How to enjoy meditation

A simple framework for meditation is to place your attention on your breathing, allowing thoughts to enter and leave your mind without engaging them. It sounds easy but it can be hard if you don’t have a procedure or rubric to follow. You might sit down and try to concentrate on breathing, only to find that thoughts are intrusive and seemingly irresistible. What’s a procedure that might bring structure and clarity to this endeavor?

A procedure for meditation could begin with the simplifying idea that while we meditate, there are only two attentional states we can be in:

  1. There is a breathing state, where our attention is focused on the sensations of our breath – the sound, the feel, the pace. 
  2. There is a thinking state, where our attention is focused on our thoughts – ideas, worries, images, memories, hopes, dreams.

In practice, these states will not be pure and exclusive. We are still breathing when we’re in the thinking state, of course, but our inhales and exhales are happening automatically and our attention is elsewhere. And we might still have an occasional thought while we’re in the breathing state, of course, but thoughts are not dominant. We can usually decide which state we’re in through intuition, or by taking stock of where our attention has been recently.

To meditate – that is, to increase our time in the breathing state and reduce our time in the thinking state – we could follow a procedure like this, starting as soon as we sit down:

  1. If we’re breathing, and we notice that we’re breathing, we keep breathing.
  2. If we’re thinking, and we notice that we’re thinking, we recognize this situation non-judgmentally – “That’s thinking” – and then we go back to breathing.

A flowchart for this process would look like this: there’s a breathing circle, with an arrow leading back to itself, and there’s a thinking circle, with an arrow leading to the breathing circle. Each of the two arrows represents the act of noticing what we’re doing and then moving somewhere based on that observation

Of course, our simplified flowchart of meditation omits the reality of distraction. A more complete chart would also include an arrow from breathing to thinking. That’s a transition we don’t intend to take, but one that often occurs: we were concentrating on our breath, but at some point we lost focus and our mind began to race.

Sometime later, we’ll realize what happened. This act of noticing our current state – this moment of self-witness – is important enough to be represented as its own state, a third one in a more thorough diagram. 

We could call this third state an “interrupt” state since it’s what happens when the mind stops itself – suddenly breaking its focus on the thing at hand and turning to the question “What am I doing right now?” We might be thinking, thinking, thinking, and then wham! The sequence is halted by an observation like “Oh! I’ve gotten sidetracked!”

But there’s good reason to label this state in a different way, seeing it as an opportunity for escape. It’s a chance we’re being offered – a chance to break away from what we’ve been doing. Without such chances for escape, given to us by own our minds, we’d be locked into the same activity forever, never returning from the depths of the “rabbit hole.”

Here is the fuller diagram of meditation as we’ve just described it, now with three states instead of two. There is a “distraction” arrow from “breathing” to “thinking.” But both “breathing” and “thinking” can give way to a moment of “escape,” when we notice what we’re doing and now have the opportunity to change course. Every time we reach this moment of “escape,” we try to return to breathing, no matter where we came from.

The word “gratitude” is written on the arrow from “escape” to “breathing.” This represents a way that mediation can be less stressful and more enjoyable.

Stressful? Yes, meditation can be stressful if we feel upset every time we notice that we’ve gotten distracted. That is why guidelines for meditation often suggest a non-judgemental attitude. When we notice we’ve been thinking, we are supposed to say “It’s OK. No big deal,” and return to breathing.

But there is a fine line between being non-judgmental and merely concealing a judgement we’ve already made. If we sit down for an hour, keep getting distracted, and keep telling ourself “It’s fine, it’s not so bad,” we’re likely to feel worn out. All of these attempts to cover up our negative feeling about the many distractions we’ve experienced – all of them take a toll. 

The inner monologue might go, “Distraction is fine. It happens all the time. It’s not the end of the world. I’m not going to judge it. I’m not going to feel upset that I just wasted ten minutes on mind-wandering… er… it’s not a ‘waste’… there’s no good or bad here… I was just getting carried away by a whirlwind of stressful thoughts while I was trying to meditate… not that there’s anything wrong with that!”

We can have compassion for our distracted self, the self who got caught up in all that dizzying mental activity. He or she sat down to meditate, but thoughts are tricky and troublesome, and that person faced a difficult challenge in taming them. That person was — and still is — trying to do something good, trying to meditate so they could feel calmer and more aware, so they could be more present for themselves and for others in their life, and that’s commendable.

Surely, there’s a way to practice such self-compassion without hanging on the difficulty we faced, crossing a line into self-pity, where we again feel bad that we’ve gotten distracted — how frustrating, how unfair that these thoughts encroached on our precious meditation space! But there is an altogether different way to respond to the realization that we’ve gotten distracted, and it’s simpler. Instead of focusing on the downside of what happened, and the difficulties we’ve faced, we can concentrate on the upside, and magnify it. The upside is that we’ve been given the opportunity to escape. The “interrupt” that jolted us out of the cycle of thought – that’s a blessing.

Instead of saying “I’ve been thinking, but that not so bad,” we can say “I’ve been given a chance to break free from thinking and return to breathing, and that’s good!” Even if we expect that we’ll get distracted again, just a few moments from now, it’s still good that we’ve escaped from the rabbit hole, we’ve gained a few conscious breaths, we’ve gained a bit more time in the “breathing” state.

By cultivating gratitude for the repeated opportunity to escape our thoughts, we can begin to enjoy meditation, because now every distraction sets the stage for a reward, a positive feeling. If we sit down for an hour, keep getting distracted, and keep feeling good that we were able to recover, then by the end we’ll have a reason to be proud.

Meditation is not typically associated with pride – it’s a thing we might do to break free from the trappings of pride – but why not allow a little bit of pride to help us get into the flow? If we’re learning to take advantage of the interrupts we’re given, if we’re learning to appreciate and value each “escape opportunity” that comes our way, and if we’re doing this in service of the larger goal of clarity and calm, that’s one of the best things we could be doing.

Acknowledgements: The ideas in this post come partly from tradition, partly from things I’ve been taught, partly from things I’ve read, and partly from my personal experiments and experiences, in a proportion that’s not fully knowable. I want to mention that my personal journey in developing a meditation practice has been aided by a course I took with Peg Baim at the Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, and by an interaction with Thomas Deneuville. Basically, this post is about what has helped me and what I hope might help you as well.

Meditation, Personal Development

How to concentrate on a task you hate

It’s easy to concentrate on a task we enjoy, but how can we sustain focus on a task we despise? 

We might wish for a better life, in which we’ve been so successful at manifesting our dreams that the only tasks confronting us now are joyful and exhilarating ones. But even those people who once yearned to be astronauts and ballet dancers and did become those very things… even they have to do things that aren’t fun, interesting, rewarding, or exciting. Practicing a jump for the thousandth time? There is tedium in the loftiest endeavors. 

Setting deadlines, establishing incentives, making public commitments, and cultivating grit – these are common strategies for getting through an onerous task. But such strategies assume that if we don’t like a task, then working on it will inevitably feel bad, so we need to force, persuade, or trick ourself into bearing that discomfort. 

The saying goes, “No pain, no gain,” but wouldn’t it be better if we could have “No pain, with gain?” To achieve this would require that our experience of working on an onerous task could be separated from our feelings about the task. Is there a way to make that separation happen, so that the experience could be positive even though the task itself might be anathema to us?

To find out, we need to look closely at the nature of concentration, and here, an analogy to physical balance is informative. When we see a person standing on one leg, or balancing on a tightrope, we know that their muscles are working – their stillness is an active sort. It may look as though the person has escaped the force of gravity but of course they are still subject to that force, constantly experiencing a pull this way and that. What keeps them in balance is the way they quickly respond to the beginnings of imbalance, applying the right countering force at the right time.

We could say that a person with good balance is always being slightly destabilized and always recovering. But because their destabilization remains inside a safe range where recovery can be quick, we don’t even bother to call it “destabilization.”  We just say that the person is keeping good balance throughout. But this language hides an observation that’s useful: balance is not about magic, it’s about recovery. Lots and lots of recoveries so fast and effortless we don’t even notice them.

Concentration is like this too. A person who exhibits good concentration is not a person who has magically escaped all distractions. We make a mistake if we think that good concentration must mean being in “the zone” where we lose awareness of everything but the task at hand. A person with good concentration might still hear a car alarm or see an incoming text message. They might still lose focus for a moment, wondering “What am I going to have for dinner tonight?” What defines good concentration is being able to quickly recover from each distraction. A person with poor concentration hears the car alarm, gets up to investigate, and exulting in their newfound freedom, they never return to the task at hand; a person with good concentration hears it, stops for a second, and gets back to work. Good concentration is good recovery, on repeat.

So if we want to be better at concentrating, especially at things we dislike, we need to understand what allows for good recovery from distraction, and what interferes with such recovery.

Let’s start with what’s obvious: loving what we’re doing allows for good recovery. If a task brings us pleasure, we’re drawn back to it because we want more of that pleasure. After we get distracted, and our attention later returns to the pleasurable task, we feel glad to be focusing on it again, excited to take the next step. We experience recovery as a boon.

Hating what we’re doing, of course, makes for poor recovery. If a task causes discomfort, we’re repelled from it because we don’t want to face more of that discomfort. After we get distracted, and our attention lands on the task once more, we might feel fear, or disgust, or guilt – a lump in our stomach – “Oh no, not this again!” We experience recovery as a loss.

Imagine how hard it would be to maintain physical balance – standing on one leg or walking a tightrope – if every time a muscle flexed to keep us stable, we felt a jolt of pain. And yet when we’re trying to concentrate on something we hate – that’s the situation we’re in. Every time we try to recover from a distraction, turning our focus back to the onerous task, we feel pain.

So if we want to concentrate on something we hate, we need to make recovery less painful and more pleasurable. But if we truly hate the task, how could returning to it ever be experienced as a positive thing?

I began thinking about this question earlier in my life, during a phase in my twenties when I had started a flurry of personal projects and couldn’t seem to bring any of them to closure. I was effective at my day job, never missing a deadline in my software engineering work, but it took a lot of willpower to maintain my punctual record there, and I couldn’t muster that same willpower in the absence of external pressure, working on my own creative endeavors. I went to see a psychologist, and she administered what seemed like a glorified questionnaire, and I answered enough questions the right way that I received a diagnosis of ADHD. For a moment, I thought this diagnosis was going to shed new light on my life and become a part of my identity. 

As I explained it to my therapist at a time, my mind was constantly going on tangents when I tried to focus. I couldn’t abandon these tangents because doing so was just too painful. I’d sit down to work on one project, like writing an essay on a Topic A, and as interesting as this project had been at the outset, my mind would soon invent something more exciting to pursue, another essay on Topic B, and I’d start thinking about this new thing, researching it, planning it out. When I tried to return to the original essay on Topic A, I’d experience a letdown, a loss of stimulation, and my mind would respond by inventing yet another essay on Topic C. To “give up” on a promising tangent felt like hell. So I was always trying to write a dozen essays and never finishing any of them. If only I had better willpower, and could bear the pain.

I took Adderall for a year and I learned something from it. Along with the energy and euphoria it created, Adderall seemed to function like a painkiller for me. With Adderall, I could concentrate better because I felt less pain when I returned to a task that wasn’t as exciting as a distraction I had begun to pursue. Adderall softened the blow of recovery, making it easier to “give up” on the tangent and continue the slog on the original task.

But when I saw that Adderall was giving me superhuman powers of concentration, I felt inclined to use those powers to work on the projects I most wanted to do rather than on the things I most needed to do. Since Adderall couldn’t help me choose between want and need, it didn’t help me become more organized in my life overall. That’s to say it didn’t help me choose the “right” or the “best” things to work on. And when I realized I had become dependent on it, and when one time there was a glitch in getting my prescription filled, I decided to give it up altogether. Many years later, I don’t believe I have ADHD, but I have struggled with concentration at various times in my life and those struggles have made me think a lot about how concentration works. If my diagnosis didn’t prove right in the end, it still left me with some insight into the nature of concentration that helped me later when I began to meditate. 

Meditation is basically the practice of concentration as an end in itself, independent from any specific goal. In meditation, every teacher will say, distraction is normal. We try to focus on our breathing but thoughts clamor for our attention. Instead of feeling frustrated that our mind has wandered, we are encouraged to take a non-judgmental attitude, observing our thoughts without engaging them – instead, letting them dissipate, like passing weather.

If we were to feel frustrated and upset every time our mind wandered during meditation, then this frustration would compound the distraction, making it even harder to return to our chosen point of focus. In a sense, the ideas of non-judgement, tolerance, and acceptance pave the way for better recovery.

But non-judgement is trickier than it sounds. A posture of non-judgement might conceal a judgment we’ve already made and don’t want to admit. In my early attempts at meditation, I would try to be non-judgemental about the distractions I experienced but I still wasn’t happy about them. The phrase “not that there’s anything wrong with that!” has comedic value because it pretends to be non-judgemental while at the same time implying: maybe there is something wrong with it, at least maybe there are people who think so. I would sit down to meditate, and my thoughts would race, and I’d keep telling myself, in effect, “It’s OK. It’s no big deal. It’s not the end of the world. I just lost ten minutes to mind-wandering – what a shame – not that there’s anything wrong with that!” Eventually, all of this concealed negativity would build up and I’d still feel quite frustrated by the end of a process that was supposed to lead to relaxation.

A key idea that helped me in my own meditation practice was to set equanimity aside and instead focus on the positive side of distraction. What positive side? The positive side was that I noticed I had gotten distracted. If I hadn’t noticed it, I’d still be stuck inside the distracting thought. But because my mind jumped out of that rabbit hole and asked the question “What am I doing right now?” I received an opportunity to observe my thoughts from a distance and bring my focus back to breathing. Now, thanks to this gift of this awareness, my meditation practice could continue. 

The idea here is to make recovery smoother by appreciating it. Instead of trying to soften our negative feelings about a distraction, we can turn our focus away from those negative feelings altogether, concentrating on positive feelings instead: gratitude for the recovery itself. Every time the mind wanders, this sets the stage for later noticing that it has wandered, feeling good that we’ve noticed it, and being thankful for the benefit therein. The benefit is the opportunity to go on with practice. In this way, meditation can be transformed from a series of frustrations into a series of fortunate events. What had been “Distraction. Bad that it happened! Distraction. Bad that it happened!” can become “Distraction. Good that I recovered! Distraction. Good that I recovered!”

But this is more than just a technique for meditation, it’s a framework for concentrating on any task. Whether we like a task or not, we can always see it as a way of practicing concentration. The details of a task, whatever they are, can become a substrate for this practice. We can approach the task as a kind of “meditation,” where we return our focus to the task every time we notice we’ve become distracted from it. We can improve these recoveries by appreciating them, by seeing them as beneficial events.

When we realize we’ve gotten distracted and we remember what we were trying to do, we can stop seeing this attention shift as unfortunate – “Oh no, a bad thing happened – I’m unlucky – now I have to work on this unpleasant thing again.” Instead we can see it as fortunate – “Oh yes, a good thing happened – I’m lucky – now I get to continue my concentration practice.” 

If we see our goal as the development of concentration itself, then we can feel grateful for each recovery. And we should feel grateful, because it’s these repeated recoveries that allow us to have agency in our lives, that allow us to proceed with the things we’ve decided to do. Our ability to recover from distraction is in some ways the basis of our “free will,” and there’s reason to feel thankful each time we get to exercise that will.

Still, when we really hate what we’re trying to do, the idea of treating the task as “concentration practice,” might not be motivating enough to overcome our internal resistance. Indeed, there’s more we can do to help ourselves focus, more we can do to smoothen our recoveries.

First, we need to identify the good in what we’re trying to do. We might detest the task – maybe we’re doing taxes, for example – but how does this thing benefit us? How does it benefit someone else? How does it benefit society? There must be a value in it somewhere, or else we wouldn’t be doing it at all. 

If we’re doing taxes, then at a minimum we’re preserving our financial and legal health. If we’re writing a difficult letter, it’s for communication, relationships, social health. If we’re sorting through a cluttered room, it’s for home upkeep, domestic health, peace of mind. If we’re doing a hopeless, vacuous project that we’ve been assigned to complete, maybe the benefit is only that we get to maintain our relationship with the person who asked us to do it; so again, the benefit could be relationships, social health? If we started doing it, there’s got to be a reason. Let’s find the pure, positive core of that reason.

Now, as part of the recovery from each distraction, we can visualize that positive core, and we can feel good that we have an opportunity to make a little more progress in its service.

Of course, it will be hard to keep a clear view of the benefit we’re working toward, because our mind will invent stories and arguments that devalue the goal itself and all our efforts to achieve it. These devaluing arguments will seem fascinating and persuasive in proportion to the annoyingness of the task. Our mind generates these arguments because we believe that if we can find proof that a task has no merit and no chance of success, we can get out of having to do it. These arguments intoxicate us, therefore, because they seem to offer an escape from pain.

If we’re doing taxes, some arguments might be: I’m not good at this. I can do it later, I can file an extension. I’m not going to get it right. I’m not in the mood right now so I won’t be as effective as I’d be later when I’m in a better mood. Taxes are unfair. I’m losing money that I deserve to keep. It’s taking too long – something’s wrong. I made the wrong choice to work on this now. The weather is beautiful today so it’s more valuable for me to go outside and enjoy it now than to keep working indoors.

Any time our mind generates these devaluing arguments, there’s a chance that they contain some truth. The weather might be great! But that doesn’t matter from the standpoint of concentration practice. We shouldn’t look deeper for the truth in these arguments nor should we try to refute them – both pathways are distractions. As soon as we get into a debate with ourselves about the value of what we’re doing – including whether now is the “right” time to do it – we’ve set ourselves up for the very pain that we’re hoping to escape.

Think about it, if you try to do something hard, and then someone tells you that this effort you’ve just made is a worthless waste, that hurts! And it hurts even more if it’s your own mind telling you that, because when you dispute the statement, you’re disputing yourself. When we find a task really unpleasant, it’s often right HERE, in the self-sabotaging vortex of fear-driven ideation that the pain actually resides.

What we learn to do in meditation – observing our thoughts and letting them pass – is precisely how we should handle all the colorful arguments our mind invents to devalue our goal. Any time a devaluing thought arises, we should say “That’s a devaluing idea, invented as an escape from pain,” and let it go on its way. If we do this, the pain itself may subside, because we will no longer be in conflict with ourself. If we go further and appreciate the good fortune of our recovery from distraction, the pain can give way to pleasure.

To spell this out, imagine your mind tells you: “This isn’t going well, you should stop working on it and here’s why.” 

Don’t get into an argument. Don’t say, “No, it’s really important that I keep doing this and here are all the reasons.” 

Just think of the idea “You should stop and here’s why” as a story, a fiction, a construct.

You can say, “Hello, Mr. Story. Thanks, but I don’t need your services to help me escape this pain right now.” 

This essay was almost lost to the devaluing story, “No one is going to read it.” That thought was “exciting” to me at one point because it seemed to offer a justification for stopping work and thereby gaining a free afternoon. But the reason these words are here is because I practiced what this essay itself is preaching.

In using meditation as a framework for concentrating on any difficult task, there’s one more lesson we can draw. Just like meditation often uses breathing as a primary focal point, we can use breathing – perhaps as a secondary focal point – when we’re trying to concentrate on a difficult task. Each time we recover from a distraction, a good way to manifest gratitude for our recovery is to tune in with our breathing: take a deep breath, maybe a few. The more we let ourselves breathe as we work, the better the work will feel. Often when we fear a task, it’s because the task leads to shallow, restricted breathing which makes us feel uncomfortable without knowing why.

In conclusion, concentration is like physical balance in that it depends on recovery. When we don’t like what we’re doing, it’s hard to recover from distractions, but the recovery gets easier if we take it as our goal to practice concentration itself. In that case, recovery allows our practice to continue, and we can feel grateful for that opportunity. To further support this gratitude for recovery, we can focus on the benefit of the task. To do this, we need to tune out all the stories our mind is inventing to devalue that benefit. These stories may fascinate us as they offer a way to escape the pain of working on the task, but we should not seek truth in them nor try to rebut them; instead we should let them dissipate as we would handle any thoughts that come up during meditation. If we do all this successfully, we can reach a point where it’s actually pleasurable to work on something that was painful and annoying. 

This is not going to happen with one simple shift in mindset. The pain of the difficult task will not be converted into pleasure in an instant, and we should not expect this. Rather, the pleasure gradually develops as we keep recovering and taking a moment to appreciate the good fortune of each recovery. As our focus stays more and more on this “good fortune” we begin to forget the “bad fortune” of having to work on the thing we don’t want to do. Little by little, it starts to feel better to work on it. If we tune out the devaluing stories, and bypass the inner conflict they would create, we can begin to appreciate the inherent benefit of doing the task. And before long, it’s done.

AI, Criticism, Society

The Insult of AI Creativity

Why do we value creativity? Of course, we often don’t. Creativity may go unrecognized, or it may be perceived as a nuisance, a weird thing, a threat to authority and convention. But when we do value creativity, that’s not only because it delivers solutions to problems and because it supplies art, music, and prose we enjoy consuming. We value creativity because the practice of it, occasionally effortless, is often hard in a way that draws upon all our strengths and so helps us cultivate and show off the virtues we hold most dear.

To be creative you must have the virtue of open-mindedness, being flexible enough to overcome stereotypes and old habits so as to discover new ways of combining familiar materials, new ways of conceiving perennial challenges, new ways of imagining what’s achievable and how. You must have the virtue of energy, excitement, and passion, so that you would sketch out a dozen, a hundred, a thousand variations on an idea. You must have the virtue of persistence, so that you would sort through the options, trying things out, experimenting, tinkering, testing, all while most initiatives fail. You must have the virtue of patience and care, so that you would cultivate possibilities like seeds that don’t immediately sprout. You must have the virtue of independence, the willingness to pursue your curiosity in the absence of external validation. You must have the virtue of self-knowledge, understanding enough about your own perceptions, your own strengths and weaknesses, your own creative process to steer the ship. You must have the virtue of empathy, understanding other people and being able to imagine how they might experience what you produce. You must have the virtue of craftsmanship, knowing your materials well enough to use them to best effect. You must have the virtue of conviction, possessing something inside you that you yearn to express. You must have the virtue of bravery, a willingness to risk rejection or even ridicule. And you might have the virtue of altruism, which is to say that you’re willing to bear a great cost to create something that others might enjoy, independent of its benefit to you.

Now, a creative person might not manifest the full gamut of these virtues and such a person might be thoroughly nasty in other ways. But it is safe to say that great creative results are not achieved through rigid thinking, laziness, impatience, sheepishness, ignorance, and apathy. The opposite is true. We celebrate creativity because it is a proxy for everything that is good about ourselves. 

But what if it turned out that a nonhuman process driven by data, statistics, and computing power – let’s call it “AI” – could generate humanlike creative results? And what if those results were good enough that we humans could no longer tell the difference? What if such a computational system, which at first appeared to be merely regurgitating human inputs, were to advance beyond pastiche? What if it were to begin generating non-derivative outputs that we might accept as new, “truly original,” even breathtaking in a way that’s competitive with our own best efforts?

If that happened, we’d have a good reason to feel confused and upset. Perhaps insulted. Because we know that a nonhuman process, spitting out art in an instant, is not and cannot be manifesting the virtues we associate with creativity. It did not struggle, because it cannot experience pain. It was not brave, because it was not afraid. It did not have patience, because it cannot experience the passing of time. It did not strive, because it cannot experience hope. It did not take risks, because it cannot experience fear. It did not sacrifice, because it cannot experience love. It cannot experience. And yet it was able to produce the kind of artifact that we have so far seen as evidence of experience.

If it turned out that creativity could be divorced from human virtue – existing as a soulless computational phenomenon – but still appearing competitive with embodied, human creativity, what would happen next? If it turned out that all the qualities we consider to be the most admirable about ourselves are actually not necessary for achieving the best creative results, we might question the worth of those qualities themselves. Virtue itself might be devalued in our eyes. Yes, open-mindedness, persistence, hard work, passion, and love would still be good – we’d agree – but if they weren’t actually essential for creating great prose or music or visual art or for solving novel technical challenges and formulating powerful scientific concepts that we accept as beautiful, then perhaps they’d seem just a little less important than we thought they were. 

Creative products too would lose worth, if we could no longer treat them as windows to an artist’s “soul,” but if we now had to contend with the possibility of their being simulated windows to a simulated soul. If we could no longer be sure we were seeing human emotion expressed, human virtue manifested in these outputs, then the remnants of our fractured aesthetic experience might tend toward uncertainty, doubt, and suspicion.

In times before AI, when we looked at a work of art that we happened to love, we might have appreciated its inherent beauty, and then we might have reflected upon our admiration for the artist. But even when we didn’t like the work and we didn’t know anything about the artist, we still knew that whoever made it had needed to reach inside themselves, at least to try. What we saw, good or bad, was the outcome of that reach. Looking at a disappointing work, we still might have thought “Aren’t people fantastic?” The things they do. The ideas they dream up. The dedication they show. The urge they feel to share, to express. Art is a way we feel connected to each other and show our love for one another. Whether any particular “gift” pleases our taste or not, it’s the gesture that counts.

AI creativity threatens to disrupt that connection. If we first have to ask – because we can’t actually tell – whether the work was created by a human or a machine, we might still enjoy the work for its specific content, but we would have lost the opportunity for awe at the human virtues that its creation must have required, because perhaps none of those virtues were required after all.

There are many bad things that could happen here. A good thing that could happen is that the insult of AI creativity beckons us to refocus on the reasons why we admire creativity in the first place, and that it pushes us to do more to recognize and appreciate those virtues wherever they are manifested by the beings who can do that – our fellow humans.

Personal Development

Is optimism better blind or guarded?

Blind optimism, if taken to an extreme, could lead a person to walk off a cliff, confident in a soft landing until the moment of impact. But we face many situations in life where there’s no existential risk, where the greatest risk is only the risk of disappointment. When the context is safe enough – when blind optimism carries no chance of fatality – should we embrace it, or should we still tamp it down?

If you’ve entered the lottery, you could imagine that you’re going to win, even letting yourself feel sure of it. Is that a good idea? Certainly, your confidence in a positive outcome gives you a benefit that’s independent of the outcome itself. No matter whether you win or lose, you’ve gained days or weeks of looking forward to being filthy rich. All of those happy expectations might be better for relieving stress than counseling and a daily therapeutic massage.

So why don’t we always take this benefit, letting ourselves be sure of positive outcomes and thereby cashing in on all those moments of pleasant anticipation that our confidence would create? Of course, we’re afraid of the letdown we’ll feel if our predictions turn out wrong. The higher we climb, so they say, the harder we fall.

A negative outcome would do more than confront us with the “loss” of what we expected. It would also force us to accept that our judgement had been incorrect, which if it kept happening, could damage our confidence. Most of us aren’t professional fortune tellers but we still pride ourselves on our ability to predict the future. A string of faulty predictions is a threat to our self-esteem.

One way to handle these risks is through pessimism. If we make it a habit to expect everything to go poorly, we get to be proved right some of the time – maybe most of the time. Occasionally, we get to be surprised by something that goes better than expected. But pure pessimism subjects us to corrosive gloom until the outcome is known. The condition of believing that everything is headed for disaster is a stressful condition to live in.

A typical compromise is to blend optimism with a bit of pessimism to create what we might call “guarded optimism.” This is when we hope for, and secretly expect a positive outcome, all the while reminding ourself that hopes can be dashed and maybe we won’t get what we want. Sometimes we might use a pessimist’s language  – “I’m going to fail the test” – but we’re actually expressing guarded optimism. We know we won’t fail, and actually, we expect we’re going to do pretty well because we’ve studied hard, but we still want to avoid disappointment in case we’ve misjudged our preparedness.

Guarded optimism keeps us from putting all our eggs in one basket, so to speak. In the lottery example, if we’re convinced we’ll win, then what would stop us from going on a premature spending spree and racking up debt that we can’t later repay? Reminding ourselves that we might not win is a safeguard to behavior that would seem foolish in retrospect. And if we’re communicating our expectations to others, guarded optimism seems fairer to them – a willful delusion is one thing if we keep it to ourselves, but entangling others in our delusions raises a host of moral questions.

But if we choose guarded optimism over blind optimism, do we really get the advantage we’re looking for? If things go wrong, will our disappointment really be softened in the way we hope? Certainly, when faced with a negative outcome, the guarded optimist can save face, reminding themself that they were aware of this possibility from the beginning. They never ignored the risk; the “guard” they maintained now protects them from the accusation of gullibility. They had reserved the right to say “I knew this could happen!” and now they get to say it. But is this privilege worth the cost?

In the lead-up to the outcome, guarded optimism puts us into a constant conflict with ourselves, where our hopes rise and we try to push them down, then they rise again and the cycle repeats. One voice says, “It’s going to go well,” and another voice reminds us “It might not.” Our investment of psychic energy in maintaining this dialogue might increase our attachment to the desired outcome, and increase our fear of the undesired one. Now that we’ve spent so much time debating what might happen, now that we’ve worked so hard to achieve the perfect balance of hope and doubt, we really want it to go well.

Is it possible that the path of blind, effortless, simple, absolute optimism might leave us less disappointed by a negative outcome than guarded optimism? As a blind optimist, although we didn’t get what we wanted, we benefited from the joy of anticipating something good without the struggle of maintaining our guard. We never contemplated a bad result, so when a bad result came, it came as a surprise rather than as a realization of what we’d been dreading.

Could philosophy ever conclude that one outlook is the best overall? It seems that each is best for a different situation. Approaching a cliff, we should have pessimism. Having entered the sweepstakes, guarded optimism. Getting ready to play a soccer game, blind optimism, because that’ll help us perform the best. Pondering the future of humanity? Let’s address that elsewhere.

But the most fitting outlook is not only determined by the situation, it also depends on our personal disposition. If we have great confidence in our ability to cope with disappointment, and if our self-worth isn’t tied up in the accuracy of our predictions – that’s to say, if we are very comfortable with being wrong – then it might be easier to be a blind optimist, and to avail of the advantages that come from positive expectations, as long as we don’t do this when we’re standing on a precipice.

Personal Development

Don’t focus on the outcome, focus on the income

If we’re looking for a kind of optimism that can be sustained in the face of repeated setbacks, then it should be an optimism that doesn’t make false promises, doesn’t assure us that things will turn out how we want. An optimism that isn’t a form of make believe, asking us to set aside what we know and to pretend that things are better than they are. But if an optimism isn’t sunny, what good is it? If it doesn’t involve positive expectations, how can it energize us?

We can find a more sustainable optimism, and one that’s still encouraging, if we focus on our own adaptive strength, our own ability to take whatever’s given to us and make something good out of it. Instead of expecting external reality to deliver positive outcomes — whether by chance or through our own pleading and prodding — we can focus on the future of our inner experiences. We can look forward to positive “incomes,” trusting that we’ll learn, grow, and find a step forward regardless of what happens.

In this parlance, an outcome is “what happens” outside the self — it’s how a situation turns out, how external events unfold. If you win the lottery, that’s an outcome.

Income is used here to mean an “inner outcome” or “inner return” or “inner reward” — it’s how we experience a situation, and how we learn or grow from it, or fail to do so.

In typical usage, income is a monetary thing, but here it’s the opposite. The way you feel about winning the lottery and how it affects your inner landscape — that’s the “income” of the lottery. If winning sends you into a spiral of consumption and puts you in conflict with friends and family, the “income” of the lottery could be negative. But losing the lottery could remind you that you already have enough money to go on a camping trip, and to do many of the other things on your bucket list, so it could have a positive income.

To find a version of optimism that doesn’t keep making false promises, we can shift our focus from outcome to income. Traditional optimism is about outcomes, but those fluctuate in ways that are totally outside our control or foresight. A more sustainable optimism would emphasize that we can discover a way to make a positive “income” out of most situations we face. That’s good news, because arguably, incomes are more important that outcomes. Our experiences are what we truly have in life — how we feel is more important than what happens outside us.

If it’s this easy to make optimism sustainable and to remove it from conflict with an uncooperative reality, just by changing the focal point from outcome to income, why don’t more people do this? Of course, the rephrasing is easy, the enactment is hard.

Outcomes are more tangible and more exciting than incomes. We can be excited about the outcome of winning the lottery. But even if we acknowledge that losing the lottery might have some educational benefits and might offer a chance for reflection — a positive “income,” so to speak — it’s really hard to be excited about that.

Focusing on outcomes helps us perform. If we’re playing a tennis game and we want to play well, we’ve got to concentrate on the outcome of winning. To find the motivation to do that, we need to believe we can win, even if our opponent is better than us. We need to have traditional, outcome-based optimism.

Outcomes often seem more important and urgent than incomes, contradicting a point that was made earlier. The outcome of a job interview might affect your future livelihood and ability to feed your family. You’re not looking to have a positive experience or grow as a person through the interview, you just need the work. Being optimistic about your inner experience of the interview process and what you could learn from it might seem superfluous.

The income of a situation might not be knowable in advance. It depends on the outcome happening first, and on our choosing a way to respond. Since we can’t see it or know what form the income might take, we might find it hard to look forward to.

We might also remember occasions when we struggled to adapt to a situation or discover any positive meaning in it. Hardships can make us stronger, but they can also make us weaker and there might not be any benefit — internal or external — that we can identify. Our perspective on a situation might be malleable, but not easily so, and not endlessly so. Therefore, the idea that we can discover a way to make a positive “income” out of any state of affairs might seem like wishful thinking. We might feel that the income is dictated by the outcome and not by us.

Finally, when we’re working to adapt to a new situation, we might find that the only way to feel good about where we are now is to imagine good things happening ahead. Sometimes we just need to practice blind optimism, judicious self-deception, irrational hope, an unfounded faith that external events will proceed in our favor, if we’re going to have any kind of positive inner experience in the present. Blind optimism, then, is a necessary tool. To draw a positive income from a situation that feels hopeless, looking within ourselves might not suffice; we might need to imagine and trust in positive future outcomes ahead.

So there are reasons why “Don’t focus on the outcome, focus on the income” is easier said than done. But why not be optimistic that, at least some of the time, we’ll be able to do it, and it’ll help us?

Personal Development

Sustainable Optimism

If optimism is the conviction that everything is going to work out as we hope, then it’s not sustainable. Not without willful ignorance. Sooner or later, a really bad thing will happen, and our confidence in positive outcomes will be shattered. If it takes a streak of good luck to persuade a person to be an optimist, but if a streak of bad luck could later convert them to pessimism, then their worldview is not their own – it’s being yanked around by happenstance. Any version of optimism that depends on how things turn out – or requires blindness to misfortune – is not sustainable optimism.

The traditional form of optimism – the expectation of positive outcomes – can be put to rest with a few basic observations about reality. We’re all going to die. Not only us, but everyone we’ve ever loved, indeed everyone we’ve ever met, and everyone they’ve ever met. Our species teeters on the verge of self-inflicted calamity including environmental disaster and nuclear annihilation. But even if those threats are resolved favorably, the sun is going to die sometime. It’ll expand into a red giant and destroy the earth – what’s left of the earth after our misadventures here.

A sustainable form of optimism must not require or assume that the future will unfold as we individuals, or as our species would want – because maybe it won’t. In the long term, it definitely won’t. We could colonize other planets but their suns will die too – it’s not looking great.

What’s a form of optimism that doesn’t depend on good things happening – on dreams coming true – on hard work bearing fruit – on virtue being recognized – or on coin flips turning out according to the bets we’ve placed? What’s a form of optimism that might be resilient to the argument that “This didn’t go well. And that didn’t go well. And that other thing didn’t go well either. See, I shouldn’t have expected success!”

A sustainable form of optimism might begin with the well-known quote that “It’s not what happens to you but how you react to it that matters.” That is to say, we can shape the future through our attitude to it – the perspective we choose to take. Unfortunately, when this concept is discussed, it often turns into an advertisement for traditional, unsustainable optimism. 

As evidence for the inspiring promise that we can shape our own future by how we view it, we are often presented with a rags-to-riches story where, for example, an individual battled cancer and a learning disability in their childhood, then suffered bankruptcy and depression in their early career, but because they decided to take a good attitude, they went on to achieve great success in business, becoming a bestselling author and well-known philanthropist. In other words, we are being shown an example of a good outcome and told that if only we do a certain thing – taking a positive attitude – we can have an outcome like that.

These stories conveniently omit the fact that there might be another person who battled cancer and a learning disability in their childhood, then suffered bankruptcy and depression in their early career, then decided to take a positive attitude and launched a promising new business, but got run over by a bus. They were so positive, but the bus didn’t care.

A sustainable form of optimism would not promise that our attitude can give us the external outcomes we want; rather it would focus on the way our attitude can give us better and more satisfying experiences. A truly inspiring story might be that there was a person who battled cancer and a learning disability in their childhood, then suffered bankruptcy and depression in their early career, then decided to take a positive attitude, and because of their newfound perspective, they felt calmer, happier, and more whole — they had better relationships and they were able to maintain a sense of inner peace throughout the rest of their life. Of course, it’s unlikely we’ll hear that story because inner peace, in the absence of external accomplishments that make us jealous, is not the kind of thing we tend to gossip about.

Still, if it turned out that inner peace were attainable through simple choices we could each make, that would be a cause for optimism, right? If we could find fulfillment in life not by achieving a specific outcome, but by learning to recognize and draw our attention to those sources of fulfillment that exist inside any situation we happen to face, that would be good news, wouldn’t it?

A sustainable form of optimism begins with the understanding that any situation can be seen from different vantage points. Each vantage point, if we adopt it, creates a specific way of experiencing the situation, and each way we experience a situation brings specific possibilities into view. One situation, two perspectives, two very different experiences with different paths forward.

Some perspectives are devaluing, which means they tend to diminish the worth or advantage we notice in a situation, and they tend to belittle the value of our own efforts and the significance of our prospects. Other perspectives are worthening or “envaluing,” which means they tend to draw our attention to what’s favorable in a situation, to what agency we can manifest there, and to what opportunities are available to us, not just to further our own interests, but to help others too.

Sustainable optimism is believing that in any situation, there’s meaning to be found – there’s an envaluing perspective to be discovered. Sustainable optimism is being confident we can find that envaluing perspective, no matter where we are or what happens. It’s to have faith that when the situation changes – because of an outcome positive or negative – there will be a new envaluing perspective, appropriate to the new situation, and we’ll be able to find it at the time. Sustainable optimism is the conviction that we can always discover meaning, hope, and a path forward – whether events unfold in the way we’re trying to steer them, or not.

Unsustainable optimism looks to future outcomes with the irrational confidence of a rosy-eyed fortune teller. Sustainable optimism looks to future experiences – the experiences we create by responding to outcomes through our chosen perspective – and it trusts we’ll be able to make positive experiences out of what’s given to us.

Now, it might be true that we start achieving better outcomes — we seem to have better “luck” — the better our attitude, the more we open ourselves to opportunity, but there’s no guarantee of anything. If we think of external reality as a dealmaker, we’ll someday feel cheated by a deal gone wrong. Optimism will seem foolish when unexpected and undeserved adversity first strikes. But we’ll be making a mistake if we look at what happens as a proof or refutation of the value of our outlook. That value is manifested in our inner experience. Did you feel better throughout a situation, did you have a better time because you held an envaluing perspective? That is proof enough.

Sustainable optimism should not ask you to deny what you see, but it should invite you to look further. A typical description of an optimist is someone who sees a glass as half full rather than half empty, but what if the glass just looks half empty to you and it’s a struggle to change that perception? Sustainable optimism would be to notice that the half-emptiness of the glass might have something worthwhile about it. Maybe it reminds you that you’ve been fortunate to consume so much of a delicious beverage already? Or maybe you hate the medicinal concoction that’s in the glass and the half-emptiness makes you glad there’s not so much left? If half-emptiness is a fixed perception, there is still the leeway to find an envaluing way of perceiving that perception.

Of course, sustainable optimism as just described might seem to place too much of a burden on the individual. After a severe hardship or even sometimes just a small frustration, a person might be too exhausted to find an envaluing perspective even if they believe that it’s there. If someone has just lost a loved one or suffered a frightening health setback, for example, it might seem unrealistic – even cruel – to expect them to handle that situation while also doing the work to find positive meaning in it.

So this is where a truly sustainable optimism must extend beyond the self. It must include the belief that in those moments when you cannot find or cannot hold an envaluing perspective, other people can help you do that.

Meditation, Personal Development

How to conquer negativity

If a person wants to experiment with a more positive perspective on life, they face a practical challenge. A positive perspective would mean fewer negative thoughts, but negative thoughts can be difficult to spot – they may be invisible unless you know where to look for them. If we’re hoping to alter these negative thoughts, we must find them where they’re occurring, but how? 

One important place to look for negativity is in what we might call the “automatic status check.” That is when the mind involuntarily asks “What am I doing right now?” An answer quickly follows: “I’m writing,” or “I’m walking,” or “I’m eating.” Throughout the day, we take stock of our situation, reminding ourselves of what we’re doing now, what we were doing earlier, and what we’ll be doing next. If we look closely at our responses to these involuntary status inquiries – if we examine the content of our “automatic status reports,” so to speak, we may find a negative trailer in tow. 

Instead of “I’m writing” we might report to ourself that “I’m writing BUT it’s taking forever and I’m not done.” Instead of “I’m walking” we might report that “I’m walking BUT it’s raining and I’m wet and uncomfortable.” Instead of “I’m eating” we might report that “I’m eating BUT the rice is burnt and I hate it.” The status reports we give to ourself throughout the day can be a major vector of negativity.

We can go a long way towards a positive mindset by shifting the content of our status reports to exclude the negative trailer. If we were to say “I’m writing” without the “BUT” that follows, we could see that we’re doing something good, something we want to do. Rather than failing at a task, we’re taking advantage of our good fortune to have the opportunity to do that task.

Meditation is a way to learn to notice these status checks as they happen, because meditation depends on them. When we sit down to meditate, we might intend to give our attention to breathing, but inevitably we get distracted by a sequence of thoughts. “I’m hungry… what am I going to have for lunch?… maybe I’ll go to that Thai place down the block… you know I’ve wanted to visit Bangkok for years now, maybe it’s time for a vacation?” At some point this chain of thought is interrupted by a status check: “What am I doing right now?” This status check is good fortune, because it allows us to notice that we’ve gotten distracted – “Oh! I’ve been thinking about going on vacation!” – which in turn allows us to remember that our intention was to concentrate on breathing. Now we have an opportunity to return to that.

In meditation, we can practice giving ourself a positive status report. When we notice we’ve gotten distracted, instead of saying “Oh! I’ve thinking about a vacation but I was trying to meditate and I’ve wasted so much time and this whole meditation thing is not going well,” we can say “Oh! I was thinking about vacation but now that I realize this, I can go back to breathing, which is good.”

The same practice can be done outside meditation, in the course of everyday life. The other morning, I was working on an essay — this very one. Whenever my mind asked “What am I doing right now?” the answer was “I’m writing BUT I’m not done – it’s taking forever and I’m behind where I want to be.” Moments later, the same question: “What am I doing right now?” My mind’s immediate response again included a fact followed by a devaluing interpretation. “I’m writing BUT it’s taking forever and I’m behind where I want to be.” Whenever I took stock of what I had been doing, my mind immediately injected a negative interpretation that condemned everything I had been doing. 

Later in the day, I went for a hike. Whenever my mind asked “What am I doing right now?” the answer was “I’m hiking BUT it’s not strenuous enough to give me the exercise I need.” And whenever my mind asked “What was I doing before this?” the answer was “I was writing BUT I got stuck and didn’t finish.”

To think of it though, this day was an amazing day. A full day when I could write and hike. What could be better? If this day could stress me out, this day when I had the freedom to do the things that are most meaningful and important to me in life, what hope of happiness could I ever have?

It might seem that if only I’d finished the essay and if only the hike had been sufficiently strenuous, then I’d have been satisfied. But of course, the responses to the status checks might then have been “I’m writing BUT the essay hasn’t turned out as well as I hoped,” and “I’m hiking BUT it’s a struggle and I’m out of shape.” There’s always a way to be unsatisfied.

I could see that the “cure” was not to change the reality of the situation – the cure was to change the responses I was giving myself during the status checks. In any situation, no matter how wonderful, yes, there’s a way to give a negative report, but the converse is also true, in any situation no matter how bad, there’s a way to give a positive report. So satisfaction really depends on what gets included and excluded from that report.

And here’s where things get fun. Since I’m a visual thinker, this report doesn’t need to be a verbal report, it can be a picture. And as a picture it doesn’t need to be a detailed image. It can be a generalized icon.

So I tried it. As I was writing, when I noticed the question enter my mind – “What am I doing right now?” I thought of an image like this:

Later, as I was hiking, when I noticed the question enter my mind “What am I doing right now,” I thought of an image like this:

What was I doing before?

What am I going to do next?

Wow, this is an amazing day!

Meditation, Personal Development

Freedom of memory

Within the inviolable confines of a person’s inner life, should a person feel free to remember the past in whatever way they choose? Do we as individuals possess complete freedom in how we employ the capacity of memory, or are we under an obligation to do our remembering in a specific way – with fairness, accuracy, thoroughness – even when we are remembering private events and even when we are doing that remembering in private? If our memories are truly “our own,” available for us to unpack and interpret however we like, why does the past so often become a burden, a source of sadness? Why do we not use our “freedom of memory” to create a vision of the past that inspires rather than depresses us?

It’s common to think that a person’s inner life is a walled fortress – exclusive, and beyond the jurisdiction of anything external. We can influence each other to think or feel a certain way – through conversation, argument, advertisement, seduction, aggression, or kindness – but we still cannot access or control each other’s experiences directly, and that has been a basic fact of the human situation from prehistory to date. But we do have expectations of each other, not only expectations about how we should behave in public, but yes, expectations about how we might conduct our inner lives, including the way we might remember the past.

To see this, consider a scenario involving a husband and wife. After five years of marriage, the wife passes away from a sudden illness. Does the husband have the “right” to reminisce about his wife in a selective way – picturing her in her earlier health, in happier times, without also focusing on the tragedy of her death? Of course he does, and this positive approach – appreciating the good of the past, and not lingering too much on the pain – is an option that his friends and family might hope he could take – if not now, then someday – on the path to healing.

Now consider a different husband and wife, where after five years of marriage, the wife passes away but in this case it is because the husband is a violent man and he killed her. From his jail cell, does this murderer have the “right” to reminisce about his wife in a selective way, taking pleasure in the memory of their earlier relationship – without also thinking of his heinous crime? The legal system might dictate that the man should spend the rest of his life in prison, but there are no laws that govern how he should use his memory. Confined by prison walls, he is still “free” to remember whatever he wants. That said, an image of this man in his cell, pleasantly recalling his honeymoon, untroubled by what happened later, is not an image of “justice.” We would want the murderer to remember his wife, but only in the context of acknowledging and feeling remorse for his crime. 

Now consider a third scenario, again a husband and wife, where after several years of happy marriage, in the fifth year they grew apart, quarreled endlessly, and divorced. Does the husband have the right to reminisce about the relationship selectively, without recalling the quarrels? If the two were to meet and jointly reminisce about their positive moments, and those alone, this could be a path to reviving the marriage. But if the husband only remembered the quarrels his wife had provoked without remembering the ones he himself had provoked, this would be gaslighting of the worst form. Selective memory seems acceptable here if it’s done fairly, if the selections are unbiased, but not otherwise.

The point of these examples is that while we might think that a person has absolute freedom over their inner life, including freedom of memory, we’re full of expectations about memory and how it should be used.  When we consider people in specific circumstances, we often have an idea of how those people should undertake the process of recollection. This intuitive sense of there being a right and a wrong way to remember affects our own process of remembering too. And that’s only natural. Memory may seem to be a private matter but to the extent we communicate about our memories and express the feelings they inspire, those memories have an impact beyond the self. 

Perhaps a reason why we are concerned with the accuracy of memory – why we are afraid of delusion, so to speak – is because we want to stay connected to other people. Shared memories bring us closer but when we remember things in completely different and contradictory ways, it drives us apart. If we felt free to alter our memories in whatever way we pleased, it would lead eventually to isolation. We could create a utopia of omissions and confabulations, yes, but then we wouldn’t understand each other and we wouldn’t understand ourselves – how we got to where we are.

I have a friend whose ability to focus on fun and positive things, while downplaying the “memory” of his obligations, might be leading him to debt and financial disaster. So there are good reasons why we should want to practice a kind of memory hygiene and why we might feel compelled to remember things in a way that seems honest and accurate, fair and comprehensive. But the burden we feel about memory, the constraints we place upon ourselves as remembering beings, can lead to a topsy-turvy situation. In our efforts to remember things “properly” we may become cut off from the aspects of the past that might help us the most.

We’re all seeking positive experiences in life, right? We all want good things to happen to us. And you’d think that the more positive experiences a person has had, the better off they’d be. Now, it’s to be expected that sad memories would make us sad: if something unfortunate occurs, and then passes, the pain of it can still be revived – that’s what memory is. But if a person is fortunate enough to repeatedly attain those good experiences that they hoped for, the net effect of all that goodness should be to put them in a happier state – doesn’t it seem like that? 

Yet we find that good things cause pain to recall as well. How is that? Why do happy memories make us cry? Why is it that these good experiences we’re seeking can turn into memories that drag us down, depress us, make us unhappy?

Of course it’s because the memory of a good thing creates a sense of loss if we don’t have that good thing anymore and if we see no prospect of regaining it. My mother told me the other day that when she thought of our old house with my stepdad and my brother living there, she felt such unbearable sadness that she didn’t know how to cope. And I understood. It’s because my stepdad and my brother passed away last year, 2022, and they’re not coming back. To think of that happier time in the old house when our family was intact makes the present time feel all the more empty for my mother, and for me. 

But I am trying to help my mother through this, so it’s my role to see things in a way that could be comforting. When she said this, and when I thought of those good times in the old house, one fact stood out to me: they were good. Those moments of family closeness were the kind of experience that everyone seeks. How can it be that having had those good experiences – decades of them – now creates anguish, consigns us to sadness and pain? Shouldn’t it be that the good things in our past actually help us and give us hope for the future? And wouldn’t our family members who have passed away want this much for us, that we could find consolation in our memories of them, and that the happy times of the past could benefit us now, rather than seeming to drag us down in our time of need?

I know that healing takes time – an indefinite amount – and I know that these few questions are no magical cure for grief. I tried to bring it up gently with my mother, that maybe there’s a way to open ourselves more to the good of the past without seeing so much of the darkness, but it will be hard and cannot be rushed. So I’d like to consider a situation that is much further in the past, where my own grief has had time to play out.

One of the happiest moments in my life was developing a fascination with theoretical computer science in college and eventually getting accepted into a PhD program in that subject, at MIT in 1998. That was twenty-five years ago. I had found my path. I had figured out who I wanted to be and what work I wanted to do. I would be joining a community of scholars and looking forward to a life of intellectual stimulation and discovery.

That was a “triumph” and you would think that having had this triumph should serve me well, giving me confidence about my future.  But when I remember that time in my life, I feel an obligation to be complete, to not cherry-pick the good moments. It seems pretty important to also remember that I dropped out after two years and the direction of my life changed. This brings up a sense of loss for what I could have had. Yes, things worked out pretty well in the end and I’ve had many blessings. Yes, I know how to take a positive view of my life and I’m able to feel good about where I am now. But there’s still a little bit of effort involved in maintaining a positive narrative. So many years after my life changed course, it can still feel like I am defending my choice to myself, and that’s tiring. 

What would be so wrong about my remembering that time in 1998 – when I got into grad school and was full of excitement and energy for my path forward – without bringing any attention to the fact that I dropped out in the year 2000? What would be so wrong about focusing only on that positive moment in 1998 and deriving joy and inspiration from it without feeling the need to consider the full picture of how my academic story ended? What would be so wrong about feeling that pride again without deciding immediately that it must be canceled out by the memory of what happened next? The point of this would not be to confabulate, it would not be to imagine that I had stayed in school. Rather, the point would be to stop thinking so much about what happened later and instead to appreciate the beginning as an isolated moment in time.

Of course, nothing would be wrong with doing this, because although we have expectations of ourselves regarding memory – we also have a “freedom of memory” that we don’t always avail ourselves of.

And why don’t we avail it? There is a fine line between remembering something in the solitude of one’s mind and rehearsing the way we might explain it to another person – for me, these are much the same. Perhaps I constrain my own reminiscence by my sense of what other people would understand if I were telling it to them. While thinking back to my excitement and joy in 1998 I might be tempted to share it aloud with someone else, though there might be no one in the room, but if there were, they’d say “So what happened next, how did it go?” and I’d then have to explain it. Even if I have no intent to actually voice my reminiscence, I might still feel I need to prepare that explanation, just in case. And this is interesting, because it means that my own understanding of myself is shaped by my idea of what other people would understand. 

There’s also a sense that I need to be complete in my recollection so the story will make sense to me. How did I get to where I am now? If I were to selectively focus on my joy in 1998 without also drawing any attention to my choice in 2000, it would be exceedingly difficult to understand why I’m not in a university right now doing research and teaching, but instead I’m a free agent… writing essays like this one, taking photographs, trying to make music.

Third, there may be a dynamic that’s similar to the “murderer” scenario from before, where although I committed no crime whatsoever in dropping out, I am still responsible for the outcome of the situation. There’s a feeling that I must own my role in it. The excitement of my grad-school entrance is not my “right” to feel anymore. I don’t “get” to enjoy that happiness anymore because it was I who “threw it all away.” So the story goes.

This tangle of thoughts surrounding past events and how I should recall them seems almost impossible to unravel at times. And this is where meditation has offered me a new option in the past year that I was never aware I had before. Meditation teaches me that I can let all of my inner narration quiet down and turn to silence – not being resolved or sorted out but simply being left to dissipate. In the context of meditation, we can direct our focus to a chosen object in memory, contemplating that one thing alone, and releasing all of the thoughts and mental chatter that it triggers.

If I’m remembering my life publicly, I should not omit all the negatives to create a story full of convenient holes, but meditation is a safe context in which to avail the freedom of memory, to use my memory in whatever way I might find healing.

Here is a meditation exercise I am using. First, I think of the good beginnings I’ve experienced in the course of my life so far. As I do this, I try to notice the “buts” that follow. It might go like this:

I got into grad school BUT I dropped out. I wrote a novel BUT I abandoned it. I started a startup BUT it failed. I released a music album BUT no one noticed. I wrote an essay BUT no one read it.

Next, I remove the buts:

I got into grad school. I wrote a novel. I started a startup. I released an album. I wrote an essay.

Finally, I see if it’s possible to savor the feelings of those beginnings, and to acknowledge I am the same person who had the passion and initiative to start all those things and I still have that passion and initiative. It makes me feel like myself again.

The value of an exercise like this is that it can help us reclaim the benefits of good things that have happened in our lives — the pleasures that have been obscured, the achievements that we are now disconnected from, the relationships that couldn’t continue. Instead of being burdened by the riches of the past, we can draw strength from those people, events and experiences. We can let them help us. This doesn’t make it unnecessary to think about the outcomes that didn’t go as we hoped – to examine and learn from those outcomes – but there is a time and place for that learning. If we can think of the beginnings without the outcomes for just a moment, we can see that there is more goodness in our past than we are appreciating, and there is more to be proud of than we are allowing for. It is within this pride, rather than in any regret which clouds it, where we can find the surest impetus to learn.

It is as if each of us is carrying a treasure chest of positive experiences, but it is heavy and it is closed, and it’s draining our strength. Our best experiences have turned into problems, their value has turned into a cost.

What we can do is set the chest down and open it and enjoy the sparkle of the jewels inside. Then with the chest lying on the floor, still open, we can walk forward, and keep walking, and notice that we don’t have to carry the chest. Magically, those jewels follow us wherever we go.

Personal Development

Productivity through appreciation

My essay on The Paradox of Desire is about how wanting something can make us less likely to achieve it. The more we yearn for something we don’t have, the more dissatisfied we become with our present reality. While this dissatisfaction can be motivating, it can also be draining. To the extent that wanting something prevents us from appreciating what we currently have, it can steal our source of fulfillment and renewal. But if we are pursuing a long-term goal, it is precisely such a feeling of renewal, stemming from gratitude, that we’ll need if we are to endure.

This observation is motivated by many situations I’ve experienced in my own life. I will share one example that concerns writing, and by extension other creative projects.

For much of my life I’ve had a huge backlog of essays that I’ve wanted to complete. The strength of my desire to make essays gave rise to an equally strong sense of alarm and frustration at my inability to get these projects done. I thought I could fix this by preserving more time for writing and by cutting out distractions. That’s not to say I didn’t value fun and leisure – I did! – but I had high expectations of it. If I took time away from creative work, but I didn’t happen to have a wonderfully relaxing and restorative leisure experience, I’d begin thinking I should cut my losses and get back to work as soon as possible. This mindset put me in a constant state of struggle against the bulk of my life – all of the humdrum moments when I wasn’t “making progress” on a creative project and I also wasn’t having a great deal of fun at something else.  All of those average, plain, ordinary, boring moments became increasingly stressful, because instead of finding ways to appreciate them, I would think I should be doing something else, something better, something more productive or more fun. I would feel upset to be “stuck” in a situation where I didn’t want to be, a situation that offered little “value.” 

What I finally realized is that all of this tension, all of this resistance against non-ideal uses of time – all of this distaste for inefficiency, suboptimality, and ordinary boringness was the precise thing that drained my energy and made it harder to create. For example, if I had to do housework for two hours before I could write, and I spent those two hours doing the work grudgingly, getting through it but simultaneously wishing I didn’t have to do it, then when I finally got my time in front of the blank page I’d “show up” in a state of exhaustion. If I had spent two hours feeling annoyed and stressed, I’d be worn out when my coveted opportunity arrived. On the other hand, if I found some way to see the housework in a positive light – as something that enabled my writing rather something that stole time away from it – then after those two hours of housework I could approach the page with some sense of calm and renewal. The writing would then go more easily.

This observation helped me realize that appreciating everyday moments – especially those lackluster, tedious, annoying moments that we wish we could avoid – is more than a way to be calmer and happier as a person. It’s actually the single best, most helpful thing I could do for my long-term creative goals. Savoring the present, especially when we perceive a circumstance as unfortunate or non-productive, is actually a way to be more productive in the end.

These days, when I find I’m annoyed that some burdensome task is taking my time away from a writing or music project that I’d rather be working on, I tell myself that the single best thing I can do to help the creative project succeed is to notice whatever value there might be in the present situation, to lighten the weight and stress associated with the burdensome non-creative task, to stop resisting it and to start find something good in it – because that resistance uses up my creative energy, but finding something good in a tedious or annoying situation is a way to practice creativity.

How does this relate to the larger point I described in The Paradox of Desire? I’ll spell it out. Looking at my desire to write an essay, I see that it has a positive and a negative component. On the positive side, I’m excited about what I might create. On the negative side, I’m dissatisfied with the circumstance of not having finished the project yet. 

Since the essay doesn’t seem to be getting done on the strength of my excitement alone, I look for motivation in my negative emotions. While I could appreciate the fact that I’m alive, I’ve had the opportunity to practice my writing over many years, I’ve got valuable things to say, and I’ve got some time to write… instead I magnify my dissatisfaction. I do this in search of a “jolt” that will help me move forward.

I think of how unacceptable it is that I’ve poured so much time into the essay and I still haven’t gotten it done. I think of how it’s only one of hundreds of my essays that are incomplete. The clock is ticking. I’m hoping that the pain and urgency of this situation is going to finally motivate me to get past the obstacles that are in my way. 

Now I start thinking of my life in terms of writing time versus non-writing time and I conclude I need to maximize my writing time. This perspective makes all the non-writing time more stressful, because I’m seeing it as detracting from my goal. And so my strong desire to finish the essay has actually led me into a state of struggle and exhaustion that harms my chances of getting the essay done. Wanting so badly to the finish the essay creates an inner dynamic that makes it harder to finish. 

That’s the main point of The Paradox of Desire, how the very act of wanting something can prevent it from happening. But as I say at the end of that piece, there’s a way out. It’s to periodically refocus on positive motivations and appreciation. In this case, that means remembering why I want to write the essay and why I’m excited about its message; it means valuing the progress I’ve made so far; remembering the essays I’ve finished; being thankful for the chance to write; and not giving so much airtime to the thought of how “bad” it is that I haven’t finished yet. It means looking straight into the eye of the present situation where the essay isn’t yet done and thinking I’m OK, I’m fine, I’m whole, and there are good things I can see here. Earlier in my life, I’m not sure that I would have known how to reorient my viewpoint like this, even if I had intended to, but meditation provides a way.

Personal Development

The paradox of desire

Any time we want something, we enter into a paradox. 

To want something is to imagine having it, and to take pleasure in that vision. It is to pull our attention away from the present and direct it towards a future circumstance containing a reward. When our attention then returns to the present, we become keenly aware of the absence of what we want. The repeated process of seeing our desire fulfilled in fantasy, but unfulfilled in reality, creates a sense of loss – it makes us feel dissatisfied with our situation as it is. And so, if wanting something involves a positive expectation of the future, it also involves a negative assessment of the present. To want something is to feel unhappy with the circumstance of not having it, and even to feel fear at the thought of not getting it.

The paradox of desire is that we conceive it as a path to fulfillment – we treat our yearnings as guides that should lead us to satisfaction – we think we’ll finally be happy when we obtain what we seek – but desire can lead us away from the true source of satisfaction in life, which is appreciation, the state of savoring what we currently have. 

The paradox of desire is not that disappointment can occur – it’s not that we might misunderstand value, pursuing a thing which turns out to be less satisfying than we imagined – though of course this happens all the time. The paradox, rather, is that in working to achieve a certain objective, we might train ourselves to be unfulfilled no matter what. We might cultivate a habit of seeing our present situation as incomplete, and this habit might be difficult to break even if we get what we want. No matter whether the object of our desire has the potential to fulfill us, we might lose the capacity for fulfillment through the very process of seeking that thing. Even if we do experience fulfillment in the end, how many moments of unfulfillment did our desire create along the way? How much possible contentment did we sacrifice to the idea that we needed something we did not have?

It would be nice if we could experience the upside of desire without the downside – if we could only feel joyful about the prospect of attaining a wonderful object without feeling a sense of incompleteness or disappointment in the situation of not having that object. They say that a way to live a good life is to follow your dreams and never give up, but they also say that a way to live a good life is to learn to enjoy the moment and not worry too much about the past or the future. It would be nice if we could do both at the same time, following our dreams with excitement and purpose while also feeling gratitude for anything we do have, anything we can find a way to see as favorable in our current situation.

Practically, it can be a challenge to reconcile these two approaches, to be full of ambition and full of gratitude at the same time. That is because actualizing an ambition requires work, and work requires motivation, and motivation can be fickle. 

To surmount the many obstacles that separate our current reality from the one we want, we might find that positive motivation – our excitement about a destination – is not sufficient to make us endure the pain of the journey there, so we must rely on negative motivation as well, harnessing one kind of pain to push us through another kind. We might draw upon the pain of not having what we want to help us to endure the pain of acquiring it. 

By looking for fault in our current circumstances, by magnifying our dissatisfaction with things as they are, we think we’ll intensify our motivation to improve, to excel, to reach our goal. It’s not just that ambition can breed dissatisfaction by making us constantly compare “what is” with “what could be.” It’s that our ambition might seem to depend on dissatisfaction as its fuel.

Consider the process of learning to play an instrument. Our anticipation of the future joy we’ll have, once we’ve gained sufficient skill, might get us started with practice. The satisfaction of incremental progress might keep us going. But these things might not propel us through the months or years of difficult study required. To buttress our motivation, we might look at all the shortcomings in our current ability, noticing everything we can’t do and trying to derive motivation from the frustration of not being able to do it. If we think our abilities fall short, we might tell ourselves that mediocrity is unacceptable so we’ll commit to achieving excellence. In so doing, we place our self-worth on the line. Now we need to get better in order to demonstrate our merit and to make good on our investments to date. But in cultivating this need, we’ve also removed the possibility of fulfillment. A person who has trained themselves to feel unsatisfied with their current abilities does not suddenly become whole when those abilities improve.

Another pitfall of ambition is the way it distorts our view of life at large. The fear of not reaching a goal can lead us to take defensive measures throughout our life, and while these may be rational and necessary, they can backfire. For example, we might face conflicting demands on our time. We know that if we are to achieve our ambition, we must protect our work from encroachment by distractions and tangential obligations. So we might come to categorize every event, every situation in our life according to a binary framework: there are things that further our quest, and things that hinder it or steal attention from it, things that help us and things that harm us. To increase our chances of success, we might try to “optimize” our schedule, focusing on the first category of things that move us closer to our goal, and eliminating as many distractions in the second category as possible.

But if our goal is a big one then we are effectively running a marathon, not a sprint, and the way we manage our energy is critical to success. If we become “laser-focused” on our goal, seeing everything tangential to the goal as an impediment, then we have placed ourself in a state of struggle against the bulk of our life — the mundane vastness of it. We simply cannot be doing productive work towards a long-term goal one-hundred percent of the time. To stay in the game, it’s critical that our downtime, our moments of low productivity, our moments of distraction, our moments of “blah” can leave us with some sense of refreshment. But if we see all these moments as unworthy or unfortunate, they can only leave us feeling stressed.

When we try to optimize our lives in service of a goal, we might be setting ourselves up for exhaustion in way that ultimately harms our prospects. If we’re constantly having the thought that we should be working right now, or we should be working faster right now, or we should have avoided a distraction, turned down a social event, cancelled an unnecessary trip that took us away from our task, then we’re not appreciating the moment. But it is precisely in that appreciation of the moment, in that acceptance of “what is,” in that willingness to find value in our waking experience – whatever it happens to be – that we could attain the calm and the mental freshness that we would need to keep going on our journey.

The paradox of desire is perhaps one that we can escape, not by relinquishing desire altogether, but by returning to positive motivations whenever possible, and by seeing appreciation – an intention and a willingness to find satisfaction in our current reality – not as something that might deflate our quest for a better one, but as an essential source of the energy we’ll need to get there.