Practical modesty: the Xmas lesson hidden in physics

“In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity.” – H.W. Longfellow

When you think of people who try to live "modestly", or with humility — meaning that they do not boast, show off, or elevate themselves above others; and that they seek ways to serve others — you often think of spiritual devotees: monks, nuns and the like.

You may, like I do, admire those people with half-lidded eyes, generally in favor of the work they do and their lack of self-centeredness, but not quite sure *why* anybody should really pursue that path, instead of any of the more normal ones — the ones that aren't harmfully boastful or self-aggrandizing, but also not devoted to emptying and lowering themselves.

I adore the philosophical Taoist answer to this "why" question, and I got a big fat freshly-baked pie of clarity to the face about it this week, and thought it made a great holiday post.

Here's the thing: Religions will generally try to convince you that modesty is a) tied to being religious / part of their/your religious practice, and b) something you'll be rewarded for because of supernatural reasons — i.e., God likes modesty, so act like a nun and He/It will reward you. Taoism (by which I always mean "philosophical Taoism", just for ease of writing) has a wonderful habit of explaining why things are good, independently of "because I said so" answers like religious dogma or supernatural assumptions.

Taoism explains that modesty is a good idea because of the law of conservation of energy, plain and simple.

Energy seeks balance, like water — in fact, like all matter, and all energy (because they're the same thing; remember your Einstein).  In the whole Universe, motion happens in the direction of emptying what is full, and filling what is empty.  Something can block this motion, but that only causes tension to build up, tension which will eventually be resolved, and the endless slosh restored.  You can build a dam, and that will change what happens when; but it will not change that water seeking its balance.

If philosophical Taoism is a religion (and there are good arguments to be made that it's not; for instance, the lack of theistic deities or supernatural explanations), its central tenet is that "the basic and obvious rules of how the Universe works also apply to human lives and decision-making".  This is an assumption, but a pretty damn good one, easily defensible by simply asking a doubter what evidence they could possibly have that the laws of nature don't apply to how humans should live their lives and make decisions.  They're laws of nature.  So is gravity.  Gravity applies to us, because we are inside nature.  Why the heck wouldn't balance / energy-conservation apply to us too?

You can go from there to the normative, moral formulation:  Being a good/smart person means generally trying to act in concert with the motions of the Universe, rather than fighting them.  Instead of religious faith, we have faith that the laws of the Universe matter, and apply to us, and are good signposts for figuring out how to act.  …But in actuality, you can skip right over the moralizing, and just go straight to "what makes practical sense".

Modesty, humility, and service to others are not, to the Taoists, something to be done because someone else says to, be they Pope or mystical spirit; or even, primarily, because the Universe kinda wants us to.  No, they're simply a good idea because they are how you buy good luck.  Do you want the Universe on your side, the pressures of balance and the innate movements of energy to be pushing for you, rather than against you?  Well, then remember:  What is empty is made full.  If you are "full" — full of yourself, of arrogance (agh, the million kinds of arrogance), of mountains of treasure, of surety that you know everything — then the natural order of things will be pushing in the direction of taking you down a notch.  But if you take actual actions to make yourself emptier — if you sacrifice ego, let others take the praise, give away everything you can, and look for opportunities to give help whenever possible — then you will be making yourself empty, and Universal law will be acting, in all the billion small ways it does, to bring things to you.

It's not a guarantee; the world doesn't work in simple equations.  Comets fly around and hit things; making actual predictions is subtle and tricky, and probably in a lot of ways not worth the effort.  But everything does generally work according to some basic principles, and it's undeniable — and requires nothing supernatural to explain — that if you act in concert with those, if you follow the dance-steps the planets and everything on them are leading with, then you will have better luck overall, and a much better shot at peace and happiness regardless of what happens, than if you fight against it.

I had occasion recently to be re-studying some of what the I Ching has to say on modesty and humility, on empty and full (which is incredible to study in nonphysical terms while simultaneously studying it physically in martial arts) and awareness of this Universal law as a guide for living; and then a day later, I re-watched the old Bill Murry Xmas movie Scrooged with my family.  And there at the end was Mr. Murray's wonderful modern take on the Ebenezer character, teary-eyed with revelation, urging people to realize every day the truth that reveals itself to us sometimes during the holidays:  That if we give, we receive, not things but miracles -universal good luck.  He talks about the broader miracle of realizing that the more you give, the better you feel, and the better the things that will come back to you, all on their own.  "It'll happen to you," he urges, "You just have to want it.  And once it happens to you, you'll see that it works, and you'll get greedy for it, and you'll realize that you can have it every day…"  (I'm paraphrasing, but the speech is, while goofy, quite excellent.  If you haven't seen it in a while, check it out here.)

Bill Murray is literally talking about how the winter holiday, the spirit of Xmas, is a chance to glimpse the truth of modesty, of giving to receive, of emptying yourself in order to entice the Universe to fill you.  

To be downright cheeky about it, we could say that for every dollar you give away, the laws of physics give you, on average, $1.618 back.

(OK, I'd better stop.  :P)

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Random polyphasic musings

Some thoughts about polyphasic sleep:

  • There seem to be as many methods of adapting as there are people.  I've heard from many successful polyphasers lately — a particular lot, actually, which means both a) wow cool, catching on! and b) I'm super behind on my emails; sorry if I've neglected you — and nearly all have told me about their unique plan for switching schedules.  Many are gradual, and some people have entreated me to more formally redact my preference for "sudden" adaptations — which I will now happily do; it seems that gradual adaptation methods work just fine, for people with the gumption to stick with them.  (Just like sudden ones.)  I'm thrilled to back up a level and say that all that seems necessary to switch sleep schedules is getting and staying on the new schedule for 1-2 months, and that people's efforts to find a more comfortable way of doing so than just dropping into the new schedule like I did seem to be nothing but helpful.  Good work, everyone who knocked up and stuck to their own adaptation plans!
  • Scientifically this is obvious, but the feeling of there being a default sleep-schedule active in/on your body is really, to put it mildly, interesting!  I've been reading about entrainment and kinesthetic and somaesthetic rhythms a lot lately — topics that dovetail my interests in sleep and martial arts nicely — and simultaneously, I've been pushing at the edges of my own default schedule, by being depressed and sleeping for shit.  In so doing, I can feel the push and pull of my body, an undertow of rest and activity that's both profound…and polyphasic.  The feeling of being in rhythm with it when I wake at four, or lay down for a nap at just the right time, is physically similar to the feeling of swimming in rhythm with the waves in water.  I wish I had a more detailed memory of what it was like before, but the only thing it felt like back then was a confusing churning rush — all I ever did with my entrained schedule, I think, back then, was fight against it, or feel it as simply part of the general chaos.  I'm not even close to an expert on acting in concert with it now, though I've done so successfully for periods of time over the last several years; I am still definitely someone who struggles regularly with schedules and sleep.  But the process of learning to change the schedule required learning to feel it, and that alone has been worth the price of admission, I think.  
  • Not to beat that subject to death, but the lines between sleep and rest are really…warbly, and also interesting.  The degree to which I can maintain good…what? flow? let's use flow, I guess…by resting, even if I'm currently sucking at life and can't or won't sleep, is surprising and cool.  Paying attention to the rest-activity waves leads to finding little ways to respect them, or to not resist them, to say it another way; and these have smaller, but still useful, effects.  Resting your eyes, putting up your feet, meditating, and putting food and drugs (in which I include caffeine and the like) in the right spots, have definite effects, and I hazard to say, can sometimes substitute adequately for sleep.  (Sometimes!  Not totally!  Don't do that Internet Thing and take that as my saying that sleep can be eliminated.  I have no official opinion on that, other than that the question itself is fascinating.)
  • Having strong social ties really helps with having strong sleep.  From a different angle, it's become part of my personal lexicon to define "strong social ties" as "ones I can sleep around"!  I used to only be able to sleep in public when I was alone, but in recent years that's expanded; and the value of parties I can knock out at, friends I can curl up in a chair around, and shoulders I can lean on while I get my twenty minutes has become a thing very dear to my heart.
  • I wonder if social sleep can become a thing.  I love the idea.
  • Wow, when I write off-the-cuff about stuff like this, my prose is really muddy, kind of pseudo-academic and weird; my sentences parse oddly like Kant's to me.  (I love Kant and have read him a lot, but he was an aggressively bad writer.  It's actually kind of cool in its own right, to read someone whose thoughts were so brilliant, and whose pen was carved from dried shit.)  Also, to say I tend to digress is…::dies laughing::  Ah well, as a devoted fan of writing, I'll be the last person to say mine doesn't need a LOT of work.  That's just a reason to do more of it, though — sorry, world!  :)
  • I'm seriously considering writing this second sleep book.  Would love anyone's thoughts on the matter.  I've done a chunk of research and written most of a proposal for publishers.  The book would be on sleep modification:  The history and current developments in humans changing their sleep-schedules.  I find both the history of how we slept and changed how we slept, and the future of  how we sleep and allow each other to sleep, utterly riveting; and like my first book, about polyphasic sleep as a modern lifestyle, there's that pull of "this doesn't seem to be out there; I may be nobody special but surely someone should start talking about this, so if I feel the urge I should".  I'll keep ya'll posted if/as it goes further, but again, if you have thoughts, hit me.

…Aaand I think that's enough meditative typing for this morning.  :)  Have a great day, all.

Posted in better thinking, polyphasic sleep | 1 Comment

Manufacturing motivation, ten seconds at a time

Motivation is a weighting-the-scales game.

One way of weighting the scales in the direction of a thing you want to get done is to growl and focus on it and swear you’ll do it — that’s one way, but it has a high energy-cost and only provides so much push. Over-relying on “telling yourself to do it” is exhausting and demoralizing.

An easier way to throw weight on the side of [thing you want to make yourself do] is to make sure there’s a recent memory in your mind and body of how awesome it feels to do that thing. Say for example you want to exercise more. If you’ve exercised recently, you’re more likely to experience a rush of “oh yeah that feels awesome!” when you think about exercising. If you haven’t felt the endorphin rush of doing a thing (both the rush of doing it, and the rush of feeling good that you got some done) in a while, the memory of it isn’t going to rise up and help pull you in the direction of doing it again.

This works for eating healthy food, meditating, working, practicing your art, cleaning the house — nearly anything. The more recently you did it and felt good as a result, the more weight is on the “do it!” side of the motivation-scales when the idea comes up.

Because of this effect, it’s a good idea to give yourself permission to do good things as often as possible, even if it’s only for a few seconds. Even if the amount of actual work on them you get done is meaningless — you eat one forkful of salad, or meditate for 60 seconds while the microwave is on, or pick up the pen and write one sentence or draw three lines — you’ll reinforce that feeling of “oh right, this is awesome!” that leads you to want to do more of those things in the first place. Even if it’s not a thing that feels good to do in itself, like housecleaning, you’ll still get a little rush from having gotten some of it done today. The “it feels good to have gotten that thing done” neural pathway will get re-drawn, and the next time you want to be motivated to do the thing, the echo of the sensation of reward is stronger.

Instead of getting caught up in how “useless” it is to do a thing for ten seconds, give yourself permission to START doing a good thing ANYTIME, without any pressure to keep doing it. Many things can take literally ten seconds or less, and no matter how rushed or down you feel, you can get yourself to tolerate nearly anything for that long. Just start. If you continue a bit longer than you expected, let it happen; but don’t set a timer or make yourself keep going — just do a little. Call having done it at all a win, and enjoy that.

Here are some examples I’ve been playing with:

  • While the microwave is on (and it’s hot drink season so it often is), do some pull-ups, or practice a part of a form, or meditate until it beeps.

  • Stand up, put one out-of-place thing away, and go back to what you were doing.

  • Switch tabs/programs/apps to that thing you want to be working on, write one good sentence on it, and then go ahead and switch back.

  • When you stand up, pause and do one real stretch.

  • Grab your instrument and do one scale.

The purpose of this isn’t to get a ton of shit done, but so far I have been surprised how often, once I start doing the good thing, I want to keep going. I try to let that happen without forcing it, and it often results in doing a fair to moderate amount of the thing instead of just a tiny bit — with no more effort than it would have cost me to do ten seconds of workout, I often get five or ten minutes instead. (I’m trying not to overstate it, but I can totally see how the cumulative effect of this time could be huge in the long run!)

This doesn’t waste any of the time in the rest of my day either, because it’s all such tiny amounts; so I can feel completely relaxed about letting myself do it anytime I think of it — which also makes it easier to do, than when I’m being doubtful and decision-paralyzed and trying to decide what comes next.

Bonuses noted so far: Meditating for super-short periods is good practice for being more meditative generally, and for working the states of mind achieved in meditation into daily life more. Working on forms for even a few seconds at a time keeps things stretched out and warm. Every little cleaning thing that gets done this way is one less I have to do later. Oh, and let’s not forget that for me personally, switching tasks and mental states frequently is a really good thing — it heads off my tendency to fall into emotional holes and shut down.

To come back to the original point though, since I’ve been making a point to start good things as often as I can, and making it easier to do that more frequently by removing the pressure to keep doing them at all, the good things have stayed more in the forefront of my mind, and the reward of feeling good about doing them (and often from doing them, like with exercise) is stronger and fresher. So when I think about them next, the motivation to do them again is weighted more towards “yes” than it would be if I hadn’t done them at all for days. I’m not sure yet, but it’d be pretty awesome if this effect was cumulative!

…I hope that makes sense; I’m busy today but I wanted to get that down, because I really like it as an example of a 100% good life-hack. It’s a good hack because:

  • It’s low-effort — it involves getting a legitimate reward in exchange for almost no work
  • It generates some immediate real-world benefits — some exercise, cleaning etc. that wouldn’t have gotten done otherwise, gets done
  • It helps generate future benefits by strengthening good associations and behavioral rewards
  • It has no downside
  • There’s a very low risk of it becoming something to be angry at myself for failing at. It’s a poor source of guilt, because no matter how little gets done, something did.

Here’s to helping things look up!

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on Doing Very Badly

So, month two of Habitmas IS kind of a total loss.  I'm going to attempt to face and clearly state why, because it isn't just about one thing; and it isn't the only thing going very badly right now.

Sometimes, I think, things just go to shit.  I don't know anyone it hasn't happened to, and it's certainly happened to me before.  When I went through a traumatic divorce, lost my job, house and car all at once, and had a 1-year-old to care for?  That was pretty shit.  One thing I've learned from watching my really shit times and others' is that it's critical not to indulge in blame.  Some combination of yourself and other people are usually responsible, yeah, but blaming them or you does zero good.  Shit just happens, and if this shit didn't happen then eventually some other shit would.  It's just part of life that sometimes things suck for a while.

To phrase that more proactively, it's not what shit happens to you that defines who you are, and how you grow:  It's how you handle it when it inevitably does.  

I lost a couple things, right around the same time, recently — about few months ago.  Individually and together, they really dealt a serious blow to my state of mind.  My future plans, who I am and want to be, and what the hell I'm doing and going to do with my life now all went into tailspins and became insurpassible mountains of doubt.  Ever since then, I've been struggling to come up with a plan and stick to it; to take good care of myself and to use the time I have (unemployment being one of the things) wisely, even fruitfully.  

Struggling, but not succeeding.  My depression has been at medium-high for most of it, mostly under control but seriously un-fun; it's causing the social anxiety I'd mostly mastered to really flare up, increasing my sense of isolation, uselessness, and hopelessness.  Plus I lost a lot of social in the recent collapse, too.  The urge to hide, sleep, and self-medicate has been overwhelming, and usually winning.

Yup, I'd like off this bus.  And I can't see a way yet, but deep down I'm certain there is one, because if there is one thing in this entire Universe that you can dead-cold count on, it's Change.  Even if what's on the other side of this is worse, there is another side of this.  Furthermore, what's on it is directly influenced by my attitudes and actions now, so having hope in a brighter future when things aren't tough isn't just "not stupid", it's instrumental in bringing about the brighter future.

That's what "faith" is in my world, by the way.  It's sort of a faith in my ignorance — that there is much more to the world than I can possibly see, and to judge the bits I can't see by the ones I can is dangerously dumb.  It's not necessarily a faith in the future — after all, at some point there won't be one for me, or it and me will be radically different at least.  It's faith that it makes the most sense to be hopeful, whatever lies ahead.  

For now, I may be struggling to find my way, and to find the motivation to find my way; but that will pass too.  I've got lots of help and lots of hints, and though this is a dark part of the movie, it's still rolling and the dark part doesn't last forever.

I have a lot of great organizational, motivational and mental-health-tional writing to peruse as well, some of it thanks to Past Me.  But if you'd like to send me anything, please feel free to.  :)


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Fixing Winter

As many of you know, I live in Boston, land of Holy Shit Winter 2014.  I'm from Michigan, so it's not like I'm not used to winters, but wow, that was ridiculous.  The berms of snow were so high that you were walking in tiny tunnels on the sidewalk — if you were lucky and one was plowed.  Getting around was a nasty, barely-passable slog, and my commute time went from 25 minutes to about 2 hours.  I, and everyone else, had a REALLY hard time for several months — and if there's anything harder than being constantly stressed and grumpy yourself, it's having everyone you encounter be that way too.

This year, much as I'd like to deny it, isn't looking likely to be better.  So I'm trying to get ready, to frontload and prepare in every useful way I can think of…

  • I have good gear, thankfully — even for biking, though if we get hit with the kind of snow we had last year, it won't matter; biking was straight-up impossible in that.  I biked until December last year, wiped out on glare ice in traffic, and called it quits.


    • I could use better boots for high snow, though; my warm ones are ankle-high, and that really sucked last year.  
    • I was smart and bought a really bad-ass coat a few years ago.  The price tag made me die a little inside, but it's year 3 with it and I get gladder that I have it every year!  Coats are worth it!
    • Last year I discovered neck-wraps and how freaking much they helped.  This year I've remembered haramaki, and how much it helped the one year in Michigan that I owned one; and am working on making a few to use here in Boston. 
  • I procured "sun lamps" for this year.  Given my chemistry, it's a little stupid that I've never done this before, but again, I grew up with long dark winters, and it's taken a while for me to see anything but "gutsing through it" as an option.
  • All the spicy recipes are queued up!
  • Last year I finally prioritized taking a short trip to somewhere warm (instead of visiting my family in Detroit 3-4 times and never going anywhere else), and holy cow did that help.  I'm not sure I can do it again this year, but I'm going to try…maybe visit New Orleans again; I love it there and it's always nice!
  • I've started ending all my showers with at least 30 seconds of cold water.  I hate it, but it's no lie that it helps make/keep you robust to the cold.

The other thing I want to do (that I know about so far) is to stop complaining about winter:  This seems to really affect how I experience it.  When I was a kid, for example, the couple feet of snow didn't bother me at all; I thought it was beautiful and fun.  

Since the complaints of others are probably inevitable, how can I get my emotions to be more robust about seeing the positive during a season that makes getting around terribly difficult, and makes me cold all the time?  (I really dislike being cold — I'm one of those people who's fine in 90F, 100% humidity, but as soon as I start to shiver, my energy-bar starts to leak like a video-game character trapped underwater.  I can handle it, but it's extremely difficult to enjoy it.)

I have tentative plans to go skiing/snowboarding?  I'm barely ok at skiing — I've been twice before; never snowboarding — but it's fun, and winter-based fun seems important.  Wish it wasn't so bloody expensive, though.  (I've also done winter hiking and camping, and same deal — I'm ok at them and they're fun-ish, but holy shit gear-heavy.  And this winter is going to be lean, financially.)

And I'm training myself to think in terms like "bracing", "brisk" and "energizing"; to bite my tongue about travel-times; and to appreciate how awesome fires, spicy food and whisky toddies are.  But I'm not sure that's enough?

Got any other ideas, or experiences surviving super hard winters?  I'd love to hear them!

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Month 1 of Habitmas is…not a total loss!

Hey everybody!  If you were using October to try and set in a one-month habit, how did it go?  (If you weren't, you can jump in now for November, or if you're interested but unsure, start planning to begin on December 1!  See this post for more details.)

For me, I feel that I got that habit…about 60% ingrained.  Not as good as I'd hoped for, but there was a big, sudden, negative life-change in there that hit me out of nowhere, and then for bonus funsies depressed my immune system enough to put me in bed for 2 days, and so things haven't felt too stable since then at all.  Nevermind that I also panicked about my lack of fitness activities, and took on a daily conditioning-regimen too (see here for details)…so that was all kind of a mess, really.  

But not an unsalvageable mess!  

There's mess, and then there's only mostly mess.  You can fix "mostly mess" with a Miracle Pill…if by "miracle" you mean "persistence".

I do feel like I've improved my chosen daily habit so that it's *almost* a habit, AND I've been doing really well with the daily conditioning (the numbers keep going up, yay!).  So I think that, given the mess that was this month and the additional challenges I wound up setting for myself, things didn't go too badly.  I'm just going to keep going with these things through November …er, in addition to some nanowrimo goodness, because I'm a nutjob sometimes… and see if another month of adherence solidifies the habit the rest of the way.  Since daily conditioning exercise was on my list anyway, for December, I'm not too sad about needing to give this wad of habits a few more weeks to let them really sink in.  Especially since I can tell that it IS working — but it needs consistency.

Consistency breeds consistency, you know.  If you want to do something regularly, you have to start by, uh, doing it regularly.  >.>

So month 1 is not what I'd call a super success for me — though it has been for some of the others!  Congrats guys!!  But I'm ok with the slow start, and I still think I can leverage this system successfully to take on 12 useful habits in the next year — I'm not really behind, since I have 2 new habits that are about half-cooked-in; but it's definitely going to take continued work to get farther.

I'm up for it — Join me if you like!

(Here's the spreadsheet, if you'd like to use it.  I've been sort-of using it myself, but one of you recommended a nice app called Rewire that's been working better for me instead — it's nice and simple and, you know, in ze pocket.  Feel free to continue to us the spreadsheet if you like though; it isn't going anywhere!)

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When you really think things should be coming together, but they keep unraveling instead.

Feels rather like trying to keep up with a spinning floor, except every way that you choose to spin is the opposite of how it turns out the room is going.

Maybe, typing that, the answer is to stop trying to spin, and just focus on standing and paying attention….

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