Personal Development

Virtue: Backdoor to Attachment

Even if we accept the Buddhist idea that attachment is the root of suffering, we might think there are some worthy exceptions to this rule, namely our attachment to virtue.

Yes, we’re in for pain if we cling too tightly to material possessions, but we know that already, right? Name any so-called “vice” and it’s pretty easy to see why we shouldn’t fasten ourselves to it. But what about virtues like honesty, integrity, and fairness — how should we look at these?

If an attachment to honesty is what stops us from lying even when lying would be convenient, if an attachment to justice is what makes us pursue justice even when the pursuit is fraught, then aren’t these attachments beneficial? Isn’t it good that we can’t let go of our ideals?

Assuming we answer yes, then virtue becomes a kind of backdoor to attachment. We might tell ourselves to care less about money and social status, but we’d never tell ourselves to care less about kindness and perseverance. Even if we choose to practice non-attachment elsewhere in our lives we might treat virtue-attachment as an exception, a special case.

I was packing for a trip the other day and I started feeling stressed even though I had plenty of time. So I wondered “What in this situation am I attached to? What am I clinging to?” Turned out I was clinging to the ideals of preparedness and efficiency.

I really wanted to attain a state where I had thought through all the details of my trip and had put everything in its proper place — where I had anticipated every eventuality and could relax in the knowledge that I was now fully prepared. And I really wanted to feel that in seeking this preparedness, I had been efficient and had not let the work consume more time than it needed.

To satisfy these ideals I would have had to perform like a star athlete in the sport of packing but the truth is I’m not great at this sport. Packing always seems to balloon into a bigger project than I’d like and still results in my carrying a bit too much of this and bit too little of that.

Easing up, even slacking a bit, might have helped me. What’s the worst that could have happened if I’d forgotten a toothbrush? A change of socks? A phone charger? In our modern world, stuff is generally available, and replaceable. But at the time, I felt justified in my frazzlement because I was trying to be a responsible person. I was reaching for virtue, not vice. Preparedness, efficiency — these are worth struggling for, are they not?

The catch is this:

My attachment to “being prepared” makes trips more stressful than they need to be. This makes me avoid them a little more than I otherwise might, which probably means that I don’t take as many opportunities to connect with friends and loved ones as I could. In some sense, my attachment to the virtue of preparedness makes me compromise on the virtues of spontaneity and friendship.

What would it mean to pack for a trip with less attachment? It would mean recognizing preparedness and efficiency as worthy goals, but postponing judgement about whether I had achieved those goals. And it would mean not being quite so scared of falling short. Maybe I’m fully prepared or maybe I’ve forgotten my dental floss; maybe I’m using my time well as I pack or maybe my whole approach is roundabout and wasteful. Can I be OK with not knowing that yet, not deciding that yet?

When we pursue any good thing — preparedness, efficiency, knowledge, fitness, charity — the goodness of the thing can blind us to the attachments we develop in the pursuit. Those attachments are justified, we think, by the nobleness of our objective.

But if we can see how to pursue ideals with less attachment, we might have more success. And in my case, I’d travel more.

Music, Visual Design

Magic Mirror

This image of three birds hovering over a “magic mirror” was created by artist Andreea Dumuta to accompany my composition Birdsong. Listen here:

The music is a sequence of inversion or “mirror” canons based on my transcriptions of bird vocalizations. A mirror canon is where one part echoes the other in an upside-down way. In the illustration, we see how the mirror transforms the appearance of the birds, adding color, and in one case showing a reflection that the mirror could not “see” — that’s why the mirror is magic. This magic is reminiscent of how the musical process of inversion reveals new qualities in a melody while preserving enough of its essence that it is still recognizable.

This is the second illustration I’ve commissioned for my album Meteorite, following Jon Wilcox’s depiction of a meteorite impact. My goal is to curate enough art connecting to the album that anyone who’s interested could spend as much time looking as they could spend listening. The visual art and the music will engage in a counterpoint of their own — they should be mutually enhancing. Each image will feature a visual signature: the presence of at least one bird, one meteorite, and one ammolite gem or ammonite fossil. Notice the way Andreea has incorporated all three elements here, with the last one being the subtlest.

When I first got a look at Andreea’s completed piece, I was immediately drawn in. I knew it was “right” for the music. But I wondered about one detail: could the arrangement of crystals and meteorites be simplified? That’s the same question I ask about every piece of music I write — can any elements be consolidated or removed without compromising the essence of the piece? Here, we tried making the crystals smaller, omitting some of them, and moving the remaining ones away from the birds, but in every alternate version, the piece seemed to lose something. Is there a lesson from this? Yes, sometimes the appearance of complexity makes you think there’s an opportunity to distill and refine, but when you try to do it you realize that the complexity is part of the magic. We can speculate about what might happen if we make this change or that change to a work of art, but often we don’t know until we try, and we might learn that everything is right just as it is.

Personal Development

Gainful Dualities

To fall prey to “dualistic thinking” is to see the world in terms of opposites like good versus bad, or true versus false, or happy versus sad, in a way that makes us blind to subtlety, ambiguity, and complexity. In this sense, dualistic thinking is a distortion that hinders comprehension. But are dualities always harmful? Is it always bad to categorize reality according to a binary framework, or does the badness come from the particular categories we use? 

If rich versus poor, smart versus dumb, cool versus uncool are old, tired categories that perpetuate prejudice, are there other categories that might be as useful and eye-opening as these particular ones are confining? Perhaps the problem with dualistic thinking is not that it simplifies reality by using so few categories – only two – but that the particular categories at play are so familiar and overworn that they limit us to thinking what we already think. If we shake up our categories and use the same kind of “dualistic thinking” with these new categories, maybe we’ll learn something useful.

Here are six binary frameworks that can help us see familiar things in new ways:

  • Songwriting educator Pat Pattison suggests thinking about the lines in a song, or the elements in any piece of art, as either “stable” or “unstable.” Does a particular element create a feeling of resolution and balance, or does it add tension, uncertainty, and suspense? When trying to understand how a piece of art works, you can learn a lot just by noting whether each component is stable or unstable.
  • Does it spark joy or not? Marie Kondo built a decluttering empire based on this way of categorizing the objects in our lives. It reframes the choice of whether to keep an object as a question about how the object makes us feel. Some of us may be familiar enough with this idea by now that it may come off as cliché. But we’ve only heard about it because at one time, it struck enough people as non-cliché that they kept talking about it!
  • Am I thinking or breathing? This simple question provides a sturdy foundation for meditation. If you’re breathing, keep doing it. If you’re thinking, say “That’s thinking,” and switch over to breathing. I thank Thomas Deneuville for introducing me to this framework.
  • Am I OK or not OK? A lot of times when we’re stressed out, it’s because we’re acting as though we’re “not OK” but if we stop to think about it we might realize that we’re actually OK.
  • Does this action increase or decrease my probability of completing the project I’m working on? Assuming I take this action, are the odds of completion going up or are the odds of completion going down? If I want to complete the project, all I have to do is keep choosing the actions that increase the odds. I wrote an essay about this here.
  • Am I choosing embodiment or disembodiment right now? Taking a shower – that’s embodiment. Going for a walk – that’s embodiment. Worrying – that’s disembodiment. Scrolling through social media posts – that’s disembodiment. How many times today did I choose disembodiment and how many times did I choose embodiment?
Meditation, Personal Development

Meditation, Web Browsing, and Optimism

If I could write a letter to my younger self with one piece of life advice, I’d say this:

  • When something is positive or helpful, give it a little more attention than you otherwise might. Make a little more room for it in your mind.
  • When something is negative or hurtful, spend a bit less time thinking about it than you normally would. Don’t linger on it so long.
  • You might be thinking about a negative thing in order to make it better: to solve a problem, extract a lesson, or convert a failure into an opportunity. In this case, the negative thing needs your attention if it is going to be changed. But even here, you can let the positive possibility lift you up a bit more. Don’t bind yourself so tightly to the negative situation’s downward-dragging weight.

If these guidelines are indeed a path to being happier, why are they so hard to follow?

One reason why negative thoughts so often consume us is that we’re inclined to prioritize threats – not only real ones, but anything that seems like one. Chalk it up to the “survival instinct.”

A second reason why negative thoughts so often consume us is that they are more talkative. When something’s bad, it gives us a lot to say, but when something’s good we don’t always feel the same urge to verbalize about it. Negative thoughts occupy our attention because they create more chatter.

I once attended a class where the participants were asked to go around in a circle and speak about something nice that had happened recently. It went fast. Each person took a moment to think, said a few words, and we moved on. “Good weather today.” “Morning coffee smelled amazing.” “My dog came and licked my face.” “The Red Sox won.” “I got a raise.” And the circle was complete.

We were asked to go around the circle one more time, but now we had to mention something bad that had happened. It took much longer. Someone said their car broke down. “Battery went flat. But it had just been replaced last year. Mechanic needed a full hour to diagnose. What the heck was he doing? The bill was outrageous, had to argue. Finally got a discount but it took so long that I missed my son’s soccer game. Kid was so upset that he refused to do his homework and I had to have a call with the teacher…” And that was just the beginning of one person’s story.

If the first circle took a minute and felt a bit boring, the second circle took an animated twenty minutes and the instructor had to limit each participant’s time so the next person could get a chance.

Could it be that positive things are more pleasurable but negative things are more virally engaging, even when the scope of that virality is limited to the inside of a single mind?

Here’s a third reason why negative thoughts so often consume us: it’s simply that we lack control of our thoughts. Thoughts come into our mind and dominate us because we’ve never really learned the jujutsu to handle them. If we want to stop or redirect them we find that we can’t.

If you want to be happier, look on the bright side? Fine, but if it were easy to look on the bright side, you’d already be doing that.

Meditation can make it a little bit easier. Meditation can help us gain the kind of control over our thoughts that would allow us to follow the advice to “look on the bright side.”

Simply by learning to release our thoughts – to let them pass without attachment – to let them enter and leave our minds without our clinging to them or rushing to unpack them – we can develop the poise that might later help us take a positive perspective. Even if we practice the kind of meditation that seeks equanimity, calm, emptiness, an absence of thought – not the kind where we try to sustain our focus on a positive thing – the first kind will inevitably help with the second.

We can also notice the forces in our lives that steal our self-control, the routines that train us to be helpless pawns in the theater of own thoughts, and we can avoid those forces. 

For me, web browsing is such a force. For another person, it might be channel surfing with a TV remote. I find that web browsing is the opposite of meditating. It’s an uncannily precise opposite, as if you took meditation and simply reversed it.

Put me in front of a screen and I’ll click on links, scroll through social media feeds, check email, read news updates, all in search of some titillating nugget that will occupy my attention in a way that temporarily obscures my low-grade discontent. Since my discontent is never cured through this process, I’ll keep browsing, clicking, scrolling – growing ever more attached to the aimless pursuit. 

When I log off, the habit of browsing, clicking, scrolling, grasping for some elusive satisfaction… this habit is transferred to my thoughts themselves. I’ll entertain a thought, probably an anxious one, letting it suggest other anxious possibilities, which I then explore as if I were choosing the juiciest or most click-baity link on a website, following it to another “page” of thoughts that I’ll “scroll” through until one catches my attention. When I then try to take charge of my thoughts and focus on a topic of my choice, I’m not in shape for it. The muscle of concentration is weak. Maybe the topic is a positive one, maybe I’m trying to “look on the bright side,” but my ability to focus on any given thing, bright or dark, has been trained out of me. In spending so much time on the web, reading news and looking at people’s cat photos — harmless right? — it’s as if I’ve been rehearsing the process of anxious worry.

From this I conclude, if you want to be happier, look on the bright side. But if you want to be able to look on the bright side, spend more time meditating and less time browsing.

Life, Personal Development

Trivial vs. Deep

Among mathematicians, if I remember what they’re like sufficiently well from my time in grad school twenty odd years ago, it’s common to describe an idea as “trivial” or “deep.” If a claim is trivial – that’s to say, if it’s nearly obvious and mostly unremarkable – it might be called a proposition if it’s lucky, but if it’s nontrivial or deep it might get to be known as a theorem. But even among theorems, there are those that are trivial and those that are deep. When a claim is sufficiently trivial, you don’t bother proving it, you just mutter that it’s trivial, but if it’s sufficiently deep then its proof attains the status of a holy text.

I don’t blame math for this, but I find that the dichotomy of “trivial” versus “deep” colors my thinking about everyday life. Some things I do are trivial and others are deep. Some tasks I undertake are practical annoyances of no lasting significance, and others are opportunities to do meaningful work that might contribute to “the world” in some substantive way.

To give an example, I had to wait at home the other afternoon for a new fridge to arrive. My old fridge had shown signs of approaching death, and its periodic sputtering and banging sounds had jolted me into a project of finding a suitable replacement. This was not entirely a “trivial” project because the dimensions of my stairway (up through which the new fridge would need to be lugged) were quite narrow. 

But the whole issue with the fridge struck me as “trivial,” in that my efforts at fridge replacement had no chance of being memorable to anyone in the long run. No one was ever going to remember me for my prowess at getting a new fridge, nor would the world benefit substantively from my having one. This was not my chance to shine in life, it was just a practical chore that had to be completed. 

So I felt a little miffed that the pending arrival of the new fridge kept me in a limbo that prevented me from doing anything “deep.” Expecting the fridge any minute, I couldn’t concentrate well enough to write an essay, which might possibly have a favorable impact on a future reader, or to make a new piece of music which would have a nonzero probability of pleasing some future listener. Making new essays, or pieces of music, or photographs – these are things I characterize as “deep,” even if at the moment, I may be only one who cares that I make them.

So why bother writing an essay about Trivial versus Deep? Because I want to escape the prison that it represents.

Replacing my fridge is not a “trivial” thing if I consider that it’s an appliance I use dozens of times a day and it’s actually the most important object in my life that allows me to eat. To have the option of replacing a fridge when it gets old is a pretty special option that many people don’t have–I’m fortunate. And what is a fridge? The temperature in my kitchen could be eighty degrees but inside the fridge it’s thirty-seven? How is that even possible? 

And my efforts to replace the fridge, what about them? No, I don’t expect any award. But I had to do some things to make the replacement happen: taking measurements, researching brands, talking with suppliers, choosing among models, following up with the appliance store, paying, scheduling an installation date, being home on that date – I had to be organized and persistent enough to see it through. But if I think of the task as “trivial” I can’t feel proud about any of that.

It’s like that in math too — a point might be trivial, obvious, unremarkable, but you’re using it in your proof of something deep, and without it, you couldn’t prove that deep thing, so maybe it’s not so trivial after all?

As soon as I think of something as “trivial” I start getting impatient about it. I want to get it over with as soon as possible so I can get to the deep stuff. Since I labeled my new fridge as “trivial” I was annoyed that I had to wait around for it. But if I had thought of the fridge as “deep” my experience would have been totally different. I would have felt lucky, blessed to be receiving it.

As an artist, I should want to make art, right? So it’s natural that I’d want to get through with the trivial things that take me away from art as quickly as possible, right? But there’s a danger in this framing.

Art is deep, but many of the things we have to do to make art might seem to be trivial. No guitarist is going to be remembered for his or her prowess at replacing strings, for example. But if a guitarist is too concerned with deep things to give attention to the practical task of changing strings, then every note will suffer as it’s voiced through those old muffled strings that don’t resonate like newer ones could.

If we’re constantly dividing things into trivial versus deep, then we might be relieved when we finally get to focus on the deep task of creative expression, but then that task will surface practical annoyances, trivial things we have to get through so the expression can proceed. We thought we had escaped into the world of deepness but here comes triviality to rear its ugly head.

Calling something trivial has little benefit but significant downside–it diminishes the satisfaction we can get from completing a “trivial” task, it increases the frustration we feel if a “trivial” effort fails, and it blinds us to the consequences of a “trivial” problem. Deep things can masquerade as trivial but if we call them trivial it’s harder to notice their importance.

It’s really better if we don’t divide things in this way. A trivial thing might compound into a nontrivial thing. Like, the exhaust from one combustion engine is trivial in relation to the vastness of the atmosphere, but if there are enough combustion engines doing their chugging and sputtering long enough, that’s not trivial anymore, right?

Meditation, Personal Development

How to feel better about mind-wandering during meditation: Part II

When my mind wanders as I’m trying to meditate, where is it going, precisely? Often it’s making anxious noise, thinking of an item on my task list, remembering a difficult conversation, fretting about something that could go wrong. Much of this is “useless” low-grade worry and it’s clear to me that I’d rather be rid of it. Meditation makes sense to me as a process of clearing my mind of something undesirable.

But mind-wandering can take a productive form too, or a pleasing form, and this can make meditation seem almost counter-productive in its effort to relinquish something “good.”

The other morning I was composing an email in my mind. It was an important email and I was making progress! Meditation was about not composing the email. I’d succeed at not composing it for a few moments, but then a few moments later – damn! – I’d realize I’d gone back to planning what I’d write, a sentence here, a sentence there.

The morning after that, I was reminiscing about the email I had sent, and how it had started a pleasant exchange with the person at the other end. Meditation was about letting go of the reminiscence, for the moment. But the reminiscence would come back and make me smile. I’d think of what I’d said, and what they had said, and how we’d connected and exchanged jokes, and I’d laugh again, until I remembered: meditation!

On these two mornings, if I’d been doing productive work in my mind, or if I’d been enjoying a pleasant memory, was there any value in letting go of these positive things, releasing them, returning to my breathing, seeking an empty mind? 

Yes, there’s value in practicing control — delaying the work or the pleasure for just a moment. To really learn what meditation can teach, we need to release our attachment to positive thoughts as well as negative ones.

On the third morning in this sequence, meditation seemed almost impossible. The anxious noise returned and I could not seem to keep my focus on breathing for more than moment. But the moment of awareness did occur, more than once — the moment when I noticed that my focus had strayed, the moment that gave me a chance to continue practicing.

I thought of it like this: today’s meditation session is a thing in my life that I’ve tried to do. It’s a thing in my life that I had high hopes for and that I aimed to do well, but it’s a thing that hasn’t turned out like I wanted. Now I’m ready to draw conclusions about how I’m bad at this thing and how it’s all gone wrong and I’ve wasted my time. Now I’m ready to say that I haven’t even been meditating at all.

But this is my chance to practice picking up the pieces. This is my chance to practice grit, resilience, stoicism, detachment, whatever you want to call it. Yes, I’ve utterly failed to keep my attention in one place for the better part of an hour, and I’m feeling more stressed out than when I first sat down, and I’m nearly convinced the effort has been counterproductive, but instead of focusing on these ideas, I’m going to focus on my next breath. I’m going to keep meditating.

And if it took an hour of mind-wandering – a stressful failure to focus – in order for me to now have one opportunity to practice recovering from that, one opportunity to habituate letting go of my attachment to a negative conclusion, one opportunity to build resilience in the safe and comfortable environment of my favorite chair at home, well, it was worth it.

We can’t always have a joyful practice where it feels like we’re making progress at every step. But we can always take whatever happens in practice and explore what the experience has to teach us.

When the pain of a failure is raw, especially when the failure occurs in the thick of chaotic life, it can be hard to take a positive perspective. But in meditation we’re just sitting in a chair breathing. Nothing so bad could have happened. So meditation is the perfect situation — a controlled, safe environment with low stakes — to take whatever happens and find the good in it.

See also: Part I

Personal Development

The Connection Framework

Here’s a framework I’ve been using to think about life. I’m going to call it “The Connection Framework,” or CF for short. Think of this framework – or any framework, for that matter – as a pair of glasses. Put it on and see if it shows you something worthwhile.

This framework addresses the question: What is the purpose of life? Or, what brings a sense of meaning to a person’s life?

CF asserts that meaning in life comes from connection

When do we feel the most alive? When do we feel the greatest sense of purpose and fulfillment? When we are connecting

According to CF, there are three ways a person can connect:

  1. We can connect with our inner selves
  2. We can connect with other people
  3. We can connect with nature, with God, with a greater cause, with the infinite, the divine, the beyond – anything larger than self and society

In anything we do in life, meaning comes from these three types of connection: intrapersonal connection, interpersonal connection, and extrapersonal, transcendental, or spiritual connection.

Life is circular. We think we’re going to be happy when we reach certain goals on a linear timeline. Actually, we feel fulfilled to the extent that we keep connecting in each of the three pathways. Connection is an active process. We don’t do it once and finish. The more we continue doing it, the more fulfillment we experience.

According to CF, if we want to experience a greater sense of fulfillment in our lives, we can achieve that by giving greater priority to connection, valuing it more, savoring it more, and giving it more time. 

To see how to do this, each of us can go through an exercise:

STEP 1: Consider the things you’re doing in life. These are your “action areas” or pursuits. Make a table and list your most significant pursuits in the leftmost column. Then write the three kinds of connection along the top row. Finally, look at each cell and make a note about how you experience that type of connection in that pursuit, if you do experience it there; otherwise leave the cell blank.

Pursuit 1Lorem ipsum dolor
Pursuit 2
Pursuit 3

STEP 2: Repeat the exercise but now make a note where any kind of connection seems to be blocked or impeded in a certain pursuit.

At this point, you’ve considered the way each kind of connection might “flow” or might face an obstacle in each pursuit.  If you want to summarize all this in one table, the format could look like this:

Pursuit 1
Pursuit 2
Pursuit 3

STEP 3: By now you’ve taken stock of how you’re connecting or struggling to connect along each pathway, in each pursuit. Having observed the current state of affairs, make a new table. For each pursuit and each type of connection, think of a way you could 1) add more breadth to that type of connection, and 2) add more depth to that type of connection. This could mean expanding on an area of flow, or overcoming an obstacle, or trying something new altogether:

Pursuit 1
Pursuit 2
Pursuit 3

STEP 4: Now circle the opportunities you are most excited about. And draw a box around the ones you are most afraid of.

Set some goals based on what you’ve circled and boxed. A goal might be to do even more of something you’ve circled, or to take a first step at something you’ve boxed.

STEP 5: Finally, if this all seems too complicated, look down each of the columns and see if you can consolidate. You don’t need to experience all three types of connection in each and every pursuit, but ideally you’d experience each type of connection in at least one pursuit. If there’s a blockage in one cell, maybe you can just ignore it, as long as you’re getting that kind of connection somewhere else?


OK, where did this framework come from?

Ever since I completed my album Meteorite in early 2022 I’ve been thinking about my goals a musician: why do I create music? What am I seeking? I worked with a coach in 2022, and attended two music retreats, and also experienced two deep family losses. After all of this, I emerged with an answer to the question of what I’m seeking as a musician. The answer is: connection. Three types of connection – personal, social, and spiritual. I realized that this answer is not specific to music but really applies to the broader question of what I’m seeking in life. 

But 2022 wasn’t the first time I had thought about any of this. I’ve been trying out “frameworks for living” for much of my life. I’ve gone through therapy three times. I’ve spent thousands of hours journaling. I’ve practiced yoga and meditation. I’ve walked around the streets of Boston in the early mornings playing a Himalayan singing bowl. I’ve gotten really high. I’ve gotten really drunk. I’ve struggled with coming out. I’ve dropped out of grad school and mostly come to terms with it. I’ve learned to sing as an adult, facing one of my biggest fears. I’ve taught myself how to compose music. I’ve had an experience that might have been a panic attack. I’ve attended a mindfulness course that changed my life. I was once hired by a tech investor to help him formalize his ideas around intention in entrepreneurship. I’ve mentored young folks. I’ve helped a nonproft that’s dear to my heart write its strategic plan. So… the theme of “personal development” is a big theme in my life.

But also, I’m kind of plagued by frameworks. I come up with frameworks willy nilly – they pop into mind, too many of them to try out, almost like weeds, distractions. But CF is a framework that has some staying power for me. I’ve been thinking about CF and trying to apply it in my own life for many months now, so I can recommend it to you with the confidence that it’s already done some good for me. If it helps you too, I’ll be glad.

Photography, Seasons

Photographic Resonances

These portraits of me were taken in the Summer of 2022 by the wonderful Agnieszka Rytych-Foster.

This first one is about geometric abstraction:

About the second one: it’s easy to center a sunflower inside a square so it looks good, but here I wanted to create an asymmetric composition where the swirling core is in-and-out of focus, bleeding across the left edge of the image, while giving way to a radiance of petals on the right. Why does this image pair with the crumbled temple stone from South India? I could try to explain it, but I’ll save my words and let you look:

In the third portrait, I’m holding a fall leaf and a spring leaf side-by-side. I captured these images a few years apart, not thinking about the first leaf when I later encountered the second. Looking through my portfolio one day, I noticed that the central veins of these two leaves align with each other, allowing the two photographs to almost snap together like lego pieces, creating one extended leaf. My smile in this photograph is a reenactment of how I felt when I noticed this happy coincidence. And I’ve dedicated countless hours to searching for more coincidences like this — not taking photographs with the intention to pair them in a specific way, but rather discovering these resonances after the fact, where an image from one time and place might surprisingly happen to connect with another image from a completely different time and place. I think the fall leaf is the simpler of the two images here. I like it simply for the way the veins stretch throughout the square frame, filling it with an yellow-orange glow. The image of the spring leaf combines light shining through the leaf, creating a green glow, with light shining on the leaf, highlighting its fuzzy texture. The two images come together to form a larger “phrase” about the transition between seasons.

Meditation, Personal Development

Meditation is physical

I once heard someone say that meditation is for geeks and yoga is for jocks. That was supposed to be a joke but it reflects a common idea that meditation is a mental practice while yoga is physical one. But meditation is physical – why do we think of it otherwise?

Perhaps that’s because we sit still when we meditate. Exertion is minimal. And the goal we seek… if it’s a calm, clear mind, then that’s a mental goal. 

But how do we achieve that calm, clear mind? 

You could say we harness metacognition – our awareness of our own thinking – as a way of taming that thinking. It’s metacognition that lets us observe each thought, release it, and redirect our attention to a chosen point of focus. Described this way, meditation might still sound mental: it’s one kind of cognition quieting another.

But what’s key here is the chosen point of focus – the thing we return to instead of following our thoughts into more thinking. If the point of focus is breath, then we’re focusing on a physical process. We’re constantly discovering and rediscovering our physical selves inside, or underneath the attention-consuming tangle of images and ideas that fill our mental stage. We are choosing again and again to anchor our awareness in the sensory experience of inhale/exhale. We’re not simply calming our minds, we’re calming our minds by returning to our bodies.

If thinking is a vortex that leads to disembodimement – an obliviousness to our physical selves – then breath-focused meditation is about re-embodiment. It’s about becoming physical, again.

It’s misleading to say that meditation is for geeks and yoga is for jocks. It’d be more meaningful to say that meditation is about channeling one’s inner jock. The kinds of calm we get from meditation and playing a sport might be more similar than they seem – they both include the calm of embodiment. Meditation’s magic is that it can help us find that embodiment anywhere, without needing the structure of a game – a field, a ball, an opponent – to bring it about.

Personal Development

Advice for a flow junkie

When we enter that state of heightened concentration sometimes called flow, we might accomplish what seems like a month’s work in an hour. Shouldn’t we try to attain flow more often then, and to maintain it longer, if our goal is to be as productive as we can? Sure, but we can’t always be in flow – that’s reality. And the downside of experiencing flow – of knowing it, loving it, craving it – of being a “flow junkie” – is that we miss it so terribly when we don’t have it. Being “out of flow” feels all the more frustrating if we compare it to the effortlessness and speed that’s been ours in better moments.

When we’re in flow, virtue comes easy – we can manifest perseverance, creativity, optimism, industriousness – all without struggle. But when we’re out of flow, it’s not just that inertia is harder to overcome – that our work feels slower and more laborious – it’s that vices seem to overtake virtues – that now we become susceptible to distraction, laziness, sloppiness, and doubt.

In out-of-flow times, the memory of our former virtue can make the present slog seem pointless. If work is going to be this painful, exposing our faults so harshly, why not give up? Why not wait for the next moment of hyperproductivity, when luck bestows it, when the task that’s taking hours might get done in a minute?

Being in flow, one day, and out of flow, the next – it’s a dizzying oscillation. At our peaks, productivity takes care of itself and we don’t need any advice about getting things done. At our troughs, we need help but it’s difficult to apply any tip or strategy we’ve ever collected.  

Could a “flow junkie” be persuaded to sacrifice the heights of flow in exchange for a steadier, less manic experience where the lows would be shallower and easier to bear?

Such a compromise is unnecessary because yes, there’s a way to smoothen the lows without compromising the highs. Simply take the lows and subtract the self-critique. Preserve the feelings of clumsiness, inertia, indecision, and inefficiency, but take away the labeling thereof.

The trouble with being out-of-flow starts when we name the condition. We’re working at a snail’s pace, lacking focus or direction – fine! But at some point we cross the line from just working tepidly to commenting on our work, deciding that we’re “not being productive,” declaring that “Things aren’t going well!” The act of labeling then leads to comparison: we could have accomplished so much more, if only we’d been in a better frame of mind – what a shame that we’re not!

How can we stop our minds from judging our current condition in relation to other, more favorable conditions we remember? We might exhort ourselves to “stop judging” or “stop comparing” but that’s hard advice to follow unless we have a new idea that can replace the pessimistic conclusion. 

An idea that helps is to think of flow as a supported state – the tip of an iceberg supported by volumes of ice below. Flow happens because the conditions have been built up, nudged into place by all of our out-of-flow efforts, all the work we did when we weren’t feeling particularly good or glamorous.

Every essay and piece of music I’ve written has been the product of a flow state. I simply could not have put the words or the notes in place if I hadn’t entered flow. But to be able to enter flow, I might have spent days or weeks experimenting with half-baked ideas, writing “useless” fragments, producing failed beginnings, and not “using my time” in a way that seemed particularly effective. When I do attain flow, it happens because I’ve accumulated all the experience – the litany of experiments gone wrong, the history of false starts – that now puts me in a posture to try an experiment that might go right.

I could think of my life as fortune and misfortune intermingled – it’s my great fortune that I’m sometimes in flow, and it’s my misfortune that I’m so often not. But this view ignores the connection between those two states: what’s labeled as “misfortune” here is the very thing that creates possibility of “fortune.”

When I set out to compose a new piece, I might feel “stuck” and ineffective for weeks and then it might seem like inspiration finally strikes and the essay or the music gets written. More accurately, I started by doing the preparations – necessary preparations – to enter flow. Because the preparations were tedious and slow I mostly forgot about them, remembering only the excitement of the flow itself, not what made it possible.

When I’m out of flow and I find myself wishing for my erstwhile high, I shouldn’t think I’m being denied some gift that luck could have offered. Luck can’t go back in time and lay all of the groundwork, putting the pieces in place, little by little, to support the next experience of flow; but I, right now, have the opportunity to work on that. What can I do right now to enable myself to be productive in the future?

It’s such an exciting thing to see a seedling emerge from the soil, to witness a little bit of green spring up from endless brown, as if by magic. But that soil had to be prepared. Perhaps the field laid fallow for a year. Nothing happened. Then someone tilled it – “to till is divine” — and planted a seed – and waited without knowing for sure that it would sprout. 

As we stare at the “mud” of our own projects and pursuits – we can be frustrated by the absence of any visible sprout – or we can learn to find beauty in the soil itself, doing whatever we can, little by little, to enrich it, to make it more hospitable to seeds.