Tag Archives: Balance

Nurturing insight

I want to try something, and I am hoping some of you readers will participate.

In a nutshell, the idea is that we spend a little bit of time during a week (even if it is just 20 minutes) in a situation that nurtures insight.

It is possible for ideas to deeply change our world. How can we nurture the development of the ideas that might be game-changers in the coming months/years/decades?

My approach has two parts:

  1. Learn deeply and broadly about the world, including the major problems and proposed solutions. Useful insights generally require that they be based on accurate perceptions of reality.
  2. For some period of time, create the conditions under which deep insight into issues becomes more likely.

The central thrust of this ‘experiment’ has to do with what constitutes the conditions in part 2).

I imagine that there is a fair bit of individual variation on this front, but I am going to throw out some broad statements that I believe are reasonable based on what I know about human attention and education.

  • Our culture is becoming increasingly dominated by subject changes. Our attention is being chopped up into smaller bits as we interact with increasingly fast and engaging social media. I claim that deeper insights are not likely to come about through spreading our attention more thinly or by multitasking more. Whatever advantages this culture change offers, we are hopefully already taking advantage of them.
  • Teachers often complain about the quality of students in schools today. A central concern is the student’s ability to concentrate on one thing and to demonstrate the fact that they are capable of insight into the material at hand. Psychology has shown that our attention span is getting shorter. I believe these facts are all closely related. I believe the lack of insight in current students is due in part to the fact that they are not used to simply rolling an idea around in their heads for many minutes at a time. In short, I believe that the shortening of our attention spans is connected with reduced abilities to garner deep insight.
  • Distraction seem to have a complicated relationship with insight. While distractions do represent a fragmentation of attention, they can also be the foundation for connective insights – where we put different ideas together in new ways. These connections can help us understand the ideas and the relationship(s) between them.

I propose that each of us spends some amount of time this week (I suggest at least 20 minutes) in a situation that is well-suited to the development of our personal insight. For me this might be walking through Parc Mont-Royal, sitting at a desk with a blank piece of paper in front of me, or even meditating. I suggest that people do what they are comfortable with, but again I have some specific ideas that might help:

  • Get comfortable.
  • If you have a burning desire to interact with something else like friends, the Internet, a book, social media, etc, write down what you want to do on a piece of paper, tell yourself that you will do it later, and continue with your efforts to gain insight. In light of this, it can be helpful to have somewhere to write nearby.
  • Be content. Getting upset probably won’t help.
  • Be your own person. Don’t bother thinking about what other people might think of what you are thinking.
  • Embrace the fact that your thoughts may be mostly about your own mundane concerns. Let them go where they will. Your thoughts will eventually turn to the things you care about most.
  • Follow your trains of thought wherever they may lead. Don’t be afraid of thinking anything. We might like some thoughts more than others, but any one of them might hold the key to a deepening of our understanding of ourselves and our world.

I would like to hear from all of you about what your insights were and in what circumstances you achieved them.

Forgetting who we are

Our identity exists at the core of everything that we do in life. Our sense of self, as hard as it is to discuss in language and science, is fundamental to everything we experience.

How is it possible then, to forget who we are? You might be thinking about the various forms of amnesia present in studies of psychology and sensationalized in our fiction. Anyone with personal experience with the loss of a friend or family member to any form of amnesia or dementia understands how deeply painful it can be.

Here I am talking about the everyday experience of forgetting who we are. I am talking about the sense of losing touch with our innermost desires and dreams. I am talking about how the external demands of the world can drag us further and further from a state in which our wishes and hopes for our lives are being realized by our actions.

Who are we?

If you ask someone who they are, they might tell you their name and what they do for a living. Pressed further, they might tell you about their family situation and hobbies.

Who are we really?

This question has nagged me for years. It was in the writings about humanistic psychology that I found the answer that has satisfied me the most (so far). The self is not a thing to be identified and scrutinized. The self is an evolving experience.

So you and I, or at least our sense of our selves, is a set of continually transforming experiences. We experience our innermost self – and the outside world – simultaneously. For most experiences, these two worlds are inseparable.

How can you forget an evolving experience?

You might ask, “Well, if I accept your claim that my ‘self’ is an experience, how is it possible for me to forget who I am?

You are happening every day. Every time you make a choice or think a thought, you are happening. Every time you feel happiness, pain, or sadness, you are happening. Every one of these experiences resonates with your being to greater or lesser extent.

We all have activities that we prefer over others. Broadly speaking, each of us will have a set of experiences that we identify as pleasurable, and a (mostly distinct) set that are painful. We generally organize our lives around the idea of maximizing our well-being in whatever manner seems right to us.

Our dreams and aspirations are often deeply connected with those things that we like to do or states of being that we would like to enjoy.

We forget who we are by forgetting to experience those things that resonate deeply with us.

Acting towards our dreams

Our choices shape our experiences. With every experience, we are becoming something new. Some experiences are deeply connected with our dreams and aspirations while others are not.  If our actions are aligned towards the achievement of one of our dreams, then our experiences will be filled with some of the pleasure that pursuing our dream gives us. This experience reinforces our choice if it is pleasurable, but can cast doubt on our path if it is painful.

A painful process can cause us to give up on a dream – for good reason! If our best assessment of the situation is that the pleasure we might attain in the future is not worth the pain we feel and foresee, it is a very sane choice to allocate our efforts elsewhere.

This can be particularly painful if we are chasing a prerequisite to a dream. Perhaps we think we need a degree in order to work in a field that we love. Perhaps we feel that we need to save up a lot of money so that we can be safe. Perhaps we don’t want to go hiking before we get in better shape. The list of prerequisites can sometimes seem endless.

Attaining prerequisites can be painful, as many of us know from our own experience. This pain often brings with it feelings about the meaninglessness of our pursuit. It may be that we don’t actually want the degree or the knowledge, we just want the job. Perhaps we don’t actually want money, we just want to feel safe. The pain involved in attaining our prerequisites can be enough to cause us to give up on the dream itself.

Again this can be a completely sane choice to make. What we have to guard against is the feeling of disconnection from our dream that we experience because we are preoccupied with the present moment. The process of attaining a prerequisite might feel very different than the experience of the dream itself. Being a student during your achievement of a degree often feels very different from the experience of working in the field you have chosen.

If we aren’t experiencing a facet of our dream, we are slowly losing connection with it. Dreams can be tenacious, holding on for years or decades without substantial attention. I believe however that it is in our personal best interest to keep our deepest dreams alive and happy with experiences oriented towards them.

If you are getting a degree, remember to save some time for reading about, or volunteering in, your field of preference. Find media that inspires you, and create a stash of it that you can use to bring back the feelings that galvanize your passions. Stay in touch with the dream so that you can remember who you are.

Forgetting

When our experiences are consistently not oriented towards the attainment of our dreams, we begin to forget what that taste of our dream feels like. We begin to forget what it feels like to be in the process of becoming who we want to be.

How does this happen?

These answers will not be surprising. Tales of the soul-deadening 9-5 job are rampant. University professors continue to express the sentiment that more and more students are simply doing the minimum they can to get by and finish their degree. Almost everyone knows a person who is so caught up in the concept of money that they cannot enjoy what they have – or would have – if they would loosen their death grip on their life a bit and learn to spread their wings.

Rigid, or unyielding, demands on our time can slowly erode our ability to be ourselves (as we knew ourselves to be). We forget a lot of who we were if we consistently do things that are not congruent with the dreams and passions that we held.

Realizing that you have forgotten

Have you ever had a very intensive section of your life – perhaps final exams, deadlines at work, or a crisis among family or friends – after which you found that you did not know what you wanted to do with your time?

Have you ever worked a very hard day, or week, and returned home to unwind, only to find yourself unable to muster the energy to do anything but watch TV or movies?

Individual occurrences are not indicative of a problem. If you are truly burnt out and want to just zone out, who is to argue with you? In these cases we tend to placate ourselves with those things that take very little energy. This in part explains the enormous appeal of all forms of passive entertainment we have access to in the modern era.

The problem is that habits quickly form to fill the gaps in your time. Many of us work jobs that we aren’t particularly passionate about. We then have to use our limited free time to pursue those things that make us genuinely happy. Instead of watching TV you might really actually want to be writing a play, painting a canvas, studying physics, or doing yoga.

If you want to spend your time in ways that you believe serve your long-term happiness more, then pay attention to those little twinges that you feel deep down. Grab hold of the twinges and genuinely examine them. Do you really want to practice your dance steps? Yes? Well, fire up some music and get to it. Do you really want to read more? Yes? Grab that book that you are two thirds of the way through and make a sprint for the ending.

I have often felt guilty when I feel those twinges, but guilt is not something we need to hold on to. Learn what you can from your past, and let go of the guilt. If you are genuinely trying to pursue the things that you care the most about, I can guarantee that you will be able to minimize the intrinsic guilt you feel about your actions or inactions.

One of the best pieces of advice I have heard regarding guilt of this sort is: think of it as a success. If you are feeling guilty, it means that you have successfully remembered that you wanted to do something differently. Try to use this as an encouraging thought. Next time you will be able to remember earlier, and perhaps feel more strongly that you want to make a different choice.

I have forgotten

What is the problem with forgetting? Can’t we just dig through our memories and remember what we were passionate about before?

To some extent this is true. You will likely be able to remember what you were passionate about in the past. You may even be able to recollect a bit of what it felt like. However, it is most likely that these remembered passions will feel hollow compared to what you feel they should feel like.

Why? Because you have fallen out of practice in experiencing your passions. Our experience tends to be very emotional and transformative, while our recollections of the past tend to be inexact and fleeting. It can be very difficult to recapture a passion that you have ignored for some length of time.

Passion is hard to muster on demand. If you have been slaving away at other aspects of your life for a long time, your previous passions can feel dessicated and empty. Be patient. Give yourself some time to take it easy and explore what you are feeling. If you enjoy yoga or any form of meditation, those can be a great tool for letting your experience of yourself come into sharp focus. If you remember what you liked before, try to tiptoe back into those activities. Patience is key because unreasonably high expectations tend to directly lead to negative self-evaluations that damage one’s self-esteem and cast doubt on what might be a deeply-held passion. So your first golf tee shot flies off into the shrubbery? That’s life, and you know it. Try to hold off negative self-evaluations as you explore, or re-explore, your experience.

Stay in touch or reconnect

I believe that in order to truly live the life we want to, we need to actively follow at least some of our passions. The best case is that in which we can stay in touch with them throughout our lives. In this case we are in no serious danger of forgetting what it feels like to pursue our dreams.

However, life happens. Whether we like it or not, many of us have had the experience of losing touch with those activities that we used to love, and the dreams that we used to chase. If we don’t make efforts to stay in touch with our passions and remain open to new ones, we may end up living a life that we honestly think is pretty empty and unsatisfying.

If you are headed down this path, I implore you: Take some of your time and put it towards rediscovering yourself. You may find oceans of buried passions that can help you fill your life with meaning. You may find that you have grown and changed. The ideas that once inspired you may have faded, and unexpected thoughts may have replaced them. You may have lived half your life since you last really gazed within, so it may not be surprising to find that you have grown into someone new. You will, however, still be the authority on who you were, and who you are. Your choices dictate much of how you will grow from this moment forward.

You might like to create a list for yourself. What are some concrete activities that you can do this week that will reignite your passion? Post that list right on your TV screen or computer so that next time you sit down for some passive entertainment you are reminded of your other options – options that will be more invigorating and remind you of who you are, and perhaps help you glimpse who you want to be.

Now

Experience yourself as you are. The past is useful for understanding, but experience always exists in the present moment. All of us experience at least mild amnesia. No one’s memory is completely perfect. To some extent, our past is hazy to us all. While the future tends to be even more inscrutable than the past, it is the future over which we have some control.

Knowing ourselves can only take place in the present. So what are you doing right now?

Life Changing Book on Time and Life

I recently finished a fascinating read. The Time Paradox is a book by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd about how our personal perspectives of time have a tremendous effect on how we live our lives.

You have have heard of Zimbardo before, he is one of the more famous social scientists in the world thanks mostly to his fame for conducting the Stanford Prison Experiment. He has written a major work on the subject of “Understanding how good people turn evil”. On the first page of my copy, he says that writing this book, The Lucifer Effect, was not a labour of love. I find this understandable; investigating the ways in which human beings can be turned evil is an extremely dark subject. I think the world owes Zimbardo thanks for pushing through the mire to discover how we can reorient our institutions towards bringing out the good in all of us rather than the evil.

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Zimbardo briefly during his visit to Regina in November 2009. While I was pretty sure that his presentations would be good, I didn’t expect to be blown away by how caring and conscientious of a person he was. I observed him in person-to-person interactions far from the stage in which he was extremely kind, caring and patient with every person who asked him a question or for advice. I thought to myself, here is a man whose time is very valuable, giving it away to people because…well I hesitate to speculate…but I think he really just wants to help people. Even after a five-decade teaching career in prestigious universities, he still cares about people he meets on the street. I was profoundly moved by this experience.

Now, back to The Time Paradox.

Overall, this book was transformative and challenging. It lead me to understandings about my life, and the lives of those around me, that are profound and clear. I originally thought that I probably would not learn very much from the book, being a reasonably thoughtful metacognitive person. I turned out to be wrong, and this book fundamentally changed the way I look at the world.

What perspective did I gain from this book?

Time perspectives are important. A significant part of the book is dedicated to making0 clear just how important they are. What also comes along with that knowledge is a firm understanding of how far reaching the consequences of ignorance about time perspectives can be.

Time orientation is a fundamental life perspective. Anyone reading this article of mine will have no trouble understanding the different ways of looking at time presented in the book. The perspectives in the book are roughly based on positive and negative views of the past, present, and future.

The question for each of us is: Which time perspectives do you live, and how do they affect your life?

Respect for differences

Throughout the book there is a genuine respect for the fact that while social science can collect general data about the results of habits that people have, it cannot predict the outcomes for any one individual. The wisdom of this book must be applied by each person to their own personal context.

Time therapy (applying the ideas from this book in the field of clinical psychology) seems to be incredibly powerful. However, for me the most important aspects of this book are those that have to do with each of us as individuals. Each of us lives our own journey through time, and this book is a good step towards understanding ourselves a bit better.

Balance is the key

There is no cookie-cutter solution to perspectives of life. The best answer is not any particular time perspective, but a combination of all. The authors espouse a very balanced time perspective based on the best data that they have.

What does a ‘balanced time perspective’ mean? Well first of all it means that there is more than one time perspective present, because fixation on any single time perspective tends to lead to large problems in life. Fixation on only one perspective means you are missing out on a lot of your own experience and potential.

I would summarize the balanced time perspective as follows. It is a mental and emotional state in which you:

  1. Regard your future filled with quite a bit of hope, though tempered with the knowledge that you have to spend effort (and thought) now to create a better life for yourself later.
  2. Keep in mind your happy memories because they help you stay happy and live in a hopeful present, but keep enough realism about the past to learn from mistakes and hardships.
  3. Live today well, and be happy with the moments you have. Be aware of the central importance of the present moment. Everything happens now and no other time really exists except within our minds. We must live now, but we can also choose to shape our future and call to mind our happiness and lessons from the past.

What about you?

I scored the following on the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory.
Past-negative: 2.00

Past-positive:  4.89

Present-hedonistic:  3.80

Present-fatalistic: 1.22

Future: 4.00

Transcendental-future: 3.00

What are you? Take the test here.

Well worth your time

I needed to read this book. The insights I have gained from reading have helped me towards a more balanced and happy life. I firmly believe that this book has the potential to help others do the same.

You can find The Time Paradox for a pretty decent price (and in several different formats such as Hardcover, Softcover, and Kindle Edition) on Amazon.

Tips for Reading More

I like to read. This post is about how I have integrated more reading into my life.

These tips vary in their applicability depending on your lifestyle and preferences. This piece is written from my experience alone. It is intended to highlight ideas that may help you integrate more reading into your life.

In this post I detail how to read more by:

  1. Reading during other compatible activities.
  2. Replacing TV with reading.
  3. Make reading material more accessible in your home.
  4. Using audiobooks for reading while walking, running, folding laundry, etc.
  5. Skimming books and articles to see if they are worth reading.
  6. Read what you love. Read what you want to.
  7. Utilizing technology such as ebook readers and smart phones.

Take reading to where you have to wait

I can bring a book to many places that I go during my day. I find that I often have a few minutes of ‘doing nothing’ at several points during my day. Some of these times I can fill with reading.

I have found that reading can be done simultaneously with many other activities. What I focus on here is waiting, or ‘down time’ of different types.

You might think that you don’t spend that much time waiting during your day, but I guarantee you that it can add up to quite a bit even for a busy person. Even a few minutes here and there means a few pages here and there. A few pages per day can mean an extra book or three per year.

Do you find yourself spending time:

  1. in lineups
  2. on the bus
  3. on the train
  4. on a plane
  5. riding in a car
  6. waiting in lobbies
  7. waiting for friends (or your food) at restaurants or cafes
  8. on the toilet
  9. in the bath
  10. at the laundromat

What do you do during these times? Perhaps you are idly staring off into space, or scanning the headlines of tabloids. If you are very performance oriented, you might find yourself stuck thinking circular thoughts about the time you are ‘losing’. Finding something productive to do during these times, such as reading, can help with both passing the time and stimulating new ideas and thoughts.

I am not espousing that you begin to read instead of socializing. I am merely saying that you may have some alone time that you might want to spend reading.

Put a book in every room

Some people swear by this technique. Having an interesting book at hand can be very helpful for integrating more reading into your life.

Replace TV with Books

This concept has been floating around for decades. North Americans watch an average of four hours of TV per day. If you would like to read more, but you find that much of your time is consumed by TV, a change may be in order.

Find the book or books that you want to read the most, and use them as an incentive to drag you away from the TV some of the time. Put them somewhere visible such as on top of the TV or coffee table.

You may be surprised about how engrossing a good book can be, especially if it has been a long time since you read for pleasure.

TV is designed to grab and keep your attention so that you stay there, plastered to the screen between commercials (the primary revenue of TV stations). Books, on the other hand, rely on the quality of your attention and the fact that you care about what the author is saying. It is thus clear that books and TV shows become popular for very different reasons.

Audiobooks

My Sandisk Sansa Clip 4gb. Sturdy, reliable, and easy-to-use

I have recently become a fan of audiobooks. Audiobooks still come on tapes or CDs but these mediums are rapidly being replaced by the mp3 and other computer audio formats.

My key point is that audiobooks have some flexibility that normal books do not. I routinely listen to audiobooks:

  1. When walking / jogging.
  2. When biking, though in traffic this can be a bit of a problem. Be sure that you don’t have the audiobook playing overly loudly, or it may seriously hamper your hearing (a very useful sense for an urban cyclist).
  3. When standing in lines or when shopping.
  4. When doing mechanical tasks around the house such as washing dishes or sorting laundry.

In the last two years I estimate that I have used these techniques to read about 25 audiobooks. These have included such hefty titles as Atlas Shrugged and Guns, Germs, and Steel.

My Audiobook setup: Sansa Clip and Sony Headphones. The headphone design is great for walking, jogging, and biking.

I have found this medium to be very useful, and I believe that it may be more socially acceptable for some people because of the growing popularity of headphones in public spaces. If you have a long commute on transit, but do not want to carry around a book, give audiobooks a try, you may be surprised by the results.

If you want to make even better use of your time, you may find it helpful to increase the speed of your audiobooks. I routinely listen to my audiobooks at 1.5 times normal speed. Some of my friends listen at much higher speeds. You can often modify the speed of playback on mp3 players or in computer software.

If you wish to read non-book texts as audio, there are some text-to-speech converters available that may be able to help you transform the text into a mp3 or similar audio format.

Skimming (and Stopping)

Be discerning about what you give your attention to. Not all books will be enthralling for you. If you find yourself getting bored or not learning anything new, don’t be afraid to skim (or just stop). For fiction books this might be a really bad sign, but for non-fiction is may just mean that the ‘meat’ of the book is elsewhere.

I have been known to skim entire books in under 5 minutes while standing in a used book store. Sometimes a skim-through informs me that I want to buy the book and read it. Sometimes it tells me that I should read the final concluding chapter that knits together all the topics of the entire books. Sometimes it tells me that I should put the book down and look at other things.

Skimming is more difficult with topics that are new to you, or especially complex. I find that if I have read a lot on a topic, skimming can be a powerful tool for discerning the quality of a possible read.

If you are reading for fun, don’t waste your time on things you don’t enjoy. This may sound straightforward, but I find a lot of people start reading things ‘for fun’ that they don’t even enjoy. If you really want to read for fun, go spend an hour in a bookstore skimming through some books to find an author who has a voice and a topic that you appreciate.

Don’t place heavy restrictions on yourself. What would I classify as a restriction? Here are some habits and beliefs that I would consider restrictive with regards to reading.

Restrictive reading beliefs

  1. I must read only one book at a time. (I must finish my current book before starting a new one, regardless of how uninspiring my current book is.)
  2. I must finish all books I start.
  3. I can only read just before bed. (Or I can only read in bed.)
  4. I can’t read for fun because I have too many textbooks to read (or work books, paperwork, memos, stock reports, post-its, etc).
  5. Reading damages your eyes. (From some reading around on the Internet, this seems to be untrue. If you want to, you can read about more eye health myths.)

Ebook Readers, Smart Phones, etc

These new electronic devices allow increased mobility of information. It is possible to carry many ebooks on a single device, which itself may be smaller than a book. These devices are developing rapidly, and already offer what I would call an impressive reading experience. They are trendy and slick, and may be just the thing for getting more reading into your life.

These devices are often multi-use, meaning that they may be useful for much more than just reading.

The downsides of these devices that I am concerned about are the fact that they often have relatively short battery life (a few hours), and they may have difficulty with wet or very cold weather. Choose a device that fits the usage patterns (and weather) that you expect.

I hope that some of these ideas prove useful for you. If you have further ideas you would like to share, I invite you to comment!

Getting a Feel for Kinesthetic Learners

For a presentation during my Master’s studies I brought along some objects to use as learning aids. I was anticipating the multiple learning styles that may be in the classroom. Just prior to my moment in the spotlight, I looked at some of the more tactile items and said, “These are for the kinesthetic learners, although I doubt they made it this far.”

There is a large amount of truth in this statement, but not for the reasons you may predict. Kinesthetic learners are not inferior in learning capacity, nor are they poor at grasping or retaining concepts. The issue lies in the current teaching methods used in university and school classrooms.

Modern lectures, at best, are comprised of slideshows accompanied by ongoing explanations from the teacher. At worst, lessons may be presented only from a textbook – again, a visual medium. These two ends of the spectrum show how prevalent the visual and auditory learning styles are in today’s classroom. But what about the kinesthetic learners?

Kinesthetic learners gain knowledge through doing and feeling (e.g. some learn best on their feet). If they are to understand the concept of addition, they would rather add physical steps than images on paper. If they are to grasp mechanics, they would rather take a motor apart than study how it works in theory. If they are to memorize anatomy, they would rather touch, feel, poke and prod a dummy.

And when you think about it, wouldn’t you rather do that? Imagine learning geometry by acting out shapes. Or understanding DNA replication by being a nucleus. Or grasping neurotransmitters by turning your classroom into a big brain.

In a TED talk by Ken Robinson, he points out that we tend to educate children first from the waist up, then the neck up, then a little to one side, the left side – where mathematics, logic and language are located. Our education systems fail to incorporate the power of learning through physical motion and touch. Not only that, we systematically educate our children away from this method of learning and expression.

This is a major oversight. After all, the major neurological unit of movement (the cerebellum) is biologically one of the oldest and most important parts of the brain. All of the deliberate actions we make involve the cerebellum.

Due to the lack of support for their learning style many kinesthetic learners do not reach their full potential. But they can.

The incorporation of methods that could benefit all learners, especially of the kinesthetic style, is easy. Here are a few tips for aiding the kinesthetic learner:

  1. Bring appropriate objects to touch and interact with.
  2. Avoid sitting when possible – movement is healthier.
  3. If sitting is necessary, use chewing gum as a backup motion.
  4. Review material while dancing, walking, running, showering, doing the dishes, etc. (associating an action with a subject may help your memory).
  5. Doodle.
  6. Remember that this learning style is the most easily forgotten. Classrooms were not made for kinesthetic learners, but classrooms aren’t the only place to learn. Find a space.