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Post image for Let reality be real

When I go grocery shopping I never get a cart. I restrict myself to one of my supermarket’s large baskets, which limits me to essential purchases, and ensures that whatever I do buy will fit into the two nylon bags I bring with me.

Most of the groceries I buy are particularly dense items: tofu bricks, fruit, bulk nuts, tubers and the odd condiment in a jar. I don’t buy boxed cereal, lettuce, chips, or anything else that would fill up the basket without offering much nourishment. I end up with two bags so heavy that plastic wouldn’t do. My car is a two-door, so the bags ride beside me in the passenger seat.

I rent a condo in the city’s most densely populated area and I depend on street parking, so sometimes I have to march the mega-bags a block or two to get to my door. When I do my shopping on the way home from work, I also have to carry a backpack, a suitcase-sized GPS, and a big laptop.

I load up as evenly as I can, close the door with my bum, and begin my half-kilometer farmer’s walk. Often it’s in extreme heat or cold. Eventually, straps begin to slip, my shoulders and fingers begin to burn a little, and it invariably becomes more uncomfortable the longer I have to walk. There are two doors and two steps along the way

I used to really hate this particular part of my life. In my old apartment I had a reserved parking spot so the walk was never more than fifty paces and one or two steps to climb, but it was such a worse experience than it is now. I used to dread it. It was like a final kick in the chest after working all day.

Now, it’s like water. For a while now I’ve known that the way to deal with physical discomfort is to open up to it, rather than close up to it. I used to grit my teeth and, in my mind, lean toward the moment when I can drop the bags onto my table and the discomfort is over. This does not defend against pain, but it’s what I always did and what most people seem to do.

I now see all instances of minor physical discomfort as a chance to get better at being relaxed. I relax into the discomfort, I let it hang out with me. When you first try it it’s an exhilarating experiment — to voluntarily open up to minor pain when that’s what the moment brings you, to refrain from listening to the impulse to cringe or harden. It feels like you’re walking freely in an area you thought you weren’t allowed to go.

It’s relatively easy to do with minor discomfort. Life gives you endless minor discomforts, all of them opportunities to retrain this impulse, and then when tougher things happen, the impulse is still there. Instead of cringing, you release and allow. You look right at it. Nothing else makes sense. Read More

Post image for How to make hard things easy

I live in a land of temperature extremes. In a typical year my city will see both 35 degrees Celsius and minus 35 (that’s 95 and -31 to Americans.) We have the greatest range of temperatures of any major city in the world. Average temperature is slightly lower than Moscow. Humidity and wind chill stretch these extremes further.

Our dramatic climate constitutes a large part of our modest civic pride. It’s particularly relevant to me though, because my day job has me working with my hands, outside, all times of year.

Construction crews know how to build things — roads, pipes, hydrants, and buildings — but they couldn’t possibly build them in the right place without a professional surveyor staking them out. That’s what I do. I read engineering drawings and mark exactly (to the inch) where all the new stuff belongs in the real world. Thousands of years ago, this was done using wooden stakes pounded into the ground at carefully measured-in points, and they have not yet found a better way.

Most construction happens in the summer. I find the points while a student assistant does most of the hammering. In winter, the construction season is on an outbreath and the industry slows way down. The students are gone, so two or three surveyors team up to create overqualified super-crews of stake-holders and hammerers. Many of my workdays, another surveyor does the technical stuff and so I become essentially a manual laborer.

Minus 35 is something everyone should experience at least once. The air shimmers with cold. When you inhale, the inside of your nostrils freeze. Your breath comes out in clouds. If there’s a breeze and some of your skin is exposed, say between your glove and the cuff of your coat, it feels like it’s being cut with a knife. But you wear layers, you keep moving, and you make sure to find a job for the extremities that tend to go numb first.

Worst of all for the surveyor, the ground is about as soft as a brick. Wooden stakes shatter when you try to hammer them in. So we must always first pound in an iron bar to make a hole.

Even with a pointed iron bar it’s almost impossible to make a hole if you’ve never done it before. If you don’t hit it dead-centre, often the bar bounces right out. It takes several great, two-handed swings with a ten-pound sledgehammer to make any progress, which means someone else has to crouch down and hold the bar for the hammer guy.

It becomes a cogent exercise in trust. A miss could be disastrous for the wrist-bones of the holder, but the hammer needs to be swung hard, and we have to do this thousands of times. Being the hammerer is actually scarier than being the holder — I would rather get hit with a sledgehammer than hit someone. After working a few weeks with a particular partner, a person gets less nervous and it feels a whole lot safer. The upside to swinging the sledge is that you stay warm.  Read More

Post image for How to sit in a chair and drink tea

First, slow down, like you’ve just turned off the highway into a quiet neighborhood. Normal rat-race speed is unsuitable for what we’re about to do. Hurrying through the process of relaxing defeats its purpose.

This experience is all about decelerating. Take a breath if you have to, or if you wish to.

Take out your tools. Kettle. Cup. A mesh infuser if you’re using one.

Your supplies — the consumables — will be two of nature’s simplest creations: water and leaves. Loose tea is best but a teabag will do.

Choose your leaves. Chai. Rooibos. Ceylon. Oolong. Yerba mate. This is a personal decision and I won’t make a suggestion. Depending on the plant you choose here, you may be embarking on a mild drug experience. If you’re running low, on either quantity or variety, here is a wonderful source.

Run water into the kettle, feeling its growing weight, and take a moment to smile at your fortune if you did not have to leave the house to do so.

Turn on the heat. Put your tea into your cup.

You will now confront one of modern society’s ever-present dangers, which is the risk of distraction we face whenever nothing interesting happens for a few minutes. Your muscle memory will suggest something, maybe slipping your smartphone out, maybe leaning over the computer chair to surf Reddit, maybe straightening something on the counter. Worst of all, you may start talking to yourself in your head.

Stay where you are. You’re making tea. It’s tempting to think of the next two minutes of kettle-heating time as something in the way, something you want to get to the end of, like an unmemorable stretch of parking lot you have to cross to get from your car to your destination.

Your impulse might be to self-entertain. Opt instead to do something simple and self-contained, like stretching or looking out the window. If you’re game, just stand beside the stove. Let time just hang there, without making you feel like you should be somewhere else.

Whatever you end up doing for that two minutes, if you stay with it, your simple experience of standing or window-looking will seem to grow in intensity, until your whole world begins whistling and rattling.

Don’t rush here. A boiling kettle is not a crisis. To make sure you’re not reacting, watch it exhale steam for a few seconds. Observe how the world stays together. Let your pulse return to normal, then take it off.

Pour your water into the cup. Set the kettle aside. Heat off. Read More

Post image for How to do the right thing, for sinners like you and me

Growing up in a culturally mainstream (but non-religious) family, sinning wasn’t something I thought about much. It was something the church people dealt with and talked about.

But I did sin and still do. I now see myself as someone who sins on a regular basis, and I’m working on that.

The word means something different for me than it does in contemporary culture. As a child I learned (and you probably did too) that to sin is to do something really bad. If you look it up you’ll find it usually refers to a violation of a religious code of conduct.

So by this definition if you’re not religious, you can’t really sin, because you have no religious code of conduct to violate.

But I still think it’s a useful concept to the non-religious. As I’ve mentioned before, I think religions are essentially self-improvement methodologies that have lost track of themselves. They’re philosophies and mythologies meant to help us navigate human life in such a way as to cause the least harm possible, to ourselves and others. [For a more thorough explanation of why I think so, read this.]

Christianity’s infamous “Seven Deadlies”, for example, aren’t different in purpose than Buddhism’s prohibitions of sexual acts that cause harm, or lying, or stealing. They are all clear warnings that certain categories of behavior lead almost invariably to suffering for you and others, and so if you’re not into suffering you might want to avoid doing those things. The well-defined sin exists to create a red flag in your mind when you’re about to do something harmful. They can be pretty helpful, as a tool for becoming a better person.

The word got a bit loaded somewhere along the line though, and the S-word became a word to use almost exclusively in indictments of other people, as I’ll explain. Sinners!

It’s becoming more commonly known that the word sin derives from a word that meant “to miss the mark.” Not to do something bad per se, but to make a mistake. In modern terms, maybe the closest phrase to the original meaning of sin is “to fuck up.”

It doesn’t have to have such dire moral baggage strapped to it, even though it does imply that you’ve done something that causes harm. And whenever we cause harm, you could say there is a moral issue at play somewhere. Morality is nothing but the consideration of the harm caused by a particular action, right?

But I think instead of regarding sins as something “against the rules”, which we’ll be punished for (by Whoever or Whatever invented these rules) it’s more useful to think of sins as moral transgressions against ourselvesRead More

Post image for How to buy happiness

While I was driving home from my appointment I couldn’t help but feel nervous that I would forget to do something: peel the price tag off a thing I just bought in case somebody saw how much it cost.

I pulled onto a sidestreet and grabbed the plastic bag from the back seat. In it was a puck-sized container of a high-end hair paste. I scratched the little white sticker off. It was $35.00, and now only I knew.

Some paranoid financial conditioning somewhere in my head had me thinking it had been an extravagant purchase. But I thought about it for a minute and realized that no, for what it does for me, it’s some of the best value I’ll ever get for thirty-five bucks.

I’m 31 years old and it wasn’t until I started going to a well-reputed salon and buying 35-dollar hair paste that I finally began to really like my hair. This was a year ago. My mop had always been a point of self-consciousness for me. I liked myself, but never got along with my hair. It had evolved over the years, from crunchy gel spikes to a #2 buzz cut to a polite crop, but it was always a liability. I felt faintly uneasy about it, all the time. That problem spread itself across many thousands of days of my life, taking a little (sometimes a lot) of enjoyability from each of them.

Thinking back, I can’t even guess how many completely useless 35-dollar purchases I’ve made in my life — shirts I never wore, books I never read, drinks I didn’t need to drink, restaurant meals I could have made myself. When I consider what it really does for me, this hair paste is an astoundingly good investment.  Read More

Post image for 5 things that always work and don’t cost anything

Most things don’t work. Ever since my early twenties when I found myself inexplicably unhappy, I’ve been looking for things that work. Resolutions and experiments. Things to do.

Quality of life is the only thing I was ever after. Not happiness exactly — because being happy all the time is impossible — but a day-to-day existence that creates it pretty easily.

A lot of things seem to work for a while, but then wear off or have a different effect. Some things have conditional or circumstantial effects. But there are five simple things to do that I’ve found to be consistently, disproportionately helpful in moving towards a more fulfilling life.

I’m not claiming mastery of these five things that work. But I am claiming that there is no question that they work. If I had to speak to a graduating high school class, this is what I’d tell them. If a meteor was about to hit earth and all I had time to do was shout advice to the people lucky enough to be allowed on the getaway ship, this is what I’d shout. I never have to puzzle about how to make life better, if I’m not already fully exploiting the outstanding benefits of these five things that always work.

1) Killing conspicuous silences

What makes life good, more than anything, is other people. The value of what those people bring to your life depends on how easy it is for you to be with each other. With almost everyone, we start from ice cold.

Alienation is born in uncomfortable silences. A part of my mind has a stubborn hangup about throwing things out there just to see if they trigger a dialogue. But that hangup has never served me.

Violating it has. It’s nearly always better to say something.

I do like silence, and I think sharing a good silence with someone you know can be empowering, but conspicuous silences do seem to be invariably harmful when you’re getting to know somebody. If a silence comes with tension, and they usually do, it’s best to interrupt it.

Whether I choose to let the silence fester, or take a swing at it with a dull question about how school’s going or whether a particular movie is worth seeing, I learn the same thing — relationships of any kind grow best when words are exchanged, and sometimes it takes a little push. Language is the best fertilizer, and if a generous application of words doesn’t help it grow, then nothing will. I am convinced nearly all of my friendships and acquaintances could have been halted in the beginning by a divisive silence at some point, had nobody offered something. As a rule, say something. Read More

Post image for How to get rich without making more money

It only took about ten Christmases before I realized how quickly the new-toy feeling wears off. I knew by the time New Year’s came around, I would lose that feeling I looked forward to all year — getting up to a dazzling world of new stuff.

Then one Christmas Day I felt that same predictable boredom, the same fading of abundance, creep in by dinnertime. I had eaten more chocolate than could actually be enjoyable, and played with everything once.

I felt like I had definitely lost something substantial since that giddy first hour of the day. Obviously I didn’t own any less by that time (not counting chocolate), but it absolutely felt like I did.

Of course, no matter how I felt about my possessions at different times of day, I was always rich and rarely realized it.

The same is true for me today, probably you too. Average income across the world is about $7000 per year. But that’s just a mathematical mean. The vast majority of people make far less than that. Only about twenty percent of the world’s population lives in countries with an average income that high.

So no matter what class you are in your society, if you’re sitting in front of a computer with some blog-reading time on your hands, you probably outclass (financially anyway) a sizeable majority of people alive today, and certainly almost all of the people who are no longer alive.

But that’s just money. Wealth includes power and privilege too, and not just because you can buy more of those things. It’s reasonable to say that someone with a thousand dollars is less wealthy than someone with a thousand dollars and access to political connections, say. Ability, knowledge, and privilege all contribute to wealth.

You’re probably not doing too poorly on that front either. You’re unlikely to be reading this if you live in North Korea. All sorts of people read this blog, but statistically you probably have the right to vote, the right to protest, the right to say what you like, the right to travel, the right to practice your spiritual tradition, the means to contact your political representatives, the means to practice your chosen art, and the means to self-publish your thoughts. Extraordinary and exclusive privileges, if you have any of them.  Read More

Post image for How to stay out of Hell

As the story goes, God told Charleton Heston two things to do and eight things not to do, and he listened. Then he passed the rules along to others, and human morality was born.

The commandments weren’t always easy to work with, they found. Specifically, many of them enjoyed violating the one about not killing. Chuck had passed on the divine orders in his own personal style, and couldn’t resist including the Second Amendment in the Ten Commandments somewhere.

There was a real awkward moment when God was telling Chuck specifically not to carve likenesses of anything in the Heavens, precisely at the moment he was carving His words into stone tablets. Chuck had smashed the originals during a tantrum, and without some notes he was always in danger or forgetting what right and wrong were.

This was about 33 centuries ago, and before then there was no right and wrong because the Heavens hadn’t mentioned anything about it yet. Murder and double-parking were rampant.

Even after Chuck and his friends knew the new rules by heart, sometimes they found they did accidentally covet their neighbor’s ox, or even his ass. As they knew, equally offensive to God as coveting one’s neighbor’s livestock was to covet one’s neighbor’s wife, or her ass, or any other material possessions of his neighbor’s. They had an especially tough time with this one, because as pious as they were, it’s really hard to obey rules against thinking.

They didn’t usually steal, except from indigenous populations, until many centuries later when Napster came out and a free-for-all descended that not even God could stop.  Read More

Post image for Two methods for dealing with negative people

A recurring question I get from readers is, “How do you deal with negative people?” I’ve never directly written about it because I’m not always sure whether they’re asking how *I* deal with negative people, or how one ought to deal with negative people. I can only tell you how I do it.

There are actually two ways I deal with negative people.

Method 1

When someone makes a needless negative comment, I feel a spike of contempt somewhere in my lungs, and my eyes probably narrow for a second. I give a terse answer, if one is required. My mind says to the person, “Why do you have to be such a dick about it?” but I don’t actually say that.

Then once I’m out of their presence I tell stories in my head about how wrong they are, I play out imaginary confrontations, I might make a speech that nobody will hear. Or I think of what I should have said right then, George Costanza style. “Well the jerk store called, and…”

This kind of internal dialogue/monologue can go on until I’m interrupted by real life, but even then it sometimes resurfaces later. It sometimes makes the day a bad day.

With this method, the one thing I don’t do is do something. I do think a lot though. I think with great force and anger. I think up a storm, a real impressive one. I inventory my reasons for how right I am, several letters-to-the-editor’s worth. My body doesn’t do anything except maybe make involuntary faces. It’s possible my tongue moves, I don’t know.

In other words, the first of the two methods I have for dealing with negative people is to become one.

Method 2

It starts out the same: person says something negative, and I feel that contempt feeling, but for whatever reason it triggers a different thought process. I do feel the impulse to go on an internal tirade, but I don’t. Instead I find myself recognizing that the offensive party is having a bad day or a bad moment that could just as easily be happening to me. Even if they’re having a bad life, that could just as easily be happening to me too.

It’s not quite forgiveness, it’s more like, “Ah I’ve been there. Frustrated and unreasonable. Directing it at people who don’t deserve it.”

Even though my knee-jerk response is to stare daggers, I’m reminded that people get negative when they’re unconscious, in pain or trying to protect themselves from pain. All human activity can be boiled down to a combintion of seeking pleasure and avoiding suffering. Negativity tends to come from avoiding suffering, and if I’m being fair, it helps neither of us to blame them for it.

Pessimism shields people from despair because it keeps expectations low. Blame shields people from the threats of having to be responsible for a problem they don’t think should be happening. I have been caught up in both, at times today even.

When I use method two I end up feeling almost good towards the negative party. It’s a weird feeling if you’re not used to it. The pain of others suddenly becomes directly relevant to you, yet it remains theirs.  Read More

Post image for 7 High-leverage life skills they should teach in grade school

They don’t need to take up too much math or science time, maybe just a single two-hour class for each, covering two a year. Plant a few seeds and leave them alone. They’ll grow, in in the minds of certain kids where the conditions are right, and their progress will be gradual but unstoppable.

These skills aren’t easy. I suck at most of them, but I know they’re all I really need to know how to do. Simply introduce them and they’ll lead a person to anything else he needs to know. In me, the seeds have germinated, no question about that. I am gradually getting better at them. They take years, so I wish I’d started in grade school.

1) Letting people misunderstand and dislike you

I used to really believe that somebody getting the wrong idea about me was some kind of problem that had to be fixed. This is the kind of fear that would prevent me from, say, renting “Heavenly Creatures” because everyone knows it has Kate Winslet’s boobs in it and the Blockbuster girl would think I’m renting it only because I’m a huge perv and not because it’s a good movie. It’s a tiny example, but that’s a genuine wall I built there. One of thousands.

It takes an enormous amount of energy to try and manipulate people’s knee-jerk impressions of you, and it makes you into a fearful, pandering creature. It’s completely impossible anyway, and there’s so little to gain even when you pull it off. Instead of someone getting a baseless negative impression of you, they get a baseless positive one.

The amount of pain suffered in vain by people trying to be liked by everyone is unimaginable. It drives people crazy. It makes people kill themselves.

Make no apologies or explanations for what you want, and let the unknown faces dislike or distrust you. Study your fear of leaving bad impressions, and practice doing what you want anyway. I bet you’ll become not just more comfortable, but more likable.

Elaine Benes: Who cares if she doesn’t like you? Does everyone have to like you?
George Costanza: Yes! Everyone has to like me!

2) Talking to strangers

School taught me strangers were at worst bad people, and at best irrelevant people. It took me a while to recognize that they were indeed people at all — that they have family members and friends to whom they are not strangers. It took even longer to realize that I am a stranger.

They had an explicit rule about it: Don’t talk to strangers! Stranger is clearly a pejorative word, and they told us to use that word to describe anyone we didn’t know. And don’t let them talk to you!

I am still getting over the idea that people I don’t know are “strange.” Some of the most rewarding moments of my life have happened while breaking this rule.

Kids can still be taught to keep themselves safe without instilling such a damaging view of the casual passer-by.

Imagine if nobody regarded anybody as a stranger, but rather a person they didn’t know. You can’t have wars without strangers. For that and other atrocities, we need a group of people so alien and blank to us that we don’t care what happens to them.  Read More

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