Zazu: What’s going on, Sire?
Mufasa: Pouncing practice, Zazu. Hold still.
Zazu: Very good, Sire – wait, what?
I have a love/hate relationship with Cal Newport. Our disagreement (which he is totally unaware of) comes in our difference of opinion about the old “follow your passion” argument. I believe honestly we simply aren’t talking about the same thing when we use the word “passion”, because many of the conclusions he comes to are things I completely agree with.
In his new book Deep Work he talks about some of the steps needed to create an environment conducive to focused work. Here’s where a lot of our views align: for example, he recommends that you cut yourself off from social media stimuli for periods of time (his version: leave your phone in the car overnight). The whole concept of “Deep Work” seems congruent with the idea of “Maker Time.”
He also suggests that you “cultivate boredom”; resist the urge to pull out your “source of endless distraction” (aka “gravy hose“) and simply endure the time spent in queues, or waiting for a site to load, or as your child tears down yet another lego castle. He suggests that this habit will lead to a better capacity to focus, to achieve greater expertise and skill in your work, and therefore a more meaningful and fulfilling life.
Unfortunately, like Vizzini, I think he again is using a word that does not mean what he thinks it means. Boredom is defined as “the state of being weary and restless through lack of interest“; I don’t see how any of those states could possibly be a good thing. I agree with him that we (and yes, I definitely include myself) seem desperate to find distraction any time there’s a chance our mind will be left to its own devices…I simply disagree that it’s boredom that we’re scared of.
Zen monk and author Cheri Huber, on her practice blog, talks about the need for stillness as the first step towards presence:
I have faith. I trust that this will grow into insight, clarity, compassion, wisdom, freedom, and joy. It doesn’t seem as if just sitting down will lead to all that; it’s hard even to imagine such a possibility. But sit I do, and silent I am…
…What you may not be noticing however—what egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate desperately wants you not to notice—is that insight, incrementally, is occupying more and more of your attention and awareness.
Insight is expanding into a larger experience of presence in life. (emphasis added)
In short, while I agree with the methods of Mr. Newport, I entirely disagree with the underlying motivations. We shouldn’t try to be bored – that’s easy. Perhaps even cowardly. Instead, we should try to be present – a much more scary and difficult task. But possibly the most worthwhile practice we could ever cultivate.
Don’t hold boredom. Hold still.
What’s been your experience of presence vs. boredom? Let us know in the comments, or send it on to a friend – could lead to some really great discussion!
I try to keep up with my fellow personal development – oh, ok, I’ll call it what it is, “self-help” – bloggers, but there are just so many of them. In fact, the number one reason why I sometimes consider stopping what I do is because it feels like shouting into a maelstrom. Who can hear my tiny voice amidst the many louder and more widely-shared blogs?
Part of the frustration many people have with the whole “self-help” industry is that it seems like you’re just hearing the same messages said with a slight twist. The top five/three/ten/one things to fix your productivity/sleep/hair/cat! It’s true; even within this one blog, there are definitely themes that I keep coming back to, again and again:
Simplicity. Mindfulness. Effectiveness. Kindness. Love. Resilience. Maybe at some point I’ll say it right, and it will help me (and anyone else) get it right and never have to be reminded about it again! As Maria Abramovic pointed out in a recent interview on Note to Self, even people who pay big bucks to see a concert in New York City will often spend time during the music texting on their phones. Her response? Forcing attendees to her Goldberg piece to not only put all their tech – even watches – in a locker, but to also sit with noise-cancelling headphones for thirty minutes in silence before the music starts. All together, sitting there in the room.
And they (the self-help critics) think bloggers are heavy handed? Sorry, but I think that anything – from Goldberg to a well-crafted tweet – that gets people out of the distractions and back into what matters to them is a good thing.
Except for This Guy…
Benjamin Hardy, author of Why Living “Presently” Could Ruin Your Whole Life falls into that camp of “Don’t follow your passion!” evangelists for pragmatism and realism. He starts with the image you see above – apparently put up to highlight the dangers of living in the moment, like getting a tattoo. It’s a common theme: get a tattoo, you’ll have to have awkward discussions with your partners, you’ll never get a job, what will it look like when you get old?!? Think of the children.
In my experience tattoos have led to wonderful discussions, never kept me from a job that I actually wanted, and when I get old(er) my body is going be changing in a lot of ways I will have no control over – so it will be nice to remember that I can choose some my appearance. Plus, since all of my ink has personal meaning and significance to me, every piece is an illustration for the life I am writing.
Back to why this blog bothered me, though: Mr. Hardy does a bait-and-switch, conflating living in the moment with living for the moment. The former is what is meant by living “presently”; the latter is called “hedonism”, and while it is sometimes touted as a viable lifestyle, it’s certainly not what is meant by “mindfulness”. It’s much like Kevin Kline’s character in A Fish Called Wanda deciding that the overarching message of Buddhism is “every man for himself.”
The author’s theory goes something like this:
Instead of living for the moment, it is better to live for the past — as you’d prefer to remember that moment, and your life in general…when you live for the past — for your memories — you consider how you want to remember the experience you’re having. As a result, you live intentionally in the present.
To quote Patch Adams, I would totally agree with him – if he were right. But with just a little research into both human predictions and memories, you can see why this is a horrible strategy. First, our terrible ability to predict what our future self will want at all:
We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy. Rather than indulging in whatever strikes our momentary fancy, we take responsibility for the welfare of our future selves, squirreling away portions of our paychecks each month so they can enjoy their retirements…In fact, just about any time we want something — a promotion, a marriage, an automobile, a cheeseburger — we are expecting that if we get it, then the person who has our fingerprints a second, minute, day, or decade from now will enjoy the world they inherit from us…
[But] our temporal progeny are often thankless. We toil and sweat to give them just what we think they will like, and they quit their jobs, grow their hair, move to or from San Francisco, and wonder how we could ever have been stupid enough to think they’d likethat. We fail to achieve the accolades and rewards that we consider crucial to their well-being, and they end up thanking God that things didn’t work out according to our shortsighted, misguided plan. – Dan Gilbert, Stumbling On Happiness
And then there’s the whole fact that our memories of things are, in large part, constructions of our minds that are notoriously inaccurate. To quote Dr. Elizabeth Loftus:
When we remember something, we’re taking bits and pieces of experience—sometimes from different times and places—and bringing it all together to construct what might feel like a recollection but is actually a construction. The process of calling it into conscious awareness can change it, and now you’re storing something that’s different. We all do this, for example, by inadvertently adopting a story we’ve heard—like Romney did.
Those are two of the most basic and easy-to-access articles on the phenomena. But to put it in basic terms, Mr. Hardy would have us live now based on predictions likely to be wrong for the benefit of a future self that will be unlikely to remember what actually happened anyway.
It’s living in constant fear of the judgement of an unknown and imagined presence somewhere in your future. “I don’t want future me to regret this!” seems like a lousy reason for just doing what is right.
Make the right decisions for your life because they’re the right decisions now. Don’t take my word for it; how about that other self-help guru, Gandhi:
“It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.”
Today's blog post will be brief, as I attend a funeral with my partner, Natasha. I simply remind you all that the practice of connecting with those you love is always a good idea, because time doesn't stop and wait for you to catch up.
Unable are the loved to die
for love is Immortality.
– Emily Dickinson
How did it go?
All the pieces were in place. You finally got over your fear and took that step (or were pushed by friends or circumstance or both). You put everything on the line that was needed, all the fruits of those papers and those charts and those hours of evaluation…and the Defining Moment came.
As such things do, the Defining Moment went, too. Now what?
The word might make some of you smirk with salacious connotations, but the first thing you need to do after your Defining Moment is nothing. Create a moment of stillness, a place where you can just sit and let the feelings/neurochemicals/aftershocks roll over you. Your brain will start second-guessing and critiquing and re-writing and re-framing the experience soon enough.
In fact, in all likelihood, the first thing your brain will wonder is “Did I give myself enough time for afterglow?” That’s fine; that’s the way the monkey mind works.
But try, for as long as you can, to say “Nope. Need a little more time,” and just sit with it. Maybe try the Ten Breath Waiting Technique. Maybe have a glass of water. Do some yoga. Listen to Free Bird. Whatever it takes, give yourself some time.
It Does Not Mean What You Think It Means
Did I like that?
Accept whatever answer you first come up with, and if you hear a “…but” forming after the “yes” or “no”, just stop right there. There will be time for buts later.
Admitting that you like something is not a statement of intent. It is not a fault, it is not a commitment, it is not a sin (if that’s a word you find useful). It is a simple evaluation, an honest reaction.
We all have the ability to choose our actions at any given moment, and an astonishing number of those actions are doing things we don’t like. An even more astonishing number of them are doing things that keep us from things we do like.
So it’s already proven that just liking some experience or not won’t fundamentally change your identity. You’re safe. So go with the gut reaction to the question:
Did I like that?
It’s a harder thing than you’d think. However, it can be very useful to untangle what exactly you enjoy about your Defining Moment.
For example: One of the brutal realizations that I had while working on this was that I don’t like writing. It’s always a struggle, and I’d much rather be reading, eating, watching TV, untangling cables under my desk, washing dishes, or even doing yoga than actually writing. However, I also know that I absolutely love having written. Knowing these facts, I don’t waste time trying to pretend to enjoy the act of writing, because there’s no use lying to myself. I use other methods to motivate that habit.
On the other hand, when I’m done with something, I completely relish the feeling that I have created something. Every blog post is it’s own little Defining Moment.
How do you like that?
Huge shout-out to Karl for becoming my first Patreon subscriber! With his help we’re re-designing the entire system of Love Life Practice rewards. Why don’t you take a look and see if you feel like helping support the continuing work here. It also helps to spread the word with a tweet or a facebook like. Thanks!
“WHAT DO WE WANT?”
“WHEN DO WE WANT IT?”
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:
- Breathe in slowly while counting: 1-2-3-4-5
- Let the air sit in the lungs while counting again: 1-2-3-4-5
- Relax the lungs, letting the natural contraction slowly let the air out: 1-2-3-4-5
- Sit in that empty space of no-air, realizing there’s no rush to breathe: 1-2-3-4-5
- 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 Augmented Self at Rest
Credit where credit is due: I first considered the idea of the “Augmented Self” during a conversation with my good friend J.P., a stage manager extraordinaire from Toronto (among other things). He and I were discussing how often we are carrying on simultaneous connections through various media – the instant gratification of a face-to-face conversation with various other kinds of gratification extending outwards via chat, text, or email (in order of delay). At the time (and forgive me, JP, if I misquote) he said something along the lines of:
It’s not that I need to be connected all the time. It’s just that sometimes, when I’m connected in the right way, I can feel more myself than when I’m not.
I’ve always loved that phrase: “I can feel more myself…” That’s what personal development is all about, right? The tools we use to connect over distance – from the pen and paper through Google Hangouts – aren’t evil in and of themselves, they are simply tools, and can be used (at least, in JP’s case) to enrich his life by keeping him connected with others.
Like me. Many’s the time he and I just suddenly pop into each other’s lives, like a virtual Kramer/Seinfeld, just to share some thought or question. He’s at the airport, I’m I my desk. I’m at the airport, he’s backstage. Quick connection, say what we want to say (or just hang out) and then disconnect.
But What About Being Present, Gray?
I hear you! Doesn’t this idea of having a virtual connection take away from the Good Buddhist practice of being present fully in the moment? Isn’t that what we strive for?
Yes, but – I am hazarding a guess that you don’t necessarily always need to be fully present with whatever’s right in front of you. For example, I don’t need to sit there and watch the task bar change color bit by bit as a video is rendering. My mind can be more usefully engaged – and before you say “use the time for some personal reflection” (which is something I would probably say, too) let me put forth the idea that if you shift to “personal reflection” that is no less a distraction than “outside connection.”
Further, let me make another suggestion: if you have significant connections with people, places, or events that are far away, and you have the tools to still be present in some manner with them – aren’t you actually being more present as your authentic self if you maintain that connection?
Let Me Give an Example (or two)
I was a horrible person a long time ago when I was engaged to a lovely young woman. I had actually proposed to her after dating for a year, and wisely, she had said no. She then proposed to me a year later, and wisely I said no. But after three years of dating, I wanted to make sure that my next proposal was going to work.
So I played a very dirty trick. At Thanksgiving Dinner – with my father, stepmother, sisters, and daughters all there – I planned to pull out the ring. Not only that, I put my biological mother on speakerphone in order to have her “present” when I popped the question.
Now, here’s the question: was the moment made better or worse by that virtual presence? Ignore the emotional manipulation involved in putting my poor fiancée on the spot; as I said, I was horrible. But with all the facetime, video conferencing, etc that goes on – are we really worse off?
In another instance, I was part of a performing troupe here in Madison and we got a great gig. Then we got another great gig in Chicago the same night. We realized that we could do both gigs if we split the troupe up – but it was the first time we’d done that, and one of the gigs was a bit of a step up for the whole group, and we were nervous.
I remember that night exchanging many text messages with my fellow performers both here in Madison and in Chicago as both gigs were triumphantly done with outstanding skill. I remember the sense of exhilaration and pride I felt as not only the people I was with but my friends hundreds of miles away all made our art. I felt more connected thanks to the immediacy of things than I would have if I’d heard about it later.
How Much is Enough?
I’m not saying we shouldn’t unplug – by no means. In fact, tune in next week for an essay on just how much I think we need to unplug at times. What I’m saying is that there is a power to choosing what to focus on – whether that’s choosing to watch TV, text your friends, skype your daughter, and surf YouTube all evening, or spend an evening in a sensory deprivation tank with everything but your ears turned off, listening to Peter Gabriel’s Passion.
It’s all a matter of degree, and the only person who can truly decide whether you are augmenting or distracting from what’s important is you.
So pay attention. As much as you can afford to, anyway.