Wearing Occasions and Practicing Philosophy

Buddhism stresses “mindfulness,” for the Greek philosophers it’s “psychological acceptance.” Both posit that human suffering is not the result of external problems but internal beliefs. Having a nonjudgmental perspective on the totality of one’s experience, learning new information-processing skills and coping mechanisms, reduces suffering and is the path to achieving spiritual enlightenment.

Practicing philosophy means to examine the reasons we have for the values and the beliefs we hold as true so that we can free ourselves from unhelpful traditions, cultures, habits and mindsets. These unhelpful beliefs are what water is to fish – invisible due to their over-familiarity. So how do you study the invisible? One way is to make use of the propaganda thrown at us everyday in the form of advertising. The strategies companies employ to get you to buy their products makes for good brain fodder in how to practice philosophy.

Consider: Consumers have most of their needs met. They also have limited money. What is a corporation with a mandate of constant growth to do? Trying to take market share from competitors is one option. If the pie is only so big, you need to take a larger piece from the competitor if you want to grow. But it’s not cheap. Consumer habits run deep.

Even better than growing market share is growing market size. Increasing market size can take on many forms: for example, a company in the computer business moves into the phone business and then moves into the wristwatch business. Or a low price company creates a tier of luxury, high priced products.

Besides maneuvering into other categories or recreating perceptions of value, the most pernicious way of creating market size is by inventing problems for which the company is the only solution. Create new customer needs and all of a sudden you’ve created more share to take.

This idea is as old as marketing itself. No one knew halitosis was a problem until the mouthwash company told us it was. Who knew wearing white after Labor Day was a sin until fashion companies declared it so? Instead of inventing problems for which the company is the solution — maintaining the problem for which they are the solution is even better. You’re never good looking enough, happy enough, travelled enough or entertained enough as long as the company keeps thinking up new ways to convince you so. In a way, marketing is a personification of the thoughts that we manufacture in our minds – which makes them so ripe for analysis. We also maintain the problematic thought patterns that keep us believing unhelpful thoughts that stroke our egos and pride.

We generally think we’re above it all, that all that advertising doesn’t affect me. Don’t be so quick to think that a thousand cuts won’t kill you. Marketing ideas get our attention by taking advantage of a host of psychological vulnerabilities that we have and then become fuel for the unhelpful values and beliefs that philosophy aims to fix. It is possible to render advertising ineffective and at the same time build our mental muscles to resist. We are awash in marketing messages, and therefor awash in practicing philosophy.

The brevity of marketing messages helps in their perception as being self-evident – too short and shallow to be given critical thought before the next advertisement hijacks our attention. Instead, let the advertisement be your own Socratic questioner. Contemplate the ad’s “call-to-action” with your own opinions and values on the topic suggested and articulate them for yourself. Ask, “who stands to benefit from this belief?” By dragging your values into the light, defending your position against or for the ad’s claim, or just acknowledging you have values will begin to break them down, expose them to the operations of critical intelligence and thus develop that intelligence in the first place. The point isn’t to double-down on your opinions or swallow marketing messages whole, but to put them into the unfamiliar, uncomfortable and endlessly fertile condition of doubt — ultimately to understand that you know less than you think.

So when you learn of a new “wearing occasion” proposed by an apparel company in an attempt to get you to buy clothes that ultimately do the same thing as clothes you already own, consider it an opportunity to teach yourself to recognize it, question it, and think your way around it.

Don’t Trust Your Goals

I saw the above magazine on a table in the gym this morning and it reconfirmed to me how skeptical I am of reaching goals to increase happiness. It’s such as easy assumption to make: “Choosing outcomes that make people look happier will make you happier too!”

There is no shortage of celebrities and rock stars who describe getting everything they ever wanted and simultaneously being the saddest they’ve ever been.
As Jim Carry says,

“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”

So first of all, avoid focusing on outcomes. Efforts directed at outcomes outside of your control will have the inevitable consequence of either disappointment from endless ambition on the one hand, or bitterness when things don’t work on on the other.

Instead of outcomes,

“Fall in love with the process and the results will come” -Eric Thomas.

But what kind of process should you undertake?

Mark Manson tells the story about wanting to be a famous rock star,

“But despite fantasizing about this for over half of my life, the reality never came. And it took me a long time to figure out why.

I didn’t actually want it.

I’m in love with the result — the image of me on stage, people cheering, me rocking out, putting everything I have into what I’m playing — but I’m not in love with the process.

The daily drudgery of practicing, the logistics of finding a group and rehearsing, the pain of finding gigs and actually getting people to show up and give a shit. The broken strings, the blown tube amp, hauling 40 lbs of gear to and from rehearsals with no car. It’s a mountain of a dream and a mile-high climb to the top. And what it took me a long time to discover is that I don’t like to climb. I just want to imagine the top.”

If you enjoy the idea of reaching the goal more than you enjoy the daily struggle to achieve it, you’re in trouble. Better to make your decision based on what you enjoy struggling with everyday and put no thought on the outcome.

Why something that causes you to struggle? That’s the only way to grow, feel progress and have a sense of meaning.

Only those people who enjoy the mundane repetition of being in the gym, pushing their physical limits and like feeling sore, are the ones who get ripped.
Only those who love the uncertainty about what to write next and the loneliness of self-reinforcement become accomplished novelists.
Only those who like to suffer through the long nights and find pleasure from the stress of being resourceful to make their entrepreneurial endeavor work become successful business owners.

Ira glass said,

“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Pick what you enjoy doing that puts you in that “gap” where you’re work is bad – and accept that it may never get better. Pick the suffering that you can’t leave alone. Pick the thing that even if it never made money, was never seen and never gave you any prestige you’d still do it.

Then, choose to be content by doing what makes you struggle everyday.

Why do setups and payoffs matter so much for a movie to be enjoyable?

The movie A Quiet Place, has been an unexpected success, far surpassing analyst expectations to become one of the most profitable movies in years. The reason is because it’s good. And I think the reason it’s good is thanks to it’s superb usage of setups and payoffs. Most movies go wrong when payoffs occur without being setup or setups occur without ever being paid off.

 

Some setups are explicit others are implicit, both excel when they make us think the story is going in one direction, but when it pays off, there’s a twist.

 

Let’s take a look at a couple of the setups and payoffs from A Quite Place:
Explicit setup: While taking the laundry up the stairs, the wife accidentally pulls a nail up on the stairs. We have become hyper-aware of the setup and expect that the nail is going to be stepped on, the only question is when.
Imagine watching that nail be pulled up and then never have a character step on it throughout the rest of the movie. Or imagine a scene where the character goes down the stairs and accidentally steps on a nail we the audience didn’t know existed. In the former we’re confused, in the later we don’t believe it.
With the way it actually plays out, the setup builds great tension as we all cringe as the character steps down the stairs slowly – and as a twist, it happens at a worst possible time — when she’s going into labor!

 

Implicit setup: The husband tries again and again to repair his deaf daughter’s hearing implant. As we watch this unfold we could just understand the scene to show the father’s love for his daughter and their turbulent relationship, so it’s not such an explicit set up. Then we’re delighted to discover that thanks to his tinkering, he inadvertently created a device that exploits the monster’s weakness.
To our excitement we realize, in the end, that there was no surprise at all. What had seemed to be a turn of fate proves to be inevitable and, as we realize it, we receive the gift of insight. We should have seen it coming!

 

I think this is what David Fincher means in this short clip when he says that the best cinematic stories have an ending that has an inevitability to it.

Why do setups and payoff matter so much for a movie to be enjoyable?

 

The human condition is one where there is way too much information out there and we are woefully ill equipped to make sense of it all — but that doesn’t stop us from trying. In every area of life, from relationships to careers, we look at sequences of events and weave explanations into them, creating narratives that link the different inputs together and ignore the facts that do not fit in the story.
Psychologists call this tendency the narrative bias: “the tendency to interpret information as being part of a larger story or pattern, regardless of whether the facts actually support the full narrative.”

 

Life is stubbornly devoid of clean-cut setups and payoffs but for the couple of hours that we’re in the theater we can imagine a world in which they are clear, everything happens for a reason, the universe isn’t random and it feels so good to vicariously see cause and effect play out for the characters on the screen.

 

We essentially are paying filmmakers to exploit this psychological vulnerability of ours and when they don’t do it right we get pissed — the story is not therapeutic or encouraging, instead it just reminds us of the problem of real life — it’s random.

Creative Fulfillment Versus Financial Security

Inciting Incident

FS > CF

You want to be able to support a family. You want to enjoy the leisure activities that signal a successful life like golf, skiing and traveling to exotic destinations. There’s more to life than just work.

Did your parents love what they did? No, to them a job was a job and the stuff that counted was what you did outside of work: family, friends, community, church, hobbies.

Instead of looking inward to find what work you want to do, you look outward at the work that needs doing. If everyone just did what they felt like who would create the jobs, discover the cures and innovate the technologies needed to bring about the progress our society desperately needs?

Besides, if you’re honest with yourself, the only thing you’re really “passionate” about is hanging out with friends — who’s hiring for that job? Rather than being a preexisting inclination, passion in a career germinates over time. If you don’t feel passionate about your career, especially as you’re getting started, that’s normal. You start with effort — investing the hard, unsexy, long-term work that’s needed for it to grow it into something deeply fulfilling.

CF > FS

Life is short. You only get one chance and you have to be true to yourself. It takes courage to ignore everyone and do what you know is right for you. You refuse to be among the 67% of people who either aren’t engaged at work or actively disengaged.

You saw how depressed and stressed-out your parents were squabbling over money — it ruined them. If you’re not careful you’ll get addicted too — like Nassim Nicholas Taleb says,“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.”

The only way to do great work is to love what you do. Every great idea ever brought to life was thanks to a person with a dream and the passion to see it through.

The world is waiting for you to have the courage to follow your bliss. You have a chance and to not even try would mean living a life of “what might have been.” Sure it’s risky but with high risk comes high reward.

Progressive Complication

FS > CF

You never find creative fulfillment. You put your head down and get to work, putting fulfillment on the back burner but by the time you lift your head again you’ve overweight, overstressed and you can’t help but feel a gnawing anxiety that it has slipped by without you being able to enjoy much of it.

You thought you could work hard for a while and once you had financial security you’d be able to do what you really love. But you’re in too deep and have grown too accustomed to a standard of living so high that you have no choice but to keep on going. Your co-workers, your kids and your wife are all depending on you.

CF > FS

You never find financial security. You’ve considered giving up on your dream to start over with a “normal” career a thousand times but you’re years behind everyone else. Your friends are all married and having kids and you’ve got no career capital to speak of – you’ve been waitressing, working retail or being an Uber driver your whole adult life.

You’re in debt, living in an apartment with roommates — with not much more to speak of than when you were in college. Giving up on your dream will prove to everyone else they were right and prove to yourself that you’re a failure.

Crisis

FS > CF

You squeeze in time on nights and weekends to work on things that supplement your creative longing but you’re so exhausted every night that most of the time you put off investing effort into your creative ideas and settle for Netflix instead.

You’ve taken advantage of the money you’ve earned to pursue leisure and hobbies – playing golf, skiing and going on vacations to hawaii — all of which gives momentary respite but it’s not enough. You’re living for the weekend but even those are becoming scarce as the demands at work begin to creep into every aspect of your life. Despite everything you do for them, you can’t help but read from their looks that your kids are disappointed in you and you’re afraid that they’re right.

CF > FS

You squeeze in time on nights and weekends to build something to supplement your measly income but if you added it up it would still be way less than minimum wage. The work is tolerable and better than being broke and you tell yourself that it’s still creative in a way.

The more you build your business the less time you have for auditions and gigs. Does the mere existence of this side hustle prove that you’ve given up? You’ve gotten looks from friends that you can’t help but read as them thinking you’re selling out and you’re afraid you are too.

Climax

FS > CF

You take the leap and settle for a new job as a middle manager at another company. You tighten your belt financially – no more membership at the expensive health club, no more car leases, no more eating out nightly. You brace for the comments from coworkers about being ‘put out to pasture’.

You start cooking dinner at home and try mending relationships with your kids who are weary of your new presence in the home. Are you too late to be a part of their lives?

At night you dust off your brushes, canvas and easel and begin to paint. Alone in the garage with a painting in front of you that’s indistinguishable from a kindergartener’s, you begin to weep.

CF > FS

Pathetically, all of your earthly possessions fit easily into the back of your 2005 Nissan Centra when you moved out of the Valley to a condo in the suburbs where the rent is feasible and you have the space needed to work.

You sell your guitar amp for a round trip ticket to pitch your first big client. You land the sale — which is only because your bid was the lowest — and as soon as you get home and see your measly condo, everything still half packed in boxes, an overwhelming feeling of dread falls over you. The new client will see through the facade any moment and realize you’re an imposter.

You get a text from your roommate back in the city who forgot to remove you from the group text. They’re meeting up for a drink at your favorite bar. You begin to weep.

Resolution

FS > CF

You pay for an overpriced booth at the county fair where you put your paintings up for sale, fully knowing there’s little chance you’ll even break even, but you’ve got to ‘put yourself out there.’

On the last night of the fair you sell your first painting. Your family is there to celebrate with you. Amid the hugs and high-fives your son pulls you aside and confides in you that he’s glad you stopped working so much.

That night, feeling wise, you tell your kids, “life is short – don’t worry about money, do what you love and enjoy life.”

CF > FS

Business has grown slowly but surely. It’s a stretch but you surprise your family with plane tickets to Hawaii — the first vacation you’ve ever been able to take them on.

After a long, satisfying day of body surfing, while eating pulled pork sandwiches at a food truck, your son looks across the table at you and tells you he’s proud of you.

On the last night of the trip, as you watch the sunset on the beach with your loved ones around you, feeling wise, you tell your kids, “life is short – get an education so that you can get a good job and enjoy life.”

How To Lose Your Mind

Losing your mind is usually associated with diminishing mental health — that’s not what I’m encouraging here. Instead, consider the perspective that all pain comes from the mind.

As Michael Singer, author of The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself says,

“When a problem is disturbing you, don’t ask, “What should I do about it?” Ask, “What part of me is being disturbed by this?”…”Eventually you will see that the real cause of the problem is not life itself. It’s the commotion the mind makes about life that really causes the problems.”

This goes along with the buddhist idea that,

“Attachment is the root of suffering.”

There are certain activities that naturally cause us to feel like we’ve ‘lost our minds’ — or in other words, cause us to detach from the labels, worldviews and interpretations that we’ve developed over our lives, and be deeply centered in the present moment. Mosh pits, deep work, movie cliffhangers — these experiences teach us that losing our minds is possible. But too often we fail to see these experiences as a glimpse of what our minds are capable of and use them only as distractions to cover up temporarily what is bothering us.

It’s impossible to be distracted to the point of avoiding all pain — but not for lack of trying. A study has shown that people would rather shock themselves than be alone with their thoughts:

“For 15 minutes, the team left participants alone in a lab room in which they could push a button and shock themselves if they wanted to. The results were startling: Even though all participants had previously stated that they would pay money to avoid being shocked with electricity, 67% of men and 25% of women chose to inflict it on themselves rather than just sit there quietly and think”

What if instead of constantly seeking more distraction as a way of avoiding suffering, there was a way to train your mind to not let thoughts cause suffering in the first place? This is the promise made by Vipassana meditation, where concentration on breathing is used as a tool to sharpen awareness of the illusion that thoughts and feelings are real. Meditation gradually cultivates mindfulness and awareness of the inner workings of reality itself — to lose your mind in everyday life.

True Story Movies Are The New Comic Book Movies

Bemoaning the deluge of comic book movies, reboots and sequels as Hollywood scrapes the bottom of the intellectual property barrel has become cliche. Despite our cries for relief, it doesn’t look like Hollywood has any intention of slowing down the processes of repetition, replication, sequelization, and rebooting (see: two new star wars trilogies are in the works). The motive behind this has been made very apparent: brand recognition. It’s easier to market movies based on things we’re already heard of.

 

The strategy behind comic book movies has crept into another genre as well. One that Hollywood can capitalize on without the eye rolls they get from yet another sequel: movies based on true events.

 

Just in the last few months it seems like we’ve been inundated by them: The Post, I Tonya, Molly’s Game, Disaster Artist, Only The Brave, 12 Strong, All the Money In The World, The Greatest Showman, Darkest Hour and 15:17 to Paris. To my chagrin, even Christopher Nolan, maker of original greats such as Momento, the Prestige, Inception and Interstellar went and made a true story, Dunkirk, last year.

 

Just like comic book movies, true story movies have the brand recognition. Better still, they can be given critical prestige before anyone sees them. Can anyone give a bad review to Only The Brave without looking like they disrespect the deceased firefighters that the movie is based on?

 

There is some data that backs this up: Movies based on real events have average scores higher than all other movies and they are more frequently nominated for Oscars.

 

Given the benefits of the true story genre, Hollywood is not subtle about putting the “based on a true story,” “inspired by a true story,” or “based on actual events” label on any movie where they can get away with it. The latest true story movie, 15:17 to Paris, appears to be attempting to up the ante by using the actual people from the true events as the actors in the movie.

 

Obviously these movies aren’t “true.” What movie isn’t based on real events, locations, scenarios and emotions? It’s a marketing tactic based on the assumption that a movie based on true events is more alluring.

 

The “based on a true story” schtick shows just as much loss of creative innovation and the steady decay of cinema as the comic book movie/reboot schtick. In both cases the movies add constraints for marketing purposes that limit the scope of what’s possible. In their drive for profits, both genres have to be careful or they run the risk of being accused of not being true to their source material, limiting their creativity and originality.

 

I want the stories I watch to push the limits of what has ever been done before, to disrupt conventions, to surprise me — all of which “base on a true story” movies rarely do.

Instagram – How To Get Outside The Aura

This supercut of cliche instagram travel photos reminds me on Don Delillo’s book White Noise.

It’s the chapter where Jack and Murray, both professors at a midwest college, go to see “the most photographed barn in America.” On the drive to the barn they see five signs touting the barn and when they get there they see 40 cars and a tourbus, everyone snapping pictures of the barn. After a moment of taking it all in Murray says, “No one sees the barn.”

A long silence followed.

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.

“We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”

There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”

Another silence ensued.

“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.

He did not speak for a while. We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crank of levers that advanced the film.

“What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he said. “What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can’t answer these questions because we’ve read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can’t get outside the aura. We’re part of the aura. We’re here, we’re now.”

He seemed immensely pleased by this.

I love this. We don’t live in reality. We live in a version of reality that’s been translated by out minds. We label and categorize and compare and observe a version that’s solely in our heads. And these judgemental, biased thoughts are the source of our suffering.

Chuck Palahniuk in his book Choke makes the same observation:

“That big glorious mountain. For one transitory moment, I think I may have actually seen it.” For one flash, the Mommy had seen the mountain without thinking of logging and ski resorts and avalanches, managed wildlife, plate tectonic geology, microclimates, rain shadow, or yin-yang locations. She’d seen the mountain without the framework of language. Without the cage of associations. She’d seen it without looking through the lens of everything she knew was true about mountains.
What she’d seen in that flash wasn’t even a “mountain.” It wasn’t a natural resource. It had no name.
“That’s the big goal”, she said. “To find a cure for knowledge”.
For education. For living in our heads.
Ever since the story of Adam and Eve in the bible, humanity had been a little too smart for its own good, the Mommy said. Ever since eating that apple. Her goal was to find, if not a cure, then at least a treatment that would give people back their innocence.
“The cerebral cortex, the cerebellum”, she said, “that’s where your problem is”.
If she could just get down to using only her brain stem, she’d be cured.
This would be somewhere beyond happiness and sadness.
You don’t see fish agonized by wild mood swings.
Sponges never have a bad day.”

The pessimistic stance is the one Murray takes when he says you can’t know what the barn really looks like because you’ve read the signs and seen the people snapping the pictures. You can’t get outside the aura.

Meditation promises that you can, in fact, get outside of the aura. With enough training you can elevate your mind to be above the commotion the mind makes — clinging to desires and avoiding pain — and see things as they really are. You can have a present, conscious and deliberate direction of awareness. Making it possible to see the barn.

The Narrativization Of Everything

As the competition for our attention has gotten more cutthroat, so has the narrativization of everything. In the war for clicks and pageviews, the content with the most dumbed-down, most easily digestible point of view wins. It’s so tempting to glance through the headlines and consider yourself informed.

 

Stories are decisions. There’s no such thing as “the story,” no pre-existing idea or self-determined material that belongs in “the story” by necessity of its chosen subject or characters. It’s all invented by people with agendas and worldviews that differ from your own.

 

Complex problems require complex solutions. And almost all problems are complex ones. News shows and media outlets would have us believe differently. By shaping the news into simple narratives, for-profit organizations are able to give our brains what they crave: a sense of understanding. Since our brains don’t like randomness, we are constantly looking at sequences of events and weaving our own, or other’s explanations into them.

 

We believe that our opinions are the result of years of rational, objective analysis. But we suffer from biases formed from the result of years of paying attention to information which confirms what we believe while ignoring information that challenges our preconceived notions. Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it.

 

The truth is, anything that captures our attention — from a stone lying on the side of a road to the latest supreme court ruling — contains a captivating world beneath the superficial labels that we apply to them. The word “know” is incredibly deceptive.

“When you don’t cover up the world with words and labels, a sense of the miraculous returns to your life that was lost a long time ago when humanity, instead of using thought, became possessed by thought.” ― Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose

 

Our ignorance can feel overwhelming as explained by John Salvatier in his post, Reality has a surprising amount of detail:

“Before you’ve noticed important details they are, of course, basically invisible. It’s hard to put your attention on them because you don’t even know what you’re looking for. But after you see them they quickly become so integrated into your intuitive models of the world that they become essentially transparent.
This means it’s really easy to get stuck. Stuck in your current way of seeing and thinking about things. Frames are made out of the details that seem important to you. The important details you haven’t noticed are invisible to you, and the details you have noticed seem completely obvious and you see right through them. This all makes makes it difficult to imagine how you could be missing something important.”

 

So how do we overcome these deceptive narratives? Step one: admit you have a problem. Ask yourself, “who wins?” Does the conclusion you’ve come to in support of placing yourself above others? If so, there’s a chance you’re not seeing the whole picture.
As the wise Andrew WK says,

“When we anticipate with ferocious glee the next chance we have to prove someone “wrong” and ourselves “right,” all the while disregarding the vast complexity of almost every subject — not to mention the universe as a whole — we are reducing the beauty and magic of life to a “side” or a “type,” or worst of all, an “answer.” This is the power of politics at it’s most sinister.”

 

Step two: exercise your critical thinking muscles. You need to constantly remind yourself that there is always more to the story.

 

A steady diet of filter bubble, outrage-clickbait that is compulsively consumed in tiny doses on a small screen while being distracted by flashing alerts, likes, badges and breaking news won’t help — in fact, that kind of consumption will only strengthen the brain muscles that encourage shallow thinking.

 

Attack the deep details of subjects to see the multiple facets being explored, the reasoning used by the other side and ask child-like simple questions that’ll lay bare the incredible complexity of everything.

Boredom is at the root of device addiction, meditation is the cure

The verdict appears to be in: smartphones are ruining us. They’re making kids depressed, causing parents to neglect their kidsripping our society apart  and ruining our attention spans.

As a result Apple shareholders recently wrote a public letter to Apple, petitioning the company to make changes to it’s devices.

France is making rules to outlaw phones in schools for kids 15 years old and younger.

 

These are welcome attempts at solving the problem. But ultimately each of us has to acknowledge how our devices are manipulating us and take responsibility for our device consumption. And it isn’t an easy task because social media apps sink their hooks in deep. They’re designed to take advantage of our brain’s vulnerabilities.

Being proactive about taking back your mind from these devices requires going on the offensive; not unlike deliberately avoiding the ice cream isle if you want to lose weight, you need to disable notifications, leave your phone in a different room or remove apps from your phone altogether. But I think there is still a root problem here that will always be working against our efforts to thwart device addiction — boredom.

 

The threat of boredom has never been more real, no thanks to our devices training us to always be stimulated. And it shows: waiting in line, while taking a break or between sentences in conversation with friends, the phone is out — the ultimate filler.

 

There are plenty of articles pointing out that boredom is a useful tool. It’s crucial for developing “internal stimulus,” which strengthens the creativity muscles  by allowing us to notice the thoughts and observation boredom sparks.

Boredom has also been cited as a necessary to get good at things. To get good at something takes effort and there’s a stage — sometimes a long stage — that’s tedious. Like composer John Cage is quoted saying,

“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”

 

But what if boredom isn’t something that needs to be used, struggled through or solved at all? Maybe boredom is an invented affliction designed by marketers so they can sell you a solution; similar to the premise of “wearing occasions” — the made up idea from apparel companies to sell you multiple kinds of jackets even though they all do the same thing.

 

So what is boredom? It’s a label that we’ve put on the feeling of being uncomfortable with ourselves and with what’s in our minds and hearts. Now while there is no diversion good or long-lasting enough to solve this, meditation provides us with a laboratory situation in which we can examine this syndrome and devise strategies for dealing with it — a practice that can leave us never feeling bored again — and therefore never longing for a quick fix from the facebook newsfeed.

In boredom we can see how we ceaselessly run from our problems and after our desires. Buddhism advises you not to implant feelings that you don’t really have or avoid feelings that you do have. If you have a problem, you have a problem; that is the reality, that is what is happening, so confront it.

Look it objectively without flinching. Study the phenomenon and learn its mechanics. The way out of a the boredom trap is to study the trap itself, learn how it is built. You do this by taking the thing apart piece by piece. The trap can’t trap you if it has been taken to pieces. You can come to realize that You are not the boredom. The result is freedom.

The goal of meditation is to learn to control your mind, to step outside of the endless cycle of desire and aversion. You can learn not to want what you want, to recognize desires but not be controlled by them.

 

In this light, you can swap boredom with presence. Boredom isn’t something that happens to you, it’s something you can do.

 

What’s the job you hired your career to be done?

In our society there is a lot riding on your career. Far from just paying the bills, a career needs to provide meaning, status, belonging and happiness – in a word, Fulfilling. The list of required attributes for a career to be classified as fulfilling is a long one:

  • Work that is engaging and intellectually compelling
  • Provides autonomy in how to perform your work
  • Has variety
  • Is meaningful
  • Helps others
  • Allows you to work with supportive colleagues
  • Aligns with your interests and passions
  • Provides a direct connection between effort and reward

Many people are “disengaged” with their work (68% of us, according to the latest Gallup poll) and the solution seems to be focused around finding a more ideal job – one that checks off more of the fulfilling checkboxes.

 

But what if it’s not your career’s fault? What if you’ve “hired” your career to do the wrong job?

 

Clay Christensen, Harvard Business School professor, has what he calls, “The theory of jobs to be done.” It’s a strategy to help businesses reframe their ideas on how create innovative products:
“When we buy a product, we essentially “hire” it to help us do a job. If it does the job well, the next time we’re confronted with the same job, we tend to hire that product again. And if it does a crummy job, we “fire” it and look for an alternative.”

 

Is it possible that we’re hiring our careers to do many things it was never designed to do in the first place? How about just picking a job based on what’s in demand? Balance the trade offs between money and time required. Then check off those “becoming fulfilled” boxes with the things our grandparents called families, hobbies, friends and communities.

 

I think the problem with the “disengaged” worker is not their unfulfilling job, it’s actually the modern day curse of having enough time to try to find a meaning to it all. And when an easy answer isn’t forthcoming through shallow inquiry, the job is blamed. You’ve hired your career to do a job it’s not designed to do.