- Be unafraid: I’m not especially timid, but misplaced fear holds me back more than it should. It probably holds most of us back more than it should. They’re mostly dumb things to be afraid of: having a conversation at a party, trying hard at something and failing. These fears are irrational and run counter to what I really want for myself. If I’m going to look at my life more with love than with fear, I’m going to have to bring these fears to the surface, recognize them and deal with them at the time.
- Publish a picture every day: We carry these amazing devices that allow us to share what we’re seeing with anyone in the world. It’s crazy to not use it that way. So far, I’ve kept this up, publishing to my Twitter and/or Instagram pages.
- Write every day: I’ve managed to keep this up every day, so far. It’s difficult. I’ve been using 750words.com to manage my writing, and I hope the stuff I’m developing there will become fodder for this blog. Otherwise, it’s just a good way to keep track of my life and to record what I’m doing.
- Complete the STP: I want to join the Seattle to Portland group ride this summer, but I’ll need to train for it.
- Other habits: these aren’t resolutions, per se, but rather habits that I’m trying to develop for myself.
- Keep my clothes organized. We just reorganized our closets and now everything is organized. I’d like to keep it that way.
- Media-Free Friday. I recognize that I use a lot of media in my life, and that it’s probably healthier to live with out it on a regular basis. I want to read, play board games, go for long walks and have conversations.
- Meatless Monday: There is just too much meat in my diet. I prefer meat over most other foods, and that is not good for me or the planet. I need to participate in this day more regularly.
Writing in this blog used to be one of my habits and then it wasn’t. I would like to make it a habit again, so I’m thinking a lot about habits. Good habits, bad habits and the habits we don’t even know are habits.
I bought a coffee and a breakfast burrito in the galley of the M/V Wenatchee Thursday morning and waited behind a guy at the napkin dispenser as he took, one by one, 10 napkins.
I’m a three napkin guy. I wondered what he was going to do with all of those. Is he making papier-mâché?
As I took my napkins—swip, swip, swip—it did make me wonder why three? Why three paper towels in the restroom? I know why I do it now. It’s a habit. But how did it become a habit? How did I make it a habit?
I think of habits as actions you no longer decide to do. You once decided to do them and to do them in a certain way, but now as a habit it has a power, an inertia, all its own.
Habits Are Well-Worn Paths In Your Brain
It’s tempting to want to fill your life with new habits, to consciously decide you’re going to wake up and do 50 push-ups each morning. It’s never so easy.
So, what are the key elements of a habit?
- There is little conscious input or control over a habit (which is why they’re hard to start and hard to break)
- They are self-sustaining
- They are swayed by subconscious impulses
When we think of the difference between “good” habits and “bad” habits, we judge them so in relation to our conscious desire. We know, however, that we have very little conscious input on our habits, and that our habits are easily affected by our subconscious selves.
Starting A New Good Habit
Given what I believe about habits, I will have to put a lot of work into overcoming the conscious impotence over this area of my life. That means that if I were to start doing push ups every day (or writing), I’m going to have to make a strong commitment. I’m going to have to keep pushing the bike up the hill until it starts to coast. This will wear that path in my brain and make it easier to do it without deciding to do it. The trick to getting there, though, is deciding to do it every day.
But I’m also going to have to resolve it with my subconscious desire. Why might my conscious desires and subconscious desires be in opposition? If I could figure that out, I would be rich. This will be tricky, but the only thing I can do is develop tools for detecting and resolving when this is the case.
Changing or Ending Bad Habits
I think this, generally, is the more difficult task. Bad habits are triggered by events—eating too much when stressed out, for example.
The first step is to identify the bad habit. What do I do that causes regret? What impulses do I give into?
Once you know the what, you can work on understanding triggers for those habits. When does it happen? When does it not happen? Why does it happen? No, really, why does it happen?
Above is my six-word memoir. The idea of writing autobiographies using six words or less is being promoted by Smith Magazine. They are hosting thousands upon thousands of these little reductions, where you can submit your own.
About my memoir, though, I’ve been learning to give up my nostalgia. I’m doing this by becoming more comfortable with uncertainty. It has been fear, I think, that has driven me into the safety of remembering and living in the past. Even memories of bad events felt safer than mysteries of the future or the complexity of the present.
But that’s the wrong way to live! When you close yourself off that way to the fear, you close yourself off to experience, too. I’m determined to stop dreaming away my life.
What is it in us that makes us want to hold onto things? If we enjoy something, we want to know it’s going to be there, where we left it, to tickle those neurons again and again. There’s an impulse to take it, keep it, make it ours. Sometimes we feel possessive when we see others enjoying something, too. Look at the handsome couple in that gleaming new car. Get me to the dealership.
But having something is a responsibility and a burden. Not only must you care for it, you must insure it against loss. Once you have it, it can be taken away from you.
People can be taken away, too. I want to love and be sure that you will love me. I’ll make you mine, you make me yours. Let’s get jealous!
The most impossible objects to own are human beings. It’s as though they have minds of their own — fickle, constantly evolving minds that change in entirely unpredictable ways.
I have a few friends now on the brink of marital separation, some going through it, others who are recently divorced. Several of my friends are widows.
The process of losing someone you once possessed births you into a second adulthood. Everyone has startled looks on their faces, birds and stars buzzing around their heads. Their eyes are wide open with surprise as though they’ve just been kicked out of the assembly line.
I watched this happen twenty or so years ago when my older siblings got divorced one by one. Their lives entered a chaos period with late nights of drinking and uncertainty. New people floated in and out of their lives. Then, for the most part, things settled down again. They started over.
We’re programmed from an early age to believe that love is a precious union that lasts “ever after,” but that is simply not the case. Love is a story with a beginning, middle, and end. At least, that’s how it works on this planet. Some stories are just longer than others.
We can’t ever truly possess objects or people, we can only just be with them. When they are gone, we are left only with the longing for them. It’s important to remind ourselves during this longing that this, too, is living.
I think it is entirely possible that the meaning of life is to learn how to welcome and how to let go. We start our lives by welcoming knowledge — light, sounds, touch — into our lives, and we end it by letting go of every last thing — our money, our family, all of the knowledge we’ve acquired. We’ll lose every image, every dream, every name.
Big losses make us shy about welcoming, or at least it has for me. Why should I expose myself to that kind of loss again?
The answer is simple: Because there is a joy to living. If you can simply be in the present moment and be grateful for it while neither attaching yourself to it nor pushing it away, you will experience that joy. All of this is temporary. That is why it is so beautiful.
I’m reminded of all of this by Bob Dylan. When 12,000 songs are shuffled on my iPod, it’s hard not to see secret messages in random coincidence:
Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you.
Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you.
The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore.
Strike another match, go start anew
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.
This post is an experiment to get more creativity out of my day. I’ve written this to show two voices that are a part of my writing process. The first, in black, is the inner creator. The second, in red, is the inner critic/guide. I wrote in the creator voice for exactly 20 minutes and then handed the piece over to the critic who deleted, moved, and rewrote parts of it.
We all have an inner critic. Mine is an inner nag. It tells me constantly that I’m not doing something correctly. Even now, when I wrote “inner nag,” it said, “That doesn’t really quite describe me correctly.”
The problem is that I’ve allowed the critic to overstep his bounds. We do need to edit ourselves. but that comes later. First, we need to create. My inner critic is like some nine-foot-tall basketball guard who easily bats away any idea I shoot toward the basket.
How can I get him on my team?
If we’re working at cross purposes, a lot of effort is expended but little work gets done. I want him to help me get every shot into the basket and then later, after I’ve left the court, go back and puncture the balls that don’t fit. Even right now he’s wrestling for control of the keyboard. “That analogy makes no sense!” he’s yelling. “You don’t even know the slightest first thing about basketball. You’re making a fool of yourself!”
So that’s what it’s about. Control and making myself appear foolish.
A couple of months ago, I gave this inner critic the name Staydown. That seems to be the constant message he’s sending. Don’t take a risk. Don’t put yourself out there. Where is this going? I want to guide him to a place where he can guide my creative side. I value your input, sir. You have excellent taste. Please, though, let me do my job first and then you can do yours.
My friend David calls this creative duality night crew versus day crew. The night crew is sloppy and rowdy, but they get lots of stuff done. The day crew comes in the next morning, surveys the damage, and says, “Okay, what can we do with this?”
That is not how my crews have been working. My night crew is forced to work under bright lighting and constant surveillance. The day crew shift foreman sits in a control booth and watches them via closed circuit camera. “What are you doing? Get back to your grid, Number seven. Get away from that instrument. You don’t play music.” My night crew has gotten demoralized. They’ve failed to produce.
I was listening to a Lifehack Live podcast interview with Jurgen Wolff the other day. He recommended that rather than trying to conform all the different parts of your personality, i.e. the curious child who finds wonder in everyday things or Attila the Hun who mercilessly achieves his objectives, you should exploit them to do different tasks. You don’t want the curious child to clean the garage, he said, and you don’t want Attila the Hun to guide your creativity.
I wonder if this personality change can be done with hats? Perhaps if I get my inner guide a fancy hat to wear when editing, he’ll stop intruding on my creativity.
After I got out of the shower yesterday, I curled my arm to look at the size of my bicep. It had been a while since I had done this. I was impressed. It looked noticeably larger than the last time I checked. It looked like a tight ball under my skin with some definition of other muscle around it. When I checked it in the bathroom mirror this morning, though, it looked the same as it always had — sort of a round mass. Perhaps the gym has better lighting.
I’ve been going to the gym for four months now, lifting weights three days a week and doing cardio exercises five days a week. My intention was not to build a bigger bicep, although I hoped for it as a side benefit, along with losing weight (so far, not so much). If I did it for those reasons, I would have given up discouraged months ago.
My intention was merely to build a practice that would improve my health, mentally and physically. I resolved to focus not on the results, but on the method itself.
This is big change. I have always thought of practice solely as a path to improvement. You pick up a musical instrument or a foreign language so that you can play and converse, otherwise it’s a waste of time. That kind of thinking associates practice with wasted time. It longs for a machine or a pill or a shortcut.
A grudging practice must be continually justified. Am I learning fast enough? When will I be good enough to not make mistakes? Why do I even want to do something that requires so much practice? I quit.
If you learn to love the method, the results will arrive. I thought about this recently after a short but wonderful flight through space.
I’ve been adding all sorts of methods to my life — methods for cleaning my house, for writing, and most recently for flossing my teeth. My most cherished method is for meditation. I sit in my living room chair, wrap myself in a blanket, set a timer (first for 10 minutes, now for 20), close my eyes and focus repeatedly on one word that sets my intention for the day. I use every sound to reinforce the word. I breathe the word in and breathe the word out. My heart beats to the word. The clock ticks to the word. Sometimes my dog will bark the word or a loud car will drive the word up the street.
After months of daily meditation, I’ve had some “peak experiences.” Once I felt like I was outside my body. I often see colors and shapes. Mostly these experiences are in the form of a complete relaxation that straddles dreaming and waking.
But even more than those, meditation seems like a complete waste of time. I struggle with it. My nose starts to itch or I get distracted by something. I start to worry that I’m not doing it right.
But then I come back to my focus. That’s what meditation is all about — returning to your focus. You won’t get stronger by merely holding the weight, but by pumping it, bringing it back again and again in repetition, sets of repetition.
Meditation is teaching me to trust the method. Someday it will make flowers grow out of my pockets.
This is how I would sum up 2007. It was the year I learned to let go.
2006, in contrast, was the year I held on. I clung to the memory of Wendy and the ideas we had for our future. I clutched at my grief and kept it close. Most of the time, I felt like I was struggling to survive.
I had to. I was weathering a storm; the biggest of my life. I came though it wet and mangled, but whole.
This year, I’ve learned the art of letting go. Meditation continues to help with that, as does talking about how I’m feeling. I’ve learned a valuable skill.
Everyone has to learn to let go at some point. Why? Because you can’t fight what’s coming. You will lose people. You will suffer great disappointments. Raging against the Universe does nothing for you or to the Universe. What will be will become what is, and then what was.
And so we learn to subjugate ourselves to the ways events unfold. To do this, we must become humble, we must name all those ways in which we are truly fortunate, and we must simply be with all of those ways.
Kurt Vonnegut died this year. He was one of my favorite authors. He used to talk about his uncle Alex, who often remarked, “If this isn’t nice, what is?” in reference to life’s small pleasures, such as a pitcher of lemonade sitting in the shade during summertime. On the surface, it’s a banal midwestern expression, but dig deeper into it, and it perhaps provides an answer to how to live life properly.
In 2008, I plan to announce — and thereby savor — every pleasant moment that comes my way.
I’ve been doing a lot over the last several weeks. I’ve been adding new commitments one by one to get ready for a return to the world. In that time, I realize that I’ve left off blogging.
Writing this blog was never intended to be a commitment or a drag on my time. Originally, it was an outlet for me to keep writing when other types of writing had failed me.
Now, as I restart those other types of writing, I figure I have no time or headspace for writing a post in this blog. That makes me sad. It is a sense of perfectionism that keeps me from writing here. It’s as though I had created an unwritten rule for myself that unless I had something really burning or really specific to say, I should not say anything at all.
And yet, how much blogging have I done this week in my mind?. I wanted to write something about how sad I was to vote this week and still be a full year away from selecting a new president. I wanted to write about how fucked up things are in Pakistan, the one country in 2003 that did have weapons of mass destruction, links to Al Qaida, and a dictator. I wanted to write about my trip to the East Coast and about how strange Cinder has been behaving since I returned.
But because I have been feeling like any post had to be like a finely crafted meal instead of just letting who I am come out in my writing, I’ve tricked myself into writing nothing at all.
The commitment I have in this blog is not to my readers, but to myself. I think any personal blog is like that, or should be.
I have trouble watching baseball on TV. It seems like such a time suck. I feel guilty, so I often try to do other things while the game is on. The other day, I used the time to defrag my key chain.
Nearly half (5 of 11) of my keys were mystery keys — keys I haven’t used in at least a year and only vaguely remember what they unlock. Few things are as sad as mystery keys. It’s like having a solution to a problem that you’ve long since forgotten.
The other stuff I removed from my key chain: a red LED flashlight that I never use, Albertsons club card (Big Brother keeping tabs on what I buy from a store I never visit), a flathead screwdriver tool that I never remember to use when I need it, a tiny pen that Wendy gave me that was supplanted by a slightly larger pen that I always carry with index cards in my pocket, and a little silver tag that I added a long time ago when my lonely key chain only had two keys.
Defragging my key chain made me feel lighter and less burdened by the useless past. Also, its mass of sharp edges were slowly tearing holes in the pockets of my pants.
photo credit: My Keychain by joelogon
Lifehacker shared a piece of advice on getting things done a little bit at a time. The advice comes from Jerry Seinfeld, right at the top of his career, to a new (then) comic and (now) software developer:
[Seinfeld] said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day. But his advice was better than that. He had a gem of a leverage technique he used on himself and you can use it to motivate yourself – even when you don’t feel like it.
He then revealed a unique calendar system he was using pressure himself to write.
Here’s how it worked.
He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.
He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”
“Don’t break the chain.” He said again for emphasis.
There are a few things that I try to maintain by doing every day, like cleaning the house and blogging. It’s easy, though, to let things go for several days. I’m going to give this method a try.