Three Days, Two Nights, Forty-Four Strangers

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.

Urgency vs. Importance

Urgency creates an attention poverty. It deprives us of the present moment and encourages us to make rash decisions, to act before thinking and to commit before considering. 

Urgency disregards priorities and blatantly ignores what's important. It demands nothing short of immediate, unmindful action.

Things that are urgent are fleeting. They lose their value and their sense of importance with every passing moment and they feel important because they're fleeting.

We buy something because it's on sale or jump into a conversation so that we're heard; we stay on top of what's trending or keep up with our favorite shows, authors, or magazines; we stay with our job because it's a great opportunity or we indulge in the luxuries of life because, hey, life is short.

We chase these things because they're fleeting, because the unstoppable and relentless marching of time ensures that they will be gone, possibly forever, if we don't act now

But what's important, what's truly important, remains important. It doesn't fade into the background when we ignore it. It doesn't disappear after a few days, weeks, or years. 

It doesn't matter if we're rich or poor, if we're ten years old or a hundred years old, if it's Monday or Friday or if it's the weekend with a full moon: the important things remain important.

The important things are here to stay. They remain with us, patiently waiting until we're ready to sit quietly, bring our mind home, and give them the attention they deserve.

Urgency will never wait; you'll never catch it. Chasing what's urgent is a fools game. But embracing what's important, that's something that has meaning. That's something that has real value.

The urgent stuff will always be running away from us, but the important stuff -- the stuff that gives our life meaning -- is waiting patiently with open arms.

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.

The Wandering Mind and the Wild Horse

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.

What's real is now

There is a certain freedom that comes with releasing our hold on time. I wrote an essay last night, the annual placebo effect, in response to the huge volume of change I see occurring around me. Not physical change, but a change in perception. There's a shift in attitudes, a sudden change in priorities, and an increasing emphasis on being reflective, grateful, and aware.

But why now? 

The concept of time is something that has fascinated me for most of my life (I've written dozens of essays related to time over the past few years). No matter how deep into the subject I go, I always come back to one thing: now; the present moment. It's the point in time that moves with us. (Or do we move with it?)

In 2006 I wrote an essay called Timeless Living, where I reflected on the possibility that our perception of time may actually affect the speed at which our body experiences time.

As the "new year" approaches, I've been intentionally avoiding the entire concept of "a new year", because really, what makes it "a new year"? I think that term is a bit misleading and perhaps even dangerous. There's nothing extra new about tomorrow. It's another day, just like today and yesterday.

If I held onto this notion that tomorrow holds some special significance, it would change the way I see reality. Incomplete projects, like my Transparency Report which I had hoped to complete before "the end of the year", would suddenly become sources of stress and disappointment.

But more importantly, thinking about tomorrow as holding some special significance would pull me away from now. And really, now is the only thing I actually have. For all I know, something could happen in the next 14 hours that prevents me from even existing in "the new year".

But there's also a danger in entirely releasing the concept of time: It becomes easy to live only for the present moment, disregarding the future as non-existent or unreal. 

The future is real. We may or may not be physically present in that future, but it's still going to exist, with or without us accepting it.

The balance I attempt to strike is between accepting that now is the only moment in time where I can actually affect anything. The future may be unwritten and I may or may not exist within it, but one thing is certain: my actions right now will reverberate in that future.

There's nothing wrong with creating new years resolutions or setting goals; in fact, I'm an advocate for both, but I don't believe we should feel caged or limited by the framework in which we set those intentions. 

Our concept of time shouldn't be limiting, but rather augmenting. We can use time as a motivation for getting things done, but our foundation in reality shouldn't be based in something that's arbitrary. It should be based in something that's real.

What's real is right now.

A Gift from Yesterday

Today creates a world of its own, a world open to redefining what it means to be alive. It's unique from yesterday, not a point in time but rather a canvas stretching from here to the end of eternity, a giant etch-a-sketch wiped clean by the darkness and illuminated by the light of those souls who inspire, move, and motivate us to step forward.

Each day is a small evolution, a bundle of hope and joy waiting to unfold; a new opportunity, a blank slate, a fresh page, and a new chapter in life. But today is special. Today is special because today is a care package handed to us with the same love and compassion that a parent cradles a newborn baby.

Embrace yourself. Right now. It’s okay, no one is watching. Close your eyes and wrap your arms around yourself. Give yourself a big hug. Feel those hands on your back, warm, soft, and gentle. Melt into that embrace.

That person loves you more than anyone ever could. That person will be with you forever, even on your deathbed. That person loves you so much that you're being handed the best gift that has ever been given. The gift of today.

Water in the Palm of your Hand

Take a deep breath. Go ahead, do it right now. Doesn't that feel good? Breathing is an amazing stress reducer. Our body needs oxygen to function and the function of our brain is actually constrained when it doesn't have the amount of oxygen it requires (which is why drowning victims can have brain damage if they were without air for a long time). When we're stressed out we unconsciously take short breaths. This causes our body and brain to work harder and thereby create even more stress. Try to consciously take deep breath's throughout the day and you will feel a big improvement in your overall physical health.

My dad, Adam, and myself had an interesting conversation last night when I visited my parents house. I won't go deep into the conversation, but a couple of key points from the conversation are worth mentioning:

  • The zone. Most people who are skilled in a particular field have experienced it. It's that feeling you get when things seem to happen without conscious thought, when you feel as if you're watching yourself do the work without actually needing to think about doing it. I've had that experience while typing on my computer, when words and thoughts seem to flow from my head straight to the screen. I've also felt it while running on the treadmill and when lifting weights. When you stop identifying what you're doing as your action and remove your ego from the picture, energy flows without your ego's intervention thereby creating "the zone".
  • React to problems as water reacts to rocks; flow around them. There is always a tomorrow that exists with the problem in the past, so keep that day in mind and the problem will seem easily manageable.
  • Life is like water in the palm of your hand: you have a limited amount of time. Do something with it.

I can directly relate to reacting to problems in a calm, intelligent way. My experience with the Bowers St incident has made me feel as if I can tackle any problem that comes my way.

Don't put things off until tomorrow. Would you want the you of tomorrow to have to deal with it? No, so get it done today and the you of tomorrow will thank you for it.

In retrospect, it really isn't that important

As a runner up to my previous post, From Bad to Worse, I must say that if I wasn't able to let go of the stress things like that cause, I don't know what I'd do with myself. By the time I arrived at the office in Cambridge, my head was really all over the place, thinking about what I was going to do about the gas. The programming work that I do requires my full attention, and generally nothing will get finished unless I can zone out everything else and concentrate entirely on what I'm working on. This mostly applies to programming, but I've noticed the same "singular concentration" requirement in other things I do (writing, and working out for example). The project I'm working on at Aerva needs to be finished this week, and I had results to show by the end of the day. So I knew I had no choice. I had work to finish regardless of what else was going on in my life. So I took a deep breath and let it go. I realized that no matter how significant your problem is, there's always someone out there who has it even worse.

When your list of problems seem endless, think about the moment. You're alive. Don't create your near future in your head using all the problems that formed in the past (even 30 seconds ago is the past). Deal with the problems at hand, and think of the future (the next minute is the future too) as a clean slate, a mold to which you can create anything you wish. Sure, current and past unresolved problems will have an effect on that future mold, but why think about what that mold might be? Some of your problems might resolve themselves. Unseen future circumstances will undoubtedly have an effect on the future as well, so leave the future to create itself when the time comes. Don't dwell upon it. Stress and worry comes from the prediction of an unhappy fate. Prevent your mind from predicting your fate and the stress and worry will cease to exist. You have the power to influence any part of your future. Believe in yourself and use that power.

Keep the End Out of Sight

Does knowledge of the end make everything easier? Does our understanding and acceptance that we're all going to die some day somehow unconsciously help us get through the toughest times in our lives? Does our subconscious mind tell us that we've got nowhere else to go until the day we die, so why not just push on? This directly relates to what I said in my earlier post, Timeless Living. Maybe the unconscious anticipation of the end makes us grow old quicker.

Have you ever noticed how when you're on a trip somewhere, say vacation for example, the trip there always seems longer than the trip back? I noticed this when I was younger, traveling to different places for business with my family. I came to the conclusion that the time differences are 100% related to our anticipation. We're excited and looking forward to reaching our destination, so we're more aware of the time as it goes by. Each moment we ask ourselves "How much longer?" "What will we do and see when we get there?" "What will it look like?" "I can't wait to get there, it's going to be so much fun!". All these thoughts make us aware of the moment, and being aware of the moment makes the moment last longer.

However, when vacation is over and we're on our way back home, we don't have the same anticipation for our destination. We already know what awaits us when we arrive, and if anything we'd rather delay getting there. So we sit back and relax, and instead of thinking about the moment we think about the past; we think about everything we've done while we were on vacation. So what happens? Time speeds up, and the very thing we wished we could delay arrives sooner.

How can you stay young forever if you can't even remain who you are in the moment? You're life is a rope, strung over the edge of a tall wall. You need to get to the other side and you've already climbed 1/4 the way up, your present. The bottom half of the rope, your past, is on fire and is burning fast. Do you jump for the top of the wall, your future, and risk falling? Climbing back down would be stupid, as the rope is only getting shorter. You stay in the moment, slowly and steadily moving forward until you've reached the end. The only thing you need to know about your past is that it's gotten you to where you are now.

It's amazing how much the concept of time is ingrained into us. Try, for a moment, to imagine that there is no time. No past, no present, no future. It's hard. You have to take everything as a whole, instead of placing things on a time line. The idea of time makes our life easier and more predictable so we readily accept it.

Odd, I think all this pondering about life and time is making my life pass by quicker...