Categories
Philosophy & Thought

Zen and the Art of The Snow Shovel

Round 2 of 3 rounds of shovelling in one day during a recent snowstorm.

In the section of Atlantic Canada I’m parked in we average around 100 in/250cm of snowfall per year. It’s not uncommon to get 2-3 feet in a single storm, several times a winter.

A few weeks ago, we got a big dump of snow. Around 2 feet if I recall correctly. I went out to snowblow my driveway the next morning before heading to work and the snowblower wasn’t having it. It would blow snow, but the drive mechanism wouldn’t engage so it wouldn’t go anywhere. The machine weighs more than I do, so simply pushing it was not an option.

Was a time when I would have beaten the thing with a shovel and swore up and down at it – as if this action would have compelled the inanimate object to somehow change its mind and work. Instead I realized I had two options.

I could haul it back in the garage and take it apart and see what the issue was and if I could fix it. Bear in mind it was around -19ºC at this point – even in my unheated garage – and dicking around with some small mechanical parts in those temps didn’t seem too appealing.

Or I could shovel.

Either way I was going to be late for work, but just accepting that fact was half the battle. I decided on option 2.

I begrudgingly began to shovel, but as I did so I started to become more aware of things in that moment. It was a bright, sunny day – as weirdly enough, it often is after large snowstorms – it was quite still and quiet, and generally just pleasant to be outside (assuming one is properly dressed for the cold).

Once I’d accepted that I was going to be late for work anyway – and the fact that there was nothing really I could do about it – settling into work at a reasonable vs. rushed pace was actually quite satisfying. I felt good using my body to do work. It was much more meditative without the constant racket of the snowblower engine and the crisp air was untainted by exhaust.

Shovelling snow is one of those tasks where you can actually see your progress in real-time. You can observe that you’re actually getting something done and absorb the satisfaction that provides.

Sometimes, I wander the house, circling, not sure where to go or what to do. My wife will often ask me what’s up – I usually reply that I feel I have so many things I need to do, I don’t know which one to do first.

I was listening to a podcast the other day (I forget which one) and one of the people mentioned a story about Albert Einstein. Apparently, Einstein had a closet full of very similar, or indeed, the same clothes, and would often dress exactly the same every day. When someone once asked him why, he is said to have replied “to avoid Option Paralysis.” I get that. I have had that. I’ve been paralyzed by all the options. And consequently rendered non-productive at various times as a result. I don’t know if Option Paralysis is a real thing or not, but it’s real to me, and when it hits, and I can’t move forward, it really does a number on my frame of mind.

What I’ve started doing though is just pick one thing and do it. Do it completely. Do it with all my focus and finish it. Then move on to another thing. It often turns out to not really even matter which thing gets done first, because invariably what happens is when you can get one thing done – and feel good doing it – then that mojo translates into the next thing, and the next thing, and – you get the point.

In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki wrote:

“In order not to leave any traces, when you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely. If you do not burn yourself completely, a trace of yourself will be left in what you do. You will have something remaining which is not completely burned out. Zen activity is activity which is completely burned out, with nothing remaining but ashes. This is the goal of our practice. That is what Dogen meant when he said, “Ashes do not come back to firewood.” Ash is ash. Ash should be completely ash. The firewood should be firewood. When this kind of activity takes place, one activity covers everything.” 

That day, shovelling snow became such a thing. And the next storm, when I went out to shovel three different times while it was still going (it’s easier to shovel a small amount of snow three times, vs. a large amount once). I dedicated myself to the one task, only that task. I wasn’t trying to do several other things at once – or worrying about what I was going to do when I was done. That would be then. This is now. “Burn yourself completely.” This doesn’t mean exhaust yourself into fatigue – I take it to mean put all your attention in that moment into what you are doing, whatever it is.

“But you’re shovelling freaking snow,” you say. “How satisfying or interesting can that be?” Well, quite, actually. David Cain over at raptitude.com mentioned this awhile back in his post “How to Enjoy Life” wherein he talked about finding happiness even in things society tells us we probably shouldn’t enjoy (or just flat out don’t):

“To the mind that’s looking for it, there is pleasure to be taken in the warmth of dishwater, the fresh air on a walk to the store, and the relaxing sensation of sitting in a chair, even if that chair is in the waiting room at the oil change place. We don’t do these things—or most things—for reasons of pleasure, but pleasure is available in most things.”

The real transformative effect isn’t in the subtle pleasures you can find when you look (although they’re pretty great). It’s in the completely different way we’re aiming our minds in ordinary moments. We’re looking into our experience, not outwards from it, for interest and pleasure.”

It’s easy to give lip-service to this idea in the form of, “yeah well anything can be at least moderately enjoyable with the right perspective,” but how often do we actually employ those changes of perspective?

I still haven’t fixed my snowblower. At some point I will, but I think moving forward I will be more selective about using it (and saving gas money and getting more exercise in the meantime.)

“Burn yourself completely.”
Categories
Quotes

If There Is Such A Thing

“You might say, well, what’s the right way of being in the world? – if there is such a thing – and it’s not acting in accordance to a set of rules. It’s attempting continuously to transcend the flawed thing that you currently are. And what’s interesting about that is that the meaning of life is found in that pursuit.”

Jordan Peterson, The Joe Rogan Podcast, Episode #1139
Categories
Books & Reading

Using My Attention with Intention

About a year ago, after a lot of consideration, I decided that I was through with social media. I’d gone back and forth on the whys, the hows, the reasoning and finally decided to pull the plug on it all. I was an early adopter and for awhile a staunch advocate, but I’d reconsidered. Long story short – I don’t regret it.

When I was first experiencing the rumblings of the idea that I might want out of social media – and to spend less time online/looking at screens – I remember at the time reading The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. The one thing from it that has stuck with me was his reporting of the fact that neuroscientists had actually observed physical changes happening to the brain, based on the way people were reading and consuming content on the Internet. It would only seem obvious that people’s attention spans were shortening, but experiments and data showed that the actual physical molecular structure of people’s brains was changing making it harder for them to concentrate for longer periods of time on one thing and also making it more difficult for people to read longer-form literature. The Internet was rewiring people’s brains, literally. This kinda freaked me out.

A few years later when I finally decided to kick my social media and decrease my screen time. I also made it a point to get back to reading more long-form writing – articles, essays and books – and to revamp my reading ‘practice’, doing some things differently as well as things I’d never done before like taking notes and marking up physical books with notes and highlights. Most people developed some of these habits in university – but I never went, so it was a new endeavor for me.

I’d noticed my own tendency to read only shorter pieces, avoidance of long articles, and deteriorating attention span. Though I’ve been attempting to rehabilitate my reading skills, I’ll ironically point out that old habits die hard. In the case of the article I discuss below, I read it 3 times. The first two I would resort to skimming, looking for hooks and trying to get to the end so I could get on to ‘next thing’. Part of my efforts have been working on stopping, slowing down, and staying with the writing. Too often these days we are in a hurry to ‘get elsewhere’ either virtually or physically and don’t pay attention to the one thing we are actually doing.

With no social media any longer to feed me articles and book ideas, I set out and stocked my Feedly app with sources of the kind of stuff I wanted to read. I began to regularly check in and read more and for articles of longer length – this step is key, I would bookmark to read later – when I could actually give full attention to the text vs. just scanning quickly as had become my standard practice for ‘Internet reading’.

An example of an outstanding result from my new ‘practice’ is this article recently in The Paris Review by Mairead Small Staid – it’s a review of The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age written in 1994 by Sven Birkerts . A superbly written review, so much of it resonates with me that I have to restrain myself from just copy and pasting the whole thing here. Ms. Staid’s writing is fantastic – go read it for yourself – it’s well worth it, but I will share a few teasers here that stuck with me.

The book is a book about reading that has Birkerts wondering – at the dawn of the Internet – how we will read in the future and if reading will continue to constitute the experience that it did prior. I haven’t read the book yet, but have moved it to the top of my to-read list based on Ms. Staid’s article.

“Literature holds meaning not as a content that can be abstracted and summarized, but as experience, … It is a participatory arena. Through the process of reading we slip out of our customary time orientation, marked by distractedness and surficiality, into the realm of duration.”

Sven Birkerts

I found it interesting that Ms. Staid mentions her age and relevant points on the ‘technological timeline’ of her life. Though older than her, I can also remember the ‘pre-Internet’ days and my relationship to books and reading then. It is even easier when looking through this lens to see how my habits and attitudes have changed over time and with the growth of the Internet and related technologies.

Though we’ve experienced some of the same milestones on the ‘technology timeline,’ albeit at different points, Ms. Staid echoes some thoughts I’ve had but never been able to elucidate quite as effectively:

“Loneliness is what the internet and social media claim to alleviate, though they often have the opposite effect. Communion can be hard to find, not because we aren’t occupying the same physical space but because we aren’t occupying the same mental plane: we don’t read the same news; we don’t even revel in the same memes. Our phones and computers deliver unto each of us a personalized—or rather, algorithm-realized—distillation of headlines, anecdotes, jokes, and photographs. Even the ads we scroll past are not the same as our neighbor’s: a pair of boots has followed me from site to site for weeks. We call this endless, immaterial material a feed, though there’s little sustenance to be found.”

Mairead Small Staid

I don’t think I’ve read anything to date that more perfectly summed up my final, turning-point experience with social media. So many times I remember checking in with my feed only to say to myself, there is nothing here worthwhile. Now, by using the Internet and apps with more intention, I’m finding there’s much more ‘sustenance in my feed,’ and I am spending less time online, reading far more, and getting a lot more out of it.

“I no longer have a Facebook account, and I find myself spending less and less time online. As adulthood settles on me—no passing fad, it turns out, but a chronic condition—I’m increasingly drawn back to the deeply engaged reading of my childhood. The books have changed, and my absorption is not always as total as it once was, but I can still find, slipped like a note between the pages, what Birkerts calls the “time of the self… deep time, duration time, time that is essentially characterized by our obliviousness to it.” The gift of reading, the gift of any encounter with art, is that this time spent doesn’t leave me when I lift my eyes from the book in my lap: it lingers, for a minute or a day. “[S]omething more than definitional slackness allows me to tell a friend that I’m reading The Good Soldier as we walk down the street together,” Birkerts writes. “In some ways I am reading the novel as I walk, or nap, or drive to the store for milk.”

Mairead Small Staid

I too have returned to physical books and rediscovered the joy and experience to be found therein. Initially I’d also read e-books, but found I was still to tempted to check email, or be distracted by notifications, so have now eschewed even those, preferring good old-fashioned paper and ink that I can feel, mark up and make my own. A real book is much easier to literally dive into and get lost within.

Categories
Art, Architecture & Design Photos Science & Technology

Nanoscape

My buddy and fellow cyclist Geoff Williams (gewilli to his peeps) has a side gig going on posting artwork from Electron Microscopes. Fascinating stuff. He recently had a print exhibition at the Chazan Gallery in Rhode Island. Check him out on instagram and twitter. I hear he plays a mean fiddle as well.

From the Gallery Exhibition Website:

For over 20 years Geoff Williams has been honing his craft as an electron microscopist. Each image that he collects is an expression of his sensibilities. The dynamic interplay of shape and grayscale values speaks to him. From that first image Williams collected on a scanning electron microscope (SEM) until now, he has been consistently striving to master a technique that engages this scientific tool towards a goal of sharing this world through his personal lense.
Williams’ images provide a tactile and striking view of samples we may or may not encounter in our day-to-day lives.  These samples can come from very diverse sources, from food to tiny fragments of the custom bicycle making process, to broken or discarded bits. Williams strives to present them as inspiring visuals, hoping to draw in and engage the audience in a way that is not possible in any other expressive form. The unique three dimensionality of these SEM works has the potential to decouple any a priori connection a viewer might have, while at the same time fostering a powerful de novo relationship to the subjects.

Categories
Philosophy & Thought

The Empty Suitcases of the Past

The other day, my internet Pen Pal Steve shared a post with me from Derek Sivers about keeping a daily journal – something I have scattered experience with.

Here’s a portion of my response to Steve’s initial email:

I have, for many years, kept a conventional paper/pen journal. I have lapses where I haven’t entered anything for months, and other periods that are relatively prolific. My current stint is pretty much daily for a few months now. They are usually pretty boring, but I do go back and read old ones once in-awhile. They are scattered in 10-12 different journals as well as I would fill one and start or get a new one and start in that one. Some of them start in one year and then end maybe 5 years later with spans of the time in between either missing or in other journals. 

Thinking about these journals got me started thinking about my past in general. As I said above I don’t read these old entries too much and when I do I’m often struck by a sense of reading something by another person. They are often times embarrassing – “geez, what an idiot I was then” or “I was so freaking out about what eventually turned out to be nothing” – as well as all kinds of other cringe-worthy moments that can only occur when we read things written by a past self. It’s very hard to view them with anything other than a “hindsight is 20/20”-type of mentality. I realize I was – and possibly still am – far more likely to write about bad things, or when things weren’t going right – I made a mistake, was worried about something (invariably that was out of my control anyway), etc. Of course they are often packed full of complaints and general discontent. Very rarely did I crack a book and jot down, “Damn, everything is unicorns and rainbows today!” As such the journals often seem characterized by a general malaise. Perhaps something I should work on – or not. There’s no rules to these things – unless you want there to be. Mr. Sivers certainly applies more structure to his process than I ever have – or intend to.

We Carry Our Pasts Like Baggage

But those bags are empty – there’s nothing in them. I can’t go back and find any of those moments from the past anywhere. They’re gone. The I that was me then is gone too. As are the people I interacted with. They’re no longer the same people – even if I still see them everyday.

“We can only truly live in the present moment… so we should be sincere, in our conduct at the present moment.”

Gudo Wufu Nishijima

Obviously events of the past have led to where I am today and some of the effects of my actions – and the actions of others – may still be felt, but most likely they’ve dissipated, changed, or I don’t even remember correctly how or what happened. Statistically speaking, our memories are biased, flawed – in many cases flat out terrible – and in addition entirely unique to us as individuals. Everyone else remembers the same thing entirely differently from me.

I am not a product of my past and the person that I was during all that time no longer exists. That time, those moments, no longer exist – they are gone, no matter how real they seem to me in my mind or how often I choose to dredge them up and revisit them.

I am a product of my thoughts and actions in this moment – and only this moment. And then the moment ends and I am a product of the next one. This is a liberating realization. The only thing that is real and that I have even a modicum of control over is my conduct in this moment – therefore that is all I need to focus on.