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Post image for Cross the Gap Before It Grows

A friend of my Dad’s, a fellow high school teacher, was born just early enough that a particular life goal of his seemed feasible: get to retirement without having to use a computer.

At that time, the early 1990s, I remember people being either computer-literate or computer-averse. You either used these machines freely, or you actively avoided them.

By the information-superhighway years of the late ‘90s, a lot of people were determined to cross that aversion-to-aptitude gap, and finally learn to use the World Wide Web and electronic mail. Being one of that era’s many teenaged “computer people,” I ended up helping dozens of computer-averse adults learn simple operations like word processing, email and web search.

Their body language, at first, was typically very fight-or-flight: back against the chair, hands tucked close, eyes wide. I’m sure some of them really believed the machine could explode if you pressed the wrong button.

But after an antsy first day in the computer chair, a person starts to see what they can do, and also what they can’t do (blow the thing up, delete everything in a keystroke). It was never long before they were emailing, web-surfing, LiveJournaling, and printing recipes, all on their own.

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Post image for No Moment Can Be Saved For Later

Last week I went for my midday walk first thing in the morning, because by noon it was supposed to be hot and muggy.

The feel of that particular morning was so sublime and strange I have nothing but clichés to describe it with. It was the day before school started, and the neighborhood was both supernaturally quiet and uncannily beautiful. The sky was orange and still, and the air was so thick it seemed to filter out traffic noise, leaving a soundtrack of only birds. September-stage trees and gardens glistened in July-like morning heat. Boulevard flowerbeds billowed over the sidewalks.

Aside from the apocalyptic implications of such warmth coming so late in the year, the walk was a unique and remarkable experience, and I know I have absolutely no way of conveying that specialness to you or anyone else.

I did try though. I took a half dozen photos, and a few videos panning over the trees and gardens, hoping to somehow capture I’m not sure what—the sweetness of the air, the alien combination of summer humidity and dry leaves, or whatever unique quality made me want to document it.

Of course, I ended up with nothing but flat photos and videos of trees and sidewalks and flowerbeds that will excite nobody, and which contain not even a speck of the experience I was trying to capture.

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Post image for Feel The Air Fully

The Shingon monks of Japan have a very pragmatic way of encouraging the development of inner calm. They expose themselves to extreme cold, such as by squatting under an icy waterfall, while attempting to remain as present and composed as they might be in a warm, dry meditation hall.

Shinzen Young, my favorite Western meditation teacher, endured a version of this when he trained with the Shingon in the 1970s. Starting on the winter solstice, he spent 100 days in isolation, emerging three times daily to break the ice on a frozen-over cistern and dump several bucketfuls of its water over his head.

Being a California native, he found this task excruciating, but quickly learned the secret to getting through it without abject suffering. Before going to the cistern, he would meditate intently enough that he could be completely present for the experience. If any part of him was unwilling to embrace the full extent of the cold, it went from unpleasant to horrific.

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Post image for Care Deeply, Not Passionately

Sometime around my grade four year—1990 or so—it suddenly became very popular to talk about saving the planet.

I remember an explosion of environment-focused messaging, especially about whales, recycling, and ozone holes. It was on our classroom posters, TV shows, t-shirts, even school supplies.

But it was the tropical rainforest, at least to us fourth-graders, that became the central icon of this abstract thing adults called “the environment.” Saving the world meant saving the rainforest. We drew posters of endangered monkeys and tree frogs, with rhyming slogans at the top.

The energy felt really positive. Even things like shampoo bottles started having rainforest imagery on them, which seemed to be a good thing. Everyone was joining the fight!

What I don’t remember is when that energy went away. I didn’t decide to stop caring, but I guess I did. I don’t think it occurred to me until I saw a gag on the Simpsons, five years later, when Homer referred to “that rainforest scare a few years back.”

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Post image for The Only Dependable Source of Happiness

I once wrote about a peculiar practice I do to help me become a less judgmental person. Whenever I’m out in public and I catch myself judging a stranger—for such offenses as poor sidewalk-sharing, or imprecise parking—I resolve instead to temporarily become their secret ally.

Unbeknownst to the other person, I’ve gone from silently resenting them to silently watching out for them. For the short time we’re in the same vicinity, I’m prepared to leap into action should they need any sort of help. If they appeared to need directions, I’d offer. If their grocery bags were to tear, I’d help collect the rolling fruit.

I’ve almost never had to actually spring into action, aside from helping people reach things in grocery stores, but that’s not the main purpose. Essentially I’m training myself to view others with goodwill, rather than judgment.

And it works. My helping reflex is stronger and my judging reflex is weaker. Becoming a secret ally also makes me feel happier right in that moment.

Part of what’s so empowering about this practice is that it’s totally portable and self-contained. It doesn’t matter what happens, or what the other person does. Simply assuming the role of a helpful person, in any situation, helps me become a more naturally helpful person, and also creates an immediate sense of well-being. It’s like I’m making goodness out of nothing. It almost feels like cheating, like some kind of alchemical secret.

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Post image for Why We Can’t Sit Quietly In A Room Alone

I’ve always liked the Blaise Pascal quote, “I have discovered that all the miseries of men derive from one single fact: that they cannot sit quietly in their own room.”

People interpret this famous pronouncement all sorts of ways, but if you look up the context, it’s clear he’s saying “we prefer the chase over the quarry.” In other words, we live more easily in a state of pursuing future experiences than settling into the experience we’re having.

It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. We’re less likely to be descended from easily-contented hunter-gatherers than from the ones who got antsy if they took too long to go out hunting and gathering again.

You could say that this persistent restlessness is nature’s way of keeping a little fire under our butts—one that makes “elsewhere and later” seem like a more suitable site for happiness than here and now.

This is a delusional belief, however, because once you get to that particular “elsewhere,” it’s already become another “here,” complete with that same fire of discontent under your butt. Another future-based haven soon forms in your mind’s eye, and you’re off trying to make that your new present.

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Post image for How To See Things As They Are

I’m in the back room of a coffee shop right now, switching between writing and another mental exercise: pretending I’m not here.

I don’t mean I’m wearing a disguise, or hiding behind a potted plant. I’m doing a perspective-shifting practice that I’d recommend to anyone: now and then, wherever you are, look at the scene in front of you as though it’s happening without you. 

From any seat, or standing spot, anywhere—in an office, a breakfast diner, a public square, a waiting room—see your surroundings just as they’d be if you weren’t here to see them.

Focus on the look and feel of the setting. The way the light lays across things. Take it in like a shot from a movie. Notice the movement and speech of people or animals, the soundscape and overall ambiance. It’s just a little corner of the world where things are unfolding, and you’re not here. Maybe nobody is.

When you do this, you might notice a certain lightness or simplicity arising. Things are more poignant. Everything seems less complicated, because it’s just stuff happening, not stuff happening to you.

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Post image for Hanging Out is Essential To Our Health

My whole life, no matter where I’ve lived, what my job was, or what I was preoccupied with, one consistent source of comfort and peace has been idly hanging around with other people at the end of the day.

I’ve always appreciated the calming effect of slow evening hangouts with friends or family. But recently I’ve come to think of it as something essential to our health.

The location doesn’t matter really. A back porch. A coffee place. A front step. A bench facing some kind of water. You just need to be with one or more people you like, and you need it to be the latter hours of the day.

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Post image for This Post Will Change Your Life

At breakfast one morning, on a silent retreat in Nanaimo, my friend Marc was looking out the window at a lawn sprinkler when he glimpsed a tiny detail he would later write about.  

The sprinkler was the ratchet kind, the sort that goes “chh-chh-chh-chh” as it rotates and shoots water, then winds itself back up and does it again. At one particular position in its arc, one particular “chh,” he saw a little rainbow flash across the spray and disappear.

Presumably I was elsewhere in that same room at this time, no rainbows in sight, contemplating my boiled egg and muffin.

He wrote a blog post about the momentary rainbow, describing it as a perfect example of something contemplatives call dependent arising—the idea that every phenomenon emerges from the vast sea of causes and conditions that came before it.

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Post image for Let’s Talk Like We Used To

A few weeks ago someone commented on my new post, saying they had just stumbled across my blog, and that it was “very old school.”

I took that as a compliment, and got to reminiscing about what old school blogging really felt like, compared to today. Something’s definitely gone missing—some quality that made it vivid and exciting, and I want it back.

When I started in 2009, and for years afterward, I just wrote stuff, having absolutely no idea if anyone would relate. I wrote as well as I could, but there was a wonderful off-the-cuff feel to the process. If it was interesting to me, it might be to someone else. So I would write something about it. The incomparable joy of campfires. The rich history of a particular dent in my car.

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