Every Effort is Inadequate, Thank God

This week, I have been productive. Also, last week.

Inquiry is the Prime Virtue
This is also an update on my back in regard to Dr. Sarno’s book Healing Back Pain. My back felt pain after eleven hours at the office. In the mode of Sarno, I asked myself what precisely I was feeling. Was it pain, actually? I started a session to clean the kitchen. Right away, I had an impulse to listen to Meshuggah. Once Meshuggah was playing, I began thrashing about, jumping and hurling my torso to and fro. The pain went away. What I had been feeling was stiffness.

Note that in the past I would have rested on a heating pad for this same symptom.

The template I am using for sessions right now is to turn a sheet of paper landscape, and draw a t across it.

On the front I write If in the top left shoulder of the t, and Then in the top right. Beneath the Then, I write my intended outcome, my expectation, my prediction…whatever–the future–maybe the standard by which I will inspect the outcome–how I’ll know it worked.

For example:

If Then

I do such and such…
Here, if I have a standard process, I name it, otherwise just describe the steps or method I intend to perform.

This is the independent variable. In the dichotomy of control, this is what I can control.

…such and such will be the outcome. I often write this section before writing the If section.

This is the dependent variable. In the dichotomy of control, this is what I can’t. I can only influence it.

Of course, I’m looking for causation.


On the back, I write a t, and write Inspect on the top left shoulder of the t, and Reflect on the top write shoulder of it.

For example:

Inspect Reflect
What actually happened. Did I learn anything?

The square denotes a session. This is a standard method, so I don’t consider it an experiment. It’s just a time box with some inquisitiveness to it because I felt demotivated. I had felt very demotivated right before starting it. I was also trying to decide whether to drive to OKC to visit friends. I was lethargic and did not even want to think about that decision.

Stand-up Meetings, working in teams
At work, we have been using Microsoft Teams. It accepts copy-pasted tables from Word very well. For working with people remotely, I have been using a daily standup format like this:

Goal 1 Goal 2 Goal 3

Aim: what is this task in service of, at a high level?  Is there a defined project? Is there a principle you’re attempting to adhere to? This can be a direction, a vision, or a summary task. 

Whatever this is, it’s big and distant.

Aim: Aim:

Objective: what is the desired outcome or output of this task. This is the dependent variable, the thing you can influence but not directly control.

If this is a standard process (say, a meeting), what is the standard by which you judge the output? If this is more experimental, what is your prediction?

Whatever this is, it’s smaller and closer than the Aim, and it is aligned with it.

Objective: Objective:
Method: what will you be doing? This is the independent variable, what you can control, or at least relatively. Is there a standard method, or is this experimental? If it’s an experiment, what, precisely, is the testing procedure? Method: Method:
Inspect: what actually happened? If you used a standard method, did it produce the intended outcome? If this was experimental, what was the result, contrasted with your prediction? Inspect: Inspect:
Reflect: did you learn anything? What does this imply for next steps? If you used a standard method, does it still seem to work fine, or does the output indicate the method needs improved? Reflect: Reflect:

I have been using three priority goals per week, and three priority goals per day. This doesn’t account for all of my work, obviously. It’s just what I choose as the priority and what I choose to report on.

I leave the Reflect field blank sometimes.

Everything is Unsatisfactory
In this cycle of hypomania, what grounds me is to not love any process, any method, any form, any piece of paper, any session, any experience. All anything is worth is its relative effectiveness at aligning our behavior with an aim. 

What is my aim? I don’t want us to go extinct. I don’t want us to use up our fossil fuel before developing adequate renewable energy to run the desalinization units we will need when we drain and contaminate all of the aquifers. I don’t want us to already have created an AI arms race. I don’t want for us to be so stupid as to act as if we can care about and be effective in multiple causes at once, talking about every fucking gossipy social or political concern that crosses our awareness, never mind our imminent extinction. 

So, yes, I enjoyed cleaning my kitchen, but I am able to hold some perspective.

But what is my aim, actually? Something like aligning my efforts with increasing critical thinking and continuous improvement so that people’s individual lives (the microcosm) create, from the ground up, a sustainable system. 

Clearly I don’t know how. But thinking this way takes the edge off the hypomania. I keeps me inquiring – what can I do in regards to us being about to collectively kill ourselves?

So I am looking into changing industries and continuing to make moves towards coaching individuals to be more effective in their daily lives.

The why is what I have had a hard time with, still, but I am not avoiding it now.


The Epictetus quote that I have recited the past several mornings is,

“Whatever rules you have adopted, abide by them as laws, and as if you would be impious to transgress them; and do not regard what anyone says of you, for this, after all, is none of your concern.”

What does it mean? First, it implies that you should adopt rules for yourself, and that you should do so very carefully. You wouldn’t pass laws that you didn’t think that you could follow. You wouldn’t enter into a religion the gods of which set impossible standards. So think your rules through.

It implies, also, that you should have a process for adopting rules. Use a process of experimentation on any  rule before adopting it. You should also have a process for eliminating a rule that, because of changing circumstances, is no longer serving its intended purpose. Only remove a rule from your list when you are calm, and not at the precise time that you are supposed to be following it. You never want to set yourself up for failure by having the option of abolishing the rule on the spot.

What does it imply that you should do when you transgress a rule? Should you flagellate yourself, or put yourself behind bars? No, but you should think hard and make serious plans to ensure that you don’t transgress it again. Ask yourself what you should do. Transgression should be a prompt for reflection. What was your intention when you adopted the rule? What outcome does it assist you in achieving or avoiding? Why did you transgress it? What, mentally, was going on at the time? What externally? What, done differently leading up to the event, would have prevented it? What about precisely when it occurred? Were there negative practical repercussions? What did you do about those? What should you have done? 

I use the mental technique of going back and visualizing myself not transgressing the rule. I play the scene leading up to it just as I remember it, but when it comes to the critical moment, I make the right decision. If I transgressed any rules that led to this one, then I correct those in the memory, too.

If there are behaviors that I engaged in that made me more likely to transgress the rule, I run another visualization in which I engage in safer behaviors. 

How do I know when a rule applies? As always, practice. When I lie down at night, and when I hear the alarm in the morning, I perform a simple exercise. I have a rule for going to bed and for getting up, and its primary purpose is to remind me to identify situations in which a standard applies, and to apply it:

  1. I put my thumb to my first finger, and ask questions like: what’s the standard (rule) for this behavior? (Or, when I’m trying to achieve such and result, what’s the process? Or, when such and such occurs, how do I respond? What’s the output standard? Are there input standards?)
  2. thumb to second: do it.
  3. thumb to third: what was the result? Did my performance (process) match the standard? Did my product (output) match the standard? Did the inputs meet their standards? If they didn’t, what did I do about it?
  4. thumb to fourth: do the standards need updated, or are they still correct?

This takes less than 10 seconds. By practicing it before going to bed, and right when I wake up, I ingrain it.

When I’m performing an action for which I can’t think of a standard, but suspect that I should develop one, I perform the hand mnemonic in reverse:

  1. thumb to fourth (finger): what am I trying to achieve? What don’t I understand? What question is most relevant? What experiment can I perform? What is my mental model of this situation? Can I make a prediction based on it? What do I predict will happen if I perform such and such?
  2. thumb to third: do it.
  3. thumb to second: what did I see? What is the data? What did I predict would happen? What actually happened. (Obviously, this is an adaptation of Mike Rother’s language.)
  4. thumb to the first: what can I extrapolate from this? Can I create a standard (a rule) from what I learned? Do I need to do additional experiments? What else do I need to learn? 

These are the SDCA and the PDCA.

As an aside, in his new book Mike Rother observes that PDCA remains jargon, and we’re probably better off using common terms like prediction→ test → data → evaluation. Think about it. Shewhart developed the PDCA as a specific industrial application of the scientific approach. Over the years, we’ve expanded its use to include all kinds of empirical modalities. So why not just go back to the plain language of science and empiricism? 

Also, when I break a rule, my primary technique for addressing it is asking myself questions about the situation. I’m not particularly hard on myself, because I know that if I make the process too unpleasant, I could lapse. Sustainability is the priority. I favor honest assessment over strict adherence. I seem to answer honestly when I ask questions about my adherence to my rules. And assertions are more impactful when they are framed by a question. 42.

Experimental Fiction

The light is failing early again. A kind of death seems present. 

Essay one in Chödrön’s collection When Things Fall Apart starts with this sentence: Embarking on the spiritual journey is like getting into a very small boat and setting out on the ocean to search for unknown lands.

Later she assures us:

Nothing is what we thought. I can say that with great confidence. Emptiness is not what we thought. Neither is mindfulness or fear. Compassion—not what we thought. Love. Buddha nature. Courage. These are code words for things we don’t know in our minds, but any of us could experience them. These are words that point to what life really is when we let things fall apart and let ourselves be nailed to the present moment.

Pema Chödrön
When Things Fall  Apart

Good thing, because otherwise we might bristle at a contradiction that appears over and over in essays on Buddhism: what are we to make of stories? Yes or no? Good or bad? The explicit verdict seems to be in the negative: don’t tell them. Pay attention only to the present, drop all stories. What’s more, the self is a fiction, and you ought to stop it telling it. It’s our stories that confuse us about reality. Reality doesn’t tell stories; we do. In this same essay, Chödrön observes,
During a long retreat, I had what seemed to me the earth-shaking revelation that we cannot be in the present and run our story lines at the same time! It sounds pretty obvious, I know, but when you discover something like this for yourself, it changes you. 
But, hiding in plain sight, is another message. Stories are ubiquitous in these essays. Hardly a principle is offered that is not delivered by a clever episode. In this same essay, she tells a wonderful, vivid story about a man who sits up all night, terrorized by a cobra. It ends in what appears to be his enlightenment. Why tell it? It’s not for us to emulate the hero? Is the story not pointing towards a path? Why are we told the story of the Buddha? Each suttra, as far as I know, is framed in a narrative structure. Why is the whole tradition not simply a series of instructions, with no characters or narrative?

Besides stories, are the various Buddhist traditions opposed to critical thinking, the socratic method, reason and experimentation? What do you think? If it’s true that every time a thought comes to mind when you are meditating, you are supposed to note it and return your attention back to your breath, what’s the Buddhist attitude towards cogitation? And if throughout the day, you are to mindfully address 100% of your attention to what is right in front of you, when are you supposed to reason? What would Socrates do if he met Siddhartha? Meditating on a koan isn’t reasoning, is it? 

Of course, when we ask it this way, we are pointed to the answer: clearly it’s more complicated than this. It must be both. A place for stories, a place to drop them. Stephen Batchelor describes his experience in the Tibetan tradition studying, translating, and debating finer details of the practice. And in his recent work Secular Buddhism, he addresses this topic directly. He answers that there is more than enough time for intellectual pursuits in diligent a mindfulness practice.  But why did my reading of other authors leave such a strong impression that their diagnosis was that I was thinking too much? I was an even poorer  inquisitor then. If I were to read them again, these questions in mind, would I find answers?

If only someone were always there to remind me to inquire and to investigate, I wouldn’t be left looking back at my tracks in wonder. But what a dismal story  if only is. 

So what are we supposed to do with stories, then? If not distract ourselves by telling them to ourselves throughout the day, should we engage in experimental fiction?
Absorb the stories our parents tell us, and then we try to tell our own?
But, being the hero, we have to learn the story as we go.
We can’t be always telling it.
It’s happening.
Premeditation, meditation, and postmeditation.
Periodically, when our eyelids are getting heavy, or while we are on a familiar path to and from work, we can contrast our character with that of the hero. Is our story growing more like theirs or less? Are we living a story that will someday be worth telling? Are we even trying to?

On this Shunryu Suzuki, the Stoics, and John Dewey all share a common message: strive to develop your character, to become different than you are, but always wholly accept who you are in this instant. It’s who you are now that you have to deal with. This is the brain that has to take the next step, to ask the next question, to investigate. Attempting to reject the present self in favor of the future self probably isn’t much more effective than rejecting what you could become in favor of what you are now.

Chödrön conjures Christian imagery when she advises us to be nailed to the present moment. Earlier on, she says:

There’s not going to be much room for the arrogance that holding onto ideals can bring. The arrogance that inevitably does arise is going to be continually shot down by our own courage to step forward a little further. The kinds of discoveries that are made through practice have nothing to do with believing in anything. They have much more to do with having the courage to die, the courage to die continually.

But how do we do that? And are we sure this is the right approach? In his book The Time Paradox, the eminent psychologist and author Philip Zimbardo found in his research that those who are the happiest and most productive spend a significant amount of time in their memory. Though he explicitly states that his research of people’s perspective of time is Western-centric and does not consider the elongated present that advanced meditators experience, his battery of orientations is very similar to the negative-positive dichotomy of sensations, though his is towards temporal modes:

  • Past-negative
  • Past-positive
  • Present-fatalistic
  • Present-hedonistic
  • Future
  • Transcendental-future

Another present-oriented time zone can be called the Holistic Present. It involves training to live one’s life in the present moment and to include past and future in an expanded state of focus on the present. Such a time sense is central to Zen Buddhism, and Zen meditative practices are one means of achieving this unique state of consciousness. Because it is less common in western than eastern cultures and is rather vague in its components, we did not include it in our […] assessment.

Philip Zimbardo, John Boyd
The Time Paradox

Zimbardo’s research found that people who were the happiest and most successful were highly past-positive, moderately present-hedonistic, and moderately-high future-oriented.  What struck me most about this book was how much our attitude toward the past affects our success in planning and engaging in future-oriented behavior.  And isn’t a story a mode of memory? 

But what does Chödrön mean by “step forward a little” and “the courage to die continually”? I’m sure these metaphors point to innumerable phenomena, among them literally stepping forward—say, at a party, or in a confrontation—or literally risking your life. The ones that seem most apt lately have to do with inquiry and experimentation.  In that instant, you are putting a frame where there is no picture. You are stepping forward where there is no ground.  Questions are inherently future-oriented. One can end with a statement. A statement can stop a conversation. Questions carry us forward. Speakers who end with a question are, in a way, not ending. They are spinning off. Asking questions is difficult, so you must reinforce the behavior. After you ask the question, after you investigate, after you experience the frustration of facing what you don’t know and struggling to finding out, you should reflect approvingly on the behavior. Observe the whole process. See how you went from ignorance to edification. Celebrate it, and set that as your standard for future challenges. This is, of course, the PDCA cycle. It’s also storytelling. 

And it isn’t all sunny. What will we do when the aquifers run dry? We could desalinate seawater, but using what energy source? Will we effectively replace carbon fuel with renewable energy before the former run out? How hot is it going to get, and how soon? Will there be air conditioning? And when is this capitalism religion going to wane? And what will replace it?

I think the reason for the recent surge in popularity of Stoicism, besides Christianity being on the decline and people looking around for a philosophy of life to replace it, is people sense that we’re going to need some grit in the coming years. The self-indulgent dysphoria and ennui we developed in the last half of the twentieth century is going to get us killed in the twenty-first.

And even then it doesn’t completely work. Chödrön claims 

Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. 

And yet how is life a good friend to the billions of humans who live short, miserable lives? What is it teaching them before it kills them? And what’s the point, when they’re dead before they had a chance to make use of the lesson? J.L. Schellenberg, in his philosophical attempt to find a way in which a religious perspective on life could be worthwhile, observes that there is no way to say that life is inherently meaningful if there is no afterlife of some sort, because of the billions of people whose life is simply too short and brutal to conceivably meet our standards of what meaning could be. If significant soteriological redemption is available to all sentient beings, there must be some kind of rebirth or afterlife, because it’s plainly not made available to every human. 

So, say Chödrön is right. Say life is a good friend. That must mean except when it isn’t, and it must mean that we are responsible for one another, because if I see people suffering in a way that prevents them from engaging in the behaviors that I think are necessary for life to be worthwhile (having meaningful work, some free time, some creature comfort, books, the ability to talk things through with friends, an understanding of the Logos) then that means I should try to intervene. Not that I can do it in time. Not that billions won’t be born and die in misery meanwhile. Some friend. Maybe I need to rethink what the word means? It’s not a human friend, after all. And if life is a good friend, what kind of story is this?