Write every day, that's what I hear, so I'll give it a shot for a few days.
Write every day, that's what I hear, so I'll give it a shot for a few days.
Turning the corner of one of the thousands of little streets in the tunnelling Medina of old marrakesh, I am assaulted by scents of cumin, fresh paprika, leather. I step out of the way of a donkey cart, the driver slapping and yelling at the animal to continue. The giant wooden wheels of the cart hop across the uneven surface, uncomfortably close to my foot. The criss-cross roofing above drapes the street in a lace of shadows, and I can't help but pull out my camera for a picture. A tall man in a orange robe and white cap immediately starts yelling at me and runs in my direction, his arms waving and pointing and big beard swaying slightly from side to side. No words are understood between us, but the idea is relayed. Photos were not welcome; I still got a couple.
Going to Morocco, or nearly any trip to a foreign land presents change. The cliche thought appears - people really do live differently than me. This is change like the ocean is water. A vast, unmovable, horizon swallowing type of presence. Sprouted in every sight, sound, scent, touch, and taste; delivered in a format nearly every human can understand. This change grows and turns it's vines around your legs and sets you to straight to stand and face it. But change is not always so brash and visible. Yet it always here, moving and swirling in every part of our lives, inseparable parts of the same machine. To say we do not exist without change is to say that a wooden bowl does not exist without a tree or heat without the sun. We are the product of change, made up of it from start to end.
Yet the modern world has built walls around change. Portraying it as something to avoid, to isolate in hopes of presenting a world unshakable and secure. Mammoth metal buildings with street signs and intricate sewer systems. The driving force of the 21st century. But it is worth reminding, in fact it is a healthy reminder, that this is a facade. We are nothing more than a recyclable cluster of cells on a rock spinning around billions of other rocks and so on beyond our imagination. This is the only constant we have, the only place to call home. But look around and see the pain we cause ourselves by holding on to things long swept away by change. Chasing after footprints taken back by the sea. In our natural tendencies to learn and not repeat mistakes we dig into what has happened to shape what is to come. But change waits for no thought, leading us to slowly and inevitably lose this bigger perspective in the mundane daily frustrations and fixations. For me, it's not about thinking about how I am damn impermanent and shooting pitiful looks all around. We all take time to sit down and relax in one way or another, sometimes when I do this, I shake off the weight of being human and try and let what is underneath appear. Let change be.
Out the window, beyond my faint imposed reflection a grey sky looms above a mossy green chapel. An extensive graveyard of stones ranging from white to black headstones litters the field making lines like that of newly planted trees. The fence of the yard boarders a community garden, and I can’t help but see the full cycle of life on display. Stockton, UK, where the city’s main attraction - so far as I can see it - is a hat museum which rises above the red brick buildings and same-sky-grey streets below. Most buildings here are brick, and most shops are closed. It’s Tuesday at 1pm. This is not the part of the UK you see on a sightseeing tour, it’s not a part of the UK you see unless you have a reason to be there. Today I did, making a 5 hour trip from Cambridge to meet with a potential school for my study. With MyCognition, a software company in London, I’ve helped develop a cognitive training game that I hope will improve students cognitive and more novel, their maths skills. I was told that 90% of the students at the school come from homes in the bottom 10% of income and SES status. I’ll never know that feeling. In a sense my trip embodies the other side of the coin; a graduate student from Cambridge doing thesis work funded by a private company in London.
When I applied to graduate schools, I only sent in applications to university’s that had research labs concentrating in neuroscience in education. Growing up I had experienced that one size does not fit all in the classroom, and my interested brain led to being an interested kid. Paired with my wonder of the brain, I was naturally led to the convergence of educational reform with scientific backing as a potential career. Quickly, however, I learned that science may provide sparks for change, but politicians carry the kindling, and the buckets of water. I am not a politician, it’s not in my blood. In seeing this, I axed by future self, ashed in the reality check. I do, however, have a chance to bring that optimistic benefit in my PhD, an application of knowledge for something beyond the pursuit of knowledge. Self-rightenousness aside, I hope for my own sanity, for my PhD, and most of all for the students, that this software will improve their cognitive and maths skills. But, as is the leading rule in the handbook of the universe, entropy continues. Most research studies across the sciences fail. Discoveries come at the hand of a errand mistake; a open window led to penicillin, random ‘background noise’ started the trail to the big bang, and gunpowder was discovered while Chinese alchemists were searching for the elixir for eternal life. Thus, it is not insignificant that we consider our intentions when we set out to complete a goal. Being vigilant allows serendipity to take place, for the mysterious to guide us, for change to find our hand in the darkness.
But how do we – 20 something masters of none – find a job that holds our attention? Filtering answers by pay rate, perceived status or sense of obligation to a parent or loved one is sure to treat the symptoms of unease, but leave the cause to fester. I don’t have the answer, but I know one piece of the puzzle is simple motivation. Go at something long enough and find a crack to fit in, find a niche to sink into. If you are lucky enough to have a job you are authentically excited by then you are motivated by the love it and not the fear of being poor, disappointment, and so on. I can’t be a testimonial as I am leaving academia and a lifelong pursuit of educational institutions to end up, well, I cannot say. I do know that making that decision was a relief. Possibility in the mists of the unknown take shape and color, feeding my imagination and wonder. I know beyond my rose-colored glasses that between now and my deathbed, I’ll do things I don’t want to do, work on projects not central to my essential self, and find frustrations in my work. But beneath, driving me, is the pursuit of what I want to pursue. To be yourself is fucking hard, it takes saying yes to things you know will be difficult and no to things of comfort and assurance over and over again. But to find that dream job, a dream must be tested, broken, and built from what remains.
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.
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.
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.