Life With Toast

Half-assed, revisited

Dreary eyed and eyeing his watch, one of the students I supervised last year could have passed as the latest patient in Dr. Frankenstein's Cambridge clinic. What the hell happened, I asked. "Well I had a project due today which I didn't start until last night. No idea why. Seemed like whenever I wanted to start it, I just did two or three other things at the same time." I sent the poor boy-gentleman home. He was wasting time pretending to have the capacity to learn something in that sleep'en state. At the same time, I empathised with him.

Over a year ago, on a previous blog, I wrote about half-assing. Today I will write about it again. At that time I was more focused on getting work done on my PhD than anything else. Now, in my final year of the program, I'm taking things steady, slower than before. I'm focusing on striking balance in my life, finding experiences that are meaningful while still producing high quality work. I want to do this both for my own sanity, and as an experiment for my age group in general. I have a sense that given the immensity of choices and possibilities my generation is presented with, we are failing to engage. Engage in something we find that strikes us or gives us meaning in all the cliché ways. Instead, we rely upon the crutch of the quick and bright, the unsustainable. The unavoidable draw of instant-satisfaction brand of technology that surrounds us. Apps and phones and laptops and watches that talk to us. 50 years ago none of that existed. 10 years it was growing. Now it is inevitable. At it's worst, these instant experiences suck the air out of meaningful experience. With little difficulty, we can choose to never be in a present state of mind. At the bus stop, walking the streets, in our homes, in our minds we compulsively check and move on. Click, scroll, close, click, scroll, close. It's only natural to find ourselves here. Technology developers and advertisers are experts at hitting the soft spots of the brain. Similar to the high salt/fat foods we become addicted to, technology prays on our ability to consume quick bits of information in beautiful but unrealistic packages. There were no 4g signals in the caves of our ancestors, the forest does not have a livefeed.

But we can't blame companies and culture entirely, we take the blame too, we decide to fall into these habits and perpetuate them.

 

I'm always going to have a smart phone. I'll always have a laptop and wi-fi connection. I'm not preaching a wire-free world in any way. Instead, it's balance that I will get up on my soapbox about. We have time for balance. Those few minutes in the subway, the car or bus ride to work. The few minutes when you first get home. The same time slots we may turn to our phones or computers, there are other things. Why should you care? To me, cell time and internet time is often half-assed: a time where we aren't sure what to do, where a slight unease comes over us and we cover ourselves in the blanket of apps and videos. Moreover, millions of people feel this way at work, so why continue it afterwards? Free time for Americans is becoming a novelty, so why not be efficient with it? 

The beauty of 'full'-assing is it doesn't take any external circumstance. No need for an idyllic scene or life shifting event. It's a redirection of attention, and it's not environmentally dependent. Awareness of what is directly around you, and not of what future worries or past anxieties. This lends itself to a form of meditation:

"Simply sit down, close your eyes, and listen to all sounds that may be going on – without trying to name or identify them. Listen as you would listen to music. If you find that verbal thinking will not drop away, don’t attempt to stop it by force of will-power. Just keep your tongue relaxed, floating easily in the lower jaw, and listen to your thoughts as if they were birds chattering outside – mere noise in the skull – and they will eventually subside of themselves, as a turbulent and muddy pool will become calm and clear if left alone.

Also, become aware of breathing and allow your lungs to work in whatever rhythm seems congenial to them. And for a while just sit listening and feeling breath. But, if possible, don’t call it that. Simply experience the non-verbal happening. 

- From Alan Watts "The Way of Liberation"

Cooking, walking, listening, talking, reading, even thinking and consuming motion video on a screen can be done in this way. It's not about the act but the intention you take with it. Are you brining your concerns and worries? All the ego? Do you need it right now? Right here? At times, yes, but most of the time? Of course not. It may be easy to understand this logically as we don't want to be unhappy, needlessly carrying our life's burden with us to do our laundry and order take out. But how aware are we of such thought processes and autonomic habits? I do it, it's only natural in the world we reside in. That only makes our duty to ourselves more important. To cherish the moments when we can. When it's a great meal, when it's a sad and gloomy day, when it's recovering from an injury, to full-ass more and compulsively half-ass less. 

Time dance

 

This blog will be the outlet for tuning my writing ability, spreading my thoughts, ideas, and images. To write about life's twists and turns through the only way I know; my own experiences. 

Our hands jet out and reach for the rotating leather ball. The errant pass ends with screams of pain. The older man is writhing  side-to-side in pain & holding his knee. His son watches. I’m thrust back into the stagnant world of thought. I wipe the sweat from my forehead and help the slightly past middle-aged man to the lobby. “Probably his ACL” Larry tells me, a man of similar age. He gives a look of empathic pain, then drops it: “but really, he was going too hard, just really into it, you know?” I do, I know that feeling well. There are few things I enjoy more. It’s how I first learned to lose my thoughts, and do my best to return to the state of mind often. We stopped playing after the injury. Looking at my watch I realized the hour and half was gone. As typical in such experiences, sense of time was largely irrelevant. 

There are many names for type of experience. Athletes call it being in the zone, meditators and eastern practitioners call it mindfulness, western researchers refer to the cognitive state of optimal experience, some just say flow. What fascinates me about flow is the wide swathe of activities people experience it through. In his seminal book, ‘Flow’ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi interviews rock climbers, ballet dancers, drivers, janitors, painters, poets, and teachers who all relate to a very similar story. They dance their way out of time's ever present grip. Thought cannot be fed here. Leaving in its wake, a natural state, a byproduct of trust and action. More often than not, as Cziksz's research has shown, the result is a boost in productivity, creativity, happiness.  It seems tremendously important to find out as much as we can about flow. Explore as much as we can to reveal how we may return to incorporating flow into our lives. I say return because this process is clearly a biological past time. Nearly all ways to enter flow require some basic human skills: coordination of hands and body parts, attentional focus, quick and creative action.  Moreover, it would not surprise me to see flow as a central spark to many of the lengthy processes our species has developed to utilize the tools and skills critical to our success.

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As I enter a phase of my life where career ideas come in and out of mind, it has become clear that my motivation is largely related to flow. That is, I hope to find work that readily places me into flow. To use different words, be a better thinker and creator, I must think less. Moreover, I want my work to bring other people into flow. I see now that my motivation to do academic research in education and neuroscience was a Polly Anna belief that educational reform could bring about more engage and flow-inducing classrooms.

 

But as I come to a understanding and sense of peace with leaving purely academic work after my PhD, it seems clear ever that flow will be central to whatever I do. There is certain romanticism I carry through many aspects of my life, a sense that good work and good relationships can be based in love, and not the ever-present fear sunk into the modern-man's skull. Many of the problems I’ve had, and I know many others also suffer from, can be traced to addictions of thought. Obsessions of past events or anxiety about future things yet to come. If you find yourself on a vertical rock wall 200 feet above the ground, let me know if you’re still thinking about that upcoming bill you have to pay or worried about that stupid thing you said to a colleague. Simply, there is no space for unhappiness when you completely present. This is an idea will be referring back to, but I’ve found it impossible to be anxious when I’m 'in the zone'.

 

Let's walk through another analogy. Think of a song you enjoy, imagine the words, the rhythm, and noises. Now let’s imagine worry and distraught exists in silence. When the music is playing, there there is no room for silence. The attentional state of flow is similar. Time bends and creativity pours, for you are not monitoring every action. Just as the music doesn't stop to reflect on it's harmony, flow allows us to just act on what we know and feel in that moment. Whether this occurs during a meditation retreat or a guitar solo in empty garage, the effect will be similar. Of course, this cannot be perpetuated continually, and that is not the point. Entering Flow is the refresh button we could use more of, a way to pause the problems and thoughts that will always be around. Flow is not about running away from what is wrong, but allowing yourself to act without the extra weight we may or may not realize we've picked up along the way.