Some of you might know that I govern my days using a “scalable loop”. It’s a construct that I developed to bypass the rigidity of rituals and routines—I can twist, bend and shape the loop to fit into whatever gaps and whatever circumstances arise. (Read more about it here.) Currently, the loop has five components: Breathe / Read / Write / Move / Play. And since I’ve been writing but not publishing, and since the first month of the year is drawing to a close, I thought I’d use that five-part structure as a frame for an update. But before I proceed, I want to draw your attention to two things.
“In living systems the whole generates the parts. The parts do not exist a priori. In each step of this process we can see that both wholes and parts come from existing wholes. They are not constructed in the usual sense—they are not manufactured. They are synthesized via an unbroken chain of wholes, extending back to the beginning.”
Reading that changed me. Immediately. If you’ve ever broken a bone or snapped a ligament, you’ll likely have a visceral recollection of the moment when it broke, that indescribable fragment of time in which the force being applied to your body exceeded its ability to endure it. I had a similar experience. Considering the ideas in that short-but-potent piece shattered the spine of one of my deepest assumptions—that my life is made up of a plethora of different pieces that individually are important, but come together to create something more than the literal sum of their parts. Now, I have begun to see and think of my life as a collection of wholes, instead of as a collection of parts. I haven’t truly unpacked the consequences of this transition—I need more time—but it continues to be something I am unable pull my mind away from.
Second, I learnt about a new concept in Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart: the notion of a samaya bond. The easiest way to think of the samaya bond is as an unbreakable vow, as an irrevocable, unconditional commitment between a teacher and a student. As Chodron says:
“If the student accepts and trusts the teacher completely and the teacher accepts the student, they can enter into the unconditional relationship called samaya. The teacher will never give up on the student no matter how mixed up he or she might be, and the student will also never leave the teacher, no matter what.”
In addition to perceiving the parts of me and the parts of my life as wholes, I’ve also come to see these wholes as teachers. And thus I have been wondering: is it the right time to enter into a samaya bond with the practices of breathing, reading, writing, moving and playing? Am I ready to make an unconditional, irrevocable commitment to them? Perhaps…
Anywho. The meta-commentary is done. Now, we can move on.
I – BREATHE
The sequence: I wrote about trading oxygen for coffee. Then I wrote about the transition to eyes-open meditation, as opposed to eyes-closed. Next, I read Deconstructing Mindfulness by David Collins. Then, after realising that my meditation practice had completely ignored the foundation of concentration, I decided to focus awhile on attaining the Jhana states. As a result of this, I asked David to for some resources to aid in this particular quest, and he was grateful enough to put me onto the work of Stephen Snyder and Tina Rasmussen, and of Shaila Catherine. The result of all this?
First, I am practicing concentration meditation basically every day. I’m trying to approach the practice with the resolve to Make no plans, to leap over the labels of “succeeding” and “failing”. It’s working, slowly, and that is okay.
Second, I have decided that eyes closed is the best approach for this type of contemplation, but I’ve maintained the eyes open approach for periods of zazen (see here and here), and for any other time when I am just sitting and being a human.
Third, I’ve woven all this together into a framework for attaining a “higher” state of awareness or consciousness. I am unable to enact it now, but I hope to be able to in the coming years. It looks like this:
Step One — Use the Wim Hof Method of breathing (deliberately intense breathing, a prolonged inhalation, and a prolonged exhalation, repeated three or four times) to dispel any psychological or psychological impediments to concentration. This method of breathing compels the sympathetic nervous system to activate with more intensity.
Step Two — Make my way, sequentially, through the Eight Jhana states, and develop a profound one-pointedness of mind.
Step Three – Transition out of the Jhana states and use the momentum previously accumulated to transition from one-pointedness to many-pointedness of mind, from a state of deep concentration into a state of deep awareness.
Right now, I am far from attaining even the first Jhana, so you can see why the above path is a long-term ambition. It’s also worth noting that my understanding of what “deep awareness” is and actually involves is sparser than I thought it was. Luckily, though, I picked up The Manual of Insight by Mahasi Sayadaw on a whim, at the same time as David’s recommendations. I suspect that text holds the keys to several locks.
II – READ
I’m back into my reading rhythm. Although the articles linked above are the only ones I’ve actually read online with anything more than fragmented attention, I’ve been able to absorb myself in several books over the past few weeks.
After reading multiple second-hand references and interpretations, I decided to read a translation of Mein Kampf. I read the first half and I have many thoughts about it, none which I am willing to share yet. After reading and loving Rene Girard’s Deceit, Desire and the Novel (which traces elements of desire in the works of Flaubert, Cervantes, Proust and Dostoevsky) I was persuaded to continue Proust’s In Search of Lost Time series. I’ve read the first, so I picked up the second, Within a Budding Grove, but despite some truly profound passages I dropped it in order to re-read Eiji Yoshikawa’s Musashi, which was glaring at me from the bookshelf. Dropping Proust in favour of Yoshikawa turned out to be a good decision: the latter resonated with me in a much greater way than when I first read it. I actually tweeted about it here.
A consequence of those tweets was a nod towards the work of James Clavell, specifically his Asian Saga. Like a rapper shutting down Gucci and cleaning out the store with his black card, I brought all six novels in the series (for a total of nearly six thousand pages of fiction) and began the first, Shogun, as soon as it arrived. So far. Can confirm. It’s good.
I also finished Katy Bowman’s essay collection, entitled Movement Matters. It’s just as good, if not better, than another one of her books, Move Your DNA. Off the back of that, I’ve begun Erwan Le Corre’s The Practice of Natural Movement. Also, truly good—but I’ll talk about these books more later. The other book in my hands at the moment is Philosophy in the Flesh by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. It’s about embodied cognition and it’s changing my mind, connecting so many dots and concepts that have lied dormant waiting for an opportunity to come together. Again, recommended.
Another development on the reading front: I picked up a hand-me-down Kindle. I am, and always will be, a devoted dead-tree book reader, but I’m finding it a bit awkward to lug some of my door-stopper texts to work with me, and while I don’t mind taking six books with me on a week-long holiday, it is a tad inconvenient. Previously, I had been content to live with the inconvenience, but after discovering that my CargoWorks pouch will take a Kindle alongside my phone and notebook, I decided to make a change. In order to travel lighter, I’ll be rocking a Kindle stuffed with the complete Malazan Book of the Fallen (which I can re-read endlessly) and a few other collections—Tiago Forte’s Praxis ebooks, a few Ribbonfarm Roughs, an Eliezer Yudkowsky book or two, and a number of other diverse texts that I have yet to decide upon (recommendations welcome).
III – WRITE
As I mentioned in AFK, kinda, I have stopped blogging in order to focus on my novel. I want to publish it by the end of this year, and after creating a set of significant milestones and coupling them with deadlines, I can say that I am on target. For now. It’s not like I’ll be going from conception to completion of a novel within a year, though. I’ve already spent months on character profiles, countless time thinking about worldbuilding and iterating the events, and many hours contemplating the sort of story I want it to be and the manner in which I want to tell it. I’ve had a headstart and it’s going to be interesting to see how long I can maintain it (praying and lobbying to the Gods on my behalf is encouraged). I can be more specific…
Thus far, I’ve come up with a beat-by-beat outline for the story, and I’m using it in the manner suggested by Venkat in response to a toot:
“…as a trellis to guide a growing vine structure. You lay it out to get a vague sense of overall arc and avoiding dead ends, internalize it subconsciously, but then write the story in an improv fashion, simulating the action in your mind. You refer to the outline again only if you run into trouble, and it’s okay to skip or add beats by improv”.
I was lucky enough to receive that advice before I began drafting proper. I was also lucky enough to receive a nudge from M. K. Anderson— she persuaded me to take a proper look at genre, genre conventions, obligatory scenes, sources of conflict, and hook-build-payoff structures at different levels within the story. I did that. I pulled out my copy of Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid, figured out the questions I needed to answer, and went about answering them. Which I am glad I did because I realised, amongst other things, that my novel is a story about courtship. I did not see that coming.
In terms of volume, I’ve been making my way through the novel at essentially the same speed that I used to blog at—roughly three thousand words a week. I expect there to be periods where that increases and patches where it decreases, but either way I want to get to a shitty-first-draft before May begins.
I know I said in AFK, kinda that I’d use the absence of publishing time pressure to be more active on social media and dig deeper into more complex topics and create longer posts. That hasn’t really happened. Similar to how one uses their income to pay the rent and buy food first, and only then goes on holiday and out to dinner, I haven’t felt like I’ve had the disposal income to invest in those activities. If you look at the etymology of the word “priority” it is singular—it is meant to refer to one thing. The novel is the thing right now. Anything after that is a bonus.
There’s been two consequences of this prioritisation. First, I am writing in my notebook more, attempting to record both inner and outer truths. Second—and this is related to the first—there has been no drop in the number of thoughts I have. Instead, there has been a development in my ability to let them alone. Previously, when I had a “good” idea, I’d grasp it and record it in some form for later use. Now, my thought is like a butterfly landing on an extended finger: I see it land, remain still while it takes its rest, and let it flutter off as soon as it feels ready. The previous sentence is probably a third consequence of focusing on my novel—the proliferation of “lofty” metaphors in my prose. Don’t worry, they make me cringe, too. But right now I don’t feel particularly self-conscious, so they’re staying—after all, didn’t Ray Bradbury say something like, “the enemy of all art is self-consciousness”?
Which brings me to the penultimate point of this section: Ray Bradbury also said that, in writing, quantity leads to quality. Venkat mentioned this idea in a recent Breaking Smart Q&A, and after I riffed about it on Twitter, I began to think that it is an idea applicable to more than writing. It’s common knowledge that writing is a proxy for thought, so wouldn’t quantity of thought lead to quality of thought? If you follow the logic and subscribe to it—I do—then the imperative is obvious: we should do everything we can to have as many thoughts as possible. If that means blogging, fine. If that means, making up limericks and poetry, cool. If that means moving to a new place, communing with oak trees in a remote forest, listening to the whispers of a mystical waterfall, living in a van, or filling a house with dogs, cats and llamas, great. Do whatever it takes.
Finally (phew), I suspect it looks like I’m contradicting the quantity leads to quality idea above. After all, I’m not publishing anything, really. Counterpoint: I’m writing just as much as I used to and I feel like I am having more thoughts than ever before.
More importantly, I feel like I have settled on a course for the next few years at least. In roleplaying games, it is possible to play either “pure” or “hybrid” characters. The latter could be, for example, an axe-wielding barbarian who also knows a few spells. The former could be, for example, a thoroughly committed magic user whose only form of attack and defense is the arcane. After a year or two of LARPing a “hybrid” character, trying to get my freelance career off the ground and blog and write a book and do all the other things, I now feel like I’m much better suited to the role of “Pure Writer”. I understand the risks of this approach, but as I write this I have twelve books I know I want to write. Allowing for a fifty percent entropy rate, that’s still six books to get around to. (FYI, I know an idea or insight is book worthy because it plants itself in my brain, begins to grow of its own accord in my sub- and unconscious, and then reappears to my consciousness later, in a vastly more advanced state.)
That sounds crazy, right? Everyone says that writing a book is a slog, a ball-ache, torture. For example, James Clear said recently that:
“In case anyone is wondering:
1. Writing a book is very not fun.
2. Launching a book is very fun.
3. Number 1 is what makes Number 2 possible.
The height of your joy is linked to the depth of your sacrifice.”
That’s not true for me. Writing is the fun part. Having ideas and seeing where they take me is the whole point. If it benefits others? I will be amazed. If it results in unexpected-but-meaningful relationships? I will be grateful. If I can make a living from it? I will be humbled. But none of those possibilities change the fact that, for me, the act is the reward. And I’ve made a conscious choice to orientate my life around that fact.
IV – MOVE
I have never fallen out of love with reading, nor with writing. I can’t say the same for movement. My youth was heavily composed of different sports, and as I became an adult that process continued. The only difference was that I swapped team sports for Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a sport that depends on others being present but is a decidedly more individual pursuit—the practitioner alone is responsible for the rate and extent of their progress. But over the last year, my momentum in that, and in physical training generally, flagged.
Fortunately, this new period of my life has seen that energy re-captured and exceeded. Although I am only able to train once or twice a week, I am thoroughly enjoying the practice of BJJ. I’ve adopted the same approach with BJJ as I have taken with my meditation practice: show up, be attentive, and let the development take care of itself.
Outside of BJJ my movement practice feels revitalised too. Much has been said about the toxicity of social media, especially channels that overwhelm us with normative models (see The toxic triangle of modernity). However, I’ve cultivated a private Instagram account, made it movement-centric—as opposed to my Twitter feed, which is a river of ideas concerned with a great number of mostly abstract topics—and deliberately resolved to use the people I find there as inspiration instead of models to compare myself with and gauge my ability against. Following the accounts of Ido Portal, Tom Weksler, Rafe Kelley, Roye Gold, Fighting Monkey, Formless Arts, Erwan Le Corre and MovNat, many yogis, multiple BJJ competitors and coaches, and a lot of photographers and filmmakers, has nourished my mind with possibilities and helped me to practice movement more often, for longer, and in many different ways.
As I hinted at in The floor and the canopy, my aim is not just to lift weights, swing a kettlebell or cycle up a particularly challenging hill. Those things are good and useful sure, but my main aim is to be able to walk and run and climb and swim and jump and fall and crawl with ease.
Part of the reason that my capacity for movement was dulled in the first place was that I was struggling to find a way to fit it into my life. I solved that problem: in the back of my notebook, I keep a folded index card. On that card are three stages of a movement practice.
– The first stage, which involves a few low-level basic movements that I can do cold—like hanging and rolling—functions as a warm-up. If I have five minutes, I can just do that. And how can I not have five minutes?
– The second stage is more expansive. It has two parts. The first is a superset which pairs a pull movement with a Turkish get-up. The second is a single-hand kettlebell complex which involves a swing, a clean, a squat, a press and a carry. If I have only fifteen minutes I can do a warm-up and one of those movements. If I have thirty or forty minutes I can do a warm-up and both the superset and the complex.
– The third stage is focused on exploration and has no explicit instructions. Instead it has three columns. The first lists basic human movement instructions: strike, throw, crawl, jump, etc. The second lists modifiers or spectra for those actions: slow-fast, inside-outside, planned-improvised, etc. The third lists implements that can be mixed in: the ground, water, bands, bars, sticks, balls, etc.
This approach has a similar flavour to the scalable loop, and in lieu of working directly with a coach (which I have done previously) it’s the best solution I’ve come across to the problem of programming movement into a life. Here’s the card itself, the backside of which has two ideas that I am trying to keep in mind:
Of course, those activities only take place during a specific movement session. And as I learnt in Bowman’s Movement Matters and as I’m learning from Le Corre’s The Practice of Natural Movement, there’s more potential for gain—and there’s more cause of harm—in the other twenty-three hours of the day that we’re not explicitly focused on movement and training. The shorthand of “23/1” reminds me of this, and as a consequence I’m trying to be more mindful of movement and health in the rest of my life.
One way in which I’m doing this is sitting on the floor more. Sounds simple, but it’s quite remarkable how effective it is. Try it for yourself. I’m also making a point of moving on the floor and rolling around when playing with our puppy. Again, simple but effective.
The other notable things I’m doing in regard to health are first, taking care of my sleep, and second, taking cold showers. First, because I don’t have the time pressure of publishing daily or twice a week, I’m allowing myself to sleep in a bit later. This is helping me when I go into and come out of night shifts. I no longer feel as tired after a week of shifts, and I feel like the rest of my life has been enhanced because of this significant change in my approach to sleep. Second, I’m finishing every shower with either a couple-minute blast of cold, or a few rounds of hot and cold. The usual stress placed on body because of a moderately physical job, BJJ and my movement practice hasn’t decreased, but my ability to tolerate it and recover from it has seen a marked increase because of this.
I’m sure that, when it comes to movement and health, there are other things I can be doing and should be doing. I’ll get to them, eventually. But, for now, I’m enjoying the path and I’m happy with its trajectory.
V – PLAY
My thoughts and developments concerning this “whole” are both deeper and less extensive than the previous four. That’s because the concept of play permeates everything that I do and is thus hard to comment upon. There’s playfulness in my contemplative practice, in my reading, in my writing, in my exploration of movement, and in most other elements of my life. The phrase I’m trying to associate with my writing now is “joyous freewheeling” and that phrase is equally applicable to the other aspects of my existence. It feels like, on some higher level, I’ve stopped giving a fuck about the “shoulds” and began to wonder about the “coulds”. This isn’t for everyone, and it’s probably not the definitive way to approach life, but for me and for now, it’s working, and my intention is for it to remain that way.
I’d like you to know that I hadn’t intended to say this much. I started and the above just kept coming, like I’d nicked the carotid artery of expression. But it has been fruitful for me. It has helped me consolidate a few thoughts, to tie some bows with the differing threads of my thought. So I’ll say no more.
Except this (I can’t help it): yesterday I went out on my bicycle for the first time this year. Nothing exciting—I completed a loop that I’ve done many times before. However, it did generate two insights.
First: there’s this hilltop farm whose gate I always stop at. It offers wide and sweeping view of the countryside, and on most days it’s a tranquil spot. But yesterday, I missed it. I was so absorbed in my own thoughts about I-can’t-even-remember-what-that I had cycled passed it and made it to the bottom of the hill before I noticed my not-noticing it. Infer from that what you will.
Second: right after I realised I’d missed my usual hilltop-stop, I took a left and sought a gap in the hedge. I dismounted and walked myself and my bike through it, into the field, into its five-by-ten-metre rest area. I leaned my bike against the wooden bench waiting there and took off my helmet, hanging it via the strap off my handlebars. I then popped my water bottle out of its cage, took a sip and walked through the gap in the fencing, towards the middle of the field. It was a cold day but a clear day, cloudless. I could see the hills falling away from me and rising up in the distance. Upon reaching the middle of the field I knelt, tucked both feet under me, seiza style, and breathed out.
It’s said in When Things Fall Apart that “The out-breath is a metaphor for opening our whole being.” I felt the truth of those words whilst knelt in that field on that cold clear day—I breathed everything I had into the wind, and the wind bore it away. The wind also bore me away. It flowed over the hillside, and I went with it. It descended into the valley and climbed out of it. As did I. It kept the birds in the air, and there I stayed with them, for a time.
What this experience created in me was not a reverie so much as a sense of reverence. A deep appreciation for where I’ve been and where I’m going, for who I am and who I am not, for who I was and for who I have yet to be, for the people and the things that are and aren’t around me—regardless of whether I am intimate with them or not, regardless of whether I consider them strangers, friends, allies or enemies.
I recently read somewhere that taking a vitamin C supplement is not the same as eating an orange. That seems obvious, right? Deconstructing a wholesome food and taking its components in fragmented form is not the same as eating the damn fruit. Similarly, in times past, we had religion. It provided us with something to believe in and it was a thing which brought people together. Now, it is different. Despite what you’ve heard, God isn’t dead. And there are other ways in which we generate community and social support around our selves. But what religion also gave us, in a neat package alongside belief and community, is a sense of reverence,. Not a blind faith in or a meek submission to something untouchable and unimaginably larger than us. Just a deep appreciation and respect. I can’t speak for others, but I get the sense that we don’t have that anymore. Or if we do, we rarely feel comfortable enough to share and experience it with one another.
As I rose and made my way back to the bike, I thought on this and I concocted a directive for myself, which also serves as an epigram for this little update:
In action, joy and conviction; in reflection, reverence and doubt; in everything, compassion.