5 Important Things: September 2018

A thing I read: A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William Irvine

I’ve been thinking, reading, and learning about Stoicism for a couple years now (and making valiant attempts to apply it) and the deeper I delve, the more appeal it holds for me. Outside of the actual Stoicism texts, this is the most robust book I’ve encountered on the topic. It leads the reader from the history and origins to modern practical application, with several meaningful philosophical stops in between. In all my imperfection, I find it selfishly comforting to read the private musings of a Roman emperor like Marcus Aurelius and find him grappling with the same base human struggles of mind, body, and spirit that I contend with a couple millennia later.

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A close runner-up this month was The Lost City of Z by David Grann. I’m a big fan of Grann’s style, and if there was ever a book to give you the urge to cast off lines and strike out for the Amazon, this is it.

A thing I did to be a better human: Tracked (and reduced) my on-screen phone time and pick-ups per day

To be perfectly honest, this started out as an exercise in self-congratulation. (It would seem my Stoicism studies aren’t taking hold.) I read an article about the average time most people spend on their smart phones and immediately thought, “Pish-posh, I’m not even close to those numbers.” (My internal voice is very fancy.) But seriously, I’ve never been one of those people who gets heart palpitations if I accidentally leave my phone at home, and I already practice fairly adequate phone hygiene:

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  • My phone is always on silent unless I’m expecting an important message or phone call. (This happens about three times a year, so I’m obviously not very important.)
  • Notifications are off for all my applications except text messaging, which means I don’t get screen pop-ups or those seductive little red boxes enticing me to click on an app.
  • All my apps are consolidated to one well-organized screen, and I regularly assess whether I’m using everything I have downloaded. If not, out it goes.
  • The only social media app I have is Instagram, and I am not a social media fiend in general.

To pat myself on the back for being such an excellent Steward of the Smartphone, I downloaded the Moment app and prepared to bask in my superiority. You can probably see where this is going. It didn’t take long to find out I was averaging well over two hours per day on my phone. Two hours! I was incredulous. Fortunately, the app also breaks out the time allocation by app. To be a little fair to my formerly arrogant self, a good chunk of my phone time was spent on Google Maps as I was still getting my sea legs in a new city. That’s my last (and only) excuse.

Outside of serving as a navigational crutch, my phone also pulled back the curtain on my habits. Initially, it was less about change and more about awareness. For the next several days, I simply observed my own behavior. When did I find myself reaching for my phone? Did it arise from necessity or mindlessness? What was my state of mind? What was I actually doing with all this time on a device?

According to Moment, the second and third largest chunks of time were going to Safari and Wunderlist. (Hi, I’m Natasha, and I make lists for fun.) This data, along with my own self-examination, revealed two things:

Lesson 1

Lesson 2

There’s no such thing as “reading just this one article,” which is what I always tell myself when I open an intellectually enticing email. I keep my subscriptions whittled down to a handful, which means my inbox is clutter-free - but it also means that every email I receive is generally one of deep interest. (Zen Habits, Brain Pickings, and Better Humans are my favorite rabbit holes. Clickbait of the highest order.)

Under the pressure of stress or discomfort, I organize. I make task lists, travel lists, book lists, habit lists, and lists of lists (we’ll pretend that’s a joke). On the surface, this doesn’t seem like such a terrible habit to have, and it has certainly served me well in a sense. But sometimes it leads me to linger over the anticipatory head rush of dreaming instead of plunging into the buckle-in business of doing.

Here’s the thing. Making a list, reading an email, heck, even indulging in some mindless Instagram scrolling – these are not inherently “bad” ways to spend a few stray minutes. It’s the accumulation of those bits and bobs of time spent in mindlessness that can add up to the catastrophe of a life ill-spent. Emerson captured this beautifully when he said:

"No one suspects the days to be gods."

Age ushers in an undercurrent of ever-present awareness that our time is limited. Whether we channel that cognizance in a meaningful way is up to us. Here’s to adorning every moment with intention.

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A thing I learned: Awareness first. 

Outside of shining a light on my own oddities, the practice of constant, gentle awareness also reinforced this simple heuristic for shifting behavior:

Awareness 

Thought

Change

It seems like a simple process: identify a problem, implement a solution. However, in our proclivity to immediately solve for X, we often skip the valuable step of true sight – of reflection – that reveals something deeper at work. Awareness is the foundation upon which sustainable change ultimately rests. One of my favorite modern thinkers, Colin Wright, shared this in a recent essay on what he terms "espistemic humility."

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"Growth, then, is predicated not just on expanding our intellectual horizons, but in coming to realize how concise our previous horizons were. From there, we can tap into that recognition to help us make reasoned guesses about what we don't yet understand. We can be humble about what we know, and take our own ignorance into consideration as we strive to learn more about the world and ourselves."

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A thing for me to ponder: Where is the elusive balance between routinizing for success and honoring intuition? 

I’m a wholehearted believer in the power of habit, and I tend to agree with W.H. Auden, who purports that, “Routine in an intelligent man is a sign of ambition.” This lens also jives beautifully with my penchant for organizing things. Over the last several years, I’ve created a series of evaluative processes, habit trackers, goal-setting resources, and comprehensive life plans that serve as scaffolding for my values and long-term goals.

At the same time, my inner knowingness occasionally gives me a whispery nudge that could overrule the dictatorial framework of a strict regimen – if I allow it. I’ve witnessed enough magic to believe that those elusive sparks mean something, and the more attention we give them, the less slippery they become.

Elizabeth Gilbert, in her infinite wisdom, sums it up delightfully in Big Magic:

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Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us. Make space for all these paradoxes to be equally true inside your soul, and I promise—you can make anything.

On a handful of occasions, I've abandoned my schedule to see what dastardly chaos ensues when the chains of obligation, either self- or other-imposed, are loosed. Some things are quick to drop – regular meditation, intermittent fasting, vacuuming. (If you agree to do the vacuuming, I’ll marry you right now.) Others are existential mainstays, like reading, putting thoughts on paper (I hesitate to call it “writing”), being in nature.

Perhaps the answer is in allowing a degree of seasonality and embracing some periods of rigorous, by-the-letter routine counterbalanced with stretches of languid, intuitive allowance. As I was writing this, I decided to sift through my compendium of quotes to see what the sages have to say about this conundrum. I think Goethe says it best: “As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.”

A thing to ask my Board of Advisors: What is one quality you would most like to change about yourself? Do you focus on acceptance, or do you actively work to change it? Why have you chosen that approach? 

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Where we had thought to travel outwards
we shall come to the center of our own existence.
And where we had thought to be alone
we shall be with all the world.

Joseph Campbell

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5 Comments

  1. Chief Shaman on September 27, 2018 at 5:22 pm

    First off, I love the website! I love the design, and I love reading about your deeply felt experiences. It’s a great way to keep in touch and share ideas. One day, far into the future, It’ll be fun to go back and read what you were thinking each month and how your thoughts changed over time. Gandhi once described his life as “an experiment with Truth”, and I see this as your experiment with thought. A noble pursuit indeed!
    Now, onto change and acceptance. Hmm…
    This is a very interesting question. At first glance, these two concepts would appear to be at opposite ends of a specific heuristic spectrum. Immanuel Kant would probably say that this dualism (this spectrum that props up the concepts of acceptance and change) is called forth to allow the will to be expressed; in other words, in order to choose, we must perceive a duality; an “either/or” division of reality. I think it’s important always to be mindful of this – this “a priori” cognitive stage – whenever our mind arrives at a conceptual crossroad; at a judgement. I believe the choices we make, the paths we follow, have a tremendous momentum which propels us forward, out of an original state of stillness, to be sent sailing upon the chaotic and unpredictable winds of action. Scientists have actually discovered a law of unpredictability that governs chaos, called “sensitive dependence upon initial conditions”, more popularly known as the butterfly effect. It means that every action, every thought, every perception has unpredictable consequences the further and further you get from the initial conditions wherein you acted, or thought, or perceived. This is a law of complex systems and what could be more complex than life!
    So, I’m very mindful that each choice, however subtle or seemingly benign, moves us forward onto a path which spawns its own set of unique choices and pretty soon, we are moving along at an incredible pace, fueled by the increasing momentum of our everyday choices. Choice piles atop choice like sediment sinking into a sea. Before long, the weight of our choices calcify our cognition and we are left with the painful idea of change. If we’re not deeply mindful of every moment, every choice, every perception, then we could wake up and find that we’ve traveled days, or months, or even years down a path which took us off course, simply because we allowed our awareness to slip into a subtle form of conceptual cruise control. At some point, we’ll stop to look out through the window, out through our eyes, and ask, “How the heck did I get here? What is this place?” Being fully mindful of what and how we think is akin to keeping a trail blazed, so that we can return to whence we came…return to the stillness that served as the stage for our original state of bliss.
    I say this because I believe bliss should be the origin of our being. I do not think we should make choices when we are not in a state of pure, benevolent rapture. And the funny thing is, the only choice to make in a state of bliss is Love. So, if you’ve felt bliss, then you’ve chosen Love, and if you’ve chosen Love, then that is the only choice you’ll need to make. You won’t need to change because in the light of Love, everything can be accepted.
    This may be an overly long-winded answer to a simple question that calls for brevity and levity, but I accept this moment as part of a larger practice of expanding awareness, which sparkles brighter and brighter the deeper and deeper the mind dives. This moment, every moment, is a chance to expand, or meander, or wander. The Buddhists have a concept called “dependent arising” which basically means that all things are connected and depend on all other things for their existence. All things exist within a kaleidoscope of connectivity. So, in approaching this seemingly straightforward question, I am aware of how beautiful and sparkling it is, how connected the question and answer is to all things, and I’ll bask in that awareness as much as my attention will allow!
    Anyhow…with all that pretext, my answer is that I wouldn’t change a thing. I want to magnify all my qualities in order to expand the boundaries of my being. I want to become more aware, more compassionate, more accepting. The way I see it, change involves turning one thing off and another on. It is the opposite of acceptance. Rather than change a quality of myself, I would rather adjust the focus of one quality while dimming that of another, and only for a time. It may be that each quality, in turn, will have a chance to beam through me, in its full wattage, and I will accept that my disciplined and honest approach to each moment will allow me to be mindful of when to allow each quality to radiate forth, like an electromagnetic wave traveling through a power circuit.
    As for the second part of the question: I wouldn’t say I’ve chosen this approach. Rather, I would say I took a deep dive into it, from the precipice of bliss. I find there to be so much love and opportunity in the choice-less sea. I’m swimming in a reality that doesn’t change, but which constantly transforms, new wave following new wave, one quality following another, and each only for a short time. I’m letting this path flow through me, letting it illuminate my life, all the while staying mindful of every moment, every thought, keeping a torch lit at every turn, so that I can emerge back to the shore from whence I jumped….
    …And at the end of the day, chances and choices and change are fleeting, fluttering in and out of fruition like flapping butterflies. Words crystallize these concepts. Thank you for allowing me to arise in this language game, to play with words for a while. Namaste

    • Natasha on October 7, 2018 at 11:17 pm

      Thank you, Chief! I appreciate the compliments on the website and the observation that it will be a useful reference point to reflect on my thoughts in a future season of life. I do that occasionally with old journals, and I am usually struck by one of two polarities:
      1) Wow, I’ve changed so much!
      2) Wow, I haven’t changed at all!

      There is some interesting research on the extent to which we think we will change over time and the extent to which we actually do. We tend to see ourselves as fixed, moderately stable beings when it comes to our measured self-perception, but in fact, we change quite markedly over the course of decades. (This is why behavioral economics is so fascinating. Humans are rather lousy at predicting much of anything, and yet we seem to have a great deal of confidence in ourselves and our fallible minds!) But I digress. Thank you for once again, giving me food for thought that took several days to nosh on, and that I will certainly return to again.

      The point about dualism is a salient one, and at first, I thought it may lop off my original question at the knees. As is often the case though, taking time to explore the side roads of thought always yields a reward, and I got more answers than I bargained for in the end. 😊 When we dial up our awareness and put a pin in every thought that contains a dualism, it’s striking the degree to which our proclivity for judgment runs rampant in the mind at its most base level – good or bad, this or that, do or not do. (This underscores the value of meditation and contemplation for me; it gives us a bird’s eye view of our thoughts and the rambling terrain they cover.) I generally think fluidity over rigidity is the rule of the day – but then even that is making a choice and thus creating dualism, isn’t it? There’s an elusiveness in this idea of just being. It reminds me of watching my uncle solve a Rubik’s cube when I was a kid and then confidently giving it a go, fully expecting the same result. Much like “being,” it looks easier when someone else is doing it than when we’re grappling with it ourselves!

      Intentional decision-making has been a critical philosophy for me in recent years (the last year in particular) and it’s not difficult for me to fully subscribe to the idea that we want to involve the “whole self” in making choices with deliberation rather than letting them stack up mindlessly. What’s trickier is the source of those decisions. Should we rely more heavily on science and logic or intuition and a connection to spirit? (There’s that dualism again!) Of course, there’s a place at the table for both, but I wonder if there is a practical heuristic for when one holds more value than the other. A question for another day, perhaps.

      It all culminates in this beautiful thread of a statement: “…if you’ve chosen Love, then that is the only choice you’ll need to make.” (It’s reminiscent of my favorite Rumi quote, which you probably recall I had written on the whiteboard in my office back in the day: “Everything has to do with loving and not loving.”) If this is the lens through which we can view the world and govern our decisions, then it’s not about being one thing and not another. It’s not about changing OR accepting, it’s about changing AND accepting. When we encounter a quality or situation in ourselves or in others that prods us into discomfort, we can notice it without dwelling on it (acceptance) and identify the lesson (change) to spur a different decision and offshoot of growth the next time around. (It strikes me that the Stoics would also approve of this approach.) In other words, we can change the degree to which we are exhibiting a behavior at any given time while also accepting the presence or lack of it as an integral part of our being – a being that will be different in the next second than it was in this one, or the previous one. Because I can never seem to stop quoting Rumi, this line from “A Community of the Spirit” seems particularly apropos to close this line of thought:
      “Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open? Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking. Live in silence. Flow down and down in always widening rings of being.”

      Thank you again for always taking these inquiries to the spirit level. It’s good for my soul.

      • Chief Shaman on October 16, 2018 at 12:12 pm

        There is a lot of substance here, a lot of food for thought, so I’m going to take some time to digest it 🙂 But I like the point you make about the fallibility of perception, and the fact that people underestimate their fluidity and the inevitability of transformation. It reminds me of that famous analogy of slowly heating water, whereby something with a nervous system (usually a frog, in the telling) is placed in a pot of water that is slowly heated until it boils. The change is temperature is so slow, however, that the frog doesn’t sense the increasing heat until it’s too late…poor hypothetical frog :(…But that idea has very interesting repercussions. It would seem that people get tied to their past notions and that could hinder their adaptability to new conditions, which provide the ever-novel settings within which the mind acts. Ideally, we would change to meet each new setting, each new set of conditions. But we don’t. We seem to rely on a pattern of thoughts and behaviors that proved useful in meeting the needs of past conditions. In a real sense, we’re living in the past. Again, there is a lot to chew on, but it seems we need to bake in this key variable of change into our projections about the future. More optimally, I think it would be even more effective to make as few predictions about the future as possible. Just fully occupy the present moment, each moment. Dream, of course. Plan, of course, But dream when you are dreaming. Plan when you are planning. Act when you are acting. Be when your are being. Occupy each state in its turn.

  2. Naomi on September 24, 2018 at 11:31 am

    I am not sure that I have one thing I’d like to change about myself. There are always a few that I am working on.

    I try hard to focus on self-acceptance as I’ve grown older. I was a bit of a perfectionist and pretty hard on myself when I was younger so for me it is a slippery slope. I do think that authenticity in life is key. Sometimes it is difficult to know what — of your personality, behaviors, actions — is the true and good ‘you’ vs. a patterned response based on culture, trauma, etc.

    However, that is a pretty nuanced place to be if the differences are not blatantly obvious.

    Loved your post again this time. Great food for reflection for me. Gracias!

    • Natasha on September 24, 2018 at 11:36 pm

      Thanks for this, Naomi. I’m with you on that tightrope between self-acceptance and perfectionism. One of my favorite Fred Rogers quotes is this: “You don’t have to do anything sensational for people to love you.” In a culture hyper-focused on achievement (compounded by our environmental conditioning, personality, etc.) where it seems like everything worthwhile must be earned, this can be difficult to accept. I love the self-compassion research that reinforces the fact that we actually accomplish more when we are kind to ourselves.

      You raise a great point about authenticity too. How can we discern whether we are being authentic at the root-level of our being, versus conditionally authentic? Michael Singer’s perspective on this in The Untethered Soul has always been compelling to me, and I think it takes years (perhaps a lifetime) of inner dwelling and examination to truly uncover it. An interesting litmus test for me this month has been assessing my degree of ease. I keep a “virtue tracker” of sorts, and while it’s entirely subjective, just spending time reflecting on it every day has raised my consciousness about the extent to which I feel at home with myself in a variety of situations. Giving intentional focus to it has been very fruitful.

      Thank you, as always, for taking the time to share your perspective!

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