Personal Development

Improving Self-Control with Control Points

I’ve lost almost 100 pounds in the last few years. Doing that has taught me a thing or two about self-control. One technique that I find really helpful with self-control is worth mentioning, I think of it as adding “control points.”

One of the surest ways that you can get fat it to leave abundant tasty and unhealthy calories where you’ll have easy access to them throughout your day. I can think of nothing worse for someone trying to lose weight than sitting down with an open bottle of soda, torn open package of candy, and stack of cookies at your desk while you work. The lack of barriers between you and a bad dietary decision almost guarantees you’ll make one. Continue reading

Standard
Life

The Value of Mindfulness

I’ve been thinking about writing something on this topic ever since I left a relevant internet comment at I site I like. But it was David Brooks column on “The Limits of Empathy” that finally spurred me to do it. It spurred me by being so exactly half of the point, while completely missing the second half. The half Brooks gets essentially right, is this:

Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost. You may feel a pang for the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but the odds are that you are not going to cross the street to give him a dollar.

Precisely. It’s an undeniable truth that people think about doing the right thing far more than they do it. If I did the right thing even half the times that I’ve thought about it but not done so, a non-trivial number of people would hold me up as some kind of personal moral hero. It is so easy to see what the right action would be and so hard to actually carry it out.

But Brooks’s answer to this problem, “sacred codes”, is deeply flawed. I’ve never seen any set of codes that was resilient and multifaceted enough to be much use at all among all the messy problems and circumstances that so often serve as our excuse for inaction.

More so, codes have this very real problem of being unbending. You fail to follow the code a few hundred times and you’re likely to reasonably stop even aspiring to it. Codes like the Ten Commandments have been failing for thousands of years precisely because they’re so deeply codified and unadaptable. If every Jew and Christian in America took seriously the commandment that “thou shall not covet they neighbors goods”, America would be a drastically different place. But instead most of them aren’t even aware that it’s on the list.

This is fundamentally the reason that mindfulness practice, being here now, is so important. As I said in that aforementioned internet comment:

The entire work of mindfulness (meditation), to me, is to close the gap between the things we know intellectually and the things we know viscerally. Knowing the senselessness of anger, the questionable value of fear, the wisdom or compassion, the power of love, our minuscule place in the universe, etc is something most everyone thinks they do. But they constantly act in ways opposite to these things they claim to understand because they’ve not really internalized them and made them a part of their operating procedures.

Empathy is something most people do intellectually. They have the thought: it must have sucked to be a Cherokee. They did everything the white Americans asked of them, many of them became better citizens and Christians than the average white Georgian who was their neighbor. But because they wanted a national identity and were the wrong color, they were pushed hard, behind Andrew Jackson’s saber, off into Oklahoma. We can easily understand this without internalizing it. Knowing these facts, and grasping that it must have been terrible only gets you half the way to responding adequately in such a situation.

You must, if you truly want to act in an empathetic way, internalize the struggle of the Cherokee story. You must, yourself, feel what that must have been like. To have your treaties torn to shreds and your people treated like mere obstacles to other men’s goals. And then you must keep that story with you well enough that you never forget what it feels like to be on that side of a confrontation. So that you can act with the understanding of what it was like to be a Cherokee when you turn your mind to the question of, to take an example, Palestine.

This is not an easy thing. And it’s harder still when you’re actually confronted with an angry Israeli complaining about the explosives that get hurled over the wall and disturb her family’s peace. But no set of rules will make it any easier to do the right thing. Especially when you’re constantly distracted by the thought of dinner, that beautiful girl you saw the other day, how much your finances have suffered for this trip, and your childrens’ questionable life-choices.

What’s needed is for you to sit there with the woman’s anger, the parallels between the Palestinian story and that Cherokee one you feel so well, and your understanding that at base all people want the same things and to frankly and empathetically bring her into full contact with the entire reality of the situation. Only be being completely present with all those realities can you lead others to that place of full comprehension and carry out a wise response.

Standard
Life

Living in Retrospect

“In retrospect, it was a bad idea.” “One day we’ll look back at this and laugh.” We all understand that our views on things are not fixed forever. That looking back on things with some critical distance from our actions we’ll likely see more clearly what was going on and what the wiser course of action would have been.

I think the best way we can hope to live is to always see events as we would see them with the critical distance of a few years. The goal of a mindfulness practice, I believe, is simply to see all things with the critical distance that time naturally provides for us much too late. Such that we can use our clear vision of how things really are to act wisely, rather than on to react to what we misunderstand to be unfolding.

This is both one of simplest ideas anyone ever had, and the most difficult. It’s simple. I pretty much captured all that I can about it in two paragraphs. And yet it’s difficulty is real. Even people who’ve dedicated 20 years to mindfulness, or living in retrospect, find themselves undertaking unwise actions from time to time. Actions that they later see quite clearly were inappropriate, and could have been handled better.

Experience and wisdom are shorthand for knowing what is right to do in a given situation. They’re generally born of an ability to see parallels to a previously encountered situation from which it is understood what is likely to work in this situation. But contrary to popular belief, I’m confident you don’t really need either age or experience to know how do something well. What you need instead is a clear vision of all the factors unfolding in a situation and all the outcomes that could occur. If one, even as a beginner, can see these thing clearly they have the potential to do as well as even the most experienced experts to take the best course of action.

When one makes no effort to accurately percieve what is unfolding and what would be a wise way to respond, they only ever come to an adequate understanding through time. But inattentive centuries will hardly make you better at creating intelligent solutions to hard problems than a few weeks of careful attention from someone truly dedicated to seeing clearly and acting wisely.

I am not here to promise that you can be an instant expert in everything if you just learn to use this magical skill I’m trying to tell you about. You can’t, and it would be idiotic for me to try to convince you. But I do know that you’ll learn a lot more if you place yourself mindfully in the situation you find yourself than if you merely move through the routines of your life as if you’re anxiously awaiting some destination you’ll never arrive at.

We have so many stories, jokes, and morality plays as a culture about coming to the end of your life and realizing something about the way you lived it. But we have the capicity, rigt now in the very moment, to have the same insight and clarity that we’re so often told only death provides. Most of us are simply so pre-occupied with other things to see that we’re really not treating our family fairly. That we really don’t care all that much about our job. That there’s nothing more important than the people we choose to spend time with. This is the value of mindfulness. The value of striving to live in retrospect.

Standard
big ideas

Be Here Now

Sometimes you work very hard to reach a moment of clarifying insight. Sometimes they just fall into your lap.

Sometimes that clarifying insight quickly reveals itself to be illusory. To have been too simplistic. Or poorly articulated. Or wrong.

But sometimes you sit with that moment of clarity for a bit–spinning it around, looking at it from as many perspectives as you can–and it seems to be flawless. It seems like all the moments of insight that have come before grasped for this insight you now hold. The others weren’t wrong, but they weren’t quite what you’d been going for. But this one, this is the real deal.

Obviously such certainty can be revealed weeks, months, or years later to have been wrong. But in that flash, and the afterglow that follows, you’re sure it could never be different.

And so I feel about these three words: Be. Here. Now. Be here, now.

Be where you are, when you are. Be at the table having breakfast with your family. Be in your bed, reading the lastest Clancy novel. Be entering data into a spreadsheet. Be reading this entry on this blog.

Presence in any situation is no mere thing. Full presence in every situation is a very hard one.

It’s so easy to focus, instead, on what dread awaits you in the next day to focus on the serenity of this moment, sitting here, writing this. Reading this. To find, after snapping back to attention, that your mind had drifted off to the hubbub of yesterday or the joy that awaits that night.

But if you’re able, being here now is the most amazing thing you can experience. “Everything that exists,” when you’re able to focus on it,  “is beautiful.” “What seems nasty, painful, evil, can become a source of beauty, joy and strength, if faced with an open mind. Every moment is a golden one for him who has the vision to recognize it as such. ”

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year in worry. Primarily about the material circumstances of my life. How I could pay for the things I needed, and especially those I wanted. How I could get from where I am to all the places I’d rather be.

And I can’t even put into worlds how freeing it feels to rediscover what I think I once knew: all that matters is the sequences of nows I’m currently experiencing. That I am doing my best within those is the best I can hope for.

Standard