Personal Development

10 reasons to quit my phone

When I take out my phone out of habit or anxiety or boredom, not including those atypical cases where I require my phone’s services for some pressing practical reason, here is what I’m actually doing:

ONE: I’m voting to devalue the present. I’m saying I’m not happy with where I am and how I feel at the moment. I’m affirming that I’d rather be somewhere else.

TWO: I’m playing the lottery. I’m rolling the dice. I’m hoping I’ll win the jackpot and receive, out-of-the-blue, an email that offers me the job I want, or a text that praises me in the way I want to be praised. I’m hoping I’ll read a news story that introduces me to a fact that’s so riveting and transformative that it releases me from the everyday burdens of my life.

THREE: I’m choosing disembodiment. At any instant, I can move in the direction of being more connected, or less connected to my physical self. If I’m using my phone, I’m choosing to be less connected to my physical self.

FOUR: I’m choosing avoidance. What am I avoiding?

FIVE: I’m deferring calm. I’m saying that I can’t fully relax until the email arrives or the text comes through that I’m waiting for. I can’t settle down until the news story is updated. So I will check again, and again later.

SIX: I’m sacrificing intention. I’m saying I don’t want to figure out what to do on my own, so please, phone, please give me something to latch on to.

SEVEN: I’m ignoring my “inner news.” I’m saying that world news, or social media noise, is more important than the “news” I could ascertain by tuning into myself and my physical surroundings.

EIGHT: I’m training myself to be less present for others. I’m getting myself addicted to a level of effortless stimulation that people rarely provide. I’m making it harder to connect with other people face-to-face and I’m making it harder for them to connect with me.

NINE: I’m eating a high-calorie dessert. For the thirtieth time in a day. And expecting to feel OK. Instead of doing one more “rep” of the exercise of concentration.

TEN: I’m using a sadness machine. And I’m blindly expecting the sadness machine to produce something other than sadness.

But if I choose not to take out my phone, I can celebrate, because I’ve avoided all that. I’ve bypassed all of those many traps, all those many spiraling vortices of despair. And it wouldn’t be totally unreasonable to fantasize the people in my life cheering as well – because they’ll be getting a bit more of my presence and attention thanks to this choice. And if I think of the projects I’m working on, I can imagine those projects “rejoicing” too, because they’ll be getting better concentration from me. And if I think of my future self, he’s thanking me and saying, you did good just now.

Notes: For more on this topic, I recommend the book The Power Of Off by Nancy Colier. The lottery analogy in point TWO is adapted from there. The book A World Without Email by Cal Newport is also informative.


Is AI creative?

Are AI systems capable of genuine creativity, doing more than remixing the source material they were trained with, but forging new “work” altogether – new prose or visual art that might be called “original” or “inspired” if a human had made it?

To be thorough in discussing this question we should say what we mean by “AI” and what we mean by “creativity,” and we should say what might distinguish inauthentic or substandard creativity from the “genuine” sort of creativity that we deem worthy of admiration. But we can also look for shortcuts to making an assessment, so here’s mine.

In the early 2000s, I would start my work mornings by checking the “Word of the Day” online. There were a handful of dictionary websites in operation, each offering its own daily word, and by checking four of these sites, I could get four uncommon and unrelated words which had certainly never been used together in a sentence before. My officemate at the time would check the same sites and get the same four words, and we’d make a daily game of it – each of us would try to write our own sentence using all four words together. We’d send these sentences back and forth over instant message, seeing who could write a sentence first, and who’s sentence might come out the best each day.

To be good, a sentence had to do more than include the four required words, it had to illustrate all four of their meanings, so that someone reading that one sentence could make a strong guess at all four definitions. 

In 2009, I turned this challenge into a website called “Quadrivial Quandary” (“QQ” for short) and I operated it until 2015. At the height of this project I’d spend hours every day moderating and maintaining the site and writing my own sentence. I cared about it dearly, and still do.

But why did I make such an investment in this quirky amusement? Of course it was fun. And it was a chance to foster a small online community. To meet people and share our love of words.

But more than that, I felt it was like a laboratory – or gym – for creative problem solving. To write a good sentence, you’d have to deeply understand the meanings of each of the four words. You’d need a good sense of how those words might be used in speech – were they formal, informal? Positive, negative, neutral? Common, obscure? What contexts did they belong in?

You’d need to overcome your stereotypes, your gut reaction that there’s no way an obscure medical term, a highly specific legal term, a slang interjection, and an obsolete botanical term could ever be connected into one coherent utterance. You’d have to search hard for those connections. You’d have to invent a context, a story that brought those seemingly unrelated ideas together. And that story would need to be tight enough that each of the four words would seem essential – none would seem frivolous or easy to remove.

If creativity is about understanding your materials deeply, then combining those materials in new ways – ways that defy convention – to communicate meaning – and doing all this in a way that obeys specific constraints – then QQ was creativity in a nutshell. That’s how I thought of it and that’s why I spent so much time on it.

One thing that’s missing from this description of creativity is the component of emotion – the way a creator is moved by their own experiences – the way a creator yearns to express what they feel inside. It would be a stretch to say that QQ ever provided a way for participants to express their deepest inner lives, and it was never meant as such an avenue; but as a kind of writing practice, perhaps QQ was a way to refine one’s tools. 

During the years that I maintained QQ, I never considered whether a computer could solve it – I just assumed this would never happen because… computer’s aren’t creative and this was a creative challenge that many humans found difficult.

As I write these words in 2023, after the QQ site has been dormant for 7 years, OpenAI’s “ChatGPT” and other Large Language Models are all the rage. So can ChatGPT solve QQ? 

You can see what this question means to me personally, because I invested so much of my life-energy in launching QQ, maintaining it, and contributing to it over six years, thinking of it as a quintessential creative challenge. If ChatGPT could solve it, I’d be forced to accept that ChatGPT was exhibiting creativity. And I’d find it hard to wiggle out of the conclusion that this creativity was the real, legitimate, genuine sort – the same kind I respected and encouraged as the founder of QQ.

So the other week, I took the first four words that came to mind: mirtazapine, eviction, afflatus, and conciliatory. 

I gave ChatGPT this prompt:

Write one sentence that uses and illustrates the meanings of the following four words: mirtazapine, eviction, afflatus, conciliatory.

It came back with this:

After facing eviction, the writer’s afflatus was restored by a conciliatory conversation with their psychiatrist who adjusted their medication to include mirtazapine, leading to a renewed sense of creativity and purpose.

The sentence begins with a dangling participle. The meaning of eviction is not fully illustrated: from this sentence, we only know that it’s a negative outcome of some sort. We can gather that mirtazapine is an antidepressant but we don’t know what might be special about it. And the sentence does not really rise to the level of being a short story as we don’t really come to know or connect with a specific character here. The very best QQ submissions did introduce us to a person we could begin getting to know – they were pieces of micro-fiction in the span of one long sentence.

Considering that AI systems in 2023 can already pass the bar exam and make decent stock predictions and generate plausible academic papers, this QQ solution might not seem to be one of AI’s most spectacular “achievements.” 

But it is awe-inspiring to me, because it’s a pretty decent solution to this particular QQ. As the moderator of the game for years, I saw far worse. This solution has got solid bones, and its flaws are fixable.

I doubt that ChatGPT had been trained on any text that included these four words together. And yet, in an instant it was able to discover a plausible story connecting them. If you’ve got “afflatus” in the mix, then you’ve probably got an artist or creative person. If you’ve got “mirtazapine” then you’ve got someone with depression, which is being treated, and that depression probably belongs to the artist. If you’ve got “eviction” maybe it’s because someone couldn’t pay rent, and may that someone who can’t pay rent is the artist because they were depressed and weren’t working. If you’ve got “conciliatory” in the mix, well, that could be the artist being conciliatory towards the landlord, or vice versa, but it could also be the doctor being conciliatory toward the patient. 

To wiggle out of the conclusion that ChatGPT is being creative here, there are three approaches I could take.

First, I could argue that ChatGPT isn’t that good at solving QQ. I could prompt it with lots of other word combinations and focus on what it gets wrong. I could argue that the best human QQ solutions are categorically better than the best AI generated solutions. But if I go down this path I have to start by acknowledging that ChatGPT has already done something which I never imagined any computational system would ever be able to do. With that one sentence quoted above, my view of what’s possible has changed irrevocably.

Second, I could argue that QQ doesn’t require as much creativity as I thought it did. Perhaps we could devise a system for QQ that would make it easy for humans to solve the puzzle, so that a person wouldn’t really need to manifest any “creativity” in following that system and creating a plausible sentence that uses any four arbitrary words. But I have to remember that QQ has been one of the biggest labors of love in my life so far, and I poured an unreasonable amount of effort into it over a long span of years. I have to trust in myself that I wouldn’t have done that if there weren’t something deep to be explored and practiced in this game.

Third, I could argue that although ChatGPT can solve QQ, it’s not solving it in an “interesting” or respectable way. What would that mean? Perhaps it’s using brute force in a way that we wouldn’t accept as truly creative. Imagine a system that generated all possible sentences of a certain length, then removed those sentences that don’t include the four required words, and finally applied a statistical metric to choose the sentence among all the remaining possibilities that is most likely or most consistent with reams of recorded human speech. Would such a brute-force process seem to be creative in a satisfying way? Not much more than the monkey in the so-called Infinite Monkey Theorem, who hits keys at random for an infinite amount of time and at some point types out the full text of Hamlet. We can be sure that ChatGPT is not working exactly like this — it can’t be exploring every possible sequence of say, 80 words, because this space of options rivals the estimated number of particles in the observable universe. But maybe it’s using some brute force in combination with material that it has memorized in a way that still seems like “cheating?”

Of course the fourth option is to accept that yes, ChatGPT is creative, and genuinely so.

And in turn this would force us to accept that just as nature can be “creative” and just as people can be “creative” there is now a third category of creative agency that we have to recognize. There is the disembodied, computational creativity of machines, which as it advances, may come to rival the other two forms. There is a creativity that is detached from feeling and experience, but still able to appear as if it’s based in sentience. A robot that has never been depressed, and for whom that term has no meaning, may someday be able to write about depression in the same way a human might. A robot that does not feel a thing may still be able to persuade us – using the same tools of language that we use to persuade each other – that it feels. And when we look at prose or visual art we may no longer be able to tell whether it is a product of computational creativity, generated in an instant, or a product of human creativity, derived from experience, emerging through struggle, crafted with virtue.

Personal Development

On Fear

When we experience fear, that is not a time when we would probably lounge about, smelling the roses, appreciating our blessings, savoring our relationships, and thinking positively, expansively about the future.

If fear is a set of physical sensations – muscles trembling, heart racing, hair standing on end – it is also a style of thinking that becomes more narrow, less open to subtlety, less curious, less trusting, less hopeful.

If we lived in a primordial jungle, and if we only had a minimal concept of “self,” and if our capacity for imagination were less active and powerful, then fear itself would be a simpler thing. We would feel fear only in response to physical threats – a tiger rushing toward us. The consequent change in the style of our thinking – the increased narrowness and urgency – the “tunnel vision,” so to speak – would help us focus on escaping the tiger.

As modern humans in a modern world, we still feel fear in response to physical threats, but we also feel fear in response to ether – pure thought, with no material form attached. Isn’t that remarkable? We can be afraid of something that we can’t physically point to and show anyone where it is.

Our self-concept is elaborate – we have an ego that includes but extends far beyond the physical self. We can feel fear if an idea threatens this ego – which is itself a mental construct, a set of ideas – just as if there were a physical thing that threatened our own physical self. A thought that challenges another thought can still terrify us like a charging tiger.

So we can sit down in a well-furnished room, being well-rested and well-fed, being free to come and go, free to lounge about and do nothing whatsoever, and as we do that nothing, we can still feel fear. We can watch a movie and feel fear. We can have a conversation and feel fear. We can go to sleep and have a nightmare. As far as our reality extends beyond the physical, into the world of imagination, fear can invade that space anytime.

But when fear arrives, we might have little awareness that we are in fact afraid, and we might have no understanding of why we would be afraid. When our ego is threatened by a particular idea, the threat itself might be invisible to our conscious mind. We might not see what part of our self-concept is threatened and we might not fathom why the offending idea would even be a threat to it. As we navigate the world, we can be the victim of inscrutable, unintelligible fear – fear that still has a cause but one which we do not perceive and so cannot reason about.

But when we feel fear in response to a specific idea – a possibility that we see before us – what happens next? What would happen if a magician put a concept in your mind, simply by describing it, and then waved a wand that made you less likely to see alternate possibilities, less open-minded, more agitated and so less inclined toward careful, dispassionate analysis? The concept that had been put there moments before the waving of the wand could turn from a possibility into a conviction. Fear is that wand. 

When an idea makes us afraid, it gains weight, it transforms from an abstraction into an experience. Our physical reaction now makes the idea feel like something. And that feeling gives the idea a kind of persistence, because once our heart has begun to race and our hair has begun to stand on end, we cannot easily force this process to stop. What might help us at this time is to realistically assess the likelihood of the outcome we fear, seeing it in the context of an infinity of other possibilities; what might help us is to reconsider how much of a threat this idea actually poses to us, and whether there something we’re clinging to that intensifies the sense of threat, something we could easily release; what might help us is to remember our strength, which means remembering not only our ability to fight but also remembering the advantages of our position, the good things we’ve had in life, the blessings bestowed upon us, including the blessing of optimism, our ability to imagine positive outcomes, and how this ability has served us.

But the nature of fear is to disrupt all of those pathways that would quiet fear. 

What happens? What happens when an idea enters the mind and causes fear, which in turn affects our thinking style, making us less able to consider alternate possibilities, all while the fear-causing idea remains seated in our field of view? What happens when fear gives us tunnel vision in such a way that the tunnel blocks out everything but the idea that caused the fear in the first place, now waiting for us at the tunnel’s end? Of course we focus more on the one possibility we are currently “seeing” in the distance and believe it even more, and this makes us ever more afraid. So we see that fear can create a cycle, where we are more likely to trust something that initially scared us. If this thought came into mind as one of many possibilities, it now becomes the only possibility we can see, so we might accept it as truth. Even if we later come to question it in calmer moments, we still retain the memory of its seeming so true.

From this, we can see the potential for co-opting fear as a tool of manipulation. If another person provides us with ideas that cause fear – and if that fear blinds us to other possibilities and makes us overly trusting of the fear-causing ideas themselves – then it will seem like this person is a source of truth. We may come to treat them as an authority even if they themselves are not threatening us. To win our respect, they need not say “I am going to come attack you if you don’t follow me.” They merely need to supply fantasies that threaten us, saying “I am going to warn you about others who will attack you, and I’ll tell you how they will do it.” It’s known that fear creates division and distrust, sabotaging cooperation – which renders a flock, or a populace less powerful – but it also creates an unflinching trust in the person who offered the fear because that person – even if a lair – comes to seem like an exemplar of truthfulness.

This dynamic can play out in our own minds, leading us to place overdue trust in the process of fear-driven ideation because that process seems to lead us towards things which we end up believing.

The process is harder to escape than it sounds, because sometimes fears are well-founded – and sometimes purveyors of fear can offer truth mixed in with fiction, in a proportion that may be difficult to know.

We cannot discount in a blanket way, any and every conclusion which comes from fear, or which causes fear, nor should we push ourselves to confront every fear and to bravely do everything that makes us afraid, because some of those things make us afraid for good reason. Sometimes we must make a choice about which fears to accept and which fears to fight.

But the best time to comb through our fears and decide how to respond to them is not when we are paralyzed by fear itself. If we’re lucky enough in our lives to have the opportunity and the wisdom to consciously reflect on our fears – bringing intention to the way we engage with them – we should take a moment to do something first, to set the stage for this reflection. We should take a moment to connect with our hearts as a first step, so that the decisions we make regarding fear can be guided not by fear itself, but by love and hope.

Meditation, Personal Development

Self-compassion is hard, and that’s not your fault!

If compassion is more than a general sense of kindness, more than an omnidirectional attitude of goodwill, then it means witnessing another person’s distress – an individual’s distress – being willing to learn the details, through our own presence and attention, about that person’s unique experience – and wishing for the alleviation of their suffering. But that’s not everything entirely. Compassion also involves a way of thinking about who or what is responsible for the suffering at hand. To be truly compassionate, we must acknowledge that the other person faced a difficult circumstance, one which challenged them and caused them pain – a circumstance which was at least partially outside their control. 

To understand what compassion really is, we might consider its opposite. Perhaps the cruel opposite of compassion would be to see a person in distress and to tell them, “It’s all your fault. You made it happen. You deserve it!”

To be compassionate requires a suspension of blame. When a person comes down with a rare and unexpected illness, of course, there’s no thought of accountability. But in other cases of distress – a failed romance, a lost job – the more we learn about the situation, the more we might notice how the person’s own behavior contributed to their suffering. If we feel strongly that they deserve the unpleasant outcome they got, if we think “they had it coming to them,” then we’re not being compassionate fully. We need to see and acknowledge the aspects of the situation that were out of that person’s control, like how their date behaved, or how their employer behaved, and even how they themselves behaved… due to uncontrollable circumstances like the personality traits that they never elected to have.

We can still have compassion for a thief, all while believing that the thief’s behavior warrants the prison sentence they got, but we might have to work to achieve this compassion. This compassion would come from zooming out and seeing that no one “deserves” the combination of circumstances that would lead them to steal. Even if they “did it,” they didn’t deserve the fate of being born into this world – an innocent infant – and somehow arriving at a life situation that would make them do it. The same is true of a person who suffers distress that seems purely internal, created by and within the self, like when someone is overwhelmed with anxiety, but with no psychiatric diagnosis to blame. An acquaintance might say – “You’re worrying too much – your troubles are all in your mind – you’re bringing this all on yourself,” but that’s not compassionate. To be compassionate requires beginning with the wish that they not suffer, then acknowledging that the mind is a difficult thing to operate, and it comes with no instruction manual – that to have trouble with one’s thoughts is natural and unavoidable, but that no one “deserves” to have this trouble.

If we take compassion, just as we hold it for other people, and if we apply it to our own selves, what happens next? 

Self-compassion might seem like a good and healthy thing to practice, but the attempt to practice it can create confusion and fear, for good reasons.

If self-compassion means having more than a general sense of kindness toward ourselves, more than a vague, nondescript goodwill directed inward, then it means acknowledging our own suffering, and wishing for the alleviation of that suffering. But it’s more than that. To be truly compassionate toward our own self, in the same way we would be compassionate towards another person, we must understand that we faced a difficult circumstance, one which challenged us and caused us pain – a circumstance which was at least partially outside our control.

That’s where it gets tricky. Even knowing all the details we know about the situation and how it came about, including through our own involvement, we must stop blaming ourselves, stop thinking we deserve it, if we’re going to be truly self-compassionate. When we say “It’s all my fault, I own this,” we’re not practicing self-compassion, just as if we said to someone else, you own what happened to you, this wouldn’t be very compassionate either.

But isn’t it supposed to be a good thing to take ownership, to have accountability for our actions, to accept blame where blame’s due? Isn’t it supposed to be a good thing to believe in our own agency, to believe we can change our situation for the better, and to always focus on doing that? Isn’t it supposed to be a good thing to look on the bright side, seeing potential and possibility in any situation, no matter how dark, rather than concentrating on that darkness and how it has dragged us down unavoidably?

Although self-compassion might sound like it should fit well with other attitudes that form a wholesome outlook on life – optimism, perseverance, responsibility – it may be difficult to reconcile with those others. Optimism asks us to see what’s promising in our circumstance, but self-compassion requires that we acknowledge forces outside of our control that hold us back. Perseverance means sticking with our struggle, believing we can get through it, tuning out our pain and cultivating resilience, but self-compassion means acknowledging our limits, accepting that those limits may have been reached. Responsibility means believing that we can control our fate, but self-compassion requires accepting that sometimes we can’t.

“Lord, grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” If there’s one quote that’s powerful enough to ease suffering, perhaps that’s the one. But what should a person do before they’ve been granted the “wisdom to know the difference?” How should we behave when we’re not sure – and can find no quick way of discovering – whether our current predicament is one of those things we can change, or one of those things we cannot?

We might feel we should withhold self-compassion until there’s clarity on this. If the situation is really in our control, then we should fight, we should be brave, we should believe ever more strongly in our own agency. Now might not be the time to tune into our suffering. Now might not be the time to reflect on the difficulty of our circumstances, and the random undeservedness of that difficulty.  

Of course, bravery does not require that we completely numb ourselves to our own pain; optimism does not require us to ignore our own hardships or to pretend our circumstances aren’t challenging; responsibility does not require us to deny that some failures were unavoidable; but each of these attitudes involves a choice of where to focus our attention, emphasizing some things and de-emphasizing others.

We might switch back and forth between these perspectives, so that they seem to fuse together, but we may struggle to blend them fully, because they may be incompatible at a microscopic level, in the way oil and water can be whipped together into a convincing emulsion, but never fully mix.

We can try out the lens of optimism, remember what it showed us, and try out the lens of self-compassion, remember what it showed us, and combine the images in our secondary imagination. But it is difficult to look through both lenses at the very same time – on the one hand seeing our agency and power to improve a situation while at the very same time accepting our powerlessness in the face of an adversity that caused us to suffer.

Among the positive attitudes mentioned, self-compassion may be the one that is the most challenging to our ego, because it means accepting that we have less agency over a situation than we would like to have, or than we feel obliged to believe we have. 

Let’s say we lost a tennis game. Losing caused us pain. Self-compassion would ask us to see how there were things outside our control that created this situation, but we may not be ready to admit them – we’d rather think that we had full agency over the game and we just blew it, in an isolated stroke of bad luck. We’d rather think that when we tell ourselves we’re “going to win” we can usually make that happen. We could observe that our opponent had been more skilled than us – but we might not want to admit this. We could observe that our practice routine hadn’t been as effective as we intended – but we might not want to admit this either. And we could accept that the loss really hurt us and we don’t like losing – but we’d rather maintain a self-image that we’re a good sport. Insomuch as self-compassion requires that we acknowledge what we couldn’t control in the situation, it actually requires giving up our ego attachments.

We might also fear where self-compassion leads. On the one hand, there’s the risk that self-compassion could devolve into self-pity, where we become consumed with the challenges we face, thinking of them as unfair and unjust, and feeling hopeless about our chances for improvement. Where is the line between self-compassion and self-pity? Because we can’t always see where that line falls, we might be afraid of moving in that general direction. No one likes a “whimp,” a “whiner,” or a “sore loser” and we don’t want to be one of those.

On the other hand, there’s the risk of self-indulgence, where we become too forgiving of our own bad behavior, in a way that invites more bad behavior. Why didn’t I do the dishes? I wasn’t feeling like it. No big deal. Why didn’t I pay my taxes? The paperwork was too tedious. No big deal. Why didn’t I win the tennis game? I didn’t really feel like practicing. But I forgive myself?

As children we are taught that certain things are unacceptable, like stealing. And it’s important that we maintain these learned boundaries as adults, now reinforced by reasons we fully comprehend. But what does it mean when we classify a behavior as “unacceptable”? It is a promise to ourselves that if we ever did that thing, we wouldn’t forgive ourselves. And the knowledge that we wouldn’t forgive ourselves then becomes a stopgap, keeping us from doing it if we’re ever tempted. And since we know this promise of non-forgiveness is a powerful stopgap, we might try to use it for other things that are less bad than stealing, but more tempting in our own lives — things we just really want to avoid. We might say that “giving up” is unacceptable — giving up on, say, an essay writing project, or a baking contest, or a business venture – “If I ever gave up, I’d never forgive myself.” Which is to say we’d never allow ourselves to have self-compassion regarding this broken promise and the pain that ensued. That pain would be ours, entirely “on us.”

The fear of self-compassion is that once we start forgiving this, forgiving that – if we can truly forgive ourselves for anything, or at least if we can take a loving stance toward ourselves in any situation, regardless of what happened, then we’d be giving up the boundaries – the electric fences – that keep us in order, keep us moving in the right direction down the straight and narrow path.

I was meditating this morning, but I wasn’t as committed to it as I could have been. You could say I didn’t take ownership over my meditation session. I reached far across the table in front of me to grab my phone a few times. There were no urgent events demanding my attention, but I lazily allowed myself to get caught up in unforced distractions, picking up my phone just because I was feeling “fidgety.” Afterwards, I felt bad about what had happened. You could say I “suffered” in an itty-bitty, forgettable sort of way, but still in a way.

Looking back on this, I could practice self-compassion. I could notice that concentration is hard for humans. In trying to meditate, I was trying to do something difficult. Efforts like this don’t always succeed and I was experiencing that difficulty. And hey, it wasn’t me who invented mobile phones and made them addictive.

But there’s a sense that I shouldn’t let myself off the hook. I should have “tried harder” because I am capable of better. Since I know my phone can be distracting, why didn’t I put it in another room? Why did I keep scrolling when I could have stopped? If I had just been more committed – not thinking I could “get away” with a sloppy approach and forget about it later – I might have had a better outcome.

So what should I do now? Should I have self-compassion, focusing on what a profound challenge concentration actually is, and seeing how my wavering in the face of that challenge was natural? Or should I have accountability, realizing I could have done better and should do better next time, no excuses? 

Fortunately, there’s a way I can take the perceived risks of self-compassion off the table.

I can see that although I “failed,” I still believe in the possibility of doing better – self-compassion isn’t going to take that optimism away.

I can see that although I “failed,” I’m still trying – I’m still in the game, still going to practice tomorrow morning, and the next – and self-compassion isn’t going to take that persistence away.

So if I’m afraid of self-compassion because I think it will make me lazy and self-pitying, I can completely take those risks off the table. But I have to work to take those risks off the table. I have to actually still be hoping, I have to actually still be trying. In doing those things with self-compassion, I can now do them with greater ease.

With its focus on things beyond our control, things which caused us to suffer unavoidably, self-compassion might seem contrary to optimism, which would have us look on the bright side, appreciating our agency and potential for improvement. But self-compassion can indeed engender optimism. Because once we acknowledge that our situation is challenging – yes, genuinely challenging for anyone – then we can stop feeling like “It’s all me – I’m just bad at this.” If it’s a truly hard situation then there’s hope for us. Then our failures don’t indicate that it’s only we who are inadequate. Our failures simply indicate that we’ve been facing a true test. So we can see our failures as events to be expected rather than as evidence that we’re not capable or competent and we never will be.

What’s the point of all this? It’s to show that being overly hard on ourselves is not just a character weakness and not just a bad habit that we can overcome by deciding not to do it. It’s the result of a philosophically deep tension between self-compassion and other virtues we might hold dear. There is a way to resolve that tension in part. But if you struggle with self-compassion, the first thing to realize is – self-compassion is hard – and if it’s hard for you, that’s because it’s hard in general – and that’s not your fault!

Meditation, Personal Development

Inner Luck

If someone turns to you and says “Imagine a chihuahua!” and you begin seeing – almost involuntarily seeing – those tiny paws, that wagging tail, the little smiling eyes looking fondly up at you – a whimper here, an excited shiver there – why do you ever stop imagining this? What saves you from the tragedy of death-by-thinking-of-a-chihuahua-for-too-long? 

If you were to imagine a chihuahua – right now, even – I bet you wouldn’t start with a plan. You wouldn’t decide precisely how long you’d give to this endeavor. No, you’d plunge into it without fear of death. It’s certain that you’d survive this chihuahua-fest, exiting at a reasonable time, well before dehydration ensued. Imagining a chihuahua is usually not fatal. But why not?

Our attention spans are growing ever-shorter as we writhe in an ever-thickening jungle of notifications and texts and emails and alerts – that’s a common complaint of our digital age. We seek quiet, away from our devices, to rekindle lost powers of concentration. But even if we succeed at unplugging all the things in our lives that beep, and even if we consider what the world was like before there were any things that beeped, we see an axiom of attention everywhere in effect: attention doesn’t last, and it never did. It’s fickle and fleeting, reliably so. We needn’t bother to contemplate the danger of focusing on a chihuahua and never changing focus, for that danger will never come to pass. And it never would have come to pass in any earlier era.

And so, as we lament our distractibility, it’s easy to forget the virtue thereof. It’s easy to ignore our reliance on distractibility – on a certain baseline level of inattention – to facilitate the multi-tasking that’s necessary for life. Being totally scatterbrained is a handicap indeed, but being a little bit scatterbrained? It helps us. Flightiness, in the right amount, ensures that we’ll periodically revisit the things that need our attention, rather than getting eternally stuck on one thing.

As we go about our lives, when we focus on one thing or another, we can expect that focus to be disrupted in time, from outside or from within, and that’s good. From outside, we may hear the rumble of an airplane overhead, a car alarm, a person’s laugh – good! From inside, we might get bored with one thought – good! Hungry – good! Tired – good! Or one thought might lead to another – a chihuahua to an Irish Wolfhound and then to our childhood Dachshund “Pepper,” and from there to a friend who shares that nickname – good!

But even when our focus isn’t lost to fatigue or redirected through free-association, eventually our mind will interrupt itself, asking “What am I doing right now? How long have I been doing this? What was I doing before this?” When these questions enter our consciousness, they give us a chance to refocus – to jump out of a “rabbit hole” of one thought and continue with other lines of thought that had been suspended. There are so many forces ready to “steal” our attention that we can rest assured it will be stolen eventually – and that’s good! It’s good because it lets us move on to the next thing. 

If the tragedy of death-by-thinking-of-a-chihuahua-for-too-long is so very improbable, what is the point of even considering it? 

The point is to uncover a source of gratitude in our lives that might be going unnoticed. We’ve just seen that the volatility of attention is – in some ways – lifesaving. It’s lifesaving because it prevents us from getting stuck. It frees us from monomania. But we can go further. We can notice how this volatility of attention sometimes results in a “beneficial landing,” so to speak, and we can take more time to appreciate these beneficial landings.

If we could scan the history of our personal attention, seeing a timeline of what we were focusing on at any moment in our life so far, we would indeed see many unfortunate attentional shifts. We’d find many unlucky occasions when we wanted or intended to sustain focus on one particular thing, but our focus got diverted to something else. Trying to work, started checking news. Trying to read, car alarm went off. These are the times when distractibility was a nuisance.

But we would also see a lot of fortunate events, when out of the blue, we remembered something we hoped we’d remember – a friend’s birthday just popped into mind. Or when our focus was suddenly diverted to an important task we had been ignoring. Or when our mind suddenly jumped out of a destructive spiral of thoughts – ruminating about some past failure, or catastrophizing about some future malady (death by chihuahua?) – and we were freed to move on, to focus on another thing, something better or more important. 

If we were freed, did we free ourselves? Or was this liberation a lucky thing that happened to us?

Assuming we had been completely lost in thought, then the sudden awareness of being lost – that’s a thing that happened to us. We had been considering the chihuahua and only the chihuahua. It was our brain – an object – that automatically, involuntarily raised the question “What am I doing?” We didn’t will that question to arise. And so it’s reasonable to classify that question’s emergence in our conscious awareness as an event that happened to us, rather than as an event that was made to happen by us. 

If you’re convinced that gratitude is health-giving, and you’re looking for more things to be grateful for, consider such events. Any time your attention is returned to you – any time your mind jumps out of a rabbit hole and lets you choose how to refocus – that’s a good thing that happened to you and it’s something you can be grateful for. Any time your attention lands on a topic that you wanted to invest in, that’s a good thing that happened to you and you’re “lucky” at that particular moment.

You might wonder why a person would want to look for gratitude here, at the microscopic level of attentional transitions, when there are so many things in the larger scale of our lives to be grateful for. One reason to look here is that attention shifts are simple, they’re real, and as they happen, they’re fresh, they’re recent, they’re new.

I am grateful for my life partner, and I feel fortunate when I think about our relationship. But there’s complexity in considering who I’ve become as a person in the twenty years since we met, who he has become as a person in all that time, and how our relationship has grown in all that time. I feel incredibly lucky for all that time, but it’s a luck that’s been evolving; it’s not a new, sudden, simple kind of luck. To contemplate it requires more than a moment.

On the other hand, if I’ve gotten lost scrolling through news reports – a bombing here, an oil spill there, one calamity after another with no end in sight – but if I suddenly remember to take a deep breath, then that breath is like a simple gift I’ve been given out of nowhere. A sudden blessing. The random shift in attention from bad news to calming breath – that’s a lucky occurrence, a good thing that happened to me just now, right this moment, newer than the news.

If we tune into the good luck that can be found in our involuntary attentional transitions, then we can sit down and do nothing – that’s to say, we can meditate – and feel really lucky all the while. When we try to focus on our breathing, and inevitably find ourselves getting lost in thought, that distraction might seem to be unfortunate. But when we realize that we’ve been thinking, this realization gives us a chance to return to breathing, and we can feel lucky for this chance. We can spend an hour and experience hundreds of such lucky events. Breathing, then thinking, then having the good luck to notice the thinking and now be able to return to breathing. Just sitting down with no goal at all, we can spend minutes or hours feeling we’ve been the beneficiary of good luck throughout. 

I put this idea into practice yesterday on an urban walk. I wanted to see if I could take a long walk through my neighborhood and stay connected to my breathing – inhale, exhale – while also absorbing the sights and sounds of the city, but not thinking about anything in particular. A thoughtless, observational walk, where I wasn’t ruminating or reminiscing or trying to plan my evening or mentally composing an essay as I was walking. Did this happen? Not a chance. There are too many things in the city that remind me of other things – I see a restaurant and remember my last meal there with a friend from out of town. I see a rosebush and remember the time I tried to photograph it. I’ve tried taking a meditative urban walk many times over the years and it’s never been as “meditative” as I had hoped.

But this time, whenever my attention landed on breathing – back where I had wanted it to stay – I made a point of saying, “Oh, I’m lucky. I’m noticing my breathing again – a good thing just happened!”

I could have said to myself “Breathing – that’s what I was supposed to be concentrating on all along.” I could have considered myself unlucky that I had been distracted for so long and that my concentration had been so poor. But by focusing instead on my good luck – the good luck of spontaneously, randomly remembering to breathe, even though so many other things clamored for my attention – I came to develop a sense of awe. This was just a simple walk through the city, and yet I was experiencing one lucky event after another. Was I maintaining my focus on breathing throughout the walk? Certainly not. But was I still experiencing good fortune, finding that my attention randomly, luckily landed on breathing, time after time? Yes!

If we take more time to appreciate the “beneficial landings” of our volatile, randomly moving attention, we can come to feel quite lucky, but why do this? What’s the value in cultivating the sense that we’re lucky? Well, it makes you feel good and it helps you think clearly. When you feel fearful and upset many times in a row, these occasions all blur together and you just come away feeling bad, frustrated, even confused. But if you think you’ve been lucky many times in a row, then all these moments seem to connect to each other – you remember them better – you can see their relatedness more clearly – and you come away feeling somewhat amazed that fortune has been on your side throughout. Taking a walk around a city, or just going about your day, you can have either experience, one of continuing mishap, or one of continuing good luck – depending on how you choose to interpret the many landings and repositionings that your attention constantly undergoes. Taking time to appreciate the beneficial landings is a reliable way to feel good.


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?