Recognizing

There is a phrase I like to trot out: “Any day at the crag.” And you need two details for this to make sense: First, that a crag is any outdoors place where one goes to climb rocks. Second, the part left unsaid is that any day at the crag is better than any other day. Thus, any day at the crag. Yes, despite the litany of things that normal people would list as negatives at the crag.

To be clear, by “appreciate” I don’t mean “enjoy” exactly, although you might also enjoy the experience. I mean “recognizing the unique or worthy qualities” of the experience itself: the texture of it, the aesthetics of it, the heft of it, the heat of it, the poetry of it, the poignancy of it — whatever strikes your sensibilities when you pay attention to what’s happening.

~ David Cain from, https://www.raptitude.com/2023/12/appreciate-what-happens-as-a-rule/

And yet, despite that litany, the density of “if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is” moments is much higher, any day at the crag. Dappled sunlight. A cool breeze in the shade. A view. Friends. Food tastes better. Sleep is less troubled. You don’t have to climb (or go to a crag), but you do have to find your something.

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The flywheel mind

It can go well, my sitting and thinking. But only if there’s actually something that requires solving. Far too often I’m just spinning my wheels. Like one of those old-timey air raid sirens that staaaaaaaaaaaaaarts low and slow and builds to a heinous scream. A heinous scream in my head. Fun times.

Focusing on concrete things. For me, I think all of the supposedly therapeutic effect of not thinking comes from having to focus on moving carefully, from being actively distracted from my flywheel mind.

~ Gavin Leech from, https://www.gleech.org/why-yoga

It’s not practical for me to shift by mental effort away from the heinous scream of the flywheel mind. Physical activity works, though. I take my screaming mind and taunt myself thinking, (read this in Condescending Wonka voice) “yes, interesting, oh yes, tell me more about that, yes…”, while moving. Lots of kinds of movement work, like yoga or running. Not light-silly-fun movement, but rather concerted, hard-working movement.

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Mind your attention

I’m sold on the idea that mindfulness is the key which unlocks everything else. I get chuffed when something grabs my attention. I’m fine with noticing; It’s good that I notice emergency vehicles. But realizing I’ve blown the last 5 minutes doom-scrolling in Instagram? Not cool.

There’s a reason for this. Our experiences in the digital realm are usually very novel—and this novelty leads to the release of dopamine in our brain. Dopamine doesn’t lead us to feel happy and satisfied in and of itself—it leads us to feel as though pleasure is right around the corner, so it keeps us wanting more. The more novel an app, the more we get hooked—we feel a constant rush and keep using the app until we remember to stop. (Here’s looking at you, TikTok.)

~ Chris Bailey from, https://chrisbailey.com/5-lessons-i-learned-switching-to-a-flip-phone-for-a-month-2/

This is a longer than usual article from Bailey and it’s stuffed full of insight. One item of note is he frequently gets very intentional about testing things to their logical conclusion. This article comes from him trying to live his life without a smart phone. His conclusion (and I agree) is that smart phones are awesome. Unfortunately, there’s some bad opportunities mixed in too. (Ocean and surfing, yay! Sharks, not so much.) Want to see how addicted you are to your phone? Try this.

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If this isn’t fun

If this isn’t fun, what would be? Because at this point, I don’t have any excuses for doing anything which isn’t simply, directly enjoyable. I don’t mean that I’m going to be petulant, and rage-quite taking out the trash and dealing with drains. I mean that upon careful inspection there isn’t anything which can’t be simply, directly enjoyable in the moment.

One rule of thumb is to ask yourself, “Am I having a good time doing this?” If you’re not enjoying yourself when you’re engaged in what seems important to you, if you can’t find spontaneous pleasure and joy in it, then there’s likely something wrong. When that happens, you have to go back to the beginning and start discarding any extraneous parts or unnatural elements.

~ Haruki Murakami from, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/nov/05/i-want-to-open-a-window-in-their-souls-haruki-murakami-on-the-power-of-writing-simply

The other day I spent an entire day stacking firewood. It’s a lot of work; but it’s not really that hard. I’d load the wheelbarrow (which is kneeling, squatting or stooping labor), run it to the stacks, stack stack stack. Repeat. After a few trips, I’d retire to the patio and combine some relaxing with some digital work. The parts where I managed to be aware of what I was doing—the sounds, smells, sights, and visceral sensations of hard work—it was definitely enjoyable. Most likely because I find the results of the effort (a warm fire in cold winter) meaningful. It’s any time the meaning seems to be missing that I find I get into trouble.

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Slow, surreal

I’ve embraced this slow philosophy for most of my professional career. As with Stearns, I too have become a believer in how much can be accomplished in normal 40-hour weeks; if you’re willing to really work when you’re working, and then be done when you’re done. It’s nice, however, to see someone so much more eminent than me also find success with this fixed-schedule approach.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2022/10/21/professio-sano-in-vitam-sanam-on-balancing-work-and-life/

The other day I had a most surreal experience. I was at home. The weather was gorgeous and I spent most of the day on the patio. For about half of the day I did nothing in particular. And I felt—in the moments when I was doing nothing—that that was fine.

I have often experienced this surreality, but always when I have been away. Always, critically, when I had intentionally spent time planning and working to create space to be away. Think of it like getting a running start to coast through the away time; the experience of that surreality had always been while coasting.

“…and then be done when you’re done.” But the other day? I dunno. I did stuff, and then I was done, and that was okay.

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A glimpse

The best way to get a vivid impression and feeling of a landscape, is to sit down before it and read, or become otherwise absorbed in thought; for then, when your eyes happen to be attracted to the landscape, you seem to catch Nature unawares, and see her before she has time to change her aspect. The effect lasts but for a single instant, and passes away almost as soon as you are conscious of it; but it is real, for that moment. It is as if you could overhear and understand what the trees are whispering to one another; as if you caught a glimpse of a face unveiled, which veils itself from every willful glance. The mystery is revealed, and after a breath or two, becomes just as great a mystery as before.

~ Nathaniel Hawthorne from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/08/17/nathaniel-hawthorne-nature/

*sigh* Some people can write.

There’s a practice to reaching that effect. At first, I couldn’t pull it off. After much practice, I can now arrive at this state quite regularly. Alas, at no time have I ever imagined as delightful a description as Hawthorne’s. The interesting part of the effect—at least, the effect I’m experiencing—is that it is quite clearly me that is different. Our brains are powerful filters; salient is how we describe that which our brains admit. In experiencing this effect, it feels like the salience filter is transparent… as if, instead of feeling swamped by sensory input, the window to the world is momentarily perfectly clear.

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It’s all problems

Spearman was right that people differ in their ability to solve well-defined problems. But he was wrong that well-defined problems are the only kind of problems. “Why can’t I find someone to spend my life with?” “Should I be a dentist or a dancer?” and “How do I get my child to stop crying?” are all important but poorly defined problems. “How can we all get along?” is not a multiple-choice question. Neither is “What do I do when my parents get old?” And getting better at rotating shapes or remembering state capitols is not going to help you solve them.

~ Adam Mastroianni from, https://experimentalhistory.substack.com/p/why-arent-smart-people-happier

I’m left wondering if the very intelligent are those who can figure out if a problem is, or is not, well-defined. I blast through all sort of work—well-defined problems in Mastroianni’s article—but it doesn’t seem to fulfill me. As soon as I know the problem is well-defined, I lose interest. As soon as I can see a path provided by a solution, I lose interest. Sometimes, I go through the steps to actually do the work. But mostly I just lose interest as soon as know how it would be done.

All of which makes for a vicious cycle: my ability to generate work vastly outstrips my ability to do that work. And I feel the weight of guilt for not doing that work which I feel should be done.

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More present

A million years from now, when alien anthropologists begin gathering evidence about what humans were like, they will definitely want to dig up the Self-help and Spiritual/Religion sections of our bookstores and libraries. There they will find direct evidence of what we yearned for and struggled with.

~ David Cain from, https://www.raptitude.com/2022/07/trying-to-be-more-present-isnt-enough/

For some reason ( <- sarcasm alert ) my mind went directly from my title, to More cowbell. Which I’m linking to, on the off-chance you’ve not seen it. But to Cain’s topic I’ll simply add that it’s really (really REALLY) clear to me that I am the source of all my stress, anxiety, and problems. Certainly, there are injuries and trauma in my past—oh the stories I’ll not tell. Every time I turn and face the strange (hat tip David Bowie, rest in piece) I find it’s all smoke and mirrors. Every. Single. Time that I stop, and ask myself: What exactly is the thing that I’m anxious about, wigged-out about, pissed-off about, and—yes this too is a problem—excited about… Be clear, Craig. Use “i” language. Then I simply do it, or I delete it from my life. Bliss. Calm presence. The sun comes out and my mouth makes that strange shape y’all call a “smile.”

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Salience

I get the impression, reading about his method, that what he’s doing with all the “awareness” and “fine focus” activities is pre-loading information into his unconscious mind so that, at the critical moment, he can respond automatically.

It is not possible to “decide” what to do about a ball coming at you at 90mph. What you can do is make sure your mind is pump-primed with all the available context cues, with the highest signal to noise possible, and then act.

~ Matt Webb from, https://interconnected.org/home/2022/07/01/focus

I’ll admit that I wound up following Webb’s links about Cricket (the game, not Jiminy.) It’s worth the click just for that. All the while as I was reading Webb’s article, I was thinking this feels like an intentional application of our brain’s power of salience detection; “hacking our salience power” I would say. Our brains only work by ignoring everything—except for a small rounding error’s worth—that our senses detect. Sometimes, a thing or two appear to be salient, and they rise to level of our conscious awareness. Noticing when that happens, and sharing what you’ve noticed, is one way to ask great questions.

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Or soon every day will have gone by

… and soon the day has gone by and we wonder what we did with the day.

~ Leo Babauta from, https://zenhabits.net/interstitial/

I marked this for “read later” back in December 2021, and am just getting around to reading it. I know that many—most? all?—of the amazing coincidences I find in my life arise from my innate, monkey-brain drive to see patterns and causation where none actually exists. I don’t care. It’s a nice coincidence that I’ve just gotten around to reading this, while in the past couple of weeks I’ve been simplifying and focusing on a small number of things that I want to be working on.

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Surface area of concern

Our “surface area of concern”—the number of events we pay attention to on a regular basis—has expanded alongside technology. This is not an inherently negative thing, but becomes one when it adds chronic stress, leads us to burnout, and affects our mental health.

~ Chris Bailey from, https://alifeofproductivity.com/your-surface-area-of-concern/

This is a precise and powerful way to describe something which lies at the root of many other phrases: Information overload, multi-tasking (as a way to fail), and spreading our attention too thin (as another way to fail), are just three examples. I’ve long since decided that I do not need to have an opinion on most things, and that frees me from feeling I need to notice as many things as possible.

For many years—but explicitly I have 3 years of journal entries where this is glaring—I’ve lamented wanting to spend more time on some specific things. And yet my days slip past doing other things. I’m not talking about things which get planned—a day at the beach, dinner at someone’s house, or weekend work in the yard. No, I’m talking about that, “where the hell did today go?” stuff. If you like visuals: The glass jar that I filled slowly all day with the sand of small things, only to realize at day’s end that there’s no way to put these larger rocks in. Ever. Because every tomorrow is like today. Dammit.

About a week ago I decided—memento mori, ya’ know—it’s time to flip that shit over. For several years now, I’ve been starting with pretty consistent morning routine. After that, I have four things that I want to do, and I’ve been doing those next. Sometimes that means I don’t touch anything else—not my phone, not my email, not other people, not bills, not even voicemail from roofers—until 4 in the afternoon. It sounds crazy, I know. Guess what? Every day I look at those four things and go: Shazam! Progress! …and it turns out that I then go on to pour in a ton of sand too—return that call [from yesterday], mow the lawn, run an errand, interact with people, etc..

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Deliberate practice

Deliberate practice is the key to expert performance in writing, teaching, sports, programming, music, medicine, therapy, chess, business, and more. But there’s more to it than 10,000 hours. Read to learn how to accelerate learning, overcome…

~ Shane Parrish from, https://fs.blog/deliberate-practice-guide/

I was dubious at their title, but this article—a tiny book actually—is exquisite. With an estimated reading time of 43 minutes, there’s a lot in there. For example, it mentions…

There is a place, right on the edge of your ability, where you learn best and fastest. It’s called the sweet spot.…The underlying pattern is the same: Seek out ways to stretch yourself. Play on the edges of your competence. As Albert Einstein said, “One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.”

The key word is ‘barely.’

~ Daniel Coyle

slip:4a686.

Has anyone read the book, The Little Book of Talent, by Daniel Coyle?

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A tiny commitment

To suddenly “go mindful” and try to be present all the time is about as easy as running a marathon when you’ve never even run around the block. Since most of us are not present the vast majority of the time, occasional stabs at “being in the moment” are quickly overrun by the colossal momentum of a lifetime of being lost in thought.

~ David Cain from, https://www.raptitude.com/2010/03/how-to-make-mindfulness-a-habit-with-only-a-tiny-commitment/

There’s much worth reading on David Cain’s Raptitude website. For example, his How to walk across a parking lot, is one of the greatest things I’ve ever read. But the piece I’ve quoted from above stands out as a terrific “how to…” for working on mindfulness.

I’ve been actively working on first self-awareness, then self-assesment and finally mindfulness, for many years. (And writing about my journey as I’ve done so.) But mindfulness is still something that comes and goes for me.

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Entering this moment

To be in any kind of balance state, especially if it’s new is incredibly valuable to bring you into this moment, because the moment is in constant change. That’s why we call it infinite, right? You can’t grab hold of it and then be there. The second you’re there, it’s gone and you’re in the next one, and that’s this awake kind of living. Balance is the fastest way to enter into that space.

~ Thomas Droge

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Like waves crashing on the beach

It isn’t clear why you’ve been sent back. Maybe it was a cosmic accounting error, or a boon from a playful God. All you know is that you’re here again, walking the earth, having been inexplicably returned to the temporary and mysterious state of Being Alive.

~ David Cain from, https://www.raptitude.com/2021/06/how-to-remember-youre-alive/

But first, pardon me while I get a song stuck in your head… like, all-day stuck.

She could hear the cars roll by
Out on 441
Like waves crashin’ on the beach
And for one desperate moment there
He crept back in her memory
God it’s so painful
Something that’s so close
And still so far out of reach

~ Tom Petty, but you knew that

Tom Petty died in 2017—I hope that wasn’t a spoiler. It seems, based on my quick search, that his last public performance included this as the last song he performed. omg the feels. Stop, go watch that entire 7-minute video. If that doesn’t move you…

There’s a moment late in the video where the jumbo-screen behind them says, “without YOU, there’d be no US” — or something close to that second part, it’s obscured. I think that points to something exceptional about TPatHB. Forty years, and grateful for the experience of that specific night.

Now, reread the pull-quote and then read Cain’s suggested practice.

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Embracing all the moments

I’m starting to see the unifying principle behind all the philosophies that really appeal to me (e.g. Buddhism, Stoicism, Arnold Schwarzenegger). They view all of life’s moments as having equal value, at least where it counts, and what counts is your skill in embracing the moments that make up your life.

It’s a genius idea, possibly the smartest thing human beings ever came up with. Embracing all moments as a rule transforms every day into precisely what you’re looking for: an interesting variety of experiences, every one of which offers you what you value, regardless of what happens in particular.

~ David Cain from, https://www.raptitude.com/2021/05/when-all-moments-have-equal-value/

In addition to the sources listed by Cain, I’d add Jerzey Gregorek.

To me, this is all about mindfulness. Practicing being aware of each moment is a terrific way to swim in the joy of life. All the struggle and worry comes from my setting expectations—reasonable or otherwise makes no difference—which are always frustrated by the vast complexity of reality.

I’m fond of the Chinese proverb: “If things are going badly, relax, they won’t last. If things are going well, relax, they won’t last.” It’s of course super-helpful to be reminded to relax. But it’s far more helpful to be reminded that there’s really no difference between the “going badly” and “going well” parts, which brings me again to Cain’s point.

Choose what at first appears to be the harder path, because it is—as you soon discover—actually the easier path.

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Recovery is key

Not only do most deliberate practitioners not spend all day at it, they also devote a lot of time to recuperation and recovery. They sleep as much as their bodies need. They nap if necessary. They take frequent, refreshing breaks. Most of us understand that rest is necessary after physical activity. But we can underestimate its importance after mental activity, too. Deliberate practice needs to be sustainable for the long term. How long a person keeps at a skill is often far more important than how many hours a day they spend on it.

~ Shane Parrish from, https://fs.blog/2021/04/deliberate-practice-guide/

I’m going to trot out a rare: HOLY CRAP! Because that post is a small book on deliberate practice. If you’re only up for some skimming, click through and smash-scroll to the summary and book list at the bottom of that post.

Then I’m going to briefly stride over one of my fave soap boxes: Sleep.

…and settle onto pointing out that I make a deliberate practice out of working on writing these blog posts. I’ve been working, (off-and-on, one break involved some lawn mowing,) for four hours this morning from that one Parrish post. I’ve read it, blogged [this] about it, posted about it in another community, captured a few quotes, learned more about the Oddyssey, and wrote a blog post about a common Homer quote.

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