Tag Archives: mindfulness

On Bloody Ears and the Problem of Luck


I cut myself shaving this morning.

Not a big deal. I wasn’t the only one. And it’s not like it has messed with my day in any major way. You get a cut, you stop it up with some tissue paper, you forget about it and walk into the office with spritzes of bloody tissue on your face, life goes on.

Except I didn’t cut my face, as one might expect. I cut my ear.

And not the low-hanging fruit of the lobe, which, while unusual, is still within the realm of the normal and understandable. No, I sliced the top of my ear.

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This is virtually impossible to do under ordinary circumstances, unless, like me, you’re a guy taking a safety razor to your dome once a week.

(Side note: the safety razor is not particularly aptly named, as it turns out. Your average dollar-store special is way harder to injure yourself with — though it doesn’t give you nearly as nice a result.)

Worse still, I’ve done it before — and it’s the kind of mistake that, really, you shouldn’t make that often. Cuts that high up on the head sting terrifically, and bleed with the abandon of a five-year-old running toward a playground, which is to say, total. One would think that one would, therefore, remember the unpleasantness of the entire affair and take care to avoid it.

The trouble is, of course, that shaving is one of those things that becomes routine, that you do so regularly that they become automatic. And when things become automatic, our minds tend to wander while we’re about them. (See also: driving. Unless something seriously significant happened — a near accident, for example, or a strange sighting, like a murder-clown walking along the street side — what can you really remember about your drive this morning? Probably not much. Your brain handled it for you, on autopilot, while you listened to the radio or thought about what you had to get done today.) And when the mind wanders while you’re about a routine task, well. You can come away missing pieces of yourself.

This is called automaticity, by the way, and is one of the few concepts I recall with perfect clarity from my college days. Who knows why. Probably it’s the funny word, which WordPress’s spellchecker does not recognize.

But shaving is not a thing that I should be doing in such a carefree manner. The blade I’m using is sharp, and the technique for its use is not necessarily intuitive. Not to mention that the curved surface of a skull is not the easiest thing to shave when using a blade that is flat. There’s care involved, and skill, and attention to detail. And getting above and behind the ears is fiddly even by head-shaving standards. I really should know better.

But no, instead of focusing on the task, I was listening to a podcast. Trying to learn a few things about the world we live in. (A back episode of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, for the curious.) You know, trying to better myself. And then, snag, slice, recoil.

And here I am, bleeding. I thought it might not be that bad, until a few seconds later when blood began dripping onto the bathroom counter. (Pit pit pit. Cue dizzy panic.)

There’s something to be thought, here, about luck. I was unlucky this morning, but this is my MO every time I shave, and usually I am not unlucky. (To put it into perspective, consider: many, many people text and drive, some of them alarmingly often. Some unlucky few will get into accidents, or even hurt or kill somebody, as a result. Only those disastrously unlucky enough to have accidents happen are likely to suffer any significant penalty or jail time; most people who text and drive suffer no consequence at all. Yet they all participated in the same inadvisable behavior. Some are lucky, the others are not. Shouldn’t those who text and drive, even without causing any harm to anybody on the occasion, suffer the same penalties we would levy against the person unlucky enough to hit somebody with their car? Why should those who were simply unlucky bear a harsher penalty? Needless to say, this is a practice I do not partake in.)

Anyway, just some food for thought on a Monday morning. Maybe I need a bit more mindfulness in my day. I’ve got a bloody neck and shoulder to remind me. It leads me to wonder: just how much of our days do we complete on autopilot?

 

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Metaphor Monday — The Half-Life of a Tantrum


Are you listening to Sam Harris’s Waking Up podcast?

If you aren’t, you should be. Sam is a prolific author, speaker, debater and philosopher, with his fingers in pies as varied as religion and its effects on society (generally bad), artificial intelligence (be afraid), and free will (nonexistent, but not for the reasons you might think). Not afraid to let the full bluntness of his ideas and criticisms strike the unsuspecting bystander soundly across the face, he nevertheless seems to me to be one of the most thoughtful and measured communicators in the public sphere these days. Add to that that he has a way with words which frankly makes me feel small on a regular basis.

His ruminations on such topics takes him often into the realms of morality and emotions, and the roles that these things play in our lives; if you can learn to master your emotions, you can more easily and completely tame your morality. How to best master your emotions? Harris advocates for meditation and mindfulness practice. I’m not quite enough of a tree-hugger to have done more than dunk my fingertips into the deep waters of meditation, but I’m a big fan of mindfulness, and that is an easy thing to do. In fact, it’s something I did fairly often before I knew anything about “mindfulness” being a thing: simply stop, now and then, and ask yourself — why am I doing this? how am I feeling right now? is this thing I’m doing a good use of my time and my energy? The point isn’t to change your behavior overnight, it’s simply to begin recognizing patterns. Behavioral patterns, like constellations in the night sky, become impossible to un-see once you’ve noticed them. Once noticed, you can begin to redirect yourself toward making decisions and choosing behaviors which more closely align with the life you would choose for yourself.

Which is where the emotion comes in. When emotion floods your system, it becomes harder and harder to make rational decisions. Take the guy who’s trying to drop a few pounds who, while at his parents’ house on a long weekend, decides to have a second piece of pie for dessert. This guy doesn’t usually avoids having dessert at all; desserts, after all, are somewhat antithetical to losing weight. But put him in his parents’ house, where through a strange alchemy of the brain, food equals love and eating everything his mother puts in front of him is a way of expressing that love, and gosh darn it the pie tastes so good, you know what, I think I will have another piece. (Did I mention that the guy in question was me? The guy in question was me.) Emotion short-circuits the rational brain.

One of Harris’s saws about emotion, though, is that it has a half-life. And that half-life is shorter than you might expect. Emotion, like an afternoon drizzle on a hot summer day, burns away quickly if you allow it to. Trouble is, most of us are happy (see what I did there?) to let emotion run us. Get caught behind the idiot paying for their groceries with a jarful of pennies or a fanny pack full of expired coupons, and we’re likely to keep coming back to that moment, reliving it, and getting enraged again for hours afterward. It can trash your productivity at work. It can distract you from a family outing. Case in point: just this afternoon, I went out with my family to lunch. On the television situated right behind my wife’s head, they were replaying this last year’s Super Bowl, wherein my beloved Atlanta Falcons performed the saddest, most public self-strangulation in sports history. And I couldn’t help it. I tried to ignore it, but my eyes kept darting up to the screen and that knot in my gut kept tightening, because I knew what was coming. It messed me up. I was physically getting angry.

And then, after about twenty minutes, I stopped and asked myself. Why are you watching it? You know what happens. You’ve gone through the heartbreak already. Your kids and your wife are right here with you in the here and now. Pay attention to themAnd I did. I’m not going to say I ignored the game entirely — the second half of that game was like a bad train wreck played out in slow motion, after all — but I did better. I noticed a bad pattern and I improved on it.

I’m not great at this. I’m not even particularly good at this. But I want to be better.

You know who’s really good at this?

Kids.

Both of my kids are Jedi masters when it comes to letting their emotions decay: my five-year-old son and my three-year-old daughter, both of whom can be proper terrors when they don’t get their way. I can send my son to time-out for anything from taking an unsavory tone with me or his mother to whacking his kid sister across the skull with a decorative figurine. He goes to his room scowling and howling, slams the door and buries his face in his blankets. Ten minutes later, I check on him, and not only has he completely calmed down, but sometimes he’s totally forgotten why he got time out in the first place. Or my daughter — she can have a full-on tantrum in the grocery store over not being allowed to buy another bag of rainbow Goldfish (laid on the ground, kicking, screaming, tears streaming down her face), and after just a couple of minutes buried, sobbing, in an adult’s shoulder (usually my wife’s), she’s got a smile on her face as she runs up and down the cereal aisle.

On the one hand, this short memory can be infuriating (you don’t even remember why you’re in trouble?), but on the other, it’s instructive. You never talk to a toddler who’s really having a rotten day because they got cut off in traffic. They don’t even remember what happened to them ten minutes ago. They don’t hold onto stuff, good or bad.

There’s a lesson in that. I’m not even going to bother tying it to writing this week; it’s a lesson we all need, and the lesson is to make like Elsa and let it go. Kids somehow intuitively know how to let stuff go, and somewhere along the line, we stress them out and they start holding onto their insecurities and their frustrations and all the things that upset them. Somehow we have to embrace the half-life of the tantrum. It’s okay to get pissed off, to get angry and upset and down on yourself. That stuff happens, and there’s probably no stopping it. But when it’s five hours later and you’re still replaying the moment when the jerko hipster on his cell phone jumped in front of you in line at the Kroger, you have to ask yourself — why is this still in my brain? It isn’t benefiting you in there. And it certainly isn’t still bouncing around in the hipster’s head. It’s only there because you’re keeping it there.

And we don’t have to keep it there.

Tough day at work? You’re home now, and you get another day tomorrow.

Friend said something that upset you? Either tell them about it and clear the air, or forget it — they probably already have — and move on.

Stubbed your toe yesterday and it still hurts? Well, that’s a bummer — but you don’t have to take it out on your wife and kids.

Pay attention to the thoughts that are banging around in your head. Sometimes all it takes is opening the windows to let the bad air out to give you a clean perspective.


Tone-Deaf White People


I’m not sure if I’m on high alert what with all the bad juju in the air, or if the stupid really is going around like a bad case of the clap, but today — TODAY ALONE — I bore firsthand witness to some serious stupidness on display from white people, particularly given the climate (can you call it the climate when it’s the past week we’re talking about?), or maybe just the weather, of the past week.

I’m talking specifically about the culture of rediscovered racial tension and unrest between civilians and police.

Look, it’s hard on white people. I don’t mean it’s hard on white people like it is on people who aren’t white. I mean we face our own series of challenges. Specifically, there are things we can’t understand and will have a hard time grasping just by dint of the fact that we’re white. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try, and it doesn’t mean we can’t stop and think about a thing before we slap our balls on the table and do the thing.

But the problem with people? Too many of us don’t think.

So, here are two balls-on-table moments that I witnessed TODAY.

#1:

Wife and I are out shopping at the Kroger. Early, no less — about 8 am. (This is the best time to shop, by the way. The aisles are largely empty, the employees are just beginning their shifts so they haven’t been filled to the brim with customers’ bullsharknado … it’s the best.) As we’re checking out, I look up.

And here comes this guy.

He’s older. Upper fifties, maybe early sixties. Overweight, but moving spryly, like an ex-NFL player or something. Cargo shorts. Hawaiian shirt. And a motherfargoing gun belt with a gun on each hip. One looks, I dunno, standard? I’m not a gun guy, but it looks like you expect a gun to look. The other gun is a straight-out-of-a-John-Wayne-cowboy-flick six-shooter pistol. He grabs a cart and scoots over toward the tomatoes. Guns just hanging off his hip.

I double take. Then triple take. I nudge my wife. Duck my head in the suburban cowboy’s direction. I ask the cashier: do you know that guy?

Oh yeah, she says, he comes in here all the time.

I blink. “Strapped up like that, though?”

She looks. Double takes. “No, can’t say I’ve ever seen him carrying any weapons.”

My wife and I share a look and beat it out of the store.

Look, I am sure this dude has all his permits in order. Maybe he’s retired military or police; I dunno. But here’s the thing: sure, you can have your guns. And I guess if you’ve got your open-carry business in order, that’s fine and swell. But you’re not flying TWO weapons — one of which is a bonafide antique — for self-defense. You’re flying two weapons, including the Wyatt Earp boomstick, to show out. Fly your 2nd Amendment flag. Let everybody know that you’re the dude who carries his guns to the grocery store.

And I couldn’t help but wonder two things:

Why do you need all that firepower on Sunday morning in the produce section? Are you planning on overthrowing a terrorist plot in the deli?

And what would have happened if he were NOT a white dude?

I mean, I blinked and stared a bit, but nobody else did, really. Just a white dude with his guns, NBD. But what if he were a black guy, or a Muslim wearing a head scarf? The cops would have have been on scene before he could squeeze an avocado.

Just a little bit of white privilege cruising toward the Frosted Flakes.

#2.

I was browsing facebook again (yeah, I know. What can I say, it’s summer) and I saw a post from a girl I went to high school with.

Turns out, she was out driving and went through a DUI checkpoint. Sped through it, actually. Got flagged over and screened for DUI. Which, okay, that happens, I guess. She gets put through the paces, but she’s one hundred percent sober, so of course she gets sent on her way with just a warning, despite the speeding.

Fine and dandy.

Here’s the tone-deaf part: she said that her nerves had her shaking, even though she was sober, and wrapped up with this: “He let me go without a ticket and thanked me for not driving drunk. Still processing the whole thing. I wonder what my rights were if I denied the test?”

She, a liberal. She, who, this very week, has posted her disgust over the needless killings that have spawned protests and outrage.

And all I could think was, you’ve got to be kidding. You entitled b-word.

How about THANKS FOR KEEPING MY STREETS SAFE, OFFICER.

How about THANKS FOR NOT SHOOTING ME DURING AN OTHERWISE ROUTINE TRAFFIC STOP.

How about THANK GOD I’M A WHITE FEMALE, HE LET ME OFF WITH JUST A WARNING.

How about maybe not posting something so horrifically tone-deaf complaining about a minor inconvenience in a week where, yet again, two black men were killed by police ON CAMERA. To say nothing of what may have happened off-camera.

You were inconvenienced for about ten minutes — because you were SPEEDING, by the way — and you are pondering your legal standing with the officer who had the audacity to delay you.

And even worse! The comments section was filled up with friends saying “glad you’re okay!” and “that sounds very scary!” …WHAT?  Glad you’re okay, as if she faced some harrowing experience that will haunt her for the rest of her days. That sounds scary, because anybody reading her story will think for any amount of time that she was in any amount of danger.

There were about a hundred things I wanted to say, that I didn’t, mostly due to not wanting to start a fight with somebody who’s been out of my life for almost twenty years now (and thank goodness, by the way, given this idiocy).

And also, my wife convinced me not to.

So I’ll just say it here.

Be glad you’re not black, or else you might have had real reason to be nervous at that traffic stop. Be glad you’re white, and can worry about your rights as you drive away from the encounter instead of being thankful you weren’t arrested or shot.

And more, along the same line, in all sorts of permutations and combinations.

We have to wake up.

Part of the reason race continues to be an issue in this country is because stupid white people don’t pause for a SECOND to think.

Think about the privilege we have.

Think about what life might be like for somebody who doesn’t share that privilege.

Think about what somebody without that privilege might think, seeing you doing the things that you do.

In short, start thinking about the bigger world, start thinking about more than what’s right in front of you, start thinking about what it might be to be somebody who isn’t you.

Better yet?

Just start thinking.

 


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