Fighting “Narrative Disorder”

Let’s start by making this clear: narrative disorder, narrative addiction, narrative perception and some other things I’m going to mention here are fictional conditions created by the talented writer Malka Older. I’ve been enjoying her “Centenal Cycle” of books, and when the phrase occurred in one of them it spurred me to look further.

Turns out there’s a short story by the same name, along with an essay to expand on the themes. I think, much like Jules Verne or Octavia Butler, what she is writing about bears a striking resemblance to something that will actually exist in the future, whether it bears that name or not.

I’ve written often in the past about how our power to shape our own narratives can be used as a tool to counter both the obstacles and the randomness of life. Heck, one of my pieces even got picked up by a Tiny Buddha course!

The thing is…I’ve also noticed in my friends, my loved ones, myself, and certainly in the national narrative that like any tool, it can be used for either good or ill. And when it’s used for ill, it can get really, really bad – as manifest by the narrative being created in politics right now.

But it manifests on a smaller scale, as well. And that’s in a place where we can, I believe, do something about it.

What is “Narrative Disorder”?

As Ms. Older describes it, narrative disorder is basically the compulsion to create stories out of the events we observe, layering on extra plots, subplots, ascribing over-arching personality traits based on limited data points. It’s a natural result of our increased free time, she speculates:

We have enough leisure to be able to spend plenty of time engrossed in stories that have no bearing on our own lives, and enough intellectual complexity and/or despair in our jobs that latching on to an effortless narrative is an obvious, almost necessary form of rest.

My partner Natasha and I manifest this on a regular basis, when we’re tired at the end of the day and we realize that our imagined life of dancing and drawing and hiking and etc. is much less likely given our level of energy. “Netflix & chill” to the rescue.

And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that; the problem becomes when we start to mistake the fictional narratives on the screen – or the edited “reality” shows – for the way our own life works.

We expect drama, and we expect it to crescendo and diminish in one of the familiar rhythms we’re used to. We want resolution, and we believe that events will make sense if we can just uncover the intrigue behind them…And sometimes we’re right, because we’re not just looking for narrative everywhere, we’re also creating it. We create it through our expectations, sometimes, and we create it through our actions.

And right there is where we run into problems. Sure, we can create our own reality based on how we frame our perceptions; but what happens when we forget we’re doing that?

The Symptoms

An example of this is a friend of mine who has an upcoming combined business/vacation trip. They have expectations of the things they’ll get to do, the friends they’ll get to see, etc. Of course, like any combination of work and play, there’s always the possibility that things will get in the way, or get moved around. That’s reality.

What surprises me is the way my friend insists on reinforcing and retelling one particular narrative, often as if it’s already happened. Even with a lack of evidence beyond single points of arbitrary data, they have already decided they won’t get to do the things they hope to on the trip, they won’t make any new friends, and even the old friends they have will be too busy having fun with each other.

Speculating this as a possibility is smart. Preparing for things going wrong is good, and studies have shown that depressed people tend to have the most accurate predictions of reality.

That being said, the accuracy rate still sucks. We are really bad, as humans, at predicting the future, and especially bad at predicting whether we’ll be happy or not given a particular situation (see Dan Gilbert, Stumbling On Happiness).

But if we condition ourselves, with the power of a narrative disorder, into thinking that our prediction is the way it is supposed to be, we are running the risk of being in a situation where we are, in fact, happy, or the thing we want – or something like it – is available, and we turn it away because that’s not how it’s “supposed” to be.

There’s a lot of powerful stuff here: the power of narrative combined with conditioning combined with the impaired decision making that comes with the stress and fatigue of being on a business vacation.

The Treatments

Ms. Older, in her fiction, describes several treatments that would be likely to look appealing to people fighting “narrative disorder.” I haven’t read everything she’s written (yet!) but I know that there are definite tactics that have been proven to work.

One is from the Designing Your Life teachers (one of the most popular classes at Stanford, y’know), and it involves creating alternate narratives, all leading to “happily ever after”, in order to remind yourself that not only are there multiple possibilities, there are multiple good possibilities. You can see the authors talk about this exercise for free, but I also recommend the book.

That one takes some time and effort. But there is a simpler, more immediate way, and it simply involves six words:

The story I’m telling myself is…

If you put that in front of whatever expectations you have, it changes those expectations from fact to fiction. More to the point, since those expectations are now in the form of the story, you have the power to change the channel. Edit the book. Choose a new podcast. Whatever the metaphor you want to use, it reminds you that this is a story you are making up…and you can make up other stories as well.

I don’t know if “disorder” is the right word for this phenomenon – and Ms. Older acknowledges “ that’s how a newly named difference is usually perceived…But like many neurodivergences, narrative susceptibility occurs on a spectrum.” I do believe, however, that the more susceptible we are to narrative, the more powerful a tool it is in our lives, the more dangerous and careful we have to be with how we use it.

The Relationship Ferris Wheel: Part 4

This is the first part of a five-part series designed to help you build the intimate relationship you’ve always wanted. Though the process is primarily used in-person by a graphic facilitator, you can use the series and the accompanying handout to do it yourself, following along with the posts. It was developed by Martin Haussmann, one of the founding members of the Kommunikationslotsen consultancy, a German firm that created the bikablo technique.

That’s quite a story you’ve concocted for those people in that image at the center of your diagram. Think of how much work they did! Can you believe they made it through all the external forces that life threw at them? Recession, family, job, personal health…not to mention all the ways we self-sabotage relationships.

They overcame miscommunication. They managed their expectations. They took the leaps of faith – and yes, there’s always more than one – that were necessary to trust enough to reach that state of intimacy.

And you can see the work they did.

You’ve documented their journey with all the steps that form the spokes of this Ferris wheel. You’ve seen everything they did, every step of the way. Journaling. Counseling. Date night. Personal time. Check-ins. Supportive friendships. Whatever it took, as you look at the spokes of the ferris wheel, the steps get more and more clear…until really, they don’t seem very difficult at all.

Sure, “Develop a daily journaling habit can seem complicated at first. But really, it breaks down into three simple steps:

  1. Get a journal & pen.
  2. Prioritize a time during the day where they are accessible.
  3. Write something.

In fact, most of the tasks are harder mentally than physically. “Go to couples counseling can seem as simple as “Find a counselor, make the time, go to the session” but in reality there may be some more difficult steps involved:

  1. Internalize that counseling is not fixing what’s wrong, it’s more getting coaching so we can be even better.
  2. Run the risk of telling your partner you want this and perhaps having them feel that something’s wrong (see step 1)
  3. Trust the counselor when they say this is a safe space to express your feelings.
  4. Trust your partner that the things said in counseling will not be used against you in any way back at home…

Suddenly this whole counseling thing is a much bigger battle mentally than physically. And that’s fair! Grab some more sticky notes or write these things down on the diagram. Those people in the center did not get there easily; they did the work.

And Now It’s Your Turn.

We’ve been talking about “those people” in the center, who have reached the pinnacle of their intimate, trusting relationship, in the third person, because it’s always much easier to talk about and solve other people’s problems than your own.

Time to face reality: those people are you.

That relationship they have is the one you want. It’s also, now, one that you can have, because you know exactly how to get there.

The furthest parts of the ferris wheel are like a To-Do list; the next steps towards the best intimate relationship you can imagine are right there, laid out, one by one.

Get to it!

Next week we’ll tell you the Big Secret about this diagram and your relationship. It’s a doozy. But meanwhile, you have plenty to keep you busy for a while.

The Comfort of Ozymandias

During the filming of the Tarantino film “The Hateful Eight” (not a film I’d recommend, incidentally) one of the props was a genuine 145-year old Martin guitar. There were also several duplicates on the set, and the plan was that they would shoot up to a point where the character played by Kurt Russell was about to smash the guitar, stop, and switch in one of the fakes so that the actor could complete the action.

Except they forgot to tell Kurt Russell about that.

So the actor just played right through, smashing the priceless guitar into smithereens. His co-star Jennifer Jason Leigh’s astonished, horrified reaction couldn’t have been more real, because she knew what had just happened.

When a friend and I were talking about this incident, I had a weird thought: What if that’s ok? What if it’s actually a good thing?

I mean, the world has a lot of stuff in it. I mean, a lot. Yes, this was a priceless, unique guitar…and there are literally thousands of other priceless, unique guitars along with quite a few pricey, very special guitars and certainly millions of very affordable, pretty good guitars. I have one hanging on my wall, in fact.

The Life of an Object

That particular guitar had brought joy to many people – probably first while being played, then as a key part of a museum display, and finally as an anecdote added to film history that will be re-told over and over.

That’s not too bad for an inanimate object. And I’m not saying that we should just go around smashing instruments. But I am saying that perhaps Mari Kondo is onto something when she talks about letting things go not with careless disregard but with genuine gratitude for the part it has played in our story:

The process of assessing how you feel about the things you own, identifying those that have fulfilled their purpose, expressing your gratitude, and bidding them farewell, is really about examining your inner self, a rite of passage to a new life. – Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

“Look Upon My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair.”

note: the intended relevance of this next section is directly proportional to how similar you are to me. Middle-aged white guy? Yep, I’m definitely talking to you. There are other demographics that have been marginalized to varying degrees for millennia. They still have a lot of well-deserved recognition due them for their work. This is not intended as advice for any of them except as they choose to take it, as I’m not remotely qualified for that.

Now, for the rest of you:

What if we could let go of the need for credit? For recognition? For relevance? What if, instead of worrying about what our “legacy” will be, or how we will be remembered, we could accept – or even embrace – that we won’t be?

” …on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,

Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The poem by Shelley is far more remembered now than the original statue, and both are certainly eclipsed now by the character by the same name in the popular graphic novel and movie Watchmen. And we’re talking about a king, a world-famous poet, and a blockbuster movie and award-winning comic book.

There have been entire nations, entire wars, entire languages that have been forgotten as if they never existed. The idea that somehow we are creating something that will last and be attributed to us…that’s kind of foolish.

The Witness Who Matters

This should not be discouraging. It’s kind of liberating, in fact. You still do have an effect on the world around you; you can see that, and you get to watch that with a kind of Machiavellian altruism. You have no control over who remembers you and how. So rather than try to control the things you can’t, you can enjoy the effects that you have.

You are the witness of your own life, and you are the one who, at the end, gets to have a satisfied smile knowing that you have been a constructive force. Sure, other people may remember you – but that’s a side effect, not an intention.

Here’s my challenge to you: try it out for a week, my privileged peers who are used to receiving the credit whether or not it is due. See if you can be a kind of ninja altruist, making good things happen without anyone knowing it was you.

Side note: you’ll be tempted to surprise people with a reveal. Ha! That was actually me! That kind of ruins the effect, but I understand the desire to tell someone. Feel free to email me your experience ( and I will absolutely congratulate you on your sneaky success.

At the point where you realize you don’t have to fight to be remembered – that you can be your own witness, and appreciate what you do for the effect rather than the credit – I believe there is a large weight of expectation lifted from your shoulders. I think that the actions become easier, because you’re less attached to the results.

We’ll see.

My Visual Thinking EDC

I realized that I had crossed a kind of Rubicon the other day while watching a TV cop show. The assassin was in custody, but she had pulled the classic “steal a piece of pen to pick the lock on the cuffs” trick. The cop found out as soon as he tried to click the pen, and rushed to the elevator – only to see the empty cuffs and and the improvised pick.

“Sloppy production,” I thought. “That’s not the kind of cartridge that goes in that pen…” Yep. I’d become one of those people, in the same way another expert I know shakes her head at the naming of plants, or the way another shakes her head at the way witches are portrayed. But that’s what happens when you dive into the deep end of something like visual thinking – you end up becoming very intimately familiar with the instruments of your craft.

Reducing the Barrier to Habit

Another aspect of this personal change has been to try and eliminate any obstacles to doing more visual work. No excuses! One of the easiest ways to do this was to create a “Visual Thinking Every Day Carry.” That is, making sure that the tools to do the work are always right at hand (or, in my case, left at hand). Over the months I’ve tried a few different things, and at the moment this is what I try to have with me at any given moment (links are affiliate where possible):

  1. MEKO Stylus: I confess, this is the least-used part of the EDC. I have it in case I want to sketch something directly into my phone – the weight of it and sturdy construction make it feel really good in the hand. It also has the round nub on one end and a more “fine point” under the cap. The idea was that if my iPad wasn’t around, I could still sketch digitally…but as you can see, I’m more likely to sketch on actual paper and then simply take a picture.
  2. SketchOne Pens: I remember seeing these particular sets of pens branded as “sketchnote” sets on and scoffing. “Any pen can be used for sketchnoting!” And that’s true, but when I was given one free at the end of my Bikablo training I realized: these are, in fact, what I wanted to use for sketchnoting. I have them in .1, .3, .5, and .7mm widths, and they are reliable, don’t bleed, and just plain work
  3. FineOne Brush Pen: In spite of the resemblance to dreaded “chart junk” I do find that highlights and drop shadows work well in sketchnoting. This was also a freebie to try, and it’s the perfect companion to the SketchOne set. Bonus: it is refillable and has a replaceable nib. 
  4. Pokka Pen: This is the poor man’s Fisher Space Pen (because I keep misplacing those). It’s a two-piece container that fits easily in a front pocket that you re-assemble into a full-size pen. It’s plastic, but not cheap plastic, and while I would prefer a more smooth roller ball ink cartridge it does in a pinch. Think of this as the “pen of last resort.”
  5. Pilot Parallel Pen: One of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten! This comes across as a calligraphy pen (with a wedge tip) but you can use it for fine lines as well. As you can see from the illustration, I have been using it to learn the Fraktur hand (well, kind of a calligraffiti style) and absolutely loving it. Practicing a hand (way of writing) is one of those things that you can do instead of checking your phone, by the way, and I find it remarkably relaxing.
  6. “Preppy” Fountain Pen: I love fountain pens, and they get very fancy and beautiful and also are touchy and finicky and you often feel bad about risking taking them into the wild. This pen, though, gives you the joy of a reliable fountain nib along with durability and economy (get it and two cartridges for less than $10US). While I use many different pens at my desk, this is one I carry with me everywhere as my default writing instrument.
  7. Baron Fig Pocket Confidant: I’ve written before about my addiction to notebooks.  This particular choice was based on seeing Mike Rohde (the creator of sketchnotes as a practice) talk about his on the Lettering with the Masters course. It’s got a hard back which makes it easier for me to sketch things out, and the paper quality and such are unparalleled. It costs about the same as a moleskine (which I also love) or a Field Notes 3-pack (same) but just edges them both out in terms of size, quality, and ease of carry. I love the other brands (my family knows of my addiction and it makes holiday shopping easy) but this ultimately wins out.

YMMV & Planned Iterations

One of the biggest things I would do over if I could is to get blank pages in the notebook, not the dot grid. That choice was entirely based on me not feeling confident in my abilities as an artist. Now that I’m doing more sketching, I find those dots distracting and limiting.

Having so many pens also offends my inner minimalist, and there’s a part of me that wishes I could get away with one. Theoretically one good brush pen would be capable of doing pretty much everything I have, and I’ve had my eye on the Tombow Fudenosuke Dual Tip. However, at this point that would be simply feeding my pen addiction. It’s kind of like a greased rabbit hole; easy to fall down and keep on falling.

Let me know if you try any of these recommendations, and feel free to share your own favorites in the comments!

Why I Think the Flips Bracelet is Brilliant

If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you know that I’m interested in personal development. How do we develop habits? How do we change them?

I’m a freelancer, an entrepreneur, and a fanatical autodidact. Trying to fit everything I want into a day is impossible; there are always So Many Projects as well as So Many Things to Learn. It’s easy for the rituals of self care to be overlooked: meditation, journaling, yoga (ugh! Yoga!).

Also, I’m an early adopter and frequent user of technology, and like many who struggle through the bugs and bloat of the latest apps & devices I have a love affair with “lotek” – things that don’t require obvious technology, such as notebooks and pens and yoga mats (ugh!) and nice desk chairs and such.

I get two or three emails a week from people who are pitching their own personal improvement apps or products to me, asking that I share it here on the blog. This may surprise you, because I don’t do it very much. So when I tell you that I am enthusiastically recommending the Flips Bracelet, you can understand: I’m really excited about this.

Also, full disclosure: while I was granted access to the press kit, I am not in any way being compensated for what I say and share here on this post.

Flips Bracelet, The Bracelet with a Hidden Agenda to Create a Better You

Its brilliance lies in its simplicity.

It’s a string of flat wooden beads around your wrist. Each bead has a tiny symbol burned on it that represents something you want to remember to do during your day – a pen for writing, a barbell for exercise, a heart for telling someone you care for that you love them. At the start of your day, all the beads are facing out.

Note: first bit of joy for me is the way this incorporates visual thinking and iconographic power into the everyday. Our brains respond to symbols more readily than text; plus, the icons are burned into the beads by a Pyrographer, and that’s just gotta be one of the coolest job titles ever.

During the day, the bead is a constant reminder that there are things you want to do, daily, and because you can see the icon, you haven’t done them yet. So eventually you say Fine, already, I’ll do my (ugh) yoga!

And after the asanas are done, you flip the bead. On the other side, burned into the wood, is a viscerally satisfying checkmark.

No batteries. No weekly review. No updates needed. Compatible with all future updates of your personal OS. Ok, maybe we should let the press kit speak for itself:

“Ideal for adults seeking a way to better themselves and children to create good lifelong habits. It is also perfect for helping autistic and down syndrome children to remember their daily tasks. Even the elderly can benefit from it as a reminder bracelet.”

Personally, I like what Kim Ghindea, the creatFounder of Flips Bracelet, explains, “I wanted a piece of jewelry that was beautiful, natural and served a purpose. I love all creations that have more than one function. Why wear just any bracelet, when you can wear one that actually triggers you to be a better?”

Kim is the aforementioned “pyrographer”, and she hand-makes the beads (for now – she’s resistant to the idea of manufacturing, but if demand got too big she has said she likes the idea of outsourcing to other artists to help them make an income from their craft). 

I couldn’t agree more. My partner Natasha does already, a pretty little device called the Leaf, and I do too, a slightly less pretty device called the Apple Watch (series 1, for you tech nerds who were wondering). And we both love our little devices.

But this will never need charging, will never need to sync, will never be like my favorite meditation app, Mind, which no longer works anywhere. 

Launching on Kickstarter TOMORROW, October 9.

Kim is launching her project with an early-bird special, where you can get your own bracelet (in several beautiful finishes) with your own customized set of icon beads for only $24. That’s the advantage of working with an artist; you can talk directly with her and if an icon doesn’t quite work for you, she will come up with something that does. For example, the Sanskrit that she used on the “yoga” bead doesn’t quite work for me, and so I’ve been brainstorming a little stick figure doing downward dog, or tree pose, or maybe just “Ugh!”

Whatever. The point is, it will be personal to me. And that, I think, is a brilliant. 

The Relationship Ferris Wheel Part 3

This is the first part of a five-part series designed to help you build the intimate relationship you’ve always wanted. Though the process is primarily used in-person by a graphic facilitator, you can use the series and the accompanying handout to do it yourself, following along with the posts. It was developed by Martin Haussmann, one of the founding members of the Kommunikationslotsen consultancy, a German firm that created the bikablo technique.

  1. Introduction
  2. Part 1 of this series
  3. Part 2 of this series

That is one fine image you have there in the center of your diagram. Whether it’s a Norman-Rockwell-magical-realism fine art piece or stick figures with boxy labels, it’s great as long as you understand what it means. That image represents an ideal, it represents an emotional state you’re working towards: intimacy. Shared vulnerability.

Those people in that image – one of whom is you, remember? If you forgot that part, you should take the time to add yourself in there – those people have reached a point that, right now, might seem unrealistic. Impossible. Ridiculous even to consider, if this online personal development guy hadn’t kept telling you to shoot for the moon.

But they made it. They are sitting there, right there on the page, in that idyllic state of intimacy and stability and yay!

Now. How did they get there?

I know, your first response might be “how the hell would I know?” But here’s the thing: you do.

If you think about it, you know exactly how they got there. You are the one who defined the bedrock, after all – all those fundamental principles. You are the one who had the imagination to put all of those things together into one beautiful scene in the center of the page. You know what it took to get there. Even if it’s only on a visceral level that you can’t quite put into words yet.

That’s ok. You can put them into words with a simple formula:

The How/What Loop

One of the fun management mantras is “the Five Why’s”. The idea is that for any task or requirement, you ask “why do we need this?” There’s some idea that if you run out of reasons, then maybe it wasn’t as important as you thought, or if it was, you at least have a thorough understanding of it.

I don’t know. Never really cared much for it myself. But the How-What loop, on the other hand, that’s useful!

It goes something like this: you start by asking: how did they get to that wonderful space of intimacy? And the answer at first will be in broad strokes, usually keyed in by the foundation words. Trust. They learned to trust each other.

Great. So then the second part of the loop kicks in: What did they do to learn that?

Again, usually the answer is a pretty broad stroke, or some part of things. They learned to communicate their feelings. Or they learned to be more responsible for their actions. Or they worked on overcoming the fear of being hurt by each other. It’s a lot of things, and you can draw each of them along the spokes of the Ferris Wheel (and feel free to add spokes as you go along until this looks like a Renaissance manuscript as pictured above).

You can see what’s coming next, right? Let’s take that third one: How did they overcome that fear? Now the answers might be more specific: they went to couples therapy. They did personal journaling. They embraced radical honesty. (Incidentally, I really don’t recommend that last one).

But let’s assume you go with the middle one: they did personal journaling. What did they do in order to do that journaling. They bought a journal. They got up early.

How did they get up early? They set their alarm.

At this point, you’ve reached a space where you can do exactly what they did. And with enough repetitions of the How-What loop, you can get there no matter what. When you get to a step that feels like it’s something familiar, something you could follow along with right now, then you can stop the loop and just write the steps along the spokes.

Relax; I’m not going to ask you to do any of the stuff. Yet. Just look at the image, and be prepared to write down the answers to these questions, as many times as it takes:

How did they get there?

What did they do?

Where Do You Fit When You’re Out of the Way?

A while back I decided to take up the practice of de-centering. That is, trying to be less the spotlight at events and such. I wanted to see if I could be a conduit, rather; a holder-of-space that would support the people who came to events. I worked just as hard, if not harder; I just tried to do it ninja-style, so fewer people would notice.

Part of that was withdrawing from an event that I’d conceived and made real with the help of several friends. It was a camping gathering and open space, where people could come and explore the things they were passionate about, share their practices and tips and tricks with each other, and generally have a good time.

In withdrawing, I passed on my part of the job – facilitating – to four trusted friends who I thought would do a great job. The people who created the event with me continued to do their part (more of the logistics and operations) and the facilitators would do their job and the event would go on without me.

I should note here: it’s not that it took four people to replace me. Actually we’d had four people plus me in the past, and things had gone easily; it was likely that they would be fine on their own.

And They Were!

The event came and went, and I kept myself busy enough that I mostly was able to keep myself away from the thoughts of all that I might be Missing Out from. I even managed to stay away from my Fear of Irrelevance. Occasionally on social media I’d see people having a good time, and I was happy for them.

A few days after the event, I came across a writing by an attendee who had been to the previous years, and was writing about how different this year was.

Of course a part of me was hoping it would go something along the lines of Dear Diary, Camp just wasn’t as much fun without Gray… but it didn’t.

I don’t have permission to quote them directly, so what follows is paraphrase:

This year was different from the very beginning, but not in a bad way. Instead, the campout seemed more open…more welcoming, as if it was making room to become exactly what we needed, a place where we could be who we needed to be.

That Was Crushing

They’d had a better time without me there. My worst fears – that my innate showmanship can tend to intimidate or repress people when I’m “on” at an event – were realizes. When I was gone, they had not only had a better time, they had been able to do more, be more, explore more, than the years when I’d been there…

…which was exactly why I had decided to withdraw in the first place! I was stunned for a moment: my plan had worked! Then I just about chortled with glee; I had created an event, and it had gone on beyond me, even better than when I was guiding it! Is there any other measure of success for a Man of a Certain Age!


But Now What?

After the surge of triumph, a weird, stranger feeling came over me, and it’s one that I suspect – that I hope, in fact – most men like me have to deal with.

If I’ve gotten out of the way…where do I fit now?

I don’t know the answer. I can’t just start another event – well, I could, but that would just put me right back in the cycle of being the center of attention, and there’s enough middle-aged white guys doing that these days.

But everyone, regardless, wants to find a place where it feels right, where they feel they are contributing.

I’ve been the lead in the dance of my life for a very long time…I don’t know yet quite how to be the follow.

It’s going to be an interesting – and very disquieting – time figuring it out.

“How you like me now?” – How I Sit

In the “How you like me now?” Series, I take a blog post from the very beginning of Love Life Practice seven years ago and see how well things have held up. This post comes from November of 2011 (so it’s not quite exactly a year) but it is the earliest “practice” post I have on the site.

How I Sit

I’m a bad Buddhist.

And I can prove it, because if I were a good Buddhist, I wouldn’t say I was bad, because one of the more confusing parts of Buddhism is the idea that you are fine just as you are, wherever that is on your journey of personal development. HA! Paradox!

No, really, the idea is not too hard to embrace – many sects of Christianity include a similar idea with the unconditional love that God and Jesus have for humanity. Having a deity to accept you is much easier than accepting yourself, and even that often requires going to a beautiful church at least once a week just to remind yourself of that fact: “God be with you.”

For me, it takes sitting for fifteen minutes every morning to remind myself that life is a process, not a product, and it’s ok not to quite have the hang of it yet. I began sitting when I was a Marine Corps recruit, trying to reconcile my creative artsy side with the lean green fighting machine that the government was turning me into. At the time, it was the writings of Charlotte Joko Beck that gave me something to hang onto. A few years later it was Cheri Huber who helped keep me going, and most recently I’ve been very encouraged by the writings, both in book form and online, of Brad Warner, author of “Sex, Sin, and Zen” (affiliate link) among others.

All of these teachers come from the Soto Zen tradition, of which I know very litte. What I do know, though, is how they sit. Some would call it meditation, but that polysyllabic word has a lot of connotations attached to it from other spiritual practices, with things like chanting and getting all floaty and at one with the universe.

That’s not what sitting is. Sitting is when you sit. You get into a specific position – legs crossed, spine straight, left hand palm up in your lap and right hand palm up in your right. You focus your eyes on an invisible spot in the air somewhere in front of you and down towards the floor.

A waterfall in a lush tropical setting

CC photo by Grey Sky Morning (flickr)

And you. Just. Sit. There.

No breathing exercises (though Cheri Huber has said you might count breaths, five at a time, if you need to cheat a bit). No closing eyes, no relaxing into ethereal bliss. You just sit and deal with the world as it is, right then, right there.

Sometimes I cheat and put one hand on each knee, palm down. The tripod formed by my spine and my two arms somehow feels right. Often I have to remind myself to straighten my spine, discovering I’ve slumped. But most of my time is spent trying to get my brain to stop spinning. To bring my attention away from what I did yesterday, what I need to do tomorrow, this afternoon, in the next fifteen minutes. To bring it back, over and over and goddamn it over again, to the moment as it is.

The mind is an amazing traveler. It is usually anywhere but where you are. I’ll snap back to the moment after spending who knows how long thinking about computer equipment, having entire conversations in my head with my clients, speculating about friends and lovers and techniques for brewing coffee. It’s sometimes absurd to see where my mind goes. It may be depressed about the state of my bank account, it may be ecstatic about the email I got from my lover, it may be planning on the toppings for oatmeal that morning. I come back to the moment, often wondering what the hell made me go off on that particular tangent.

And that’s sort of the point: to remind myself of how easy it is to not pay attention to the world as it is, and to pay attention instead to the world as I think it should, could, might be. You’d think, since the former is concrete and real and the latter is completely nonexistent, it would be easier to pay attention to the world as it is.

You’d be wrong, though, which neatly proves the point


Sitting is hard. I can only handle about fifteen minutes a day right now, though I’m thinking of adding another fifteen minutes in the evening just to see if I can do it. As it is, I count it a victory if I am able to be “in the moment” when the alarm goes off at the end of fifteen minutes. I count it a failure (Bad Buddhist warning, again!) if I succumb to the temptation to look at my phone to see how much longer I have to sit there, because damn it, I’ve got things to do! I read about “sesshin” – where an entire day, or several days, are spent with hours of just sitting – in much the way a person who has taken up walking reads about marathon runners: with envy and admiration and a distinct feeling of “Wow, I don’t think I could ever handle that.

I’d invite you to try it out. Not just for one day, though that’s a start. But commit to, say, a week, with five minutes of sitting in the morning right when you get up. It’s simple: you hear the alarm, you get out of bed, you sit on the floor, and set the timer.

That’s it. If you have to move to some pretty view, or put on some chimey soft sounds, or have to close your eyes, well, that’s fine, but you’re cheating yourself out of Life As It Is. It’s not something we get to see all that often, and sitting only gives most of us a glimpse, here and there. I’m not talking about any kind of satori or enlightenment. I’m talking about just being ok, for just a bit, with the way things are, as opposed to the way you think they should be.

Then the doubts will crash in, the baby will start crying, the cat will start puking up a hairball and your boss will text you reminding you that today is when that report you forgot about is due. All part of the busy beauty that is life. Sitting just gives you a chance to stay in touch with reality, and takes away your excuses to avoid it – i.e., your “to-do” and “wish” list. As another zen writer put it:

Before studying Zen, mountains are mountains.

While studying Zen, things become confused.

After studying Zen, mountains are mountains.

– D.T. Suzuki

Don’t just do something. Sit there.

How you like me now?

I confess to feeling a bit of pride, because this post definitely holds up. Not only is it still accurate (as far as it can be from a layman’s perspective) it is also a practice I still engage in – 10 minutes, 15 minutes, occasionally a half hour a day. I have, since writing it, even done as long as (gasp) 45 minutes at a stretch (though to be fair, that was because the person I’d trusted to tell me when 30 minutes was up fell asleep).

It’s still an invaluable tool – and no, I haven’t been completely disciplined in my Practice. There was a period of a few months where I fell off the wagon, but I noticed the difference (and so did my partner). Now, every morning, we both do our own meditations (she’s more the “mindfulness” type).

It’s a relief to see that this post holds up, as well, because if it didn’t, I’d have to do some quick editing – this is a key chapter in my book The Meditation Manual. If you like what I have here, you will probably like the manual, as well. And if you have Kindle Unlimited, you can read it for free.

I’m also available for coaching and online meditation sessions now, thanks to the magic of online video conferencing. Not because I think I have anything special to offer – I mean, I’m basically going to tell you to sit there with your thoughts. No bliss, no transcendence, not even really any peace.

Just…things get better. Incrementally. Sometimes almost infinitesimally.

Sit with me?

SitRep: Two Months of Handwriting Practice

A little more than two months ago I began working towards acquiring the skills of a Graphic Recorder. That’s a big project; it’s both internalizing principles and strategies as well as actual physical practice of the craft.

I do say “craft” rather than “art” because one of the principles is “Ideas, not art.” There’s also a lot of pushback in our culture about being an artist (my own mother, upon taking a look at my Instagram feed, called me with a worried tone “Are you…becoming…an artist or something? 

But more to the point, a Graphic Recorder’s job is to help others recall and understand information, usually that they’ve already received in one format such as text or voice. When I did a skills assessment at the start of this project I took a look at past flip charts I’d used in my public speaking, and recognized something very obvious.

My handwriting sucked. It was hard to read, was full of misspellings, and had no real consistency much less visual heirarchy, and it was a shortcoming that stretched beyond the flip charts into my own journals and sketch notes.

Jumping in the Deep End

Luckily, handwriting is both something that you can improve as well as something that you can measure. I began looking around for instructional treatises on handwriting, especially as it applied to graphic recording, and was quickly drawn to the work of Heather Martinez. Aside from a wealth of free video and online content, she also had a course online of “Lettering with the Masters” which looked like exactly what I needed: direct training from people who were graphic recorders, people whose work I already admired (like Mike Rohde).

Have you spotted the flaw in my plan?

I didn’t, until Heather herself pointed it out to me in the 1:1 lettering session she provided gratis to help me with the natural disadvantage of being a left-handed letterer. “You really jumped in the deep end,” she said. “This was a course designed for hand letterers who had already done it all and were looking for something different. It’s called Lettering with the Masters, after all…

Yep. I’d been struggling with hands (you might want to call them fonts, but you shouldn’t, because that’s what machines use) and cursing myself for a lack of progress, when the whole time it was like being frustrated at being on a football team when you hadn’t really ever played or watched the game before.  

(I’ve had that experience, too, by the way. Why do I keep finding myself in these situations?)

Here’s the other thing about it, though: when I was practicing the lettering, or learning about the hands and the strokes and such, I was almost immediately in a state of Flow. Doing this stuff totally engages me, in a way that very few other things ever have. And looking at my past notes from the decades, even during the Marines or High School, I’ve always been drawn to this.

So I Quit My Job to Follow My Passion…


Nope, in fact, I didn’t even do what I would have told anyone else to do, namely: Set up a time every day where you can practice, and a different time when you can learn more about it. Enjoy the process of learning, the gradual improvement from regular practice, and leave the product to itself.”

That’s not to say I haven’t practiced. I’ve spent hours with brush pens and papers learning new fun words like majuscule and exemplar and tittle. I’ve learned pangrams – phrases containing every word in the alphabet – to practice with, as it’s better to write the letters as they will be used rather than in rote repetition. “Waltz, bad nymphs, for slow jigs vex” is one of my favorites, though there are times when I’m in more of a “Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs” kind of mood.

It has not, however, been a consistent practice.  This is not so much a “here’s how you do it” post as a “Here’s how I’ve been doing it, and what I think I could have done better” post. 

Despite Self Sabotage

I could hold up something like “I’ve been traveling a lot” as a contributing factor to my lack of a consistent practice, but if I were being honest it has more to do with that whole process – product dichotomy. When I’m spending time practicing a hand, it feels great – and that must mean that it’s play, right? And therefore it’s not work, and therefore not profitable, and I’m still in the freelance/entrepreneurial world so that means I gotta hustle 24/7, and if I’m not being productive I’m losing cash and going to end up a failure and a shame in the eyes of my family and loved ones…

OK, so maybe the brain goes a little overboard. But you get the idea – any time I am practicing it feels like I am wasting time that should be spent whittling away at the ever-increasing to-do list. 

It feels that way. It’s not really that way, of course. Because here’s the thing: in spite of that particular self-sabotaging voice trying to draw me away from the practice, my handwriting is getting better.

Comparing where I was two months ago to where I am now is almost like night and day. I recently spent two days as an impromptu graphic recorder for a movement workshop I was assisting with, and again, it was like jumping in the deep end (turns out that drawing knots and rigging in specific detail is a pretty challenging thing) but I did it. And at the end, I got the reward that every G.R. hopes for: people stuck around to take pictures of the posters so they could remember things better later.

It’s a happy milestone in my process, and it’s a reminder: if I can get this good with intermittent practice, how good could I be with a deliberate practice?

I think we should find out. I’ll keep you posted, in another two months. In the meantime: what could you be practicing?