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.