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Post image for How Does the Room Sound Right Now?

Thousands of books have been written attempting to point people to the difference between mindfulness and “paying attention” as we normally do. I’ve read a lot of these books, and even written a few.

There are simpler ways to get at the concept though.

If you want to grasp what is usually meant by the word mindfulness*, all you need to do is to find the answer to a simple question: how does the room sound right now?

By “the room” I really just mean wherever you are. You could be in a room, or outside, or in a stadium, in a cave, scuba diving among coral reefs, whatever. The point is there’s always something to hear, wherever you are.

If you wanted to know how the room sounds, how would you get the answer to that question?

Well, you’d listen to it.

Try it now. Find out how the room sounds. Take a good twenty seconds to inquire, by listening.

. . .

So how does it sound?

You might say, “Well I hear the laptop fan whirring, I hear a large vehicle rumbling around out there, maybe a garbage truck. There are some distant voices, and also some pigeons warbling out on the eavestrough. I can even hear my breath escaping my nose at times.”

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Post image for How to Think About Politics Without Going Insane

The first thing every human learns about politics is that there are things you can say that will make people hate you, and things you can say that will make people approve of you.

What those things are depend on the beliefs of the people around you, which depend mostly on where and when you grow up. Say aloud that you think thieves should go to jail forever, and in some places your peers will agree with you and make you feel good and normal, and in other places they will call you a horrible person and whisper about you at the other lunch table.

The same thing happens with every politically-tinged belief you utter, even before you even know politics is a thing. If you suggest that hunting for sport is wrong, visible tattoos are a reckless life choice, conscientious people don’t drive SUVs, or church teaches people to live moral lives, you’ll get either approval or pushback, depending on who’s around.

You learn quickly what the others want to hear and what they don’t, ingraining within you a sense that some of your thoughts make you worthy of acceptance, and some make you contemptible.

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Post image for 10 Things I Want to Communicate to the Human Species Before I Die

We all have our causes. Henry Heimlich was determined to teach the world that you can save a choking victim with abdominal thrusts. I want to convince the world to eat unseasoned vegetables, help irksome strangers, and do eccentric thought exercises.

. . . and many other things. Here are ten insights I feel a need to impress on the world somehow.

Take my pleadings as seriously as you like. I’ve written in greater detail about some of these points already, and will elaborate on the others eventually.

1. Your shopping cart doesn’t need to go wherever you go.

This is a minor point, but most people don’t seem to know this. You do not have to wheel your cart right up to every item you want to buy at the grocery store. The cart is a bin with wheels, not a car. If there’s any appreciable cart traffic, you can park it in an out of the way place, then fetch any nearby items much quicker on foot. It’s seldom necessary to navigate a two hundred pound cargo bin down an aisle choked with other carts, just because a few items on your list are in that aisle. Gather on foot, move around the store with the cart. This method ensures you never need to block anyone from accessing anything or passing by, and will almost never have to wait behind someone else who is doing that. Treat the cart like a mothership rather than a truck.

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Post image for Knowing is Doing, Not Remembering

I appreciate Tim Ferriss’s advice on reading non-fiction: only read how-to type books if you intend to implement their instructions right away. Otherwise it’s just entertainment.

His reasoning is that information is only useful if you use it, and you won’t remember to use it later if you don’t use it now. If any new neural connections are to be made, they’ll be made in the doing.

My dad taught math. His most helpful lesson was that math skill is all about practicing the operations — no different than shooting a basketball. Comprehending long division, for example, isn’t so much a matter of memorizing the method, as it’s about a physical familiarity with making the right markings with a pencil on the paper: drawing the division symbol, plugging in your numbers, getting a new number and writing it below, digit beneath digit. By the time you’re exam-ready, the know-how resides in your bones and reflexes, not in your thoughts. Knowing is doing, not remembering.

Learning to drive is the same. Initially, a driving instructor gives you some checklists and mantras to remember: signal, mirror, shoulder-check; brake going into the turn, gas going out. These are only placeholders though. They give way, once you’ve put them into practice, to a kind of embodied, wordless knowing that guides your hands, feet, and eyes together in the operation of the vehicle. If all you have is remembered instructions, you can’t drive a car except in the most lurching and unpleasant way.

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Post image for The Best Deal in the World Right Now

Come with me on this thought experiment.

It’s the year 2089 and the world is enjoying an incredible new medicine. Scientists working in the jungles of Papua New Guinea have discovered a natural compound that induces a host of tremendous health and quality-of-life improvements in virtually everyone who takes it. Because of its incredible properties, it has been named miraculos.

At first miraculos was only used to aid immune system function, and at this it was profoundly effective. People who take this medicine on a consistent basis get sick much less often, both with minor ailments like cold and flu, and major ones like cancer, heart disease, even dementia. As such, they live longer.

Researchers subsequently discovered that the same treatment confers dozens of additional health benefits. Subjects report things like clearer skin, improved sleep, greater bone density, and better joint health. They enjoy increased physical strength, flexibility, and co-ordination.

Amazingly, these physical benefits come with powerful cognitive and emotional benefits: increased focus and mental clarity, improved mood and outlook, and a lower incidence of depression and anxiety.

Miraculos is known to be socially transformative as well. Those who take it are consistently rated as better looking by focus groups. They invariably become more confident in their interactions, and receive more compliments and romantic interest. They do better at work. Their social status improves. They like themselves more.

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Post image for Be Dignified, as a Rule

Much of what you’ve read on this blog has been written in pajama pants. Writing directly follows meditation in my morning routine, so I’ve often gone right from the cushion to the coffeepot to the desk.

Occasionally life would remind me that there are practical reasons to put on socially acceptable pants before beginning the workday. Someone could knock on the door, for example. But for the most part it seemed like an unnecessary formality that only added friction to the getting-to-work process.

Today I do get properly dressed before going to my desk, because it’s simply more conducive to productivity. Changing into leaving-the-house clothes gives me a “going to work” feeling, which is the kind of feeling you want whenever you’re going to work, even if your office is just across the hall.

Recently I noticed that this effect is stronger the better I dress. Jeans and a pullover are better than PJs and a hoodie. Proper slacks and a button-up shirt are even better. I’m sure an Edwardian waistcoat and tie would generate an even stronger feeling of being a dignified writer getting to work.

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Post image for 6 Unusually Specific Suggestions for Eating More Sensibly

Here’s an idea for a science fiction novel: there’s a planet whose residents have spent millions of years learning to find a scarce and precious stubstance that keeps them alive. Evolution weeded out everyone who wasn’t extremely determined to locate and exploit this resource. This precious substance, in its many forms, is naturally loved and celebrated by all, and has a central role in every culture on the planet.

The sci-fi twist comes when people discover technologies that can produce vast quantities of this once-scarce resource. Over the course of a few generations, people go from contending with its scarcity to contending with its overabundance. Each character in the book has to find their own way to manage the consequences of this traumatic reversal, namely that they are haunted by ceaseless instinctual cravings that no longer serve them.

This is of course a major plotline in our own reality. We’re biologically tuned for a world with scarce eating opportunities, but happen to find ourselves in an artificial environment that contains a deadly overabundance of such opportunities. Most of the food encountered in this environment is of low quality, optimized for scale, and designed to exploit precisely those pleasure-seeking instincts that are so hard to manage. It would be a thrilling story if we weren’t entangled in it ourselves.

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Post image for Don’t Buy the Six-Dollar Cauliflower

A few weeks ago I went to an office supply store to buy some envelopes big enough to fit the construction-paper birthday card I’d made for my friend.

Pardon the language, but the prices were fucking ludicrous:

Thirty-seven dollars for a 50-count box of 9×12 envelopes.

Forty-six dollars for a 100-count box of slightly smaller ones.

Thirteen-something dollars for a 25-count package of the half-size ones.

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Post image for Most Phone Use is a Tragic Loss of Life

I don’t know if people say this anymore, but it was common in the 1990s to say “smoking one cigarette takes ten minutes off your life.”

It obviously doesn’t work like that exactly, but it may not be total nonsense — this study says the loss of life comes to about eleven minutes, by adding up all known increased health risks and their life-expectancy differences, and dividing by the average number of cigarettes smoked by daily smokers. Smoking X cigarettes shortens a life, on average, by XY minutes. Fair enough.

Most of my friends and family don’t know this, but during my early twenties I smoked daily, and I thought about that 10-minute figure a lot. There were five customary cigarettes in my daily routine while I attended school: the waiting for the bus smoke, the arriving at school smoke, the mid-morning smoke, the after lunch smoke, and the waiting for the bus home smoke. There would be at least one other cigarette every day, which adds up to about an hour of life sacrificed per day to this ritual behavior, according to the formula. That’s about three hours lost per pack, and a day and a half per carton.

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Post image for Thoughts Are Made to Be Thrown Out

When I was a kid we had an aquarium with a betta in it, also known as a Siamese fighting fish. We were told that male betta fish try to kill each other on sight, so you are definitely not supposed to hold a mirror up to the side of the tank to make it look like it has a competitor.

Of course we had to try it once, and it did indeed try to fight its mirror-bound intruder, so my dad made us stop before it hurt itself. When we took the mirror away, it resumed its normal routine of lazily swimming around, as though its foe had never been there at all. It didn’t seem to remember the other fish or worry about it.

I assume it moved on so quickly because fish do not have the ability, as we do, to entertain imaginary scenarios in their heads. They respond to what they’re experiencing — a hostile fish staring at them, an attractive fish flirting with them — but they don’t swim around reminiscing about past scuffles and rehearsing potential future ones. As a salmon flings itself upstream, it does not suffer recurring mental images of being torn apart by a bear or filleted on a rock. It just swims and eats as instincts dictate, and maybe it will make it and maybe not, but it doesn’t agonize over its range of possible fates.

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