On My Feet

"Now that I have a baby on the way, maybe a bicycle would be a good thing to have..."

"Maybe instead of walking slowly it would make sense to be able to get home more quickly on a bicycle... maybe spending less time commuting would give me more time with my daughter..."

I've been walking 10,000 steps every day on average for the past few months. It's a 0.7-mile walk from the house to the train station and from there I commute 20 minutes on the train to Central Square, Cambridge where I work from my favorite cafe.

I make the commute back home for lunch around noon, then back to Central Square around two o'clock before finally heading home for the evening around six. In total, I spend over an hour walking outside every day, rain or shine.

We have a car, but we try to use it as little as possible, and I love not needing to drive everywhere. I've grown to despise driving. It's hectic and incredibly stressful on our bodies. (If you're not stressed while driving, you're either not paying enough attention to driving or you're not paying enough attention to your body.)

Fifteen years of driving and more than half a million miles have also taught me how incredibly unnatural the seated position is for our bodies, especially when we're stressed. I don't need more unnatural things stressing my body; I spend enough time sitting at a computer.

I was talking to my friend Cristian about how I commute by walking and riding the train when he suggested that riding a bicycle everywhere would be more exercise, and probably more convenient. After thinking about it for a few minutes I realized that he was right.

If I had a bike, I would have more options. I'd save time. I would be able to get home more quickly from the train station and that would mean I'd be able to spend more time with my daughter (once she's born... any day now!).

I proceeded to search CraigsList for used bikes in this area. I found one right here in Central Square. It was a black, fixed-gear bicycle in nearly new condition, exactly what I was looking for! I emailed the seller and set up a time to look at the bike the next morning. That was yesterday.

As I got ready for work this morning, I imagined myself riding a bike to the train station, or even directly to Central Square.

That's when I began to realize what I love about walking.

A bike would speed up the pace of my life, bringing me closer to driving a car. I'd need to constantly be alert, watching where I'm going and looking out for people, other bikers, cars, etc., just like I'd be doing in a car.

The world would fly by. My attention would be focused on one thing. I wouldn't be able to look up at the sky and watch the clouds, or stop to literally smell the roses.

I could, yes, but I probably wouldn't.

The motion would be more mechanical and less human. I wouldn't be able to feel the muscles in my legs, and my feet, and my hips and think to myself "those muscles are designed for this motion," because they're not designed for a bicycle, or a car; they're designed for walking.

I love my daily walks. They're not an inconvenience at all, but a refresher. I love getting a whiff of air that smells of flowers and closing my eyes to smile inside, or smiling at a baby as he rolls by in a stroller.

I love the way the world bobbles up and down in slow motion with each step I take.

I love that I can instantly pause and capture a photo of the Earth.

I love being able to read, or not, when I'm riding on the train.

I love smiling at the dogs and following the butterflies with my eyes until they disappear behind a wall of green leaves.

But really, I love being able to take a deep breath of air and smell the earth, to be able to take my huaraches off and walk barefoot and feel the damp earth under my feet.

On a bike, I'm not connected to the earth in the same way. On a bike, my body is just the engine to a machine; I'm only half the equation. But on my feet, I am the machine and the engine. I'm the complete package. It's all natural, as nature designed it.

Would using a bicycle save me time and let me spend more of it with my daughter? Sure, but what good would that extra time be if acquiring it meant she would spend time with a more stressed out daddy?

What good would teaching her present-mindedness be if my mind was always focused on something else, always hurrying here and there as if right now wasn't good enough?

It's so easy to go astray, to make choices with the best intentions in mind only to have those choices take us in a direction that leaves us worse off than when we started.

When it comes to time, the choice that contributes to mindfulness is always the best choice. Mindfulness slows time and gives us more of it. I feel most mindful on my feet.

Notes: Giving Up the False Refuges

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).

Mindfulness Experiments: Discovering the Blanket

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.