Airport Chapel

In his introduction to his own translation of Meditations, Gregory Hays observes about philosophy in the time of Marcus Aurelius,

Ancient philosophy certainly had its academic side. Athens and other large cities had publicly financed chairs of philosophy, and professional philosophers taught, argued, and wrote, as they do today. But philosophy also had a more practical dimension. It was not merely a subject to write or argue about, but one that was expected to provide a ‘design for living’—a set of rules to live one’s life by. This was a need not met by ancient religion, which privileged ritual over doctrine and provided little in the way of moral and ethical guidelines. Nor did anyone expect it to. That was what philosophy was for.

Is this true? Did the myths that Edith Hamilton describes in Mythology do so little to inform the daily habits of individuals? It does seem as if individuals had less say in how they spent their time. Maybe there was less need for instruction?

I’ve always wondered whether its monotheism was the innovation that made Judaism so fertile in the West. In light of Hays’s observation, was Judaism’s unique trick to intertwine the myths and rituals of religion with a set of detailed instructions, and a clever set of reasons to follow them? 

I was away from work for two weeks. One week of kata training, and one with the family. I had four objectives:

x Spend a lot of time with my mom.
x See my friend Val twice.
x See my grandfather twice.
x Do rituals every morning and evening.

It’s the last one I’m interested in here. I kept it easily enough in the hotel, and while staying with my mom. Meditate for ten minutes, read some Epictetus, do The Founder, write a few sentences. Before going to bed, review any notes I had written on scraps of paper and put in my pockets, and picture getting up  the next morning.

Driving to the Philadelphia airport was tricky. Sudden and heavy snow. Flights delayed. I got out of Philly a few hours late, not in time to make the connecting flight in St. Louis to Tulsa. But there was a flight the next morning at 06:55. The flight landed in St. Louis around 11:00, so I wasn’t going to leave the terminal and go to a hotel. 

I wandered around the terminal. Sat on a rocking chair, listened to the warning that the moving walkway was coming to an end.  Read part of a New Yorker article about Jim Simons and texted Brit to tell her that there was an article about Estonia. Read an article on my phone about how to sleep in an airport terminal, and one about Mehran Karimi Nasseri, the “Iranian refugee who lived in the departure lounge of Terminal One in Charles de Gaulle Airport from 26 August 1988 until July 2006….”

When I got up the next morning, I wondered what I should do. I thought of my rituals, and it seemed that I wouldn’t do that. But then I recalled that, wandering around the night before, I had passed an airport chapel. Of course I hesitated. Then I thought about Epictetus. Was he wrong? Should we maintain only a casual attitude toward our rituals? Are consistent, deliberately chosen habits conducive to mental health? Is BJ Fogg‘s research on Tiny Habits wrong? Do we not abandon ourselves, and make the world seem a little less reliable, each time we fail to follow through on our own intentions?

I didn’t know how to perform my rituals in the airport chapel, so I asked myself how I should walk there. I figured that out. Then I figured out how to open the door, etc. 


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.

Internal Inquiry and Optimism

      D. Is there anything for which you are more grateful than the question? 
      S. No.
      D. Why?
      S. Because it seems to be the one indespensible tool. 
      D. Can you give an anecdote?
      S. Yes. For years, I had been unable to maintain standards around daily behavior for more than a few months. I would start some new behavior and feel good about it, but anxiety, guilt, and doubt always crept in.
      For example, using checklists. I’ve used checklists, off and on, for fifteen years. But I’ve never maintained the practice. Why? Basically, the problem was that too often I either felt bad for checking a box, because there was some doubt whether my action met the standard, or I wasted time doing some activity that really wasn’t a priority at the time. In both cases, this was dispiriting. The habit went from exciting (an opportunity to do better, to be better) to unsustainable, sometimes over the course of a week.
      When I tried to correct this problem by setting clearer standards, I either felt bad for having lax standards, or again, if I set stringent standards, I either did not always meet the standards (and so could not check the box in good conscience) or I too frequently misspent my time doing a task, so that I could check a box, that wasn’t a priority at the time.
      D. Why have the checkbox item at all if taking the time to do it could be categorized as time misspent?
      S. Because circumstances aren’t the same every day. Having an item that is useful to perform 85% of the time, and always useful to have there, as a reminder, means that about once a week, it’s not the best use of your time. 
      My vocabulary, for most of my life, was constricted to description and despair.  I could describe how things were, and I could feel guilty about them. Occasionally I could have a bout of manic enthusiasm. When I finally figured out how to inquire, this problem was tidily solved. Now, I keep three daily checklists, and numerous others others that I reference for various tasks, and I have no problem completing them daily.
      D. Why?
      S. Because the criteria of success for most of them can be met in less than a minute, and whenever I feel as if I am not doing it correctly, I ask myself a question about it.
      D. For example?
      S.  Will I correct this problem next time
Do I need to go back and perform the action again now
Is the checklist item becoming irrelevant for some reason 
What do I need to do next time to make sure I earn the benefit of having this item, even if I don’t observe it diligently at this time
What are the minimum standards for checking this box
Am I at risk of developing a bad habit
      These questions stick with me. The next day, if I was lax with an item last time, I am diligent this time. The questions reduce my anxiety. It’s as if the anxiety were an unasked question.
      D. How do you answer them?
      S. Often, I don’t. Or there is an implied yes or no. Often the question guides an action, or anticipates a mental note. For example, If I have been diligent with one item and lax with another, I swap priorities next time. The mental note I make to do that is anticipated by at least question—am I being lax in performing this task? Is that OK? I will spend longer on it tomorrow. 
      D. Why can’t those be statements? Why not, I am being lax. I will be more diligent next time.
      S. It’s as if making the statement is forcing it on myself. Meaning, one part of me is making a declaration to the rest of me. My mind has so many modules. To let one declare to the rest what is going on increases my nervousness. So instead, I ask the group, the components of myself. Because the benefit is in the long-run. Honestly struggling with time management, and investigating the best course, and failing—these are sustainable if you are curious, if this process interests you. If you instead just view these challenges, which are inherent to time management, as personal failures, and if you fail to see the questions inherent in the challenges, you’ll just feel despair. By you I mean me. The royal you.
      It is better to perform your ritual sustainably than to make it so onerous that your willpower fails you. It’s one thing to know this. But I do not know of a way of applying it without asking myself questions as I go. Making statements to myself increases the anxiety, because they are always so doubtful. I can rarely come up with a convincing statement on the spot. Trying makes it worse. But rarely does it take even three mental drafts to come up with a satisfying question. Having done so, I feel at ease to move one, knowing that my subconscious will work on it for me if it matters.
      D. Can you give me examples of questions that you find comforting?
      S. When will I stop again? What will be the reason why I stop? For how long will I stop? What will my feeling be during that time? When I pick it back up, what will that be like? Will I still be productive during the period in which I am not maintaining checklists? Will it be because I developed a better method? What will prompt me to pick it back up? Will it be guilt, inspiration, or boredom?
      D. What do you do when you feel that your habit is slipping? That your standards are eroding, or that you are not getting the benefit of the habit?
      S. I ask myself if that’s true and what I can do about it.