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Personal Development with Gray Miller

Archive for the tag “practice”

the true cost of distraction

Paying Attention

Over the weekend I had one of those epiphanies. One of those moments that changes your perspective on things, that makes you suddenly see the elephant in the room.

Specifically, it’s the metaphor of the elephant as being the bulk of our subconscious psyche – our emotions, our habits, our desires. It’s an example used by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. He also posits a rider perched on top of the elephant symbolizing the conscious mind, riding this massive, powerful animal. If it were a contest of strength, the elephant obviously wins, right? The rider can’t use force to make the elephant go somewhere. The entire process of self-improvement is figuring out ways to persuade, trick, distract, or train the elephant to do what the rider wants.

Enter social media. Suddenly the rider becomes just another voice in the maelstrom of sensory inputs. The poor, harried, distracted elephant suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous updates. The elephant wants to go where the rider directs, but there are just so many confusing directions possible to go, and many of them seem like innocuous detours but end up in miresome swamps of time-guzzling clickbait.

But this isn’t just another “We should all focus better” post. No, this one is different.

The Value of Me

A friend of mine recently shut down his Google apps. No more Gmail, no more Drive, no more Docs. Instead he’s switching to Apple’s cloud-based apps – iCloud, etc – which offer much of the same functionality.

Still, it seemed rather strange to me. When I asked him why he was doing it, he said it was because he objected to the way Google used the data of his online activities to target advertising, etc. It’s the argument that your data belongs to you, and if you’re using something for free it means that you are the product.

I’m familiar with that argument, and I still use Google, mainly because I find their apps convenient. As for the data they gather on my website usage, that’s ok with me too – I’m not using it, after all. To me giving them knowledge of what kind of things I look for on Amazon, what kind of articles I like reading, even what kind of movies I love is not a big deal.

The Value of Attention

However, there was one sentence in an article on Medium that changed everything. The article had the relatively unwieldy title of “Why I Just Asked My Students to Put Their Laptops Away” It’s well-worth a read, not the least to keep yourself up-to-date on some of the studies of this brave new information age.

For example, there’s the usual “multitasking is an illusion!” diatribe. But it includes a link to a study that showed that multitasking is not only bad for the person doing it – it actually takes away from the capabilities of people around the multitasker:

…participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not. The results demonstrate that multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students…

But we knew that already, right? But how about this: since the studies prove that attention is a limited resource, what are these social media venues doing? They are taking that resource away from you, with the help of every new “update”:

…the designers of operating systems have every incentive to be arms dealers to the social media firms. Beeps and pings and pop-ups and icons, contemporary interfaces provide an extraordinary array of attention-getting devices, emphasis on “getting.” Humans are incapable of ignoring surprising new information in our visual field…

That’s what caught my attention (sic). That “emphasis on “getting””. Suddenly I realize that while I don’t care about the corporations making use of the trail of digital detritus I leave behind, I resent the hell out of them stealing a non-renewable resource that is more valuable to me than anything: my time.

Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 12.16.29 PM

Actual Screen Shot!

Attention on FULL

There are many, many articles on how to focus, how to eliminate distractions. I’ve written some myself. There are also many apps that can help, with names like “FocusFree”. But I’ll tell you right now the singular practice that I started directly after reading that article: FULL SCREEN MODE.

No more windows. If I’m in my browser, that web page is the only thing there on the screen. If I’m writing (as shown here) there’s only my wonderful Ulysses app here in front of me. I haven’t yet tracked down all the screen alerts, so it’s not perfect yet, but when I can I shut them down. Ad-free is worth the cost, and the tweets can wait until the blog post is written.

It’s changed the way I work. What do you use to focus? Or what do you wish you could change?

find the right mantra for yourself

MANTRA OVERBOARD!

I remember when I first consciously became aware of the use personal affirmations. I’d been under the influence of them for years before, of course, from the little “choose the right” ring I’d been given at age 8 through the many litanies of the Cub and Boy Scouts (“On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my Country…”).

But it was Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking that first made me realize that these words and others were a kind of magic spell we could cast over ourselves to alter reality. To be more accurate, we would use them to alter ourselves, or our perception of reality, but really that’s pretty much the same thing as far as it goes subjectively. He even said as much: “Change your thoughts and you change your world.” Based in a Christian worldview, his short phrases got pasted all over my room – everything positive. “Never talk defeat. Use words like hope, belief, faith, victory.

I wish I could tell you that it worked wonderfully – that surrounding myself with a bubble of positivity absolutely made life better. Unfortunately, much as the “Choose the Right” ring didn’t actually make me virtuous, the words around me actually didn’t seem to change my world. In fact, since I was actually rather unhappy and felt like a loser, the affirmations seemed at best disingenuous and at worst mocking.

There’s actually a pretty convincing body of research explaining why that is, as well as a whole new way of looking at things:

…”Third Wave Psychologists” are focusing less on how to manipulate the content of our thoughts (a focus on cognitive psychotherapy) and more on how to change their context–to modify the way we see thoughts and feelings so they can’t control our behavior. Whereas cognitive therapists speak of “cognitive errors” and “distorted interpretation,” Hayes and his colleagues encourage mindfulness, the meditation-inspired practice of observing thoughts without getting entangled by them… – Psychology Today

Words of Power

henry_v__once_more_unto_the_breach_by_claudiakat-d55ewdlWhat puzzled me, though, was that there is a kind of mantra that does work for me. It’s not the “positive thinking” kind, though. Rather, it’s the battle cry – the kinds of things I came into contact with in the Marines or in the stories about other warriors, both real and fictional. Starting with hearing my Drill instructors talk about how “Attrition is the mission” (that is, they were going to try and make as many of us fail as possible) and through “Improvise, adapt, and overcome!” (the most valuable four words I’ve ever heard) these kinds of words have always struck a chord:

  • “The only easy day was yesterday.” – Navy SEALs
  • “Accomplish the mission, whatever the cost.” – USMC School of Infantry
  • “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!” – Capt. Lloyd Williams, USMC
  • “To the confusion of our enemies!” – J. Robert Oppenheimer
  • “I am ready for whatever comes!” – Sioux War Cry
  • “Forward momentum!” – Motto of the Dendarii Mercenaries

So why is these resonate with me rather than things like “Every day, in every way, I am getting better? I think it has to do with the simple idea of verbs vs. nouns. Even the Latin mottos that I’ve enjoyed have verbs as their focus:

  • Dum Vivimus, Vivamus! – “While we live, let us live!
  • Nil Illegitimi Carborundum! – “Never let the bastards get you down!”
  • Carpe Diem! – “Seize the fish!”

Then again, Latin was never my strong point. As I puzzled over why “the Secret” doesn’t feel genuine but “Once more into the breach, dear friends!” will get my blood pumping, I figured it out. An affirmation is trying to describe the way things are – whether it’s realistic or not. What if I’m not getting better and better? What if it’s not a good day, or I’m not feeling my best? These affirmations become lies, and hollow.

On the other hand, a battle cry is a statement of intention. It is an acknowledgement that things may be rough, but it is also a plan of action to change what is necessary – whether that’s the situation or (more likely) yourself. Rather than trying to pretend that things are a certain way, it is the decision to make them a certain way – or at least try to.

My own mantra comes out of my dance background, but it’s equally a verb-type mantra. I use it when things are getting out-of-control, when I feel harried and not up to the chaos of life. I say to myself:

Dance, don’t scramble.

…and things tend to go a bit better.

What about you? What mantras work for you, and what ones don’t? Am I off-base with the whole verb vs. noun idea?

I’m also a fan of the Brain Pickings mantra,
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the practice of reflection

Whatever you do, don’t look behind you!

There’s a very scary shelf among my books. It contains words that make me cringe, shudder, draw back in horror – and that’s not from reading them, it’s from the mere idea of reading them.

They are my journals.

While they’re not all quite in order, they do stretch back quite a ways – to middle school, in fact. In it are not profound thoughts, deep reflection, positive wisdom on the state of the universe. No, instead there is insecurity, fear, jealousy, selfishness, lost dreams, abandoned hopes…

Or, at least, that’s what I tell myself. It’s why I don’t read them terribly often. A fellow journal-writer and friend said it pretty succinctly:

I suffered immensely at the hand of my past. Re-reading that is to relive it, invoke that shame and disgust. And it is hard to get past that.

Hard indeed. But worthwhile, if only for the whole idea that those who are ignorant of their history are doomed to repeat it.

Image courtesy Kanghee Rhee via Flickr CC

There be monsters…

Pattern-Busting

One of the most practical reasons to re-read journals and blogs is to be able to read between the lines. You have a distinct advantage over the person who wrote whatever words you’re reading: you know what happened next. That means you can start to recognize cause-and-effect. Perhaps more importantly you may be able to recognize when an effect is not caused by something. Either way, you have new information from which to plan your future.

Of course, that’s another lesson you will learn from reading it: things don’t always turn out the way you expected. The things you feared? Didn’t happen. And if they did, they were likely not as apocalyptic as it felt at the time. Unfortunately the flip side is true, as well. Those things you looked forward to, that you worked diligently towards until you achieved them – likely they didn’t quite match up to the expectations.

Again, both of those are useful lessons to learn, especially when you’re trying to plan for the future. But the fact that a practice is useful and practical doesn’t make it any more appealing when you dread it. If that were the case, I’d be doing a lot more yoga in my day.

So how does one get past the paralysis of autographochronophobia, a word I just made up to describe the fear of one’s writing about times past?

Not Feeling Yourself

I can’t speak for my friend, but while I share his loathing for revisiting the past, I can say that like many fears when faced it turned out to be much less difficult than I expected. It took a while, but I realized why that was: I am no longer the person who wrote those words.

That person was still either in the middle of or just barely beyond whatever traumatic events I was writing about. There were still fresh memories; the images were connected to intense reactions of neurochemistry, emotional maelstroms of anger and sorrow and grief and whatever.

That’s not the case when you re-read it. Instead you are removed from the situation, enjoying the benefit of perspective. You have greater strength and resilience that comes from having survived longer than that person who wrote the words. Not only that, you get to remember that you did survive all that – a reminder of the simple and admirable skill of survival.

Perhaps you’re in a better place now – then you’ve got even more reason to celebrate! I know I’ve looked at some journals from about twenty years ago and just shake my head. How did that young man manage to do all that stuff? I’m tired just reading it! My life now is both more simple and more wondrous than he would have ever been able to imagine.

Riding the Changes

Your motivations and values have changed – either become more refined and clear, or perhaps changed completely. You can see what dreams you carried with you, and what ones you left behind or traded in for new dreams. The same applies to friends, family, food, and probably a few other words that begin with F.

You may still have some things in common with that person who wrote the journal. You certainly owe them a debt of some kind, whether that’s positive or negative, because it was their action that put you where you are now. Perhaps you want to let them know how that makes you feel. No, it won’t make a difference to them, but it certainly can make a difference to you.

That’s why it’s not only worth it to make a practice of journaling, but also of reviewing your journals. Take advantage of holidays, for example, and spend an hour just paging through your past thoughts.

It’s not as scary as you think. It can’t hurt you; whatever pain was possible has already been inflicted. Instead it offers a chance for further healing, for more strength, and for a better future.

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succeed by showing up

The Numbers Game, part 1

Any technique will work, so long as you relentlessly work it. It’s a numbers game. That is, success is a pure function of the law of large numbers. – Nick Murray

The Universe likes to play with synchronicity. Ok, not really, but our brains like to pretend it does, and so I like to think it was kismet that led two respected colleagues of mine to say the same thing in two different ways. First was a colleague who doesn’t even know I exist: Steven Pressfield. His books on creativity, his tales of the publishing world, and his ongoing blog have been a major inspiration for me. Recently he wrote a blog about The Game of Numbers. It’s a reference to a business book of the same name, and the principle is so simple that it’s unsexy:

The rule is: Pick a constructive aim that you can control; then do it and keep doing it, regardless of immediate success or failure. In the end, the law of large numbers will kick in and you will win…Do not judge yourself or your work. At the end of the day, ask yourself one question only: “Did I do my pages today?” If you did, you have succeeded. Simple as that.

“Simple” is right – simple and absolutely dreary. It falls right into the “do the next thing” idea, though it focuses it a bit. Before writing this post, for example, my brain tried telling me “the next thing” should be installing a new theme on my word processor. Or responding to that comment on my blog. Or checking for interesting tweets. Or doing pilates. Or anything but what was really the next thing: writing this post.

courtesy Rodrigo Moraes  via Flickr CC

courtesy Rodrigo Moraes  via Flickr CC

Making the Calls

A few days after reading the blog post by Steven I was having a great talk with a new/old friend named Tom Kastle. He’s a musician and sailor, and travels a lot. We were talking about the various aspects of being an itinerant professional, particularly along the lines of lining up gigs. That’s the thing they forget to tell you when they talk about the romance of working for yourself: there’s always this ineffable cold darkness on the horizon, just past your last scheduled gig. It’s traveling towards you quickly, and the only way to push it back is to line up another gig. Tom’s to the point where he doesn’t have to worry about it much – people are happy to have him all over the world, because he’s both talented and professional. I’m almost to the point of not worrying about it much – because I can fake professionalism and talent pretty well while I work on actually developing both. But Tom told me of another friend, a friend who was actually kind of annoying. He didn’t seem too pleasant in manner, in voice, in personality – but he was immensely successful. In fact, Tom said, he’d once claimed to have done something like 267 gigs in one year. “I told him he was crazy,” Tom said. “No one could have done that many. Especially being his own agent. He looked at me and said ‘Yeah? I made sixteen booking calls before breakfast today. How many did you make?’” The Law of Big Numbers doesn’t play favorites. It’s not a popularity contest. It’s a sure-fire way to succeed, as long as you show up.

How to Become an Overnight Success

That’s the measure of my success here at Love Life Practice: three posts a week, Monday, Wednesday, Friday. There is no big end goal, no expectation that there will be a big payoff at the end. There are smaller payoffs, like my Patreon supporters and getting closer to completing my Defining Moment book. There’s a podcast now, which has been downloaded a whopping fourteen times; that’s three times the last time I checked! It’s ok. I don’t need to have Oprah notice me, or suddenly go viral (when, exactly, did that word become a good thing?). If you need a practical reason why you, too, should pick something to persist at, maybe the story of Darlena Cunha will help.

I wrote daily, on my own blog and for outfits like The Huffington Post, Thought Catalog and McSweeney’s, for free, lucky if a few hundred people read it. I was working my fingers off, even as my loved ones started to suggest I try something else. It had been five years, after all. Just as I was about to give up: boom.

That “boom” was her post not only becoming popular, reprinted, well-read – it became the most-read story of all time in the Washington Post. Think about that, next time you feel like quitting your creative endeavor, shutting down that blog, giving up on your dream, whatever it is. Really, though, I prefer to think of the term “overnight success” in a different way – back to that idea of numbers. Today I needed to produce a certain number of videos; to write a 500-word flash fiction piece; to consume less than 1500 calories; to create this blog post. When those numbers are hit, I can rest easily in the successes of the day overnight. Tomorrow is another chance to become an overnight success all over again.

just do the next thing

I’m just no good at life! – almost everyone, at some point.

Eldest daughter has been having a rough time of it the last couple of days. With her permission, I get to share a little of it, because it’s a great illustration of a couple of solid survival practices.

But He’s My Little Baby!

First Grandson Harvey begins school in ten days. That makes it time to register, and if you’ve never experienced trying to get a child registered for school you’ve really missed out on some of the best examples of bureaucracy-in-action that our society has to offer. Health forms, questionnaires, releases, schedules, equipment lists, physical education waivers, instrument rentals, field trip forms…it’s truly a dizzying amount of paperwork. That’s at the best of times. My daughter was perfectly willing to jump through all the hoops and joyfully release her son into the wilds of the public school system, except for one obstacle: They didn’t believe in him. More to the point, they told her that she couldn’t register him without his birth certificate. She had his social security card, she had his immunization records, she even thought she could get a record of birth from the hospital in Arcata, CA, where he was born. But no, the administrator told her. It had to be a birth certificate. Nothing else was acceptable.

The Ragged Edge

Eldest Daughter's shared her crap with me since the day we met...

Eldest Daughter’s shared her crap with me since the day we met…

It was at this point that I’m very happy to say that Eldest Daughter called me. I’m happy that she thinks of me as a resource for her, and I talked with her about various options and strategies. We talked about the ways to try and get the record from Arcata (which looked to take months) but also about actions to take here. Who did we know in administration? Who could we bring with us to speak before the school board at the next public meeting? What were the options of home schooling him if we couldn’t get him enrolled this year? At the same time she was dealing with this overwhelming personal sense of failure. She felt that she had failed her son, that she’d ruined his life, that she was a bad mom. She said “I don’t know how you did it with the four of us, Dad, I can’t even do it with one!” That just about broke my heart. The last thing I ever want is for my daughter to hold up my experiences with the four of them as some kind of standard. Yes, I’m proud of the fact that they all ended up wonderful women – but that was despite the way they were raised, not because. However, I could give her one piece of advice: You wanna know how I did it? I just did the next thing in front of me. There was no big picture. The big picture was too bleak. The big picture was too much. But I could break it down into the next thing I had to do, and I did it. Over and over again, until it got less scary, until I started seeing those obstacles behind me, not in front of me. Fill out the next form. Cook the next meal. Wash the next dish. Whatever it took. So with Eldest Daughter we talked about making lists. There was a California list, with all the things that needed to happen to get the birth certificate. There was also the Madison list, with the phone calls and strategies for what to do if we couldn’t get the right paperwork. She calmed down, breathed, even when the dear boy came up and said “Mommy, why can’t I go to school?” I swear, children can be more cruel than anyone imagines.

Deus Ex Machina

This is the part where you know I am writing a blog about reality, not making stuff up. If I were creating this as a story, there would be a series of struggles overcome until a triumphant climax with lessons learned through perseverance and toil. Ad astra per aspera. Instead, a few minutes after I hung up the phone with a still-scared but more-prepared daughter, I got a text from her:

Oh good god. I just called the school back and asked “What’s it gonna take to let him start?” They put me on hold and she comes back and says “Oh, you know, what I said before was wrong – his immunization record will do fine.”

This was followed by another text:

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!

…which she later told me was the hysterical laughter that happened with the sudden relief of pressure. Because that’s the other reason to keep doing the next thing, and just keep doing it. Because there are forces out there moving in mysterious ways, and suddenly things can change completely. You can’t count on it – sometimes the miracle is just that you suddenly discover that you’ve done the last thing that you needed to do. But when it does happen, what else can you do but laugh? And then look around for what the new next thing is. When you don’t know what to do next, that means it doesn’t really matter. Just do the next thing, whatever it is.

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don’t let ritual get in the way of life

Gray Aft Agley

A little more than a month ago my partner and I had a very private commitment ceremony. After six years together, it was time to express the intention of continuing to weave our lives together. Being the theatrical romantic that I am, I decided to surprise her.

Just after dawn a close friend would bring her to a sacred labyrinth in a wooded clearing, where I would wait in the center with talismans of our commitment in hand and words of love on my lips. She would walk the path to reach me, we would share that private ritual, and we would trace the path out of the labyrinth together as we continued our joined lives.

That was the plan, at least. I’ve written about plans before, though, and this was no exception.

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Gray Plans; God Laughs

The reality had a few extra variables thrown in. Such as rain coming down when I arrived at the labyrinth. Coming down fairly steadily, in fact. Also, my dear friend and cohort happened to oversleep, which meant that I was standing there (in the rain) for much longer than I’d expected.

In fact, I gave up; I headed back to our cabin, and of course ran into my just-woken and very-apologetic friend on the way. After a quick re-calibration, they went to get my partner and I headed back to the labyrinth. Standing in the center, as the rain lessened to a soft drizzle, I watched and waited.

There is likely a special hell created for people like me who make plans for their partners at early hours when caffeine is not readily available. My poor partner had not had days and weeks of looking forward to this moment, and being faced with the task of tracing, without coffee, a path to where I waited in the center was somewhat daunting. Her words were both profound and prophetic as she moved unknowing, step by step, towards our declaration of commitment:

Where…whuh…I don’t understand why this…WHERE is this going? Why does it keep winding back and forth?!? I need coffee!

Every word rang so true!

When she arrived at the center, of course, she saw what I was holding, saw the look in my eyes, and everything from there on was as beautiful and poignant as an azure butterfly flapping slowly in the rain (thanks for that, by the way, powers-that-be. It was a nice touch).

And as I related this story to a friend over lunch today, she laughed with me at the way plans can go awry – but then she got a thoughtful look.

You know, it reminds me of how we sometimes let our ceremonies get in the way of reality. Sure, you had your plans, and they were all well and good – but what you got was not just the ceremony, what you got was real life!”

I’ve got very smart friends.

We practice for many reasons: to change habits, to reach goals, to polish the self-image we carry around. Yet it bears saying that sometimes the ritual can lose the original purpose and become an end unto itself. There’s nothing wrong with that – sometimes it’s just fun, or just feels good.

It’s important, though, to pay attention when things don’t go as planned. It’s entirely possible that things are actually not going as planned, but instead they’re going exactly as they should. In those circumstances, rather than trying to fight against life, perhaps it’s better to try a different tack.

Perhaps, to repeat the metaphor: it’s better to just join in and laugh along with God.

learning to wait

“WHAT DO WE WANT?”
“PATIENCE!”
“WHEN DO WE WANT IT?”
“NOW!”

courtesy Robert Dunlap, Flickr CC

courtesy Robert Dunlap, Flickr CC

As lovely as our technological information age has become, it’s certainly speeded things up. One of the reasons I enjoy reading about history is because it puts some things in perspective. When I think about the years my grandfather and grandmother spent apart, only connected by the occasional letter wending it’s way through World War II across the Atlantic, it makes “I just texted her. Why didn’t she respond?” seem a little silly.

I think we all have our particular bouts with impatience. Frustration at waiting in line at the bank, the delay while the server has the audacity to take another table’s drink order, wondering when that Amazon package will ever arrive because it said Two Days and it’s, like, 20 minutes past 48 hours right now!

Has anyone estimated exactly how much time we, as a collective culture, spend watching task bars fill or animated spinning color wheels and hourglasses rotate? It seems like a long time, but in reality, it’s not. I remember working in the early days of non-linear video editing, waiting overnight for a three-minute clip to render. Today on my desk it takes about two minutes…and yet I find the need to fill that two minutes with some kind of busy-work, because I can’t waste time.

The Ten Breath Trick

However, my real achilles heel in terms of cultivating patience comes during morning meditation. I love it, don’t get me wrong – for fifteen minutes my job is to just sit there. Not to plan anything, not to produce anything, but simply to be there now.

Ah, but the monkey mind is tricky. And the concept of now stretches into a worrisome question of too much time. I start to feel that perhaps I didn’t set my timer quite right, or my phone is muted, or any other number of reasons why I might be sitting too long. It’s supposed to be fifteen minutes, but there have been times when either through mishap or deliberate deception I’ve sat for longer than I intended.

Occasionally the brain monkeys convince me to actually check the phone app that I use to time my meditation; most of the time, I look at it right about the time that there are two minutes or less left in my time. And then I feel silly, and impatient, and like a Bad Buddhist.

However, I have developed a trick that works pretty well for focusing myself back on the here and now, while at the same time satisfying the Buddhist Overachiever sitting in “judgement asana”* in the back of my mind. It goes like this:

  1. Breathe in slowly while counting: 1-2-3-4-5
  2. Let the air sit in the lungs while counting again: 1-2-3-4-5
  3. Relax the lungs, letting the natural contraction slowly let the air out: 1-2-3-4-5
  4. Sit in that empty space of no-air, realizing there’s no rush to breathe: 1-2-3-4-5
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 ten times.

I’ve never actually gotten to ten breaths. Every single time I’ve done this exercise, whatever it is that I was waiting for – in this case, the chime announcing my fifteen minutes are up – interrupted the breathing.

It becomes a win-win situation. I’m no longer being impatient – I’m focusing on breath, on the now. It quiets the brain monkeys, and at the same time if I am able to complete the ten breaths it probably means that the thing perhaps is taking too long.

Meanwhile, I’ve had a nice little centering interlude.

It works for more than meditation, and I’d invite you to try it the next time you find yourself in some moment of impatience. Think of it as a low-tech version of Candy Crush, Angry Birds, Kindle, or whatever you usually do.

In other words, don’t fill time. Let time fill you.

the practice of respect

“I don’t just give respect. You have to earn it.”

I’ve never understood that idea. It requires a level of magical thinking that just doesn’t work for me: “I expect you to understand what I value, what kinds of actions I admire, and act in accordance with them before I will recognize your worth and value.” How am I supposed to know that? Sure, you could tell me – but at that point, am I taking actions that are authentically motivated, or am I doing them in an attempt to buy your respect through my actions.

It’s a common trope in dramas: someone, usually a son, does some heinous action or some complex plot to finally get some father figure’s respect (Inception, I’m looking at you). Or the flip side, when someone, usually a woman, chooses to take independent action (often sexually related) and is asked “Don’t you have any self-respect?

Um, yes. In fact, I know for a fact that it was when I was trying to live up to external expectations that I showed the least self-respect.

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courtesy grahamc99 via Flickr CC

Given, Not Earned

I would like to put forth the idea that respect is not ever something you can really earn from anyone else – not in any genuine sense of the term. Rather, I think that respect is something that can only be given. I can choose to respect someone, based on whatever criteria I choose. What is respect, anyway? I’m not going to choose the easy route and look it up – instead, just think for yourself: what does respecting someone mean? Here’s some of the things that I can think that it means:

  • Admiration, perhaps even emulation
  • Inherent Value
  • Acknowledging their right to self-determination
  • Seeking their counsel, or simply their presence
  • Listening to what they have to say, and seeking to understand it

Now, I’m not saying that one should admire everyone. Nor is everyone qualified to give counsel on any subject (present company included). But I also don’t think that there’s any reason not to acknowledge inherent value, a right to self-determination, and above all seeking to listen, not just hear, and to understand, not just respond.

I don’t see why that shouldn’t be a level of respect offered to any human being. Notice it did not excuse them from the consequences of their actions, nor does it have any expectation that they will extend the same respect to me.

They don’t need to. I have my self-respect, and part of it is the necessity of giving respect to everyone I meet and know, even those that I despise with a passion.

But it takes practice. Constant practice and vigilance, and there are times when I have to remind myself that respect applies even when someone is not present to feel it. Gossip doesn’t hurt only the subject of the comments – it lessens the people talking with each other as well.

If I were a better philosopher, I could probably draw some direct comparisons between “respect” and “compassion” – both as concepts and as practices. As it is, I just have this feeling that the two go hand in hand. On a hot July afternoon, that’s enough.

What do you think? Is it possible to earn respect? Or is it simply something that you can increase the odds of being given by leading a good life?

what I learned from Ignite

I realized the other day that while I had talked a lot about the Ignite talk I did here in Madison, I hadn’t actually posted the video.

Since giving the talk I also ran my own mini-Ignite event at a convention in New Jersey. The experiences had some interesting similarities as well as differences. Here’s a few of the thoughts:

  • Focus is exhilirating. One of the newbie mistakes I made with my first Ignite was trying to shoehorn an existing essay into the five-minute format. When I stopped and stood back and asked “What am I actually trying to say?” it suddenly all became crystal clear, and watching it all fall into place was immensely enjoyable.
  • Keep It Personal. The best talks were the ones that the presenter obviously was passionate about, and had a personal and direct interest in.
  • Rehearse, but not too much. The strongest Ignite talks that I saw were the ones that were not over-rehearsed – that is, they didn’t seem to have every word in place, or seem like they were just reciting from a script. It relates to the message being personal, and letting your feelings carry through.
  • Five Minutes is Enough. Every presenter was able to make their point within the time limit. Even extremely technical subjects such as nerve pathways through the arms were able to be clearly and dramatically expressed. This might hold some bearing the next time you or someone else thinks you need a long time to talk about something. Do you really? Especially when…
  • Five Minutes is Powerful. By the end of both events, my head was swimming with new knowledge, crammed into our brains by the presenters. It was like finishing a great book, or an engrossing movie, or losing yourself in some stage play where the actors really catch you up in what’s going on. If you really want to drive a point home, maybe it’s worth paring down the message to only five minutes, because the impact will be powerful.

What do you think of the presentation? Of the format? One last thing I found: it’s addictive. I can’t wait to do it again…

the practice of joy is hard

“Shared joy is increased…” – Spider Robinson

In some recent travels my co-presenter and I were discussing the idea of joy and misery. She remarked that there were times that the misery in the world seemed overwhelming because there was so much of it.

“But isn’t the world also filled with joy?” I countered. “Even in the most miserable conditions humans manage to find moments of joy, laughter, connection…that’s been proven time and again.” I’m a big fan of Maslow, as you might expect.

She nodded, but then shook her head. “I know. Maybe it’s just that I’m more sensitive to the misery…it’s just so much more noticeable than the joy.” It reminded me of my undergrad, when I was trying to create pieces about happiness and positive emotions in the midst of a cohort of angst-and-anger-filled dance students.

My professor at one point chastised me, saying that in order to make meaningful work I needed to stop chasing fluffy clouds. “Happiness is overrated!” he declared.

“Oh yeah?” I challenged. “Well, misery is easy!”

Something Happened

Of course, from a zen perspective neither joy nor misery are anything but the added layers of meaning we put onto things that happen. If I stub my toe in the night, is it because I was a clumsy idiot? Or because my partner thoughtlessly moved the table? Or because I’m starting to lose my eyesight, as indicated by my lack of vision in twilight?

It actually doesn’t mean any of those things – it simply means that the table met my toe at a moment in time. Everything else is a meaning that I give it, and even if it turns out that I am going blind, that is also simply a thing.

What that implies is that we do, technically, have the ability to remove the filter of misery from things that happen. I stub my toe, I say “OW!”, and that’s that. My toe and the table don’t benefit from worry, from blame, or made up stories.

But it’s hard to get out of the habit of dwelling on the misery, especially as you work to develop a practice of awareness. My co-presenter quoted a feminist slogan for me: “The Truth will set you free – but first it will piss you off.” The more you pay attention, the more awful and injust and downright bad the world can seem.

Practicing the Joy Filter

Plus, it’s entertaining. People want to hear about other people’s misery, hence the rise of journalism, reality TV, soap operas, epic fantasy, and the blues. We are surrounded by a miasma of portrayals of misery combined with marketing designed to convince us that we are also miserable – until we get that new phone, that new watch, that new thingummy.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t practice, once in a while, the joy filter. You don’t have to get all polly-anna-ish and declare only the good things. I think it can be more subtle than that. I think it has to be more subtle than that. One technique I’ve heard of, for example, is the practice of ending each day by writing down three things you’re grateful for. Supposedly that practice will change, gradually, your perspective on life.

It sounds worth it to me. Personally, I am currently in a place in my life where I’m more happy and fulfilled than I ever could have imagined. I look at my life just a few years before and wonder “What the heck was that guy thinking?”” Part of why I’m feeling so good these days, though, is because I was lucky enough to have the free time to really study how to be happy, and try to make it work.

Most people don’t have that luck. And yet even knowing this, I still sometimes fall into my old habits. If someone says “How’s it goin’, Gray?” my first reaction is to say something like I’m so busy! or Tryin’ to pay bills! or Overworked and underpaid!

Why is it so hard to just tell the truth: I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life, and it’s because of the people and work and play in it?

It’s because I’m out of practice doing that. So I try, in small steps. Sometimes when I’m heading off to some exotic locale (such as Piscataway, NJ, where I’m returning from as I write this) I hear someone make some comment like “Gee, rough life, eh, Gray?

I used to respond quite angrily to this: “I worked hard to get where I am! I have a right to what I’ve accomplished, and if you wanted it, you would do it too!” Thankfully I got over that, mostly, but then I would often respond with some long, drawn-out explanation of why this life is not actually glamorous, of the many pains and sacrifices and frustrations that come from self-employment.

But that’s not really helping either. I mean, if they look at my life and have an inaccurate idea of what it’s like, so what? By trying to correct their impression I’m just taking away from a happy thought.

So my conscious practice now is, when I hear someone say that, to respond with “Yes! I am a very fortunate man!” In my head this is said with cheerful smiles and a merry tone. In reality, according to at least two of my friends who heard me say it this past weekend, I’m still sounding grumpy and maybe even a bit whiny when I say it.

That’s ok. The practice of “fake it til you make it” is a time-honored method of habit change. It is a wonderful thing to remind myself that I have a great life.

After all, if you don’t notice the good around you, there’s no way you’re going to enjoy it. And wouldn’t that just be a shame?

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