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contemplation favorite posts 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

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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
contemplation the truth about life

10 Questions for Finding Your Calling

Some quickly find their calling—they find a career that engages, satisfies, and pays them. But for many of us, it’s not that simple. We end up drifting about, meandering down one path and then another, always wondering what it is we’re really meant to do.

After many years of having only a vague sense of career direction (and often grateful just to make ends meet), I pondered a series of questions and finally reached clarity about what I want to do.

But before sharing the questions I used, I want to point out that it’s perfectly fine—and often part of the process—to not be clear on what you want to do in life. Life is not a straight line from A to B, and sometimes you need to go through several transformations to gain the necessary context to find your calling.

During times when you’re unclear, the following advice may be helpful:

  1. Follow your curiosity, as Elizabeth Gilbert says. I’ve had several life junctions where I felt an overwhelming desire to study something, spend time with someone, change cities, or travel. Those whims often didn’t feel logical at the time, but pursuing them led to opportunities and insights that brought me further down my path.
  2. Put in the hard work to gain valuable skills. Cal Newport argues that ‘follow your passion’ is bad advice, and advises instead to “put in the hard work to master something rare and valuable, then deploy this leverage to steer your working life in directions that resonate.” His book So Good They Can’t Ignore You and the tl;dr blog post version are highly recommended.

Without further ado, here are the questions for finding your life’s calling:


1. If I died today, what would I be sad that I didn’t do?

Imagine you were to die tonight in your sleep. What are you most sad you didn’t get to do?

Another way to approach this: “If I were to die happy and satisfied, how would I have lived?”

2. What did I like doing when I was young?

Reflect on your childhood and see if any memories call to you.

I have a vivid memory of coating an elementary school worksheet in stripes of glitter crayon. I was worried that this act would be admonished, but I couldn’t resist making the drab worksheet more attractive. It turns out that this root desire to make ideas and information more alluring is my calling!

3. If I had all the money I needed, what would I do?

Often our sense of career is deeply intertwined with the obligation to make money. While of course our career must sustain us, this question can help us see past any money issues that may be skewing our perception.

4. What brings me satisfaction?

This question helps calibrate the previous one. If in the last question you pictured yourself laying in a pool sipping champagne, you’re unlikely to envision the same in this one.

Related questions: “What do I feel proud of?” or “What would I feel proud of?”

5. What do I do where I lose track of time?

Losing track of time lost in an activity happens when you are in a “flow state.” This state is often deeply satisfying and brings about our best work, so your answer to this question may indicate an activity to double-down on in your professional career.

6. Where do I gain energy, and where do I lose it?

Do you gain energy from working with people or working alone, or in a particular combination? What sort of challenges inspire and motivate you, and which drain your batteries? This question is posed to help you find a sustainable work situation.

7. Whose life am I jealous of?

I found this question after becoming green with envy upon hearing Tim Ferriss’s writing schedule. His schedule was something like waking up, taking a swim, doing writing, eating the same daily lunch, reviewing writing, and then meeting up for friends in the evening. I wanted that life so much—me against a blank canvas, every day—that I realized I should orient my career around that sort of “maker” schedule.

Related question: “What does a perfect Saturday look like?”

8. What am I good at?

Alternative questions: “What do friends ask me to do for them that I find easy?” and “What am I bad at?”

9. What are my “factions,” and what do they want?

This question is a way of finding a calling that encompasses all the different aspects of you.

I have three factions—aka inner drives—that are often in conflict with each other:
The caring faction that wants to save the world.
The artistic faction that wants to excel at creative expression.
The fearful faction that wants to be secure.

If I spend too much energy tending to any one or two factions, the omitted factions will start rebelling and demanding all of my energy.

Many times I’ve tried to go a path that only satisfies one of the three (e.g., a high-paying job for the fearful faction, or renouncing financial security to live a life of service), but inevitably I become unhappy because I haven’t fulfilled all of my drives.

10. What would I do if I could start over?

You might resist your calling because there’s a sizable gap between where you are now and where you would need to be to pursue that calling. Perhaps that’s a gap in skillset, knowledge, degree, network, funding, or identity. This question is a way to get around any resistance of the “but I don’t have X so…” or “but it’s too late to…” variety.


You may find as I did that the answers to these questions may not come all at once, but after many months of reflection.

What questions and processes have you found helpful? Please comment below!

Categories
contemplation

4 tips for managing coronavirus anxiety

1. Log off social media, turn off the news

Like laughter, fear is contagious. You can see this in birds where one of them starts acting nervous and a moment later the whole flock takes flight. For several weeks I went down the coronavirus news hole, and my emotions went right down with me. Then one day I shut my laptop and noticed the shining sun and swaying trees outside. In that moment, I decided that I was the one who would decide my experience of this time. While I still check the news and Twitter, I do my best to limit exposure. 

2. Tune in, breathe, and feel

Soothe anxiety as you would a crying child: hold it, listen to it, be with it. To ritualize this emotional processing, each evening I take time to tune into my body, breathe, and feel through any emotions present. The book Deep Listening is a fantastic guide to this practice. 

Troubled by circling thoughts? Try using the 4-7-8 breathing: inhale through the nose for 4, hold the breath for 7, breathe out the mouth for 8. The counting acts as a chew toy for the mind, while the breathing technique helps the nervous system switch out of fight-or-flight. To shift from shallow chest breathing to big belly breaths, tuck your chin and place one hand on the heart and one hand on the belly. 

Another breathing practice I’ve found particularly useful is qi gong. It might feel silly to do at first, but I’ve never found anything that pacifies turbulent emotions so effectively. An easy way to start is this YouTube

3. Be kind

If you’re living with others, go out of your way to do something nice for them. If you’re not, send friends and family thoughtful messages and reflect on the good times you’ve shared. Performing acts of kindness will help you as much as others.

4. Get going on your secret dream

Look! Everyone’s distracted and all your plans are canceled. Now’s the time to take up watercolor, learn to make ravioli, finish that David Foster Wallace novel, or whatever else you’ve been relegating to the forbidden land of someday. That someday is today—unless, of course, you are on 24/7 lockdown with kids. Then grab a beer and Netflix, you deserve it.

As the Stoics would say, the situation is as it is, but you still have a hand to play—even if it’s just choosing to consciously breathe through this time.


Is there another technique that you’ve found helpful? Please comment and share. We’re all in this together.