Life

Grit & Doing the Change

You care, you’ve got a plan, now you’ve just got to do it. Great! You’re going to change your life. This is the easy part! You just need to get up every day for a year, and go for a five mile run first thing in the morning, no exceptions.

The hard part of doing the things that you’ve planned and plotted to change your life is that a lot of that doing is dull. Continue reading

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Life

Good Leadership, Good Life?

In a former job — at a company large enough to have thought a lot about institutional support materials and goals — I was being preened for a promotion. In this company, you become a “leader”, not a “manager” and so the conversations focus around the values of good leadership. I was handed a document called “Leadership Expectations”, and at first I was dubious. But as I read, I was shocked to see almost exclusively qualities I cared about outside of the workplace listed. Things like “listening attentively”, “being resilient”, and “collaborating effectively”.

It took a while to coalesce, but now I’m pretty sure of a few interesting details about this. Continue reading

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Life

Simple Truths, Commuting, and Wisdom

Anyone who’s been reading Frozen Toothpaste long knows all too well about my theory that just about every important truth about life can be quickly reduced to a statement so banal that people ignore it. The classic example I reach for is “money can’t buy happiness”, which almost everyone acquiesces to at some level. Few people dispute the truth of the idea, and yet people run themselves ragged in dogged pursuit of money.

What I’m starting to come around to is the idea that it’s not simply that these cliches are cliches that makes people struggle to understand and and act in accordance with them. Rather, there’s a whole second level of the complexities of “money doesn’t buy happiness” that people don’t ever consider. Continue reading

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Life

Nothing’s Gonna Change My World

I suspect that one of the most pervasive and damaging problems that people face is their inertia. Surely in some situations there are actual formidable forms of social or political opposition which cause people real harm but outside of that, inertia comes first.

Most people, myself included, have a thought inside their head of the kind of life they’d like to be living. And they have this life, usually at least some distance removed from that ideal, that they’re actually living. They may spend time, a lot of time even, fantasizing about how to bring those two halves together.

The thing about fantasies, imagined trajectories, plans made in the air, are that none of them will ever cause anything to change. Only taking action — doing the work to take what is inside your head and making it concrete and real in the world — can ever make anything change.

It’s possible that a few people, in the entire arc of history leading to our present situation, have had the ability to change the world without the hard work of doing it being their responsibility. Most of these people were born lucky, which typically means that were born rich.

But for the rest of us, the vast unwashed masses of us, it’s pretty much on our shoulders. If we’re lucky we’ll find a few people who’ll help along the way. People who will help us polish our vision, make it stronger, make it realer. But it’s hard for changes to reach that stage. It takes a lot of demonstrated value and progress for someone to throw their lot in with you and help you make your dream real.

So mostly, it comes down to you. It will be your choices and actions determine the course of your life. The sun does shine brighter on some fields than others, it’s undeniable. But whatever field you find your self in, the beauty and brightness of your flower is pretty much up to you. You control if you bloom, when, and for how long.

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Life

Models of Kindness

There’s a saying I’m quite fond of: “Never compare your insides to anyone else’s outsides.” There are a million variations on the theme, but the message is always the same: your internal experience and the outward behaviors you notice and find notable in others aren’t really the same process or a reasonable basis for comparison. They are the proverbial apples and oranges.

This is undeniable to anyone who stops and thinks about it for a second, but it’s one of those hard-to-appreciate banal truths that form the most sound basis for understanding reality.

Even when we know about this, and have some understanding of it, we’re still apt to get it wrong. Apt to look to exemplars of kindness like the Dalai Lama or Desmond Tutu and think “well it all comes so easy for them.” Even the less famous people you notice as exceptionally kind in your everyday life may have you thinking similar thoughts. “Well she just likes people a lot.” “He’s just really outgoing.”

It’s easy to get frustrated when seeing someone else demonstrate the kind of kindness you don’t have the strength to offer. To feel like you’re just not cut out for that whole kindness thing and let yourself off the hook. (It’s a bit off topic, but “that whole kindness thing” can be changed to many other variants: the running a business thing, the reading big important books thing, the being devoutly religious thing.)

We let ourselves mistake people doing things for them being easy for them to our collective peril. When we leave the responsibility to try to be kind or generous or and wise to others, we leave society a poorer place.

The path to a kind an generous world is not to elevate to sainthood — no offense to Catholicism — those few people who achieve some heroic standard of morally exemplary behavior. Rather a world permeated by kindness comes about from everyone making an effort everyday to be just a little kinder than they would otherwise be. For some, that means giving away the clothes off their back to the poor homeless woman they meet. For others that means only spitting on the homeless man rather than physically assaulting him. But both shifts are commendable and essential to moral progress in the world.

We must be our own moral idols and exemplars. We must learn to act kindly for its own sake, not so that others will look up to us as models of kindness. “There is nothing noble in being superior to some other person; true nobility is found in being superior to your former self.”

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Life

The Vulnerability of Kindness

Vulnerability is scary.

Whether you’re a wildebeest parching your thirst from a possibly-crocodile-infested pond or a person sitting in a room about to tell someone a truth that you’ve hidden for a while, it’s frightening stuff. Your heart races. Your skin shines. Your muscles tense. Your voice shakes.

The truth of a situation is naked. Vulnerable. Exposed. We spend most of our life trying our best to avoid situations where we must admit the truth, see the truth, or otherwise open ourselves up to things that scare us.

But we run from vulnerability to our peril. There is fundamentally no way out of situations that require vulnerability. We are vulnerable creatures, each one of us fundamentally unable to create the world we want alone. Something will always be different than we’d choose — whether it’s sickness, weakness, or an urgent need for help. We simply are not omnipotent.

We can try to escape this reality, but only by fleeing into vices that distract our mind from it. You can get drunk. Get high. Get distracted. Get fat. Get conceited. Get selfish. Get mean. Get quiet. Get isolated. But none of those gets rid of the vulnerability that caused you to seek escape. They only mask it.

Kindness is about saying things people may read as weak, or stupid, or weird. About doing things without any guarantee you’ll receive anything in return.

Coping strategies put a rug over over the hole of vulnerability. It superficially seems we’ve rid the area of that unsightly hole, but someday when we’re not careful that hole will catch us. And then we’ll be at the bottom of a hole with a huge rug and anything else that rug brought down with us. We’ll be stymied down there in the hole, wrestling with all that stuff before we can even think about how we can get out.

Kindness is hard. And it is fundamentally about vulnerability. About laying yourself open, if only the smallest bit, so that someone else can accept that opening. Kindness is about saying things people may read as weak, or stupid, or weird. About doing things without any guarantee you’ll receive anything in return. You simply cannot do those things while you’re scared of being vulnerable.

Opening to vulnerability requires tremendous awareness. It requires you to escape the invulnerable bubble of your regular stories and patterns and actually sit there and keep going as your pulse quickens, your mind races, and you want anything to not have to go through with this thing. But you do it, not because it’s easy but because it’s important.

There is, to my knowledge, no quick shortcut to empowering brave vulnerability. You must try and you must feel the horror and you must, sometimes, feel stupid and foolish for having made the effort.

But sometimes you will also feel stupid and foolish for having found the effort so hard, because no catastrophe befalls you. And sometimes great things come from the effort. And as those experiences accumulate, you get more comfortable. You’re better able to be open and fully present and kind in the world. It’s hard work, but I’m not sure any work is more worthy.

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Life

Kind Awareness

Fundamentally, nothing can respond to a stimuli it doesn’t perceive. Whether a robot car, a wolf, a rose bush, a person, or a rock. Not a single one of them can respond to things they aren’t aware of.

Bubbles limit kindness, primarily because they inhibit awareness. When you’re caught in your own story about how broken American politics are, triggered by the stupid bumper sticker you saw on an ugly, beat-up old car that shouldn’t even be on the road, you’re a lot less likely to notice the ducklings trying to cross the street in front of you. And you can’t brake for ducklings you don’t see.

Frequently, when I reflect on a time when I felt I was unnecessarily rude, mean, or harsh in either speech or action, I find that the reason is that I wasn’t really there for the encounter.

We are tremendously sensitive when we focus. Most of us can tell that another person is even slightly uneasy in a situation when we make the effort. We can tell in all the micro-cues something about their internal state that they probably wouldn’t disclose, and may not themselves be aware of. But we have to be paying attention to notice it.

And we have to be paying attention to notice how the reality of their reaction feels to us. If you’re not careful, noticing someone uneasy in your presence can set you off in any number of directions.

And we have to be paying attention to notice how the reality of their reaction feels to us. If you’re not careful, noticing someone uneasy in your presence can set you off in any number of directions. Maybe you yourself suddenly feel uneasy. And that can becomes its own cycle, spiraling toward any array of emotions, from fear to anger. None of which you formally choose. You’ll just later find yourself in one.

Awareness is an incredibly hard thing to cultivate. When you start trying, you’ll likely find yourself frustrated by just how little active awareness you have in a given moment. And that can becomes its own cycle, spiraling toward any array of emotions, from fear to anger. None of which you formally choose. You’ll just later find yourself in one.

But awareness of the present situation is utterly essential if you’re going to find a way to act kindly inside of it. So you must, if you truly aspire to be your kindest self, cultivate it. Call it mindfulness or presence or awareness or embodiedness or prayer or whatever you want. But work on it. Make it something you aspire to do, that you spend time getting better at.

Meditation in Tokyo

You can start now. Just notice your breathing. You’re breathing in, you’re breathing out. Don’t try to change your breath, just notice it passing in and out. When you notice that you’re no longer noticing it, return. Stay with your breath as much as you can. When you drift away, don’t fret or analyze — that takes you back into your bubble. Stay with the breath. In. Out. In. Out. It’ll go like that until you die, so you can always come back to it.

Breath meditation seems a bit dull, but it’s the simplest and best tool you have to cultivate awareness. Awareness that can stop you from suddenly waking up in a state of fear or anger you haven’t chosen. Awareness that can enable spontaneous kindness you can’t possibly imagine.

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Life

Puncturing Your Bubble for Kindness

You live inside your head. It’s fundamentally true: try to define who you are without including the large mass behind your eyeballs and you’ll flounder. But for most of us, most of the time, we live inside our head in a more casual sense. We’re caught up inside the machinations of our neuroses, missing most of what happens in the world.

The pattern is so common I may not even need to tell you about it. For a while, you’re paying attention to the things unfolding around you. And then one of the things you’re observing triggers some path in your brain — a memory, a latent idea, a thought — and you follow that path for somewhere between one millisecond and thirty minutes. Then you snap back to observing the present reality.

This pattern builds our bubbles. I’ve spent a great deal of time inside the bubble of my worldview. This bubble is more than just a given set of well-trodden mental paths. It is the environment around that, populated by all the triggers and loops that can pull you onto these well-worn paths. That environment defines borders around itself to keep safe.

Black and white photo of child hidden in fearFor me, one of these borders was that strangers were scary, complicated, and unworthy of my time. This was different than the quixotic “stranger danger” about which children are warned. And this wasn’t, though it may have had similar results, some kind of deep fear of social contact and an inability to cross the border. For me it was an unwillingness to give most people the metaphorical “time of day”; a deep conceit that defined most of the world as unworthy of my time and concern. So most people “in my life” were well below my radar.

Retrospectively I’d guess that it was safer for me, and my self image, to disregard people who might later shun me than to hope for something from them and not get it. It’s not the worst imaginable coping mechanism, but I don’t recommend it. This personal bubble with sharp boundaries, learned after years of training, is one of the primary reasons that I find kindness to be difficult.

People weren’t allowed in my bubble unless they’d proven to me that they were interesting and worthy of my time. It allowed me to conserve tremendous amounts of time and energy in the short term, but it closed me off to tremendous possibilities and powers that come with being open and kind as you move through the world.

The puncturing of the bubble that isolated me from the world has been a slow and on-going process. I’d say I’m wearing away at the bubble that makes it hard for me to be kind rather than that I can or am ever likely to remove it entirely.

But to be as consistently kind as I aspire to, I have to get through that bubble. It’s essential to be available and in the world to be kind to the people in it. It’s a slow process, but I think leaving the bubble makes a big difference.

Your bubble may be different. Maybe you don’t even have a bubble. But if you ever find yourself stifling an impulse to engage with a person you see before you, there are few better questions than “Why?” Why am I closing down? For me, the protective bubble in which I’ve lived so long is regularly the reason.

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