A Meal for a Day

walmart

The automatic doors opened like a sideways mouth and swallowed the two brothers into the belly of the local Walmart. Standing as tall as his 12-year-old frame could hold him, he smiled nervously at the ancient greeter, pulling his younger brother by the arm. Everything they had ever longed for, ever imagined, was held hostage between these four walls.

As they turned the corner toward the food section, they were stopped by a giant toothy-grin asking if they needed help. “We’re meeting our parents …” they responded in unison and kept moving. Stay focused. Move deliberately but without hurry.

He grabbed the rotisserie chicken from its warm cradle and walked towards the Home and Garden section. Finding blind spots behind bed frames, patio sets, and grills, the two brothers ate their one meal of the day as quickly as they could, turning on their heels when an employee came in their direction.

*Photo by: r. nial bradshaw

The Ball Arcs Through the 3am Night Sky

Moonlight illuminates the ball as it arcs through the 3am night sky and smashes on to the roof of the moving car. 

“5 points!” you shout.

The car slams on its breaks. A man gets out, sees the ball rolling toward the curb, and peers out at the trees lining the road.

You all remain silent and still. There’s only the sound of crickets and wind and the man’s footsteps as he walks toward you.

If he gets too close, you’ll make the signal and you’ll all burst out of the trees, hollering like crazed animals, running past him as if your lives depended on it, up through the neighborhood streets, and into the safety of your backyard.

Your heart will pound and you’ll all laugh uncontrollably and it will be impossible for you to know that these friends, who helped devise the car-tossing scoring system (5 points for the roof, 3 points if the ball smacks the hood or trunk, 1 point for the doors), who spent hundreds of hours hidden with you by the side of the road in the dark, staring up at the sky, waiting for the next car, imagining what life could become, would, in the very near future, fade back into the dense tree line, nowhere to be seen.

A Certain Spontaneous Realization at the Corner of 4th and A

A few minutes before, Antoine had exhausted his anxiety in a certain spontaneous realization of his place in the cosmos. He understood all at once why he had suffered as a child, why his parents couldn’t possibly give him the nurturing he needed, and how he had ultimately contributed to his recent divorce. It was a moment he treasured, sheer white light on stone.

And yet now standing at the corner of 4th street and Avenue A, the sidewalk slick with rain, the sky pale grey, he was no longer able to put his finger on the thoughts that, minutes before, seemed to have changed him irrevocably.

His idea had been undone, pushed aside by a million variables of cause and effect in front of him. The facade of a clothing store, the yell of a bus driver, the smell of a wet street, the blurriness of his vision, the thought of his sick uncle.

So focusing his attention on his feet, Antoine resolved to remember how he had eradicated his previous worry, only to feel, a few minutes later at a loss; the future would continue to arrive, undoing him and his thoughts again and again.

They Saw No Fins

Every year since she was young, Jill’s family summers near a remote beach on Martha’s Vineyard.

On the morning of her disappearance, Jill’s mother leaves the house before everyone is awake, barefoot, and walks into the mist toward the beach.

The sun does what it always does and the short dirt path to the ocean is wet and muddy. She throws her hat into the sand and walks in curved lines up the beach.

She strips down to her bathing suit and leaves her clothes in a tightly packed pile in the sand. Walking out into the surf, she dives over a breaking wave and cracks the surface of the water.

The night before, Jill writes and performs a play for all the family members who are sober enough to pay attention. Her mother helps her into her costume and gives the introduction.

Before bed, she tells Jill about the importance of solidarity, that a carpenter’s union strike had sparked on the island, and that they were going to bring them sandwiches tomorrow.

Even though her mother had long ago left her modest upbringing for the riches of an industrialist turned software mogul, she still retained a sense of mutual aid for others.

A week later and her mother still missing, a shark attack occurs.  When the shark is killed they find a bathing suit inside. A local newspaper reports that people on the beach “saw no fins”.

Jill was 7 years old when the shark without a fin maybe stole her mother. The carpenter’s union lost. Jill kept living. She’s now 36 years old.

The Planetary Expansion of Capitalism

“From a Marxist perspective. . .”

I heard professor Burston’s raspy voice fade into a soundscape of clinking silverware as the guests began their first course.

Mother liked to invite rumpled intellectuals to dinner, particularly those who were against the very existence of our kind, the capitalists, the owners, the inheritors of the city’s fortune. 

“Money becomes the physicalized form of our daily enslavement to Capital,” he continued leaning back in his chair.

“Well,” she interrupted him, “L’argent n’a pas de maître.” (Money has no master), which she refused to translate, even after the prompting from my stepfather seated at the opposite end of the table.

In the few moments of silence before Burston responded, I recalled a time not too long ago when the debate between capitalism and communism had held real consequences; when human nature, morality, god, even our clothing choices were bound up in the ideological battle for the future of humanity.

And yet my side had won, still inviting the last disheveled believers to a meal at a table where they’d never have a seat. 

Giovanni’s City

When I felt down, I’d call Giovanni, my architect friend, and ask him to walk me around the city and talk about the buildings. Like a gardener who lives their life with plants, Giovanni lived structure and at the heart of it was his visceral love of form.

“A building’s edges against the sky makes my body vibrate, like jumping into a cold lake.” His Italian accent hung from his french consonants.

Lacunar, a paneled ceiling. Apse, the polygonal end of a chapel. Gable, the triangular portion of the wall under a roof. Lunette, a half-moon shaped space.

We walked along the Canal St. Martin and turned down the Rue des Récollets towards Gare de l’est.

Portico, Pelmet, Plinth. Spandrel, Spire, Tracery.

My mood began to lift with each of Giovanni’s descriptions, brought back to life by the peculiar way language, when spoken with great attention, takes us beyond itself, into the world of stone and steel, into the city I lived but never really saw.

 

 

10 Ways to Increase Your Deep Work

10-ways-to-increase-your-deep-work

The quiet casualty of our hyper-connectivity, the unending psychic drain by the mystical internet, is our ability to focus. The fact is, the less you focus and concentrate in your life, the more your ability to do so wears away.

I recognize this each time I sit down to work on the next act of a play or the new verse of a song. I feel my attention swing and dip, waver and jump, and then rudder into its well-trodden desire for techno-distraction. Every month an important project slips past unfinished, I notice my fading attention and my atrophying concentration.

But the more I want to create, the more I recognize the need for consistent and sustained periods of focus. Whether it’s writing a play, composing a new harmony, or developing a proposal, attention that sticks to the task at hand, is the essential creative skill.

The ability to do focused work is “becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy” writes Cal Newport, author of Deep Work. (14)

As we place more of our attention on shallow activities like social media posting, email responding, and web surfing, we erode meaningful uses of our energy and our ability to do deep work. Over time, we might encounter an increased resistance to focusing, a discomfort with going deep, and a lackluster energy to do the work that means the most to us. Yet, there are strategies that can bring us back to life.*

#1 Create a distraction-free environment


Deep work requires, at a minimum, uninterrupted concentration in a distraction-free environment. The reason is relatively simple. Newport writes:

“By focusing intensely on a specific skill, you’re forcing the specific relevant circuit to fire again and again, in isolation.” (36)

Multitasking in effect is doing the opposite. It forces the brain to engage in a range of tasks without assigning priority inhibiting the isolation and growth of targeted neural circuitry. If you want to learn a new skill like playing the piano or write a screenplay, you’re shooting yourself in the foot by working in open work spaces or coffee shops that create the perfect environment to impedes deep work states. Neuroscientists running experiments for the British TV special, The Secret Life of Office Buildings tell us:

“If you are just getting into some work and a phone goes off in the background, it ruins what you are concentrating on. Even though you are not aware of it at the time, the brain responds to distractions.” (51)

Given how many of us find it challenging to create time to work on our most important projects, we’d do better to put a premium on distraction-free environments that allow us to go deeper.

2. Inhibit interruptions


Unfortunately, our brain is not very good at moving back and forth between concentration and distraction. A text or slack message, a phone call, even a friendly greeting are just a few of the ways our attention is interrupted. These small interruptions then add up, fragmenting our attention and diminishing the total energy we have to give to our task.

Even more, interruptions exponentially increase the amount of time needed to complete a project. For those of us with limited time to focus on our most important projects, this idea alone should be enough to get us to do all we can to block out interruptions for the duration of our work sessions.

The how is obvious (go to the library, wear headphones, turn off all phones and alerts, tell co-workers your offline for the next two hours, find an isolated corner, close your door), it’s the will to do so that is often left unengaged.

3. Build focus like a muscle


Focused attention is a skill that increases with practice. Like a new workout, the first few weeks are tiring and hard. We want to give up and do something easier. In the same way, as we increase the length of time in which we stick with increasing loads of cognitive intensity, we may want to stop, grab something to eat, check our phones, get another cup of coffee, etc.

But like exercise, the fluttering of attention away from what we are doing is part of the workout. We just keep bringing our attention back. And some interesting neurological benefits are garnered by those who do so.

In addition to producing more meaningful work, rapt concentration creates a mental environment where there is no attention left to worry, perseverate, or fall into despair.

4. Create routines and rituals


Routines and rituals move us beyond good intentions and help “minimize the amount of . . . limited willpower necessary to transition into a state of unbroken concentration.” (100)

The more specific and simple you can make your routines and rituals, the more likely they will support you when things get tough. When I am experimenting with a new ritual to increase my deep work states, I run through it a few times like an actor reviews their movements on stage. I get it in my body as much as possible so that when I’m tired or wanting to do something else, I give over to the ritual and let it guide me into my work (this is also a basic principle of most spiritual disciplines).

The type of ritual or routine is only limited by your imagination.

Here are a few examples:

  • Creating a starting and ending ritual for your deep work sessions.
  • Doing your session in the same place or at the same time each day.
  • Using the same pen or lighting a candle before you begin.
  • Reviewing your grandest vision of your project before you start.
  • Booking one weekend a month to work exclusively on a meaningful project.
  • Putting a sign on your door letting everyone know you are not to be disturbed.
  • Designating a target number of words or pages to write, measures to compose, or length of time to work.

5. Move email to the periphery of your work day


For most of us, email does not create new value nor engage us in meaningful work. It’s, by and large
, reactive, depressing, and endless. When responding to email is left unscheduled, it eats away at our downtime, fragmenting our attention, and diminishing our rest.

Email is one of the key examples illustrating Newport’s principle of least resistance, wherein the absence of clear focus, “we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.” (58) Rather than taking charge of our attention and making the tough decision of what to work on when, we may drag our heels letting our inbox decide our daily fate.

6. Experiment with the forms of deep work


Newport identifies four basic approaches to deep work, the monastic (long uninterrupted periods of working, i.e. a week, a month), the bimodal (multi-day depth binges, say from Friday-Sunday), the rhythmic (habit-based approach that creates daily routines — see chain method, daily schedule.), and the journalistic (finding short depth periods during a fluctuating schedule — best for those already confident in their abilities).

All three philosophies have advantages and disadvantages. For example, a bimodal person who focuses for a three-day weekend may achieve a level of cognitive intensity unavailable to a person following the rhythmic or journalistic philosophy. On the other hand, the rhythmic person may be doing more deep work in total over a month period and can fit their deep work sessions into their daily work schedule.

I’m inspired by the fact that, for most people, all four philosophies can be tried during a year and tested to see which produces the greatest results and the deepest creativity for you.

7. Do the unexpected


There is a reason that train rides, hiking, wandering, and traveling have long been a fascination of artists. These activities place the artist in unexpected terrain, encourage new perspectives, and pull them from the routine of their daily lives.

To inspire deep work or push through a challenging dip in a project, try doing something unexpected. Newport mentions a few inspiring examples including J.K. Rowling’s move to a luxurious hotel to finish the last of the Harry Potter books, Bill Gates’ Think Weeks in which he goes to a remote location with a stack of papers and books to read and think about, and entrepreneur Peter Shankman’s legendary 30-hour round-trip flight to Tokyo on which he completed an entire book manuscript.

These, of course, are rare examples fit for a small segment of the population, but they point to something we can all do: find ways to encourage openness and curiosity while keeping deep work in mind. Some examples could include going camping, house-sitting, asking to use a friend’s summer house during the off-season or your parent’s house when they travel, renting a cabin, taking a cross-country train ride, taking a solitary hike or a long drive while thinking through a problem, or exploring a new library in your area.

8. Reclaim your downtime


The paradox is that idleness and rest are necessary to get deep work done. The outpour of energy needed to achieve focused intensity requires their opposite: relaxed, open attention, and rest. But the busy, frenetic mind remains obsessed with creating reasons why boredom, idleness, and rest could not possibly increase our creative output, how we’ll get behind, how we’re not dedicated enough.

To counteract this tendency, Newport gives us reasons why downtime is essential. The most obvious is that rest is required to restore the energy needed for cognitive intensity. Particularly useful is getting adequate sleep and walking in nature (walking in cities seems to deplete energy).

More interestingly, he tells us that downtime aids insights. Citing a 2006 paper in Science that questions whether the benefits of conscious deliberation in decision-making are justified, the Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis concludes that they are not. Following this thought Newport writes:

“The authors of this study . . . set out to prove that some decisions are better left to your unconscious mind to untangle. In other words, to actively try to work through these decisions will lead to a worse outcome than loading up the relevant information and then moving on to something else while letting the subconscious layers of your mind mull things over.” (145)

The final reason given for building rest and restorative activities to balance your deep work sessions is that the work that evening downtime replaces is usually not that important. The mind can easily turn on anxiety and stress and encourage us to start working again after dinner. But Newport cautions us against this habit. The activities you do in the evening are of lower energy and quality and will most likely not advance your important goals. In most cases, they can be easily deferred.

9. Take breaks from focus, not distraction


The most common way, we are presented, to deal with our increasing screen time usage and fragmented attention is summarized like this: take short breaks from your generalized state of distraction. Internet Sabbaths or digital detoxes, in which a person takes one day a week or a few days every quarter to refrain from digital toys, are the most common.

If your goal is to increase your ability to focus and reduce the background noise of the mind, these methods don’t work. They do not provide enough time and attention to work at the level of brain wiring and habit formation. In fact, they help to keep you unfocused most of the time

Newport proposes an alternative: take breaks from focus, not from distraction. Instead of scheduling time away from distracting technology, schedule your usage of them. To do this, consider all your internet surfing, email responding, social media posting, and even texting as distracted activities. Then schedule their usage during the day and don’t use them at any other time. To be clear, it’s not about not using your devices, but deciding consciously when to use them. Every time you decide to use your phone and do your email, rather than an alert or an open tab on your computer conditioning you to do it, you improve your ability to focus.

By scheduling your distracted time and maintaining the rest of your life in focus, you’ll reclaim (some) of your ability to be attentive and present and improve your deep work sessions.

10. Embrace the challenge of deep work.


Cognitive intensity is hard. You’re pushing your abilities, building new skills, creating new ideas. There’s no way around this challenge. But our smartphones and internetting keep rattling off a singsong of freedom that reads like this:“No matter where you are, we’re here for you, just a click away. You can always remove yourself from whatever you don’t like (a conversation, a party, waiting in line at the market) and jump right into a land of endless fascination.”

But this freedom is fool’s gold. Embracing it reduces your ability to keep going when the work becomes uncomfortable. And it will. If it doesn’t, you haven’t seen what you can really do. This is the gift of deep work. You create the conditions to call upon the greatest expression of your own resources, resources you were almost sure you didn’t have. It sounds almost heroic because it is.


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*I am grateful to Cal Newport and his excellent book Deep Work from which these ideas have been gathered.
** Photo by .craig 

How Do You Practice Your Own Life?

how-to-practice-your-own-life

If there is one theme running through the fields of artistic craftsmanship, psychological growth, and spiritual discipline, it is the emphasis on practice.

In the quest for expert performance, hours and hours of deliberate practice on a very specific skill set (say playing the violin or mastering chess, etc.) is the key to growth.

In psychotherapy, the idea of practice is broader and includes the development of awareness of our own resistances, hurts, shame, and control patterns.

In spiritual disciplines such as Zen Buddhism, the term “practice” is even broader. It includes more conventional religious activities like meditation, study, and ritual, but also the way in which we engage with our own lives and the quality of our attention to what we do, say, and think.

In his book, At Home in the Muddy Water: A Guide to Finding Peace within Everyday Chaos, Ezra Bayda shares his Thirty-one Flavors of Practice, a list of the ways we can engage with our life as “practice”.

From the list below, he recommends choosing one slogan each morning, holding it in your mind throughout the day and then using it to deepen your experience of your own life. I’ve created a PDF version of the following practice slogans that you can print out and use.

Download the Daily Practice Worksheet

Thirty-one Flavors of Practice

  • Practice is about experiencing the truth of who we really are.
  • Practice is about being with our life as it is, not as we would like it to be.
  • Practice is about clarifying our belief systems so that even if they remain, they no longer run us.
  • Practice is about seeing through the illusion of a separate self.
  • Practice is about learning to be kind, but we will never be kind until we truly experience our unkindness.
  • Practice is about attending to and experiencing wherever we’re stuck, whatever we’re holding, whatever clouds our True Nature.
  • Practice is about willingly residing in whatever life presents to us.
  • Practice comes back again and again to the basic koan: “What is this?— always pointing directly to the experiential truth of the moment.
  • Practice is about turning away from constantly seeking comfort and trying to avoid pain.
  • Practice is about learning to be no one, not giving solidity to any belief system—just Being.
  • Practice is about becoming free of the slavery of our self-judgments and our shame.
  • Practice is about seeing through the false promise of our ideals and fantasies.
  • Practice is about becoming a lamp unto ourselves.
  • Practice is about moving from a life of emotional upset toward a life of equanimity.
  • Practice is always about returning to our True Nature.
  • Practice is about the growing ability to say thank you to everything that we meet.
  • Practice is about the transformation of our unnecessary suffering.
  • Practice is about the clash between what we want and what is.
  • Practice is about increasingly entering into Love— not personal love, but the Love that is the nature of our Being.
  • Practice is about turning from a self-centered view to a life centered view.
  • Practice is about finally understanding the basic paradox that although everything is a mess, All Is Well.
  • Practice is about appreciating our preferences without making them demands.
  • Practice is not about suffering, but learning from our suffering.
  • Practice is about perseverance-the ability to continue in our efforts even though life doesn’t please us in the ordinary sense.
  • Practice is about learning to live from the open Heart-the Heart that only knows connectedness.
  • Practice is about becoming free of our attachments and the suffering that is born of those attachments.
  • Practice will always entail forgiveness, at least as long as there is even one person whom we can’t forgive.
  • Practice must ultimately deal with the most basic human fear, the fear of extinction, whether of the physical body or of the ego.
  • Practice is about learning to say yes to what’s happening even when we hate it.
  • Practice is about giving ourselves to others, but like a white bird in the snow.
  • Practice always comes back to the willingness to just be.

How to Use the Practice List

1. Read one slogan each morning or each week as a way to focus your attention during the day.

2. Use a slogan as a prompt for journaling or reflective writing. What does the slogan bring up for you? How do you embody and resist that form of practice?

3. Add one slogan to each Monday morning on your calendar.

4. Use a slogan you find interesting as a prompt for a lunch conversation with a close friend.

5. Print out a few slogans and tape them to your car dashboard to reflect upon while driving.

Download the Daily Practice Worksheet


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*Photo by Jeremy Brooks

Deep Work is All-Consuming

I forget how tired I can become when I give myself totally to something that really touches my core desires. The results may be slow, the output minimal at first, but the activity is so engaging, so all consuming, that I’m fatigued like a heavy workout.

When I mistake this deep work for “items on my to do list” or “working for someone else’s vision”, I think I can just roll into the next item. But they are radically different kinds of activity and when I don’t plan adequate recovery time, I end up falling over mid-sentence. 

One Percent a Day

Only after years of failing to follow through on ideas, projects, and goals do I finally see the power of improving just 1% each day. The change is imperceptible, almost nothing, and yet with consistency produces everything. I’m training myself to see the micro, feel its contours and revel in it. Age helps to cut through my demand for sweeping transformation. In place of the lion’s roar, a quiet determination that fills body and mind, like a clear note sang without pushing from the back of the stage, soaring past the sounds of the orchestra to the crowd.