Meditation, Personal Development

Meditation and Stimulation

When we meditate, we’re learning to be comfortable with a lower level of stimulation than we typically crave. We’re detoxing from stimulation.

The quest for stimulation fills our waking moments. We seek it in food, sex, work, movement, art, media, narrative, and the general business of living.

If you observe someone reclining in a chair, doing nothing, it might seem as if that person is not seeking stimulation. That’s where mind-wandering, brooding, daydreaming, and rumination enter the scene. When we sit still, the quest for stimulation is internalized. 

To think is stimulating. Worrying is a kind of thinking, and a highly stimulating kind. We hate worrying, but on some level, it excites us. Our craving for excitement is a reason we might keep worrying even after we notice that our worries are hurting us. People pay to see horror movies but when they realize they can catastrophize in their own minds for free, it can be hard to stop doing that.

Lessening our need for stimulation has several benefits. If it’s the need for stimulation that keeps us addicted to worry, then reducing that need might break the cycle of addiction.

Detoxing from stimulation might also provide some relief in the struggle with procrastination. Because what is procrastination? If we discard the element of guilt that fuels avoidance, what we’re left with is a craving for stimulation. We procrastinate because the thing we’re supposed to do is not stimulating, so we find ourselves constantly drawn to things that are more so. But when we engage in a distraction that’s highly stimulating, we’re feeding our addiction, we’re reinforcing our dependence on stimulation, making it even more painful to return to the unstimulating task. 

Meditation can help us reverse this trend. Through meditation, we can become comfortable with an even lower level of stimulation than the task we’re avoiding. After meditation, when we then engage in that same task, the task might seem stimulating enough. It’s relative. That’s not to say meditation is a quick fix to procrastination – but it can help.

To operationalize this insight, we might try an experiment. Let’s work on a difficult task, and when we feel the fidgety impulse to stop, let’s not resist it. We’ll embrace the compulsion to procrastinate. But instead of checking email or eating chips, we’ll take a meditation break. Let’s allow ourselves to procrastinate as much as we want as long as the avenue of procrastination is limited to a three-minute meditation break any time we want, no questions asked.

Is that really going to help? Like a lot of things, it all depends on how you do it – the details of execution are important – but it might.


Baubles: The Journey of a Tune

Some tunes travel quite a long way from their inception to the popular form we know. If we follow the remarkable journey of the tune Baubles, Bangles, and Beads, we find that it begins in a classical string quartet by Alexander Borodin (1833-1887), then it experiences a rebirth in the 1953 Broadway musical Kismet, then it starts to swing in a 1953 hit by Peggy Lee, and it keeps swinging in renditions by The Kirby Stone Four, Frank Sinatra, Sara Vaughan, and too many more artists to mention here.

Here is the place in the second movement of Alexander Borodin’s String Quartet No 2. where the journey begins:

Fast forward to 1953, when Robert Wright and George Forrest created the music for Kismet by adapting material from Borodin’s works. In Kismet’s Act 1 there is a scene where the beautiful Marsinah, lead female role, has been given money by her father. Now surrounded by merchants, she marvels at the “baubles, bangles, and beads” they are hawking, and imagines how these sparkling jewels could help her find a suitor. Marsinah’s role is sung here by Dorretta Morrow:

In the same year, 1953, we can hear Baubles removed from its theater context, now in a hit recording by Peggy Lee. One aspect you’ll observe about Lee’s recording is how it doesn’t swing for the first half — nothing we’ve heard yet has swung — but in a gentle, seamless transition around the 1:42 mark, we can hear Baubles acquire a groove. It’s a magical moment:

Now stopping for a visit in 1958 with the Kirby Stone Four, we hear a bright, boisterous, up-tempo rendition that is much the opposite of Peggy Lee’s intimate, slow, and beguiling version. Stone’s perky mix of jazz, pop, and instrumentally-inflected unison vocals has been known as the “Go” sound:

Continuing with the theme of brightness and vibrancy, Sinatra’s 1959 big-band performance is just as brilliant as we’d expect from Frank:

And while 1964 is not the end of this tune’s journey, not by far, it’s a good place for us to stop, with a remarkable performance by Sara Vaughan, perhaps the most spontaneous and free of anything we’ve heard yet in this tour:

Here’s the Borodin, where it all began, one more time:

Visual Design

The Allure of the Ouroboros

Why is the ouroboros – an image of a serpent swallowing its own tail – so alluring?

To understand this, we need to consider why the image is so potentially alarming.

Looking at the ouroboros, we see an animal engaged in an act of self-destruction. Is this a deliberate act or an unwitting act? Does the snake not recognize its tail as a part of itself? Will it feel the pain and release itself before the process of cannibalism is complete?

These are the questions that might come to mind if we interpret the image literally. But if we allow for some magic in our view, we need not be sure the snake is pursuing its own demise. We might also imagine that the snake is giving birth to itself. At the point where the tail seems to enter the snake’s mouth, we could see it emerging from that same mouth, as if the mouth appeared first and spit out the rest of the snake.

We could also imagine that these processes of consumption and emergence are concurrent – that as the snake swallows more of itself, more is generated.

If the ouroboros were intended as a literal depiction of a snake devouring itself, we should expect to see the snake’s body enlarged in the place where it contains the swallowed portion of the tail, but that’s not how it is typically drawn.

The fear of snakes – ophidiophobia – is not without foundation. Snakes move quickly and some carry a deadly venom. In the Garden of Eden, the serpent carries the venom of temptation. 

But the ouroboros is a symbol that dates back to ancient Egypt: it can be seen on Tutankhamun’s tomb. Surely it is not the serpent of the Book of Genesis: it’s too preoccupied to threaten or tempt. If a person is afraid of snakes, perhaps they could take some small comfort in seeing that the ouroboros is in no posture to attack. 

Considering all of this, a viewer might still feel unsettled by an ouroboros when the symbol is presented all alone. But another remarkable quality of the ouroboros is the way its circular structure allows it to enclose another image, so that it functions as a picture frame. In this case, the ouroboros absorbs some of the character of what lies within.

Sometimes the ouroboros is used as a frame around the mythical Tree of Life. In a new image I have commissioned, the botanical features of the Garden of Eden lie outside the ouroboros — a double one — and a rosette window, offering a view of the cosmos, is enclosed within.

Creativity, Music, Personal Development, Visual Design

An Experiment in Engagement

“Marketing is the final extension of your art.”

This quote is from Derek Sivers, in Your Music And People.

The way an artist discusses their art, distributes it, and promotes it — all of this is a continuation of the creative act.

If I take Sivers’ point seriously, what does it mean for my own efforts at sharing my music? If I really think of marketing as an expression of my creativity, rather than as a chore, what would a “creative” marketing effort for my album Meteorite look like? And what would I do if money and time were no object?

It’s taken me a year of personal change and family tragedy to come to answer. I’ll save the backstory for elsewhere and jump to the vision I’ve arrived at.

To be clear, this isn’t a vision of how I’d handle the nuts and bolts of PR, like how I’d grow my mailing list, what I’d post on social media, how I’d reach out to journalists, etc. I don’t need a vision for that, I need a schedule. What I’m presenting here is a vision for how my album, or really any album, could be more engaging, to more people… how, to some extent, it could be set up to market itself.

The vision is that the album is more than what I’ve made. My music is the inner core. Around it, there’s a whole sphere of music and art — made by other artists — that connects to it and plays off of it. That will be true if I succeed. Imagine this:

Along with a great album cover, there’s a portfolio of visual art that goes with the album. Maybe there’s enough art for a gallery exhibit, or a small book. There’s enough art that an interested viewer can spend as much time looking at the album as they can spend listening to it. Each piece of art has a story about how it connects to the music. Each track in the album has its own illustration, and there other artworks that depict musical processes, moods, common themes at play. There are many connections among the artworks and you can see some artists responding to work by others.

Along with music in the album – 35 compositions written by me and performed by my collaborator on clavichord – there’s other music surrounding the album, music that connects to it, echoes it, reinterprets it. Other musicians have taken themes and fragments from the album and created their own remixes. Maybe there’s an EDM track where you can groove to one of my tunes against a dance beat. Or maybe there’s a fantasy or a fugue that a classical composer has built from one of my canon themes.

Along with the music there’s also choreography. You can see videos of dancers moving to the music. Maybe there are animations. Photographs. Maybe there’s some poetry too.

The idea is that the album would be more than just my music, my creativity – it would be a larger constellation, including work by other artists, work that plays off of mine and engages it in a kind of counterpoint. Each piece of art or music in this larger sphere could serve as an entry point, helping a listener get interested in my own material, but it would go both ways: my material, my project could help a listener discover another artist.

To achieve this, I’d basically be taking my PR budget and not spending it on conventional PR but investing it in artists. I’d take any advertising funds and use them instead as a commission fund. I’d hire other creators to make something that expresses their own creativity while connecting in some way to my material, using a fragment or idea from my material and developing it in a new way. I might define how this should be done and provide detailed feedback along the way, or leave it all to the artist — each piece would be different. Along with commissions, some of these projects could be structured as collaborations.

This is not to say that all these artists would be a big group of friends or that they’d all even have to know about each other and be on board with the larger vision I’m presenting here. In some cases, I might simply hire someone to make a piece that I want made, without their needing to be aware of the larger context; in other cases, the artist could become a co-creator with me in this larger outreach experiment.

How would any of this help with marketing or promotion? A few ways:

  • Each artwork in the larger sphere is a chance to “reach” a new listener or viewer who might respond to its particular style
  • Listeners and viewers who encounter the project would have a whole universe of interrelated art to explore
  • Each artist involved in the project might share it with people they know, because their work is part of it
  • People might take an interest in the project because it’s an unconventional way of doing outreach and they want to know if it works

The main point is that art is powerful. That’s why I make art. But the particulars of style and format can limit the size of an audience. Not everyone responds to canons on clavichord or even knows what those things are. The question is, if you were to bring the full power of art, music, and dance to bear in translating and amplifying those canons on clavichord, would all that power be sufficient to gain a wider audience, well beyond the small group of people who already like this sort of thing? I can only believe the answer is yes.

Am I really able to do something like this? Is it pie in the sky?

Earlier I wrote: “What would I do if money and time were no object?” I believe that a good way to lead one’s life is to ask that question, write down the answer, and then find a way to do that thing anyway, even if money is an object and time is an object.

My answer is, if money and time were no object, I’d do what I just wrote about. I’d commission artists to make stuff. That’s because the only thing more exciting to me that creating new stuff is supporting, inspiring, or encouraging other people to create new stuff, especially if it’s stuff we both like and stuff that helps us both.

I didn’t quite know all this about myself until recently. I’ve been finding it out. I began learning it from another project that I started in 2022 (still ongoing) to actually buy music from independent musicians. And I’ve learned it from some mentoring that I do at my day job, totally unrelated to music.

As I write these words, I’ve commissioned three pieces of visual art for Meteorite and am starting to collaborate with a friend on the first EDM track based on material from the album. Of all the things I’ve done in my life, making my album felt pretty amazing but doing these commissions and collaborations has felt, well, equally amazing. So I’m going to figure out how to keep doing this, in whatever ways I can, with the resources that I do have available.

Commissioned art as of 2/25/2022: Meteorite Impact, Magic Mirror, The Garden and the Cosmos

Creativity, Music, Visual Design

The Garden and the Cosmos

This image by calligrapher and illustrator Svetlana Molodchenko, made with watercolor and gold paint on paper, is two things. It’s work of art made from ancient symbols. And it’s a cover for a musical album, a collection of 35 canons composed by Rudi Seitz, titled Meteorite.

“Looking at Svetlana Molodchenko’s artwork is like stepping back to a long-lost era of finery and grandeur – a Renaissance painting, a medieval cathedral or perhaps even an Ancient Greek villa. Rich in detail but with a light touch, there’s a sense of craft and luxury in everything she draws. The viewer plunges into another world, where past, present and future merge.”

Album Cover:

As a cover, the image includes many references to the contents of the album. The rosette is a reference to the sound hole of a clavichord. The double ouroboros represents the two voices of a musical canon, engaged in an infinite cycle. The birds, the comet, and the multi-colored stone stand for the three largest compositions in the album: the birds refer to Birdsong, the comet refers to Meteorite, and the multi-colored stone refers to Ammolite. Considered together, the eight gems could represent one octave of a diatonic scale; they also refer to the naming scheme used in the album, where canons get their titles from gems and minerals.


Independent from its purpose as an album cover, this image is a self-contained artwork. As such, it can be interpreted in whatever way the viewer finds most appropriate, but here is one interpretation:

The songbirds and botanical pattern we see in the periphery of the image, against a background of gold, represent the living world – they are things we might find in a garden, possibly the Garden of Eden. But the serpents we behold in this garden are not free-roaming symbols of sin or temptation; rather, they form an ouroboros, a symbol that traces back to ancient Egyptian iconography. These serpents are living beings, members of the garden, but the fantastical way they consume each other, and in turn give rise to each other — an eternal cycle of renewal — sets them apart from the ordinary world. Viewed by itself, an ouroboros might bring to mind the discomfort of an animal being devoured, but when an ouroboros is used as a frame around another image, it takes on the character of what lies inside. Here, the ouroboros encloses a rosette, the geometric pattern we might see in a Gothic cathedral window. As the only man-made element here, the rosette represents an expression of reverence through the pursuit of symmetry and balance. The multifaceted gems embedded on the rosette echo its geometry. These are not gems of ostentation; rather, they are bearers of color and possibility, showing the different components of the white light we see in the stars. If the “outside” of the ouroboros in this image represents the living world, the “inside” represents inanimate beauty, mathematical perfection, and the heavens. The ouroboros itself is a transition between these two worlds. In a highly symmetrical design, the eye might might seek exceptions to the perfect order. Asymmetry can be found in the arrangement of the stars, the comet tail, and the blending of colors in the top stone. Taken as a whole, the image depicts a window for gazing at the cosmos, and represents the way art — and music! — can be such a window, such a device for contemplating the infinite.

Personal Development

The Peril Of Pairwise Comparison

Do you prefer the sweetness of ice cream or the bitterness of broccoli rabe? And if you didn’t know, how would you find out?

For me, ice cream is cloyingly sweet. It leaves me bloated and gives me a sugar craving the next day. But broccoli rabe, with garlic and olive oil, in the context of a meal, is perfect.

Assuming I had never tried either food, what if were to conduct a side-by-side comparison to discover my favorite? I’d taste some ice cream, then some broccoli rabe, then some ice cream, going back and forth until my preference became clear.

Ice cream would win. The sweet food will always prevail in a pairwise comparison because of the way it interacts with the bitter food when they’re crowded together in short-term memory. 

Though I don’t have a sweet tooth, my palate still responds to sweetness. The momentary pleasure leaves me wanting more, and once I’ve had something as sugary as ice cream I can’t enjoy the bitterness of broccoli rabe for a while afterwards. But the inevitable victor of this duel is the opposite of my true preference. If I had to pick only one to keep in my life, it would be broccoli rabe.

Most of us know it’s not a great idea to pit a savory food against a dessert in a taste test. One food can change the way another food tastes, giving the dessert an unfair advantage. But in other areas of life, we assume that a side-by-side comparison is the best way, maybe the only way to identify our favorite item in a set of options. The strategy is broken, but we think it’s dependable.

I was comparing two versions of a painting, one simpler and the other more complex. Flipping back and forth between them, I always preferred the simpler version. It took me three days to realize that the complex version was the better composition.

What happened? When looking at the images in rapid succession – specifically then – the simpler one always stood out as a relief for my eyes, quicker to scan, easier to comprehend. But if I looked at the complex image by itself, for an extended time, I could see that its complexity was a virtue, not a flaw. The piece wasn’t too busy. It just didn’t perform as well in a contest of first reactions.

When editing a photograph, we might boost the color saturation and then do a before/after comparison. Often we find that the enhanced image catches our attention; returning to the original feels like a letdown. But if we had looked at the original by itself, never seeing the enhanced version, we would not have said “this image needs more saturation.” It’s saturated enough. The need for more saturation only arises when we offer it to ourselves as an option and then take it away.

When editing an audio recording, we might make it louder by a small amount – a quarter decibel. In an A/B comparison, a listener might not realize that one version is louder than the other, but they might feel that one is richer, fuller, somehow more alive — that’s the magic of loudness. Taking the listener’s feedback, we’d make it louder, and louder, and louder again.

Other edits we might make, like changing the EQ or adding reverb, can have a side effect: they sometimes make the recording a bit louder. And that makes us think it’s gotten better. Unless we “level match” the input and output, it’s hard to know if the character of the sound has improved, or if we just like the output better because it’s slightly louder. 

Side-by-side comparisons can help us make decisions. But even though we’re sampling the options one after the other, not simultaneously, we’re still not sampling them independently. The memory of one option influences how we experience the other option.

We want to pick the option that would give us the best experience if we came to it fresh, but the comparison only tells us which option seems better in the artificial context of flipping back and forth.

A taste test between ice cream and broccoli rabe? You might laugh if I told you I’d done this. But how many times have you chosen the figurative “ice cream” in a pair of other things – versions of a sentence, versions of an idea – that seemed like perfectly good candidates for a side-by-side comparison?

Personal Development

Virtue: Backdoor to Attachment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The catch is this:

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

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

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

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

Music, Visual Design

Magic Mirror

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

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

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

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

Personal Development

Gainful Dualities

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

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

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

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

Meditation, Web Browsing, and Optimism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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