Personal Development

A Trick for Being In the Moment By Choosing What To Look Forward To

When I finally got out for a hike one day this past Fall, after weeks of being mostly cooped up inside, I made a plan with my hiking partner that after the journey, we’d stop at a brewery for dinner and beer.

The hike was supposed to be my chance to move my body and experience the joy of being outdoors in a beautiful natural setting. And it did feel good. But the joy of it was diminished by my eagerness to get to the brewery. I found myself looking forward to the beer in a way that devalued the hike, casting it as a prelude to something I wanted more. I wasn’t able to “be in the moment” because I was anticipating a reward that would come later, once I had “gotten through” the present activity. 

How could I prevent the phenomenon of tunnel vision from diminishing my time outdoors? I could remind myself to enjoy the beauty of the trees and the hills, but these reminders we give ourselves don’t always stick. I could cancel the brewery plan so that I’d no longer have something to distract me from the hiking experience, but this would leave me feeling disappointed and looking for justifications to reverse the cancellation.

I came up with a trick. I would find something else to look forward to, something that could take the place of the brewery as the target of my expectation, something that would reinforce rather than detract from the experience of the hike.

I said to myself, “I’m looking forward to the calmness and satisfaction I will feel as a result of each of the many steps I’m taking on this hike. I’m looking forward to the experience of having communed with nature, the experience of having put my body into action to follow the hiking trail, having ascended the hills and emerged from the valleys, having seen the late afternoon sun grow golder, having heard the birds and the wind, having taken deep breaths of the forest air. ”

And guess what? It worked. 

My new, substitute expectation might be a mouthful, needing more words to describe than beer does, but “post-hike calmness and satisfaction” is a very real experience that I know from many hikes past – it’s an experience that’s tangible and specific enough for me that I really can “look forward” to it, in the same way I might look forward to a beverage.

The difference between these two targets of anticipation, these two available choices of how to set my expectations while I hike, is that one helps me enjoy each moment of the journey, while the other makes me want to get through with it so I can have what comes next. The beer is something different from the hike, something that “comes next,” while the post-hike satisfaction is something that derives from the hike, something that is inseparable from it.

Of course it would have been nice if I were such a Zen master that I didn’t need to have anything to look forward to and could simply appreciate the hike moment-by-moment. It would have been nice to not need a technique for embracing the present. But sometimes there’s no way to simply will oneself to “be in the moment” and we can benefit from a little trickery to help us achieve that state. 

The trick I’m proposing is to choose something to look forward to that redirects your attention back to the present. By forming an image of post-hike satisfaction and looking forward to this image, it might seem that I’m sending my attention away from the present and towards some future state. But in fact, this image serves to reroute my attention back to the present, as if the image of the post-hike satisfaction were a mirror reflecting each of the moments that I experience along the way. The more I look forward to the post-hike satisfaction the more I realize that this desired state can only come from each step I’m taking, including the current one, and so the more I appreciate that current step.

As I write this essay a few weeks after the hike, I remember that day outdoors as a particularly wonderful, calming experience. And I wouldn’t recommend a technique without having tried it out and had success with it at least twice. So here’s my second success story for the expectation technique, the trick for being in the moment by choosing what to look forward to:

The holidays can be really stressful for reasons I won’t elaborate here. Earlier this December I found myself thinking “I can’t wait to get through Christmas and have it be over with.” But I knew that the anticipation of “being done” with Christmas would only intensify the stress of each moment prior to its being done. So instead I said, “I’m looking forward to the experience of having connected with my loved ones. I’m looking forward to the satisfaction of knowing that I did what was needed to help everyone be together and have a good time.” And guess what? It worked. I had a good Christmas, in large part because I wasn’t thinking about “getting through” the holiday to attain some relief when it would finally be over. I had a good Christmas because I chose to look forward to a post-Christmas experience that could only come about by my being present for each moment of the holiday itself.

Personal Development

5 Questions To Improve Any Situation

  1. What is your view of the situation?
  2. What is the consequence of your holding that view?
  3. What is the consequence you want?
  4. What alternate view would produce that desired consequence?
  5. How can you move your current view towards that beneficial view?

Example: I am writing an essay. My view of the situation is that I’m headed for failure: the essay won’t do justice to the idea at hand, because I don’t have the time or focus write everything I want to say. The consequence of holding this view is that I’m likely to abandon the essay. The consequence I want is that the essay gets published. An alternate view of the situation that would bring about the desired consequence is to believe that what I have already written is good enough. I can move move my current view towards the beneficial view if I remind myself that keeping an essay short and sweet does more “justice” to the idea than attempting to write a long, elaborate essay that never gets finished.

Background: Where did these 5 questions come from? The short answer is that they popped into mind a few mornings ago at the end of a coffee-and-meditation session. The long answer is that in 2018 I took a course in mindfulness techniques at the Benson-Henry institute at MGH in Boston and there was one aspect of the course material that shocked me. A central theme in the course was to use “perspective” to one’s advantage. The instructor defined a “distorted perspective” as any perspective that doesn’t serve you, any viewpoint that doesn’t help you cope with a situation. This shocked me because I would typically think of a distortion as an inaccurate idea, one that is out of whack with the reality of the situation, to whatever extent that reality is knowable. But in this framework, the reality or “truth” of the situation is not what matters; all that matters is the utility of your concept of the situation. A concept that helps you handle or adapt to the situation could be called an “adaptive perspective” and everything else is “distorted!” The course material focused on identifying “distortions” and trying to convert them into adaptations. The shock of sidestepping the question of truth (and treating utility as a substitute) was so strong for me that I never forgot it. To see this “move” performed in the context of abstract philosophical discourse would not have shocked me, but to be asked to actually perform the move in my own thoughts most certainly did. These 5 questions are probably the remnants of that experience as it has percolated in my mind for five years.

Discussion: I purposefully worded Question 5 to speak of “moving” one view “towards” another, rather than simply adopting the new view. I don’t have the ability to believe whatever I decide it might be useful to believe, and I think that having such an ability could be quite dangerous. But, acknowledging that my beliefs and outlooks are constantly being nudged one way or another by a host of forces and factors, the idea here is to be a more active and intentional participant in the nudging.

Guitar, Improvisation

First Music From A New Guitar

Here’s the birth story of the new guitar you’ll see me playing on my YouTube channel where I started posting improvisations this year.

7/1/2021 I got on a waiting list for a new guitar, a hollow steel-body electric called a “Mulecaster.” It’s made by Mule Resophonic Guitars in Saginaw, Michigan and I’m a fan of their stuff.

8/29/2022 I confirmed the specs: a double cutaway, with a steel pickguard, a hipshot bender installed, and baritone strings. Different from anything I have.

9/13/2022 Received this first progress picture:

9/14/2022 Second one:

9/19/2022 Third one:

12/6/2022 Final pic:

12/10/2022 Guitar arrived:

12/21/2022 I made this music, with guitar’s help and inspiration:

Personal Development

What if I valued health above all else?

I’m not sure that a person needs to have one overarching priority in their life – we are complex beings capable of holding multiple values and goals that conflict with each other as often as they agree. Still, we can learn a lot about ourselves by going through the exercise of picking one priority as our top one. That’s because our true attitudes only reveal themselves when we’re forced to make a choice. 

If you asked me to name my top priority, I’d say it’s creative expression. What I’m seeking in life is to realize my creative vision as a musician first; then as a visual artist and writer. If creative expression is a form of achievement, then you could say my value scheme is oriented around achievement. Of course, creative expression is more than achievement; it can be a form of giving; a form of connecting; a form of prayer; but I will be simplistic and refer to it as achievement here because I am trying to draw a specific contrast.

If achievement is one priority, another priority for me is health. When I talk about health I mean “big picture” health. That includes physical health. It includes mental and spiritual health. And it includes interpersonal health, social health, relational health. 

If health and achievement are two things that matter to me, what’s the problem?

The problem is that if health is second to achievement in my value scheme, it becomes a victim of compromise. To situate health in the number two slot poses no real “ask” of me – no challenge to my current habits and routines – because I can always argue that health is receiving a decent enough level of attention for its rank. It’s true that I’m not getting quite enough exercise, or making quite enough time for friendships, or giving quite enough attention to psychological well-being, but I’m doing much better than I could be.

But what if I were to swap my priorities? What if I were to position health – big picture health – as the most important thing in my life, with achievement taking second place? What if I were to dedicate the rest of my life to health, which could mean spending more time on health than on my creative goals? 

When I carry out this thought experiment, a host of objections begins to bubble up in my mind and I am going to list those objections here. 

I believe each of these objections is a kind of misconception that could be rebutted, but I’ll save the rebuttals for elsewhere. Whether I agree or disagree with these objections, they are lodged in my thinking somewhere, and they do have some influence over my choices. I believe they hold me back from being even healthier and happier, so I’m glad that this experiment has helped me see what they are.

So here are all the reasons why I “shouldn’t” make health my top priority:

  1. Health is not a path to distinction. It’s not a way to stand out. I’m not an athlete. No one’s going to remember me for being healthy, but they might remember me for my achievements.
  2. Health is fleeting. Age takes it away. A person can experience a health setback at any time, and everything could change in a moment – so it’s best not to become too attached to health. Achievements, in contrast, are enduring.
  3. The pursuit of health means sacrificing freedom and accepting a more boring, rigid lifestyle. It means giving up on the risks and indulgences that bring fun and sparkle to life.
  4. Health is potentially all-consuming. If I were to truly dedicate myself to health — to give it the time it actually deserves — I’d have little time left for anything else.
  5. Health is incompatible with true achievement. To really accomplish something hard, I need to focus on that thing to the exclusion of all else, which means compromising on sleep, exercise, social connections, etc.
  6. Health is incompatible with originality and creativity. Art is inspired by suffering. For example, the funniest comedians find material in their own bad habits. To be too healthy would be to become less interesting and less creatively potent.
  7. A focus on health is self-indulgent. It’s all about me and how I feel. In contrast, my achievements are contributions that I am offering to the world, for others to experience and enjoy.
  8. I’m healthy enough. No need to overdo it.
  9. Health is not my “style.” Health is oppressively positive. I need room for darkness and complaint, sarcasm and gloominess.
  10. Health is relative, impossible to define.
  11. Pursuing health would confront me with impossible tradeoffs. For example, living near an airport with all of its air pollution and noise pollution is bad for my health; but the community and social connections that I have in my airport-adjacent neighborhood are great for my health. It’s not clear how to resolve this conflict, or other similar ones, so I might as well not get too caught up in the pursuit of health. I should just live my life.
  12. Health is unattainable. Life presents us with too many stresses and challenges for us to expect to come out healthy. Illness is inevitable, in one form or another, so we must accept and cope with it rather than trying to surpass it.

But here are some arguments why health should be my top priority:

  1. Health is the foundation of everything else. Anything I might want to do in my life depends to some extent on my health; any effort of mine is more likely to succeed, the healthier I am.
  2. Health is a path to connecting and ultimately giving to others. The healthier I am, the less consumed by mental and physical struggle, the more present I can be for those around me.
  3. Re-framing my other pursuits – like making music – as a path to health sheds new light on those pursuits and infuses them with new motivation.
  4. Health is efficient. I could spend days, months, or years analyzing and trying to “cure” my dissatisfaction and distress. But if I simply get some vigorous physical exercise, eat well, and do some meditation each day, it largely melts away.
  5. My health — or lack thereof — defines my experience of being alive. It’s how I feel in my body and mind. I’m only alive for a short time. Might as well have as good an experience as I’m able to have, by being as healthy as I can be.

Meditation, Personal Development

When Meditation Feels Irresponsible

The popular image of meditation is that it’s a tranquil, virtuous activity, something monks and sages do, a path to wisdom, and not a thing that would ever be associated with risk or irresponsibility. 

But the feeling that you are being irresponsible is a sign that your practice of meditation might be growing deeper.

How can meditation trigger a feeling of irresponsibility? 

If you practice observing your thoughts and letting them pass, without clinging to them, or encouraging them, or following them down the paths they lead, you’ll find that some thoughts are like background noise, seemingly unimportant, and easy to let go of once you notice they’re occupying your attention. But other thoughts are unignorably urgent.

During meditation, you might remember you were supposed to call someone back yesterday but you forgot and they’re waiting and surely mad. Should you stop the session and call them right now?

You might remember a bill that you haven’t paid. Should you get up from your seat and mail the check before you forget again?

You might remember a medical test whose results are on the way. Should you see if they’ve arrived? Should you think through the possible outcomes so you can be prepared if your condition turns out to be serious?

In such cases, the thought or “interrupt” enters your mind and demands your immediate, absolute attention. Like someone shouting “Fire!” in a theater, it presents itself as an exception that you simply cannot ignore. The chance of fire is categorically more important the movie. The urgent thought seems categorically more important than the meditation.

While no one should ever ignore the word “Fire!” shouted in a theater, you can usually relinquish an urgent thought that occurs in the span of, say, a twenty-minute meditation session, trusting that if it’s really so important, you’ll be able to remember it and attend to it after the session ends.

When you do release the thought and bring your attention back to breathing, you might feel like you’re breaking an obligation or behaving in a reckless way.

Many of us are slaves to our thoughts – to one degree or another – and what perpetuates this enslavement is a feeling of responsibility. We take it as our duty to pursue troubling or urgent pathways of ideation in search of dangers that must be avoided, eventualities that must be prepared for, unfinished business that must be completed, and to never stop this pursuit lest we be caught unaware.

When you do stop paying heed to these mental exclamations of “Fire!,” even just for a moment, you might feel that you’re imprudently embracing danger. You’re being “bad” or foolhardy to pay no heed to such an urgent matter that’s presenting itself to your awareness right now – as if you were drunk or high and not in your right mind.

It’s true, when you meditate you learn to step out of your “right” mind – the mind where thoughts rule. And then a sense of obligation tries to bring you back. When you ignore the obligation, you feel irresponsible, but that’s good. It’s good because it’s a path out of servitude.