Categories
the truth about life

Things You’re Allowed to Do, That I Would Recommend

Sell everything you own and buy a one-way ticket
Have a panic attack lying in a cheap hotel bed after you sold everything you own to buy a one-way ticket
Regard this as one of the highlights of your life

Buy a new book, even though you have a stack of books you haven’t started
Add the new book to the stack
Admire the stack from afar

Make a bunch of spreadsheets to critically think through your big life decision
Go with your gut feeling
Eat some chocolate, you deserve it

Take a walking tour of the city. It’s fascinating, everything you didn’t know about this place
Don’t take a walking tour of the city. Let it remain a mystery
Stay in your hotel. Browsing the internet in a new city is nice

Buy some crypto
Panic sell when the market crashes
Laugh about the silly internet money (that you no longer have)

Walk around every day with smeared eyeliner. It looks nice in the morning before it’s smeared
Admire women who don’t wear makeup
Buy nude lipstick

Resist the urge to take a photo of the pretty sunset. Just be totally present with this moment
Nevermind, take a photo of the pretty sunset. Living in the moment is on your to-do list
Set the photo as your wallpaper to remind your future self to live in the moment

Categories
contemplation the truth about life

Letter to My Younger Self

Dear Younger Self,

I’ve got good news and bad news.

The bad news

You’re not a special snowflake. You’re not especially pretty, or smart, or talented.

You could take this news in stride, but American society has convinced you that you need to be special, extraordinary. Yet the odds of being extraordinary are slim to none, and the dice have not rolled in your favor. Your ancestors’ gifts to you were merely to ensure survival: a chronic fear of everything, a preoccupation with what others think, and a nagging self-concern that buzzes around your thoughts like a trapped mosquito.

You’re also not brave. You prefer to live in your cozy mental assumptions than interact with the world to discover how it really is. 

For example: 

You decide (without asking) that Jordan from geometry class is not interested in going to a movie with you. In your beauty magazine logic, you decide that he would ask you out, if only you were thinner. So you dedicate most of your waking hours to achieving a thigh gap, never questioning whether this is a worthwhile goal. Your thighs eventually stand apart. He doesn’t ask you out.

But your biggest issue is not that you think the best way to woo someone is through silent starvation. No, here’s the rub: the universe is chaos. It’s immune to your affirmations. It will not rearrange itself to suit your fancy.

Your hard-won thigh gap gives way to entropy.

The good news

It turns out the beauty magazines were mistaken. Millions of years of evolution have ensured some opposite-sex members of your species will be attracted to your fleshy, fertile-looking body. Unlike your female ancestors, your poor judgment about who to mate with won’t haunt you. Your fear of everything, which ensured your ancestors lived to reproduce, now ensures you remember to take your birth control. First your ancestors were freed from hunting and gathering and then farming; now you’ve been freed from church and children.

So while you may not be extraordinary, this world and the time you were born into are. While your ancestors didn’t gift you with remarkable wit or beauty, they did suffer through disease, birth, genocide, poverty, and war to grant you a body so that you may stand, now, on this spinning rock.

Maybe you shouldn’t be so concerned about your thighs.

It turns out society is mistaken, too. You don’t need to be extraordinary. You don’t need to be lauded by thousands to feel loved; you’ll be content with a handful of genuine friendships. Nor do you need fame or fortune to feel fulfilled; just helping one other person will suffice. 

The world is far bigger and weirder than what you’ve seen on TV. Those ideas of better and worse are all made up, and you can author your own. For example: that the pinnacle of beauty is luscious, ample thighs.

And while you may ultimately be average, in the 21st century that entails being extraordinary. You can summon any piece of humanity’s knowledge by typing the right words into a search box. You can sit in a big metal bird and chomp bubblegum while flying over mountain ranges that armies once died trying to pass. There’s so much for you to see and learn and do. 

So please, don’t waste your time worrying that you don’t measure up to some societal ideal. Be glad for the lucky shoes you stand in. Walk those shoes out past your fears, past your self-concern, and right out the front door.

The world awaits, and you’re every bit good enough for it. 

Love,
Alex

Categories
contemplation

The value of €10

Someone on the street asked me for change. He hadn’t had a coffee yet, he explained. As a fellow caffeine addict, I empathized. On a whim, I gave him a ten.

The man blinked in surprise. I could see him trying to figure out what to do.

“I’ll buy you a coffee,” he said.

I pointed out I already held a coffee in my hand.

“I’ll think of you,” he said.

The ten meant a lot to him. But it meant a lot to me to be able to help someone, at least for a morning. He got some food, I got some meaning. This sense of contribution would hold me over, at least for part of the day. And I knew no matter how my day turned out, this would be the most meaningful experience in it.

I thought about all the times I told people “sorry, no” when they asked for change. I could have been having this experience. How much would it cost me to have this experience every day?

Oh yeah, €3,650.

I thought what I could buy for €3,650 that would be better than having this experience 365 times.

I couldn’t think of anything.


I’m not sure when it became the norm to tell people no when they ask for money, walking past hungry people in our rush to make our nice lives perfect.

Don’t we have enough money to feed someone, at least for one morning?

Categories
contemplation the truth about life

Taking Slow Sips of the World

I’m only one person. I want to be of help to this world. I’m trying to be of help to this world. But I can’t do that if I’m paralyzed by taking in ever-more information.

After all, I’ve already got the plot: a runaway population of clothed apes have infested a rock spinning through space. These apes’ technical prowess has enabled them to conquer their environment. However they haven’t evolved skills of mass coordination and resource management, thus they are over-extracting their environment and causing the collapse of their ecosystem. Only some of these apes are aware that their ecosystem will not support their survival for much longer; the others are too preoccupied with pursuing their primal drives of acquisition, status, and reproduction.

Do I need a constant feed of further information to make a contribution to the world? Or do I rather need to spend time—lots of time—in contemplation and toil to figure out how I can help these apes mitigate disaster?

I think about how often our ancestors would have access to news. In the time of newspapers and telegraphs, they might have received news one or two times per day. In the days of Genghis Khan, a European may have heard no news of the great empire sweeping the land until many years into the conquest. And in hunter gatherer times, you’d likely only get information when crossing another tribe.

Not that those historic times were superior—we all cherish the benefits of the information age. But I wonder if information is a bit like food: having an adequate supply is important, but have too much and the body becomes preoccupied filtering it and removing its excess.

I can emotionally and intellectually process probably one fact about the state of climate change in a week. To sit scrolling through a barrage of takes, stats, and memes is more than I can digest. And such scrolling turns me into a willing participant in our modern dystopia where we sit glued to our screens, numbly refreshing for minute-by-minute updates on the world’s worst events.

So I’ve decided to do more to keep my mental space mine. Less newsletters, less social media, less—gasp!—internet. I’m also striving to improve my information diet quality: less knee-jerk Twitter takes, more long-form content from those who have taken the time to think through and emotionally process the data. And instead of blindly accepting a feed of information, I’m doing more to think what information I actually need and then search it out.

In short, I strive to take thoughtful, slow sips of the world—not blindly guzzle from its fire hose.


Further resources:

Cal Newport’s advice on how to stay informed but active:

First, check one national and one local new source each morning. Then — and this is the important part — don’t check any other news for the rest of the day. Presumably, time sensitive updates that affect you directly will arrive by email, or phone, or text.

This will be really hard, especially given the way we’ve been trained by social media companies over the past decade to view our phone as a psychological pacifier.

Which brings me to the second part of the solution: distract yourself with value-driven action; lots of action. Serve your community, serve your kids, serve yourself (both body and mind), produce good work. Try to fit in a few moments of forced gratitude, just to keep those particular circuits active.

Brenna Quinlan on doing something, not everything:


Thanks to Joe Green for the header photo.

Categories
books contemplation habits

Reflections: Spring 2021

The winter seemed to shed me of some of my need to prove myself. I stopped feeling like my self worth was dependent on my productivity. I slowed down on work. I said no to new projects. I meditated more. I slept a lot.

In this time of slowing down, emotions surfaced—probably because I was no longer in fight-or-flight mode. Spring’s theme became learning how to relate to my emotional experience with greater skill. I picked up Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach and thus learned what Tim Ferriss has been raving about all these years. Working with Nathan Vanderpool, I came to stop judging myself for being so emotionally sensitive and embraced my empathy as a gift I can work with. I’ve come to stop expecting myself to be like others, and realised that I will always need space and time to sit with my emotions.

This emotional process is reflected in my spring playlist.

Meditation

I completed Tasshin Fogleman’s Build a Meditation Habit course. The course got me into a positively-reinforcing meditation habit loop (I am meditating because I want to!) instead of a negatively-reinforcing habit loop (I am meditating to not be mad at myself!). The course focuses on lovingkindness (Metta) meditation, which I had written off before but discovered is an amazing antidote to many things, particularly social anxiety (spending several moments wholeheartedly wishing for another’s happiness seems to resolve any tension you might have with that person). I got so much out of this course that I’m planning on taking it again.

Exploring Therapeutic Modalities

Having more time, I started trying different therapeutic modalities.

Like seemingly everyone else, I became curious about IFS (Internal Family Systems). I did ten sessions with IFS coach Lucie van Leeuwen. I had a ton of emotions kick up through the process—it really did seem like my psyche’s system was changing. I got to know different aspects of myself (or “parts” as they are called in IFS) in new, much deeper ways. I was glad I booked the sessions because that ensured that I really dove in and investigated this system, and I really enjoyed having Lucie as a guide.

I’ve also done several sessions with Nathan Vanderpool. His “trauma mapping” therapy draws upon many modalities as well as his own songwriting. Nathan seems equal parts shaman, psychologist, and bard, and I felt uniquely comfortable working with him to explore and heal traumatic experiences. I highly recommend giving his modality a try.

Books Read

My annual book list is long overdue, but here’s a few titles I’ve loved recently.

As noted above, I loved Radical Acceptance. It’s a wise manual on how to navigate emotions, and I think anyone would get something out of it.

As part of my effort to become more knowledgeable about history, I read The End is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments from the Bronze Age Collapse to Nuclear Near Misses by Dan Carlin, a book which was just as entertaining as his Hardcore History podcast. This is a great volume about how many times the world has “ended” from the point of view of that era’s inhabitants. Being in COVID times, it was especially interesting to learn more about history’s pandemics. The Black Death makes COVID look like a walk in the park.

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman is an interesting look at why many modern self-help techniques often make us more unhappy, and how practices like stoicism and mindfulness are more effective. It’s a particularly modern (and American) concept of happiness that you should always be feeling gleeful and jolly, whereas the stoic version of happiness is more like calm and centered contentment. I was also curious to read his take on why goal-setting is a cause for not just unhappiness but ineffectiveness. I appreciated his inclusion of Eckhart Tolle’s mindfulness instruction: notice for thoughts like a cat watching a mousehole. It was also a great reminder that stoicism is the shit.

Caffeine: How Coffee and Tea Created the Modern World by Michael Pollan – I loved this short audiobook and found myself drinking ever more caffeine through it. Michael Pollan’s writing is such a pleasure.

Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey is a soulful, life-affirming autiobiography. McConaughey’s narration makes the audiobook even more addictively entertaining, and I polished off the book in a weekend.

Habit Update

Intermittent Fasting
I’ve been intermittent fasting for over a year and a half now, and I’m pretty sold on it. Even though my enthusiasm for and adherence to IF has waxed and waned over that time, my results are pretty great: my hunger/satiety mechanism is at a much better place, and I’ve managed to lose and keep 10 pounds off without much effort. If you feel like you’re inexplicably always hungry, or if thoughts about eating and dieting consume more of your mental space than you’d like, I recommend trying IF. For those giving it a go, I second Gin Stephen’s recommendation in Delay, Don’t Deny: try different IF approaches and times of your eating window until you find what works for you.

Cold Showers
I cemented the cold shower habit during a 12-week team series on Konnektwork. In that series I had set it up so that cold showers was one of the easiest way for me to accrue points, and I seem to have permanently internalised that ending a shower on cold is an easy win.

Habits in Progress
I’m working with the Konnektwork crew on another team series. For this twelve-week series, I’m cultivating habits in standing meditation, qi gong, gratitude journaling, and the wildcard: no complaining (or saying one thing I’m grateful for each time I slip up).

Causes Supported

So far this year I’ve donated to Charité’s MDMA trials in Berlin (part of the MAPS European MDMA trials that need funding—let me know if you’re interested in contributing!), 5 Gyres, Monastic Academy, Dharma Gates, and Effektiv Spenden’s environmental organizations.

I wrote about donating 10% of my income in a previous post.

Categories
ideas

Some thoughts on giving

Many years ago I ran across Giving What We Can, a community of people who donate 10%+ of their income to effective charities. The idea resonated: if you say you care about various causes in the world, then you should put your money on it.

So I decided to take the pledge to give away at least 10% of my income each year for the duration of my life. I like envisioning receiving ten dollars and keeping nine of them, while shooting the tenth off to a cause I really care about. I also like being able to help the world while pursuing a career outside nonprofits, and I find it easier to donate to animal charities rather than face those horrors myself (thank you, brave ones!).

Around the same time I came across Giving What We Can, I ran into a “law of abundance” claim that giving away at least 10% of your income will actually attract more money to you. I know this is magical thinking, but I haven’t found this not to be the case, and I’ve grown fond of envisioning myself in some cycle of ever-growing giving and receiving.

In Buddhism, generosity is Dana, one of the most highly-regarded virtues. The practice of Dana is said to “purify and transform the mind of the giver,” and it’s thought that generosity developed through giving can lead to an experience of material wealth in this life or the next.

Ironically, one of my triggers to donate is when I’m feeling bad about my financial situation. I click a few buttons to give money away, and then I feel more grateful, present, and content with what I do have. Likewise, if I feel a nagging concern about plastics, I’ll use that as an opportunity to donate to an organization fighting for a plastic-freer world (shout-out to 5 Gyres!).

When I found it challenging to give 10% of my income, I did a series of interviews with Giving What We Can members to get inspired by some truly altruistic people. I noticed that these people excel at comparing what little additional comfort the money will grant them versus what the money can do for others.

I found it interesting to notice the variation in people’s giving preferences. Some are into eradicating disease or defending us from future AI overlords, while I think it’s most important to protect animals and save our environment.

Give where you want—I believe what’s most important is effectively using your money to create the world you want.

Further resources: