience to have.

Day 6

2 hours, minimal movement

Today the cumulative effects of all that meditation became quite obvious. I was very equanimous with all the discomfort I experienced throughout this session, and I experienced a certain brightness to my outlook that I associate with being on retreat. I feel closer to other human beings, less afraid of the future, and willing to experience the future in whatever form it comes.

This effect on outlook is a little different than being in a good mood, although I am in a good mood too.

The session went smoothly. I can tell my body is adjusting to the longer sittings… it takes longer for discomfort to arise. Towards the end of the sitting, I wanted to see if I could completely let go of resistance to the discomfort. I looked for the most intense point of sensation in the area where my body was pressing on the cushion, but I couldn’t quite release it all. There was a small bit of flickering unease with it, which wasn’t difficult to be with but clearly there wasn’t perfect equanimity. This is such interesting territory.

Day 7

Sunday I felt even more mindful and equanimous than Saturday. However, I had a lot of trouble sleeping Saturday night — I attended a pot-luck event and my food choices left me wired (chocolate too late in the day :().

The result of this was that I didn’t begin my sit until mid-morning, and then time became an issue — three hours is a lot of time to do anything, and I didn’t like the idea of it being afternoon before I finished my morning routine. I was feeling really equanimous and peaceful and was eager to use my day, so I decided I’d sit for two hours and see if I wanted to continue. In total I went about 2:19, although I had to get up to go to the bathroom during that time.

So I didn’t sit for the length of Titanic, but I learned what I wanted to learn, and definitely improved my practice, in a lasting way I think. By the end of the week I was much better at attending to the less interesting and less pleasant parts of my sessions. I became more patient with sub-optimal mind states — like anyone, I prefer to meditate when I’m really well rested, and not experiencing difficult emotions. But this experiment taught me that I had little ways of avoiding sitting when I wasn’t very sharp or enthusiastic. For example, I’d cut a session a little shorter when I was tired or felt kind of blah, creating a pattern of never really being mindful of those states.

The sessions really did take a lot of time. Two hours is a big time investment for anything, but it sure did a lot for me in a short time over my usual 40-60 minute sessions. I also found that for the most part, strong determination sitting seems to amplify the benefits of a given period of practice, because you end up bringing mindfulness into some more elusive corners of physical and emotional experience.

I want to keep the momentum going, although I don’t need to spend quite as much time. I’m going to sit for 75 minutes on the mornings I can — that extra 15 minutes makes a big difference, and do strong determination sometimes. I’d love to have a two-hour sit every weekend.

Well, it was a worthy experiment, all told. One day I’ll do a three-hour sit, when it’s less like a circus sideshow feat and more like the next logical step in my practice.

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Photo by Sam Austin

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

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