Why I Am Leaving Facebook

Dear Friends,

This decision does not come lightly or easily, but I think that I need to leave Facebook.  Actually I am 100% sure of it.  I am not 100% sure for how long, or if it will be for good, but the latter is certainly a possibility.  Before I explain to you my personal reasons for doing so, I want to say that my reasons are no judgment on anybody else.  Maybe you’ll connect with some of what I feel, maybe you won’t.  I know there are many of you who seem to be able to use Facebook in a way that I wish I can do.  Some of my reasons are broad and for what I feel are based on reasoning, others are simply based on personal reflections and knowing myself and my own weaknesses.

I will start with some broader ethical concerns that make me feel it is the right thing to do.  All of that can be best summed up by this TED talk.  We live in an attention economy and companies are working to grab hold of my attention, and they’ve succeeded.  There are people out there who are starting to think about ethics in this realm, but as it stands I don’t think I want to be part of this game where possible. I probably can’t get away from Google or Amazon, but I can do something.  There are entities out there who want to learn about us and dictate how we want to live, and I want to at least take back some control and make more decisions about how I want to live.  I don’t think that Zuckerberg or any of his crew are evil or anything, but I don’t think they put a lot of thought into what they are actually doing and wondering how they might change society for the better with this powerful tool.

But really it boils down to personal reasons.  I don’t believe social media is inherently bad.  When I see how useful it is for mobilizing something like March for our Lives, I think social media is a tool we need.  Through Facebook I have met some incredible people.  People I know will be friends for life.  I have many friends who have helped expose me to insightful articles that help me learn and have meaningful discussions.  But there is another side to all of it.  There is seeing friends all posting the same horror stories on their news feeds.  It’s not that they shouldn’t, they care about these things, but when you see the same headline over and over again it gets to you.  Then there are the idiotic and poorly reasoned comments and this is where I fall into the trap over and over again of getting into these conversations.  They get me angry, and I find myself unable to calm my mind.  Sometimes these thought linger with me while I’m trying to sleep, trying to meditate, or when I get up in the morning.  I’m getting angry at people I don’t even know and will never meet, even when I try to remain civil in the conversation.  And then as comments and status mount, I’m seeing who replied, who reacted to my comment or status, and it all adds up.  And I wonder, what am I really counting, and is there a point to it.  If I make a comment that a lot of people like does that mean anything?  Is this how I should be deriving a sense of value?  I ask this question a lot.   Facebook feels noisy to me now.  The best analogy I can think of (and this dates me) is that it’s like a radio station with a lot of static and interference.  There is definitely a signal I want from social media, but I can disentangle it from the noise.  I fight to just focus on the part I want to hear, but I can’t tune out the static.   I see other people do this and I know it’s possible.  It just doesn’t seem possible for me right now.  It just seems like the best idea to turn the radio off and read a book instead.  It doesn’t feel like it’s increasing my happiness, contentedness or peace in life.

The weight of the world has been heavy on me these recent years.  Even before Trump (Trump certainly hasn’t helped).  I know this has been true for many friends my age.  As you become more aware of what’s going on, there is a price to pay for that, you want to do something, you want to make a difference.  In that vein I decided do some volunteer work in my local community to help neglected and abused children.  With a second kid arriving, the responsibilities of now being a department chair, I am more acutely aware of my own limitations in both time and energy.  I contemplated giving up my volunteer work with the second kid coming, but given the amount of time I spend on Facebook it just became crazy to me to give up the volunteer work.  Don’t get me wrong, it means a lot that I mean something to people who might feel sad that I’m leaving, and there is obviously value in maintaining a relationship between people you value and admire, but as of right now, while I’m unable to shut out all the noise I have to truly ask myself, “Is the time and energy I’m putting into Facebook the most effective way I can use my time and energy?”  I have to ask myself “Am I inspiring, teaching, helping by being on Facebook?”  Now maybe I am, but it doesn’t feel that way.  It often feels like I’ve just used Facebook as a way to ‘feel’ like I’m doing something; to ‘feel’ like I’m helping.   I feel like I can’t know the answer to these questions until I break away from Facebook for awhile; to sort of de-clutter, and see what paths lay out before me.   I was very inspired by this TED talk recently about how we can affect change in the world and I believe that sometimes I on Facebook when there is value I could be adding to the lives of family and friends just a few feet away from me.

I started this blog as outline to express myself intellectually and creatively.  Whether people have enjoyed my blog posts are not, I have found it immensely helpful to me as an individual and this is also something I don’t want to give up as my time grows shorter with a new family member on the way.  I don’t plan on leaving Facebook until the end of April.  In that time I hope that those of you who read this, and who want to keep in touch will talk to me so we can find out a way to do that.  But certainly following this blog is a good way to do that.  There is a way to follow this blog by e-mail, and am happy to have discussions with you on here.  There are other messenger services (like gchat) where we can still have conversations, and there is e-mail (sgill1974@gmail.com), twitter (@profswarn) for quick shout outs, and you can message me for my number for texting.  I realize though that there is going to be losses with this.  And while this decision might seem sudden, please know, that with all life decisions I have put in a great deal of thought into it, and this is something that has been growing in my mind for the last 3 years as I have tried, unsuccessfully, to have mastery over Facebook.  I hope that maybe after a good break I can come back to it with better control and use it in a way that compliments my life.  Right now I just feel like I’m in a mire and I just need to get out for awhile.  At the very least it will make me a more present father, and that alone has value.  I hope you can support me in this decision.  And for all the people that enjoy my company on Facebook and who might not interact as much once I leave, just remember that my doors are always open if ever you are in the Pittsburgh area.  Just give me a heads up even if a lot of time has passed.  The memory in my brain might not be reliable but the memory in my heart always looks forward to interacting with a friend.

Thank you for traveling with me along my journey in life, I hope that many of you will continue.

Be good to each other and do good in this world in the way that serves you best.

With Love,
Swarn

Free Will and Changing Your Mind

There was a very good question posed to Sam Harris on his podcast which was:

“If free will is an illusion, why are intentions morally relevant?”

Sam Harris’ answer was very good, but I wanted to throw in my own answer as well.  This also brought to the fore questions I have been asking for years and has led me on a path to learn about the brain and cognitive science: “How effectively can we change our own minds about things?  And what is the manner in which we can change our mind?”  Now perhaps to some, the question posed to Sam Harris doesn’t seem related, but I think there is a very important connection here.

Whether or not you agree that free will is an illusion or not, isn’t something I want to debate with right now.  I haven’t heard a compelling reason in favor of the idea of free will in some time.  I think what the more interest question is to understand why people are against the idea of free will being an illusion.  Sure you could argue that religion is part of that reason, but even secular people are uncomfortable with the idea.  The question posed to Sam Harris says it all.  If there is no free will, how is anybody responsible for their actions?

The word responsible is the word that doesn’t belong here, and this is what most people seem to miss.  This has important consequences for our justice system.  So then why do intentions matter?  The reason why intentions matter is because of what it says about your brain.  Let’s say I’m driving and I accidentally hit a cyclist, what does this say about me as a person?  I may be careless on the road.  Maybe I need to take some more driver training classes.  Maybe I need glasses.  Maybe if I’ve gotten into numerous accidents it means I probably shouldn’t drive any more.   What if I feel genuine remorse for what I’ve done?  Doesn’t that say something about how my brain works as well?  Do I belong in jail?  I don’t think so.  But if on the other hand I see that cyclist and get a sinister grin on my face and speed up and mow that cyclist down, what does this say about me?  It says that I am a person who takes joy about causing harm to others.  I might not feel remorse…maybe I do…but there would be something troubling about my mind that speaks to what future actions I am likely to take.  What if I know the cyclist and hate the person and that’s why I mow them down?  This also says something troubling about future actions I might make.  Because who might be the next person I hate, and what might I do to them?

I have talked about the idea of “personal responsibility” before and as I write this post it becomes even clearer why that phrase confuses me.  Having a party centered around personal responsibility seems to be an even bigger mistake.  We are a social species and it’s easy to say we are responsible for ourselves, but I don’t think that’s really the case.  It is the environment which shapes the individual and we have laws in large part not to control individual behaviors but to protect society.  It seems to me that it is we as a society, as other people in a person’s life that intervene to impact someone’s behavior.  And when a person does change their behavior it is a response to what society values, or through some personal experience in interacting with society or their environment that changes one’s mind.  If I am going around running people down with my car, whether accidentally, or on purpose, it is society that in some way says hey you can’t be doing that and finds an appropriate way to make me less of a danger.  If I take it upon myself to make changes, it is because of some emotional reaction to what I’ve done that is the impetus for change.  Rather than a decision to change, my body, my mind doesn’t want to feel a certain way and thus pushes me in a direction to not feel that way again.  My consciousness of that motivation is what gives me the illusion of free will.

Change in an individual seems to be a result not of an individual’s decisions, but rather the environmental context in which we live.  If society hasn’t shaped us to be more receptive to changing our mind, it is actively intervening to try and convince us to reform our views.  Sometimes successfully, sometimes not.  It seems that there is no real reason for me to want to change my mind about anything when I think about it.  I mean if what I believe has kept me alive so far, to be of an age to reproduce and raise children to a sufficient age so they can reproduce then what I believe must be pretty reasonable.  Now for a social species it could be that what I believe is very counter to surviving well with the people around me.  But as long as I generally believe what the “group” believes I’ll probably be alright.  Whether those beliefs are true or not makes no difference.  It really doesn’t even make a difference if they are harmful, providing that harm doesn’t lead to any consequences that would significantly reduce my chances to reproduce.

As we realize the global society that we live in, and that more and more of us are infringing on each other cultural and intellectual space, as we become more acutely aware of the harm of certain beliefs and values, not just in our community but over the entirety of the planet, I feel it’s important we start asking how can we all get along?  What values should this global community have?  What differences can we afford to maintain and still get diversity?  Does diversity’s value diminish over time if we hope for unity among humankind?  And given how difficult it seems to be to change one’s mind, what are some beliefs we could have that would provide a backdrop to growth for a better future where less humans suffer, and well being is increased?  It is this last question I want to explore a bit more in future posts.  I think tied to this is the area of human emotion which I have become more intrigued with of late.  I think that our emotional and reasoning side are more tied together than we think and that without emotions, at least for humans, growth isn’t possible.

The Same and Not Quite the Same

Wake up, time to get up,
Make some tea,
Flossing, flossing,
The sun is out, that’s nice.
Brushing my teeth
Should I shave today?
Yes, no avoiding it.
A bite to eat
Go to the gym for a bit
The dew is gone, better mow that lawn
Lunch
Take my son for a walk
Nap time for him now
Fold some laundry with Maggie
He’s up, dinner.
Bed and bath for the little one
Some TV, some computer time
Off to bed

Repeat the next day

Wake up, time to get up,
Make some tea,
Flossing, flossing,
The clouds are pretty, that’s nice.
Brushing my teeth,
Don’t need to shave today
A bite to eat
Off to work, same route
Lunch
Driving home, same route
Hit the gym
Take my son for a walk
Empty the dishwasher
Cook some dinner
Bed and bath for the little one
Sneak in a bowl of ice cream
Read and fall asleep

Repeat the next day

Wake up, time to get up,
Make some tea,
Flossing, flossing,
Looks like rain today.
Brushing my teeth,
Shave again?
Yep, beard is pretty grey
A bite to eat
Off to work, same route
Lunch
Driving home, same route

Hit the gym
Lot’s of rain, staying in
Grass is going to grow faster
Wash some dishes
Start the grill for dinner
Skyping with family
Bed and bath for the little one
Read and fall asleep

To Dhyan: Year 2

Dear Dhyan,

As I sat down to write this letter I’ll admit it was harder to really think about where last year left off and a new one began. From the day you were born to your first birthday was literally a lifetime ago, and yet this second year feels more like a lifetime ago.  You are no longer a baby, you are little boy.  In my letter to you last year much of what I was feeling was based on a profound change of you not even existing to a sudden filling of my heart and my life.  As I look back on this past year the changes in what you mean to me seem equally profound, and it surprises me that love can grow so much.

Dhyan_cuteIf your first year was the story of achievements in basic motor skills, your second year of life is about achievements in social skills and the development of more complex thought patterns. Not to say that your physical achievements still aren’t plentiful.  I have especially loved the development of facial expressions and hand gestures.  Our favorite by far is when you developed the hand gesture for “I don’t know” by throwing your hands up above your shoulders and saying “uhh?”  In this year you have also mastered stairs, started running, climbed a little plastic rock wall at the playground, and danced like a maniac.

Your mother is documenting many of your achievements, but I thought I would reiterate to you for future shame, that your first word was not mommy or daddy, but kitty. A word you said often for about a month and then almost never uttered again as you began referring to all animals by the sound that they make.  I would also like to throw in there for purposes of future praise and absolute pride that you started saying “daddy” several months before you started saying “mama”.  As this year ends you aren’t speaking as much as I expected but your comprehension in two languages is amazing, and you are picking up words almost daily.   I expect that for my next letter I will be recounting many conversations.  I am not disappointed that you aren’t saying more already, but rather just anxious to talk with you, and hear what you have to say.  It’s going to be an exciting coming year.

Dhyan_doughAnother thing I love about this year is the growth of your imagination. You have started interacting with your stuffed animals and feeding them or having your Duplo animals kiss.  You clearly have started creating scenarios for their actions, and while I don’t understand these scenarios in the slightest, clearly you do and that’s all that matters.

It excites and worries me how much more clever you are becoming. It’s something I am sure every child starts to do, when they try to deceive their parents.  Recently you tried to fake sleep thinking I would walk away so you could leave your room.  Of course I was waiting right outside your door and as you peaked out you saw me standing there and gave a little devious smile and went back to bed.  I’m here to tell you that your fake sleeping is absolutely adorable, and also completely obvious.  The fact that you don’t get how obvious it is, makes it even more adorable.  I am sure we will be pitting wits against each other for a good portion of your life under our roof, and I just want you to know, challenge accepted. And truthfully, I’m actually really proud of you for beginning the game already.  It shows you have courage, and I know you will only get cleverer for making the effort.

There are a number of things that really stick out for me this year. One is your enjoyment in music, and especially percussion.  I don’t know if that will last a life time, but I have been impressed how you have liked to experience different sounds using chopsticks as drumsticks and beating different size drums, different sized bowls and pots, and just other objects that provide a unique sound when struck.  The musical moment that I will never forget though happened in Poland.  Out on the street there were two girls playing a flute and violin and you were enthralled.  You danced while they played, and you clapped when they finished.  I think being lost in music is one of the more beautiful sights in this world and it gave me so much joy to see music touch you in that way.  It is those kinds of gifts that I hope to be able to provide you with more than anything.  Whether you ever play an instrument or not is not as important to me as music being an important part of your life as it is mine.  Through music there are stories, images, emotions, depth of thought, and fun to be had.

There are so many things that I love about you this year that I am just going to list some of my favorites:

  • I love the fact that you want your “owies” kissed by one of us, or if needed by yourself.  I’ve never seen a kid kiss themselves better. I also love that you want to kiss our “owies” better too.
  • I love how silly you are.  When you do something that entertains us, you really ham it up.
  • I love that you don’t just walk, you walk a little more silly. Not that you can’t walk normally, you just like to bop around and walk.
  • I love that you try to clean up your messes (even if I don’t like you making misses) and that you throw things in the trash.
  • I love that you try so hard to be grown up already which just seems extra adorable since you are so young, and often even though it often ends in disaster I think it’s awesome that you try.
  • I love all your quirks, like there is a specific spot in the house where we can only peel oranges, or specific ways we have to use or play things, like when I’m not holding the drumstick to play the drums properly, or not sitting in the right spot while you play.
  • I love hearing you say daddy.

The thing that I love most, is how you understand love in a much more tangible way, which is to say you are starting to understand love as much as any of us do.  I was struck once again with that unique feeling of happiness and sorrow this year when we were leaving Poland.  Your family was waving goodbye to you in the balcony above the waiting area and you were smiling.  It was clear you bonded with your family during our stay in Poland and as I watched you smile it struck me that you were at the beginning of understanding this powerful feeling called love, and then I started to cry, because I knew you were also saying goodbye, and so you would also begin to understand missing, longing, and loss. Such emotions will be very painful to you at times, but I just want you know that these emotions are just a reaction, and the harder the hit you, the more love you had, and  that is always something to be grateful for.

As far as who I am now because of you, I would have to say it’s hard to tell how I’ve changed. I certainly worry more.  I’ve been feeling the weight of the world more this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of that increased weight is because I want you to have as many opportunities as I had, and I worry sometimes that won’t be the case.  I know though, that to give you the best possible chance at a good life is to make you strong, and that means conquering my own fears and worries.  Because you are watching, and if I can’t do it, how will you learn?  Just like missing, longing, and loss, will always find you, so will worries and fears, but they too are a reaction when you feel you have something very beautiful in your life to lose.  I promise you to always explore the positive with you first, and when pain finds you as it does us all, then we will explore that too.  As I wrote last year, that is hard to not let fear overtake you some times, when you love somebody so much, but the one thing I do know is that when you let fear win, you never truly get to enjoy love. And it is central to my philosophy that love is always to be enjoyed.

People say that the time goes by so quickly with your children, and there is truth to that. But there are also ways to slow it down. Writing this letter has helped me reflect and get lost in this past year with you.  You haven’t become who you are in an instant, but through many small incremental changes, and it has just been a pleasure to be at your side through it all.  It is your birthday tomorrow, and while there is a part of me that would love for you to stay this age longer, I know that’s not possible and I’m just going to do my best to enjoy each day and each new change it brings.

Love,

Your Father

Sweet Sorrow – My Ode to Autumn

After running with long healthy strides,
Summer sighs and rests its weary bones,
And catching its breath and closing its eyes,
It thinks back on the life it has made, it smiles,
And begins a journey of deep reflection,
In that quite moment, autumn is born.

 

That green, so pervasive and full of life,
Begins to give way to a symphony of colors,
And a clear night ends in a cool morning
Bringing us all relief from summer heat.
No surface is excluded from thick dew,
Lying under a blanket of slumbering fog,
Snaking its way through the valley,
Slow to wake and start its day in the rising sun,
And as the noon time sun shines brightly,
The skin no longer hides from that blazing orb,
The humid haze of summer has left,
The sky, a perfect blue, brings clarity of mind,
A feeling of nostalgia for carefree days,
A joy for the closeness of friends and family,
Inner warmth protects against shorter days.

 

Gentle summer breezes are replaced by brisk winds,
And waning leaves are forced from their homes,
To settle anew on the hardening soil below,
And the year begins to feel the consequence,
Of getting lost in sweet remembrances.
It must also account for the passage of time,
And see that less lies ahead than lies behind,
A bountiful harvest is full of summer’s heat,
Animals fill their bellies with old sunlight,
Saying their goodbyes as life withers on the ground,
And as the morning air hints at winters bite,
Fur is thickened and homes are secured,
Each ray of warm sunshine becomes a great gift,
Moments of laughter are appreciated more,
And wisdom and gratitude replace youthful vigor.

And in the longer night hours, silence sets in.
A light frost adheres to stubborn leaves,
Who cling to their branches, refusing to face,
The inevitability that all life must meet its end,
And that all we can do is hope we lived well,
So a better world begins in winter’s wake.

Let’s Pause Here

Dhyan_pandaI would describe myself as someone who embraces change, even when it sometimes isn’t easy. To me, change is the one true constant in the universe. My son is 20 months old and there are times, where I would swear that I could live at this time forever, because he is so sweet, and so pure. I think in an instant it makes us remember a time when things were simple, and completely joyful in their simplicity. So when I look at my son, I know that is what he is thinking and feeling right now.  Sticking a straw out of my mouth is amazing, that picture of an elephant is amazing, this rice is amazing.  Life is amazing. They don’t even know enough to appreciate it and the best part is that you get to appreciate it for them. And that is a beautiful feeling. The idea that such innocence and purity could last forever is a fantasy, but an extremely good one to hold on to. Because if you can just add just a little bit of that into the world, happiness can only grow.

What Makes A Good Human?: Solitude

From http:///www.markg.com.au

The last in this series, comes late for several reasons. For one, I am Poland, and have been enjoying my vacation. But largely it is because this last quality has needed many if not all of the things I am going to talk about under this heading. The time change has left me less than well rested and it has taken about a week to really feel like myself again. It has taken also some time for me to find enough time to myself, in which I haven’t needed to take care of my son, and haven’t been surrounded by family. My in-laws live in a small apartment and it has felt uncomfortable for me to spend a lot of time writing around others. Finally it has taken a lot of thought, deep thinking, introspection and perhaps a little creativity to nail down what I wanted for this last quality. It also took some humility as I had to bounce this creation off my wife because I was rather unsure if I had a cogent post here or whether I might need to make a 9th quality. What I thought was going to be my 8th quality changed as I realized there were other things that I wanted to write about that I felt were linked together but unsure how. And there may be some debate as to whether or not I was successful here putting all of these under the same umbrella.  In the end I’ve decided the number of qualities isn’t as important as saying what I wanted to say. My wife also told me that I was quite clever in my solution to the final quality being solitude. She almost never tells me I’m clever even when I think I’m being clever so that has me feeling really positive about this post. 🙂 With that said, let’s delve into solitude.

I am going to break this down in a more organized way, but let’s talk about some general things first. You might first think that, “Hey aren’t we humans social animals? You’ve been going on a lot in this series about how we can all better get along and have empathy, so why should solitude be so important?” If you’ve raised a child you of course have seen the changes from a baby still thinking it’s in the womb and not knowing it is separate from the mother, to a slow buildup of a sense of self. From then on as parents we try to help the child along to develop a sense of independence. To sleep alone, to be able to do simple physical tasks and to enjoy playing on their own as they gain more and more self-sufficiently. And as a child I remember not only being proud as I could do more things on my own, but actually growing to appreciate and like having time to myself, free from responsibilities to anyone. It seems to me that everybody, no matter how social they might be, to be healthy, need some alone time. Healthy relationships often aren’t ones where both people spend every single moment together, but where each have some hobbies and things that they like to do on their own. Everybody needs their space. What we do in this solitude varies and I am going to talk about 3 different facets of solitude that I think are all important, and I do think have a common thread. So let’s begin:

Creation

It takes a little more humility to mention that I owe this important aspect of solitude to my wife. I am not an overly creative person, but when she mentioned the importance of solitude to the creative process I realized she was right. While artists and musicians certainly collaborate, the initiation of that creative process is usually done alone and then ideas are bounced back and forth with those that are collaborating. Walk into any museum and count how many pieces in that museum have more than one artist listed there. You won’t find many. How many of your favorite novels have multiple authors on the front cover? How many of your favorite poems are written by more than one person? We may be inspired by others when we create, but ultimately what we create is done I solitude. I also don’t want to arbitrarily separate the arts and sciences, it is just generally more easily seen in the arts. Collaboration and feedback is a very important part of the scientific process, but often the vision and inspiration that starts a new idea is formed through thinking in solitude. Scientific history is littered with important scientists whose vision and inspiration excited the scientific community and progressed their respective fields forward. My blog posts are often inspired by conversations, articles or books.  However it often takes some solitude to think about what I want to say and write. Even if during that process I talk it over with others as I have done with this blog post, in the end solitude has played an important part in the creative process.

Recharge

Regardless of the seemingly infinite things we can think of to do, we are sadly quite finite creatures. Our time and energy have limits and many of us are constantly trying to get the most amount out of our day and not getting enough down time. I’ve already discussed the importance of play, and certainly this is important in reducing stress and giving us more strength face to the challenges of life, but there is also the simple act of rest. Resting your muscles and resting your mind. One of the ways we do this of course is simply through sleep. I know few people who don’t love a good night’s rest, and more and more I hear many people wishing they could have more (including myself). According to the National Sleep Foundation, we aren’t getting enough, and this leads to all sorts of problems such as increased weight gain, loss of focus, anxiety, and overall being less efficient as we could be. Whether you are sleeping with someone or not, sleeping is an activity that is done in solitude. It is your time to be unconscious and recharging your “energy cells” and freshening the mind. Getting better sleep may give you less waking hours in the day, but chances are you will be more focused and efficient during those hours such that time will not be lost and may actually be gained.

Meditation

Sleep, however, is not the only way in which we can rest and recharge. One of the other ways in which we can gain energy is through meditation. Now meditation can be defined in a number of different ways, but all of them have benefits and I will talk a little bit about them throughout this post, but for now when many people think of meditation they think of some bald headed person in a robe sitting down in a lotus position and saying ‘om’ a lot, and I admit I used to be from this camp too at one point. And that type of meditation is beneficial, as it clears the mind and rests the body. By focusing on sound, or your own breathing you can rest and recharge. Recent studies have shown meditation to actually change the brain in a positive way.  Daily meditations may also simply involve sitting on your patio drinking a cup of tea while you look at your garden, going on a walk as you take in the sights and sounds of the moment, and it can also involve repetitive activities such as exercise. Repetitive actions keep you focused on the task at hand keeping you in the moment. Exercise is one of the better ways to do this of course because you must focus on the movements and muscles needed to perform the task and this is actually restful to the mind as much of the clutter and stresses of our everyday life can fade away. The well-known “runner’s high” is a good example of this. Of course when you first start to exercise this may be difficult as your body adjust itself to the activity as you may actually experience a lot of pain and/or be uncomfortable and this can be distracting. But this is why meditative activities require regular practice. You aren’t going to be good at it right away and the health benefits take time to come to fruition. I feel that one of the hardest things for people who begin to exercise is they never push through the phase in which it is painful, and tiring as they find they have less energy. But it does get better, and I’ve seen it happen for myself and for others.

If you exercise at a busy gym, or listen to music while exercise this may actually diminish some of the meditative aspects of the exercise as you may start to focus on other things and become distracted. I’ve seen many people pause their treadmill just to text somebody and so I doubt they are getting much of the meditative benefits of exercise, but exercise is still good of course. Being physically healthy gives you more energy and helps you recharge more effectively. Being physically tired is also an aid in getting better sleep which is important as mentioned above. Silence is also a helpful part of the meditative process. Of course complete silence is difficult, but relative quiet may help you pay attention to sounds you don’t often notice like the sound of your own breathing, the babbling of a brook, or the twitter of birds. In previous posts I have talked a lot about the importance of being in the present and this is the one the great advantages of meditation. We can’t always be serene and peaceful, but taking time out of our day to quiet the noise of our everyday lives is important and is something we do in solitude.

introspection2The dictionary also defines meditation as continued or extended thought, reflection and contemplation. This is the sort of meditation I do a lot. For better or worse I suppose as I am frequently lost in thought unaware of what’s  going on, which is bad for activities like driving, or paying attention to your spouse when she is talking to you. This type of meditation is our natural scientist at work. Whether we are reflecting on our own actions, searching through the past for understanding, issues of the day, or just things that we’re learning, thinking deeply about things is a positive activity.  It is our way of helping us see how we can do things better in our lives (humility), what changes we like to make about ourselves (courage), what questions we still have and thus areas we need to understand better (curiosity), trying to understand the actions of others (love/empathy), or setting aside our worries and stresses about future events (faith). In the scientific method it is the final stage that allows us to make adjustments to our original hypothesis and form new ones. Thus our introspection, outrospection, and contemplation ensures that we continue to grow and change in an ever changing world. We may even may take time to plan activities that are both fun, and those that help us better have time to ourselves (play and solitude). And meditation like this and what I described above is something we should try to do every day (vigilance/perseverance).

These meditative activities are all performed in solitude. Even if we don’t get much alone time during the day, 15-30 minutes of meditation can be an important part of good health and if needed, keep the creative juices flowing. If you are constantly surrounded by people your only time for this might just be a nice long shower, or a satisfying crap on the toilet, but in all likelihood you appreciate that time to be alone with your thoughts. Mix that all in with a good night’s sleep and conquering the day may not be seem so daunting, even if it isn’t easy. The amount of solitude that everyone needs for a good sense of well-being I’m sure varies, but I think it’s important that we try to give ourselves that time if possible. In doing so we can gain increased feelings of serenity, understanding, and peace which will help us fight battles in the present instead of the impossible task of winning future ones. The dark side of solitude in the extreme is known, I’m sure, to all. We are a social species and whether you want just a few good friends, or be the life of a party we shine the most in the company of others. Few of us could live the life of a hermit.  We do best when we are cooperating, collaborating, and helping. Too much solitude can make us feel lonely, often worse is that feeling of solitude when surrounded by others. Like the other qualities the down side of solitude comes to fruition when we don’t practice the other 7 qualities in this series in some balanced way. And it is possible that what makes solitude good is some security in knowing that solitude isn’t our only option. That we have other treasured people in our life that we can depend on when we no longer wish to be alone.

This series has been long and if you’ve taken the time to read all of it, I do thank you, but I cannot sum it all up in just a sentence or two so I will have one more post in which I will try to take a more holistic view of them all, and take a critical look at how this intellectual exercise of mine doesn’t always mesh well with reality.

What Makes A Good Human?: Faith

Well, if you know me, you might be surprised at this quality.  And to be honest this is one that I wasn’t sure I was going to include but could not really make it fit as part of any of the other ones and so have put it here. This one is 6th in the series and so if you were keeping count there will still be two more to come for a total of 8 (as opposed to the 7 I thought I was going to blog about in my intro to this series).  Hey I did say that this list was not set in stone, and my final quality justifies this change quite well so stay tuned. 🙂

So let me be clear here that when I say faith, I do not mean religious faith, nor do I mean blind faith.  The first definition of faith is “complete trust or confidence in someone or something”, and this is the faith I am talking about. Perhaps I place too much importance on stress and too much importance on living in the present moment, but one of my reason for including faith is borne out of the fact that we are exceptionally good future thinkers. It might be somewhat natural to think about the past, and of course we live in the present, but what value is thinking about the future, when the future is uncertain. Of course we can see the value in thinking about the future from simple mechanical movements like anticipating the trajectory of a ball as we reach out to catch it, to having grand visions of the future that we work to make a reality. Our imaginations and our ability to envision a path to turn what is in our minds into a reality is a great strength, and it’s safe to say our ability to think about the future is greater than any other creature. There is a double edge to this sword and that is worry. We worry about that uncertain future at times, and we worry that what we want to happen will not come to pass. Much of the grief we often feel when we lose somebody important (whether from death or breaking up our relationships) comes from a loss of a future that will now no longer exist with that person. Our ability to imagine the future is so strong that it can feel as real as any present moment. In a previous post in this series I talked about the value of play for helping us be in the moment, so too does faith. Whereas play helps us become lost in the moment, faith can help us focus on the present by making us feel like “everything will be alright”. Faith can give us hope and keep us steady.

One of the reasons that the future is so uncertain is that we can’t account for all the variables in any particular problem. And even if we could, there would be several that are simply not in our control. Wanting to fix things that are beyond our control is one big source of worry and stress whether it is a personal situation or the larger sadness we might feel over big problems like world hunger, gender inequality, or racism as individuals most of us can only do so much. The weight and burden of the future can drag us down and we need something to ease the mind and focus on the present. It is not surprising that faith is always used in the context of something that we feel is good. Whether it is a supernatural being who we believe is watching out for us, loves us, and protects us, to more tangible things like faith that a good friend will come through for us, a general optimism about the improvement of society, and perhaps most importantly a faith in ourselves that we can overcome challenges in our way. In reality none of these things are sure things despite what past experience might tell you. You may actually fail at what you are attempting, even if you’ve handled similar or even the same situations before. Society may get worse. Your friend may not come through despite how often they might have come through for you before.  The world is dynamic and constantly changing. Your friend is changing, you are changing, and society is changing and so there will always be some unknown variables. We can also be wrong that we understood a past experience properly to ensure similar results in the future. Humans are prone to Type I errors (seeing patterns or connections where none exist) and quite often we don’t understand our experiences fully. However, without some faith we’d always be questioning and doubting and while there may be a time for questions and doubt, to dwell on such things constantly can also be equally wasteful. Doubting your friend all the time may actually strain your relationship. Doubting yourself all the time may make you actually more prone to making mistakes. Being pessimistic about the world may actually make you less happy and less able to make a positive impact, which is the only way the world is going to get better, if we do something about it.

Richard Dawkins and others are often quoted as saying that faith and science are not compatible because science makes conclusions based on evidence, where as faith makes conclusions despite evidence. I tend to disagree with this notion, because I feel that to develop faith it cannot be built on nothing. In my experience what people disagree on is what people consider evidence. I wrote about this previously here and here. A large of the aim of religious institutions in keeping members of their faith is to discredit contrary evidence. If the evidence against what you have faith in seems faulty you are less likely to let it change your mind. But we’ve all had changes of faith as evidence is presented to us. What happens if that friend lets us down a few times? Chances are, our faith in them will be lessened. What happens if we start getting inundated with all the evil that happens in the world? We start to lose our faith and optimism in humanity. What can happen when let ourself down? We start to lose faith in ourself, which is often a scary place emotionally to be at. I think faith is born honestly in most cases, and I think if left unhindered we would adjust the things we have faith in over time as we continue to question, experience and learn. The important part is that faith should be changeable and it should be personal. When we indoctrinate children about what they should have faith in this is from a developmental context abusive, because the stronger our faith becomes in something, the less likely we are able to adjust it over time because of how beliefs work in our brain. The inability to change what we have faith in as we experience and learn new things leads to an unhealthy conflict: the struggle to remain static in a dynamic world. I think some people might wonder, what is the point of having faith if it may change some time in the future? Because the world may seem chaotic, painful and beyond comprehension at times, it makes some sense to have faith in an order, an intention, or a purpose that is forever and unchangeable. However, it’s only a convenient illusion that will become harder and harder to maintain with time without willfully ignoring contrary evidence.

There are no guarantees in life and it’s okay to be wrong about what you put your faith in. Everybody has been wrong about things before. Being wrong is one of the greatest shared human experiences. I do understand, however, that it can be distressing to admit when we are wrong about things, even more so when we invest a lot of time into having faith about someone or something. Faith as a result is perhaps the trickiest of all the qualities I’ve discussed so far because it can cause us to double down even when the odds are against us. In my opinion the thing to keep in mind is to let your faith work for you, and to not let your faith gain mastery over you. And don’t expect others to share your faith. That’s simply not realistic. But if I were to pick some basic things to have faith in, it would be this:

  1. Change is inevitable
  2. You have it in you to deal with that change
  3. Everything will be alright because changing what you have faith in is not a loss, it’s a gain – for you must have learned something new in order to get to where you are now.

A Change Will Do You Good

From http://ohiomarketingstudents.com

A friend of mine asked me a few months ago “What are your weaknesses?”  After mulling it over for a couple of minutes, to be honest, I couldn’t think of any.  Now don’t start thinking I’m a smug bastard, I know for a fact that I am far from perfect.  Then I thought, well I am not quite sure what my strengths are either.  I guess the way I have to come to view myself is a work in progress.  It seems to me that trying to determine what strengths and weaknesses are is tricky business.  I might say that I worry too much, but at some level worry brings about a level of awareness that might help you act or reach a solution.  Worrying too much is obviously a problem though as it can be draining and waste time.  Not worrying at all, might also be dangerous as it may make you apathetic to important things.  I used to be a huge worrier, but I always looked at it as a quality that was part of a spectrum from too much worry, to not worrying at all, and that there was a healthy balance in there.  So it wasn’t so much that worrying was a weakness but that I had to find an appropriate way of using that “worry” towards being constructive and not destructive.  And I always felt that worrying was better than apathy.   To me, all strengths and weakness are not an either, or, but rather qualities that lie on a continuum between two extremes and thus any weakness may have some important qualities that we simply need to foster more.

If I say that my strength is kindness, does it mean I don’t have room to grow?  Does it mean that I couldn’t be more kind?  I have never been one to simply rest on laurels as I think it is important to strive each day to be more than we are (provided we are lucky enough to live in an environment where we have such an opportunity and are not fighting for basic subsistence needs like so many in this world).  Our strengths might manifest themselves in different ways.  While I may be kind, how I show that kindness may not be the right way for that particular situation.  Sometimes “tough love” is the best way to deal with a particular situation.  Some people respond to a stricter approach, drawing definite boundaries.  Some people respond better to you when you are sensitive, soft-spoken and supportive.  Some people might respond to both depending on the situation.  It takes time and experience to gain the wisdom to know how best to be kind to those around you.  Should I say it is a fault or a weakness when I show kindness in a way that makes sense to me, but is not received as such to the other person?  Or should I simply reflect and say, “I am glad my heart was in the right place, but I need to do better.”  And what if the person you are showing kindness to, feels grateful, but isn’t good at showing it?  As I’ve mentioned before, one of the amazing parts about life is that we never know how we may impact others.  Someone might be angry or frustrated with you in the moment, but only realize the kindness you showed years later.

In the end I would say that my greatest strength is that I feel I value good things like happiness, learning, compassion, self-reflection, equality, a strong work ethic, and humility, and that my weakness is that I am incomplete in demonstrating those qualities to a capacity I am completely comfortable with.  And that I may not be aware of the importance of other character traits that might make me and this world a better place.  And I accept that not only will this “weakness” never go away, but it might also be the very thing that allows me to become stronger, wiser, and appreciative of life in new ways all the time.  And so, in what might be a somewhat ironic way, the parts of me that I will not change, are the various things that allow me to change.  After all, why would I want to be the exact same person all my life, as if that were even possible? 🙂

One Thing Leads to Another

Have you ever done the following?

“If in the 6th grade there was a section in our science class about clouds, and then a section on it in the 8th grade that taught me more about meteorology I might never have picked the field to study.  And then if they hadn’t shown that video about radar in my undergraduate from the University of Oklahoma I might never have decided that I want to specialize in that and go to the University of Oklahoma.  That interest in radar in clouds led me to the University of Wyoming.  And then if I hadn’t met that girl Diane studying in the geology department who shared a love of games with me, leading to us taking turns hosting games nights.  And then at one of those games nights if I hadn’t cooked chicken curry for some of her acquaintances from the geology department who were invited and who didn’t announce they were vegetarians beforehand and couldn’t eat what I cooked, causing my friend to be so insulted on my behalf that she refused to invite them again, thus causing her to invite two new people to replace them, one of them being my future wife.  I would never have the wonderful life I have now.”

I am quite sure you have done this before.  Maybe it’s about a special relationship, maybe it’s a great job, maybe it’s even a tragedy or negative situation.  You could even go back further to how your parents met, grandparents, etc.  But let’s take a closer look at this journey through our life.  We look back at this chain of events and we see all the amazing decisions along the way that brought us through a path in life and it is somewhat mind-blowing. What we’re really doing is amazing ourselves about how large events in our life might never have happened if not for an amazing set of circumstances.  And of course it is true that this chain of events lead you to where you are.   Is it fate? Should we be blown away by all these amazing set of circumstances?

To answer this question we must ask ourselves another one.  What is the alternative?  There is none.  Events happen in time in a chronological order in

From http://www.photo-dictionary.com

which one event always leads to another.  And every person has their own timeline.  Every bit of life has a time line.  And even some things that aren’t alive have a timeline like hurricanes, avalanches, earthquakes etc.  All these events are happening and as each of us follows our path in time and space it is natural that we will intersect with the paths of other things in their timeline.  There is no choice to this.  If you met your future spouse in a convenient store as you were both reaching for the same bottle of coke we say this is remarkable how you were both thirsty that day and arrived at the same convenience store that was out of your neighborhood and decided to get yourself a beverage.  One of you feeling like Pepsi that day would have changed the course of your entire life, but there would like be another major event as you met somebody else instead later, not knowing what you missed, with a different chain of events that you deem important.  In fact what’s really interesting here is that, in a way, the fact that you chose Pepsi and not Coke that day allowed you to have the path you enjoy now but you would never even know the significance of that choice.

It seems also that part of the reason we are blown away by such a recounting of events, is that ultimately we are the ones who choose whether an event is even significant at all.  Meeting a lover, a best friend, or getting that perfect job might be all things that we find extraordinary and thus the events that led up to them seem almost banal leading to such momentous events.  But what if we were just to look at everything that happens in our lives as events?  For that is what they are, with each one only have the significance that we ascribe to it.  This walking into the convenience store before you met the love of your life and reached for that bottle of coke, is the same chain of events minus one link.  The moment when you realized you were thirsty and wanted a coke two less links in the chain of events in your life.  I think you get the picture.

So what should really blow our minds is that every event in our lives is the result of a complex chain of events, and that the littlest decision such as whether

From http://www.the-exponent.com

you want a Pepsi or Coke can be equally as life changing.  In one hand you realize it (choosing Coke) on the other hand you don’t (choosing Pepsi).  Now if thinking that every one of the littlest decisions of your life might be the most important you ever made stresses you out, don’t let it.  You are bound to make decisions, and even deciding not to anything about a situation is a decision and those decisions will lead to outcomes.  It is unavoidable.   I just think it’s a nice thought to think that every event might be as important as the next, and that any event might be one that is extremely significant even if we don’t know it at the time.

I am going to publish this post now instead of 5 minutes ago because I decided to heat up my chai because it got cold.  And who knows, maybe that will be change the course of my life.