Practical Philosophy

The Spirituality of Softening

The only religions I find worth anything are those that soften people. This is a thing I’d felt for a while, and something I’m sure someone else has put into words before, but when it finally occurred to me it was something of a revelation.

The Christianities I’ve seen in America that turn me off so strongly: they’re aggressive, control-oriented, and strike off into the world to do battle against enemies. But I do, sometimes, encounter a different and much more appealing version of Christianity. This one has baked deep inside of it a sense of wonder, of uncertainty, and of deep humility for the grace of God.

One of the reasons that so many Westerners struggle to respect Islam as a religion is that they don’t see the humble men and women who go to the mosque weekly, pray five times a day, and read the Koran to learn about the forgiveness of God and how to be His humble servant. Instead the Muslims they see most, if not the only ones they’ve ever concieved of, are the strident and confrontational Wahabi-influenced (mostly) men that are likely to become terrorists.

Similarly, though inversely, Buddhism in America (and “the West” generally) is seen as an almost exclusively soft, humble, and inwardly-focused religion. But, where it is the majority religion, it inevitably also has a non-zero number of people who practice, in its name, an aggressive style.

This hardness or softness, it has taken me years to realize, is not simply a result of the religion itself. Rather, it comes from the context in which it is practiced. More martial people will want, and practice their religion with, a more aggressive style. More passive people will tend to bring forth a religion’s humility and caring.

Softness in a spiritual pursuit matters to me because the world has no shortage of aggressive certainty. People are sure that their self, sports team, city, idea, country, religion, or way of life is way better than the others. And they will plead their case with anything from a loud cheer to murder.

Surely, there’s something of a luxury and privilege in the ability to value softness over a more directly survial-enhancing martial style. Some aren’t so lucky to be able to feel safe without joining a violent tribe. But for those of us with the privilege, softening ourselves, and interacting with the world from a place of gentleness, is a prime way to be of service. That’s why I so value spiritual and religious traditions that put their emphasis there.

Softness is kind, generous, and humble. It offers before it asks, and it rarely demands anything. Those traits describe the role I most seek to play in the world. And the fellow-travelers whose religions I find most easy to honor.

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Productivity

Doing The Work

To get a thing accomplished, you show up and do the work. That’s all you can do, really. Other things that aren’t “the work” don’t get the thing accomplished. And what happens as a result of your trying to do “the work”: that’s also not really your choice.

You just show up and do “the work”.

Byron Katie, though I’m only faintly acquainted with her, seems to be the source of “the work” as a unit of thought for me. For her, “The Work” means:

The Work is a simple yet powerful process of inquiry that teaches you to identify and question the thoughts that cause all the suffering in the world. It’s a way to understand what’s hurting you, and to address the cause of your problems with clarity.

I don’t specifically mean that, but I do think she’s onto something substantial. The insubstantiality of thoughts — which is one of the core messages of Katie’s efforts — is something I recently wrote about.

But whatever you count “the work” as — learning to love, building the cathedral, destroying the system you abhor — you’ve got to do it. Even when you don’t really feel like it. Even when you’d really rather just… not.

You’ve got to show up and do the work. The rest is out of your hands.

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Communication

The Case for “Hashtag Activism”

I’ve never seen myself as an activist.  I was born on third and spent a lot of my life thinking I’d hit a triple. As I’ve started to learn about privilege — all the benefits I receive in the society I live because I’m a white, able-bodied cis-gender heterosexual male who learned English as his first language and who has never had any serious bouts of mental illness or hard financial times — I’ve started to think more seriously about why I’ve never been an activist.

The thing about privilege is that by possessing it, you’re blinded to its impact. White people don’t easily see the advantages afforded to them as white people, black and brown people do. Men don’t immediately see the advantages afforded them by their gender, women (and all gender non-conformers) do. Able-bodied people don’t see the advantages afforded to them by their luck, people with handicaps do. I could go on.

The most effective and important place I’ve learned about privilege in all its depth is from people I’ve never met personally, on Twitter. In the context of a casual place I started visiting to see dumb jokes and discussions of techology, I would see glimpses of perspectives different than my own. Sometimes I’d pursue them, sometimes they just appeared for me to notice or ignore.

Twitter in specific — and social media in general — is such an effective space for genuine transformation of opinion and understanding because it is so casual and ambient. Its rare — at least as a quiet and privileged person — that someone is confronting me directly. Instead I see them caring about a topic on which I’m not informed. It’s a safe place for me to ignore them, if I’d rather, or pursue what they’re talking about if I choose.

The activism of marches and sit-ins and strikes is important. Essential even. But it’s not the only way to transform people or situations.

When the only media was mass media, the only way to galvanize attention was to make a scene so big that no one could deny it or ignore it. The only time the civil rights activists of the fifties, sixties, and seventies were able to talk to those whose passive acquiescence to the status quo sustained it was when they made the evening news.

Today, smaller and less-reported demonstrations, events, and opinions can go quite far, among a network of sympathetic ears. And at the edges of a network of sympathy — to the plight of black men in America, to the casual violence so frequently suffered by (trans)women, etc — are interested but ignorant eyes and ears.

The change engendered by “hashtag activism” is much slower than the sort that can be spurred by large demonstrations. It is a slow opening of those people at the edges of a an existing network of concern. But if or when they’re converted, then the network has grown by a small but important amount.

This a slow process, and one largely invisible from the outside. But its significance, power, and importance is easy to miss, deride, and understate. This sort of “activism” won’t change the world in a year, or even a few, but it certainly has value.

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OPW

OPW: “Our Actions Create Our World”

I haven’t done this in a while, but I’ve been thinking about bringing it back. OPW stands for “Other People’s Words,” and since I moth-balled Link Banana I’ve been sharing most things I would have previously put there on Twitter. But this mini graduation/commencement/life speech from Hank Green, in the form of a YouTube video, was good enough I wanted to put it somewhere a bit more permanent.

Partial transcript:

Hello, future dead person! I have an uncomfortable truth for you: you are very likely, one of the luckiest and most powerful people who has ever existed on this planet.

Now you almost certainly do not feel powerful. It’s difficult to feel powerful unless you suddenly have more power than you once had or have much more power than the people around.

So, you don’t feel that power all the time. And it’s probably good that you don’t, because it might be crippling. But in terms of absolute, not relative, power you are basically a god. You can hold the sum of all human knowledge in the palm of your hand. If you’ve ever taken a hot shower on a cold day, you have experienced a luxury that the vast majority of humankind could never even dream of. …

There is one thing that I can definitely say about the world as it exists right now: we are, at this moment, both creating and solving problems faster than we ever have before. So your job—the only thing anyone can ask of you as a human—is to solve more problems than you create. Also, take care of yourself and and have a good time, ideally. But you are very powerful, and you can make your world and yourself better. So, do that.

… I also live in a world that was created by the actions of people. … Our culture is just the collective actions and decisions of people.

And that culture is, at this point, the single most important factor in the health and sustainability our species. And we all get to collectively decide what that culture is.

Now, it might feel like we have no control of this. That we’re at the whims of what has come before. That we’re destined to end up in a cut-throat world of ever-increasing inequality. But not if we decide to not live in that world. Not if we choose compassion.

We collectively decide what world we’re going to live in by being that world. That’s the real power you have. It’s not your job, and it’s not your bank account.  It’s a power that every human has. Every human ever has had. And it has nothing to do with immortality or fame. And yet, I think that it might be the most important thing that every person does.

The reason we educate ourselves and improve ourselves is so that we can be more effective at making these positive changes. At creating more solutions then problems. Because in the end, your actions are what build our world. So don’t take that for granted.

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Personal Development

You’re Either Make the World Closer to Your Ideal, or You’re Not

There are two things about categorical statements: all of them are wrong, but some of them are useful. And so at one level, I think this piece’s title is clearly wrong: some actions don’t quite make the world better or not, they just kind of happen.

But that being said, it’s clarifying to realize that fundamentally this is a choice that every action you make can be categorized into: either it makes the world more like you’d like, or it doesn’t. Either you’re having a positive transforming impact, or you’re not.

One of the complicating factors on this simple dichotomy is that we all want the world be different in some very big and some very small ways. For example, I’d like to know that I was definitely not having an negative impact on the global environment. I’d also like to be able to get to a conference across the country next weekend without having to rely on only my own muscles (and perhaps a bicycle) to get there. What do I do?

Another great example is that I’d like to look like a Greek god. 5% body fat, big (but not obscenely large) muscles. “Ripped.” But I also like the taste of pies, chocolates, and other unhealthy things. And I don’t particularly like to perform all the exercises (in either their specific motions, or the quantity) required. Plus, as much as I’ve learned to like the flavor of vegetables, I couldn’t stay happy for long on those alone.

So what gets in the way of making this a simple and concise hueristic by which you change your actions and thus simply transform the world is that there are these different time horizons where our desires for world transformation operate. Maybe I’d like to lose 10 pounds, but dislike the feeling of hunger. Maybe I’d like to gain 10 pounds, but just can’t fathom how people eat that much food.

This balancing of all the different horizons of our desires is an art, and a constant dance. Like balancing a stick above your hand, it requires continuous adjustment. Sometimes you’re in a place where your short term desires and your long term ones align. Sometimes you’ve got to put your short-term ones on hold to pursue the long ones, sometimes the opposite. It’ll never feel perfect and natural, but the balancing of it is what living is.

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Practical Philosophy

Increasing Human Flourishing

There are a lot of jobs in the world. Roles that we can fall into and inhabit and make things happen by doing. Though we may someday live in a world where the need for human effort is nonexistent, we’re not there yet. So we can show up, do our work, collect our paycheck, and go home.

But there must be something beyond that. When you consider what it is to be alive, I always come up with a hope to leave this place better than I found it. And to do that, something more is required than filling in a hole in a large organizational chart. To actually make an impact you must do something more than your role, you must have an impact larger than yourself.

And that impact should have the effect of increasing the amount of human flourishing in the world.

We humans can be a competitive and jealous bunch, but we find it hard to begrudge for too long the people who’ve really made a tangible, positive impact in the world. Surely we can disagree about the specific of those terms — maybe a politician can qualify, maybe a soldier can — but we can’t really ignore those who pull it off.

So I guess I bring this up mostly as a mission: I want, more than anything else to increase human flourishing in the world. I’m still not sure the best way to do that, but I know it’s the most worthy goal I’ve found.

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Practical Philosophy

What Do Your Thoughts Mean?

One of the subtler but more important things that has changed in my life is that I’ve stopped believing my thoughts. It’s not that I can’t think. No, I’m not saying I’m no longer able to productively puzzle through hard problems — if anything I’ve gotten better at that. What I mean is that I’m much less prone to identify with and believe in my thoughts.

Part of this topic I’ve covered before: I explained how there is no right and final thought. I really do believe that a large part of what shifted for me was that I came to see that when I was just feeling off or low, I could never use thoughts to guide myself out of it. I literally used to sit up for hours and think and think and think hoping I’d finally find the thought to assuage all my dread or doubt or whatever. It never came.

And so, thanks to that and my study of Buddhism, I feel pretty confident that my thoughts aren’t the answer to my thoughts. The real antidote to negative or angry or disappointed thoughts is instead just feeling them in the body and not doing anything about them. I’ve gotten better and better at seeing them and just waiting for them to naturally diffuse.

It’s one of those startling things you don’t realize: thoughts just kind of drift off. If you’re like I was, that’s hard to believe. I’ve felt bad for days about some situations, if not weeks. Just in a real funk. But what turns out to be true is that it wasn’t a single thought or feeling that lasted that long. It was my continuation and revisiting of those thoughts that lasted. I’d remember the initial thought, use it to wind up higher and higher into a frenzy, then it’d soothe down, but then, troubled by the disappation, I’d build back to a frenzy… on and on for quite some time.

I was listening to the NPR podcast Invisibilia recently, and in the episode “The Secret History of Thoughts” (starting around the 10-minute mark) the narrator, Alix Spiegel, made a point about the shift in the way that pyschologists deal with thoughts. It really clarified this whole thing for me. The basic argument is that the history of Western psychology’s disposition toward thoughts looks like this:

  1. First came Freud. And Freud believed in thoughts. He believed that every thought was not only true, but was “the tip of an iceberg.” That underneath everything you thought were profound, important, and consequential drives that you had to master to understand yourself. So people would do years on the couch, puzzling at things they were thinking or had thought in the past, searching for significance and meaning.
  2. Then came cognitive-behavioral therapy. Aaron Beck and his descendants believe that thoughts aren’t inherently meaningful and can be corrected. People are prone to a lot of negative and defeating self-talk, but they can most effectively cope by explicitly refuting the thoughts they realize are wrong. Exposure therapy — slowly taking a person afraid of heights to higher and higher ones as they realize they need not fear this height — is a typical CBT tactic.
  3. Finally came mindfulness. Mindfulness — and its long history in meditative Eastern traditions like Buddhism — tells us that thoughts are mostly inconsequential noise. Some may be worth working with, but we shouldn’t even bother with those that aren’t helping us. Our experience of the world is just our experience of all of our five senses, and the thoughts that our brains throws in. Just as we don’t think things we smell are important or revealings of our inner self, neither are our thoughts. So we just work on seeing our thoughts as thoughts.

I’m a bit dubious of this narrative. It serves my prejudices well and paints my perspective in an unquestionably favorable light. But it does represent the basic way I’ve transitioned in my understanding of thoughts, and how I’ve dealt with those that aren’t helpful.

As I first remember, I’d deal with problematic thoughts by analyzing them deeply. Staring at them hoping to find value and use in them. Then I’d try to talk them down: to add enough rationality or contrary thoughts to counter-act or diffuse those negative thoughts. Today, I mostly just watch them, and (most of the time) they just float away.

Moving between these three stages isn’t easy. But the structure gives a clear progression of possible ways of thinking about thinking. And it’s a progression I’d been slowly making for a while. You are not only not your thoughts, but your relationship to your thoughts matters far more than the thoughts themselves. You don’t, as they say, have to believe everything you think.

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Personal Development

Things Don’t Change Unless Something Changes Them

It’s one of those things that seems so obvious that we don’t think about it. But it’s also true: things don’t change unless something changes them. The rock that you see today will be the same forever, unless (as is likely to happen) wind, water, people, and other entropic forces eventually change that rock.

This is more useful as it comes closer to the realm of human life. Unlike rocks, our bodies are self-sustaining agents of change and chaos. We eat, drink, sleep, move, and breathe — processes of transformation. Our living body is always in flux. So we’re bad at noticing all the things that don’t really change.

The mental stuff — how I think, act, and react to the world — doesn’t change fast. The way that I feel about myself is unlikely to change without effort. If I see myself as a stupid fat ugly worthless person it’s very likely that, save for the interaction of a saintly other stepping into my personal psychology and helping me out of that darkness, I will stay convinced I am that until I die. We like to think that our minds are powerful agents of change — they can be — but they’re also habit-driven robots that tend to live in their own ruts.

Your ownership of your relationship to yourself is obvious; after all, you’re the only one in that relationship. And the something that changes a relationship with another I rely on or care about can be the other person. Because of that you’ll often find it even easier to believe in your impotent powerlessness. It’ll be easier for you to just say, “I guess this relationship can never work,” than to take responsiblity for changing it.

But the thing that’s true — about a relationship on the rocks, your negative and problematic self image, or the simple fact that your socks are currently scattered all around your house to the chagrin of all the people you live with — is that the facts of those situation won’t change without something changing them.

And that thing that changes them can be you. Even when others are involved. You can seek the counseling you, or that relationship, might need. You can work, on your own, to change it. You can go pick up your socks. You don’t have the ability to dictate the final outcome. But the closest and most reliable change-agent you’ll ever have control over is yourself.

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Practical Philosophy

Be Kind to Each Other

If you accept that you are mortal. If you see all living beings as kindred spirits. If you understand the value of “the Golden Rule” and find it to be the the only path worthy of consideration. Then there is nothing left to do but be kind.

Kindness isn’t easy. And it’s not fun and light and uplifting all the time. Sometimes it’s the hardest of hard work. But it’s the best, sanest, most valuable course of action.

To really be good at kindness, to be skilled and able in all situations to respond with a kind response that is appropriate and doesn’t make you feel like you’re just faking it, is the work of a life.

But I know that it is work that is valid, and the only thing that feels worthy of all of my enduring effort.

I know that if I were to be told I’d die soon my fondest wish would be that I could experience the kindness of good friends and have the ability to extend as much kindness as I could back to them. When I look at it clearly, I find it hard to dispute this notion I jotted down on a sticky note well over a year ago:

After accepting his fate, he said: “There is nothing left to do but be kind to each other.”

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Practical Philosophy

This is Water, This is Water

I’ve got something to tell you: you are living your life right now. Life is this thing constantly (and often without our noticing) unfolding in moments of banality as well as profundity and wonder. There isn’t some place or time when we arrive and suddenly discover what living is. It won’t suddenly feel perfect and pristine and flawless just like you’ve always dreamed “living” would be.

You are living right now the beauty, miracle, and drudgery of your life. The thing that artists glorify, spiritual traditions hallow, and the dying regretfully wish goodbye is this thing we’ve been in all along. The mythical magical thing that is the beauty of life is the water we’re swimming in. This is water, this is water.

That’s a reference to a story you’ve probably heard before. If you’ve not, here it is: two young fish are swimming along. They cross paths with an older fish who says, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” The two fish keep swimming a ways, and then one stops and says to the other: “What the hell is water!?”

Or there’s an old Far Side cartoon. Three cows in a field, when suddenly one stops, pauses, and exclaims “Hey, wait a minute! This is grass! We’ve been eating grass!”

What these vignettes are pointing to is the thing we started with. There’s no magical place or time at which we arrive. There is no magical point where everything shifts and we’ll finally be clear and perfect and blissful and able to say “now this is living.” This living thing is instead going on all the time. It’s right here, flowing on while we’re too busy to notice.

To really live life, you must remember that that’s what you’re doing. You’re doing it now. You’ll be doing it tomorrow when you pick your daughter up from soccer practice. You were doing it last week when you walked into the monthly meeting you dread. And two years ago when your father was in the midst of that health scare. And on that idle Tuesday of your school days when you just hoped the teacher wasn’t going to call on you. The banalities of life are, if seen clearly, filled with profound, awe-inspiring magic. When you’re distracted, they’ll all just pass you by.

I was inspired to write this by remembering my favorite speech of David Foster Wallace’s life, his commencement address as Kenyon. So it’s fitting, I think, that I give the late man the final word:

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

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