Most of what I read, watch, and listen to is about
mindfulness. Right now, I’m listening to The Science of Mindfulness by Dr.
Daniel Siegel and Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation by
Professor Mark W. Muesse on Audible. I’m re-reading Mindfulness and
Psychotherapy, Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based
Psychotherapy. I spoke about mindfulness in schools in June, and I still have a
mindfulness meditation group that meets every Monday evening.
Even now, as I switch the focus of what I blog and podcast
and make videos about from mindfulness to living intentionally and as a full
human being, I start with mindfulness.
The question seems obvious: why do I care about mindfulness
so much that I’m willing to dedicate so much time to it?
Mindfulness for a Mindless Person
The answer seems obvious (to me at least): I’ve lived mindlessly, and it brings nothing but pain.
Mindless is actually a pretty good way to describe me for
the majority of my life.
When I was 11, I cleaned out the fireplace and put the ashes
in a plastic bucket. It burst into flames and ruined my mom’s antique rug.
When I was 16, I ripped the water pump out of my car,
driving too fast over a low water crossing.
When I was 22, I drove 2 ½ hours in the wrong direction
because I didn’t pay attention to where I was going on what had already been a
Things like that.
But also not like that, because these are all pretty minor in the long run.
A lot of my mindlessness had more dire consequences, for myself and others.
It’s important for me to say that I am resolved to everything I write about here. I’ve made apologies and amends where I could, I’ve sorted out compassion and forgiveness for myself and the mindless being that I was. I’m aware of how unreliable our memories are, how much they rewrite and re-interpret past experiences so I cannot say everything is the Truth, but I can say it is the truth as I remember it.
So, I’m resolved to younger James, I’ve forgiven him and
tried to understand where he was coming from, but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t
still annoy me. His mindlessness made
a lot of things very difficult, for myself and others.
I treated people poorly because I didn’t know how to deal with myself. I talked too much and only about myself, I bailed on people for the smallest things, and when I sensed that people just didn’t understand how cool I was, I made things up. This created an odd cycle where the more I tried, the fewer people liked me, so I tried harder and harder. It was messy.
Not knowing how to deal with emotions and thoughts and (once again), myself, ended up in drug addiction and a pretty decent drinking issue. This led to other problems, as you can imagine.
I was rarely mindful of my time, so I wasted a lot of it. I was rarely intentional, so a lot of my choices were made by default or by path-of-least-resistance. This inevitably led to outcomes that were not planned well in the long-term.
More than anything, I lived a lot like a toddler – I reacted to things and responded from a place of emotional distress a majority of the time. Pain was channeled into anger, so I spent a lot of time lashing out without even meaning to. I was on fire a lot of the time, and I burned everyone around me.
An odd series of coincidences led me to learn about mindfulness as a way of being. Once I realized that there was a better way of living life, I was obsessed with learning and evolving. I got super fascinated with things like samurais and cryptozoology, but one day the book I was looking for was missing and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was in its place. I got absorbed into quantum mechanics and physics but did not have the foundations to understand it. I happened across a book called The Dancing Wu-Li Masters, which opened me up to the world of Eastern thought, and I found myself drawn to the stripped-down, non-magical clarity of Zen Buddhism, and began trying to meditate.
This is where things got complicated for me. I had been running from my emotions, and the noise in my head for so long that sitting with all of it was unbearable. I had distracted myself from being on fire for so long that is was difficult to come to terms with what a mess I was.
I couldn’t sit for more than 30 or 40 seconds when I first started. I tried to make it more comfortable, I tried classical music (because that’s what it seemed like fancy, enlightened people would like), I even ordered this binaural beats CD off of the internet because it promised me a better experience. It didn’t work.
I finally made my way to the local Buddhist center – not so much because I was looking to become a Buddhist, but because I knew they meditated and that I would be too embarrassed to walk out in front of everyone. I leveraged that ego that had driven me crazy for so long against my lack of discipline, and it worked.
It wasn’t easy or amazing, but little by little I began to know how to sit with myself, how to watch the thoughts and emotions come and go, how not to invest in every little thing that floated through my awareness. It was slow, but it was also life-changing.
It’s odd as I write this because I don’t enjoy thinking about earlier times in my life. I still remember what it was like to be so overwhelmingly angry and sad all the time. I haven’t lost sight of what it’s like to be driven by these things inside of me that always push for more and more to escape from the fire. I know that suffering is real, and this is what drives me to help others – this and the fact that I know there is a way out of suffering if we are willing to lay down our egos and move forward with existence.
That’s what this next year is all about: the person I was,
the mistakes I made, the consequences that ensued, and how mindfulness and
meditation helped me deal with and step away from all of it.
The shortest answer is surprisingly accurate: mindfulness is a nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. This, not-so-surprisingly, gets more and more complicated as we break it down and dig deeper though.
Think about your awareness at this moment, how many things are involved in it. We all have the things immediately in front of us, the things we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. These things are all neutral in and of themselves – if there were no humans around to have an opinion on them, they wouldn’t be a problem.
But there are two more things we experience concerning all of this. We have thoughts and emotions about these things, as well.
The dog smells bad, I need to bathe her.
This room is a wreck, why are toddlers such a mess?
It’s freezing outside, I wish I lived in Florida.
Ugh, that thumping sound! Who needs speakers that loud in their car?
I know broccoli is healthy for me, but it tastes like body odor.
You’ll notice all of these things are neutral:
A dog smells a certain way, things are in one place instead of another in a room, the weather is consistent with the season, sound waves hit an eardrum, broccoli tastes like broccoli. There is no objective measure of them being okay or not okay, they just are.
A mindful perspective allows us to understand the neutrality of all this while exploring our reasons for not liking it.
I never even wanted this dog, and she’s so much work.
Why am I such a bad parent? Everyone on Instagram has such a clean house.
My body hurts more in the cold. I want to go ride my bike.
I think it’s rude to impose your noise on other people.
My mom forced me to eat broccoli when I was a kid.
We can, with practice, dig even deeper into all of this. Is there resentment or fear present? Do we feel ignored or taken advantage of? Did we fail to draw boundaries, or are we not using our time wisely?
Mindfulness can help us dig all of this up, while also providing the resources and equanimity we need to deal with it when it hits the surface. It’s a way of living beyond our basic petty thoughts and emotions and delving into the truth of life.
A hammer is a useful tool when used for its proper purpose. If you are hammering a nail in or pulling one out, cool, the hammer can do its job. If you use a hammer to turn off your television or discipline your child, then you have a problem on your hands.
The mind is the same way. It is beneficial for planning things, making decisions, logical analysis – stuff like that. It’s not omniscient, though. It doesn’t have access to the future, any real access to the past, or to other people’s minds. We know this, we all recognize the limits of the mind, but we continuously invest in these things that the mind cannot do, whether we mean to or not.
Mindfulness is a way of stepping away from these things, from letting the mind do its job, and leaving the rest where it belongs: out of our hands. This allows us to focus on what matters and what’s possible.
Why Mindfulness Matters
We have to know why we are doing anything if we are going to do it well. Everything we do can go wrong if we do it mindlessly. Driving, eating, exercising, sleeping, working – all of these things need intention behind them or they can backfire on us and bring us suffering.
When we are mindful of what we are doing, we make wise decisions – decisions born of thought and intention instead of fear or anger.
We can all try to be mindful right now:
Take a deep breath.
Rest your attention on the breath, watch it come and watch it go.
When you get distracted (and you will), just redirect your attention to the breath.
There doesn’t need to be any discussion or judgment. By noticing distraction, you are no longer distracted.
Do this over and over again – every noticed distraction is a moment of mindfulness.
This is a basic practice. You can do it anytime, anywhere, but there is a strong reason to make this a formal practice, which we’ll touch on in posts to come.
I talk about this kind of stuff more regularly on Instagram – connect with me over there too!
Concentration isn’t something we hear a lot about these days. It’s not really cool in a world geared toward multitasking (which isn’t real) and distraction (which is actually really stressful).
Mindfulness is all the rage these days. I don’t have too much of an issue with that.
Really, barring intense trauma or deep depression,
mindfulness is useful and helpful for just about everybody, even if it only
helps them be present with other people or be more intentional with their time
Here’s the thing though: an authentic mindfulness practice
is not possible without some degree of concentration, which most of us don’t
naturally have. This is probably worse these days with all of the things
seeking to distract us.
Consider this line of distraction:
I’m writing a blog or doing
something constructive on my computer.
I wonder what time it
is, and decide to check my phone.
It scans my face,
I see my banking app,
remember that I have a chiropractic appointment this morning and decide to
check my balance even though there is more than enough money in there.
I check it, then
wonder what kinds of deposits I have coming from the app I use for billing at
my office. I open that app.
Speaking of my office,
I remember that I need to order a diffuser and more tea for the meditation
group. I click over to my Amazon app and start searching for both. I decide to
order the tea, but hold off on the diffuser until I research a little more.
I open my Chrome app
and read up on diffusers, which leads to reading up on which oils to use. Before
I know it, I’m looking at memes on Reddit.
We are all somewhat familiar with this kind of chain that
leads us away from what we are doing. Even if you are one of those rare
superhumans who doesn’t have a smartphone, you will be familiar with this in
terms of your thoughts leading you astray.
What time is it? Oh, I
better get ready.
I think I’ll take the
loop to get there.
I wonder if that is
actually faster – Indiana Ave. is a straight shot, but it goes through town. It
is three lanes, though.
But I hate stopping at
red lights. They seem to be really mistimed lately.
Do they get off-kilter
because fire trucks and ambulances change their pattern when they are rushing
How often do they
I wonder whose job
Do they have to adjust
lights individually, or is it done by a computer located somewhere?
If it’s a computer,
then it seems like they could constantly adjust themselves and not get so off-kilter.
Do they have to climb
up there and change them?
That would probably be
a good job – Randy (my dad) always told me working for the city was a good way
to make a living without a college degree.
Like Wooderson on
Dazed and Confused – “Keeping a little change in my pocket.”
(A feeling of mild
anxiety arises in response to remembering a movie I used to watch almost daily
when I was using drugs)
Remember the $100 fine
I had from Blockbuster in Georgetown because I rented that and kept it? I got
lucky when they closed.
That was dishonest, I
wouldn’t do that now.
I couldn’t do that now
because all the video stores are bankrupt.
And, with that, I am reminiscing about how things were in
We spend a lot of our time lost in things -thoughts,
memories, judgments, fantasies about how things “should” be, mindless internet
scrolling, mindless Instagram scrolling, and everything else that arises. This
is why concentration – the ability to keep our mind on one thing, matters.
the Stress of “Multitasking”
Let’s get one thing out of the way: multitasking is a myth,
none of us are good at it, and it causes us stress and unhappiness. We get
overwhelmed any time we try to do two things at once, and there is a deep peace
in doing what we are doing and giving it our full attention.
This isn’t easy for us because we so often do two or three
things at once on purpose – scrolling through our phone while watching Netflix
or trying to keep typing when our spouse is talking to us. It’s a habit and way
of life now, but life is better, life is easier, life is more fun when we just do
what we are doing.
When you are driving, just drive. There’s no need to plan
what you are going to do when you get there, to wonder about where you are
going to park, to prepare for a conversation you may have later in the day.
When you watch Netflix or Hulu or YouTube videos, just watch
them. Notice how the mind wants to scroll through Reddit or Instagram at the
same time, but also notice how the mind will slow down and enjoy the show once
it eases into doing so. If you want to screw around on the internet, cool, do
that, but only do that. See how it
feels to give yourself over to whatever you are doing consciously.
When talking to your partner or friend or whoever, just do
that. If something is getting in the way of you doing this, set it aside,
gladly and with intention – people are always more important than tasks. See
what happens when you give full attention to the other person, see how the
experience of being with them changes – see how their response to you also
changes when they don’t feel like a burden or a nuisance.
All of this is easy, right?
Except that it’s not.
A World of Distraction
So how do we do this in a world so intent on distracting us?
We practice, just like we do with anything we want to learn.
The cool thing about this is that it’s available to us
Here’s the problem we are working with: the part of our
brain that controls our spontaneous flights of attention is not under our
direct control, but we send it “messages” through what we focus on.
It’s like those creepy Facebook and Instagram ads we get –
how we spend our time while browsing around tells those apps that “watch” us
what matters to us. If you are browsing around looking up football scores,
football jerseys, and checking what time the Cowboys play on Sunday, Facebook
or IG is probably going to hit you with football-related ads.
We are, unknowingly and unwittingly, constantly training the
part of our brain that controls attention to be scattered, to jump from one
thing to the next, and to pursue little spritzes of dopamine all the time.
We can see this everywhere.
When I write, I try to confine it to five lines or less
before starting a new paragraph, and I try to keep my posts short (I’d like to
be publishing 5,000-10,000 word blogs) so people won’t give up on them.
This isn’t me saying it’s everyone else either – at one
point I had 224 unread books on my Kindle, was reading 62 of them, and that’s
not counting the books I had scattered around my house, office, and in my
backpack. I had dozens and dozens of unfinished movies, documentaries, and
television series spread out between Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, and I was
continually listening to 4 -6 different audiobooks and about a dozen different
podcasts. We all have an issue with focusing on one thing these days.
So, what’s the answer? (people who work with me in person are
laughing right now, they say this is my answer to everything).
At its heart, meditation is all about two things: training
our mind to stay focused (steady attention) and being aware of our experience
without judgment (mindfulness).
Here’s how to start training in concentration so that we can
work on being more mindful:
Let yourself feel your breath wherever it’s most noticeable. To make it
easier, take a short, sharp inhale through your nose, and see where you feel it
the most. Let your attention rest there.
On the in-breath, count one.
On the out-breath, count two.
On the in-breath, count three.
On the out-breath, count four.
And so on.
If you get distracted, just go back to one. Don’t examine the
distraction, don’t judge it, don’t assess – there’s no one there to hear these
discussions. Just go back to one.
If you make to ten, just go back to one. There’s no striving or
accomplishment here, just return.
Do this for 5 or 10 minutes, then take your time standing up and going back to your day. (Here’s a quick guide)
Over time, you’ll notice your attention becoming more and more steady as your brain starts to see that you value focus, that you want to cultivate concentration, and that you want to anchor your awareness in the present and what you are doing in it.
Invest in monotasking.
Be where you are.
Cultivate an awareness of the present because it’s the only
thing that exists.
We’ll start our deep dive into mindfulness in the next post. See you then.
At some point in my life, I got tired of being recognized as a loser, so instead of sabotaging situations that intimidated me (like getting thrown off the track team for smoking), I began to hide behind perfection.
Here’s how you do it:
State a goal. Let’s use starting this blog as an example.
Next, you do a whole, whole bunch of work on that goal. So,
I wrote a bunch of blog posts, edited them, and polished them up,
Lastly, you scrap all your work because “it just isn’t
You’re done! Super easy.
And here’s the magic: you get to create things and feel accomplished and look like you have these high standards, all while never subjecting yourself to any sort of potential criticism!
Unless you actually want to accomplish all those goals and achieve those stupid dreams you have floating around inside your head (my first podcast was all about this). If you actually want to make something of your life and do the things you feel called to do, then you have to address the lies and illusions that come with perfectionism.
Perfection Isn’t Real
This is the primary problem with perfection: it doesn’t exist. We touched on this in the last blog, but we’ll dig into it a little deeper here.
Let’s stick with the example of the blog.
What would a perfect blog post look like?
Would it draw in a bunch of readers?
Inspire people to change their lives?
Tell people how to do something with complete accuracy?
Catapult me to a book deal?
Now, let’s say these aren’t outlandish hopes. What would happen when I accomplished them?
What good is drawing in a bunch of readers if they will be
looking for another perfect blog post next week?
In what way would I want to inspire people to change their
Is there a one-size-fits-all life change that will help
What would I want to tell people how to do with perfect
What good is a book deal if I cannot escape the need for a
simple blog post to be perfect?
What does a perfect book look like?
This is where the idea of perfect falls apart –it leads to an endless chain of new things that need answering, and those lead to more things that need answering. It’s an infinite regress that prevents us from doing anything.
This matters because we can use it to avoid ever doing
anything. I wrote dozens and dozens of blogs posts before publishing them. The
fear of criticism, masked by an aspiration for perfection, could have kept me
writing letters to myself for years and years. It can do that with anything we
hope to do if we don’t address it.
Perfection isn’t Universal
If we ask 10 people what a perfect blog post for them would
be, we’ll get 10 different answers.
Oh, I would love a post about how to make lasagna in my Instant Pot.
Please write about how
to meditate when you have roommates.
Could you do a post
that breaks down how to change a tire? I got stranded on the loop for two hours
the other day.
How do I budget for
groceries as a waiter? My income varies from day to day.
Please write something
that really explains mindfulness! I am interested but can’t quite understand
And we’re already back in the weeds – there are hundreds of
potential answers to these questions, and we are still only addressing my
stupid little blog. I don’t even want to think about what would happen if we
expand this into all the things that concern real life.
There are so many topics and interests to explore, the idea
of a perfect post is idiotic. And, this doesn’t even address the fact that no
post on any of these particular topics would satisfy most people, much less
everybody, thus achieving perfection.
Oh, I don’t like fennel, I wish you hadn’t put that in the recipe, and I have a 6oz Instant Pot, not 8.
But my roommate
watches the news in the morning – you didn’t address how to not get caught up in the things
I hear on there.
My jack isn’t in my
trunk. Where is it?
Ummmmm, you didn’t
write this post for vegans. I’m a vegan. How do I shop?
I still don’t
understand what mindfulness is.
This goes on and on.
Perfection is not a real thing, so
it cannot be universal. None of us will ever do anything that makes everyone
Perfection isn’t Interesting
We don’t like perfect people. There’s no place for
connection or understanding or resonance with them. This is why we have flawed
characters in everything we read and watch, and we tend to shy away from the
people who pretend to be perfect. Superman needs his kryptonite to remain exciting,
and Dumbledore made a bunch mistakes –
we wouldn’t have much interest in them without this.
Our imperfections are where other people can see themselves in us, and this drives connection. I cannot think of any character, real or invented, who embodied perfection. The moments where people connect with Jesus are the ones where he is most human – defending a woman accused of adultery, crying and mourning over Lazarus, experiencing crippling doubt in the Garden of Gethsemane. This is true of all the significant figures in history and literature and film.
Perfection indicates the lack of need for growth and evolution, and this is really, really boring. When striving for perfection, we are striving to be above it all, to hover like a faceless god, observing life with a detached equanimity.
There is nothing interesting about that, but it sure is safe.
Perfection is Stagnation
And that sums up why we seek perfection: to be free of all the sad little things that could bring criticism or blame into our lives – to be safe. I wanted perfection in my blog posts so that no one would have anything mean to say.
Think about it: perfection would mean no criticism because there was no room for improvement. By refusing to publish anything that wasn’t perfect, I was shielding myself from criticism, and therefore never improving at all. I could sit there, happy and stupid, never growing, never changing, never doing anything.
Perfection is an old, boring idea, that doesn’t exist and
shields us from all the best (but messy) things in life like growth and
connection. It strangles new ideas in their crib and prevents real relationship
with other people. It’s a perfectly bad idea.
So perfection isn’t helpful.
What do we do about
it? How do we get away from it?
It’s actually easy to escape the trap of perfection, and it’s also hard and scary, but it’s also not scary at all, and we can start right now.
The key is doing things we are not perfect at, risking
failure, failing, being criticized, learning that none of that is so bad,
evolving, and then taking on the next challenge that scares us.
It’s the only way to grow, so the choice is between risking and growing or being safe and staying where we are. This is fine if we are perfectly happy with our life and cannot envision anything we might want to create or achieve. I assume that if you are reading a blog like this in the first place, you aren’t content to stay where you are.
So start today. Pick something that you’ve wanted to do that
entails moderate risk, and do it.
Fail to achieve perfection. Fail to do things exactly right, and keep doing that.
Eventually, you’ll be doing all those things you want to do, and you’ll be
surprised when you look back and realize how many successes have emerged from
Do this well, don’t seek failure, it will show up all on its
own. Diligence is the key: doing our best, learning at every step, failing and
getting right back up, always taking steps forward.
Diligence, not perfection.
Who do I most admire
in the world?
Have they been perfect
in their lives?
Where would they be if
they only did things that were guaranteed to be perfect?
Do I use perfection to
mask a fear of failure?
Do I believe
What am I not doing
that I want to be doing?
How can I start today?
We’ll look at
training in concentration in the next post. See you then.
Living intentionally is much simpler and more complex than we think. On the one hand, living intentionally seems easy. We just have to choose where we spend our time and money, how we treat people, what we put in our minds and bodies, and what we focus on in our thoughts. We all know we should do these things with purpose and intention, and a majority of us (especially if you are bothering to read a blog like this) intend to do it.
But then there’s the complicated part. Food has an emotional
component that shifts how we eat. Unexpected expenses arise and mess with our
budget, we don’t like how other people act, so we respond in kind. We get drunk
and other people don’t like then we act, and they respond to us in kind. We come
home tired at the end of the day and just want to watch reality TV or videos of
little kids running into things on YouTube instead of reading our book or going
for a walk.
It’s easier to sit and browse Reddit than it is to do the
dishes or have an intentional conversation with our partner. Meditation takes
time and energy, exercise takes time and energy, everything good for us takes time and energy.
This blog is not only about why living intentionally matters, but also about how to do this. The catch always seems to be what happens when we aren’t focused on what we are doing. Our mind wanders from time to time, we lose our focus, we say and do things that are less than intentional and ideal. This is just how life works, but we can always work to do better.
We will start with three things:
Proper expectations: Diligence versus Perfection
Staying Steady: Learning to Concentrate the Mind
Being Aware: Cultivating Mindfulness
Setting the Right
Intention: Diligence versus Expectations
This is important.
Perfection is a non-concept and it will derail us every time
we try to do anything if we allow it
to be present. Think about it.
What would a perfect day look like?
A day off of work, hanging out with our loved ones, going to
These are fun and maybe even ideal days, but are they perfect? Does absolutely nothing go
wrong? You don’t have to use the bathroom, you don’t get tired, the temperature
is exactly where you want it, your car doesn’t burn any gas? No bugs, no bad
smells, no annoying noises?
What does a perfect relationship look like? Do you never
fight, never disagree, always know what the other one wants and are ready to
provide it? Do they do that for you? Do you like the same food, same music,
same movies, and the same hobbies? Always want sex at the exact same time?
Does a perfect job pay you an infinite amount of money to do
nothing? Does a perfect home have a lot of rooms you have to clean or a few
rooms that limit your space? Does perfect weather mean warm and dry so we can
all sit outside or sunlight and rain so that plants can grow?
Where does snow fit in? What if you want to ski?
Perfection isn’t Real
These are absurd
questions because perfection is an absurd idea, but one that many of us are
stuck on. It is something we strive for. The recovery community aims for it
in the form of telling us we’ve fallen all the way down some fictitious
mountain if we slip up. We think we’ve blown our health if we eat a cheeseburger.
Our minds are wired to notice imperfections and things that aren’t working, so
they dominate our consciousness if we aren’t careful.
Everything works in a certain way in our world. Things like
time and energy are used up, things move toward states of disorder– glasses
fall off of tables and break, they never jump onto tables and put themselves
This is reality.
So, with this in
mind, set an intention to practice living intentionally with diligence, not perfection. Diligence
to notice where you make mistakes, and correct them. No beating yourself up. No
analyzing and debating things endlessly. No berating yourself for ruining some
Diligence, not perfection.
Why would I put these two things at the very beginning of a discussion about living intentionally?
It’s simple: we cannot be truly intentional until we can keep our mind in one place. If we can’t focus, we cannot sustain intentionality (my friend Meredith writes about thoughts and their effect on us all the time).
Meditation does a few things for us. It helps builds
concentration and mindfulness, and it can also serve as the first step into a more
intentional life. By having a practice that we do each day, for s specific
length of time, we begin to bring intentionality into our lives in a real way
from the very beginning.
So how do we do this?
We start with the breath, and nothing more:
Sit securely and with good posture. Let your
hands rest comfortably. Let your eyes close naturally.
What do you hear?
What is your body experiencing?
Be aware of these things without claiming them
of what is going on in your body.
Make note of sensations associated with your
body without claiming them as “yours”.
attention to the breath.
Breathe deeply into the body, letting the belly
expand and contract with each breath.
Consciously slow the breath, letting the
out-breath be a little longer than the in-breath.
What does it feel like to breathe?
attention to the breath in the nose.
Find the place in your nose that is slightly
cooler than the rest on the in-breath and slightly warmer than the rest on the
out-breath. Let this place anchor your awareness, and return here anytime you
realize you have become distracted.
Distractions are neutral, no matter what their
content may be. Do not judge, criticize or evaluate them, simply return to your
breath. Do not judge or criticize yourself for becoming distracted, simply
return to your breath.
Return to your breath as many times needed – becoming
distracted a thousand times simply means you have a thousand opportunities to
train your attention by returning to your breath.
Judge nothing, criticize nothing.
When you are ready to finish, move your fingers
and your toes before slowly opening your eyes, maintaining a downward gaze for
a moment. Take a final deep breath. Embrace everything that is around you.
Do this every day,
even if only for 5 or 10 minutes. You’ll find that it helps cultivate the
idea of the breath as a place of calm, a place where intention can thrive
because we aren’t always caught up in the rush of tumultuous thoughts and
emotions. It helps us see the difference between the situations we face and our
opinions on the situations we face. We can get underneath the stories our mind
tells us, and we start to learn that the stories themselves are what bring us
Once concentration is more of a norm for us, we can begin
investing in mindfulness, something we’ll spend the next few months digging
Why Bother Living Intentionally?
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” Marcus Aurelius
Our lives are short.
I know it seems like you’re not going to die. It seems like that
is something that only happens to everyone else. The thing is, we’re all going
to die, and it probably won’t seem like the logical conclusion of some huge
storyline. It will be mundane and unexpected.
I hear stories all the time that bring home how close death
is at every turn.
A young man goes to bar and has a few drinks. They find him
in the river the next day.
A woman runs to the store to grab brown sugar for a desert,
not thinking about the student that will run the red light and T-bone her car.
A man in his 30’s goes to sleep and never knows that his
house catches fire in the middle of the night.
A man goes out to confront his neighbor for banging on his
fence, a source of long-standing acrimony between them. He doesn’t see the gun.
A young grandfather goes to sleep, excited about his
grandson’s first birthday the next day, and never wakes up.
Take a moment and put yourself in the shoes of the people
you see who die every day on the news or that you know (or know by
association). It’s very rare that
someone knows they are walking into the moment of their death – this isn’t a
movie, there’s no somber or inspiring ambient music playing, the light doesn’t
start to shimmer. It’s all very ordinary until it’s over.
This is why living intentionally matters – this all ends, so we need to be wise in how we spend it.
We’ll spend the next few weeks and months exploring mindfulness as a deep, intentional practice with the goal of bringing it into our lives as a foundation for being more intentional in everything we do. This will include blogs like this one, mini-blogs on Instagram, podcast episodes, and the occasional video (here’s a post about many of the things we get wrong about mindfulness practice if you want to get a headstart).
I am also hard at work building courses, eBooks, and
journals for a subscription library, which I am hoping to launch in the next
few months. My goal is to create in-depth, specific, and concrete resources to
help people on this path of intentionality. I wanted a way people could have
access to everything for a single price, rather than having to buy something
new every time they found a new area of intentionality to address or I created
something. I’m excited about it.
I’m also excited about walking this out with everyone who is
reading this. If there is a specific topic I could cover, a resource I could
create, or something I’m missing, don’t hesitate to let me know. This is a
collaborative process – I do all of this because helping other people walk this
path helps me walk this path. It’s a good deal.
Mindfulness and other people has long been a topic of conversation. Even emperors offered thoughts on the topic:
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We are born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.
When we get right down to it, mindfulness is about trying to see the world as it really is, without the screen of our thoughts and emotions and prejudices and conditioned understandings. I am not sure how possible this is, but we can at least try to see and accept things as they are. Other people are one of the biggest challenges in this regard.
Mindfulness and Other People
If I had to boil down most of what I see people identify as the main problem in their life, it would be other people.
My husband doesn’t listen to me.
My wife only thinks about herself.
My boyfriend won’t grow up.
My girlfriend doesn’t understand that the world doesn’t revolve around her.
My kids won’t do what I tell them to do.
My boss is unreasonable.
That cop was on a power trip.
My dad doesn’t know how to let things go.
My roommate doesn’t know how to do the dishes.
Other drivers suck.
Everyone who didn’t vote the way I voted is a moron.
The poor only want free stuff.
The rich are corrupt and use their wealth to keep other people down.
Our president is a moron.
Our last president was a moron.
Every president we’ve ever had was a moron.
That other country’s president is a moron.
Everyone except me is a moron.
It goes on and on.
There is a reason Zen masters retreat to the mountains and Sadhus retreat to caves and monks retreat to monasteries where no one is allowed to talk. It seems like you can’t find enlightenment with other people around.
Of all the things we have to learn to be at peace with in life, other people pose the most serious difficulty.
They don’t listen, they complain, they get in the way of what we are working on. They are selfish and stupid and arrogant and just have to live their lives near us living ours.
There is a good chance the sorry bastards would even have the nerve to say these exact same things about us.
While most of this essay will be about trying to find ways to work with other people, let’s get one thing out of the way at the very beginning: not everyone has the same degree of self-awareness and insight and mindfulness in how they go about their lives. This is an inescapable fact. The idea that everyone approaches life with the same amount of skillfulness and knowledge is nonsense. Some people are healthier than others, some people have a better sense of things than everyone else.
There is no way around the fact that many people out there don’t really pay attention to the things they do, don’t take the time to be introspective and see where they might improve. There are many people who honestly do not care how their actions might affect others. Mindfulness in how we live is not somehting that everyone cares about.
This is all true.
The mistake we make is in thinking we are one of the high functioning elite. Especially if we think we are in this rarefied class in every situation. This kind of thinking points toward a sort of narcissism or solipsism. No one is always right.
It might be useful to ask ourselves if we are really as mindful and considerate and enlightened as we think we are. Even if I am one of the more self-aware and honest people in the world (which I’m not), I will still fail to be consistent 100% of the time. I will still make mistakes and behave poorly. Often on a daily basis.
I am lucky when I can go a few minutes without doing something foolish or unskillful.
I, of course, have a reason for this, and it’s never me. My reasons for being a turd are good and valid.
Mindfulness and Motives
We all like to think that we have a reason for doing what we do. Our decisions (for the most part), make sense to us. We can trace our way back to the precipitating cause and follow a chain of events from there to where we are. It all follows a logic.
The thing is, this is true for other people as well. People are not selfish and difficult without cause, and in their mind, they are not being selfish and difficult. They are standing up for themselves or drawing boundaries or simply doing what they do. It makes sense to them. A central aspect of living with mindfulness is recognizing the differnece between the situations we find ourselevs in and our stories about those situations.
And this is the crux of the problem we are dealing with here: everyone is doing the best they can with what they have. What they do makes sense to them. Nobody thinks they are really the villain.
Lex Luthor thinks he is saving the planet from an overpowered alien.
Magneto is fighting for an oppressed minority.
Agent Smith is fighting to bring balance and order to the Matrix.
Every good villain thinks they are the hero.
This is what makes them believable. We inherently mistrust a villain who is evil for the sake of evil, but we jump to the conclusion that the people around us are being jerks just to be jerks and ruin our life. It doesn’t even make sense.
They are living their lives, same as us. They may be selfish and stupid and self-absorbed and all those things we like to tell ourselves we are not, but they are, for the most part, oblivious rather than malicious. Sure, there are malicious people in the world, but they rarely see their malice as malice – they believe it to be justified.
Just. Like. Us.
When someone is malicious, they are malicious because they are suffering, this is how life works. I do not know that I ever see a situation where malice is present where suffering is not. They go hand in hand. This changes the nature of our relationship to others and their behavior. It takes it from the realm of resistance and opposition to that of compassion. Not without boundaries, but compassion for their suffering.
I did a whole podcast on this very topic. Check it out here.
There is tremendous power in trying to understand just why someone behaves the way they do. It takes us out of the me-versus-them mindset that causes us so much suffering (which we then vent on others in unhealthy ways).
Babies scream and cry and lash out when they are in pain, many adults never find a more constructive way to meet their needs. Complainers often feel like they have no control and seek to alter things through complaining. People who create drama may feel insecure so they cause trouble between you and other people so that the two of you can team up. Laziness is often depression related, but it can also be an expression of powerlessness or something they saw modeled growing up. Cruel and manipulative people are seeking to get their needs met in very unhealthy and unskillful ways. Those who tend toward self-absorption and a lack of insight were often not raised to have these things and, due to the very nature of self-absorption and no insight, probably don’t even know they are self-absorbed and lacking insight.
The Illusion of Control
When it comes down to it, we are talking about control. We want to control other people, we need them to do what we want them to do. I often ask people to make a list of the things they always have control over in life. They tend to list the same things.
You’ll notice, even though none of the things on this list are under our control, other people do not appear on it. Even when we are listing things we think we can control (and getting it wrong) we don’t even consider putting other people on the list.
Yet we let so much of our happiness rest on controlling them.
We constantly outsource our emotional wellbeing to this thing we know we cannot control. We put our peace and contentment in the hands of something that is completely out of our control, and then wonder why we are anxious.
There are so many ways that we give others control.
We take offense to what others say, think, or believe.
We believe this offense means something.
We wish others would do something different.
We seek to manipulate or coerce others into doing what we want.
We think our unhappiness rests on what they do or do not do.
We think our happiness rests on what they do or do not do.
We think anything going on inside of us actually has something to do with them.
The fun part is that they are probably thinking the same things about us.
We are stuck in this web of interactions where everyone is blaming everyone else for how they feel, and then wondering why nothing is getting better.
This isn’t helpful.
There’s an easy exercise to expose and deal with this:
Today, whenever something related to another person makes you unhappy, ask yourself what it might be like if you took responsibility for your own emotional state.
There is the other person and their actions, and then there is your reaction.
You only have control over one of these things.
It isn’t them.
So many of our problems and difficulties stem, not from other people, but from our desire to control them.
The same way we deal with anything mindfully: by being aware of the difference between the situation, and our judgment or assessment of the situation.
You want to see a certain movie, they want to see a different one.
Is it really a matter of them being unreasonable and selfish, or simply wanting to see a different movie? Is this really a thing, or just someone wanting something different from you? Is it all that important that you get to see your movie? Strip away words like fair – these are just concepts. They muddy situations like this.
This is a really good opportunity to explore the emotions and thoughts you have related to the situation rather than judging their behavior.
Are you tying this to previous behavior you have seen from them, so it is about more than this one movie (They are always selfish!)?
Is this really about feeling like you never get your way?
Are you just unable to accept not getting your way?
Do you experience anxiety when you aren’t in control?
What does anxiety drive you to do?
None of these things are necessarily good or bad. Neither is seeing one movie or another, they are just movies. A few hours out of your life. You will waste 10 times that many hours playing on your phone in the coming week.
Someone wanting to see what they want to see is neutral, and no different than you wanting to see what you want to see.
There is no morality or ethics here, it’s just two people wanting what they want.
So, take a moment, address what is happening inside of you, and accept that it is neutral. Accept that your partner wanting what they want is neutral.
Let yourself sit with these thoughts and feelings, without judgment, without reaction. Observe them, allowing them to be exactly as they are.
But what do we do about the truly toxic people in our world?
We’ve talked about the suffering people and all the words that go along with them.
And it goes on and on and on.
What do you do about people like this when they continually bring true harm into your life and the lives of those you love? Is this blog post advocating just accepting abuse and mistreatment?
There are times we have to address peoples’ behavior, we just have to do this without anger, and with compassion and an awareness of the limits of our control in the situation. These things will prevent it from creating suffering for us.
So how do we do this?
Confront them, kindly and with compassion. Without hurt or anger. Tell them how their behavior affects you. If this is a person who cares and deserves to be in your life, this should at least be able to be a conversation. If it cannot, you have to decide if they are someone that gets to keep a spot in your life. If they are, accept these things about them and move on. If they are a part of your work environment, then it may be time to look for a new job.
Draw boundaries. Not everyone has access to all parts of our life. This doesn’t change because they are family.
No matter what, keep a focus on the fact that you are choosing to have these people in your life. Not as a way of blaming yourself or assigning responsibility, but because there is a great deal of power in acknowledging our ability to choose.
Ready to set some boundaries? Start here.
A lot of this depends on who they are and what role they play in our life.
If they are an acquaintance or casual friend, you can simply choose if you want them around or not. No matter what anyone says, we are allowed to break up with our friends.
If the person carries a little more weight in your life (a spouse or family member) or you don’t have a lot of choice about them being there (a boss or co-worker), things are a little more complicated.
We have to choose our reaction to their behavior and decide how much is too much – when does their negative behavior outweigh the level of requirement they have in our lives? When they exceed this, we may need to step away.
No one gets a free pass to stay in our life. Who we spend our time with determines who we are. Who we are is all we have.
When it all comes down, I really like people.
People are cool, people do cool things.
I think the cool things outweigh the uncool things by a very wide margin.
I also really trust people.
As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, for every person who has done something shady to me, thousands and thousands have not. I constantly give people the opportunity to screw me over, and they don’t.
People tend to show up when they are supposed to show up and do the things they are supposed to do to fit into society and be a decent human. We all know people who don’t do these things, but we tend to remember them because they are the exception. We forget just how many people we see every day who take care of their shit.
People are generally trustworthy.
I also think you can trust toxic people more than you can trust anyone else.
They are very consistent in their behavior and their actions are predictable.
If you know someone always thinks the other person is wrong in a disagreement, you can trust them to do the same with you when you disagree.
If you know someone starts trouble to make themselves feel better, you can trust them to do just that if you tell them about an issue you are having with someone else.
If you know someone is lazy, you trust them to be lazy.
If you know someone has no insight, you can trust they will behave as they have always behaved.
It is absurd to have this hope that someone is suddenly going to change and then get mad when they don’t. Adjust your expectations to fit what you know of them, and make your decision based on that rather than some hopeful nonsense.
If you know you can trust someone to respond selfishly, don’t share something personal with them and expect yourself to be happy or satisfied with the results.
If you know you can trust someone to blame others when things go wrong, don’t work with them on something unless you are ready to shoulder the blame.
Complainers will complain.
Blamers will blame.
Manipulators will manipulate.
Why are we surprised by this?
So, yes, you can trust people. You can trust them to act according to the nature they have cultivated. Work from this understanding and you will rarely get betrayed or be harmed. Don’t get mad at them, remember that they are doing the best they can with what they have. Cultivate compassion in response. Love them and be kind. But have boundaries.
Besides, remember that their selfishness and difficulty harms them more than it does anyone else. They pay the price for their behavior, it is not our job to bring consequences or play the role of karmic enforcer. Being treated poorly is an opportunity to offer compassion if we can step outside our own wants and desires and sheer annoyance for a second.
The most important thing in all of this is understanding that you are really in trouble if your emotional wellbeing is in the hands of someone else. I don’t care who the other person is. I don’t care how much they love you, how much you love them or how good their intentions toward you may be. You cannot outsource the regulation of your internal state without creating anxiety because people will let you down whether they man to or not.
In seeing things as they are, simply accept that you are going to encounter all sorts of difficult people today, and every day for the rest of your life. There is no escaping this. Some will be strangers, some will be family, some will be the people closest to you. Try to stay in your own business and offer compassion instead of judgment. Don’t let someone else’s selfishness or unhappiness push you into your own selfishness or unhappiness. They are the way they are for a reason.
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Mindfulness is Natural Because We Are Nature
Mindfulness and nature are a natural pairing. I’ve written about this alot.
At its core, there is nothing more natural than being mindful – engagement with reality without the screen of admonitions and opinions from our thoughts is our natural state.
There is also something inherently calming about getting out into the world and realizing that there are things far beyond us that will continue no matter what happens to us.
I like to meditate on the fact that there are things that were here long before me and will be here long after me. I like that there are stars out there burning and planets out there spinning that never have and never will care about me at all. We are not as important as we like to think we are. There is a stability to the world and the universe whether we see it or not. A lot of the doomsday wailing and gnashing of teeth we hear so much of these days begins to seem silly when we consider things on a larger scale.
These tragedies and catastrophes are only such when we think we are the center of things or that we are needed for everything to work as it “should”. Nature always finds a way to survive and overcome, and I am not sure it cares if we are there to witness it or not. Nature is everywhere, all the time. It finds a way to survive and thrive no matter what is going on. The weeds in the sidewalk and the puddles on the ground are nature. Nature is with us everywhere we go because, no matter how technological and advanced we become as a species, we are nature.
This makes me happy.
These things being more significant than us and not caring about us are only a problem if we think we are above or separate from nature. One of the most significant sources of unhappiness and struggle for us as humans is the notion that we are above or apart from nature in the first place. Religion, the ego, and technology are the primary culprits in making us feel that we are somehow above or separate from the universe, though I am sure many things contribute to this idea.
Our PlayStations and iPhones and shoes and cars and air conditioning and pizza delivery all make it very easy for us to forget we are biological creatures, with actual biological needs.
We forget that a vast amount of human history was spent in very different conditions than what we live in now. Our technological and cultural evolution is outstripping our biological evolution (I for real don’t care how you want to define evolution here, we can just say that the world is moving way too fast if that is easier) and an epidemic of depression, anxiety, and alienation is the result.
Mindfulness and What We Can Learn from Nature
I grew up in the mountains, and I grew up outside. I think I learned from nature my whole life, apart from the years where drugs and alcohol and other assorted messes drug me into a different, less natural and less healthy, world.
One of the best times in the mountains is the spring when the snow is melting, and everything is muddy and rocky and soggy. There is a smell of dampness in the air, and you can see where trees rotted and fell over in the winter. A lot of things are dead, but this won’t last. It won’t be long before there is a layer of green everywhere, and flowers start to bloom, and new life takes root.
Because of this time, the idea of birth and death and rot and regeneration as being two sides of the same coin are lodged pretty firmly in my mind. The cycle of birth and death are intricately connected. They roll on and on and on, one leading to the other. It’s been this way for a very long time and will be this way for even longer. Way before us, way after us. Once again – much, much bigger than us.
We can see this in our lives as everything that ends is the beginning of something else.
Things that have reached the end of their time pass away if we let them, and something new moves in to take their place. We exist within and because of this cycle of birth and death, rot, and regeneration. It’s only a problem if we are trying to hang on to things that are cycling out, things whose time have passed.
Mindfulness of the Fact That We Will All Die Someday
One day it will be our turn. Keeping this in mind changes the way we see everything.
Nature stays rooted in much larger cycles than we can understand. We get caught up in a lot of stuff in life, and much of it can seem overwhelming and terrifying and eternal.
Issues with friends or partners, things at work, the news, our leaders, other countries. Don’t get me wrong, these are problematic, and they affect our lives, but I am not sure they are as big a deal as our minds make them out to be.
I like to think of the places I’ve been that are the farthest away from other people when these kinds of fundamental life issues arise. Alpine lakes, groves deep in the mountains, wind-driven plains out in the middle of nowhere. These places are as they are, and they have been this way for longer than any of us have been around. They change, but almost imperceptibly to us. Very little affects them in any real way.
These places help ground me, to root me in something bigger than myself and my problems.
I like the fact that they will be here long after me. I love that they will outlive Twitter and Facebook and job promotions and that thing someone said about me that one time.
A lot of the things we worry about are not.
Mindfulness is Natural, Animals Embody This
Animals are the embodiment of mindfulness. I like how animals just do what they do.
Dogs eat the same food every single day, and they are just happy to have it. Wolves kill baby deer, and ants eat butterflies. There’s no right or wrong to it, it’s just what they do.
I also like that, as humans, we do think about right and wrong and, for the most part, try to do the right thing.
No matter what the cynics and doomsayers proclaim, the vast, vast majority of people you meet do enough of the right thing that they don’t rob or kill you.
The problem with all of this is that our mind likes to generalize, and turns all sorts of things that are not matters of right and wrong into matters of right and wrong.
A lot more is neutral than we like to think.
The rain is just rain, seasons change and sometimes we are hungrier than we would like to be. It’s part of life. Complaining and focusing on how we wish things were does not help anything.
Both a mindful life and a life in nature are a constant reminder that much of what we center in on and sincerely believe are merely human constructions. There are a lot of things we put a lot of stock in that don’t exist anywhere outside of human social construction.
Think of things like fairness, beauty, niceness, charisma, manners, equality, justice, postmodernism, celebrity. These are not real in any sense apart from a human understanding of them. I am not saying they are not good things, or that they are good things, only that they are the result of human construction and nothing more.
I like to ask myself if something would keep a bear from eating me to decide if it is real or not.
Violence or speed or being better at hiding than the bear is at finding would save me, but concepts would not. Telling the bear that it is unfair to eat me because we are unequal in our ability to fight will get me eaten. Brad Pitt telling the bear not to eat him because he is too handsome and too famous to die will get him eaten. These are just concepts. They don’t mean anything beyond human agreement.
We are humans, living in a complex human world and human society, so these things are necessary, but we often get them confused as things that are inherently existent in the world when they are not.
This makes us think they are going to be more present than they are, or that they are inherently good things. Maybe some of them are, others maybe are not, but they are created by us, for us.
Mindfulness and Balance with Our Nature
We spent a great deal of our history as a species living in tribal groups and clans, but we do not have this anymore. Most of us spend our evenings in small boxes with our immediate families, if we are fortunate enough to have that. Many of us live alone, or with people we don’t really know. We spend our days surrounded by strangers in distinctly non-natural environments.
In the past, we had a much better chance of seeing how the work we did with our bodies actually fed and sustained our bodies. The work we do now has very little to do with actually maintaining our lives, it is rare to have a direct correlation between the hours you trade and what you receive in return. Everything goes through a layer or two of symbolic representation before translating into anything that helps keep us alive. In my job, every hour that I sit with someone brings X amount of dollars to my bank account, which then can be translated into cash or spent with a debit card. This is not a direct exchange for the things that keep my family and me alive. It is an exchange in which I receive a credit I can trade in for those things. I am always at least one step away from how my work feeds my people and me.
We spend very little or no time outside unless you count walking to our cars. We rarely see the stars. We are almost never in danger. Our food is waiting for us in the supermarket or the drive-thru, and it is often hard to actually even call it food. I am not onboard with the societal notions of beauty driving people to be unhealthily skinny or insanely defined and sculpted, but to say that we can eat whatever we want and still have our bodies operate as they were meant to operate is pure nonsense. We even apply fabricated ideas and ideologies to something as simple and basic as what we put into our bodies as fuel.
Our bodies are meant to move and work, but if we work our bodies at all, it is often in a building specifically designed for working our bodies. We earn symbolic representations that we exchange for being allowed into a building where there are manmade machines that simulate the motions and exertions of working as our ancestors did every day.
All this is to say that we are very, very far removed from nature. We have created layer upon layer of separation, some physical, others mental, and each layer alienates us from ourselves because we are nature. When we separate ourselves from the natural world and create structures to bypass and circumvent it, we are bypassing and circumventing ourselves. This can only lead to suffering.
Mindfulness and Modernity
This is not to say that the modern world is bad or that society is an adverse development. I am writing this in a house on a computer connected to the internet so that I can post it on my website later while listening to Brain.fm on my Bluetooth headphones. I’m not exactly an anarcho-primitivist. I am only saying that we have to remember that none of our progress and technological achievement can alter our essential and inherent needs and desires, and much of how we live now is difficult for us.
This stands whether you think we evolved or were created or some combination of the two. Does anyone really think we evolved or were designed to sit in front of a computer screen all day or to sit in a car for hours at a time? To eat microwave meals and Starburst and drink Kool-Aid? To spend 90% of our time indoors?
Of course we weren’t.
The healthiest (all-around healthy, not just physically) people I know push back against this creeping anti-nature. They ride bikes outside and pay attention to what they eat. They work on projects because they want to and remember that their jobs are there to provide a means to live, not as the reason they live. They still go out and do things and really love their partners and haven’t given up on life yet.