"Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The Sun's rays do not burn until brought to a focus." — Alexander Graham Bell
There’s a park here in Hobart that I’ve walked through maybe a dozen times since arriving in Tasmania a few weeks ago. It’s a beautiful park with manicured gardens and strips of black pavement that crisscross bright green grass that always seems to be freshly cut.
But there’s also something quirky about this park. Stone structures that look like giant gravestones are occasionally thrown about and there are different types of trees growing in seemingly random locations.
I walked through the park today and stopped to read a small metal placard that was embedded into a stone at the base of one of the smaller trees. It said the tree was planted in 1932. That’s eighty years. I put my hand on the tree and looked up at it with a new sense of respect and admiration. Eighty years old and still young and strong.
I continued my walk and looked around at the other elderly giants surrounding me. Some of these trees must be hundreds of years old.
The park is a common route used by both commuters and students traveling to and from work and school. My host, who often walks through the park on her way to and from work, mentioned to me once that it would be a fun project to take photos of the trees while looking up at the sky from underneath them, and then trying to identify where in the park each photo was taken.
I find myself always looking up when I pass through a park now.
Perspective has a strange way of changing how we think about the most obvious things, those things that we take for granted and pass over, or under, without thought or pause for reflection.
At the other end of the park I came across a sign with more information and some historical background about the area. In 1804, the park began as Tasmania’s first cemetery, but became badly neglected within a few years and fell apart. Escaped convicts would occasionally vandalize the graves and sometimes they would even climb into coffins to hide from pursuing police.
The city of Hobart continued to grow and expand around the cemetery and before it was turned into a recreation area in 1925, nearly 900 people had been buried there. A few of the prominent gravestones were repaired and now they share the landscape with several giant trees, including American Redwood, Elm, Spruce, and Tasmania’s native, and giant, Blue Gum tree.
Nine hundred people. I tried to imagine that number of skeletons resting underneath the beautiful green grass, the roots of these giant trees weaving in and out of them, slowly converting what was once a living breathing human back into the basic elements. I’ll never walk through St. David’s park the same way again, as my perspective has been permanently shifted by the few words on that deteriorating sign.
It doesn’t take much to alter our view of the world, to shift our reality in such a great way that what we see and feel changes so dramatically that we become a different person, making different choices and thinking different thoughts. But a change in our perspective always starts with present-minded observation, with understanding where we are right now in relation to something else.
I walked though that park many times, but it wasn’t until I slowed down to understand and observe my surroundings that I acquired a new perspective and a new appreciation for the park.
In the same way, unless I remain curious and present to the activities in my day-to-day life, I may end up walking through unaware and oblivious to the great depth and richness that exists all around me and within my life.
For three days and two nights, forty-four strangers become a tribe, a group of people living communally under one roof, all headed in the same direction, with every intention of arriving at the same destination.
During our journey we all sleep in the same room. We use the same bathrooms and kitchens. We fall asleep side-by-side, snore, and otherwise leave ourselves entirely vulnerable to absolute strangers.
We awake in the morning with messy hair and groggy eyes, collect our clothes and toiletries, and wobble down the hall to the bathroom where we shower and brush our teeth.
All of us different colors, genders and ages, with different passions and dreams, each with his or her own unique set of strengths, and weaknesses, and problems, and idiosyncrasies.
How different is this from life itself?
All of humanity is living together on a proverbial train, moving around the sun on a predictable course, itself moving around the galaxy, and that around the local cluster, and even that moving around the universe.
Life ebbs and flows, inhales and exhales, until it exhales no more and instead transforms. All of us, headed in the same direction, to the same destination, a ‘last stop’ for our physical bodies, where the tracks end and we must get off and use our feet to continue on.
Are you familiar with your feet? Are your walking muscles strong and in good shape? Or will you, when the momentum of time stops carrying you forward, wither and die before you’re dead?
The Ghan slogs through the center of the continent, streaming the Australian Outback through the window and providing a never-ending source of distraction to my writing. I pause between acrobatic sessions of finger-dancing and look out the window to see metaphors everywhere.
If I were to allow myself, right now, to be distracted by that stream of beauty, I would not be creating these words. I need to first detach myself from what’s going on outside and focus my attention here, in the now.
This chair, my laptop, these thoughts.
These thoughts. I feel compelled to empty these thoughts from my brain, for their purpose feels too great to be contained in such a weakly guarded shell. They’re safer written down, transformed into something more tangible.
But there is danger in becoming too obsessed with the now. In writing that previous paragraph I found myself getting trapped in the past, my ego clinging on to every word. And so I turned my attention back to the streaming Outback, to that place where I had no choice but to let go.
The train will not stop for my ego, nor my curiosity, nor my inquisitive spirit. Momentum carries them forward, the same way time carries forward each of us, with or without our consent.
It doesn’t matter how interesting the landscape is or how fascinating the animal, or how quickly either disappears. Look! There’s a kangaroo hopping over the tall grass as it runs away from the drumming train. Look! There’s a emu! and another! But the train, unsympathetic and single-minded, continues chugging forward.
And so it is by observing this movement and embracing the impermanence of everything within my reach that I learn to enjoy that stream of beauty, to recognize its presence all around me.
I can now return my focus to the present.
The group of forty-four people are aware their time together is limited, so they don’t worry about looking funny when they awake. It doesn’t matter if strangers see the color of their toothbrush; they’ll probably never see these strangers again. It doesn’t matter if some people snore loudly or if others let off gas; we’re all getting off this train soon anyway.
The girl who is anxious about finding a place to charge her laptop doesn’t lose sleep over the lady who might miss her flight if the train arrives late, but the two travelers can still smile and share a friendly conversation about their favorite Australian city.
All of this is possible because it doesn’t matter where we’re going or when we’ll get there, but rather how we interact with those around us, to what and to whom we give our attention, and to where we focus the energy of our presence before this train’s final stop.
Now more than ever we need to stop listening to everyone else. We need to stop reading articles and books, watching videos, and listening to interviews where other people tell us what to do and what to think.
If you want to be a writer, stop reading about writing and start writing. If you want to build a business, stop looking for business advice and start failing. If you want to get in shape, stop saying you want to get in shape and start pushing your body beyond comfort.
If you want to change your life, stop reading about other life's and start taking the steps necessary to begin changing yours.
Do you think anyone could've changed themselves, or the world, if they had spent their lives snacking on social media, devouring stories of how other people changed the world, and thinking about all the things they could do?
We should all aspire to be great, not to imitate others but rather to discover what greatness exists within each of us. We should develop an insatiable appetite for empowering ourselves and exploring that vast source of untapped potential we all carry within us.
So consider this a plea from me to stop reading and start tinkering; stop talking and start being; stop dreaming and start doing; stop listening and start exploring. Yes, that includes not listening to me.
It includes ignoring people who constantly seek your attention. It includes disconnecting from being always-on and available. It includes prioritizing your life based on what is important instead of what is urgent.
Lots of stuff is urgent, but the important stuff is what makes us who we are. You must remember to do the important things first, because you are not what you read, or think, or say: you are what you do.
I'm tired of taking refuge in all that is false. I'm tired of taking refuge outside of myself.
I pray may this finally become a truth I hold with the deepest clarity: there’s no reliable refuge in this material world of ours nor in all the experiences we chase after with glee.
In drugs, sex, partners, friends, work, money, homes, rock-n-roll, the internet, pluses, likes, tweets or anything else. Even this planet will burn up in a fiery ball. All experiences are as fickle and changeable as the wind. And the material isn't nearly as solid as you may think.
Thoughts and emotions are even worse! They seem so real and alluring, but will lead to nothing but trouble if you don’t let them pass right by. Thoughts and emotions are a big waste of time; better to rest in the essence of mind. Avoid harm, do good, and tame this mind of ours.
Instead of running for refuge from all one's twisted beliefs and stormy emotion, let them rise up and let them dissolve. It’s all just like a film. Momentarily so vivid and real. Till the lights turn up in the movie theater.
When death comes knocking - it could happen at any time - all that has happened will seem no more than a vague dream. Can you even remember what happened just a few hours ago?
This was a thought-provoking and powerful passage from Sandra Pawula's latest letter (subscription required).
I've been exploring mindfulness for the past few weeks and with that I've been making a conscious effort to fully recognize when I'm not present. When I notice that I'm not 'here', I remove myself from whatever is pulling me away from that moment.
A few days ago I noticed that I had become not present after sitting in front of the computer for three hours. To break up what would've been an all-day session, I spontaneously went for a walk in the local state forest.
It's mid-winter here in the northeast Untied States and I was greeted by a thin coat of fresh snow blanketing the forest floor. With a bitter cold breeze blowing at my face and a bird chirping somewhere in the distance, I looked around and noticed something unexpected: I still wasn't present.
As conducive as the forest was to mindfulness, simply being in the forest didn't make me feel present and mindful.
Then I noticed something else: the cold wasn't the only thing wrapping around me; there was something resisting my desire to fully experience the present. I tried to consciously release it, but it maintained its grip.
After about an hour of walking and releasing thoughts as they arose, I began to feel something else strange. I felt myself 'gaining ground' on the present, somehow 'catching up' to it.
It was as though the stickiness of modern life was slowly melting away.
What had created this resistance? What had created this strange phenomena?
Was it possible the externalization necessary to interact with people and information in a non-physical space like the Internet had actually pulled me away from the present moment to such a degree that it created a false sense of awareness?
When I began walking in the forest, I thought it would take perhaps a few minutes to feel mindful and present again. It was cold and I hadn't planned on spending much time walking.
It took almost two hours before I began to feel mindful and present. (I spontaneously recorded a short video towards the end of my walk.)
I do not believe in the elimination of technology to solve problems that we ourselves create by misusing technology. (Just as a gun doesn't kill people, technology doesn't make people unmindful; we do that to ourselves.)
Taking a one-month digital sabbatical would only put a bandaid on the problem. I would rather learn how to create harmony in my life by experimenting with new ways of living and interacting with technology.
To begin, I sought out the greatest sources of distraction in my life by asking myself two questions throughout the day:
Where am I and what am I doing?
Is this activity pulling me away from the present moment or returning me to it?
What I learned surprised me: the greatest source of regular distraction from present-minded awareness in my life came from activities related to email.
I spend a lot of time working online and a large amount of my communication with others happens through email. That said, my email is quite manageable. I have a system in place that keeps things organized.
Despite receiving more than a hundred emails a day and writing dozens of replies, I don't feel overwhelmed. Why then, was my email the greatest source of distraction from the present moment?
The answer, I determined, could be found in my relationship to email and in the way that I gave it my attention.
Normally, I would check for new email dozens of times a day and immediately reply to any messages that would take less than two minutes of my time.
I would also check email on my phone dozens of times a day, sometimes replying but usually just scanning their contents and allowing myself to reply later from the computer. (What a waste of time... always reading emails twice!)
What was so important that I needed to check for new email dozens of times a day and read the same email multiple times? What would happen to my daily mindfulness if I reduced that to checking email once a day and reading every email just one time?
Testing a Proactive and Conservative Approach to Email
Here's how I'm going to start experimenting with mindful email:
- I will read and reply to email only once a day, preferably towards the evening so that my vitality and creative energy are available to my other, more present activities like creating, learning, and reflecting. I will not enter the inbox until I'm ready to actually focus on the activity of reading and replying to emails.
- I will keep my email responses short and to the point; I will resist any urge to go into depth in a single email and instead choose depth over time by asking better questions and conversing across multiple replies. The goal isn't to be laconic, but rather pithy and succinct.
- I will use my phone to scan for emergency business-related emails, but I will never open the emails on my phone; I will only use the phone to scan email subjects.
The intention here is to be more deliberate with how I use email as a form of communication, to be proactive and instead of reactive to inbound requests for my attention.
In the few hours since I began this experiment, I've become aware of just how habitual checking email has really become. Any time my focus wandered while writing this Journal, I found myself with the urge to check my inbox or browse a social media site.
To reshape those habitual patterns, I've started turning my focus away from the computer or simply get up and walk away from my computer for a few minutes.
These mindfulness experiments are not about disconnecting more; I'm not trying to remove myself from technology or go on a 'digital sabbatical'. The goal here is to spend more time connected to the present while simultaneously using the tools provided by technology to grow and live better.
What's important? I've been asking myself that a lot lately. What is important to me and what am I doing with it? If being fully invested in present is important to me, where am I right now?
These questions weigh heavily on my mind after an unusually varied week, full of everything from writing, to answering an a high volume of emails, to strolling and running through a state forest, to completing freelance web development projects, to playing with my nephew and helping my brother-in-law fix home wiring issues (and getting electrocuted in the process; there's no room for pride in science).
The question of importance is inevitable when the demand on our attention (whether from others or from ourselves) exceeds what is available to us. But there really are no excuses to misdirected focus. As I wrote in my latest essay, our system of keeping time doesn't determine when we act; we determine when we act.
The concept of time is a subject I could talk about for hours. I could run circles around what it is and what it isn't, why it matters and why it doesn't. But one fact remains: I will die.
This physical body will eventually break down and stop functioning; it will eventually cease to act as a vehicle for life. My true self may be timeless and limitless, but this physical body definitely has limitations; its lifespan is restricted by the framework we call time.
How we spend our time and energy within those limitations is influenced by what is, or what isn't, important to us. We can take a reactionary approach to life and simply spend our time doing whatever calls our attention, or we can take a proactive approach and decide where that energy will be focused.
In reflecting on this for the past two weeks, I've found myself spending less time paying attention to my phone; less time checking and answering emails; less time on social media; less time worrying about how to respond to this person or that person; less time wondering what's next or where I should focus my energy tomorrow; less time reading; less time writing.
I find myself spending less time and conserving more.
Things that are not present don't receive as much attention because that attention is being redirected here, where I can be present. Instead of volunteering my time and attention to long elaborate email responses, never-ending to-do lists, phone calls, people, projects, and goals, I find myself reserving that precious commodity for here, right now.
I find myself holding depth in conversation as something worthy of great respect, an outpouring of energy that cannot simply be dumped into every email, comment, and conversation, but rather something that is reserved for special occasions where some passionate voice inside becomes inflamed and pushes that pent up reservoir over the edge.
A few days ago I began my morning playing with my nephew. When I'm visiting my parents I usually play for a minute or two before rushing off to start working on my laptop, catching up with emails, figuring out what project I need to complete for that day, and otherwise "spending my time and energy" doing whatever I think needs to be done.
About two minutes into playing with my nephew, I felt the pull of "this other stuff"; it was stronger than usual. I had stuff to do, things to finish. The morning was already getting late and there was so much to get done.
Instead of giving into this pull, I allowed myself to feel overwhelmed, to "fill up" with this sudden self-imposed surge of demand on my attention; I resisted the urge to get up and go (with lots of help from my 2-year-old nephew).
Instead of getting up and going, I got down on my hands and knees; my nephew climbed on my back.
Then the reservoir tipped.
Wrapping his arms around my neck, he tried to stay on my back as I marched around the room like a wild horse. Laugher spilled from the both of us as he repeatedly slipped off and then jumped back on.
This went on for more than 15 minutes until both of us were exhausted from laugher.
There will always be other stuff to do, people to meet, conversations to be had, stuff to learn, places to experience, work to be done.
But there will only be one now.
We need to be fully invested in that, in the present. Instead of letting it wander aimlessly, we need to bring our mind home.
What's here in this moment is gone in the next and unless we decide to experience life from that perspective, the perspective of the present, we cannot live a whole life.
We can invest in the future and even in the past, but we need to invest that energy carefully and with intent. Unless most of our energy is being invested in the present, where are we really?
I'm going to practice expending less energy in areas where energy easily dissipates. I'm going to practice more proactive conservation and focus, less reactionary and aimless expenditure. More here, less there; more now, less then.
The past and the future do not really exist; what exists is now.
His last point about noteworthiness is an incredibly useful way to avoid wasting time. I started curating and sharing notes on things that I read because I feel that doing so will not only help me retain and determine the usefulness of what I'm consuming, but also help others spend less time filtering through stuff.
I definitely agree about the "filtering crap from gold" bit. Once you reach a certain level of skill it can become a hindrance: you develop an extremely low tolerance for anything that doesn't catch you as interesting within a few seconds, and you start speed-reading absolutely everything. This is good in that you aren't wasting time consuming something that's not really useful, but it's bad in that you end up continuously subjecting yourself to input in this way. You can spend a whole day processing a million inputs, throwing them all away and learning nothing, when the alternatives are to spend your time doing something more fun or productive, or slowing down a bit and maybe actually getting a tidbit or two out of the first few hundred inputs and leaving the rest for another time.
A while ago, when I was reading for the purpose of focused learning (technical books, scouring blogs for information about some framework/API, etc.), I began the habit of taking copious notes. My notes are very wordy; it's almost like I'm having a conversation with myself and rephrasing ideas so I can understand them better. OneNote is my weapon of choice - for me it reduces the "barrier to entry" of starting notetaking because it's easy write now and organize later.
Over time, I realized that when I took notes this way, I had a much higher retention rate and a much greater understanding of what I was reading. So much so that when I find myself sitting at my desk or on the couch and "infosnacking," I try to stop and ask myself, "is what I am reading right now worth taking notes on?" If it is, then I start writing. If it's not, I make the effort to tear myself away and either do something that's more productive or something that I really enjoy.
I see it everywhere, often in marketing and things that are demanding my attention. "Three steps. It's simple!" But does it have value? Is it worth it? You could have a three-step-plan for life too: be born, age a little, and then die.
Sometimes things aren't so simple and easy. Sometimes, the things really worth doing are a lot more complicated. You can tackle them in a simple way, sure, but life isn't a three-step-process and neither are most things worth doing.
I admire and even advocate simplicity, but not at the expense of doing things that matter.