This has probably been said by many others better but it’s been occurring to me so frequently I have to get it on paper (or pixels as it were). A commonality I’ve noticed about the really original characters, the people who go do great things with their lives, is that they can see that most rules people think exist don’t. There are the more usual insights, like realizing you don’t have to go to school to learn, you don’t have to get a job to make money, or that you don’t have to have a location dependent source of income. However, the general principle goes way further than that. You can start dancing during a dinner party. You can do your own science outside of academia. You can go around in a coffeeshop and ask people what their greatest fears and dreams are. You can start a spontaneous salsa dancing lesson with a stranger in a park*. The worst that will happen to you is that somebody might give you a funny look. The best is that you will do what you really want, live your life to the fullest, and actually get the respect of your community for doing so.
Despite all of the analysis paralysis people have about choosing a career I don’t think people truly grasp how much their lives are really a blank canvas. Most of the rules you think are there are simply blinders we willingly put on because of societal expectations. However, unless you’re in a very rigid society, like living under the Taliban, most things are not actually against any enforced rules. I sometimes feel like I’m in a society of mimes behind fake walls who’ve started to believe their act and they look on in shock as I carelessly walk through all of their boundaries with no resistance.
Can this be taught? I don’t really know. I feel like I’ve only ever really met people who either always seemed to know it or spontaneously discovered it. I think for me I learned it when I took a gap year between high school and university and learned I could learn on my own, which opened the floodgates. Maybe for some it can just be enough to read this. Perhaps purposefully trying to find and read about alternative lifestyles could be helpful. For others maybe being around people who think this way could help internalize it. You can read my post on internalizing ideas which might help, although that process works for more concrete ideas, and this one is so broad that the ideas might be harder to incorporate.
Regardless, this is a good tool to try to add to your cognitive toolbox. It will unlock so many more paths that might lead to some much more well-being and fulfillment than you would otherwise have access to.
*Of note, I have done all of these things.
Many intellectuals spend a lot of time learning ideas, but how do you actually internalize them? I mean truly grok them, not merely memorize them. Here are some tactics I use that work quite well:
This is hardly an exhaustive list, and there are innumerable other ways to incorporate ideas into your life. Please do let me know in the comments about any techniques that work for you!
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Being able to listen to books is really handy, allowing you to read while commuting, doing household chores, or even going on a hike. Unfortunately there often not audiobooks of the books you’re reading, or you’re reading a book in print then want to switch to listening but it’s hard to find your place you’re at.
The fix I’ve found for this is taking the ebook (which you can find on Amazon, at your library, or on lib.gen), then using the free app, eReader Prestigio. It will open any common ebook file and automatically turn it into audio using text to speech software. The voices are decently good and you can adjust their speed and accent. My favorite part is that it shows the text and highlights what it’s reading as it reads. Not only can I then read along if I’d like, but I can also easily switch from reading with my eyes to my ears and vice versa.
The one issue with this app is that it’s a bit glitchy. I haven’t been able to find anything better though and it certainly does the trick. Please do let me know if you find one that’s better! The only alternative I’ve found is the desktop app Balabolka. This isn’t glitchy at all and has the ability to see the words as you’re reading. However, its drawback is that you can’t easily put it on your phone. You have to convert it into an audiofile and then transfer it. Then you lose the ability to switch easily between ears and eyes.
Hope this helps and happy reading!
One of the general principles of meditation is to stay with the present in a non-judgmental way. Another way of saying non-judgemental is without pulling away or grasping for things. Paying attention to the breath is just one potential object of meditation, and you don’t want your practice to become stale and boring by only doing the same thing every time. It would be like thinking that exercise is only doing push-ups. Not only will you have very lopsided muscle development, but you will also become bored very quickly and think that exercise as a whole is just not for you. However, if you spread your vision a bit further, you could see that not only is there a treadmill and a rowing machine, but even better, there’s dancing, martial arts, hikes, and downhill skiing. Meditation is simply exercising the brain to induce positive states and has a comparable diversity to exercise. This meditation I’m going to describe is the equivalent of dancing: it’s fun, full-body, and you feel great during and afterwards.
The steps are simple. Get into your shower, and turn it to your preferred hot temperature. Your meditation object throughout the session will be the sensations of the water on your skin. Really savor them. Remember that up until relatively recently, and still in many parts of the world, a hot shower is a luxury. Whenever you notice you have become distracted, give yourself a mental pat on the back for noticing (you want to positively reinforce noticing distractions), then gently return your attention to the body-sensations.
Start by facing the tap with your arms held loosely by your sides, palms facing forward, with your face out of the stream. Start slowly turning your body in a circle. The idea here is to try to soak in the warmth into each part of your skin. Stay with the water as long as it takes to feel like each part has gotten warm.
Once you’re back to the beginning, turn the water to cold. Do the same thing as with the hot water, slowly turning around, letting the cold sink in, and paying attention to the sensations. After you’re done the rotation, turn it back to hot, and repeat the pattern as often as desired.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Cold! I thought you said this was an enjoyable meditation, and now you’re telling me to have a cold shower? Do you even know how to have fun?” Bear with me though. This is actually part of what makes it great. This alternating between cold and hot will have your body zinging with energy. I’ve heard it explained by the fact that when you’re hot, your blood vessels dilate to flush more blood to the area so that it can diffuse the heat more, and it does the opposite with cold. Thus, when you switch between it, you’re basically flushing your skin with blood and then withdrawing it, getting rid of excess cellular wastes. I’ve never checked this theory, so my epistemic status is highly uncertain, and even if it’s true, why that feels good is still a mystery. Regardless, I can attest to the fact that it feels fantastic afterwards.*
Not only does the cold lead to physical benefits, but there’s a psychological benefit as well. There’s a very instinctive reaction to withdraw and protect your body from the cold. However, here, you will be purposefully keeping your body in an open posture and deliberately moving into the sensation, rather than away. This is one of the fundamental practices of Buddhist meditation - to welcome all sensations with openness and curiosity, rather than pulling away. This develops the muscle of equanimity. Thus the cold part of the shower-meditation is a great way to get into the habit of it, and you might be surprised by what you find. I personally notice that while at first I’ll have an experience of withdrawal, after a round or two, the cold water, especially on my back, fills me with energy and a feeling of being fully alive, like swimming in a fresh lake.
You might also consider adding metaphor to the practice. You can make the warm water represent the things in your life that are easy to enjoy. Pleasure, good company, flow, success, etc. When you turn on the heat, you can imagine relaxing into the joys of the day to come. You can make the cold water represent the things in your life that are challenging to enjoy. When you turn on the cold, you can imagine just being with reality as it is, letting go of resisting it, enjoying the facets that you can, and letting the challenges invigorate you instead of hurting you.
You can do as many rounds as you want. I usually do three or four, but have sometimes done as many as twenty (poor heating bill!) or as little as one. I wouldn’t recommend doing it before bed because it generally wakes you up, so on the flip side, the morning is a great time for it. I have no evidence about whether you should do it while you’re sick, but I would guess that you shouldn’t because it will take energy from fighting the sickness and put it into warming up your body. I find it’s particularly good when my cognitive methods of cheering myself up aren’t working, and I need to try something physiological (in line with my emotional CPR method). It’s also a great thing to do right when you get home after work to help reset you and give you some energy after a long day.
So go ahead and enjoy. A relaxed and zinging body and mind for the small price of getting into the shower.
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*WARNING - Of note, some people have strong negative reactions to sudden temperature changes. If you are one of these people, then you probably will not like this practice!
“Being one with the universe” is perhaps one of the most joked about parts of spiritual practice among people who aspire to be logical and scientific, such as myself. However, I think that this phrase can be explained in a fully secular way that makes a whole lot of sense while being extremely less poetic.
First off, as I describe in my beginner’s guide to rationalist meditation, you should see most writing on meditation as not describing the world as it is (despite that usually being the intentions of the writer) but as describing how the experience feels. So most of the time, if somebody says “the cosmos is consciousness”, the way you can understand that is to add “it feels like” to the beginning of the sentence, so turning it into “it feels like the cosmos is consciousness”.
In the case of “being one with the universe”, it is the feeling that you and your body are not separate from the universe, but a part of it. Many have had this experience with hallucinogens, where when you look at your hands or body, you don’t have the usual feeling of them being distinct from the rest of your visual field, but it is all one big unit.
Not only is the feeling quite enjoyable, it also is, in this one case, in a certain sense true metaphysically. As a hardcore determinist and materialist, I do not believe in souls or any sort of supernatural things that exist outside of the laws of the universe. Everything is explainable, and if we don’t understand it, there’s always a “yet” at the end of that sentence. We don’t understand it yet, and we just have to keep trying to figure it out. And right now, the best available explanation is that we’re all matter and energy, and that the matter and energy inside your body is not fundamentally different from the matter and energy in the floor, your microwave, or the stars. We feel like there’s some sort of separation or distinctive factor about us, hence the common myth of souls or “essences”, but these are mental illusions or delusions. With enough targeted meditation practice, you can actually see this illusion. You can see that you are atoms flowing among other atoms that are not separate from you in the sense that your blood cells are not separate from your body, but just a component. This is part of what people are gesturing towards when they say that they are “one with the universe”.
I have had flashes of this experience while meditating and outside of it (it’s a very strange experience to have while talking to somebody!) and I’m learning to stabilize and bring it up on demand. It is highly enjoyable and leads to a sense of elation and calm at the same time. I would highly recommend it and all the other meditative states I have experienced so far. If you’re interested in learning more, I’ve listed some other pieces I’ve written about meditation below where I try to explain it as clearly and logically as possible without getting into any woo.
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One of the key concepts in Buddhism is the idea of impermanence, which I realize I’ve been misunderstanding for some time. I had thought that it only referred to macro-impermanence and external impermanence. That is to say, that everything will eventually end in the long run. A cup will eventually break, you will eventually die, etc. This is indeed on aspect of the idea, and it is important to contemplate and internalize.
However, there is another sub-category of the concept, which I will call internal micro-impermanence. This is the idea that experientially, on a very short time frame, every instance of experience is impermanent and in constant flux. This is very apparent when you are first meditating and seeing your “monkey brain” for the first time, which is constantly jumping around from thought to thought and sense to sense when you’re trying your hardest to stay focused on one thing. However, even when you get into a state of concentration, you’ll find that the experience is constantly changing. Obviously the breath is always moving, and once one instance of the in-breath has happened, you’re already on another. Visual meditation objects it’s harder to see the change, but you can see the little dots of your vision (almost like pixels) are always changing / flickering. Additionally, there’s the concept of your center of attention vs your peripheral awareness, and the periphery is always changing, and thoughts keep bubbling up and disappearing into nowhere (another key insight for another time).
This is part of why the “noting gone” exercise so powerful. When you start paying attention to the end of experiences, you’ll find that you notice more and more, until eventually it’s a continuous “gone” or ending.
Another way of describing this is that we “solidify” things when there is nothing truly solid (from an experiential perspective). I find this particularly helpful when experiencing pain or illness. I’ll look at the feelings that are causing pain and try to really feel them as they are, distinguishing them from the running commentary of thoughts about the pain. When I really look at them, I’ll find that the pain is always moving, changing, often in waves. Also I’ll see that often the pain is only there for a short while, then it’s gone, but it’s my thoughts about the pain that are continuing. This practice can also sometimes help you see that the experience and the suffering are separate (I’ll write a post on this later). However, the main exercise here is to see the pain, and all other experiences, are fleeting and in perpetual flux on a very fine scale, not just over the long term.
Hopefully this helps clarify some of the philosophy behind the practice. In quick summary:
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Before I jump into specific meditation techniques (which I will cover in a separate post), I will explain some general meta-principles of meditating that I think hold back a lot of people from enjoying its benefits, especially people with a more analytical bent. I strongly recommend reading this before reading my post on the specific techniques you can use since if you are missing the meta-principles, you will prematurely dismiss or lose interest in some very useful methods.
You are probably doing it wrong
I think one of the most pernicious ideas floating around in meditation circles is that you can’t meditate incorrectly. As long as you’re on the mat, you’re good. I think the motivation for telling this to students is that it solves a problem that many people have, which is beating themselves up or getting stressed when their mind inevitably wanders. However, there are better ways of solving the problem that don’t involve meddling with your map of the world.
You can definitely meditate incorrectly. This is part of why I didn’t meditate for the longest time. I tried it off and on and, I definitely didn’t encounter any feelings of peace and joy. More like boredom and frustration. A friend of mine even said, “Just meditate for thirty minutes daily for thirty days. I guarantee you’ll be feeling the benefits by then.” I did, and felt nothing. I felt like I had proven my friend wrong.
Fortunately, I tried again and discovered what I had been doing wrong. Hopefully, this guide will help you avoid the mistakes I made.
Find the right teacher for you
I mean teacher in the broadest sense. There’s no need to find an in-person mentor if you can’t find or afford one. I have mostly learned through reading books, watching lectures on YouTube, and listening to podcasts. Buddhist monks are rather unattached to material goods, so there’s an abundance of free materials available.
The key here is to find resources that work for you. Some people may like the more clinical and pragmatic approach of the mindfulness-based stress reduction crowd. Others may like the more light-hearted and logical approach of Chade-Men Tang, a Googler who writes and speaks about the topic. You may like the more step-by-step and philosophical approach of The Mind Illuminated. You may even prefer the more paradoxical teachings of Zen. Explore the options. There are many flavors of meditation. Don’t feel that you “should” like one over the other. Just sample around and see what you like. I have some recommendations at the end of the article of which have worked for me or that I’ve seen work for others.
Theory matters, so learn continuously
Probably the single biggest reason that I didn’t get the results my friend promised me before was that I didn’t learn enough. I watched one YouTube guide on how to meditate, focused on my breath, and that’s all. That would be like watching a single YouTube guide on elementary math and then trying to do statistical analyses on a dataset. You should complement your practice with theory, otherwise you will continuously do things wrong and your progress will be greatly hampered. Meditation in particular is prone to this mistake because it’s not like so many other skills, where an expert can easily check your work and give you constructive feedback. Nobody else knows what’s going on in your mind, and especially when you start getting the cool fireworks as you progress, they’re extremely difficult to describe. The best you can do is learn from people for whom it seems to be working and listen to what they say they’re doing and how it feels for them.
My method is to have a meditation session first thing in the morning, and for the first 25-50% of the session, I read from a book on the topic. This makes it a lot easier to apply what I learn and often just reading about the techniques is enough to put me in a more meditative state.
In addition, study the texts in the old school way. Read and reread your favorite books. A lot of meditation isn’t just about understanding the ideas, but remembering to apply them. Re-reading will remind you of the important skills you may have forgotten or let slide.
Try to understand what they’re getting at, not their literal words
A very frequent frustration among rational people reading meditation content is the apparent insanity of the things they say. For example, they may say, “you are the universe” or “you are fundamentally love”. All of these can make a lot more sense though if you see that they are making statements about their felt experiences. Now, they may be also making statements about how the world is, but you should understand this like you would the people who’ve taken drugs and say they “spoke to a spirit”. They may believe that the experience was the literal truth, but you know that it’s more like if you take that drug you will feel like you are speaking to spirits. There is information there. It does tell you about what the drug trip will most likely feel like. Likewise, with “you are the universe”, you obviously do not grow to contain the whole universe, but it might be that if you meditate, you might feel that way. I have definitely had that feeling multiple times through meditating, and it is an exceptionally pleasant experience. So if you ever encounter a strange or implausible claim, see how it looks from this perspective.
Put a lot of effort into making it a habit
Meditation is like exercise - it only works if you do it consistently. It is not a one-off pill you can take and then feel happier for the rest of your life. Few things are. Figure out how to make it a habit. Problem-solve in advance for things that will prevent you from meditating, such as being tired or not having enough time. Use commitment devices, like telling your friends or using Beeminder or Stickk. Put in in Habitica. Find a person you will meditate with once a week, where you’ll both ask each other how your previous week went. Set a daily alarm for when you want to practice. Attach certain activities to active meditation, such as cleaning the house, waiting for a tab to load, or during a commute. Start your practice with something that you find easily enjoyable, such as reading, chiming a bell, listening to peaceful music, lighting a candle, or yoga, such that you associate the practice with happiness instead of boredom. Whatever you do, don’t just rely on willpower. In fact, right now, if you think that you want to do this, stop reading and take a minute to implement some of the suggestions above. Practice without theory is wasted effort, but so is theory without practice.
Resources and books
I'm an effective altruist who co-founded Charity Science Health and Charity Entrepreneurship.