On Being Still

Teach us to care and not to care.
Teach us to be still.

T. S Eliot - Excerpt from the poem Ash Wednesday

I’m often struck by the serendipity of life if one only allows it in. I started a new book this morning, Anne Lamott’s Almost Everything and in it she quotes the excerpt from T. S. Eliot above. Living in the age of information, I was able to google the poem and discover its title. This is serendipitous because my main personal focus for Lent, which started yesterday with Ash Wednesday, is to write every day. Lamott’s book is about hope in our life of despair, how she has navigated the waters of an existentially sad world to find constant hope in the amazing things that humans do to and for each other. It is apropos that much of the first section of Eliot’s poem is about turning away from the ephemeral and towards the everlasting.

“Teach us to be still”. In the world of a pandemic and now a once in a lifetime winter storm that has brought much of what we expect to be normality to a stop, I have noticed that stillness is in short supply in my life. Some of this is due to having a four year old trapped in a house for hours and days on end. But much of it, the mental side, is of my own doing, constantly darting from one thing to the next, a tweet here, a message in Slack there, perhaps another email has come in. This is nothing new. I have struggled with this for years. But it has gotten worse in the last 12 months to the point where reading something of length that is mildly difficult seems beyond my capability.

I’ve noticed that it gets worse through the day as the notifications and the demands on attention grow. By the time the work day is over, my attention has been fragmented and my mind is exhausted, not in a pleasant way after great focus but as if it were a firefly trapped in a jar by a child, constantly flying into invisible walls until it can fly no more. I need to take time during the day for stillness, to allow quiet in the door of my mind.

It is interesting to me the use of “and” in the first line of the excerpt above. When I first thought about the line, I assumed it was an “or”. But an “or” there would have a different, sadder, more desolate meaning. It would be asking to be taught nothingness. Instead, the “and” asks for hope, to be able to care but also to not care, especially, within the context of the larger poem, to let go and be still. We should care about the inhumanity in the world but we should also know what we can affect. We should let go of that we cannot change, not unlike Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer.

The irony of course is that a massive winter storm is the perfect time for stillness. There is nothing to else to do for several days. Yet I felt constant restlessness and irritation. I’m hoping that a return to more meditative pursuits during this Lenten season can teach me to be still again.

Lent 2012 Day 10

We’re ten days into the Lenten Experiment and overall, I have to say it hasn’t been as hard as I would have expected. First some stats. In the first 10 days, I’ve gotten up by 5 AM seven times, by 5:30 2 times and by 6:30 once. That last time was the second day when an extremely late Mavericks game conspired to throw me off track early on. However, for those other times, I feel pretty good about achieving the goal. Even the days at 5:30 were mostly a matter of deciding to get out of bed more than a sleeping til 5:30 problem.

I’m settling into a rhythm of feeding the cats at 5 followed by meditation and then a small amount of yoga. Not surprisingly, the cats, specifically the one who shall not be named but likes to walk circles around the bed until I wake up and feed her, have adjusted to the time schedule change by being hungry at 4 AM instead of 5 AM as they were before. This is probably just the simple math of being fed earlier in the evening though I like to think of it as their demonic desires made real in the ongoing attempt to drive me insane. The dog doesn’t seem to care one way or the other.

It’s starting to become easier (as easy as 5 AM ever is) and the past several days, I have even put the alarm (the clock on my phone) back on the bedside table. Initially, I put it in the music dock in the kitchen for the first several days so that I would be forced to get out of bed and start moving. I know my habit and it is to turn off the alarm and say screw it in that dark, subterranean moment of the morning when logic and reason are still sleeping and my amygdala is in control. By going to the kitchen, I can get enough blood to my brain to realize what’s going on. But this week, I’ve settled into enough of a habit to just wake up with the alarm goes off. They say (the proverbial “they” who used to sit around newspaper copy rooms coming up with things to spread into the common wisdom but who now just run influential blogs like TMZ. I really have no idea who “they” are but I’m positive they are the source evil of all innocuous seeming proclamations we recite in support of whatever we need support of) that it takes between 21 and 28 days to form a simple habit like drinking a glass of water a day. Those same “they” say it may take up to 250 days to establish an actual life changing habit. I think the key to my success is that initially the habit was imposed externally in that “I want to do something for Lent” kind of way but that now it has become a matter of enjoying getting up at 5 AM (no I have not started drinking scotch at 5 AM leading to such crazy proclamations though I’m not going to lie, scotch sounds good right now.) More on that extrinsic versus intrinsic evaluation in a bit.

There have been days where it’s been difficult and as with most things in life, those are the days that teach me the most. Just yesterday was a 5:30 day and it was only a 5:30 day through sheer will (and the aforementioned guilt). I had a couple of beers at the Stars game the night before and made exceptionally poor nutrition choices as well (I have no idea what they fry the french fries in at Bubba’s Burger Grill at AAC but it might be 14 year old virgin blood blessed by Saint Ignatius of the Holy Friar for all I know. Those things are insanely good.) all of which contributed to waking up with a pounding headache and no physical desire to accomplish anything other than four or five hours of feeling sorry for myself.

As an aside, the combination of Eat Real (total Paleo diet) and this little Lenten experiment has colluded to make poor decisions much easier to determine on a daily basis. Once upon a time, two beers and a Volkswagen size serving of french fries would have had no measurable impact on my health. Now, those things represent a serious setback. How many things do we do on a daily basis out of habit or convenience that our body has adjusted to but that are actually detrimental not just to our physical health but also to the productive output of our mind? Yesterday didn’t turn out to be a waste but it was a struggle when compared to this morning. Our bodies are amazing things that can adjust to multiple stimuli and nutrition but that doesn’t mean any of that is good.

Back on track, those tough days are the days when decisions I made 12 hours previously have an immediate and observable influence on my ability to reach goals I’ve set for myself. I have to make a conscious decision to go to bed at a decent hour (where decent hour can be 11 if my nutrion and exercise are right but must be 9 PM when it’s not) every day. I can’t stay out late without the explicit understanding that I’m sacrificing a long term goal for short term pleasure. This is not how I’ve lived the great majority of my life. Long term goals, while nice, are not nearly as much fun in the short term as drinking beer and staying at the bar until close. The discipline required to create a lifestyle conducive to getting up at 5 AM for forty days is not one of my most endearing qualities. I feel like I have always lived a reasonably examined life but never to the degree involving deciding whether to leave a party at 9 PM because I really do want to get up at 5 AM.

Long term goals are nice to have but to achieve them, you have to make small decisions on a daily basis that add up to success. I’m currently reading Flow, a book about living an examined and enjoyable life. Without going into a great deal of detail and stealing the thunder from the potentiality of some future essay on the book, it describes why some people can find enjoyment in everything in their lives while others (most others, frankly) mope through life constantly annoyed or bored regardless of their life situations. The central theme is the idea of flow which is the feeling of complete engagement and total involvement in a particular activity. The author discusses how long term goals can be detrimental to happiness because achieving long term goals involves many small steps in the interim that once summed up result in the long term goal. Setting long term goals without engagement in the small steps leads to unhappiness as even when people reach the goal, they feel empty because the goal has been achieved and there is nothing to replace it. So they set another long term goal and off they go, ignoring the potential for enjoyment and happiness in the day to day steps required to achieve anything. Often, people set goals based on extrinsic desires, e.g. I want to get a raise so that I can buy a better car than the neighbors instead of based on intrinsic desire, e.g. I want to change fundamentally how we do something at work because it interests me which might lead to a raise because of increased efficiency. There seems to be significant evidence that happy people are intrinsically motivated.

I’ve begun to approach getting up at 5 AM with this idea of flow, specifically extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, in mind. I’m not particularly good at it yet but each day, instead of thinking how long it is until Easter or how few days have gone by since Ash Wednesday, I focus on the moment of waking and moving to the living room, finding fascination in how my mind awakes and begins another day. It’s a total shift in attention that has changed “getting up at 5 AM” from a task or chore to a way to better understand myself and my habits. Initially, I began this journey because of an extrinsic goal, “I always give up something for Lent because it seems like that should make me a better person so what’s it going to be this year?” I have to admit, the first week was hard and I can’t help but think it was because of this extrinsic focus, doing something just because you think you should or to impress other people (not that that was ever the goal given the fact most people think you’re insane when you tell them you get up at 5 AM). But this week, as attention shifted from “I should be doing this” to “It’s fascinating to get up at 5 and see how things are different”, suddenly it’s not as difficult. How I focus my attention dictates whether I’m going to enjoy an activity or not. This seems like common sense but it’s so easy to forget in the day to day activities that seem boring and difficult.

What does all this mean? It’s hard to say that after ten days, I’ve fundamentally changed in a way that will lead to getting up at this hour for the rest of my life. First of all, it’s not particularly convenient as it relates to a social life. This would obviously be a bigger deal if I was 25 but still, a night out might not end until midnight and that makes 5 AM difficult. It requires constant focus on the ramifications of decisions. However, as weird as it sounds, I’m starting to enjoy being up at this time. The world is quiet and it’s easy to ignore the attention sapping activities that seem to pop up through the day. So I’m conflicted going forward after the forty days as to what might happen. Luckily, I have thirty more days of craziness to make that decision.

I Really DON’T Need All That Information

So some of you will remember that I made some Lenten commitments and here’s the point where I update you since I know you’ve been anxiously awaiting all my amazing self-discovery. Right. Anyway, I do feel like jotting down a little bit about the experience. We’ll start with the success first. For 40 days and 40 nights, I didn’t surf the web. It was damn hard. I never really go used to not reading ESPN or DallasNews.com or whatever. But I did it. I wasn’t completely off the wire since I can hardly do my job without talking to God daily but I wasted no time on mindless surfing.

What did I learn from that? That I really don’t need all that information. Monday night, I went on dallasnews.com and there were two stories about murder, one about a crooked politician and just a bunch of junk. It dawned on me at that moment that I really don’t need that stuff. I don’t remember any of it, it’s completely wasted time and it absolutely saps my focus, attention and energy. So I’m mostly sticking with it. I went through Newsgator tonight (after we set up a large chunk of this weekend’s garage sale-come buy stuff!!) and while there is definitely some quality there, there’s also a bunch of stuff I just don’t need to bother with. Scott Berkun was right, you just don’t need all that stuff and it’s making your life quality much, much lower. The things that are important are things that require complete and total undivided attention. Everything else is fluff and wasted time. I think K and I had more dinners together during those 40 days than the 80 days before that. We took up tennis (well “took up” is a tad strong but we’ve been twice in 3 weeks so that should certainly be considered a habit, given the participants) and I think we talked more about important things (though still not nearly as much as she would like, I am a guy after all).

So that’s the success. The failure is my meditation habit. I did it for about 10 days and then completely dropped it. I’m sad about that, I was starting to get somewhere with it and then it just went away. I’m trying to do shorter meditations more often but I miss the 20 minutes. I’m still trying to do it but it’s certainly not a daily habit.

Overall, I’m happy with how Lent worked out this year. I’m writing more, thinking more clearly which may or may not be reflected in my writing and I have more time for the important things. God must be happy with me.

My Mind On A Leash

I’ve been meditating for 3 days now and even in that short period of time, I’ve come to realize how difficult it is to do well. As I walked Scooter Wednesday night, it occurred to me that my consciousness is not unlike an untrained dog on a leash. If you have a dog, you know that when you are initially training (or retraining in our case) your dog to walk on a leash, he wants to make it his walk. However, that’s not the point of a walk (or of training a dog in general). The dog must always know that he is not alpha dog and on walks, this means that he walks beside you on a loose leash, not lunging here or smelling there. Walks can be extremely frustrating for both you and the dog if this goal is not constantly enforced. Also, if the dog cannot walk on a leash with the understanding of the structure, he can never be let off the leash to experience true freedom.

Meditation is like taking your mind for a walk on a leash. The goal of meditation is to achieve control over your mind. If you let it, your mind will go wherever it feels like, uncontrolled and typically badly behaved. Through meditation, you can control your mind. In reality, this is what your mind wants, to understand its place in the world and to know the structure of that world just like a dog is only well behaved when it fits into the hierarchy, not only in his own doggy world but also in yours.

This probably isn’t some amazing insight to people who are experienced with meditation but I keep coming back to it as I notice my mind wandering in both my meditations and in my daily life. My mind is undisciplined and therefore badly behaved. I can’t come up with new ideas either to write about or to develop on in code if my mind is undisciplined. It is my goal over the next 40 days of meditation to gain back the control of my mind that has been lost. If I am successful, I expect to have a consciousness that can not only walk well on the leash of meditation but also often times be let off the leash with no fear of poor behavior. Only through discipline can my mind really experience true freedom. Only through the training of meditation can my mind be allowed to explore freely ideas in a directed manner.

That Gap Between Zero and One

The gap between zero and one. What an interesting concept that is. If you think about it for even just a little bit, it becomes profound. The difficulty of jumping that gap keeps most of us from ever doing anything at all. A similar concept is that the pursuit of perfection is the barrier to progress in everything. The people who can consistently jump the gap from zero to one are the people who have the best obituaries. They DO things. They don’t let the idea that doing something might not work out ever stop them. They DO things. You can’t wait for inspiration, it doesn’t come nearly often enough. You have to just DO things. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. If you want to be a programmer, you have to code. Sitting on zero, hoping for inspiration, gets a lot of nothing done and leaves us exactly the same distance from one that we were in the beginning.

Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishments. Jim Rohn

Discipline comes before motivation, not the other way round. If you want to be good at something (or perhaps your goals are less lofty and you want to just not suck), you have to have the discipline to work on that thing, even during the times you aren’t motivated. You can’t let the hours escape you, waiting for inspiration because it’s just not dropping by very often.

Discipline helps with jumping the gap between one and zero as well. In fact, it’s of paramount importance there. Quitting something is always harder than doing something less. Ask a ex-smoker or a recovering alcoholic. Discipline seems to be the most important quality you can achieve. Unfortunately, in this day of constant divided attention and the shiniest of shiny things at every turn, discipline is the most rare quality as well. Finding the strength of character to achieve discipline makes all the difference in the world though.

This post, full of irony, was inspired by Ze Frank.

Life is far too short to eat sandwiches made on bad bread.