Posture

Photographer Brooke Shaden

I’ve been paying more attention to posture lately. Working on standing posture, really need to work on sitting posture. Meditation posture is a subject unto itself. There’s a certain lightness of being attained with alignment. A certain weariness with “crumpling.” It takes effort and awareness but I’m finding it pays dividends.

For a period of work my office faced the train tracks. One day my attention was riveted by a young woman walking down the rails. She didn’t move like a human. She was gracefully fluid in a way I can’t even articulate. It made a lasting impression. I’ve explored Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais and other movement modalities trying to understand what I had seen.

In September, I think I will explore the Gokhale Method with instruction. The quest continues.

In the meantime, the chinga system is working out. I’m refining it and coding the app. I think I’ve found a process that finally works as an ally in seizing the day.

Chinga

I’ve always loved to learn, and I like the feelings of mastery and flow that comes with skill building. But I dislike specialization and digging too deep of a hole in a single domain. It gets boring and life-sapping. But I also dislike superficial understanding of a topic. Learning not sustained enough to get a workable model or stopping and starting so much that each time begins anew because so much is forgotten.

So I devised a system that works for me… “the curriculum.” It’s like Hogwarts… going to a school where you’re learning all this cool stuff you want to learn and explore, with different subjects and teachers daily, optional labs and extra credit and it continues for a virtual semester, a little each day so I’m not stuck in some Mariana trench of interminable grunge-work. There are several tricks that facilitate this.

I call my strategy Chinga, for “fuck it.” And it’s based on the principle of go small or go home. Tiny little impulse steps that require minimal will to push over. Done daily. Doesn’t require massive motivation or will. And leverages some interesting neural hacks. Working on a little software app that embodies it. Debugging and refining my approach as I go. Worst case, I’ll have a system that’s workable and valuable for my progress. Best case, it may help a few other lazy saps with grand ambitions but distractible minds like myself.

Our Closest Advisors

Sometimes we hang out in bad company. Toxic relationships, negative relatives or pestiferous media feeds. Maybe recurring feelings or voices inside our head. Maybe drama we seem inexplicably pulled into, again and again.

And any serious expedition outside the protective boundaries of our comfort zones, with new projects or ways of being, draw undesirable attention as well.

These undesirables often present themselves as “reason givers.” As in only looking out for what’s best for you. Or what’s logical. Common sense. And they may sound quite reasonable indeed. Inside or out these false friends tend to fall into 4 categories:

  1. Obstacle revealers: who love to point out all the reasons why you can’t or shouldn’t be doing, thinking or feeling something.
  2. Self-judgers: revel in all the ways you aren’t up to a task or don’t possess a quality, and all the reasons you’re not ready and unworthy.
  3. Comparators: are quick to point out all the ways others have tried this and failed or why its easier for others with way more talent, opportunities, luck and/or drive than you. Or why others will think you’re foolish and why you should be more like them.
  4. Fortune tellers: bemoan all the ways you’re going to crash and burn or missed your opportunity and why the odds are stacked against you. Why you’re just not lucky that way. Alas.

These fake allies may trick you into arguing with them. But their real weakness is that their validity doesn’t matter. Instead, your secret sauce is to ask if they are helpful. And what would you be like, or your life be like, if you lived it by their “truths” as your guide? Would it be a life you wanted?

Everyone, without fail, will experience most of these “helpers.” Through themselves and/or others while trying or being almost anything different than they’ve done or been before.  How you manage these advisors is critical to the success of your venture.

Given some healthy boundaries and new objectives, they actually can be shaped into powerful allies. This can be done with some simple questions for each:

  1. Obstacles: are you giving realistic appraisals and figuring out how to overcome them? Or just coming up with reasons not to try?
  2. Self-judgment: is this constructive advice on how to improve your skills? Or just tearing you down?
  3. Comparison: is it finding ways to learn strategy and avoid mistakes from others? Is it inspirational or simply discouraging any action?
  4. Prediction: are they analyzing how to respond to worse case scenarios, things to mitigate and improve the odds? Or just woe is you, you’re doomed and the sky is falling?

We can’t avoid negative thoughts, it’s just how we are wired. Suppressing or constantly venting them is unhealthy. But we don’t have to be “hooked” by them. Modern mindfulness-based therapies, like ACT, take the agenda of the Buddhists and Stoics into practical application. These posts will review some of these approaches. The points above are from a book called The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris.

Buddhism introduced the construct of skillful and unskillful thinking. Skillful thoughts are not about finding the true or right answer —which may not be helpful, and may never actually be known or knowable. In our lifetimes anyway. Instead, a skillful thought is a helpful thought. Something that contributes positively to your life and your resilience in dealing with things.

To get to the point where one can assess a thought as being helpful or not though, and act skillfully with it, we first need to be aware of our thoughts as they occur. Not hours, days or a lifetime later in the wake of their reactive calamities. Unnoticed,  unskillful thoughts can quietly wreak havoc on our moods and energy states. And upon our resilience to meet life as it is.

For both Stoicism and ACT, the foundation starts with knowing what’s happening in our heads in real time. Then each discipline spins off in different directions for dealing with that, based on different objectives. More on this to come, primarily to tease out thoughts on how these disparate approaches fit together, and writing helps me do that. Which is not to belittle my appreciation for those of you reading these ramblings. Thanks for getting this far 🙂

Yang

The previous thought discussed Yin. The letting go of the hold things have on us. This thought is about Yang. With the freedom Yin gives us, we can act on the world with intent. To do one requires the other. To let go but have no inner value to cultivate is just dissipation; but trying to achieve goals in the world without the inner freedom to focus on process rather than results only creates suffering. Together, however, Yin and Yang form the middle way. Or as we say in the martial arts: you have to go slow to go fast.

inertia

Another thing modafinil1 illuminated was how we become buried beneath layers of inertia. So gradually it’s hard to notice. We may start with energy to explore exciting potentials, we may be “called” by things we can’t even name or describe, our hearts might ache with a nostalgic beacon of sweet pain towards some great inexplicable —but we may find ourselves later just looking for a place to sit, rest and watch a screen or escape into distraction. Which is a shame because I think it’s less a physical depletion than a gradual smothering of a spark we carry. When this spark is alive — or coming back to life— we see amazing possibility in the every day, in time unhinged from lethargy of spirit.

Maybe to ignite this, we must figure out —or decide— what our life is about, what we are here to do, explore, create or accomplish. And how best we can contribute to this masterpiece we live in through being nothing other than ourselves rather than the manufactured product of our acculturation. To do this, we may have to release judgment about what everybody should be doing, and how the world ought to behave and turn back inward to find again what WE are about. Maybe it’s time to come home. And maybe that’s the only way to authentically contribute to the world.

To be on our own path of discovery, exploration, expression, to be in-formed, is to abandon all reward from and dependence upon any opinion but our own. The strength to do this should be the power we seek and the first thing in this crazy world we set aright.


  1.  I class modafinil in the same group as cannabis and psychedelics… it can show us useful things about ourselves. Not as a crutch to supply something missing that we then depend on, but to illuminate something we’ve always had or have always been, but perhaps have forgotten. All true learning is remembering, as a certain philosopher of antiquity once staked his life on. 

Meditation and Modafinil

What happens when a pill engineered to increase focus is combined with a meditation practice designed to hone concentration? Let’s find out.

Subject:  (see above)
Materials: Alertex (Modafinil) 200mg. Couch
Optional: Latin American electronica blaring from the appliance store across the street

Currently, my practice of meditation is called samadhi (or samatha). An exotic term for focusing on just one thing. Usually the breath. Samadhi, or concentration meditation, is often poo-pooed by other serious adherents to meditation like the Vipassana practitioners. At best they see it as stepping stone to stabilize attention for more serious practices. At worst they believe samadhi may lead to getting hooked on blissful states and paranormal phenomenon that sometimes arises.

Serious samadhi practice leads to a set of states (and strange phenomenon); these states are called jhanas, and are reached from a sort of staging area called “access concentration.” The staging area is reached by sustaining concentration for an extended period of time, long enough for things to start dissolving into very pleasant and distinct feelings that mark the entry to the 1st jhana. There are 7 more jhanas awaiting as concentration deepens even further.

Reaching the staging area requires stilling the mind; bringing it back to the breath again and again as it flits off with whatever arises. After a while, the mind gets like Teflon and thoughts and feelings arise to just slide off rather than catching the attention. At least it’s how it normally works. With modafinil, the process alters. Instead of mind getting slippery, formless and more relaxed, the attention gets stickier. That’s the best I can describe it.

Both approaches seem to facilitate passage to the staging area of access concentration, but the state waiting across the threshold is different.

Rather than the familiar pīti (bliss) and sukha (pleasure) bubbling up in the traditional first Jhana, another state is accessed in Modafinil which is a feeling of deep and resourceful “readiness.” Also pleasant, but very distinctive. Whereas pīti and sukha encourage one to hang out and enjoy, the readiness “Jhana” of modafinil, while not suggesting anything in particular, is ready to kick some ass somewhere. In a motivational sense. But it is not compelled to do so. It just wants you to know it could. If that’s what you wanted.

Will I repeat this experiment? Probably not. Modafinil demonstrated that concentration can also tap into a great reservoir of potential. A potential available to work with complete, settled focus rather than the low level, almost subliminal agitation of distraction that is usually a constant companion in our activities. Very useful, especially in contexts of learning.

But I prefer that type of focus that comes in samadhi practices as an encompassing and relaxed sense of abiding. A flow where the moment is complete as it is, there is nothing to add, that unfolds just as it should and must without effort. Which is sort of counter-intuitive to what one might think a strongly focused state entails. But some things change, once they deliver us to the threshold, and another journey begins. And it may have to do with whether the attention to get there was sticky or frictionless.

 

An Ode to Renting

Renters catch a lot of flack over their lifestyle choice. At best perhaps they’re saving for a house, at worst they’re throwing money away. Most flack comes from well-meaning home-owning friends and family, and part might come from cognitive dissonance; trying to justify a position after having made such a major commitment. It’s human nature when we have hidden doubts about our course of action to argue its virtues to others in order to convince ourselves. If others climb on board, we have more validation. If we can label them as foolish for not joining us, we feel more confident in our choice.

And it’s true, renters usually pay more than people paying mortgages, but their estate comes with exclusive benefits not available to owners. And it’s true that someday, maybe when they are old, or if they win the lotto, or get rich in their careers, or pay long enough, that homeowners will see a reduction in their payments, maybe just to property taxes and insurance and ongoing upkeep. For renters, they pretty much expect to pay the equivalent of the mortgage+ payment for the foreseeable future. So this factors into their plans.

As part of this mortgage+benefits package, a renter’s estate spans the entire world. They might have an estate in Colorado for a year, then go to an estate in South America for a few, to an estate in Asia for several months. If they don’t like the weather, neighbors or conditions in one estate, they have pretty much the world to choose from for the next. If they feel like they want to live in the mountains for a while, or the beach, or the desert, they don’t have to get a second mortgage for a vacation villa or timeshare. If it’s too hot in the summers, they can live somewhere cooler. And they don’t have to worry about their estates when they are gone.

Of course, there are issues renters cope with that the owners do not. They deal with the hassle of moving stuff. Either from place to place or place to storage and back. Which usually results in them trimming down to just what they need to make this easier. Many of them find this simplifies their lives as well. For people who need, or collect, lots of possessions, this may be a deal breaker. Homeowners also seem to be constantly working on projects to upgrade their spaces whereas renters can just relocate to a space they like better when tired of the old. And repairs? That’s somebody else’s problem and not an out of pocket expense or even a planned contingency for a renter.

Owners have their own hassles: upkeep of their place, carrying a huge debt which, in some cases, forces them to work at a certain wage. Not that renters don’t have to work, but renters can look for work in a much larger market and broader span and aren’t pinned to a limited radius from their home. Homes don’t like their owners to be away for too long, and they are like being responsible for children or pets. Mail needs to be picked up, lawns mowed. Security monitored.

Renters have to be savvier about mobility and many aspects that homeowners don’t have to consider. Passports, virtual mail, flexible communication and banking options, good insurance that’s not pinned to an HMO or limited area. But they usually enjoy the independence these adaptations provide, even when they are in a single estate for several years.

Homeowners may feel they have the flexibility of building equity, selling their homes, then they too could have the renter’s options. But they usually reinvest in another big loan, a little larger, for a little nicer place, plus things have gotten more expensive by then and they can’t do this as frequently and as easily as the termination of a yearly lease. And there’s often tons of work each time to get things fixed up and ready to sell so they don’t take a loss. So unless they take their money and become a renter, it’s a much too lumbering a dance to keep up with the fleet-footed renters.

So the decision for owning or renting is not a clear-cut financial decision but is weighted by many other factors. And I don’t think there is one right answer.