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.

PURSUITSSELFOTHERSINFINITE
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:

SELFOTHERSINFINITE
FLOWOBSTACLEFLOWOBSTACLEFLOWOBSTACLE
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:

SELFOTHERSINFINITE
BREADTHDEPTHBREADTHDEPTHBREADTHDEPTH
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?

DISCUSSION:

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.

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.

Meditation, Personal Development

On Breath

When we think of our lives we might think of significant events: graduations, weddings, reunions, trips, and transitions. But why not consider life from the vantage point of something more basic: breath? We are born. We take a series of breaths – probably less than a billion of them – and then we die. 

Life is several hundred million breaths. That’s what we get.

If this breath-centric perspective casts life a simple thing – oversimple, a caricature – what still can we learn from that simplicity?

As fledglings, you and I both began drawing air into our lungs and expelling it a few moments later, and we never stopped. Breathing is one activity that each of us has been doing continuously since we were born, no matter our personalities, nationalities, ages, hairstyles, heights and weights, gender identities, spiritual beliefs — any attribute large or small.

Breathing, of course, is not the only constant process in life. Our hearts have been beating since the womb, but look at how we talk about that. We don’t say we’ve been “beating our hearts.” That’s because while we can influence our hearts to speed up or slow down, we can’t control the duration and character of each beat. But it is we who have been breathing: even though breathing happens automatically when we’re not thinking about it, we can bring it under our control simply by thinking about it. Then we can govern almost everything about it – the pace, the depth, the muscles we emphasize, even the sound.

When we’re frazzled, they say we should take one step at a time, put one foot in front of another. But we could step sideways, trip, or walk backward. They say we should live one day at a time, but we might struggle to keep our minds from thinking of the next day or the one before. But we have no choice with breath – all we can do is take one after another. It’s impossible to take two at once, or go back to redo a past one, or skip ahead to one we’ll take tomorrow. Our breath is a sequence – in the truest sense of the word – starting from breath number one and progressing through breath number one thousand, and one million, and so on. Right now, each of us is situated at some point in that extended sequence, and all we can do is move forward in it, breath by breath.

Our breath sequence connects us to our past and to our future. As we take our current breath, we are mirroring our infant selves, doing the same thing now we were doing back then, and we are being like our elder selves – doing the same thing now we’ll be doing in that time ahead. We change as we keep breathing, year after year: our lungs change, our memories change, our thoughts about breathing itself might change… but the basic process of breathing is still inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale – that doesn’t change at all.

You could say that whenever we take a breath we are progressing one closer to our last — sounds grim. But you could also note that every breath we’ve ever taken helped us. And every breath we’ll take from now on will help us too.

Barring a special context like singing or freediving, there’s no point in saving our breaths. And while a breath can be painful at times — when we’re sick, each inhale brings the annoying risk of a cough — the broader truth is that there’s nothing to regret or redo about our past breaths or to anticipate about our future ones. Every past breath gave us life and every future breath will do the same.

There are so many things we can do in life that admit multiple interpretations and that have simultaneous positive and negative consequences, but every breath is simply good.

Whatever situation we find ourselves in – no matter how fraught – we can remember that breathing carried us into the situation and breathing will carry us out.

If we think of our many breaths as a great long chain that supports us through life, we could write the links in that chain, the inhales and exhales, on paper as I and E, and a fragment would look like this:

…..I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E…

I’ve italicized a few sections to represent conscious breaths – the breaths we happen to notice, to feel, to hear, to tune into.

We can strive, in our lives, to have longer and more frequent stretches of conscious breath — to witness more of our breath chain. But even if we just have one moment to take one conscious breath before we return to the hustle bustle of it all, that one moment might be all we need. In one moment, we can behold the same enduring chain we’d behold if we had an hour or a day to concentrate — the same chain that supported us years ago and the same one that will support us tomorrow. Listen to your breath, once or a hundred times — that’s you — that was you — that will be you.

It seems too simple to say that life is just a sequence of breaths; but on the flipside, life, as we conceive it otherwise, often seems too complex. We can find simplicity in life, perhaps, in contemplating the simplicity of breath.

Meditation, Personal Development

On Stillness

If idleness is a state of lounging about, not doing much of anything, maybe resting, maybe killing time, then idleness can be active and stressful nonetheless.

When we’re “not doing anything” we’re usually doing something… daydreaming, browsing social media, watching TV. Relative to some more active, purposeful task, we may be idle now, but our idleness comes without that other, more elusive quality we may call stillness. What even is stillness? 

In 2005, the author and sound-recording expert Gordon Hempton asked a similar question about silence. What is silence? He defined it not as pure quiet, but as the sustained absence of anthropogenic or man-made sound – freedom from noise pollution – and he argued that silence is going extinct. We can travel deep into the wilderness inside a great national park or other vast protected space, but no matter how far we hike from the nearest road or trail, a jet will surely fly overhead, cancelling the silence for many miles around its path. Minutes later, another jet.

Likewise, if we search for stillness in our own inner landscapes – defining stillness as awareness without mental chatter – we may find that it exists… nowhere. As Hempton struggled to find “one square inch” of silence anywhere in the USA, we might struggle to identify any context when we’re truly still, awake but not thinking.

Even in those moments when we seek relaxation and refreshment –  a long, hot shower on a Saturday morning – our minds are still replaying past events and holding imagined conversations and beginning to write emails and trying to plan the day. Deep sleep is a time when our minds quiesce, but it comes without awareness, so we can’t remember the experience and learn from it.

We might think that to achieve conscious stillness, we’d need to go on vacation, travel to some far-away place and clear our calendar of appointments and obligations. But meditation shows us that stillness is in reach, no matter where we are or even how busy we are, as long as we can set a few minutes aside to breathe and – here is the hard part – to relinquish our attachment to whatever thoughts appear on our mental stage.

It might be that tomorrow, we’re leaving on a trip, or giving a high-stakes presentation at work, or attending a long-awaited reunion. We can still meditate now. Whatever is happening tomorrow only affects us now through the mechanism of thought. The trip, the presentation, the reunion cannot reach out from tomorrow into today and physically touch us in the present moment. The impact of future events on our present experience is realized only to the extent that we visualize these events, think about them, give them our attention. When we meditate, giving all our attention to our current breath instead of to the contents of “tomorrow,” those contents have no grip. Stillness is available if we practice accepting it, no matter what’s approaching on the calendar.

But we run away from stillness – our reflex is to avoid it – so the experience of stillness can be shocking when it happens. 

One time I was traveling in South India and I found myself in a home, a living room with eight members of an extended family, all waiting for a ceremony that was to happen a few hours later. As we sat together for what would be a good half-hour, I noticed that no one was talking, so I looked around, sure that someone would be reading a newspaper, someone would be using their phone, someone would be eating a snack. To my surprise everyone was sitting still, looking at the floor or out into the room, doing nothing whatsoever.

And no one seemed uncomfortable about it. No fidgeting, no attempts to break the silence? A group of people packed in a small space, letting time pass without words or distractions, and being OK with it? The closest experience I could remember might have been a dentist’s waiting room, but even there they’d be reading and checking their phones.

My host told me later, these moments are rare: to sit in silence is not really a norm for his family, nor is it a cultural norm he would identify. But when it does happen, he confirmed, his family doesn’t feel awkward about it or even give it a second thought. That’s what was new and interesting for me. In any group I’d ever been a part of — family, work, or social — if stillness like that had occurred, it would have been treated as an emergency like fire. Someone would have taken it as their responsibility to put it out.

So what is it like to achieve stillness?

Prior to 2020, the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Code (Title 27, Section 5.22) required that vodka should be distilled to such a level of purity “as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” By this definition, all of the fancy brands of vodka – Grey Goose, Ketel One – only tasted different because of their impurities. 

Stillness is similar to vodka in that if we ever achieved pure stillness it would have no distinctive character.  But we’re human, and as we progress toward stillness through meditation, there is usually some kind of “inflection” to the state we actually achieve.

In my own practice, I notice a difference between positively inflected and negatively inflected stillness.

Negatively inflected stillness is when we’ve slowed down our breathing and the pace of our thoughts and we’re feeling very calm in comparison to a typical waking moment, but within the calm there’s just a little edginess, a trace of dissatisfaction, a faint craving, an antsy feeling so subtle you might not notice it. But when you end the meditation session and get up from your chair, it comes as a relief to pick up your phone and start scrolling through the notifications. It comes as a relief for your attention to be captured by some external thing.

This is not to say that meditation was worthless or ineffective, just that on this particular occasion, it didn’t free you absolutely from little wants and cravings.

Positively inflected stillness feels almost the same as negatively inflected stillness, because the inflections we’re speaking about are so miniscule. But when stillness is positively inflected, it means you feel just a little bit good – not actively ecstatic – just calmly content. Breathing in and out feels ever so slightly pleasurable. Sitting in your chair feels just a little bit relaxing. And when you get up, mingling again with the many forces that would capture your attention, you don’t plunge into them as if to seek something you lack.

A positively inflected resting state – the experience of just sitting down, doing nothing but breathing — not thinking, not daydreaming – just being still, and feeling a little bit good: this is a remarkable situation. I’ve come to think of it as a foundation for living — the foundation we should cultivate — the foundation we need, but are never shown in school.

Personal Development

On Disappointment

Imagine a kid sitting on the floor playing with blocks, building towers and knocking them down with glee. 

Along comes a butler wearing a tuxedo with bow tie and cummerbund, and carrying a silver tray with a silver dome. Presenting the tray in front of the child’s curious eyes, the butler then lifts the dome with a flourish, revealing… nothing. The plate is perfectly clean. It had just been polished! As the butler quickly withdraws these two silver objects, now keeping them behind his back, the child is left to stare into empty space. After a moment of befuddlement, the dear youngster begins to bawl.

Sad! But perhaps there’s humor in this scene too, if we see it as philosophy. In the beginning, the kid was perfectly content, wanting nothing, needing nothing. The butler arrived of his own accord, by no summons of the child. In the butler’s flowery performance, the child was not harmed in any way – never touched, and not a word was spoken. All that happened: the child was presented with empty space – the same empty space that had been there in the room all along – momentarily captured under the lid, and then freed to intermesh with all the other empty space that had also been there all along. Nothing was given, but nothing was taken.

Still, the content of the plate – emptiness – harmless emptiness – was experienced as a shock, a traumatic letdown, because it defied the expectation created by the butler’s flowery performance. Something interesting was supposed to be under that lid. Such expectation had only been formed moments before the nothingness was revealed, but the anticlimax blossomed into minutes of ensuing distress.

When children grow to be adults – do they, do we develop a new way of handling disappointment so that the inner experience of it is less painful? Or do we remain as children inside, only now equipped with adult powers of inhibition, so that our bawling and sobbing becomes silent, invisible?

When we don’t get what we want, do we respond with the kind of true acceptance that brings calm, or with the kind of grudging acceptance that is merely a tantrum suppressed, even more painful than a child’s fit because it does not come with release?

I was waiting for a subway train the other day that was supposed to arrive shortly. Then an announcement said it would be fifteen minutes delayed. I began struggling… with myself. “Damn! This is going to screw up all my plans!” As my mind began to work through all of the negative consequences of the delay, as if this thought process could change the reality of the situation, I imagined the covered butler’s tray, held in front of my eyes by two hands with fancy cufflinks: the lid is withdrawn with a rapid flourish. On the plate, there is… no train! I start to cry. Rather, I imagine myself starting to cry. And this makes me laugh. It helps me.

Writing is one area of my life that seems very “adult” – I am using adult words to describe adult ideas. My biggest challenge in writing — abandoning essays because I cannot make them good enough – perfectionism – seems like an adult challenge. But I’ve come to think of it in relation to the butler and the child. 

If a sentence doesn’t work out the way I’d like, or if I can’t find the right transition between two ideas, or if I can’t make the essay concise enough, or if the mere act of writing and editing isn’t as pleasurable and satisfying as I had hoped it would be – that’s a disappointment. Inside me there’s a crying child who didn’t get what he wanted. I was hoping my point about Aristotelian ethics would come out better! I wanted some candy to eat! I’m sitting in my chair, hands on the keyboard, looking very much like an adult, but somewhere within there’s a tantrum going on, hidden through my adult skill at inhibition. But I haven’t been harmed. I’m perfectly all right. All that happened is: a plate of emptiness was uncovered.

Meditation, Personal Development

When deep breathing doesn’t work

As soon as you get interested in mindfulness or general approaches to stress relief, it seems like there are throngs of people waiting to tell you you should practice deep breathing. What they don’t tell you is that it’s possible to try really hard at deep breathing and not feel very relaxed.

If you want to get the benefit of deep breathing, remember that breathing has two components: a physical one and mental one. Are you practicing both, or maybe only the physical one? Are you breathing with your mind and body, or just body?

What that looks like is, you’ve slowed down your inhale and exhale, you’ve deepened the inhale and you’re drawing it from the abdomen, everything about your technique seems “correct,” but mentally you’re somewhere else, thinking about your troubles – bills to pay, projects to complete – and you’re not actually practicing breath awareness. As your mind continues to buzz, you’re not listening to each breath, not noticing how it feels, not “tuning in” to the flow of it, not savoring the slow rhythm. Maybe you’re just waiting for the exercise to work, waiting to feel better as the self-help books guarantee.

Of course, you might feel better if you keep doing it, just like when you’re sullen but you go through the motion of smiling, it might actually brighten your mood. But it’s also true that when you’re really miserable, holding a smile for minutes on end while you keep thinking negative thoughts is unlikely to transform your condition. At some point, that smile veers into the territory we could call unnatural or inauthentic, even pointless.

Sometimes deep breathing itself can be artificial or “inauthentic,” in that we’re trying to manifest the breathing of some kind of glistening, blissful yogi at a time when we’re totally frazzled and distraught. We’re hoping the physical exercise is going to calm us down, but our attempted “breath attitude” is so far from our actual mental attitude that it just doesn’t click.

In these cases it can help to go the other way around, to start with the mental side of things, and let the physical do what it will. This means, practice breath awareness – just breath awareness. Try to listen and feel the way you’re breathing right now, without making any attempt to change it. As you pay more attention to your breath and really tune into what it’s doing, you might notice a subtle physical effect. Your breathing might naturally start to slow down and become calmer little by little, without any effort on your part to control it – as long as you keep tuning into it.

The challenge, of course, is that you might not find your breath very “interesting” as an object of attention. It might not be the kind of thing that you can easily stay focused on, especially if your breath is competing with worries in your mind, news updates, social media alerts, and the like. But through practice you can get better at “taking an interest” in how breathing feels. It helps to notice that while anxieties and emails and news items are ephemeral, you can actually feel your breath – it’s a group of physical sensations. What you’re trying to do is tune into sensation over thought. 

If you look at what people have written about breathwork, you’ll probably find the suggestion that you should begin a practice session with breath awareness, and then move into the more physically-oriented exercises. You might think you can skip the breath awareness part, the initial process of tuning in. You might think you don’t need or don’t have time for a warmup and you’d rather just get to the physical core of the practice. But that’s like skipping foreplay. You can. People do. But something’s lost, maybe the best part.

Meditation, Personal Development

How to feel better about mind-wandering during meditation

In my early experiences with meditation, I found it frustrating that my mind would wander. 

The “goal” of meditation, so I thought, was a calm, restful, empty mind; a wandering, busy mind was the opposite of what I hoped to achieve. 

It was no consolation to be told that mind-wandering was perfectly OK, natural, and par for the course. This reassurance seemed like putting a happy face on failure. And the idea that meditation should have no “goal” – that it’s not something you can fail or succeed at – didn’t help me either, because we live in a goal-oriented world. Why would I dedicate hours to doing something without expecting or wanting any specific benefit?

In the years since my first attempts, I have not relinquished all traces of linear, results-oriented thinking from my approach to meditation: I still have a goal in mind. The key has been to reframe the goal, and here’s the reframing that works for me:

When I meditate, I’m not trying to achieve perfect calm. I’m just trying to make my mind a little calmer than when I started. I’m trying to make a small difference. That’s the reframed goal.

And when you think of it, the ability to make a subtle, positive change in one’s own condition — without the aid of anything external to the self — is a remarkable ability. Take a person who’s full of worries and concerns and give them 20 minutes to sit alone in silence. It’s quite possible they’ll come away feeling worse, because the worries might echo and magnify in their mind throughout those 20 minutes. The skill of self-calming, even if it operates in small degrees, is a superpower. 

Start in an agitated state, take 20 minutes of silence, and emerge a little bit more relaxed? It is far from assured that this relaxation will occur. If you know how to coax it into occurring, that’s really useful.

The idea of meditation is if I’m having 10 anxious thoughts a minute and I can nudge that down to 9, I’m better off, so it’s good to practice the nudging. Ditto if I’m having 100 and I can nudge it down to 99. What matters is the direction I’m moving in. Am I becoming a little calmer relative to where I began? Success.

But what if I sit down to meditate, aiming to move my mind in a direction from active to calm, restless to restful, just a little bit – and even that little bit proves elusive? What if I don’t feel better at all — have I failed?

Of course, when I meditate, I’m practicing a skill. The true goal is to strengthen that skill rather than to achieve a specific outcome from that skill in my present attempt at using it. When we make a long-term investment in a skill we have to accept fluctuating outcomes as we apply the skill day to day. The most important thing is to maintain the investment.

Mind-wandering is only frustrating when you realize it has happened. As your mind is following tangents here and there, you might feel troubled by the content of a tangent, but you’re not troubled about mind-wandering because you’re not even aware that it’s happening. You’re oblivious. The frustration comes in the return to awareness, when you notice that your focus has strayed: “Oh! I’ve been thinking about bills for the past 5 minutes!” or “Oh! I’ve been imagining a conversation with the dentist!” 

But this realization – this “Oh!” — this meta-cognitive interrupt – is the very thing that allows you to keep practicing. This interrupt – this act of noticing that your mind has wandered – is the gift that allows you to return to your point of focus: your breathing or mantra.

You couldn’t meditate without these interrupts – mind-wandering would then be unstoppable. So these interrupts are precious – you want to cultivate them. It’s actually good to have some mind-wandering to work with, so you can practice experiencing and valuing these interrupts, or off-ramps, or escape hatches from endless thought.

If you feel frustrated when you notice that your mind has wandered, see if you can also feel thankful that you noticed the wandering: the digression was curtailed — lucky! You were given a path out of the wilderness; now you can return to the focal point.

At the moment of awareness, you might think “Oh! I’ve wasted 10 minutes. Meditation isn’t working for me.” But you can also think, “Oh! A chance to refocus. Good fortune! I’ll take it.”

Cultivating that thankful response to the interrupt – that’s meditation.

When you meditate, you can practice releasing your attachment to regret — starting with regret for mind-wandering and the time it consumes — and you can practice accepting every opportunity for recovery that comes your way.

When your mind wanders, your mind is revealing its power — the power to imagine, hypothesize, and reason. You can learn to acknowledge that power without letting it dominate you.

Personal Development

When to rest and when to keep going

There are some setbacks in life where the best thing you can do is rest and try again later. There are others where you should immediately jump back into action. The challenge is knowing the difference.

When you get injured during a physical activity, it’s usually best to rest and recover; pushing through the injury could make it worse. You’d rather lose the game and try again later than compromise your long-term ability to play. But if you’re hiking Mount Washington in winter, resting too long could be fatal. 

What if you put $100 in the stock market and its value goes down to $50? Should you get out of the market, rest for a while, and think about investing again sometime later, when the sting of the loss has subsided? Resting here doesn’t help, it hurts. If you can invest another $100, do it immediately, and you’ll be better off in the end, assuming this is a long-term diversified investment and yada yada.

When you get into an argument with someone, you might want to keep going and sort it all out, but you should probably rest and let tempers cool down. Disagreements often reach a point where “staying in action” only makes things worse.

But what if you’ve been struggling to write a paragraph and the setback is procrastination? Should you step away and return to it later, or write the next sentence immediately? Often it helps to take a break from a difficult task and return with a fresh mind. But the idea of “taking a break” to regain mental freshness can become a justification for avoiding simple things we can do easily and immediately to move a project forward. If that next sentence has formed in your mind, write it down before the break.

What if you’re practicing meditation and your mind continues to wander uncontrollably? Should you take a rest from meditation? Or should you immediately jump back into the “action” of meditation, which means returning your attention to your breathing, your mantra, or other point of focus? In this case, jumping back into action – returning your attention to breathing – is precisely what meditation’s about, so you should take that option whenever you can. Noticing that your mind has wandered is not a reason to give up; rather, it’s a gift that helps you keep practicing.

What if you’re trying to take a positive view of a situation but you find your thoughts growing negative, again and again? Should you take a break from attempted optimism and leave it for later? Yes, there is such a thing called “toxic positivity” and it’s not good. But the mere fact of having had ten, fifty, a thousand negative thoughts about a situation is not a reason to reject a positive thought if one makes itself available. Don’t aim to be consistent with past negativity. Those negative thoughts are probably what’s making you tired, so when a positive thought comes along, try accepting it immediately, without first “taking a rest.” Maybe it’ll work.

Personal Development

The Cost Of Imagination

I used to live in a neighborhood with some old warehouse buildings that had been converted into furniture shops. One of these shops was supposed to be a lighting shop. It had no windows. Strolling past the place one day, I turned back on a whim, pulled open the huge, steel door and finally took a look inside.

To my surprise, the whole place was dark. Was it closed? I stepped further in and the door fell shut. A small, dim desk lamp revealed a stack of papers on a desk near the entrance where I stood. Before long, I noticed a guy sitting behind that stack of papers.

This guy, disheveled and somewhat disgruntled in my memory, stared back at me. With an air of weariness, he began flipping switches on a large panel. One by one, clusters of lights came on, five here, twelve there, until the flipping was complete: a loud electrical hum could now be heard as hundreds of lamps and fixtures of every conceivable variety blasted their light throughout the enormous interior – just for me.

I walked around, stunned by the brightness, as if I had been transported into a production of Haydn’s Creation oratorio during the “And there was light!” passage.

When I began heading for the exit, after a few moments of pretend shopping, I heard the switches being flipped again, as one section of lights went dark, then another, then another. And there was no more light!

Why would a lighting shop keep itself dark? Presumably to save power and keep the place from overheating. No point paying the electric bills for hundreds of lamps burning in the absence of customers. 

I’ve come to think of my experience in this lighting shop as an analogy for memory itself. My memory is like that dark warehouse interior. Much of the time, the lights are off and I can’t see – in brilliant color – all of the experiences I’ve had, all of the people I’ve known, all of the places I’ve been. But sometimes the right switches are flipped, the juice flows, and my memory lights up. Recollections become more vivid, intense, and tangible. In these moments I can see my grandmother’s kitchen and taste her tomato salad.

The point is that brilliant memory, like the lighting in the shop, consumes a sort of energy, call it “mental energy,” call it focus or alertness or drive. The same is true of any kind of imagination, whether we’re imagining the past, or the future, or imagining a real, living person we’re interacting with online, through written words alone.

As I go about my day, I’m constantly using my imagination in ways that require energy. Imagination isn’t free. We have to bring something to the process of imagination to get something out of it. But I’m not always aware of how much energy it demands and how much I’m actually bringing to the task.

It’s as though I’m trying to flip the switches to light up the past, but there’s not enough electricity available at the moment to power all those lights, so the past stays dark and dim. I look around and conclude that the past was dark and dim. I think of the future and the same thing happens. If I don’t currently have the mental reserves to fully illuminate my image of the future, I might spend my time “looking” at a dim, murky image of what the future might hold, and then grow gloomy about what that image shows me. It’s as though I had walked into that lighting shop but only two or three fixtures were turned on, out of hundreds available. I looked around and concluded that this paltry light was as bright as the shop could get, so the place wasn’t worth visiting.

Imagination brings a risk of false conclusions. We might conclude that the past was not as rich as it actually was, the future is not as promising as it might be – not because we lack the capacity for imagination – but because we are in the habit of imagining “on empty.” That is to say, we expect our imagination to perform at full capacity whenever we call upon it, and this expectation convinces us that whatever our imagination delivers to us is the best possible product. Whatever it shows us now must be all there is to show.

A negative cycle comes about where feel a bit down, so we look for some kind of consolation in the past or future, but we envision these incompletely and feel upset by what we see, which only depresses us further, sending us looking again, without a light.

I’ve become more aware of this as I’ve continued practicing meditation. I find my imagination is most vivid after I’ve spent some time not using it. And I see how when I jump restlessly from thought to thought, I can run out of “fuel.” It’s like when you sit in front of a TV, surfing from channel to channel, and while there might be some great shows playing, your own lazy posture and lack of attention to any particular show makes them all fade into a blur, and you say “There’s nothing on TV!”

Imagination is supposed to be a virtue and a lack of imagination is a shortcoming. But perhaps there’s a case to be made that we should use our imagination less – which is to say, we shouldn’t expect it to perform all the time, constantly replaying memories and thinking of hypothetical scenarios, like a TV we never shut off — and taking what it shows us as definitive.

To a person who thinks of the past and complains it was all a waste: don’t do that if you’re not well-rested enough to go on the journey back and see what’s really there. 

To a person who thinks of the future and finds it bleak: don’t do that if you’re exhausted at the moment. You’re probably seeing a tired image. But there’s good news in that.