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Visual Meditations

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The simple meaning of life

Gabriella.jpg‚ÄúThat was when I realized I was losing consciousness. All right then. At least I had held on long enough to do some good.‚ÄĚ- Lauren Olamina, from Octavia Butler‚Äôs novel, Parable of the Sower

Today at work, my patient’s husband was a prison guard on Riker’s Island. He told me about his job.¬†The prisoners on Riker‚Äôs are often kids that get into toxic habits and instant gratification. Gangs, crime. The more perverse your offense, the greater your respect on the island, he told me.

‚ÄúI‚Äôm having fun with it,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúI was an electrician first. When you‚Äôre blue collar, you try to get a good pension for your family. I‚Äôm pretty grounded in my morals and beliefs, so I do well with the kids. Some of the guards use an excessive amount of force, but it‚Äôs not as bad as it was. That said, some of the officers¬†really should watch their backs on the outside.”

“When I break up a fight, the kids pretend to hate me, but later they thank me, especially the weaker ones. They don‚Äôt actually want to fight and I give them an out.”

“This is my second career. I‚Äôm not taking this job that seriously. But I like it. I think I‚Äôll leave the place a little better than when I found it.‚ÄĚ

As he spoke, I wasn’t really listening. I was focused on getting out of the room. Getting my work done. Only now, pouring over these memories of the day, six cups of tea deep on my porch, the meaning and beauty of the story gets to sink in.

So often, our consciousness is closed. It has to be, I guess, so that we get work done. But sometimes, we have to chip through the eggshell of goal-orientedness that surrounds our brains and let the beams of light stream in.

In zen, a koan is a question where the answer is not words, but a state of awareness. The awareness, now, is the lighthearted, practical attitude of the guard, and of Lauren Olamina as she is bleeding out. The guard is doing what he can in a deeply troubled world. That’s the journey we all take. Hopefully at the end, when we lose our consciousness, we can all have the feeling that we’ve held on long enough to do some good.


The photo is from a small wedding I had the joy to attend a few months ago

Revisiting

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Talked to¬†a juggler last night, who said: If you practice 15 minutes every day that’s better than practicing for 2 hours for just one day a week. Your brain needs time to process what it’s learned.

Revisiting.

A powerful thing. You carry a few ideas through life and keep coming back to them. They get polished and change in your head as they change you.

Buster Benson’s Codex Vitae¬†is his brain upload.¬†In it, he¬†comes up with a system for revisiting: a list of things he revisits every day, a list he revisits every month, a list he¬†revisits every year.

Above is a picture of the 6 ideas I’m experimenting with revisiting¬†each morning, on index cards by my bed (a few of these were stolen from Benson):

  1. Priming – just the title card, to remind myself of what I’m doing: revisiting, priming¬†my brain with ideas¬†I like
  2. Quality time – the point of life
  3. Mindfulness, mind wandering, focused thinking Рeach is a good brain mode, but not all are equal for all jobs
  4. Addictions – a reminder to avoid them
  5. Aliveness –¬†‚ÄúDon‚Äôt ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive. The world needs more people who have come alive.‚Ä̬†Good example¬†of this.
  6. Soloverse – what I think isn’t the truth

These ideas are in some ways obvious, and easy to forget. Here’s to (hopefully) many years of remembering them!

Things I’ve noticed that I like

Things I've learned about myselfWe go through life and all it’s strife, and we learn about things¬†and we learn about ourselves. A big part of learning about ourselves is learning what we like. We are wired differently and sometimes we like different things.

So here is stuff I’ve noticed¬†that I like:

1. Direct experience. I spent 3 hours today on the internet with a simple question: Is the flu shot a good thing? Came across a paper¬†saying no, then a few blog posts (1, 2, 3, 4) saying the¬†guy who wrote the paper was¬†wrong and bad and not an expert. At the end of the experience, I still don’t have an answer about the flu shot, but I have an insight:

You can only know something by counting your own beans. By this I mean, you count flu-related harms and you count the effect on the harms of the flu-shot, and you make a conclusion. And this takes a whole lot of work to do yourself.

“See I have the advantage of having found out how hard it is to get to really know something. How careful you have to be about checking your experiments, how easy it is to make mistakes and fool yourself. I¬†know what it means to know something…I¬†see how they get their info. I¬†have a great suspicion that they don‚Äôt know. They haven‚Äôt done the checks, the care.¬†And they intimidate people by it. I think so. I don‚Äôt know the world very well. But that‚Äôs what I think.” – Richard Feynman

People on both sides of any issue are arguing and arguing, calling names, but really it comes down to disciplined, often tedious, work.

But because time is finite, you have to trust your friendly neighborhood scientist to count your beans for you. To count the flu shot beans and write them¬†up in a pdf file that gets distributed to doctors who then gently nudge their patients to do what the file¬†says. That’s how medicine works: “A hierarchy of trust.”

I don’t like it. I like to be close to the earth, mining my own truth.

This is only possible for a few truths, because life is so short, and mining is such hard work there’s no way around trusting others. In the olden days we just trusted others to do some work for us, like farming and making clothes. Now we trust people at desks to farm knowledge. Maybe I belong as a scientist so that I can at least mine a few truths in my life…Or¬†maybe I belong as a farmer.

I was walking down the street and saw some grapes. I picked them. It was a lot more fulfilling to me to eat these fresh grapes than drive to a store and pay for food with the papers I got deposited in my bank for doing certain tasks in the hospital.

I guess, be it in data or in food, I like being close to the source. Being part of making the thing and not just trusting that the truth or the food gets delivered to my door by some expert.

2. Spontaneity. Skipped yoga today. Poo you, plans. “It’s good to exercise, it’s good to do this, it’s good to do that.” It’s good to take the plans and ignore¬†them. To do what flows. It feels good to be a time anarchist.

3. Aesthetics. I poured my tea into a jar. The tea was pretty cloudy yellow-green. I looked outside. The leaves made a gradient along the branch:

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I pointed this out to my roommate, who said he hadn’t noticed it.

I like pretty things. Going down the stairs in my house, the sun peering through the blue stained-glass window gets me high in the mornings.

4. Dalai Lama Goop. Basically he advocates a compassion for all people. A concern for all people, no matter their walk of life. After reading the argumentative name-calling-type posts of anti-vaccine people vs. pro-vaccine people, it just becomes very clear that the world needs more Dalai Lama substance in it.

Dalai Lama goop agrees with me. It’ll take a lifetime of work to be able to secrete more of this stuff inside my brain.

And that’s a wrap, folks!

Let’s play and see what gets done

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Work to do.

Gotta do it.

Gotta get it done.

One of my favorite things is hangin’ home.

Not planning doing anything.

And seeing what gets done.

Spontaneously.

Gibbs free energy.

\Delta G = \Delta H - T \Delta S \,

Change in free energy = Change in heat – Temperature * Change in Entropy.

A process is spontaneous (negative delta G) if heat is released (negative delta H), if the temperature is high, if the universe becomes more disordered (positive delta S).

That’s basically how I feel about work.

Don’t push it.

Hang out, play, and see what gets done spontaneously.

Picture is a selfie that happened spontaneously during a sunny work / play session.

Watching the same movies

“If I didn’t have you someone else would do…If I might conjecture a further objection love has nothing to do with destined perfection, the connection simply grows over time like a flower or mushroom or guinea pig or a vine or bigotry or a banana. And love¬†is made more powerful by the ongoing drama of shared experience.” – Tim Minchin

My family went to Costa Rica. We had disasters. We had good times. We watched people tell stories. We veered off the road and got lost in the fog on a steep cliff. We got scared together and we turned back and we survived.

We were on an adventure. We saw the same crazy stuff. We watched the same movies. And we grew closer to each other

So if you want to improve your marriage or friendship, go on a really uncomfortable road trip or skydiving or go to a bad restaurant together, just as long as you have a shared experience and are forced to turn to each other and say: “This is a crazy movie, right? It’s not me who’s crazy, right?”

And they’d say, “No, you’re not crazy. I’m seeing the same thing. This is a crazy movie.”

And you’d bond and love each other.

Drawings of ruins

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The comparing yourself-to-others bug is a dangerous bug. A nefarious bug. Here are two little cases in point:

1. I worked in a clinic on the west side of Buffalo. This clinic helped a lot of refugees. I thought: how great it would be to help so many people. And I started seeing my path as one that would need to have this big splash in the world, help a lot of people. I would de-value paths that didn’t directly help a lot of people.

2. When I first read Richard Feynman, I thought: whoa, this guy is really creative, he really gets into the deep truths of the universe. And I thought: how great it would be to be to learn mathematics and find out new parts of nature. And I started to de-value parts of life that were not science.

I have a patient being treated for cancer. She has a chihuahua that she misses. She thinks of her chihuahua when she goes to sleep.

She wants to get out of the hospital so she can be with her chihuahua. But in the meantime, she smiles and is really nice to everyone taking care of her.

It‚Äôs OK¬†if the things you do are simple, if they don’t make this big glamorous splash.

ooo

A big (paraphrased) quote from Alan Lightman:

‚ÄúI used to think that if you write a book that people read in 50 years that‚Äôs better than if you write one that lasts only a little while. But now I‚Äôve realized that nothing lasts. I believe we are material beings. When we die, we are gone. We only exist for a short time in other people‚Äôs memories. Pretty soon those people will die and no one remembers you. So any meaning in life can‚Äôt be from any idea of permanence. It has to come from something that‚Äôs moment-to-moment. I know that I feel pleasure and pain. Not just physical pleasure and pain, but intellectual, philosophical pleasure and pain. And when I help someone, I feel pleasure. When I insult someone, I feel pain. So I try to do things that, in the moment, bring me deep pleasure. That‚Äôs where I am with meaning.‚ÄĚ

And one from a song by Jeffrey Lewis:

I hope that the art school enjoys your big drawing of ruins

We’ve all got good things to do and it’s good when we do them

РJeffrey Lewis, Alphabet

But maybe this song should go:

I hope that you enjoy your big drawing of ruins

It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you feel deeply that this is the right thing to do right now.

The photo is of a sculpture I made in 5th grade. I think it still encapsulates me pretty well.

Figure out your own damn hierarchy

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Maslow had this thing called the hierarchy of needs. The basic idea is that people need certain basic things (e.g. food) before certain other things (e.g. romantic love).

Problem is, the hierarchy isn’t the same for everyone.

Some may be able to run on 3 hours of sleep. I need 8.

Some may be fine not talking to others. I like connecting.

Some might not care about creating. I need it.

Sure, Maslow is generally right. The musical Cabaret is generally right:

Words sound false
When your coat’s too thin
Feet don’t waltz
When the roof caves in

–¬†Cabaret, I don’t care much

We all need the same basic things. But when you get a level up, there’s diversity of hierarchies of needs. If we take¬†someone else’s hierarchy as our own, we won’t feed our soul.

I’ve done this for too long. Waking up early anxious about being hungry later and¬†shoveling food into my mouth before work.

Yesterday I woke up with my head full of ideas. I started doodling. I drew this pyramid and hung it on my wall. Then I realized: I won’t have time to eat.

That’s ok.

For me, spontaneity, creativity, are more important than food.

At work I got hungry and downed some unhealthy food as my blood sugar crashed. But I had fed my soul.

Figure out what feeds your soul, and do those things first.

Not what Maslow told you you should do, but what makes you feel good, on a deep, spiritual level.

Don’t trust Maslow. Figure out your own damn hierarchy.

Burning dead dinosaurs

way out inc

A geophysicist told me about fracking today:

To frack, you take a metal tube¬†and drill¬†it under the ground 10,000 feet. You then blow up¬†a plate of shale and you liberate the gas underneath the shale. The gas comes¬†from plants millions of years old. Same idea with oil. That’s what runs our computers and farms and cars and widgets galore (that’s what’s running this blog post).

That’s what our whole civilized experience is based on: creatures¬†that have died long, long ago.

I didn’t argue with the pro-fracking geophysicist man. You learn a lot more if you are curious, and you don’t try to force¬†your opinion on people. He knew¬†a lot more than me about fracking anyways.

I learned the problems that can arise with fracking (the cement around the well leaks, the detergents need to be disposed of, the drivers disposing the stuff sometimes flush it out on the side of the road to save themselves a trip to the treatment plant).

I listened and learned a lot more than I would have learned had I beat him over the head with my pre-formed opinion.

But my opinion is still the same: I don’t care about fracking. I don’t care about global warming. I don’t care about any one specific issue. I just think our whole capitalist game is flawed.

Here’s my opinion, that I didn’t tell the geophysicist guy. This is a blog, a soapbox, so I think I’m fine preaching here:

We modern humans are short-termites, chewing on our wood way too fast. Optimizing for colorful sparkles in our limited lives, not realizing that it’s possible to keep living on this rock in a sustainable way if we just cool it a little.

The earth is getting eaten up by us as we race with each other.

As we sprint around the track, focusing on winning, the track gets torn up.

But in the cosmic motion picture show, earth is just one planet out of many, many. It’s OK if we mess it up. Still, we can’t really leave our planet, so why not try to keep it a little tidier?

A few years back, my brother and I were taking a long walk at night in a snowstorm. The roads were illuminated by orange streetlights.

Where did the energy for these lights come from? I asked myself. Then the answer came: this suburb was burning the plants and animals that had lived on the very same land millions of years ago.

And the burning process was happening very fast.

In a way, these dead things were being resurrected to light the snowy streets.

And in another way, maybe there is a better way.

A way out.

Let’s find it.

Wabi Sabi

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What’s the difference between people in the first world and those in the third world? I would argue that one big difference is first world people (myself included) are obsessed with control.

Control is the default setting that has been wired into us from day one, living in this push-button “first-world” civilization.

A story:

I was driving the other day, trying to meet a friend, and rain started. It was a hell of a rain. Streets getting beat down by sheets of water from overhead.

But for me, instead of standing in awe of the rainstorm, I just got frustrated. This will slow me down, make me late. This rain that 100 years ago would have meant crops would have had water now meant nothing to me. Just something I could zip through in my hermetically-sealed car.

Our cult of control is pervasive, present in nearly every part of our lives.

Some more examples:

  • Death isn’t a natural part of life, it isn’t celebrated. It’s something to be battled against with medical interventions, which sometimes bring their own brand of suffering.
  • Hunger is remedied by prepackaged protein bars.
  • Tiredness is medicated by coffee.
  • Lawns are kept green by calling the guy who sprays and fertilizes.
  • Even in the day-time, we put blinds on¬†the windows and use electric lights.

And this is how we live. But it wasn’t always like that.

^ ^ ^

In Japan, there is the concept of wabi sabi. Roughly, this is an appreciation of imperfection. For the transience of life. A wabi sabi bowl is one that has cracks. And the cracks are beautiful.

In the first world, we don’t appreciate the beauty of the cracks.

^ ^ ^

Here’s one for you: Organic apples are not apples that have “organic” stickers. Organic apples are apples that have worms. Unless humans intervene, apples will have worms. I’ve seen it with my own two eyes, I swear, it’s true. Wormy is the natural state of apples.

But somehow, somewhere, we decided that apples should be worm-free. And¬†by golly, we’ll blast ’em up with chemicals until they look just right.

The crappy thing is that by trying to control it all, we suffer. In the wabi sabi perspective, we shrug our shoulders and say “Shit happens, that’s life.” But in the control perspective,¬†we are so, so serious. The apples are shiny and the streets are clean and we get so much done it’s true, but the catecholemines rush through our vessels and harden our arteries and mess up our brains.

^ ^ ^

My friend Greta and I were talking about natural building the other day.

I’ve been thinking about why it’s important for me to have natural building materials (e.g. unfinished wood, straw) visible inside my house. You could say:¬†what’s the big deal. Who cares?

I think it’s a constant reminder that I’m just a part of nature.

Some people say “I keep¬†G-d in my heart.” But I flip it and say to myself “G-d keeps¬†me in his¬†heart.” It makes me think that I’m not so big and important. That I’m just a little part of this world.

~Greta

Wash your intentions, trash your goals

take utopia seeds_stitch.jpgIntentions vs. Goals

What’s the difference between intentions and goals? Here’s a story that hopefully illustrates the point:

Let’s say that today, I have the goal to¬†go to the gardening store and get¬†onion bulbs to plant in my garden. Underneath this goal is an intention: to be closer to nature, to be more self-sufficient.

Now maybe, on the way to the gardening store, a three headed monster pops up out of the earth. The monster provides me with secret seeds that when planted will lead to an ecological utopia. If I am focused on my little goals, I will say to the monster: sorry, no thank you, no time. I have to buy these onions.

But if focus on my intentions, maybe I can let go of my goal and take the seeds.

The fantasies our brains dream up are just so flat and boring compared to the unexpected realities that come. When we fetishize and grasp goal number 1, we shut off possibilities 2, 3, and 4.

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Wash the dirt off your intentions

It takes a long time to make a fake

We night swam down in the lake

Washed the dirt off our intentions

Prattle on ’bout bad inventions

-Modest Mouse, I Came as Rat

Mainstream society often worships fame and money¬†and looking good. It’s hard to be free from wanting these things. One way to wash the dirt off your intentions is to state your intentions publicly. If¬†you write your intentions¬†on the walls¬†for everyone to¬†see, then you are more likely to adhere to them.

For example, with this blog I had the desire for fame and money for a time. But then¬†I wrote my intentions for the blog on my¬†about¬†page. When I get side-tracked, I can read this page and say to myself, “Oh yeah, that’s why I am doing this.”

Pure intentions are useful

Let’s face it, we can’t control outcomes. But we can control our intentions to an extent. And having good intentions is quite useful. Here’s why:

1. Intentions¬†give you a general direction to walk. It’s helpful to have a direction when you set out walking, or¬†you can end up in some pretty dark swamps.

2. Intentions¬†motivate.¬†As a doctor, I work in a stressful¬†environment. Sometimes in the rush of things, I forget why I’m doing the job. So I write my intentions¬†down on a card. I tape this card¬†up above where my white coat hangs. It puts me out there. And it motivates me to study and to listen.¬†

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3. Intentions help you understand why you want what you want. Sometimes, the goals we have come up unconsciously and cause stress. Focusing on intentions helps deconstruct them.

Recently,¬†I had this goal¬†come up in my head:¬†“I want to¬†have 2 kids.”

“Why do I have this goal?” I asked myself.¬†Here were some things I thought of:

  • I want¬†people to care about me in my old age
  • It would be cool to pass along my values
  • I want to pass¬†on my chromosomes
  • I like¬†playing¬†with kids
  • I don’t want¬†so many kids that I destroy the environment

Some of these are my real, deep intentions. Others, I think, are intentions that passively diffused into my head and they don’t feel good for me. So I can now start the process of¬†purifying these intentions,¬†washing off the dirt.

Also, I need to trash the specific goal. Maybe 8 kids or 0 kids will be in my future, but as long as I’m walking roads guided by my intentions,¬†then¬†I’m walking good roads.

Trash your goals

In college, I saw people growing up too fast, going towards careers like little packages travelling down pneumatic tubes. I wrote this poem about it:

       Ode to the Unambitious

       The arrow of your life is not locked, yet
       Thoughts within your mind still freely swim
       The key to make you speed has not been turned, yet
       You look up at the tall plants as a seed
       You have not been pressure-packed and shipped, yet
       There is no single place you want to be
       Wishes that stream out from you have not been capped, yet
       There is no need for practicality
       You stand above the helpless souls
       Who kick their way to some small goal
       My friend, you watch the arrow sway
       And delight at the directions

If we don’t grasp goals, and instead have¬†clear, but general, intentions, then we we can walk the journey with delight. We know generally where we are going, but where we end up will be a surprise.

The key to all story endings is to give the audience what they want, but not the way they expect. ‚ÄĒ‚ÄäWilliam Goldman

The entropy of people

The entropy of peopleOn the TV show House, House is this brilliant guy but he needs his team to talk things through to get ideas.

*

I recently was cleaning the kitchen and moved the paper towels. My roommate said: “Great idea putting them here [on a ledge behind the sink]. There’s more counter space.”

I wasn’t even thinking to do anything in particular, but cool, I helped solve a problem, I thought.

*

A few minutes later I was in a bit of a rut, wandering around the house. 

“You should go on a bike ride,” my roommate said.

I did, and it was a great bike ride. I wouldn’t have thought of it without my roommate.

*

People have different perspectives and what’s obvious to one is not obvious to another and we all collide and bump into each other and through sheer entropy we create better ideas.

—-

The picture is one I drew in first or second grade. 

You wasted life, why wouldn’t you waste death?

To shake things up a little on this blog of visual meditations, here are some audio and gustatory-meditations:

I went to a mindful eating dinner last night.

The leader of the dinner said: “For the next 5 minutes, eat your food slowly. Think about where it comes from. Think about the land, the farmers, the truck drivers, the stores, the cashiers, everyone. Savor the textures, spices, sounds, smells.”

And that meal lasted forever. At some point, my brain said: “Gorge! This food is healthy and tasty and you should get more!” I noticed this but didn’t move on it.

In and out of mindfulness I went. I noticed a lot about the meal. The rice was the best rice I ever had – vinegar notes and crackly sounds between chewy grains.

This morning, I tried to replicate the exercise. I ate an apricot. Then a carrot with almond butter. I really savored them.

I wasn’t hungry at the end of the small meal. But somehow my brain said: “Gorge! Or you will be hungry later.” And I gorged, out of fear.

***

It strikes me that I often can’t remember things. Like what I ate, or whether I closed my car doors or locked up my bike.

This is a symptom. It’s a symptom of lack of mindfulness. Of not paying attention.

Getting lost in thoughts is great, but constant fear-based thought loops that prevent perception of the world are bad news bears. Why? Because life is memory:

If you don’t remember your life, it’s like it never happened. – Derek Sivers

***

So mindfulness is not some new agey thing for hippies with too much time on their hands. First of all, it takes 5 minutes. Eating takes 15 minutes, let’s say. Five of those minutes can be spent eating mindfully. Same goes for any other activity.

I love the angry tone of this Modest Mouse song, which is really about mindfulness I think.

My interpretations are in parentheses:

The ocean breathes salty, won’t you carry it in?
In your head, in your mouth, in your soul.

[Pay attention to the ocean. Let it in to your sensory organs –¬†to your head, mouth, and soul.]

Will you tell me what you saw and I’ll tell you what you missed

[Hey Dude, Tell me what you saw. Nope. You missed a lot, because you weren’t paying attention.]

For your sake I hope heaven and hell
are really there, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
You wasted life, why wouldn’t you waste death?
You wasted life, why wouldn’t you waste death?

[If you aren’t present during life, then I hope you get another life. But I wouldn’t hold my breath that this will happen.]

You wasted life, why wouldn’t you waste the afterlife?

[And even if you did get another life, you’d probably waste it, because you are in the habit of wasting your life.]

So now it’s time to practice mindfulness. It’s time to¬†get¬†in the habit of NOT WASTING LIFE.

***

If you miss the here, you are also likely to miss the there. If your mind is not centered here, it is likely not to be centered just because you arrive somewhere else. – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Found a few buddhas, hanging out under logs

MonsterWhen I come before the judges of the heavenly tribunal, they are not going to ask if I lived my life like Moses or if I lived my life like Abraham. They are going to ask if I lived my life to be the best Zusha’s could be. – Rabbi Zusha

I feel like I met Buddha the other day. He was overweight, wore bright Hawaiian shirts, and owned a hostel in a touristy part of Costa Rica. His name was Conrad.¬†Here’s a picture.

I don’t know why I thought he was Buddha, but I did. He wasn’t particularly ascetic. I’m sure he¬†loved life’s worldly things. But I just got the feeling he was living really true to himself.

“I left California. Everyone there is so busy and obsessed with stuff. Nobody enjoys life,” he said.

Yesterday I walked the path my dad and I often walk. I was barefoot. I thought: life is good. I have enough food to eat. And I have time to do something pointless: go for a walk. Pointless as in: not directly involved in the process of getting food. For a minute, I felt like Buddha.

Then we visited my family friends. This couple is loud and boisterous. They have 2 dogs, 2 cats. They yell at each other in comic ways.

An excerpt:

Husband: This dog is so old and sick…but he doesn’t die.

Wife: Just like you!

Husband: Me and the dog will both die at the same time, so then you can have just one funeral!

Wife: Do you think I’m planning a funeral for the dog?

I think this couple are enlightened too. They are perfect for each other and they come alive when they fight. They watch crappy TV shows,¬†don’t live very healthily, but something about them, I don’t know, they are just real.

I feel like life’s enlightened ones aren’t the gurus spouting wisdom. They are the real people that I happen on unexpectedly. I can lift a log and find some grubs and monsters that are maybe ugly, maybe hairy and slimy,¬†but they are perfect. No airs. Just fitting their shirt perfectly. Fitting their life. Living their truth.

Found a few buddhas, hanging out under logs.

Wine on the winemaking pages

“Since I first wrote it [The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency], the book has certainly gotten about. I have traveled in at least dozens of countries since I wrote it (to say nothing of four continents), and in every one of them people have come up to me with their copy to sign. I have been delighted to find wine stains on the wine-making pages, and good, honest dirt on the gardening pages.” – John Seymour

Theory is fine and dandy, but¬†practice is where it’s at.

You have to do things, not just philosophize and “understand” things.

My goal this vacation¬†is to get my copy of the Complete Book of Self Sufficiency covered with wine and dirt. I’ll be taking pictures, and will post them below when they are taken.

—-

Kimchi I made (with guest appearances from my mom’s zucchinis and my dad’s home brew kombucha):

IMG_20140728_144446

A towel holder, made by my dad (mostly) and me: 

IMG_20140616_184945

My dad turning wood on his lathe:

IMG_20140704_162327

Gardens I worked on weeding at the mind-body retreat in Ithaca (Travis Knapp was the main garden master – check out his soulful music.):

IMG_20140623_192904

 

Public and private

love thrives without pressureSharing circles are a thing. After a yoga class or camping trip or whatever, people get into a circle and share their feelings.

This blog is basically a sharing circle for me.

But there’s the trap with¬†sharing if you focus too much on how you will be perceived. Maybe, you feel a pressure to say something¬†interesting or significant so that other people go OOOOHHH and AAAAHHH.

I thrive on feedback. Screaming into the world and getting some kind of response. I have kept notebooks for many years, and it’s nice to cull entries and put them into this blog which is like a soapbox on which I stand and¬†share my thoughts.

But there should always be a place that’s private. A diary that no google algorithm can access, that no other people know about.

I¬†need both public and private. Without a venue for sharing, I feel lonely, like I’m all by myself screaming into the desert and maybe I’m a crazy person here, alone with all these thoughts. But sharing everything makes me¬†feel like I am¬†not my¬†own person, like everything is on display, like I¬†can’t have a thought that’s unfinished or unflattering or ugly or pointless. Without the freedom to doodle and make bad work, there’s just too much pressure.

So sharing circles are nice, but staying quiet is nice too.

 

Quit what you don’t love

Quit What You Don't Love

After quitting his job, my brother sent me (and his co-workers) a link to this¬†punk rock song, which has the lyric:¬†Quit what you don’t love.

Recently, I have been getting into the concept of minimalism — reading blogs on it, going to talks on it, giving away stuff I don’t use — but today the concept really clicked for me.

Minimalism is not owning 3 pairs of pants. Minimalism is quitting what you don’t love. Whether that be people, places, things, or mental states.

As soon as I had this¬†epiphany, I wrote “Quit what you don’t love” on a white t-shirt, put it on, and drove myself to yoga class.

I was late, but I didn’t rush. With my new minimalist¬†t-shirt on, I thought: do I love rushing, or do I love going slow?

I love going slow.

Then I got to the class and the door was locked. I peered in: the class was well underway.

I asked myself: Would I love breaking the flow of the class, or would I love going with the flow and maybe doing yoga outside in the nice weather?

Of course, outside!

Then I got outside and was too lazy to do yoga, so I sat on the bench and watched the people walk by. Outside on that bench, after having quit a bunch of frames of mind I didn’t love, and I had the space to just be.

I might not¬†know what I really¬†love. But if I quit the things I don’t love, then maybe there will be space for the things I love to move on in.

I did some excellent people-watching sitting on the bench there.

A delightful old man walked very slowly out of the building. He said to me: “Have you exercised already?”

“No, I was late to yoga and got locked out,” I said.

“Oh yoga, there’s a lot of pretty girls doing that,” he said.

“That’s not why I come, but it is an added perk.”

He laughed and walked slowly towards his car. I really enjoyed meeting him, and seeing lots of other people, as I sat outside and watched the sun set.

Minimalism is about not being afraid of what happens when you quit.

The world won’t end. The world won’t end. The world will open up.

(I hope.)

The internet people I have seen go the minimalist route have all survived at the very least, and many have thrived.

So I’ll be wearing my home-brew t-shirt, quitting things, seeing what remains, and what else comes in.

quit what you don’t love cause we’re enough
live as you make it up cause we’re enough
you’ll never go without cause we’re enough
we’ll buy a house cause we’re enough
we’ll grow some food cause we’re enough
we’ll slam some dunks cause we’re enough
don’t be afraid cause we’re enough
you’ll always be ok because we’ll always be enough.

¬†— Wingnut Dishwasher’s Union

===

A cute little video¬†that’s relevant, if punk rock isn’t your thing.

Time to say wow

namastache

A story about deja vu in the Intensive Care Unit:

A guy was on the ventilator (a machine that inflates and deflates the lungs for a person through a tube that goes down the throat). Suddenly, the oxygenation of his blood dropped. I listened to his lungs. Breath sounds on the right, none on the left.

An x-ray showed a complete white-out on the right hand side.

I called a bunch of people: senior doctors, the radiologist.

The radiologist said: he has fluid around the lung.

One of the senior doctors ultrasounded the lung and said: “There isn’t actually that much fluid around the lung. Probably there is a mucous plug upstream that is causing the lung to be filled with fluid.”

So the patient¬†didn’t have fluid¬†around¬†the lung, he had fluid¬†in¬†the lung.

We increased the pressure that breathing machine puts into the lungs, and the oxygenation of this blood went back to normal.

Then the deja vu moment: we got called to see patient number 2.

He had almost the same picture: a complete white-out of a lung on chest x ray.

But the ultrasound for him showed that there is fluid around the lung (not inside the lung like the first patient).

Patient number 1 could benefit from removing the mucous plug, patient number 2 could benefit from draining the fluid around the lung.

—-

These 2 episodes happened within a single hour. After that, I rushed off to do more mundane things: writing orders, checking labs.

I went home after this night shift, ate a bunch of ice cream, and passed out. When I woke up, I thought: that was really cool.

Wow.

In medicine, the thing I lack is time. I’m always running around.

Life is really freaking cool. Space is great. It helps you say wow.

Good listener

good listener

An interaction happened today.

A patient died. This was a sick person who had been in the hospital for over a month.

The family wanted an autopsy not for themselves, but to “improve medical knowledge.” Our team thought that this didn’t make sense¬†because the disease the patient had¬†was not a mystery.

A desire sprang up in my brain to call the family and convince them to see things our way. Luckily, my colleague called the family.

This is what she said:

“I just wanted to call to let you know what an autopsy involves. An autopsy will involve removing the organs and examining them. We do autopsies when there is a medical mystery, but in this case we had a pretty good idea of what was going on. But if you want an autopsy that is completely your right.”

She gave her thought process but was open to accepting whatever they wanted to do. She didn’t have this rigid: I-WILL-CONVINCE-YOU! – Homer-Simpson-strangling-Bart-Simpson – type vibe that I had.

A long quote from Leo Babuata:

“A lot of the time, we come to a decision to make a change, and we want to get our spouse on board after we’ve already made the decision. But the decision didn’t just happen in that moment…You’re going through all this thinking process and reading and finding inspiration…So you’ve gone through this process but your spouse hasn’t…You have to help them go through the process on their¬†own. They might not make the same decision as you, but you have to give them¬†the opportunity to go through a process.”

This is what my colleague did with the family. She gave them her thought process but she let go. She allowed them to go through their own process.

One aspect of being a good listener could mean being present to the cues people give you, “smelling the air.”

Another aspect could be being receptive to other people’s process, journey, truth.

Let’s not taco ’bout it

Had a tough day, lots of unresolved emotions. Talked about it. Worked through them. Resolved them. Thankfully I had someone to talk to.

But when I got home I was so guilty I couldn’t sleep.¬†My family wanted to talk about it some more. I said no.

At a certain level, it’s good to talk about it, but this hits a sweet spot when nothing more productive will be gained and you have to take a break. It’s tough to walk this line between ignoring problems and wallowing in their muck.

I hope you know that I’m not trying to complain / It just gets hard to explain / To people that I know / And the kids who come to shows / That I just don’t want to talk about the office today¬†Wingnut Dishwasher’s Union

Update (7/28/2014): Yesterday I was able to talk about the “bad day at work” with my grandma freely and realized that in the moments when things are undefined in my head it’s hard to talk about them with question-asking people. But after a while, things become a cohesive story, and I can talk about them. I just need my alone time to process and let things gel.

Put aside time to re-interpret your past events, as a powerful reminder that you can re-interpret your present and future, too. – Derek Sivers

It’s the ones who’ve cracked that the light shines through

eyes of the world

There is something to crazy people.

Two stories, from two places, on this theme:

1. Costa Rica

I met a guy in a hostel who seemed crazy. He saw cosmic meaning in everything, from the arrangement of decorations at the bar, to times of day when the internet cut out.

He took my brother, me and a girl to a secluded beach. While we swam, he found a plastic spoon, a cigarette butt, and a medication wrapper, which he put into a coconut. He lit the coconut on fire and had the girl march into the ocean with it and let it float away.

“It’s just a little pollution, but it’s OK,” he said. “These represent¬†man’s evil: plastic, pharmaceutical medicines, addicting drugs. In the future, we will purge ourselves of them.”

“The biggest lie is that we can’t break the cycle. That we have to keep on making mistakes.”

2. Buffalo, NY

A girl was sitting in a park, talking about how she hates her apartment because it has bugs in it – silverfish, cockroaches, ants, earwigs, the works.

A guy comes up to her and says, “You don’t really hate bugs, you just have probably been conditioned since childhood to say that you do. Bugs are so small, they can’t hurt you. When I see them, I say, ‘Oh, you poor thing, you probably want to go outside.’ And I take it outside.”

The girl walks away.

—–

We all agree with trite sayings: love nature, love your fellow man. But what happens when these sayings are taken to their extreme?

Extreme compassion, extreme environmentalism, looks a little crazy.

In truth, we’re not living by our stated morals a lot of the time. The world is unjust in a million ways and we numb ourselves to this on a daily basis. When people bring this fact¬†up, it’s a defense mechanism for us conventional folk to label them as crazy in our heads.

In truth, crazy folk sometimes make good points. We should listen to them. They can be like cold water on our faces to wake us up.

It’s kind of like the Joker quote from Batman: You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when everything goes according to plan. Even when the plan is horrifying.

—–

The picture is inspired by the song Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world. The world¬†is an eyeball with a yellow optic nerve coming out. This optic nerve might well be a “crazy” person, who is seeing things that other people won’t see.

Or they are a child.

Or an alien with an unbiased mind.

We get biased as we grow up. We don’t see the light a lot of the time. “It’s the ones who’ve cracked that the light shines through” is the title of a Jeffrey Lewis album. But maybe they haven’t cracked. Maybe it’s just us who have stopped seeing.

—–

I am working on this — living within my morals. I don’t want to preach, but I have some control over not doing things that bother me just because they are convenient or accepted.

Inspirational quotes from patients

So a week of intern year is behind me. It’s a steep learning curve. Luckily my patients have some words of wisdom:

——

Lady after big surgery is having a new symptom: hoarse voice possibly due to vocal chord damage from intubation.

Me: I’m sorry this happened to you.

Lady: I hope it goes away, but if it doesn’t go away, then I’ll learn to live with it.

——

Alcoholic guy comes in with new onset fatigue (sleeping 5 hours during the daytime for no good reason).

Me: How’s your mood?

Alcoholic guy: I’m happy. Life is grand! Life¬†is what you make it. If you’re not happy, then fix it. If today is bad, then tomorrow will be better!

What I’ve Learned About Habits

less horrible things

Over the past month, I’ve gotten pretty deep into the study of habits. I’ve joined 3 habit-building programs (Zen Habits SeaChange¬†– $10/month, Tiny Habits – Free, Pavlok’s¬†Hack the Habit – Free, but no longer available). I don’t want this article to be a pitch for any particular program, though I do think they are great and recommend SeaChange and TinyHabits highly (haven’t tried Pavlok, a device which hasn’t yet come out).

Why care about habits?

A person = his habits + his principles. Principles define conscious acts, habits define unconscious ones. I want to be a good person, but being a good person is tough if you have bad habits.

If you want self-esteem, you have to do esteemable acts. You need a basis on which to hang that self-esteem. -David, former alcoholic

So think: what kind of person do I want to be? A person can have lofty¬†principles, but if he needs coffee every day just to function, watches porn, cuts people off on the road, doesn’t pay attention to people when they talk and instead surfs¬†his phone, then there is room for improvement.

People have this attitude that what we like is fixed. When I was a vegetarian, I often heard people say:¬†“I couldn’t live without steak.” Honestly, I was just as happy without steak as with steak. We can change what we like and what we crave. A heroin addict craves heroin, but wasn’t born craving heroin. He rewired his brain to crave it over years of use. So it is with our habits. Yes, we crave our coffee, our facebook. But we can train¬†ourselves to be better. We can train ourselves to crave flossing teeth and exercise and work.

So many of the patients I see have destroyed their health with bad habits (eating, smoking, drinking, drugs). I don’t think it’s enough to just say to someone: lose weight, quit smoking, floss every day. We need to give people tools to change their habits.

So without further adieu, here are some of the tools I’ve learned:

  1. Change one habit/month. Make one habit your absolute habit for the month. Focus on doing this every single day. All the other habits you can experiment with, but they are icing on the cake.
  2. Keep a list of more habits to change. As you think of more things you want to change, write them down. I use Wunderlist as a to-do list and keep a running list of habits to change in the following months. But I only hold myself to changing 1 habit/month.
  3. Triggers.¬†Triggers are things you already do, and you put a habit after doing them. For instance, if you want to build a flossing habit, your trigger can be¬†brushing.¬†The most reliable triggers for me are waking up and going to sleep. This month, I meditated before going to bed. After a while, I grew to expect my meditation time. When you start with a new habit, the best trigger is one that you do exactly once a day because it’s nice to know that you have gotten your habit done for the day and¬†can celebrate and move on.
  4. Tiny Habits and Consistency. Consistency is super important for doing habits. It’s easier to do a habit every single day than 3 days a week. It’s also really motivating to have this kind of consistency. So make it impossible to fail at doing your daily habit. How? Make the habit tiny. My habit this month was meditating every day. I set my goal as¬†2 minutes/day. Anything else was gravy. Some days I meditated longer, but this was not required. The goal was doing¬†the habit every day, not doing anything heroic. If your habit is flossing, make it your goal to floss one tooth. You will eventually want to floss more, but¬†the goal is to train yourself to always expect some flossing after brushing.
  5. Social Support. Humans are social creatures and social support works. I have an accountability buddy who was assigned to me, and it is nice to text her after I do my main habit. You can ask a friend to be your buddy, or shell out 10 bucks and join SeaChange and scour the forums for someone who wants to be your buddy.
  6. Reward. Drugs are addicting because you feel good immediately after taking them. In the same way, a habit can be addicting if you build a reward after. This reward can be as simple as saying “Good Job” to yourself, or doing a dance, or texting your accountability buddy.
  7. Change your habit or trigger or reward if it isn’t working.¬†Every habit you build should have a trigger and reward that you are using, but if these aren’t working, you can change them. For instance, I started meditating in the morning but this was too hectic and I was always in a rush to get somewhere. So I changed my time to the evening and that worked a lot better. I started off texting my buddy every time after meditating but now no longer need to.
  8. Do less horrible things.¬†Negative habits are really hard to break because there are multiple triggers at play. For instance, a cigarette smoker might be tempted to smoke every time he sees a smoker, or whenever there is stress, or whenever he drinks. One thing I’ve learned so far is replacing the bad habit with something less horrible. This is what the picture is about: replacing coffee with tea, beer with carrot juice, stress-eating with stress-drawing.

And that’s a wrap for now! Happy habit building.

Venn Diagram Dating

venn diagram dating So dating is an emotional roller coaster, of course, of course. Here’s a little perspective that might make it a little more comprehensible, and maybe a little less sad when it doesn’t work out.

The goal of dating is to find a long-term partner that you have synergy with. That means you have to get to know someone, and get to know yourself, and see where¬†the overlap is, like a venn diagram. Some venn diagrams overlap more than others, and the best pairs have the biggest overlap. But every pair overlaps somewhere, and disconnects somewhere. It’s just a matter of degree.

Dating is work. Specifically, the work is¬†to figure out a list of synergies, and a list of differences. So step back and be thankful for this opportunity to learn about someone else and learn about yourself. After dating for a while, you have to go with your gut about whether long-term is in the cards. And if it is, it can’t be totally rational, either. Such a crazy thing as signing up with one person for the rest of your life requires some crazy faith to carry you through (like this¬†story of a girl who won’t break up with her husband because he found a dollar bill that she wrote her name on a decade prior).

And if break-up happens, this is OK for two reasons:

  1. You and your partner have grown, you’ve learned about yourselves.
  2. The ultimate goal is to do good things for the universe. Now that you and your partner are apart, you are free to meet other people with whom you might have even greater synergies and do even greater things.¬†Adopt the attitude: “If¬†we’re not meant to be then¬†there¬†are other people that are better for us to fulfill our life missions, and that’s awesome! That means the world will be an even better place.”

Hope this perspective helps someone “get” the whole dating thing just a little better.

PRACTICAL TIP: With your partner, make a venn diagram of your similarities and differences. It will give some nice perspective on the relationship.

I judge people for being judge-y

you are so judgemental

I HATE judgmental people. Oh wait…that’s kind of judgmental.

An antidote: if I don’t like how someone behaves, I can just not encourage this behavior. I don’t need to get all hateful and judge-y on them.

My system (new one)

My System

So I’m experimenting with a new system for planning out my days.

First thing in the morning is to write in my notebook (if I feel like it). I used to use 750words.com¬†but then decided that my notebook is just as good. It’s good for me to do a brain dump first thing in the morning with no judgement. Often, this helps clarify what I want to do during that¬†day.

Second thing is work (if I’ve decided to do work that day). Work means pre-planned activities. This generally means going to a library or coffee shop. The main thing about work is that it has to be uninterrupted. Exactly zero electronic distractions are allowed. No phones, no web browsing. If I do a distraction, I pay 100 bucks to an accountability buddy. This shit is serious. (Breaks are allowed as long as they are in the¬†3-d world.)

Third thing is free time. This is time with no plans at all when I can do whatever I want.

Then sufficient sleep is in order.

—-

My reason for doing this system is that I get addicted to the¬†internet and then feel guilty and unproductive. A lot of the stuff I read online is good stuff, but I shouldn’t use the internet to procrastinate. We’ll see how many hundreds I lose…

The only respectable position is a hunch

kombucha 4

I had a guest over at my house the other day, and my dad offered her some home-brewed kombucha. She tried it and said: “I like kombucha…I hear it’s really healthy, and it doesn’t taste bad.”

That quote just about sums up dietary science for me. You have a hunch, but you can’t really test it. In medicine we run experiments to¬†measure things like mortality improvement after a treatment, but it’s hard to run long-term experiments with food as the treatment because of logistics, money, and time.

You could do quicker studies¬†where you see how foods affect a lab value, like cholesterol, but it’s hard to know what that means. We don’t know that high cholesterol is bad. Here is what we know:

Statins -> Lower cholesterol and improve mortality in heart disease

But this doesn’t mean that everything that lowers cholesterol is good for your health. Unless you measure real outcomes like mortality, you can’t be confident¬†saying that something is “healthy” just because it lowers cholesterol.

I overheard this conversation in a coffee shop:

Lady: So this hibiscus tea is supposed to be good for you?

Barista: Yeah. It’s got…anti-oxidants.

Lady: They say green tea is the best for you. Is that true?

Barista: I don’t know.

That’s just how it is. We usually don’t know.¬†Super-confident isn’t the truth.

Every day, we¬†decide a million times what to put in our bodies, and there isn’t much science to base these¬†decisions on. So we go with our hunches. We stay away from¬†car exhaust, drink our kombucha, and shrug our shoulders a lot.

kombucha 3

*Healthy =¬†We have a hunch that these snacks are healthy, but haven’t done experiments¬†to prove this. We are a small company, and doing experiments that¬†control¬†diet in a randomized way over a long period of time is way out of our league.

 

 

Planetary skin care

planetary skin care One central problem with our globalized world is that immoral things get done far away, out of view. My use of this computer right now might be made possible by fossil fuels extracted from off-shore drilling of waters that I would really like to go swimming in.

Maybe the ideal future is a bunch of villages, where we love thy neighbor and we don’t¬†take a dump on the guy halfway across the world. A smaller world, a not-so-big society. A place¬†where we understand how the resources flow and who gets hurt and helped by our¬†walks¬†through life.

I’m not talking politics. I’m talking size. We all want to do the right thing, live by the golden rule. It’s just easier when things are¬†smaller and more transparent.

Clownpliment!

clownpliment

Fishtanks

fishtankThis has been said a million times in a million ways, but here’s my way of saying it!

 

Hands-dirty system

Lately I’ve been surfing a lot of internets…This has been fun, but I have the creeping feeling that I want to do things in the real world not just watch internet people do things.

My grandma said: did you see a lot of things in the hospital?

I said: Seeing a lot of things doesn’t count, you have do things, get your hands dirty.

Here is what I promise to do, every day (except Shabbat), before residency:

1. Understand medicine better. Read some medical books for an hour a day, and doodle about them for an hour a day.

2. 15 minutes of handstands, workouts, or yoga practice per day.

3. Get my hands in the dirt growing things, when the weather gets better.

I will not touch the internet any day, until these get done.

Righteousness Programming

values 1values 2

I used to resent religion because I focused on the ways that its myths were unlikely, given what I understood about science. Science seemed so pretty, so nice. It explained protein synthesis and the inter-relatedness of animals on earth.

But science gave me no real advice about how to live life. How to be a nice person, not an asshole.

The Jewish religion says that there is a godly soul and an animal soul. The animal soul wants to do self-interested things. It wants to eat, sleep, and might even want to help others (but its motivation for helping others is feeling good about it). The godly soul wants to do good things for their own sake.

In the ideal case, religion helps the godly soul shine. Its prayers and artifacts and philosophy and rules and communities are righteousness programming. Religion is the original life-coach. You bring the motivation to be good, and it helps you get there.

‚ÄúDisbelief in magic can force a poor soul into believing in government and business.‚ÄĚ – Tom Robbins

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clich√©s, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. – David Foster Wallace

And hence, the twice-daily practice of tefillin.

Done with tropical vacations

nothing left to do

I’m at the end of 4th year of med school, and most of my “work” is done. My to-do water bottle is empty. So, what do I do? Go to the beach?

I like the beach, but I think it will be more cool to expand my brain. My brain was directed towards one thing for the past few years. Maybe I should expand types of puzzles my neurons can work on over the next few months.
working on myself

Tropical vacations are nice. It’s nice to be careless and play. But…

It’s good to take something home with you from your vacation. I remember one vacation 2 years ago I had a choice: go to Turkey and travel around, or go to an AcroYoga immersion thingy. I decided the latter because I could learn something that I could bring back with me into my daily life.

Not long ago, I was in Austin, TX. In the pretty weather, I got lonely. I wrote this in my notebook:

lonely in the beautiful weather

In cold-dreary Buffalo, a tropical vacation provides a sweet chemical pick-me-up. But pure escapism ‘aint good. It’s nice to use vacations as opportunities to develop parts of yourself you don’t normally get to develop.

Can we all just help each other?

values 3

I wish I worked for Good, Corp, where I could just show up to work and be confident I was doing good for the world.

For years I‚Äôd thought about working for a non-profit¬†company…At long last I¬†landed a job with a non-profit healthcare provider.¬†It didn‚Äôt turn out to be much different from the for-profit sector…A few weeks ago I was in the elevator with a manager¬†who has worked there for years. She was practically giddy¬†about the layoffs: she said they‚Äôd make the non-profit more¬†efficient, which would enable it to fulfill its mission statement¬†more effectively. Here it was again, the mantra of shareholder¬†value in a new form. As long as organizations serve¬†abstract ends rather than flesh-and-blood people, it doesn‚Äôt¬†matter whether those abstractions represent stockholders,¬†customers, or even the common good.¬†Work, Crimethinc (Bold-ing mine)

Abstraction is the problem, not capitalism, not communism, but serving abstract ideas rather than real people.

The news is mostly fear and voyeurism

the news

I was stuck in an airport with CNN blaring on the TV, so I wrote down the news stories in that hour-long period, many of which centered around voyeurism and fear. These were the stories during that hour:

Voyeurism:

  • Woody Allen sex abuse scandal.
  • Phillip Seymour Hoffman death.

Fear:

  • Is Obamacare bad for the economy?
  • Woman loses second son to guns in 19 days.
  • City sues online meetup site.
  • Chemical spill in West Virginia.

After an hour of watching the news, I was over it, because:

  1. I feel powerless when the news tells me, rapid fire, 10 bad things in the world. Most of the time, being aware of all this stuff just clouds the brain. This perspective is not “head in the sand,” it’s keeping my neurons available for the stuff I have power to affect.
  2. Just because there are horrible crazy people doesn’t mean I need know about every last one. Being aware of all of them will make me scared to do things that I think are perfectly safe (e.g. Couchsurfing).
  3. With the internet, I can track things I care about without ever clicking on CNN.
  4. Of all the things that happen on earth in a day, the news curates those that will grab attention and sell ads, not what is actually most important.

We just watched the nightly news, blah, blah, blah, what wars we’re winning
and all this left wing right wing left my head spinning

Alex Mead, an awesome musician from Buffalo

Religion and Bikes

spirituality bicycle

With bikes, some people will:

  1. Buy their bike pre-assembled and will go to an expert to fix it.
  2. Buy their bike pre-assembled and will fix it themselves.
  3. Assemble their bike themselves from parts of their choosing.

With religion, some people will:

  1. Stick to their religion dogmatically, and go to experts for guidance.
  2. Stick to their religion, but think about it for themselves. They may stray from dogma if the dogma doesn’t work for them.
  3. Study many religions and try to find the parts that work for them, to create a personal spirituality. The kid in the picture is doing this.

I’m somewhere between 2 and 3. I need to think about things for myself.

Puzzle time: How many different religious symbols can you spot in the picture?

Depth Perception

depth perception

Internet girlfriend

using the internet to get a girlfriend

I was watching March of the Penguins and the mating sequence came on – penguins standing in line, approaching each other, then moving on, until finally finding mates.¬†Morgan Freeman’s voice over said:¬†We don’t really know what they’re looking for in a partner. We only know that they are, in fact, looking.

I thought it would be awesome to put footage of people going on dating websites in a split screen with the penguin footage. I don’t have the energy to embark on such a project right now, so please accept this cartoon as a substitute.

Circle of Life Escalator

circle of life escalator

I stayed with a Couchsurfing host in Albuquerque, New Mexico who was a farmer. We got into talking about technology and he told a story of a Native American chief, a Pawnee, meeting a white guy. The white guy was showing off his gun, and the Pawnee said: why do I need that when I have my knife? He then used the knife to butcher an animal very efficiently.

The Pawnee was not quick to adopt a new technology because the old technology was plenty good, and the effects of a simple technology like a knife are much easier to predict than the effects of a complicated technology like a gun. Western culture is interested in the “what” of technology. We introduce new tech super-fast and call it progress. Other cultures are more interested the effects of technology. They are slower to let new technology in.

A few hours after this conversation, another Couchsurfer came. This guy was driving across country to move to the Bay area. He wanted to make it as an entrepreneur, and he was filled with a bright excitement that technology will change the world.

He told a story of how someone broke into his car and stole his backpack from his trunk. His solution was innovative: he wrote a script that scoured craigslist for the stolen backpack. Amazingly, he found it, and then used his script to recover other things this guy had stolen.

Technology can do neat things, but it doesn’t change the basic facts: we’re humans, we live, and we die. Our molecules go into the ground and become other things.

My host had a composting toilet, which I thought was a cool reminder of the circle of life. It’s easy to forget about the circle of life when you live in the modern world and spend years without touching the earth.

I drew this comic as an imaginary conversation between the farmer and entrepreneur. The farmer is on an escalator, which symbolizes the creation and destruction of life as it goes up and goes down.

Two Modest Mouse quotes:

  • Someday you will die and someone or something will steal your carbon. (Parting of the Sensory.)
  • So we carried all the groceries in while hauling out the trash and if this doesn’t make us motionless¬†I do not know what can. (Spitting Venom.)

Well, motionless for a while, but we age and we die. The high we get from technology is cool, but life is interconnected and circular and, despite what the transhumanists say, I think will stay that way for a long, long time.

Little Jewish Brain

Little Jewish Brain

I said that I had a hard time making decisions, and Dr. Lopez, my couchsurfing host, said the quote above. She¬†actually amended her quote to be: left jewish brain, since the left brain is apparently the judging, analyzing brain. “I don’t think you have a little brain,” Dr. Lopez said.

No matter if it’s left or little, it’s something to work on. Learning how to feel is a hard thing to do.

The most important part of a pullup

This is my first workout video, whoooooo!

The most important part of a pullup is not pausing to hang at the bottom. Pausing at the bottom causes inertia, tires you out. It actually gets kind of addicting to try to go down and up without a pause.

This can be applied to other repetitive exercises such as pushups, situps, etc.

A side note: my dad made this pullup bar. Isn’t it sweet?

Osmolar Gap

osmolar gap

If the anion gap is high, check osmolar gap.

Measured osmolarity is determined by freezing point depression of plasma. The more stuff plasma has dissolved in it, the lower the freezing point will be.

Calculated osmolarity is calculated by the formula 2Na + Glucose/18 + BUN/2.8 (these 3 are the major osmolytes in the plasma).

If there is a high difference between these values, it means there are osmolites present which are “imposters,” not physiologic. These can be:

  • Alcohols (methanol, ethanol, ethylene glycol, acetone, isopropyl alcohol)
  • Sugars (mannitol, sorbitol, glucose)
  • Proteins (gammaglobulins)
  • Lipids (triglycerides)

This is something I’m still learning about, but wanted to post to motivate myself to keep learning. Check back in a little while for a more complete explanation. Specifically, I’m still unsure of which causes of high gap acidosis produce a normal osmolar gap.

Travel though the desert with just a pack of cigarettes

This post is a bit of an ode to an apartment-mate of mine named Tristan.

I was 22. Tristan was 27. He worked in a neuroscience lab, smoked cigarettes, drank gins and tonics, had parties, dressed stylish. He was french and had an awesome accent. One time, I was cooking eggs at 5am and burned them. The smoke detector went off.  Tristan got up and slammed the smoke alarm with his open palm like it was a volleyball. It shattered and pieces fell to the floor. That was the end of that problem.

I asked Tristan what he wanted to do after he finished this neuroscience gig.¬†Tristan said, “I want to travel through the desert with just a pack of cigarettes.”

This image sticks with me. The other day, I was in the airport. I overheard a girl say on the phone: “I land at 2pm. Don’t worry about picking me up fast. It’s no rush.”

On the plane, I was reading a book about mindfulness and the author said that it’s possible to do things fast but mindfully, not in a rush. The difference is that when you are in a rush, you are all scattered and stressed. When you are doing things fast, you are focused like a beam of laser light.

I drew this picture:

rush vs. fast

I had a layover and ate my greek yogurt and granola concoction. I ate it way too fast. You could say it was a rush. Just after finishing my little life-coaching book and drawing, I inhaled all this greek yogurt because of some vague fear of not finishing it in time for my flight.

I look at birds and how they fly through the frigid skies of Buffalo. They’ve got nothing to their name, not even a pack of cigarettes.

We can be free if we let ourselves be free. Jew fast, birds fly, Tristan smoked and traveled. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer for everybody, but freedom from vague fears is a great thing to experience.

Thanks, Tristan.

Kane’s Wall Monster

Kane Wall MonsterDrew this one on Kane’s wall. Thanks Kane, for giving this creepy, disgruntled creature a home.

Paying attention is good enough

One day, I got out a little notebook and said to myself: “I will write down every emotion I have.” For the next 5 hours, when I had an emotion, I would write down what it was and what I thought it was caused by.

The raw data looked like this:

Emotion Cause
Admiration Watching my mom have a lot of self-control while talking on the phone to a family member.
Amazement Looking at a single color of paint with two different backgrounds, and how the color looks totally different.
Anger
  1. Being on the internet too long.
  2. Not closing the bathroom door to prevent paint fumes from getting into the house (my parents had just painted the bathroom).
  3. Looking through my high school yearbook and remembering how I wanted more pictures of myself in the yearbook, and how petty this was.
  4. At mom for taking too long to bring me a t-shirt when I wanted to leave the house.

And so on, for many more emotions. Then I plotted the data in the pie-graph below. The percentages in the graph come from counts in this table. For example anger has a higher percent than admiration or amazement, since it has 4 counts in the table above.

Emotional Birdwatching

Now, what was I trying to accomplish with this exercise?

I thought that by tracking the causes of my emotions, I could notice patterns and reduce bad emotions.

But then I came across this book: Wherever You Go, There You Are.

This book is about mindfulness, and it made me realize that I had misunderstood the point of mindfulness. The point of mindfulness is not to get “better” emotions, the point of mindfulness is simply more mindfulness, more awareness of the present.

I’ve got all these flavors of emotional bubble gum. I cycle between different flavors as the day goes by, often without noticing the flavors I am chewing. Mindfulness says: don’t worry about trading for better flavors, just pay attention to the flavors you are experiencing right now.

Figuring out ways to “hack” happiness, searching for the ultimate cocktail of good weather, close family and friends, a loving partner, ect., now seems like a recipe for always striving, always grasping.

paying attention is good enough

I used to think that the addicting things in life were the problem. I would get addicted to facebook, or binge eating, or whatever, and think: if only I downloaded a facebook-blocking app, or hid the food, I wouldn’t get addicted. But the real problem wasn’t the addicting thing. The real problem was (and still is), the inability to sit and breathe and stare straight into the knots in my soul.

For meditation to do its work, we have to be willing to do ours. We must be willing to encounter darkness and despair when they come up and face them, over and over again if need be, without running away or numbing ourselves in the thousands of ways we conjure up to avoid the unavoidable. -Jon Kabat-Zinn

After going on facebook yesterday, I paused, and breathed and asked myself: why am I doing this? Am I here because I truly want this kind of entertainment right now, or am I trying to run away from something?

And so begins a lifetime of sitting and staring at soul-knots.

Keep mindfulness alive even in the darkest moments, reminding yourself that the awareness is not part of the darkness or the pain; it holds the pain, and knows it, so it has to be more fundamental and closer to what is healthy and strong and golden within you. -Jon Kabat-Zinn

Money Sweater (a belated Jew Christmas story)

dollar sweatshirt

Three Jews and one agnostic went hiking on Christmas, and came back and were having Chinese food, when a lady came up to our table.

Lady: Can you donate for the victims of the Typhoon in the Philippines?

Me and 2 others: No.

Carl: Sure.

After Carl gave her money and she left, we started philosophizing on the pros and cons of donating to this lady who so rudely interrupted our Jew Christmas dinner.

Then Carl said: Even if she is going to just use the money for herself, that’s fine. I just think, I won’t get a beer the next time I’m at a bar.

And I said: You’re right. Even if I gave money to every single person who asked, that would come out to what, $20 bucks a month?

For the past few years, I’ve been pretty stingy with giving money to people I didn’t know. You know, the standard thoughts: I don’t know what they will be using the money for, I won’t end homelessness by giving a dollar, I’d rather donate to a real, organized charity… But in the end of the day, I feel stingy despite my justifications. It’s like the quote from the Dalai Lama: Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.

The next day, I was walking down a street and went into a clothing shop and saw absolutely the best sweater ever. The way I judge any clothing is softness, and this sweater was super soft. Like the softest sweater in the entire world, probably. I really wanted to buy it. But then I thought of the dinner last night. If I didn’t buy the sweater, I’d feel free to give people change here and there. So I constructed a mental sweater out of the $40 I would have spent on this sweater, and every person who asked me for money that day, I gave.

So yes, I’m not solving homelessness and this is largely for the mental benefit of myself, but that’s good too. It is building the habit of giving. Maybe one day, I’ll be able to give even more. Come to think of it, my current sweater is good enough. I kind of like it.

——

P.S. A dollar was injured in the making of this comic.

People are magical

people are magical

Three snapshots from my life:

1.

I was driving down the road with a few friends I had met on couchsurfing, coming back from a trip to the forest outside San Francisco. We passed a large SUV, and in the window was a blonde-haired woman putting on makeup. Her husband was in the driver seat and the kids were in the back.

Matt: That’s a Marin family.

Me: What does that mean?

Matt: Marin is where people like that live. 40-year-old housewives with blonde hair and a lot of makeup. Husbands who are well-off. Kids, nice houses, big SUVs.

2.

I was having some food with Tanner, talking about his job in a produce store.

Me: How do you like it?

Tanner: The physical work is good, but dealing with people is tough. I used to like people before this job, but now I hate people. I am always listening to people complain about their produce.

3.

I stepped out of a contact improv class taught by Scott, and saw Nancy. I looked at the cool foldable bike that was in the lobby, which belonged to Scott, and I thought about how good of a teacher Scott was.

Me: I love Scott. He’s magical. He’s like an alien from another planet.

Nancy: I know!

—–

I think all people are magical. Maybe we don’t see the magic in them because we have judgments towards them (story 1), or are not catching them in the right moment (story 2). I think we need to take the perspective of wildlife photographers, who stalk an animal for months, waiting patiently for a magical moment to reveal itself.

The doodle is of Scott, with the magic behind him. He’s in his element as a contact improv teacher. The Marin woman and the complaining produce customer probably have magical moments too.

—–

Check out this¬†relevant song from Kimya Dawson. It’s one of my favorite songs.

Follow your heart friends

follow your heart friends

I have thought about the purpose of friendship on this blog before (here, here, here and here). Now I have come to a new conclusion about the purpose of friends, which is:

The purpose of friends is to help you follow your heart.

I was hanging out with my friend Ariel, a farmer, a few weeks ago, when she said to me:

Ariel: It sounds like you are having trouble following your heart.

Hell yes, I thought. I wished I could knock these ideas out of me: you need to make tons of money, be prestigious, etc. Hit them really hard and see them on the floor.

Ariel: My mom said, how will you make money as a farmer? I said, I don’t know, but I am surrounded by a community of people with similar values, and that’s important to me.

Me: How did you get into farming?

Ariel: In college I met a bunch of anarchist friends, and some of them were into farming.

Me: What if you didn’t meet those people? What if you went to a college without people like that?

Ariel: I’d be a very different person.

“Follow your dreams” is the goal, but usually I have no idea about how to:

  1. Figure out what those dreams are
  2. Figure out ways of following them, especially where there is no blueprint in place.

Sure, there have probably been a few courageous people like Einstein who set out to sea simply following their dreams, but I think most people had a network of friends or colleagues that made their crazy ideas accepted and gave them blueprints of how to do things.

Ariel: You should volunteer at an urban farm one day a week, just to get your hands in the dirt.

Maybe I will. And maybe I will start thinking of my friends not merely as people to go out to dinner with, but as people who will help me do the things that I want to do.

Escape from Flatworld

I was visiting New York City and having beer with a friend in a bar. I went to the bathroom and when I was in there, I thought of my phone. Could there be a new text? I should check.

flatworld 1

You see, I was in the midst of an epic texting conversation. I was wondering if another installment been delivered.

And immediately, I resented this thought. Why couldn’t I go to the bathroom and interact with the 3-D world, and not get pulled into flatworld, the 2-D world of texts and screens. I was already spending so much time in flatworld. And now, even in the bathroom, I wasn’t free of its clutches.

Then, as I was urinating, I had a thought.

flatworld 2

Flatworld was a big conspiracy. Flatworld was sucking me in. It wanted me to keep interacting with it. More emails, more updates, more screen-tasks. And the reward for sending texts was even more texts.

flatworld thoughtI longed for the the 3-D world. I was a 3-D person, but I had spent the good part of the past several days, and last several years, in flatworld.

I wanted to be an animal again. Interact with real 3-D objects. The cat at the apartment I was staying in didn’t know how to navigate flatworld. As far as I could tell, this cat was a happier, less anxious, creature than I was.

I was done with flatworld. I was angry. I would never break free of flatworld unless I took some drastic measures.

It was time to carry through with my idea.

flatworld 3 flatworld 4

Well, I didn’t actually do that, but that’s what I felt like doing. My dad doesn’t have a cell phone and says: I try not to do stuff on the computer at work, as much as I can avoid it.

I get it. Playing flatworld will never lead to an escape from flatworld. Escaping flatworld requires not playing.

—-

Practical tip: I’ve been putting my phone in airplane mode, so that I don’t check it for texts.

P.S. To make this post, I spent about 4 hours in flatworld. Hopefully, the ideas in this post will get me away from flatworld for more than 4 hours.

P.P.S. It’s fun to drive my car with phone and radio off. I can zoom and zip and exist in just the present spot, nowhere else. I have no anxiety about checking my phone at red lights or changing radio stations. What fun to be part of the 3-D world!

Neuroscience Chocolates

Neuroscience Chocolates

The brain is made up of all these parts! It’s not really useful to know their anatomy for a general citizen who is just trying to use their brain well. Who cares that your happiness is physically a little lima bean located towards the front and bottom of the brain? Still, it’s kind of cool that our brain has specific parts that do specific things. The function of some body parts (bones, the heart) is obvious, but neurons don’t give their secrets away just by how they look.

Movement Research

movement research

“For this exercise, close your eyes. Wherever your body wants to move, go with it. You are doing research on your body movement.”– Scott, contact improv teacher

Mantras don’t do it for me. I can know the truth in words a million times, but repeating a mantra in my head generally doesn‚Äôt help get me out of an anxious state.¬† What helps are physical tools.

It’s nice to do Scott‚Äôs exercise and let the body take over. If my shoulder pulls me that way, I’ll go that way. If my legs get weak, I’ll fall to the ground.

But doing this ‚Äúmovement research‚ÄĚ in daily life is tough. There aren‚Äôt that many spaces you can go to roll around on the floor without people looking at you funny. Also, it‚Äôs tough to make time for this kind of thing when you are busy. That‚Äôs why I go to things like contact improv and acroyoga ‚Äď they provide the time and space for free movement.

My friend Kristin said: ‚ÄúYoga is not competitive. The only competition is how well you can connect your mind to your body.‚ÄĚ Wild animals have a much better mind-body connection, I think. Just look at how a cat or dog moves, compared to a creaky person, especially after that person has been sitting for a while at a computer.

For much of life in civilization, the body is being whipped by the mind, like a horse by a rider. It’s nice sometimes to let the horse roam free.