In 2023, it’s a bit passé to label an activity, person or job with ‘left-brain’ or ‘right-brain’. But most of us intuitively understand the difference. Left-brainers appear to be more organised and good with details and right-brainers thrive in creativity and innovation.
Designers lean on their right brain to empathise with people problems – “how products and services fit within people’s everyday lives as well as where they fall short, and who’s left out.”
Since the rise of consumer-friendly technology, designers have settled into the left-brain world of software, complementing the disciplines of product management (analytical and often with technical background) and engineers who ensure the systems are stable, performant, correct and maintainable.
Luckily, it’s really not so binary. Although designers are on the hook for how the product looks, we are largely concerned with making it enjoyable, learnable and effective for the user. From the tools we use like Figjam (right) and Google Sheets (left) to the skills we need like designing for emotion (right) and information architecture (left), designers need both sides of their brain firing. Xero sums it up perfectly: “You’ll have an analytical side and a knack for crafting beautiful user experiences.”
What makes product design so interesting is that there’s never a one size fits all approach to problem solving. There’s no right or wrong here. How you approach design problems will be shaped by your customers and their goals. At Xero, our payroll customers and the compliance rules they must follow are detail-oriented by definition.
All this might sound obvious, but I think friction can arise if designers don’t take the time to recognise the influence of their own thinking styles and patterns. For example, it’s not uncommon to hear a designer frustrated by “documentation slowing us down” or want to “lock down a solution asap”. These are two sides of the same coin, and might be avoided with some reflection.
Here’s a few simple questions to ask yourself:
- Do I bias more towards right or left?
- Am I uncomfortable with uncertainty (sometimes at the cost of creativity)?
- Am I avoiding (potentially useful) design methods because they are unfamiliar?
- Could I approach this problem more objectively?
- Am I thinking about this problem the same way as my cross-functional partners?
Effective designers should feel empowered to leverage either side of their brain, from beginners mind to the latest and greatest prioritisation framework. With our personal development it might help to purposefully focus some of our time on skills where we do not excel, to balance out our strengths.
By taking a step back and being intentional, we can focus on being more creative or systematic where needed.
From April – August 2020, I tried to swim very often in the sea. Usually every other day for 20-30 minutes. The trouble was the temperature of the water.
Before my swim, was a long protracted sequence of hand rubbing, swearing, dressing up in warm knits and sitting on the couch stewing in dread. It’s going to be cold.
Afterwards, although my body temperature had noticeably dropped, my body was humming and my mind felt pure.
In the middle of winter, the water would sometimes drop below 9 degrees celsius (48f).
One afternoon I went for a swim by myself. The sky was murky and brooding. The water was flat, grey and still.
When I dive in the water I usually brace myself. I clench every muscle and take on the pain that surrounds my whole body. Sometimes I claw onto a word or an image. The hope is I can distract myself away from the onslaught of sensation. Sometimes an image comes to me naturally, like a building imploding or infernal flames and smoke. To my credit, plunging your warm body into frigid water must be one of the most uncomfortable things you can do and it’s no surprise I was seeing visions of hell – that’s my base stress response putting down the hammer.
Swimming distinguishes itself from similar cardiovascular activities by the fact that your skin is completely covered by moving water rather than air. Swimming is an activity that promotes “light pressure and temperature stimulation” something that Neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor thinks is good for our skin, our “largest and most diverse sensory organ”. Swimming at max effort in ice water is heavy stimulation.
After the initial scream from my nocicepters, my world became water. I was in a tunnel, and I was vaguely aware of my finger tips, wrists, forearms, heels and toes going numb.
My face, covered in a neoprene hat, transitioned from burning to throbbing and kept receding into nothingness, such that it was a little hard for me to discern where my nose ended and the salty water started.
I felt fluid. I was invisible. I was a water form with some shorts and goggles strapped on. A glass submarine.
But despite this violence and unnerving stimuli, I keep going. My thoughts start wandering, and I’m wondering, am I actually cold anymore?
I must be cold.
I swim a little further and make it to a yellow marker. I’ve swum further and faster than I expected, and I realize if I swim back at the same speed I’d have been in the water for over half an hour – too long.
As I tread water, mulling logistics, I finally pay attention to my surroundings. I notice a ghostly quiet that has settled on the entire beach. The beach huts, the pale sand, ripples near my fingers. In every direction nothing but a grave stillness. I can’t see the separation between sky and sea and I can’t feel the separation between the sea and my body.
I look down at my legs below and realize I’m looking at my body from a slightly higher vantage point.
My brain explains to me that I’m fucked: (“I’ve got hypothermia”, “I’m going to die”, “I need to go home as soon as possible”). But my body has disconnected the phone line and has started playing light jazz. My sympathetic nervous system resembles a sauntering Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now.
The experience is disconcerting mainly because of how ‘opposite’ it is to how I know I should be feeling. This is a good example of how the stories we tell ourselves are so powerful they can overwrite even the most shocking and obvious physical experiences. “This is wrong” rings so true in my mind, I simply have to listen.
A few hours later, I’m dried off and warm but I’m a bit dazed and confused and mellow. I chalk it up to a severe loss in body temperature. But maybe the cold water wasn’t so bad. Maybe my body was perfectly happy to swim in cold temperature. It’s not crazy to believe my body was actually excited by the novel, stimulating sensation of cold water once in a while. I think it’s helpful to think of our bodies both objectively and with great gratitude, like a big gentle dog always by our side.
Most people know, logically, that discomfort is an inevitable part of life. But experientially, we fail to accept this fact, and our desire to flee from it compounds our suffering. If we can learn to witness discomfort without fighting it, we weaken its hold on us, bolstering our ability to lead stable, satisfying lives.The Mindful Case for Cold Showers
Although memorable, this was a just one swim among many hundreds of hours in the ocean and pool. Aside from the obvious health benefits, swimming in cold water seems to train us to sit with discomfort.
Next time you go for an ocean swim, or even simply turn the shower a bit colder, try to pierce through all that screaming for comfort, you may not actually need it after all.
The following is an excerpt from the book “What I Talk About When I talk about Running” by Haruki Murakami. He’s running an ultra-distance race.
While I was enduring all this, around the forty-seventh mile I felt like I’d passed through something. That’s what it felt like. Passed through is the only way I can express it. Like my body had passed clean through a stone wall. At what exact point I felt like I’d made it through, I can’t recall, but suddenly I noticed I was already on the other side. I was convinced I’d made it through. I don’t know about the logic or the process or the method involved—I was simply convinced of the reality that I’d passed through.
After that, I didn’t have to think anymore. Or, more precisely, there wasn’t the need to try to consciously think about not thinking. All I had to do was go with the flow and I’d get there automatically. If I gave myself up to it, some sort of power would naturally push me forward.
Run this long, and of course it’s going to be exhausting. But at this point being tired wasn’t a big issue. By this time exhaustion was the status quo. My muscles were no longer a seething Revolutionary Tribunal and seemed to have given up on complaining. Nobody pounded the table anymore, nobody threw their cups. My muscles silently accepted this exhaustion now as a historical inevitability, an ineluctable outcome of the revolution. I had been transformed into a being on autopilot, whose sole purpose was to rhythmically swing his arms back and forth, move his legs forward one step at a time. I didn’t think about anything. I didn’t feel anything. I realized all of a sudden that even physical pain had all but vanished. Or maybe it was shoved into some unseen corner, like some ugly furniture you can’t get rid of.
Since I was on autopilot, if someone had told me to keep on running I might well have run beyond sixty-two miles. It’s weird, but at the end I hardly knew who I was or what I was doing. This should have been a very alarming feeling, but it didn’t feel that way. By then running had entered the realm of the metaphysical. First there came the action of running, and accompanying it there was this entity known as me. I run; therefore I am.
And this feeling grew particularly strong as I entered the last part of the course, the Natural Flower Garden on the long, long peninsula. It’s a kind of meditative, contemplative stretch. The scenery along the coast is beautiful, and the scent of the Sea of Okhotsk wafted over me. Evening had come on (we’d started early in the morning), and the air had a special clarity to it. I could also smell the deep grass of the beginning of summer. I saw a few foxes, too, gathered in a field. They looked at us runners curiously. Thick, meaningful clouds, like something out of a nineteenth-century British landscape painting, covered the sky. There was no wind at all. Many of the other runners around me were just silently trudging toward the finish line. Being among them gave me a quiet sense of happiness. Breathe in, breathe out. My breath didn’t seem ragged at all. The air calmly went inside me and then went out. My silent heart expanded and contracted, over and over, at a fixed rate. Like the bellows of a worker, my lungs faithfully brought fresh oxygen into my body. I could sense all these organs working, and distinguish each and every sound they made. Everything was working just fine. People lining the road cheered us on, saying, “Hang in there! You’re almost there!” Like the crystalline air, their shouts went right through me. Their voices passed clean through me to the other side.
I’m me, and at the same time not me. That’s what it felt like. A very still, quiet feeling. The mind wasn’t so important. Of course, as a novelist I know that my mind is critical to doing my job. Take away the mind, and I’ll never write an original story again. Still, at this point it didn’t feel like my mind was important. The mind just wasn’t that big a deal. Usually when I approach the end of a marathon, all I want to do is get it over with, and finish the race as soon as possible. That’s all I can think of. But as I drew near the end of this ultramarathon, I wasn’t really thinking about this. The end of the race is just a temporary marker without much significance. It’s the same with our lives. Just because there’s an end doesn’t mean existence has meaning. An end point is simply set up as a temporary marker, or perhaps as an indirect metaphor for the fleeting nature of existence. It’s very philosophical—not that at this point I’m thinking how philosophical it is. I just vaguely experience this idea, not with words, but as a physical sensation. Even so, when I reached the finish line in Tokoro-cho, I felt very happy. I’m always happy when I reach the finish line of a long-distance race, but this time it really struck me hard. I pumped my right fist into the air. The time was 4:42 p.m. Eleven hours and forty-two minutes since the start of the race.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Vintage International) (pp. 111-115). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.Socrates
For the past 6-12 months, on average, I:
- Slept for 7 hours and 35 minutes per night
- Consumed 3152 calories of food per day
- Consumed 161g of protein per day
- Weighed on average 88.47kg per day
- Burned 1100 calories above my resting rate per day
I should celebrate these numbers. I was consistent. I built new habits and stuck to them. I thought carefully about what I ate and how I moved my body. I rarely got sick, maintained my goal weight and smashed tons of PB’s on the bike and in the pool. Isn’t this what success looks like?
The moment you arrive at it, it begins to recede, because you’ve got all these other goals on the horizon.Sam Harris
Maybe not. Counting my ZZZ’s and my calories didn’t make me happy. It didn’t make me feel better about myself or push me into new, interesting paths in life. I measured because it was easy and it made me feel good (temporarily).
A few months ago, after some reflection, I decideded to press pause on the quantified self. Ironically, despite amassing thousands of data points and colorful charts, the biggest insight arrived once I stopped. I noticed a lot of negative self talk. “You’ll lose muscle.” “You’ll lose progress.” “You won’t think straight.” “You should watch this video and try this diet instead.” “You’ll get more anxious if you don’t eat as healthy.” “You will be grumpier if you don’t sleep.”
Maybe I should listen to this voice. Or rather, maybe I should continue obeying. Maybe I should plan out the next 16 meals in perfect synchrony. Maybe I should listen to this 2 hour lecture about carbohydrates. Maybe fasting is the answer. Maybe… Or maybe not. I realized that the foundation of my routine was a voice of non-reason. I was disheartened, humbled and motivated to try a completley different approach in the future. This path had reached its natural conclusion.
The unexamined life is not worth livingSocrates, again
There’s obvious benefits from tracking your food, exercise and sleep. I’m grateful a (much fitter and more successful) colleague encouraged me to be mindful of the proteins, carbs and fats that made up every bagel and $1 slice of pizza that I was stuffing into my face circa 2014. With enough examination, you’ll learn the types of foods that your body digests well and that make you feel good. You’ll learn how to lose weight quickly and safely rather than the typical yo-yo of death. You’ll learn how to put on lean muscle and keep it. And many other useful habits and insights that only come from tinkering and practice.
There are no shortcuts. The fact that a shortcut is important to you means that you are a pussy.Mark Rippetoe
Peering at the nutrition label to find the fiber values, selecting the ‘best’ peanut butter with no seed oils, determining the exact macronutrient profile of rotisserie chicken. These are all things I’ve done too many times. This might feel more ‘examined’, but I can assure you it’s got nothing to do with mindfulness. It’s scarily normal for someone counting calories to nervously mix up a protein shake or scarf down a plate of lunch meat to hit some arbitrary goal. There’s nothing mindful about that.
If you’re thin, you are a kook; if you’re fat, you’re a failure.Lionel Shriver
Eating healthy and losing weight is incredibly hard for many people. I know because I’ve seen the data firsthand, both from talking to hundreds of average Americans about their goals and problems and by understanding how millions of people used MyFitnessPal every day. Everything from the government to your home environment can feel like it’s working against you, let alone your thoughts and bad habits. So, most people eat like crap, sleep like crap and hardly move. The World Obesity Atlas 2022, predicts that one billion people globally, including 1 in 5 women and 1 in 7 men, will be living with obesity by 2030. This is a problem worth solving. I’m grateful I have access to real food and the time and energy to be intentional about my habits, but I can’t say that incessant tracking is the answer.
Where does that leave me? Well, I haven’t yet chucked out my weight scales (I don’t think we’re very good at eyeballing our own weight). I haven’t changed my training schedule. I’m still interested in lots of food-related things, from mastering the Puttanesca to the concept of Hara Hachi bun me (腹八分目) – eating until you’re 80% full. But for the calorie tracking, it was IN for a while, now it’s OUT.
What should we do then? Make the best use of what is in our power, and treat the rest in accordance with its natureEpictetus, Discourses, I, 1, 17
Sometime in the 2010’s, gratitude had a moment. If you “systematically cultivated gratitude”, usually in a journal of some sort, the hope was to cool down your anxiety, become stress resilient, fill your heart with love and block toxic emotions like envy and regret.
On the 9th April, 2015, I caved in and bought a journal. Every morning, I would wake up and write down three things that I was grateful for. After about two weeks, you exhaust the typical stuff. Job, roof over my head, no crippling injuries or chronic conditions, working eyes. By week three or four, I found myself pondering a blank page. I guess I’m grateful for Tiramisu? Trains? Traffic cones?
Despite the mental blocks, I kept the practice up for a few years and I could always find something to jot down. And I never regretted being a bit more grateful.
Some time later, staring at the ocean (which I am immensely grateful for), I wondered ‘why gratitude?’ With all that scribbling, I never stopped to question why. I had definitely noticed positive effects on my mood and outlook, but why? Is it the emotion, the practice of writing every morning or something else?
All the small things
Firstly, let’s take a look at what the professionals are grateful for.
Tim Ferris suggested being grateful for the small things like the “convenience of a small notebook” or his “favorite yellow coffee mug”. “That trains you to notice the little things that ultimately translate to big things and not vice versa.”
Here’s what Tim was grateful for in June 2017:
- Bird song outside. Beautiful!
- Fireflies and stars last night.
- Rain outside to lull to sleep.
It makes sense to view a gratitude journal as a tool to notice things in your life. Maybe the journal makes you more present by encouraging you to consider and appreciate your immediate surroundings. If that’s the case, one might see similar benefits by sketching household objects.
Gratitude vs Fear
Tony Robbins is a very big man, and he is not interested in admiring that little coffee cup. He wants you to think big.
“Think of any other moment. It could be from your childhood or adulthood. It could be last week. It could be today. It could be ten years ago. Any moment that you could just truly feel like that was the greatest. That was magical. That was beautiful. That is magnificent. Something that gives you the feeling of tremendous gratitude if you really focused on it.”
For Tony, gratitude is more like an elixir, a powerful, cleansing spirit that you can pour into your mind. “The reason we use gratitude by the way, is the two emotions that mess us up most is anger and fear. You cannot be grateful and angry simultaneously.”
James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, agrees gratitude is like a smashing the positivity button.
“I am forced to think about the good in my life for at least a few seconds. The result is that there is not a day that goes by without me specifically stating something positive that is happening around me...You begin to realize that nearly everyday is a good day (at least in a small way).“
Wait a second. Positivity. Repetition. Isn’t that like the secret? Fuck!
From back posture to red dresses, interesting things can happen to our outlook on life when we focus our attention on something specific.
Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, writes a goal 15 times a day, that “seems to work much of the time…but presumably not because of any magic.”
He thinks it’s all about focus. “At least one probable explanation for its perceived effectiveness is that focusing on goals changes the person who is doing the focusing… Affirmations probably also increases a person’s natural level of optimism, especially if you believe it works…To the extent that affirmations might increase a person’s stick-to-itiveness, his perception might be that the universe is removing barriers.“
The same applies to luck. Robert Wiseman, author of the Luck Factor, “learned that you can train people to expect luck, and cause an improvement in their ability to spot opportunities, that look like luck, when they pop up. “
Maybe I was training myself to ‘expect gratitude’ and in doing so improve my skill of noticing it in the every day. Whether or not my life feels better, what’s likely happening is my ‘eye for gratitude’ is getting keener.
Why I think gratitude works
Write down 50 unique, specific things in your life that you are grateful for. They could be objective (a small tree) to subjective (your favorite freckle). Done? Now look at that list. There’s one thing that ties them all together. And it’s got nothing to do with positivity or ‘smallness’.
Most things in our life, from our birthplace to how many chews of an apple you take before you swallow, are all largely out of your control.
To accept this fact, is incredibly hard. Buddhism says that not only are many things out of your control, but everything is changing all of the time. To remain equanimous in this broiling state of the present (good or bad) is something even the Stoics struggled with.
The present moment is chaos. The beauty of the right brain…the chaos makes it resilient, adaptable. I know I am in my right brain when I am feeling a sense of gratitude of anything at all.Dr Jill Bolte Taylor
Gratitude, in this light, becomes a more palatable method to acknowledge and accept what you’ve got. Gratitude may really be a nice way to say “I notice many things are out of my control, and I’m okay with that.”
The team gave thirty-four participants a test…jump on an exercise bike for fifteen minutes. They were told to pedal as they liked. The people who were good at perceiving their heart beats showed significantly smaller increases in heart rate and blood flow and covered a significantly shorter distance.
The two groups were matched for physical fitness. The only conclusion the researchers could draw was that those who can accurately sense the rate of their own heart beat are more sensitive to physical load: they feel the physiological pressures more, so they don’t push themselves as hard.
In contrast, the relatively numb bad-perceivers cycled fasters, because they felt it less. People who are good at heart-rate-sensing could therefore find it harder to get fit and build their fitness, because exercise is more off-putting.Emma Young, Super Senses (2021)
Interesting! Maybe those who are very disconnected from their heart beat could potentially approach exercise in a less realistic, more abstract way that may help you put up with it for longer and build a habit.
Shout out to the legend Bob Harper
I would also guess that someone obese or very unfit is likely not very sensitive to their heartbeat. I think losing weight and improving ‘cardio’ fitness will make you more sensitive to your own heartbeat.
We know that genes alone contribute “more to sporting success than training, nutrition, coaching, tactics and any other interventions combined.”
So it’s really all about physiology. It’s common to see that the parents of pro cyclists were also successful endurance athletes of some kind.
We can assume everyone at the starting line of the Tour de France naturally possess high oxygen uptake, power-to-weight, peak-power and big hearts and arteries.
But when it comes to winning bike races, a lot of the analysis focuses on random stuff. Their character, their past performances, their likes and dislikes. “He’s very strong.” “He rides very offensively.” “He’s really thinks on his feet.” That sort of thing.
In the ATP (Association of Tennis professionals) there is an ‘Under Pressure Rating©‘ leaderboard calculated by adding the percentage of break points converted and saved, percentage of tie-breaks won and percentage of deciding sets won.
Photo: Cycling Tips
What would an ‘Under Pressure’ rating look like for a pro cyclist? Winning a Grand Tour by a few seconds takes a remarkable amount of physical and psychological strength, but here are a few other ideas:
- Stillness in the body
- Low number of crashes or near crashes. I’d be interested in how comfortable people look to be around this person in the peloton. For example, Roglic is an incredible cyclist but no one wants to ride behind him and he frequently crashes himself out of races.
- How often brakes are used (not including descending)
- Avg. descent speed
- Ability to hide pain (facial expressions)
- Ability to take off jacket, accept food, multi-tasking.
- Performance in wet
- Performance in chaotic races (eg. Roobaix)
- How often they do stupid stuff like take the wrong turn
- Accuracy of power output if they are riding to a target
Dylan Van Baarle, Tadej Pogacar Stefan Kung. The kind of guys you throw a banana at while they are descending at 100km/h and they’d laugh.
Notice I don’t mention anything about winning or peak power. Winning a race is function of many smaller behaviors and I’m interested in those little things adding up over months and years. This is also not about designing a ‘robotic’ cyclist, rather a clearer definition of a trustworthy/reliable cyclist.
Side note: These characteristics are probably more likely to be found in domestiques rather that star riders.
“The (inner game) is the game that takes place in the mind of the player, and it is played against such obstacles as lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt and self-condemnation. In short, it is played to overcome all habits of mind which inhibit excellence in performance.”Timothy Gallwey
At some point in 2021 I became a pro Tennis fan. Specifically, a Nick Kyrgios fan. Kyrgios turned pro in 2013, and as an Australian who wants to see a Grand Slam come home, I had already been rooting for him, despite all his yelling, bad sportsmanship and general disdain for the sport. But in 2021, watching him go ballistic against Thiem I saw something different. I was addicted!
What makes him so interesting to watch? Why did I need him to win so badly? He usually flames out in early rounds, or maybe would make the quarters of a grand slam. After following him on a very good 2022, where he won the Doubles Grand Slam and several other tournaments, I have a few theories on what makes him tick and so fun to watch.
Firstly, let’s get the obvious out of the way. When a Nike scout discovered Kyrgios tooling around on some weedy grass court in Canberra he said “Unbelievable talent. Ridiculously fast arm. Out of shape. Big mouth.” This hasn’t changed. The variety, speed, flair, inventive-ness of his hitting makes the rest of the top 20 look like cyborgs.
But, like most tennis players, his biggest enemy is himself. Tennis is a very mental game, where you can’t afford to think too much and a small slip in concentration might mean game over. He doesn’t hide this fact.
To deal with himself and his own mind, he has two simple tactics. Rage and ambivalence.
- Rage. Over some points or entire matches, Kyrgios goes thermonuclear. Sometimes this will get him kicked out of the arena. But also might deliver some of the most astonishing shots you’ll ever see. A game that comes to mind is the Wimbledon final. He could not serve any stronger or better, and Djokovic answers everything quietly and smugly. “WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO!!!!” Stay angry I guess.
- Ambivalence. The flip side to rage is the characteristic that is most identified with his public image, at least in Australia. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t try. He’s a waste. If only he applied himself. Look at the comments under any of his videos on YouTube to see people praying for him in this way. But I think like rage, this is a way to ‘switch off his brain’. When he doesn’t care, there’s no tenseness, no overthinking. Game that comes to mind is when he went ‘god mode’ playing Rublev in Miami. He looks bemused at the shame and anger that his opponent is stewing in. “He’s working like he’s got a reservation to get to.”
I think this can be frustrating for many of his fans, because he’s likely not consistent enough to win a slam, and even if he did, he would laugh – understanding the chaos he had to deal with between his ears.
The Courage to be Disliked is a popular Japanese book that “teaches us the simple yet profound lessons required to liberate our real selves and find lasting happiness.” Big claim.
I read this book in March 2019, and according to Goodreads, rated it 4 stars. I liked it, but nothing really clicked. Comrades, tasks, vertical relationships. What? The book plays out as a simple dialogue between young and old man, which was easy to read but I couldn’t connect with all these different terms. I tried, I put together a google slide deck, I sketched a bit, drew some diagrams, but otherwise forgot all about it.
Below, I’ve revisited some of the key themes that I think are important and how I think about them now. If you’re interested you should give it a read, you might get something out of it.
Really? I thought the past makes you who you are? What about trauma? High school? Nope. Most of us ‘resolve’ and settle into a familiar track, whether that’s positive or negative. The tricky thing is you and only you need to make the decision to change your habits, which is hard because it’s easy to talk yourself out of such things.
The ‘courage to be disliked’ is really a fancy way of saying ‘liking yourself’. Instead, I interpreted this as ‘f*** the haters’, which is not quite the point. When it comes to relationships, we invent many judgements about others that are usually not true. Believing this type of thinking seems to cause great unhappiness.
In the book, the young guy is so adamant that his problems are important, intractable and unique. Our misfortune tends to feels very important and special, from a stubbed toe to a car crash. Humans are very good at fashioning these bubbles that become disconnected from reality. This view of the world applies directly to our relationships, where we obsesses over inferiority and endlessly compare.
The old man tells the young man to stop being such a special snowflake. If you can feel at ease with yourself, it’s completely natural to be interested and helpful to others. This is where a lot of feeling of goodwill, compassion and yep, the ‘h’ word comes from. There is no agenda. On the flipside, if you are angry and inward focused, it is easy to feel separate from others because, well that’s the way it feels! I believe this is a negative loop that can spin very fast and in some cases shoot you straight for intel-land . If we have a family member who is sick, we shouldn’t be concerned with anything aside from helping (not their response, complaints, side remarks, or any other thoughts you have about them) – because you love them, you’re physically able to and you feel good doing so.
Another idea I couldn’t connect up was ‘courage’. What does courage have to do with interpersonal relationships? The author encourages calm, objective self-worth and in a similar way that a large rock is ‘strong’, courage is something you get for free.
‘Seperation of tasks’
The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.Epictetus
Lastly, in a similar way to how Stoicism ignored events out of our control, a ton of suffering emanates from general confusion and misappropriation of your attention and energy. If you feel some shame and embarrassment by a stranger who you interact with for 3 seconds, think deeply about what that says about you.
Rather than detached or ruminating, it’s possible to be bemused or stoic or equanimous. Like standing watching a stray dog chase its tail. Ultimately you have no skin in the game. Seperation of tasks was a confusing phrase but it’s simply understanding the fact that almost everything is somewhat out of your control. With that wisdom, it’s only natural to help others, create, give back, and maneuver through life with a little less friction.
“All pain is private and intensely personal..Meaningful definition is impossible” – Bill Bryson
First, a disclaimer. The following are some words that describe my own subjective experience. Nothing here is instructional, particularly important or even useful to anyone reading. However, if you’ve ever been curious about things like ‘the Self’, consciousness, anxiety, happiness, mindfulness, reality, feel free to read on.
If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. – Marcus Auerlius
Blaaaaaaaaaaaaaarmmmmh. A large truck lurches to a stop a few meters away from me. I’m lost in thought, as usual, riding home from work. The noise jolts me to my senses. I stare at the truck, the driver. I can feel my heart pumping a bit louder. Sweaty palms. But something is missing. I just don’t care. It doesn’t matter. I relax. I start mulling this thought over in my mind and the good feeling it seems to give me. This is it. This is life. It doesn’t matter. This feeling continues for a few more hours before disappearing into a storm of worry, regret and other very important concerns like if I have enough coffee at home.
“It is better for the thinker to control the thoughts than for the thoughts to control the thinker.” – Tenzin Wangyal
This blanket of calmness was still hugging me days later when I turned up for cycling training at the Hawthorn Velodrome. It’s 6am, I feel light and energised and with a curiously blank mind I spend more time staring at the concrete and sun filtering through the trees like maple syrup than the other riders screaming around in circles. I’m lucky I didn’t cause a crash, but I can’t say I would have been too concerned at that point. When we finish, I notice my car has been blocked in by construction workers. I feel a surge of panic, but by remaining calm-ish, I stroll over and maneuver around a forklift like I’m on a magic carpet. Weird.
“Feel, what I feel, when I feel, what I feel, When I’m feelin’, in the sunshine” – Roy Ayers
I would consider myself someone introspective enough to not allow an experience like this pass by without some interrogation. It’s too different and objectively improved to ignore. What’s going on? I feel present. I feel calm. I feel less reactive. I feel like I’m judging less. Judgements and thoughts and reactions still roll through my head but they make a little less sense. What about this tram/supermarket/attractive woman/email is ‘good’ or bad’ exactly? I keep coming back to a phrase: “Nothing matters, but in a good way”, which seems to ring true with what I’m seeing, hearing and feeling.
“For 25 years…shivering , hysterical crying, dying sensations or half-faint. Nervousness when Emma leaves me.” – Charles Darwin. Is he a wimp or experiencing something worse than a WW1 soldier stuck in a trench and out of ammo?
“My parasympathetic nervous system kicked in, arresting the firing rate of the hyperactive neurons in my turbocharged amygdala.” – Age of Anxiety
Goosebumps/Some interesting flavor of ‘feeling crap’
These moments pass quickly, and I find myself in a checkout line at a grocery store feeling particularly on edge. I don’t believe my anxiety is strong or debilitating, but it can rear up in the most mundane scenarios. Riding along with negative thoughts, I feel a throbbing in my arm that I’d never noticed. I’m able to focus on that sensation and talk myself out of it. Weird. Walking home, with the feeling dissipating, I start thinking. It’s likely that I rarely notice my bodily sensations of anxiety, or maybe even most emotions. Even something like a racing heart can be ignored easily enough. By noticing that sensation, I was in a better place to calm down. I apply this thinking over the next few days to everything from taking an uber to serving out a game.
Why people fall off the wagon so often is because their mind is a cluttered fucking garage – David Goggins
Jessie’s wooden box – Breaking Bad
Nowhere you can go is more peaceful, more free of interruptions than your own soul – Marcus Aurelius
I jump into the swimming pool. It’s 6pm, golden hour and swim practice is about to begin. Again, I feel calm, at ease, and have relatively few thoughts in my head. I turn my attention closely to what I’m actually seeing. The lane rope, the feet in front of me, the bubbles, the sensation on my finger tips when I touch the other end. My head feels like a fishbowl, for lack of better words. Over a couple of hours I make a few testable observations. I still have thoughts. I’m still Josh. I feel at peace with my place in the world in a way that I haven’t probably felt since I was 10 years old. The present moment is streaming into my eyes second by second, like it’s the most tricked out gamer computer ever built. It looks great, but in an indescribable way. Eventually, I start stressing that people will notice that I’m just a fleshy robot and not ‘Josh’ and the experience fades away.
If you sit with your mind for an hour and it’s all over the place, that’s your mind. – Yuval Noah Harari
About a month later, I sign myself up for a 10 day silent meditation retreat. I can’t say exactly how I found myself sitting still for 12 hours a day, but it was something on my bucket list. For days on end, my one job was to observe the thoughts and sensations that are relentlessly and automatically streaming into my body 24/7 (I got to sleep for a couple of hours). I approached these things with the patient, detached, calmness of a bored judge who’s seen it all, but wants to be fair. Thought: ‘This is the least productive thing I could be doing with my time, I’m a complete failure.’ Response: Perhaps. Or maybe not. It doesn’t matter that much though does it. Calm down? Let’s eat an apple instead. Every negative or positive fantasy was answered with a shrug.
The secret to surviving air travel – Die Hard (1988)
On day 6 or 7, I find myself standing at the back of the property, in the woods. I’m looking clearly at a row of Tea Trees swaying in the wind and a family of Kookaburras laughing above me. With no thoughts and a clear objective vision, I may as well be witnessing a very realistic VR game. It’s clear that I’m not in control, and I have no idea who the player is. My sense of self completely evaporates. Clang.
“Consciousness at its core is interpretable.” – Sam Harris, wondering if he really did get raped by a Jaguar after taking 5mg of psilocybin
A liberating homecoming
It’s hard to say how my experience at the Vipassana retreat would have gone if I hadn’t had these curious, introspective moments in the few months leading up. Or if my view of the world didn’t have such a negative character (although I’m not at all unique in this regard). I must be a very physical learner, because I had to look at this from about 15 different angles before it clicked. I stand in awe (and fear) of the constant, automatic, habitual, unconscious, believable and impermanent nature of ‘my’ thoughts.
“I just get up at 5am because I decided that was important to me.. and so I did it.” – Alan Thrall
Not to say I have that much more clarity. Because I still think, don’t I? My experience in the retreat came with a very high degree of confusion, anxiety and tinge of complete madness. Do I still have a personality? Can I still like or dislike things? Is emotion bad? Am I bad? Have I erased all emotion and feeling? These all turn out to be perfectly reasonable questions, and like with most things, the simplest answer is usually the right one. Unconscious and habitual reactions toward emotions aren’t a bad thing. It’s very human and normal. We would never have evolved past a drooling swamp slime if we were unable to react. But since our thinking is unconscious and habitual it deserves shining a light on from time to time. Like the dirt stuck in the sole of your shoe, or that old yogurt in the back of your fridge, it’s neither bad or good, it simply deserves noticing.