Trying to be old

I loved how the sun lit up the windows of the ostentatiously classy restaurant come wine bar on St. Andrew’s Street in Dublin called Stanley’s. The bleached turquoise exterior with golden letters spelled understated chic.

A few doors down from the expensive Trocadero, the location seemed perfect for such a place.

It opened about 2 years ago. Today I found that it’s been replaced with a place called Kathmandu, a gerrish, bright orange Nepalese eatery. Full of people. 

Stanley’s was never full of people.

Why? Where did they go wrong? Where didn’t they go right, more like? The broadly positive Irish Times review and then another even more positive one? The perfect location? The classy interior in modern blues and grays? What more could people want?

Or is it maybe that classy is old-fashioned. Maybe these things don’t sell anymore.

I love old books, films, chandeliers, even houses. Often these things sell at a perplexing yet welcome discount.  Has it always been this way – that old things are cheap?

Writing up my list of the Christmas gifts I want to give, I realised that I strongly prefer older things. I think it’s from reading too many XIX century novels…

Which would you rather get for Christmas, a new iPhone or an antique chandelier? 

It turns out that the iPhone is about five times the price. This raises another point: did old things always go at a discount?

And finally, maybe that’s why Stanley’s closed down. Perhaps their bet was on people’s vanity, a desire for a classy place to shorten the protracted winters nights. But it never caught on.

Trying to be old without actually being old may be a hard sell. 

It’s always good to look back on where you started

Western culture has a distinct focus on the future. We’re all about innovations and trends. It seems that the en vogue mood is to not really be too interested in history: too full of things like racism and other forms of inequality for us to warrant being proud of it. The present moment is always traded for a future option – hard work pays off they keep telling us.

There is a lot of advice out there to be grateful. It could be argued that it’s generally good advice. However, as with all positive thinking, a forced positive thought always backfires. Hence, you cannot be compulsive or forceful about it. A better way would be to ask ourselves the sort of questions that could make us feel grateful: what good things happened today? What way can I use my situation? What’s good about my situation?

the importance of being grateful

Even at that, I find the best way to feel grateful is by looking back where I started. I don’t mean compare bank balances and neighbourhoods. I mean think of everything I didn’t know back then that I know now. All the people I’ve met and the lessons I’ve learnt. I’m always surprised by what I find.

Imagining it is a poor substitute for actually going back. I am writing this as I am flying back from the city where I spent a lot of time when I was younger. Immersing myself in that atmosphere highlighted the differences between me then and me now. Meeting the people I used to spend time with was one of the most insight-generating things I’d ever done. At one point we were so similar, and now we’ve diverged into our parallel universes. It’s an experiment I highly recommend to anyone. It’s would be a banal statement to say that travel really does give perspective, adds variety and a better understanding of what things mean. I think travelling to places we know well but have left behind is of a certain irreplaceable benefit.

it's important to look back to where you started

Why forcing positive thinking doesn’t work

The positive thinking crowd – who have flooded every corner of the internet, most of all social media, would have us believe that our minds instinctively drive us towards that which we focus on. Hence, it makes sense to focus on the good, according to them.

As a naturally skeptical-yet-optimistic person, I find myself repelled by the cult of positivity. Below, I explain the theory behind positive thinking and the reasons why it ultimately doesn’t work.

does positive thinking work

There is logic behind positivity. For example, attentional bias and its many cousins are our way of noticing the things we prefer to notice even more.

So if we try to notice good things, we are likely to notice a disproportionate amount of good things. It is assumed that by being surrounded by positivity, we will feed off this virtuous cycle and gather the strength to produce other good things. Another argument in defence of positive thinking is that our brains tend to follow certain patterns, habits of sorts. Feeling good more often leads to more feeling good. Another virtuous cycle.

Positive thinkers encourage setting and identifying with ambitious goals as a necessary part of all achievement in life. There are endless quotes from celebrity icons to support this. Many of those who have succeeded would say – I had a vision of x, y, z – and here I am now, I’ve achieved it.

We don’t hear the, undoubtedly, innumerable stories of those who go through the same “law of attraction” process – without ever arriving at their destination.

In addition, we’re quick to assume a causal relationship between the idiosyncrasies of the successful and their success. These are just two of many biases that are inherent in the positive thinking logic. So of what value is this obsession with studying the habits of the ultra-successful? As role models – fair enough. However,

the studies that support positive thinking are more often than not obviously in violation of basic parts of the scientific method.

But hey, it takes a while to prove anything, so we will bear with them for now.

By that same positive thinking logic, thinking about negative things will somehow lead to these bad things. Good point (we will agree with their assumptions for now). There is one problem with it though. Let me explain.

Forcing ourselves to focus on the good things creates a kind of dissonance. One part of our brains is saying: we should feel positive in all circumstances. Another part of our brain is pointing out all the things that we are used to feeling bad about.

Now, it is possible that the way we are interpreting the world is unhelpful, but this requires a lot of work to unmask and change. Therefore, until the hard work of rethinking our beliefs, for example, through the (much more) scientifically backed talk therapy is at least attempted, it is impossible to cure the feeling that something is off kilter in our heads as a consequence of positive thinking. It feels fraudulent and may even make the subject feel worse. Furthermore – and this is the interesting part – this sensation of something not being right will draw more attention to these negative thoughts we were told to run from.

The swollen positivity of Instagram’s motivational gurus doesn’t just urge us to be positive – it tells us that being negative is wrong.

“Rid your life of negative people”. “Purge negative words from your vocabulary”. “Avoid negative thoughts”. Forcing positivity accentuates negativity: whenever we feel down we will flag it as red, pumped by inspirational quotes. So positive thinking urges us to focus on the negative. Isn’t this negative focus going to lead to negative events – by their own logic? In addition,

the red-flagging of negative thoughts often results in further guilt and helplessness to go with our already negative feelings.

There is another problem with telling people not to think stuff. It was voiced by Fedor Dostoyevsky, a hero of mine since back in school when I managed to write an exam essay outlining the importance of the religion in Crime and Punishment that was corrected by a 70 year old Soviet-through-and-through teacher of literature – resulting in a stellar grade. Fedor gets the credit here. Anyway! He said that the things that we try to not think about are the very things we end up thinking about.

Could you do me a favour and not think of a blue scarf please?

Yeah, I know.

Furthermore, telling someone how they should feel is fertile ground for tyrannies of the shoulds – feeling low as a consequence of now complying with some preconceived rule, or should. More unintended negativity.

This emphasis on avoiding negativity draws us no less to negative events than the focus on positivity draws us to positive events

…I hypothesise. In addition, the dissonance and a new rule to follow about something only partially under our control in and of themselves feels rotten, i.e. more negative feelings.

does the law of attraction work

I think positive thinking is flawed: not because it has no basis, but because its basis has counterweights that accentuate the negative thoughts just as much – made worse by the uncomfortable dissonance it creates. It just makes us judge our thoughts more.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that allowing ourselves to ruminate on sad things we cannot change, having no faith in ourselves or any other unhelpful behaviour should be encouraged to spite the positive thinkers of the self-help industry. I just don’t believe positive thinking is going to solve the underlying conflicts. It is a good idea to see the best in people and things etc. It is a good idea to let our positivity strengthen. It just can’t be compulsive – or the positive effect is ruined as described above.

There’s no need to dwell on the negative beyond what is reasonable either. For example, raising awareness about suicide sometimes results in a higher incidence of it. Not dwelling on something can be achieved without running from it, however.

There is a nice point on the emotional “graph” – and I think we could reach it by being a bit more open-minded about the negative.

It makes sense to reflect on this through the most extreme negative thought – of death. Being comfortable with the thought of death seems preposterous to most people – unless they are a doctor or something like that. Even then – it’s not their own death they are thinking about. When I first heard of the annual Mexican festival in celebration of death, it seemed insane – blasphemous in a kind of secular way. My own mother, who unlike me did not grow up with Halloween, still feels there’s something not quite right about it. People in our culture seem to avoid thinking about death as if somehow thinking about it will bring it closer.

Where do positive thinkers stand on death? Is thinking of death banned as well? It would seem obvious that death is regarded as one of the worst possible outcomes in our culture. Well, ok, but it’s going to happen anyway. The theory underlying positive thinking would lead us to believe that thinking of death will somehow bring it closer. The thought of our own mortality cannot be easily tolerated. It has to go right now. We may touch wood or bless ourselves to undo the damage it already caused. Obviously, there are other explanations for this besides what we usually call positive thinking, but the mechanism is the same. We just don’t want to bring it upon ourselves.

So is it ok to talk about death yet? The Mexicans are a pretty happy people, or so they say in those country-by-country happiness studies. Death was a beloved subject of the medieval tradition – with their skulls on their tables in countless paintings to remind themselves of death.

There are many lessons to be derived from thinking of death.

The Stoics loved thinking of death – it’s their way to remind themselves that nothing is worse than death – and death isn’t that bad. It’s our beliefs about it that make it bad. Hence, there is no need to fear death. Since we don’t have to fear death – the worst outcome of all, surely, we don’t have to fear anything else. Buddhists would regard death as just another experience – neither good nor bad.

Maybe that’s it: it’s all about trying to avoid uncertainty “the thought of undiscovered country from whose bourne/ No traveller returns, puzzles the will”. Positive thinking seems to heal the pain of uncertainty.

It positively confuses our brains – that aren’t very good at distinguishing between fantasies and reality to begin with. One of the proposed benefits of positive thinking is that it gives us a sense of certainty. It is argued then that once we believe that something is indeed possible, we will find it easier to achieve it. That’s why it’s so popular: it eases the fear of uncertainty.

does positive thinking really work

Besides being told to think positively, could there be other reasons why we dislike thinking about death so much then – given that is, well, as good as certain? The facts may be the facts, but way we think about death is full of uncertainty. In the extreme, there is a part of each of us that isn’t quite certain that we will die: it will be an older me, a more prepared me, not me me. Maybe; but seeing as how at 27 I don’t feel radically different to how I felt when I was half that age, I imagine it will be me me. However, just like the minus infinity to 1989, the infinity that I will miss out on after I am gone is just a part of what we got into when we were born. We also have no idea what will happen when we die – if anything, adding to the dreaded uncertainty. As evidenced by the scanty insights brought up here though: there is much to learn by thinking of the seemingly negative.

It would be mean to get to this point and not offer some kind of alternative to the wretched positive thinking. My answer, as much as it is possible to answer, is giving up on the hatred of uncertainty. There will always be uncertainty. No amount of meaningful relationships or possessions will ever shield us from uncertainty. We probably should set goals, but not cling to them unaware of the changing world around us. We can try and tame uncertainty by working around it, by forming beliefs that aren’t sabotaged by uncertainty – but not by resisting it through compulsive meaningless positive thinking.

Do you have to learn about Buddhism to fully understand mindfulness?

The extent to which mindfulness and meditation are intertwined with Buddhism is disturbing for me. It’s not that already committed to another religion and feel defensive. I don’t hate or judge religion, or Buddhism especially, but I would rather not go there. When mindfulness teachers go on about Buddhism, how it is more of a philosophy, how it’s important in understanding mindfulness – I feel like a car salesman is selling me on a bunch off car accessories I determinedly do not need. Can I just get the car? Here, I just want the mindfulness, not the philosophical paraphernalia. Is it possible?

Yes. I went and studied what these people have to say. First of all, there are other religions that involve meditation, even Christian ones. The philosophies are completely different. This means that the philosophy is optional. Second, the ideas of Buddhism that are supposed to help you to understand mindfulness are echoed elsewhere, for example, in the writings of Stoic philosophers or more recently in the writings of Viktor Frankl. This means that the philosophy isn’t exclusive to Buddhism.

do-you-have-to-learn-about-buddhism-to-fully-understand-mindfulness

I have stripped down the relevant beliefs here:

  • There’s nothing certain in life. Certainty is an illusion. We will never achieve certainty. The reason why most people want to be wealthy is because they feel they won’t have to worry about x, y, z. In truth, wealthy people indeed do not have to worry about x, y and z – they now worry about a, b and c. Furthermore, things are always changing.
  • Thoughts and emotions happen to us the same way as the weather. Thoughts and emotions are like noises, smells and sensations. The mind is, among other things, a sensory organ. It perceives thoughts and emotions – we don’t have control over them, but we can control what we do about them. We control the beliefs that we have – for sure. This will have an impact on thoughts and emotions, but indirectly and over time. You teach yourself not to cringe at the smell of vomit, and you can teach yourself not to cry at the end of a sad film. However, the thoughts and emotions still come in from the outside in. Any kind of thinking is thinking.
  • Feeling happy all the time isn’t the goal. You should just observe how you feel without judging it. It doesn’t mean you can’t act on what you’ve observed, but you certainly shouldn’t act before you’ve acknowledged everything that’s going on. Assuming that you can – and should – always feel happy causes a lot of the pain we feel.
  • Escaping how you are feeling is pointless. It will just take longer to get past the challenges associated with how you are feeling. This is where the way they deal with resistance comes in. You can act to change your reality – they don’t call that resistance. However, not understanding reality is resistance. Most violence and bad things come from this resistance.
  • Mindfulness isn’t there to make you a better person or make you happy. It’s just a way to understand what’s going on.
  • You don’t have to feel a certain way to act a certain way. Since thoughts and emotions aren’t always in your control, it doesn’t make sense to wait for your feelings to be right to act. For example, you can go to work without being motivated.

do-you-have-to-be-a-buddhist-to-understand-mindfulness

Why people get addicted to checking the news

The news has been in the news a lot  lately. Trump got elected and Facebook et al are under fire for allowing fake news to spread.

There are people who feel compelled to stay in tune with the news though it doesn’t make a difference to their lives in practical terms. Why?

We love stories. Our brains are designed to make and perceive stories.  The news in like a bed time story for adults. Going to different countries, or even different news outlets in some countries, will reveal two things. First, the main character is always a good guy. Second, the good guy always wins. It can’t all be true, but it sure makes a good story.

Our brains are designed to scan for danger. This is to keep us alive. The news usually reports a lot of bad things.

Our brains prefer exceptions rather than the ordinary. This is kind of like scanning for danger. It’s another mechanism to draw our attention to anything that’s odd – called attentional bias. The news certainly reports a lot of odd.

Our brains love noticing change rather than seeing the wood for the trees. It’s called anchoring. A small cut to a health system’s funding is likely to cause outrage despite the fact that it is otherwise generously funded. The news only reports changes.

Seeing the same thing over and over makes us like it. It’s called the mere-exposure effect. We like the news anchors and the tune of the news opening titles.

We love having opinions. The news is told in a way that it is easy to make judgements. It also makes us feel that our judgements are informed. This leads to naive realism and naive cynicism: assuming that our worldview is informed and everyone who disagrees with us in uninformed and biased.

It makes us feel like we’re right. Our brains love confirming that what we already know is true – it’s called confirmation bias. Because the news repeats itself a lot, it constantly feeds us the same type of information. A nice resonant echo chamber. To make things worse, we believe things more when they are repeated. It’s called the illusory truth effect. A vicious circle of biases.

It gives you something to talk about with your friends. Empty chatter is better than none to most people.

For most people, the news is a distraction that brings all of the above pleasures. It’s neither meaningfully informative, nor does it make our lives better.

why am i addicted to the news

Beginner mistakes in mindfulness practice

Beginning to practice mindfulness is a big step. In and of itself, the action means you are trying something new and being open to it, so kudos. Here are some major things to avoid.

  • Having expectations of immediate quietness and serenity. Mindfulness often feels like a game of whack-a-mole and a conscious effort. It’s hard not to feel like you have failed when you mind wanders if you assume that it won’t. It most certainly will. Some days are better than others, but the mind does its thing – we have to respect that. Judging your thoughts is just another thought. Similarly, rejoicing at how your mind is completely serene is also a thought. It should be treated the same way as every other thought: acknowledged. Rather than trying to purge it, it is best to simply shift the focus back to the present, e.g. to the breath.

beginner mistakes mindfulness meditation

  • Assuming mindfulness will always make you feel better. Most of the time is does. However, practicing mindfulness will bring things to the surface that weren’t previously acknowledged: feelings, thoughts, facts. They’re not always good, hence, it could cause upset. The thing to remember is that you are always better off knowing now – rather than finding out in six months’ time when it has grown into a monster and manifested itself through a crisis.

 

  • Struggling to get the perfect form. There’s no need to sit up straight if it makes your back hurt. If your quads are too tight, there’s no need to cross your legs. You can assume any position that is comfortable – but promotes wakefulness. The cushion doesn’t have to be a certain perfect size. You don’t have to log it on your phone. You’re only doing this for you, not for the sake of perfection.

 

  • Only meditating when the you are really stressed. While most people pick up the practice in order to deal with stress, it makes sense to practice consistently. It’s ok to skip a day here and there. However, it is important to not rely on meditation as a remedy for the bad days. Otherwise, it is the equivalent of only going to the gym after you’ve put on weight.

 

  • Feeling you have to do it for x length of time or it won’t work. It’s hard to know what the dose-response curve is like with mindfulness. It is best to meditate for as long as you can, that’s all.

mindfulness meditation beginner mistakes

 

I can’t keep track of each fallen robin

Apparently, we all die twice. Once, when our hearts stop beating, and a second time, when somebody mentions us for the last time. Leonard Cohen left us today. I am not sad because his powerful legacy will live on.

I was 17 when I heard Rufus Wainwright’s cover of Hallelujah. I may not have even found out about Cohen had it not been for Wainwright. Maybe covers aren’t such a bad idea after all. Here’s to many more.