Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Thinking and Choice: The Architects of Destiny

My homeboy, Seneca, chillin' at the villa and pondering life.

How are you, NIP?

            A couple of weeks back I had the pleasure of meeting up with a friend for a beer after work. He’s a smart guy and a deep thinker, and our philosophical dialogue ran the gamut during those two hours. Out of the various topics we discussed, though, the one that stuck with me the most and has subsequently haunted me since that day is the decline of what I’ll call good-old-fashioned-thinking. He’s a teacher too, and we both noted and dread the aversion to thinking that many of our students display. It’s not just today’s youth, however—although it seems the most pronounced in them—it’s seemingly increasing across all demographics. We talked about how our tools shape our minds, with the technological innovations of the twenty-first century being the primary culprit in this perceived decline of thinking. Between Google’s algorithm essentially predicting how we think and our increasingly shrinking attention spans brought on by our soundbite culture rife with texts and Tweets, we are unwittingly eroding our ability to think about topics in robust and meaningful ways. But we need to reverse this trend, and the only way how is to reclaim and hone our ability for contemplating life and all that it contains.

            Thinking is not easy work and, what’s worse, we must force ourselves to overcome the tendency to always take the shortest route to our conclusions. This phenomenon is detailed at great length in Daniel Kahneman’s erudite tome Thinking, Fast and Slow, which examines this critical attribute of human behavior through a plethora of psychologically rigorous research trials conducted across decades. Though they are not very technical terms, Kahneman uses the shorthand abstractions, System 1 and System 2. They don’t necessarily correlate to specific parts of the brain in a physical sense, but are conclusions borne out of the numerous experiments he and his research partner carried out.

In essence, according to his research, System 1 is the system we use the vast majority of time, mainly because—as with everything else in nature—systems tend to prefer simplicity and to perform a function with the least amount of energy or effort. The brain is functionally a pattern-recognition machine, and is constantly gathering data and compiling it in ways of which we are largely unaware; therefore, System 1, Kahneman states, is one that operates mostly on heuristics, a word that roughly means “discovery” in the ancient Greek sense. However, because we effectively compile these databases in our minds and are always seeking patterns on a subconscious level, System 1 generates these rules of thumb and biases that guide our thinking most of the time to make it easier for us to process information. Unfortunately, we often get caught in these intractable ruts in our decision making process, which lead to much errant thinking and, occasionally, disastrous outcomes.

            System 2, on the other hand, is the one we should be using all the time, but it takes effort to override the heuristics and biases of System 1. We must think through problems and issues carefully, coming to conclusions slowly. Yet as Kahneman notes multiple times throughout his book and in his own words, “System 2 is lazy.” Only certain situations will provoke it into coming online, and so we must therefore train ourselves to override System 1 by trying to actively engage System 2 more often in our daily routines. We must, in essence, force ourselves to think. This is precisely what I found so distressing about our conversation at the bar—our tools, specifically our technological marvels such as smartphones (most ironic appellation ever!) and the number one Christmas gift this year, the hoverboard, only serve to increase this innate tendency toward sloth, both mentally and physically. But if we are seriously interested in living our lives well and becoming the architects of our destiny, we must learn to use System 2 often so that we can make sound choices and construct a meaningful life.

            Freedom, as my philosophical friend and interlocutor at the bar would tell you, is the cornerstone of existentialism. And perhaps the most essential aspect of that freedom is the freedom to choose. In conjunction with contemplation, then, choice becomes the pencil in our hands as we draw up the schematics of our lives. Similar to the metaphor I used in the earliest letters of the hammer and chisel that creates the sculpture of our lives, our personal magnum opus, the informed choices we make are the lines we lay on the schematic of our individual destiny. Whether we want to admit it or not, much of the choices that we make each and every day have a bearing on the way our lives unfold. If we are not proactively thinking about life and our place within it, many (if not most) of our choices will be reactionary in nature, which can leave us feeling overwhelmed and seemingly out of control. Thinking and choice, therefore, are inextricably linked and to forgo the former means you will have little of the latter.

            This is not to say that you have limitless choices and endless freedom if you are actively thinking about life, however. Even those who make a concerted effort to set aside time for reflection realize that there is only so much control we can exert over our choices, and that is why thinking is even more essential to making good choices about our lives. In a book I read over the Thanksgiving break, William Irvine’s A Guide to The Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, the author discusses how the Stoics split their worldview into a dichotomy of “things over which we have control” and “things over which we have no control,” focusing exclusively on the previous one because it reduces the amount of anxiety, worry, fear, et cetera in our lives. Irvine takes this dichotomy and breaks it down even further and renaming it as “the trichotomy of control.”

            The first part of the trichotomy of control is “things over which we have complete control,” which, as Irvine notes, is effectively our inner lives. Unless we have serious mental disabilities or disorders, we are in complete control of our thoughts, attitudes, and general disposition (at least in the aforementioned System 2 that does the active thinking). The second part of the trichotomy is “things over which we have partial control” and includes most of our external interactions with other beings and objects. It is the outcome of the first and third parts of the trichotomy colliding with one another. For example, I have no control over a coworker or stranger who chooses to insult me, but I can control my reaction to it. I can get angry or I can laugh; either way, I’ve made a choice. And the more I have conditioned myself to think before reacting, the more I contemplate this trichotomy of control, the more fruitful my thinking will be and I retain a good measure of both control and composure. The third part of the trichotomy is obviously “things over which we have no control” like the weather or gravity. They are simply facts of life with which we must contend and to spend any mental energy on them is typically unnecessary.

            Where are you on this continuum, NIP? Do you constantly perceive yourself to be a victim of circumstance, or are you living an engaged life that is rife with reflection? No matter where you are, there is always room to grow and improve. I know that I have spent a fair amount of time contemplating life, its meaning, and my contribution to the lives of others over the last two decades or so, but at the age of 40 I feel as if I am only  starting to realize just how valuable and precious the ability to think and choose truly are. And it’s never too late to learn this. It’s never too late to realize that you have a duty to yourself to think about life—as well as how you are living it—every day. It doesn’t have to be an “all day, every day” activity, either; even if it is only ten minutes every morning, begin by carving out a small niche in time that allows you to reflect on the life you have lived, are living, and want to live in the future. Don’t worry about the past, but learn from it. Focus on the present and plan for the future. Think deeply about topics you love, and discuss them with others who share your passion, all of which will help you grow. Most importantly, let the most impactful choices you make come only after thoughtful deliberation (and, if possible, discussion). You have the freedom through thinking and choice to be the architect of your destiny…use them both wisely.

Keep pondering, NIP.

- Ryan

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Listening is Loving

Happy Thanksgiving, NIP!

            Some months ago, Erin and I watched Hector and the Search for Happiness, a film starring Simon Pegg as a psychiatrist who takes a sabbatical of sorts in an effort to travel the world and, as the title suggests, search for happiness. The story is replete with common sense wisdom, much of which I was aware from my own learning and living over the past several years. Ever since we watched it, though, a particular line from the movie has lingered and resonated with me on many levels: during his travels abroad, Pegg’s character is told “listening is loving,” and it hit me immediately. That simple sentence set off a chain reaction of realization that I hope to somehow convey with this letter, but I do so hesitantly because I know that I still have a lot to learn about putting this idea into practice in my own life.

            If reading any of these letters is an indication, I can talk. I’m a verbal guy. I like words, and I like a lot of them. It’s no wonder that several of my favorite words include garrulous, loquacious, and verbose (I’m especially fond of words that begin with the letter P or V). I’d like to think that my words are measured and well-thought out, but that’s not always the case and I’m learning more and more as I get older that sometimes no words are better than even a few. And as much as I like to think, read, write, and talk, I’m really starting to understand how truly powerful listening can be. Though the word listening itself is a verb and we might think of it as an action, I think that when we truly listen, it becomes a state of being, a radical way to surrender to the moment and become a witness to all that is, especially including the person right in front of you.

            Since coming across the line in the movie several months ago, however, I’ve really tried to actively listen much more, and I can see how this can be synonymous with loving in two ways—one external, the other internal. The external way that listening is loving is by offering ourselves to other people. Human beings are social animals by nature, and most of us require the company of other people. Add to this the fact that part of the human condition involves creating narratives to make sense of ourselves, our world, and our place in it—and to then communicate that narrative through language and shared experience—it’s no wonder why listening is such a critical component of life. When we listen to others, it’s fundamentally to share information. But there is a deeper way to listen to other people, too, a way in which we are letting others know we love them without saying words. In those moments when we listen wholeheartedly, giving our entire body and mind over to the process, we connect with the other person in some ineffable yet palpable way. There is a subtle shift in the moment and dialogue, something that I believe both people can feel. I really can’t explain it beyond that, but I think it’s something we’ve all experienced when we’ve shared something that was intellectually or emotional meaningful to us with another human being. While I know I don’t attempt to listen like this in every moment, I am positive that I will be able to further cultivate the ability to do so over time. I realize its potential to help me become a better person in the long run generally, and I have already seen its beneficial impact in my relations with family and friends as well as my work with new teachers.

            Although listening can be loving externally when we offer ourselves completely to another person, it can also take place internally and act as a form of self-love. This realization came to me about six weeks ago when Erin wasn’t feeling particularly well and wanted to lie down to take a nap, so I went for a long, slow amble around “the big loop,” as she and I call it, which is effectively a mile-and-a-half route that circumscribes our neighborhood. Most of the time when I take these strolls by myself, I use the time to reflect on the day or think about weighty matters; on this day, however, as I rounded the back end of the first turn in the loop, my mind became incredibly quiet and increasingly so as I turned my attention to all the sounds of life that surrounded me. In that moment life seemed to bloom with aural pleasure: the sounds of various birds on the branches, the whisper of the wind passing through the trees, the rustle of leaves blowing along the sidewalk, an unseen dog barking in a backyard, the repeated clank of a hammer hitting a sheet of metal, the hum of the highway as cars passed in the distance along Interstate 75, the sound of my sneakers making contact with the pavement, the rhythm of my breathing, and the beating of my heart were all part of a mélange of sound that quieted my normally talkative mind. This moment led to an epiphany that taught me precisely why this type of listening is an act of self-love.

Though we may still be turning our attention outward to the sounds that saturate our lives, by giving ourselves over completely to these sounds and being in awe of their inherent magnificence we find no room for our own thoughts in that otherwise silent mental space. I don’t know about you, NIP, but my mind does a lot of discursive thinking when I am not deeply reflecting on a single topic; typically, my mind is going about its own business by affixing labels to every single phenomenon, making judgements about my present circumstances and, occasionally, beating myself up about something I did in the past or fretting about something that may happen in the future. I know this is not good, and my personal mindfulness meditation practice has helped me combat much of these deficiencies. Heck, after six years of a daily practice, at least I am aware that these thoughts are happening inside my own mind rather than being completely ignorant to them, which allows me to disengage from them and focus on the here and now. The first step—this awareness, if you will—is exactly why listening can be an act of self-love. When we focus on the sounds around us in an effort to practice mindful listening, the busyness of the mind seems to dissipate, which is why I think this form of listening can be categorized as internal. The quiet that emerges within becomes profound because it lacks the typical noise of self-recrimination, worry, doubt, judgment, and a whole host of negative thoughts that seem to pop-up out of nowhere when our minds are not focused. Moreover, not only is it quieting, it is comforting. A sense of ease and relaxation emerges that helps us pay even greater attention to the present moment and all of the gifts within it.

With today being Thanksgiving, it is perhaps the perfect day to begin putting into practice the maxim of “listening is loving.” As we reflect on gratitude and all for which we have to be thankful, really open up to the moment in whatever way it manifests. If you have a few spare minutes, take some time to sit quietly and really listen to all the sounds that comprise “silence”; don’t be too concerned if your mind wants to continually label each phenomenon as it arises, but as soon as you do notice your mind doing this try to bring it back to the act of listening. I promise, a deep sense of peace will arise once you’ve surrendered completely. But perhaps more importantly on this day, be sure to really listen to the loved ones with whom you gather. Be grateful to have the experience of being with another person (or people) in and of itself; there is no need for an agenda, let any discussions that do occur arise naturally and let your interlocutor take the lead in any conversation. Look and listen at that person lovingly, and you both will feel a connection that goes beyond the words that you are sharing and truly realize that indeed “listening is loving.”

Keep listening and loving, NIP.
          - Ryan  
P.S. – I may have shared this some time ago (although I didn’t see it as I scrolled through past letters), but I figured it would be worth sharing today. It’s a 5-minute excerpt from a TED Talk by Louis Schwartzberg, a professional videographer and time-lapse photographer who specializes in capturing every day moments with his lens. What really makes the video, though, is the narration by Brother David Stendl-Rast, a Benedictine monk and mystic who happens to be one of my favorite religious thinkers. The piece is especially poignant because it reminds us that in some sense every single day should be Thanksgiving…
P.P.S. – I’d also suggest clicking on the frame in the lower-right of the embedded YouTube clip so you can watch it full screen and get the most out of visuals within the video.