The fantastic editors at Quarterlette let me write a piece for their blog that builds off of "How to be alone." It's all about the decision to do something by ourselves, in particular, deciding whether or not to eat alone at a restaurant.
Archives for December 2013
“If a man doesn’t dream, what’s the point” – Dad
If you have people around you right now, take a look at some of their faces. If you are alone, try to remember some of the faces you’ve seen recently. Ask yourself: do these people look like they are chasing their dream? Or do they look like they’ve given up on it and “got real”?
I do this myself from time to time. It’s a pretty depressing exercise, quite frankly. The faces I see are not faces that tell me that these folks are chasing or living their dream. It looks like somewhere along the way they got beaten up so much, got so tired, or were finally convinced that their dream was indeed silly, that they dropped it and settled for what was within reach. They stuck to what felt real and stopped the chase.
Dreams can be powerful. They inspire us, mostly because they are so tied up with our own values and sense of self. They can symbolize self development, freedom, goodwill, warmth, or joy. We don’t dream something that is trivial. Dreams are not pie-in-the-sky stuff, they are vital to living all-in.
My own dreams are about being the best I can be for all of my loved ones, and making a positive impact on the world around me. The details of these have shifted around over the years, but the main arc has never changed. These dreams are my soul sketching a picture of what’s important to me. As I keep living another day, It keeps refining the drafts, and adding some color here and there.
Considering how powerful dreams are, it says a lot that so many of us will give up on them. It probably won’t have anything to do with our level of commitment or passion, just the fact that chasing important stuff is hard and it can wear anybody down. It also doesn’t help when people around you say they are dumb, or impossible, or do anything but support you and try to understand your aspirations.
My dad and I are definitely related. If you put us side by side you are essentially looking at the same physical person plus or minus 45 years (we even have tiny moles in the same spots around our lips). We both are also dreamers. He is about to turn 75, and to this day he does not stop thinking of “What ifs” and getting excited over them. What if we started a food truck? What if we opened an online store? What if we invested in land in IL? He lives off of dreams like I live off of chips and hummus.
That is one of the many ways I want to be like my dad. I want to chase my dreams into my later years, with little regard over whether I am being sensible or not. I, of course, want to achieve my dreams, but what’s more important is the mindset I want to have hardwired into my brain by then. I don’t ever want to feel like I should stop dreaming because I need to start “getting real.” Once you stop dreaming you start limiting yourself, and from there your window of life’s possibilities keeps getting smaller and smaller.
I constantly remember those somber faces so I remind myself of what not to be. I never want someone else to look at my face and think, “I think he gave up.” Never. I want to be like my dad, the dreamer.
(Happy birthday, dad)
A couple of years ago, after having read The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, I decided to follow Alain de Botton on Twitter.
One fateful day I responded to one of his many interesting tweets with one my favorite quotes (I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made –FDR). He shared the quote with his followers, and then later, after http://cabinetbrassens.fr/tag/civil/?s= following me back, sent me a direct message thanking me for the quote. Feeling a bit hold, I asked him for a short interview via email. He agreed. Being an optimist has its advantages.
I sent him the questions below, and he responded within a few days. Although his responses are short, they are packed with value. I hope you get as much out of his 88 words as I have.
(I've bolded the parts that stick out the most to me.)
go Q 1: You take a look at the sort of philosophical meaning different jobs have in a very objective way throughout your book, and treat each occupation and field with consistent empathy. But I did notice that you were endeared to some more than others. For example, you talk about the painstaking work of the painter, and how little visibility he and his work get, but you get why he does it, and even, it seems to me, envy him in the best of ways. What makes you feel more connected to some work over others?
site link Q 2: The career counselor was an interesting experience. [Mr. Botton visits a man who has been a career counselor, for teens and adults at a mid-life crossroads, for quite some time]. At the beginning, I thought you were falling in love with the idea of career counseling, and saw the good that Mr. Symons and his peers bring to our society. But by the end, after you get back the very general results of the aptitude test you took—which was supposed to tell you what you were put on this Earth to do—and watch him interact with people in search of a career compass, you are disappointed. Why?
http://havanatranquility.com/daeso/3526 Alain: I believe in career counselling but the science isn’t there yet. We don’t yet know how to place people in the right jobs. It’s like medieval brain surgery, on the right lines, but with a lot more development work to come.
Q 3: After surveying so many different types of work, what do you believe is important when choosing & doing work when it comes to our daily sense of fulfillment?
Alain: To align your talents with the needs of the world.
Sneak-in question: What do you do with your free time, when you are not writing or chronicling or researching? Feel free to drop some praise for procrastination—it will certainly make me feel better.
Alain: I have no time for anything…!
When I was a wee one I used to wonder a lot about what life would be like 10, 20, 30 years down the line. Would I be a doctor? Running for office? Married to Britney Spears? (Remember that this was the late 90’s, ok?)
I was always looking forward, focused on what was to come. While my mind was set on tomorrow, today was floating by. One day someone asked me for the time, and I drew a complete blank…I couldn’t even remember month it was. Thinking about the future can quickly get you stuck in obsessing over it, and I did exactly that for way too long.
The same can happen when dealing with the past. While the future pulls you into tomorrow, the past drags you back to yesterday. You remember the mistakes you made, the glory you used to have. The past matters more than anything else, and so you spend days reliving it.
Whether you live in the past or the future, you are living in a time-suck limbo that robs you of the present.
Years ago I met someone who was way worse than I was at living away from the now. She was constantly worried about everything that just happened or was about to happen. She was stressed, anxious over her lack of control over time.
Until one day she bumped into the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leader of the mindfulness movement. She found an oasis within a thorny desert. She dove into the practice of mindfulness and saw effects almost immediately. She went from a wound-up stress ball to a quite calm, and even somewhat jolly person. Her frenetic energy was now a thoughtful drip, and she was using it all in the present.
I was in awe of the change, and so I had to discover this for myself. She recommended a few tomes to get me started, and I went to work. After many failed attempts, I finally stuck long enough with a meditation practice that I started to see results. The change I saw in her was very similar to the change I saw in myself: I became a lot better at keeping my focus on what was right in front of me.
My attempt at being present was not a zen thing, or a buddhist thing, it was a kindness thing. It’s something I did because I tired of feeling exhausted after chasing my thoughts all around my head; I had had it with focusing on everything but the moment I was in. Not being present made me feel like I was skating over my life, rather than fully diving in.
I needed to be present, for my own well-being and fulfillment.
Being present means I can be fully immersed in the right now.
It means tomorrow is a ghost that will materialize based on what I do today.
It means having a clear enough mind to engage the world around me.
It means taking care of myself.
And it means appreciating this very moment because this very moment will never happen again.
Being present means being appreciative, thoughtful, focused, kind, and calm.
Is there a more present animal than the dog? [photocredit]
So how do you become more present?
I know of a few ways. There’s the obvious one of meditation. You may think that it’s not for you (even though science keeps building an ironclad case for why it’s good for everyone), but I dare you to give it a shot. (I’ll write on how to get started in a later post.)
But you actually don’t have to get into a lotus pose to zen it out.
You can do things that put you in a meditative state–not the same thing as meditating. This means doing things that keep you “in the moment.” This varies from person to person, so for you it could be cooking dinner, writing in a journal, running the lake, or talking to your friends. It’s something that collects all of your attention and keeps it there for as long as possible (preferably at least 20 minutes). During this time nothing else matters, and everything else can wait.
Another way to be present is to study the moment you are in. Think of yourself as Sherlock Holmes, and your surroundings as a crime scene. Study the scene, the people, the clues. Notice the texture of the furniture, the smell of sweet mahogany, the clic-clac sound the keyboard makes as you type. Paying close attention to what is around you anchors you to that moment. When you do this you will feel like your eyes are more open, and the world is now in High Definition.
It’s time to be fully honest: I’ve failed at being present recently.
I have been caught up in past mistakes and future worries to the point where my stomach churns and I forget what day it is. And that’s probably how it’s going to be for most of you.
You won’t always be present, and you’ll notice yourself drifting off into another time. It’s hard to make that shift to the now, especially with our culture being so future-focused. What’s the next goal on your list? What is our projection for next quarter? Where’s the next shiny thing?
It’s a process, and a rocky one.
But I’ve notice one very inspiring thing: I now know when I’m not being present. Before, I would go weeks without noticing the breadth of what I was missing. My default setting was to not be in the moment. Now, however, I feel like my mind alerts me when it is going somewhere else. I am recognizing the violations, I am throwing flags on the play, and because of that it’s happening a lot less.
One thing you might hear from other people when you talk to them about your pursuit of presence is that it’s great…if you are not an ambitious person. They see this life philosophy as being more appropriate for the surfer dude or the nun. Being zen and being striving don’t seem to mix, right?
But you’ll soon find out that in order to achieve you need presence. By being present you can fully grasp the situation and make clear-headed decisions that align with your values. By being present you are taking care of your body, heart, and mind so you can keep making progress on your ambitious life goals.
If this isn’t enough, here’s a list of some meditation practitioners:
– Steve Jobs
– Judd Apatow
– Jerry Brown
– Sheryl Crow
– Clint Eastwood
– Arian Foster
– Joe Namath
– Rick Rubin
– Martin Scorcese
– Tony Schwartz
– Kurt Vonnegut
– Jerry Seinfeld
Do you think these folks lack ambition?
Why do I pursue presence? In the end, I am working on becoming more present because I need to be kinder with myself. I am starting to realize that dragging the past and putting the future on my shoulders is not sustainable; I am a human being, not a Greek pillar. There’s a very long list of other reasons to go after presence: enjoying your family time; truly being there for your friends; savoring the meals you in front of you; being fully engaged in the work you do.
Whatever your reason for seeking more presence, start now. Every day you carry on top of today adds to a load that you don’t need to keep.
Onward. In mindfulness, thrive.
Some recommended readings for anyone interested in digging through this topic a bit more:
– The Power of Now: more on the New Age bend, but still very helpful in understanding the philosophy behind being present.
– Why Meditate?: it fully answers why meditation is so good for your well-being. Written by a neuro-biologist turned Tibetan monk.
– Work: focused more on thinking about your work in a mindful way. Provides a lot of helpful meditation prompts.
– Flow: not a book on mindfulness or meditation per se, but definitely important. It talks about the benefits of immersing yourself in what you are doing, and why that will always be more satisfying than passively watching TV.
– Mindfulness, Finding Peace in a Frantic World: a very good eight-week program to help bring mindfulness and meditation into your daily routine.