Ordinary laziness

From the @AlanWattsDaily Twitter stream:

I’m torn between the desire to get big things done and make a dent in the universe and the inclination to chill out a lot more often, to just play and ponder.

Balance, right? The down times, the lazing about, can give fresh energy to the dent-making endeavors.

Most of us, though, lean hard away from, or at least try to appear to lean away from, the “pleasant mellowness” of ordinary laziness. Got to look busy, you know.

Tim Kreider’s manifesto on the merits of idleness

Tim Ferriss is featuring an audiobook version of Tim Kreider’s book, We Learn Nothing, on his podcast. He posted a sample of the audiobook with a free chapter, Lazy: A Manifesto.

The sample chapter is a terrific essay on the crazy obsession our culture has with being “busy”. When you ask someone how they’re doing, “Busy” is a common and depressingly acceptable, even admirable, response.

Go listen to that free chapter. It’s so good. And Kreider will have you questioning your own addiction to at least appearing to be busy.

From the book:

“Yes, I know we’re all very busy, but what, exactly, is getting done? Are all those people running late for meetings and yelling on their cellphones stopping the spread of malaria or developing feasible alternatives to fossil fuels or making anything beautiful?

This busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness: obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are *so busy*, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. All this noise and rush and stress seem contrived to drown out or cover up some fear at the center of our lives.”

And this:

“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence, or a vice: it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

There is not enough idleness in my life. And most of my busyness is probably not accomplishing much in the big scheme of a 13-billion-year-old universe.

“I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.” –Tim Kreider

Do less, better. That should be my mantra. What does matter? What will count for something worthwhile when I look back on it? What makes for a really good day? Focus on the quality of those things that will send me to bed each night with the satisfaction, not of having been busy, but of having spent my time wisely and joyfully.

David Malham on dying: “Let’s not save our affection”

Yesterday there was an essay on the New York Times opinion page by a retired grief therapist, David Malham, who has been diagnosed with A.L.S. and is facing his imminent death.

It’s a thoughtful and light-hearted reflection by someone well acquainted with the grief of others. It’s a worthwhile read in whole. He highlights the absurdity of coming to grips with your own mortality:

But it’s not that we forget that we will die; it’s that we work hard to not remember it. Yes, we accept the plural “we will die,” but it’s the particular, the “I” that we have trouble with. It’s easier to accept “we” because the “I” believes it can hide when the others in the “we” are taken. When it comes to the particular, we are, each of us, facing death new and uncomprehending. 

Woody Allen wryly said: “I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

But it’s coming for each of us. My life is terminal. Yours is, too.

Thinking about your death too obsessively can send you into an existential funk and shadow the light from the life you’re living. But living in denial of your ultimate fate will make meaningfulness elusive.

Malham suggests, though, that it’s the prospect of the deaths of those we love that is more troubling even than accepting our own demise.

My mom would have turned 73 today. (Happy birthday, mom!) She died almost ten years ago. Her absence from our lives still stings, a decade later. Our family has not recovered, and likely will not recover, the bond we once had when she was alive. She was such a joyful, dynamic presence and was the heart of not just our immediate family but even, somewhat, of both extended families. Life goes on, though. Or, the living keep living. For now.

Stoic sages advise periodically envisioning the loss of those you love. Sounds like an unappealing practice, right? It’s meant to be. The point is to face that kind of momentary pain often enough to make you better appreciate your loved ones while they’re with you.

Malham’s closing exhortation is tinged with just such a Stoic perspective:

We want to be (lightly, only lightly) aware of death not because our story will end, but because the stories of those we hold dear will end, perhaps before ours. The awareness of premature or unexpected endings can motivate us to routinely demonstrate our love to those important to us. Let’s not save our affection, as if a rare wine, for special occasions. Give and receive it as essential nourishment.

“Grief, after all, is the price we pay for love.” –David Malham

Alan Watts: Hurry is fatal

I found these thoughts on the @AlanWattsDaily Twitter stream today:

A hurried feeling is a good sign that I need to pause and reflect.

The great (greatest?) coach John Wooden would regularly say to his team: “Be quick, but never hurry.”

Take cues from nature. Let life come. Don’t force. Take it easy.

Be like the amazing Bruce Lee and be water.

Hurry is fatal, at least to any possibility of being awake to the present moment, which is the only place my life ever is.

*I had a set of Alan Watts lectures on cassette tapes that I literally wore out fifteen years ago. Watts was as engaging and as challenging and as entertaining a thinker as any I’ve heard. His books, The Wisdom of Insecurity and The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, are two of the most mind-stretching I’ve ever read.

Upgrading your life “operating system”

I listened to this Tim Ferriss interview with entrepreneur Peter Diamandis recently. Diamandis is promoting his new book, Bold, which is a challenge to aim higher, dream crazier dreams, and take bold action.

The podcast is a solid interview, filled with perspective shifting insights and stories.

I was particularly struck by Diamandis’s notion that we should periodically reevaluate our mind’s OS, our operating system for how we think and behave. I upgrade my computer’s OS almost yearly, but how often do I tinker with my primary mental default settings?

We add “apps” (a new language or skill, for example), but rarely do people examine, tweak, or completely upgrade their default “OS”, the set of assumptions and beliefs about life most people are handed by family, friends, and culture.

Computer software tends to get buggy and slow down over time, and to keep up and remain effective it needs regular updates and occasional wholesale upgrades.

But don’t most of us still rely on unexamined beliefs and principles and buggy habits and potentially outdated modes of operating?

My recent immersion in Stoic philosophy, for example, has led me to rewire my approach to obstacles and setbacks. I’m less of the blind optimist and more willing to embrace the negative.

The primary worldview I had at age 20 is mostly gone now, replaced, however, by an approach that is more realistic, more challenging, and ultimately more empowering. I know, though, how difficult it is to upgrade and debug a long-established mindset. Maybe I’m just slow and particularly resistant to change, but it’s taken three decades to reboot some fairly basic, outdated patterns.

The unexamined life, though… Not. Worth. Living.

Live immediately

Seneca, possibly the most eloquent of the Stoic sages, from the work most consider his masterpiece, On the Shortness of Life (via BrainPickings):

“Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”

Just start.

The invincible human being

I had previously filed away this article, “Why Stoicism is one of the best mind-hacks ever“, and just dug it up out of Instapaper. It’s a good summary of some basics of Stoic philosophy. And, at the center is this, beautifully explained by the author:

What the whole thing comes down to, distilled to its briefest essence, is making the choice that choice is really all we have, and that all else is not worth considering. ‘Who […] is the invincible human being?’ Epictetus once asked, before answering the question himself: ‘One who can be disconcerted by nothing that lies outside the sphere of choice.’

Any misfortune ‘that lies outside the sphere of choice’ should be considered an opportunity to strengthen our resolve, not an excuse to weaken it. This is one of the truly great mind-hacks ever devised, this willingness to convert adversity to opportunity, and it’s part of what Seneca was extolling when he wrote what he would say to one whose spirit has never been tempered or tested by hardship: ‘You are unfortunate in my judgment, for you have never been unfortunate. You have passed through life with no antagonist to face you; no one will know what you were capable of, not even you yourself.’ We do ourselves an immense favour when we consider adversity an opportunity to make this discovery – and, in the discovery, to enhance what we find there.

“Choice is really all we have.”

You can choose your response, your attitude, no matter the circumstances.  Some “bad” event can be redefined as “good” if you use it to learn, to grow, to become a stronger person. Imagine embracing all that occurs as though it was part of a master plan to refine you into an invincible human being.