Mindfulness

The Stockdale Paradox

Admiral Jim Stockdale, tortured in Vietnam for 8 years, on what got him through the hardest times:

I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.

And who didn’t make it through:

The optimists. They were the ones who said ‘we’re going to be out by Christmas’. And, Christmas would come and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. Then they died of a broken heart.

The paradox:

You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

Several parallels to our current global fight against COVID-19…the perils of over-optimism and arbitrary deadlines, and the value of faith in ultimate victory.

Why we don’t believe

Because we don’t want to change our behavior:

In general, people use experts all the time, and most of us don’t spend a lot of time second-guessing experts on most issues…The big exception [is when] we reject scientific findings because we don’t like their implications.

The “real” Buddha?

Alexander Wynne writes about the (more likely) historical Buddha, and how he differed from the myths:

Bringing the reliable historical fragments together, and discarding mythic elaborations, a humbler picture of the Buddha emerges. Gotama was born into a small tribe, in a remote and unimportant town on the periphery of pre-imperial India…

Gotama doubted his own teaching ability, was not taken seriously by the first person to witness him (as the Buddha), and did not achieve notable success with his first audience. How, then, did he succeed?

I find Wynne’s portrait of a silent, humble ascetic as more compelling than the myth of a prince confused by beggars, and more consistent with his teachings that the world is illusory. The mention of American mindfulness practice coming from 19th-century Burma was also interesting.

Pretending to know

I thought further and said: “Why do men lie over problems of such great importance, even to the point of destroying themselves?” And they seemed to do so because although they pretend to know all, they know nothing. Convinced they know all, they do not attempt to investigate the truth.

And this:

One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.

Happiness and satisfaction

What we talk about as “happiness” is actually a set of biochemical reactions that happen inside our brains. About half of those are determined by our genetics, but the other half can be trained and improved.

There are many ways to train your happiness, but I find two especially important:

  • Noticing good things around you
  • Being content without them

Noticing good things

Much of “happiness” comes from noticing (consciously or unconsciously) the good things around you. Practicing happiness means focusing your attention on things you find beautiful, pleasing, delicious, fulfilling. Many people find gratitude journaling a good way to do this. Mindfulness meditation builds the ability to do this throughout your life.

Noticing good things can be easier when circumstances are good; however Victor Frankl highlights in Man’s Search for Meaning a moment when joy came from noticing a beautiful sunset even while headed to a prison camp:

If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty. Despite that factor–or maybe because of it–we were carried away from nature’s beauty, which we had missed for so long.”

Even those moments of noticing required a brief respite from pain, so a precursor to noticing good things is managing painful emotions. Fortunately the same practices of mindfulness and gratitude can help with processing and dealing with pain.

Being content

The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his own room – Blaise Pascal

In the modern world, we’re surrounded by physical and mental stimuli at all times. When those are removed, the emotional reaction can be so intense that people would rather give themselves electric shocks than experience the boredom of silence.

This dependence on external stimuli means our happiness is subject to our circumstances. If we can learn to be without those influences, our happiness will be more resilient. Taken to an extreme, if we were able to fully entertain ourselves with just the act of breathing, we wouldn’t need anything external to be perfectly happy.

Again, mindfulness meditation can train this ability, as can fasting–from food, entertainment or social media–and practices like keeping the Sabbath. Intentionally restricting what we consume builds our ability to be content without those things.

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. – Paul, Philippians 4:11-13

Play and parent brains

A new study wired up parents and kids to watch their brains while they played together. Perhaps not surprisingly, things went better when the parents payed attention:

Parents are neurally responsive to their infants during social play, and that, when the parent is more neurally responsive, the infant is more attentive.
Or as it’s known in our house, “Dad, put down your phone!”

Suffering for joy

I’ve long subscribed to Russell Davies’ assertion that “to be interesting, be interested“. It only follows that to be more than interesting, you need to be more than “interested”; you need to be truly passionate. The most interesting people I know are those who are completely sold out for their beliefs, their work, or their hobbies.

Today I discovered that the root word of “passion” is the Latin passio, which means “suffering”. So it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that following your true passion often involves a fair bit of suffering. The areas in my life I’ve been most passionate about–activities, relationships, work–have all contained huge amounts of effort and “suffering”–though working hard to climb a mountain on my bike, or working late on a project I believe in, rarely feels like a bad thing.

Of course, the other kick I’ve been on recently is mindfulness, which aims to keep you in the moment, not off on cognitive flights of fancy. And the main benefit I’ve found there is avoiding negative thoughts, which lead to suffering (as Master Yoda teaches). The very excitement and responsibility I feel in the activities I’m passionate about could be considered “attachment” that opens me up to disappointment and pain.

So is there a unification between these approaches? Can you be truly passionate, and yet not suffer from the pain of (inevitable) disappointment?

I think so. To me, the practice of mindfulness is about freeing myself from negative thoughts and attachments. There are certainly people who take this far enough to achieve some kind of “nirvana”, but I’m far from that. Simply reducing the pain of worldly attachment is plenty. That frees me up to pursue things that bring me joy.

On the other side, pursuing passions is about enjoying the activities that keep me in a flow state. Again, it’s not a complicated intellectual achievement–I’m merely doing things that come naturally. The “attachment” that can cause suffering with other things I love, doesn’t seem as present when I’m working on things I’m passionate about. As a small example, when I get stopped by a red light in my car I’m often frustrated; when it happens on a bike ride I’m hardly bothered, even though it will take more effort for me to start up again. And the “suffering” required by true passions rarely feels as bad as that caused by external factors.

In both my passions and my mindfulness I find a reduction in conscious thoughts; an increased reliance on my senses and instincts; and feelings of satisfaction, lightness, and freedom. So despite the seemingly large difference between following passions and living mindfully in the moment, I think both practices can coexist nicely, and even reinforce each other.

Hijacking habits

My college (and then Google) friend Tristan Harris has been doing some great work communicating the dangers of “attention-hacking” and the dark sides of social technology. A recent video he made on how the instant gratification of smartphones creates bad habits got me thinking about how I’ve successfully stopped bad habits and started good ones in the past.

1. Hijack bad habits with good ones

BJ Fogg, an expert on persuasive technology who taught Tristan at Stanford, runs a “[Tiny Habits]” course that emphasizes creating “triggers” that will remind you to do your new habit. I find that I can often use the urge to do a bad habit as my trigger to instead do my new good habit.

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, calls this “routine replacement”– hijacking the cue and the reward, and inserting a different routine between them.

In my method, the bad habit isn’t technically “forbidden”–it’s just delayed and distracted enough by the good habit that it usually has no power left.

I also find it’s helpful to use a good habit that’s in the opposite direction as the bad habit–if the bad habit is eating junk food, the good habit is eating brocolli

2. Make those new good habits as small as possible

Right now I have a rule that I will do 1 pushup per day, and take one mindful breath per day.

Now, by the time I get down on the floor to do that 1 pushup, or take the time to have one mindful breath, I almost always end up doing a lot more. But even if I don’t, the success of completing the habit each day is the strongest reinforcement I’ve found to solidify it.


A few small examples of how I’ve applied this strategy:

  • Before I check my social media feeds, I take 10 mindful breaths
  • Before I read blog posts, I write one (that’s what I’m doing now!)
  • Before I eat candy or junk food, I eat a vegetable
  • Before I drink a beer or glass of wine, I drink two glasses of water
  • Before I say (or write) something bad about someone, I say something good about them

As you might imagine, doing the good habit first usually kills the urge to do the bad one. Some of the good habits address the same core needs as bad ones but in different ways (giving the mind something to focus on; learning something new; satisfying hunger; quenching thirst); others provide a cognitive dissonance that makes it hard to follow one with the other (saying good then bad things about someone).

It sometimes feels trivial to optimize such small things, but they add up. As Annie Dillard wrote:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

Nunc stans

“Nunc stans” translates to “the now that stays”, and it is sometimes described as an attribute of God, where the experience is separate from time itself.

The now that passes produces time, the now that remains produces eternity.- Boethius

Gratitude increases patience and self-control – as the author asserts, a good way to keep those New Year’s resolutions!