The Write Reasons – #01

“A man is a fool not to put everything he has, at any given moment, into what he is creating.” -Frank Herbert

I write in order to develop my powers of concentration.

Of course, each moment we’re alive presents us with an opportunity to practice developing our concentration and our ability to focus— every bite of every meal, every word of every conversation, every motion in every household chore or bit of yard work, every email written and read, every commute. Everything.

So what?

For me, it matters because I’m never happier than when I’m in a state of flow, and writing is one way I’m able to intentionally enter flow. Wikipedia explains flow as “The mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning.”

Wikipedia goes on to say, “In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task. Flow is also described as a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one’s emotions.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote a book about the flow state, appropriately titled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In it, he writes, “Contrary to what we usually believe … the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

He goes on to say, “Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.”

Another reason to consciously develop powers of concentration is that the ability to focus is very often foundational to success. Last year I completed a training with Jack Canfield in which he shared with me that during his research for the book The Power of Focus, he and his writing partners interviewed more than 2,000 successful entrepreneurs in order to find out what made them successful.

Almost without exception, Jack and his partners found, every successful entrepreneur possesses three attributes: 1) a high degree of clarity about what they want to accomplish; 2) powerful success habits (in the form of daily routines and disciplines); 3) a high degree of focus, or concentration.

My dad certainly possessed all three of these attributes. If he was in a meeting or on a phone call, especially if he was doing a mathematical calculation in his head, it was nearly impossible to distract him. I do remember him sometimes becoming irritated by background noise, or kids playing loudly outside (of whom I was often one).

If the sound of my playing managed to penetrate his concentration he would tell me to play somewhere else or simply to be quiet, and then he would go back to concentrating. His level of concentration was extraordinary, and it was a big part of what made him successful.

For me, understanding that we can develop our ability to concentrate feels a bit like “cracking the code” of success. I mean, it’s easy to look at people who are extraordinarily successful and simply attribute their success to natural talent, sheer luck or hard work. And in many cases, of course, all three of those things are true, but it’s also true that many of those phenomenally successful people have a great capacity for concentration that they have developed consciously or otherwise. And we can do the same.

But concentration matters for another reason too. The spiritual teacher Yogananda writes, “To be able to concentrate is essential for spiritual progress; without concentration you shall never find God.”

For me, each writing session provides an opportunity to consciously slow down and deliberately attempt to fully experience the present. I endeavor to carry this mindfulness into every aspect of my life, and those ephemeral moments when I succeed in this effort are always gratifying.

It’s not always easy, but it’s a challenge worthy of a lifetime of effort. This, I think, is what author Frank Herbert recognized when he wrote the words I opened with: “A man is a fool not to put everything he has, at any given moment, into what he is creating.”

After all, our only point of power exists in the present.

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A Question You Can’t Answer

The following statement is true: The preceding statement is false.

Doubt will destroy you if you let it. Trouble is, we all doubt sometimes, and the harder we push against our doubt, the harder it pushes back. We’ve all experienced the truth of Lombardi’s words, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”

Believing can be hard work.     

Some people, it seems, never believe anything, while others always believe everything. If there’s a satisfying middle ground between cynicism and blind acceptance, I haven’t found it yet. I have, however, found that doubt and belief are two sides of a coin.

Mormon scripture tells us, “It must needs be that there is an opposition in all things.” And it’s probably just as well, for as Heraclitus points out, “Opposition brings concord. Out of discord comes the fairest harmony.”

I used to keep a giant jar of peanut M&M’s in my office at work. I was drawn to it, occasionally against my will. Sometimes I would eat a handful, then promise myself that I wouldn’t have another M&M that day. Less than an hour later I’d find myself standing by the jar, M&M’s in my mouth.

I could never understand how my words and actions could be so different. I mean, I meant the promise when I made it. But life is full of paradoxes, isn’t it?

One might say that life is nothing but paradoxes, and that human beings are merely walking contradictions. It stands to reason— after all, we are eternal spiritual beings inhabiting temporary physical bodies.

F. Scott Fitzgerald tells us, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” It’s the opposing ideas, beliefs and motives that we hold subconsciously that fascinates me. We live with innumerable contradictions that we’re not often aware of.

To see what I mean, ask someone, “Do you agree that ‘A leopard can’t change its spots?’” Then ask if it’s true that “People change.”

Some of life’s paradoxes are simply amusing, like the page that actually would be empty if it weren’t for the words, “This page intentionally left blank.” Or the statement, “All things in moderation.” I wonder if that includes moderation too.

Other paradoxes are profoundly significant, like capital punishment: We kill people who kill people because killing people is wrong.

Some paradoxes are worthy of a lifetime’s effort to reconcile. I once considered tattooing each of my forearms with opposing advice: Shakespeare’s, “To thine own self be true” and the Latin maxim, “We are not born for ourselves alone.” A life well lived, I figured, must surely balance between these two.  

Other paradoxical challenges include living in the present while preparing for the future, being “In the world but not of the world,” and harmonizing head and heart, intellect and emotion.

Some paradoxes even challenge our understanding of God. For example, “Can an omnipotent being create a rock too heavy to lift?”

Such unanswerable questions resemble Zen Buddhism’s koans, which are impossible questions— almost riddles— used to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment.

I attribute my inability to answer such questions largely to the feebleness of my mind, but also to the slipperiness of language and the gaps inherent in it.

Take for example the ancient philosopher Plutarch’s enigma of the Ship of Theseus. Start with a ship. Now replace any component of that ship.

It’s still the same ship, right?

Now replace EVERY component on that ship, one at a time. Once you’re done, do you still have the same ship?

To take it further, now reassemble all the pieces that you took off the original ship to form another ship.

Is that the same ship as the original?

Questions like this reinforce for me the reality that life is not like algebra class— we can’t simply flip to the back of the book and find the correct answer.

My dad used to say, “Life is simple— it’s the good guys versus the bad guys.” I, on the other hand, tend to think that life is seldom so black and white. Good people do bad things. Bad things happen to good people. Etc, etc.

Walt Whitman apparently found peace with his contradictory nature. He writes, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.”

Another poet, Maria Rainer Rilke, offers the advice, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

I’ve noticed that my life seems to work better when I stop worrying so much about the things I can’t understand, and especially about the things that I can’t change. Particularly when I stop I trying and start allowing.

That’s the challenge I leave you with: try less, allow more. Love what is, and accept yourself, contradictions and all.
 

 

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You Are Here. Now.

One of life’s great paradoxes is that as we get busier it becomes harder to make time to for prayer, meditation or quiet reflection, yet that’s exactly when we need and stand to benefit from those things the most. 

Each morning I like to follow a simple meditative routine in which I visualize how tiny I am on the face of the Earth. It helps me to keep my feelings and interactions with others that day in perspective.  

Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot does an amazing job of capturing this. You can read the text here.

In my morning routine I also like to remember how fleeting and precious this day is. Here is Today is a simple yet brilliant website that conveys this well.

I have learned that even five minutes spent in quiet reflection in the morning can have a profoundly calming and beneficial impact on the quality of my day.  

Yogananda encourages us, “Live quietly in the moment and see the beauty of all before you. The future will take care of itself.”

Each day provides an opportunity to practice perfecting this effort. May your efforts be rewarded richly.

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The Secret to Happiness, as Told by a French Hornist

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I heard Arthur C. Brooks speak today. He’s the smartest French horn player I’ve ever met. I didn’t expect him to know so much about happiness, but it turns out that Arthur knows a lot about a lot of stuff.

Arthur is a best-selling author who has published over 100 articles and 10 books, including Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America—and How We Can Get More of It. He describes himself as a scholar in the areas of free enterprise and human flourishing. In other words, he’s devoted his life to studying money and happiness.

Arthur is also the president of the American Enterprise Institute, an independent, non-profit, Washington DC-based think tank that employs 185 intellectuals who work to preserve the cause of freedom. In other words, it’s Arthur’s job to be smart. This might be the real-world alternative to being a superhero.

At 19, Arthur dropped out of college to tour professionally as a classical musician. He spent several years as the associate principal French horn with the City Orchestra of Barcelona. In his late twenties, after getting a close-up look at the unhappy lives of many of his fellow career musicians, he knew that he didn’t want to end up like them— playing the same music over and over, maybe drinking a little too much, and with a marriage that didn’t work.

So he decided to return to college to study economics, mathematics and languages, and eventually earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics and a PhD in public policy. He reached a point in his career where he decided to apply his skills as a researcher and an analyst to the subject of happiness.

Although Arthur shared many insights, one that resonated with me was his caution against looking too much to the attainment of goals— acquisition or accomplishment— as a source of enduring happiness.

He says, “I’m not saying don’t pay attention to your goals. I’m saying, don’t act as if they are the be-all, end-all to your happiness. Number one, they’re not going to have the effect you think [of making you happy], and number two, they don’t last.” In other words, after we achieve one goal, we’re going to find another one we want to achieve. And then another…

As humans, it seems, we are hardwired to always view the grass as being greener on the other side of the fence. Once we get that— once we truly understand that there’s no “there” that’s preferable to “here”— we can go to work learning how to simply be. And that’s where some of our life’s hardest— and most important— work begins.

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