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David Cain

Post image for Mine Your Acre of Diamonds

The response to last month’s “Depth Year” article caught me off guard. It went viral immediately and quickly became the most popular article of the year.

I’m still sorting through emails from readers sharing their intentions to go deeper instead of wider with their pursuits in 2018: reading unread books, tuning up the piano again, resuming Spanish lessons, calling up old friends. Someone even started a Facebook group to discuss Depth Year plans with others.

This level of enthusiasm made me feel a bit sheepish, because I intended it more as a thought experiment than a serious proposition. I wanted to point out the mirage of novelty—that emotion of newness and possibility we get when we start a new project, buy the supplies for a new hobby, or order a new book.

Novelty—essentially the feeling of “Oh how life will change now that I’ve added this to it!”—is a very gratifying emotion, and we experience it frequently in our consumption-focused society. But it usually contains a vital miscalculation: acquiring access to some new thing doesn’t guarantee we will ever enjoy its full value, or even a fraction of it.  Read More

Post image for How to Treat Yourself in 2018

At the end of every year I write something about the great recurring problem of holiday baking.

For many people, it’s a time of year when it’s easy to become surrounded by dangerous snacks. In fact it’s a mathematical certainty—each attendee at a Christmas gathering brings a week’s worth of caloric energy, and it would be a shame to let it go to waste.

In my family, someone has a birthday in mid-December, which means we get an early warning, in the form of cake, about the impending invasion of dessert foods. This year we had a beautiful carrot cake. It was delicious and well-made, and after we each had a piece, we tried to make each other take the rest home.

Eight-year-old me would have found this scene hilarious—everybody trying not to eat the cake! To a kid it’s the perfect comedy sketch.  Read More

Post image for Go Deeper, Not Wider

I keep imagining a tradition I’d like to invent. After you’re established in your career, and you have some neat stuff in your house, you take a whole year in which you don’t start anything new or acquire any new possessions you don’t need.

No new hobbies, equipment, games, or books are allowed during this year. Instead, you have to find the value in what you already own or what you’ve already started.

You improve skills rather than learning new ones. You consume media you’ve already stockpiled instead of acquiring more.

You read your unread books, or even reread your favorites. You pick up the guitar again and get better at it, instead of taking up the harmonica. You finish the Gordon Ramsey Masterclass you started in April, despite your fascination with the new Annie Leibovitz one, even though it’s on sale.

The guiding philosophy is “Go deeper, not wider.” Drill down for value and enrichment instead of fanning out. You turn to the wealth of options already in your house, literally and figuratively. We could call it a “Depth Year” or a “Year of Deepening” or something.  Read More

Post image for You Aren’t In the Crowd, You Are the Crowd

For almost ten years I had a job that required incessant driving. I crossed the city by every possible route, often under time pressure. During one of the countless CBC radio interviews I absorbed during that period, the topic turned to coping with rush hour traffic. Someone on the panel offered a novel concept:

“You’re not stuck in traffic, you are the traffic.”

Luckily, I was stuck in traffic at that moment, so I had plenty of time to ponder the thought.

We tend to think of “traffic” as synonymous with “lots of cars in the way.” You’re trying to get somewhere so you can fulfill your responsibilities. Other parties have competing, perpendicular interests, and that slows you down. There’s you, and there’s traffic—traffic being the obstacle.

As obvious as it seems in hindsight, I hadn’t often thought of my own car as the anonymous, other car it always is to everyone else. It’s never anything but in the way, unless you’re me. And that’s a fact essential to understanding what the everyday problem of traffic actually is—we’re all trying to get home, and we’re all in the way.  Read More

Post image for Making Peace With the First Moment of the Day

I’m not the type to sleep late—seven o’clock is late for me—but I don’t like waking up. Being pulled from the womb of sleep by an alarm clock is almost always a jarring and disorienting experience. Unfortunately, almost every day, it’s the first thing that happens.

Each day begins in a small cloud of mild existential confusion, as it takes a few seconds to remember where this morning fits in the context of my life—what day it is, what happened yesterday, and which of my apparent life circumstances were just dream figments. Oh good, I didn’t ruin my laptop in a bubble bath yesterday. Oh right, I didn’t co-host a dinner party with Patrick Stewart last night. *This cloud of confusion can be almost comically extreme for me; optional anecdote in footnote.

Each day begins with two simultaneous upsetting developments. Not only does the glorious experience of sleep come to an end, but you’re summoned to the captain’s chair of waking life at the exact time your mind and body are least interested in the job. In a flash, the comfort and freedom of sleep transmute into the thankless conundrum of being a person who has work to do and responsibilities to attend to, the first of which is getting your groggy body to its feet.  Read More

Post image for The Danger of Convenience

The other day I saw an ad for Google Home which, even five years ago, could have passed for their annual April Fool’s joke. (You can see it here.)

A woman is getting comfortable on a couch, as a friendly voiceover relates a supposedly-common dilemma:

“You know when you’ve got Chinese takeout on your chest, and the blanket around your feet, and then you realize the remote is on the other side of the couch? Just say ‘Hey Google, play Stranger Things!’”

I appreciate ease and convenience (and Stranger Things) as much as anyone else. We should be grateful to have access to ingenious devices that relieve us from having to do laundry in a stream, heat water by the potload over a fire, and other laborious, dangerous, and time-consuming tasks.

But when we’re also employing futuristic devices to do the easiest imaginable things, we’re probably making our lives worse. How convenient do we want things to be, really? Would we eliminate all bodily movement if it were possible?

If a remote control sitting on the far arm of the couch has become a dilemma we want technology to solve for us, we may be heading straight into the realm of Wall-E, or a similar dystopia. Convenience tech has a way of giving ourselves a fish, so to speak, at any cost. The more we rely on technologies to stand in for our own abilities, for what our brains and bodies know how to do, the worse we get at using those brains and bodies on their own.  Read More

Post image for The Joy of Opting Out

Sometimes, improving one small, seemingly obscure skill can make you better at dozens of things at once.

One time at a backyard get-together, I was chain-eating potato chips, when a well-meaning friend made a useful observation. At a natural break in our conversation, he said, “You’re a sucker for bowls of chips aren’t you?”

He meant no offense by this, and I took none—we are both observers of human behavior. I knew I liked chips, but I hadn’t realized quite how unhinged my chip-eating is compared to the people around me. Most people will graze on chips when they’re around, a few at a time, but I tend to fall into a whirlpool of near-continuous chip eating. I spoil my appetite. I park near snack tables and mingle from there.

Interestingly, I wouldn’t describe myself as a fan of potato chips, and I only really eat them at get-togethers. I don’t derive any real joy from eating them, the way I do with chocolate, or spring rolls. For whatever reason I just have a repeating, mechanical habit of reaching into nearby chip bowls when they’re around.  Read More

Post image for The Gentle Art of Self-Control

After somebody threw a flask of acid on the Mona Lisa in 1956, they put her behind bulletproof (and presumably acid-proof) glass. Same with Picasso’s Guernica, after a man spray-painted “Kill all lies” in giant red letters across the canvas.

I have always found it unbelievable that most very famous paintings have no physical barrier between them and the visitors. At MoMA in New York, I wandered around a small wall, turned, and was alarmed to discover Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, hardly more than an arm’s length away from my distracted, clumsy body.

The hundred-million-dollar painting is protected only by a line of tape on the floor about two feet from the wall, presumably marking the distance at which your communion with the painting becomes too intimate and the security guard must lean in and scold you.

The vast majority of famous artworks on display are protected only by similar lines of tape, shin-high string fences, or in more extreme cases, velvet ropes. Amazingly, these non-barriers are sufficient to keep the vast majority of gallery visitors from mucking with the world’s most valuable art. None of these boundaries could stop a determined vandal, but they do seem to prevent nearly 100% of the rest of us from getting inappropriately close. (The guards would quickly tackle you of course, but I’m pretty sure they aren’t allowed to tackle you before you start clawing at the artwork.)  Read More

Post image for Could I convince you to meditate with a single sentence?

I think maybe!

I am a fan of the information-age truism called Bettridge’s Law of Headlines, which states, “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” For some of you it will hold true in this case, but not everyone.

Registration for Camp Calm’s fifth season opened earlier today. Another group of eager, fledgling meditators is forming, and naturally I’d be thrilled if you would consider joining it.

Over the past two years it’s become increasingly clear to me that I’ll be spending much of my life trying to get people to try meditation. When you are an enthusiastic advocate for something, it’s easy to be long-winded. There are so many great things to say, so many reasons to give.

So I thought about how to be short-winded instead. What would I say, for example, if I had to restrict my mindfulness evangelism to one sentence?  Read More

surprised owl

In March I published a post explaining—and diagramming with stick figures—how I’d become enamored with Stoicism.

The ideas resonated with others too. The post made the front page of Reddit, and whenever someone in real life tells me they read this blog, that’s the article they mention.

The title was “The Only Thing You Need to Get Good At”, referring to the Stoic skill of continually returning your attention to the small number of things you can control, and leaving the rest of your worries to fate.

Six months later, I can report that I did not get good at it. I am still constantly becoming fixated on what I can’t control and overlooking what I can, and I don’t believe I could “march to the gallows in good cheer.”

Not only do I forget to respond Stoically to emerging dilemmas in life, it’s hard to locate even a whiff of that fate-loving sense of empowerment I seemed to embody so easily for those few weeks.

I’m not worried about this, however, for reasons I’ll explain. I know what ingredient was missing.

This is a pretty common human pattern, especially for self-improvement hobbyists. You read about a new perspective that immediately clicks with your intuitions, triggering a so-called “Aha!” moment. Armed with this insight, you enjoy a few weeks of newfound enthusiasm and ease. Then, when you’re not looking, this “New You” disappears into your old patterns.

The “Aha” moment is it’s own unique emotion: a feeling of “Ah! That makes so much sense!” It feels like you’ve gained possession of a new lens, through which everything in your life looks tidier and more manageable: your work, your relationships, your health, your finances, and yourself.

The lens might be Stoicism, emotional literacy, frugality, non-procrastination, living in the present moment, reframing criticism, or some other perspective. We get really excited about our new perspective, see its potential everywhere, and maybe do some light proselytizing.

Then the epiphany’s afterglow fades. Soon you feel like you’ve forgotten how to look at the world that way. You might even reread the material that gave you the insight in the first place, and maybe a hint of the feeling returns. But over time it starts to seem irretrievable.

Occasionally, after an “Aha” moment, we really do turn over a new leaf, but much more often we return to old patterns without ever deciding to. So when they do stick, what makes them stick?

The missing ingredient

Since most of my day job is to offer exactly these sorts of epiphany-inducing perspectives, I receive a lot of emails from people in the middle of epiphanies. I often wonder how many of them become lasting changes, and how many fizzle after a short burst of enthusiasm.

I received a number of these excited messages in July, after I published “The Alternative to Thinking All the Time.” The post argued that when we’re not attending to our present-moment sensory world, we’re probably just ruminating uselessly. Therefore we should invest in a habit of frequently returning to our sensory experience.

Readers reported that after reading the article, they went for blissful walks, basked in gentle breezes, ate transcendent sandwiches, marveled at the steam swirling up from their coffee, and otherwise lived in the present moment in a way they usually don’t. They expressed excitement at more days like this, presumably to come.

But I wondered how many people took to heart the bottom half of the article, which argues explicitly that we don’t have a hope of living that way, at least with any consistency, unless we have some kind of regular practice. We are so strongly conditioned to live in our heads that we simply will not remember to live in our sensory experience when we haven’t just read an article about it.

The absence of a daily practice is why my Stoicism kick didn’t change me for long. Since I have decades of experience fixating on what I can’t control, after that first few weeks of enthusiasm I barely noticed the possibility of responding Stoically during setbacks. I acted out my old ways so reflexively that I never gained any appreciable experience with the new way, and no momentum could build.

You Need a Practice

To start living in a new way, we need a practice—some way to gain experience noticing the moments when we’re about to do thing A, and then do thing B instead, even while it’s still exceedingly easy and comfortable to do thing A. Just a few “reps” every day is enough to get a foothold, and start to dissolve the reflexive nature of the old behavior.

In the case of Stoicism, a simple practice might have been this: every morning I list everything I’m worried about that day. Then, from that, I make a (much smaller) list of the things I can actually control. Doing this practice, and checking the second list while I work, would give me a small but regular bit of training at focusing on what I can control (B) when I normally would be focusing on what I can’t (A).

That’s the skeleton of any effective practice: recognizing moments where you can change an A to B, on a regular basis, over time.

In the case of living in the present, I already have a practice. Twice a day, I sit and observe my present moment experience: sounds, bodily feelings and emotions. When I notice I’ve become preoccupied (A) I come back to noticing the unfolding of the present moment (B). That’s meditation. Over time, this practice has completely transformed my life.

Doing even a little bit of B starts to break down the automaticity of doing A. The new way occurs to you more often. Each of these moments creates another chance to practice. Gradually the new way becomes natural.

Epiphanies, or “Aha!” moments, awaken us to the possibility of living differently, but they don’t illuminate those crucial moments when we need to remember that possibility, and they don’t make the new way feel easy or natural.

We tend to think that big changes happen in life when we discover a better way to live. But that discovery is not the moment of change. You really change when this new way of living starts to feel natural, and for that to happen, you need a practice.

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A few times a year I offer a simple, 30-day mindfulness course called Camp Calm. The idea is to develop a modest but consistent meditation practice and a few mindful living habits, at a gentle pace of about ten minutes a day. You should check it out. Registration is opening this week. [More info here]

Photo by Quentin Dr
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