Book notes: The Miracle of Mindfulness

The Miracle of Mindfulness:
An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation
by Thich Nhat Hanh

Chapter 1: The Essential Discipline

My Time

Instead of compartmentalizing time in to “my time” and “family time” make all time “my time.”

Story about family vs my time:

“I’ve discovered a way to have a lot more time. In the past, I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts. One part I reserved for my child, another part was for my wife, another part to help with our newborn, another part for household work. The left over I considered my own. I could read, write, do research, go for walks.”

“But now I try not to divide time into parts anymore. I consider my time with my children and wife as my own time. When I help my child with his homework, I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time. I go through his lesson with him, sharing his presence and finding ways to be interested in what we do during that time. The time for him becomes my own time. The same with my wife. The remarkable thing is that now I have unlimited time for myself!”


Washing the dishes to wash the dishes

Don’t wash dishes to have clean dishes. Wash them to wash dishes. Focus on the process, not the outcome.

If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that waits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands.


Eating a tangerine

Becoming so immersed in talking about future plans while eating a tangerine is like “eating” the future plans.

A tangerine has sections. If you can eat just one section, you can probably eat the entire tangerine. But if you can’t eat a single section, you cannot eat the tangerine.


Chapter Two: The Miracle is to Walk on Earth

To have “unlimited my time” you must constantly recognize that this is your time. This is mindfulness, keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality. You must practice this not just in meditation sessions, but in one’s daily life.

When you are walking along a path leading into a village, you can practice mindfulness. Keep the thought: “I’m walking along the path leading into the village.” If really engaged then we will consider the act of each step we take as an infinite wonder, and a joy will open our hearts like af lower, enabling us to enter the world of reality.

On miracles:

People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child—our own two eyes. All is a miracle

How to go through daily hardships and responsibilities of life?

Keep your attention focused on the work, be alert and ready to handle ably and intelligently any situation which may arise—this is mindfulness.

It is a means and an end, the seed and the fruit. When practicing to build up concentration, mindfulness is a seed. But presence of mindfulness is the presence of life, and therefore is also the fruit.

Breath

Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again. Remain conscious through the whole breath-body.

Walking alone it is easy to concentrate. But walking with someone it is harder. Don’t resist, but concentrate on the conversation and the walk at same time.

Hardest of all is to practice the Way at home, second in the crowd, and third in the pagoda. —Vietnamese folk song

The breath is the bridge from our body to our mind.

A person who knows how to breath is a person who knows how to build up endless vitality: breath builds up the lungs, strengthens the blood, and revitalizes every organ in the body.


Chapter Three: A Day of Mindfulness

Devote one day a week to being fully mindful.

Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the whole earth revolves—slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. Only this actual moment is life. Don’t be attached to the future. Don’t worry about things you have to do. Don’t think about getting up or taking off to do anything. Don’t think about “departing.”


Chapter Four: The Pebble

If you want to relax the worry-tightened muscles in your face, let the half smile come to your face. As the half smile (aka indeterminate smile) appears, all the facial muscles begin to relax. The longer the half smile is maintained, the better.

Imagine yourself as a pebble thrown into a river. The pebble sinks through the water effortlessly. Detached from everything, it falls by the shortest distance possible, finally reaching the bottom, the point of perfect rest. You are the pebble. At the center of your being is your breath. When you feel yourself resting like a pebble which has reached the riverbed, that is the point when you begin to find your own rest.

Once one has realized relaxation, it is possible to go deeper and realize a tranquil heart and clear mind.

We also must practice mindfulness of our feelings and perceptions:

If the practitioner knows his own mind clearly he will obtain results with little effort. But if he does not know anything about his own mind, all of his effort will be wasted. But if he does not know anything about his own mind, all of his effort will be wasted.

Acknowledge feelings and note it.

The Guard at the Emperor’s Gate:

Whatever feelings or thought enters through the gate, you are aware of its entrance, and when it leaves, you are aware of its exit. But those that enter and exit are no different from the guard of the gate. Our thoughts and feelings are us.

When we are angry, we ourselves are anger. When we are happy, we ourselves are happiness. When we have certain thoughts, we are those thoughts. We are both the guard and the visitor at the same time. We are both the mind and the observer of the mind. Therefore, chasing away or dwelling on any thought isn’t the important thing. The important things is to be aware of the thought.

Monkey and Shadow:

The mind is like a monkey swinging from branch to branch through a forest. In order not to lose sight of the monkey by some sudden movement, we must watch the monkey constantly and even to be one with it. Mind contemplating mind is like an object and its shadow—the object cannot shake the shadow off. The two are one. Wherever the mind goes, it still lies in the harness of the mind. Once the mind is directly and continually aware of itself, it is no longer like a monkey. There are not two minds.

Eventually drinking a cup of tea, the seeming distinction between the one who drinks and the tea being drunk evaporates. Drinking a cup of tea becomes a direct and wondrous experience in which the distinction between subject and object no longer exists.


Chapter Five: One is All, All is One: The Five Aggregates

The subject of knowledge cannot exist independently from the object of knowledge. To see is to see something. To be angry is to be angry over something. When the object of knowledge (the something) is not present, there can be no subject of knowledge. So when there is nothing to thinking about, there is no thinking.

When we practice mindfulness of the body, then the knowledge of body is mind. Same for breath. Every object of the mind is itself mind. Therefore the contemplation of the the nature of interdependence of all objects is also the contemplation of the mind. The objects of mind are the dharmas.

There are five dharmas (or five aggregates):

  1. bodily and physical forms
  2. feelings
  3. perceptions
  4. mental functionings
  5. consciousness

Contemplation on interdependence is a deep looking into all dharmas in order to pierce through to their real nature, in order to see them as part of the great body of reality and in order to see that the great body of reality is indivisible. It cannot be cut into pieces with separate existences of their own.

Example of a table:

The table’s existence is possible due to the existence of things which we might call “the non-table world”: the forest where the wood grew and was cut, the carpenter, the iron ore which became the nails and screws, the sun and rain which made it possible for the trees to grow.

If you took away any of those non-table elements then table would no longer exist.

A person who looks at the table and can see the universe is a person who can see the way. You meditate on the assembly of the five aggregates in yourself in the same manner. You meditate on them until you are able to see the presence of the reality of one-ness in your own self, and can see that your own life and the life of the universe are one. If the five aggregates return to their sources, the self no longer exists.

Liberation from Suffering

People normally cut reality into compartments, and so are unable to see the interdependence of all phenomena. To see one in all and all in one is to break through the great barrier which narrows one’s perception of reality, a barrier which Buddhism calls the attachment to the false view of self.

We are only alive when we live the life of the world, and so live the sufferings and joys of others. The suffering of others is our own suffering, and the happiness of others is our own happiness. If our lives have no limits, the assembly of the five aggregates which makes up our self also has no limits. The impermanent character of the universe, the successes and failures of life can no longer manipulate us. Having seen the reality of interdependence and entered deeply into its reality, nothing can oppress you any longer. You are liberated.

Meditation on interdependence is to be practiced constantly, as an integral part of our involvement in all ordinary tasks. We must learn to see that the person in front of us is ourself and that we are that person.

Meditate on Death and a Corpse

We must look death in the face, recognize and accept it, just as we look at and accept life.

Meditate on the decomposition of the body, how the body bloats and turns violet, how it is eaten by worms until only bits of blood and flesh still cling to the bones, meditate up to the point where only white bones remain, which in turn are slowly worn away and turn into dust. Meditate like that, knowing that your own body will undergo the same process. Meditate on the corpse until you are calm and at peace, until your mind and heart are light and tranquil and a smile appears on your face. Thus, by overcoming revulsion and fear, life will be seen as infinitely precious, every second of it worth living. And it is not just our own lives that are recognized as precious, but the lives of every other person, every other being, every other reality. We see that life and death are but two face of Life and that without both, Life is not possible, just as two sides of a coin are needed for the coin to exist. Only now is it possible to rise above birth and death, and to know how to live and how to die.


Chapter 6: The Almond Tree in Your Front Yard

Reality has three natures: imagination, interdependence, and the nature of ultimate perfection.

The meditation on interdependence is to help one penetrate reality in order to be one with it, not to become caught up in philosophical opinion or meditation methods. The raft is used to cross the river. It isn’t to be carried around on your shoulders. The finger which points at the moon isn’t the moon itself.

Practice looking at all beings with the eyes of compassion: “the meditation on compassion.”

It must be realized during the hours you sit and during every moment you carry out service for others.

While sitting you may be at peace and totally relaxed. But you must be awake as a person walking on high stilts. Be like a medieval knight walking weaponless in a forest of swords. Only with this kind of vigilance can you realize total awakening.

When possessed by sadness, anxiety, hatred, or a passion, the method of pure observation and recognition may be difficult. Turn to meditation on a fixed object. Using your ownn state of mind as meditation’s subject. This reveals and heals. The sadness under the gaze of concentration and meditation reveals its own nature.

Don’t worry if those around you aren’t doing their best. Just worry about how to make yourself worthy. Doing your best is the surest way to remind those around you to do their best.

When a great Master is born, the water in the rivers turns clearer and the plants grow greener.


Chapter 7: Three Wondrous Answers

The emperor thinks that knowing the answers to these questions will prevent him from straying in a matter:

  • What is the best time to do each thing?
  • Who are the most important people to work with?
  • What is the most important thing to do at all times?

Story about the emperor visiting the hermit and the assassin

The moral: there is only one important time and that is now. The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion. The most important person is always the person you are with, who is right before you, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future? The most important pursuit is making the person standing at your side happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life.

***We talk about social service, service to humanity, helping to bring peace to the world—but often we forget that it is the very people around us that we must live for first of all.***

Service

The word “service” is so immense. Let’s be modest at first: our families, friends, coworkers, community. We must live for them—for if we cannot live for them, whom else do we think we are living for?

How can we live in the present moment, live right now with the people around us, helping to lessen their suffering and making their lives happier? How? We must practice mindfulness.


 

Exercises in Mindfulness

Half smile and inhale and exhale three times quietly when:

  • when waking up: hang Smile sign above your head
  • during free moments: sitting, looking at a child, walking, observing
  • listening to music: pay attention to the words, music, rhythm, sentiments
  • irritated

Other exercises:

  • Letting go in a lying-down position
  • Letting go in the sitting position
  • Deep breathing
  • Measuring your breath by your footsteps
  • Following your breath while listening to music
  • Following your breath while carrying on a conversation
  • Breathing to quiet the mind and body to realize joy
  • Mindfulness of the positions of the body
  • Mindfulness while making tea
  • Washing the dishes
  • Washing clothes
  • Cleaning house
  • A slow-motion bath
  • The pebble: think of yourself as pebble falling through clear stream
  • A day of mindfulness
  • Contemplation on interdependence: find child photo and ask “Who am I?” through the lens of the five aggregates
  • Yourself: say “I will use my finger to point at myself” and then point away from myself. See that you are the universe and the universe is you. There is no life and death.
  • Your skeleton: imagine all that is left of your body is a white skeleton lying on the face of the earth 80 years after burial. See it vividly. Your bodily form is not you. Be at one with life. Live eternally in the trees and grass, birds, beasts. You are present everywhere. You are not only bodily form, feelings, thoughts, actions, and knowledge.
  • Your true visage before you were born: concentrate on your life’s beginning. It is also the point of beginning of your death. They have manifested at the same time.
  • A loved one who has died: think of decomposition and interactions with that person
  • Emptiness: contemplate the nature of emptiness in the assembly of the five aggregates
  • Compassion for the person you hate or despise the most
  • Suffering caused by the lack of wisdom
  • Detached action: contemplate on a project you consider important
  • Detachment: recall your significant achievements and realize they are a convergence of various conditions beyond your reach. You will now be bound to these achievements
  • Contemplation of non-abandonment: see that everything is impermanent yet wondrous
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Book notes: The Miracle of Mindfulness

Book notes: The Mindful Way to Study

The Mindful Way to Study
Dancing with Your Books
by Jake Gibbs

Chapter 3: Meditation and Mind Development

Most people in the world operate at a level that is a mix between low-level rationality and the stage below, characterized by concrete rather than abstract thinking.

Meditation influences rationality. In one study, it those who meditated made more rational decisions when faced with a decision-making situation.

Those who are mindful are better at letting go of thoughts and feeling that are irrelevant to the decision than are those who do not practice mindfulness.

As we move up in our level of mind our perspective broadens, our compassion and concern deepens, and our problem-solving ability expands.

The stage above the rational is called integrative logic, vision, logic, or creative logic. It’s the ability to truly comprehend and integrate multiple perspectives to develop better solutions.

Mindfulness meditation helps us to develop our capacity to pay attention, which assists in learning no matter what we are trying to learn at any level.


Chapter 6: Dancing With Your Books

Truly learning to dance with your books requires that you develop the ability to focus on the task of learning or the dance itself without constantly shifting your attention to the results of your effort. Thinking about yourself while dancing interferes with your performance. It takes your attention away from the activity of dancing. You must simply get of of your own way so that your attention is on learning.

Learning to dance with your books requires that you become less self-centered and results-focused and more task-centered or process-focused.

If you start thinking of yourself performing it interrupts your rhythm and takes them out of their flow.

Avoid time-place dissonance which occurs when the activity ou are supposed to perform is in the present, but your mind is on the future, where you will receive the potential return on your investment of effort.

Moving the reward from intrinsic to extrinsic (getting paid for something that you previously did for the joy of it) ruins the satisfaction of it when extrinsic rewards are reduced or have adapted to them.


Chapter 7: Qualifying External Rewards and Results

The best way to attain some extrinsic objective is to pay attention to what you have to do to get them. This way it’s possible to get the intrinsic or inherent satisfaction from what you’re doing in the present and the extrinsic satisfaction in the future for doing it.

Intrinsic rewards are more influential than extrinsic rewards in promoting performance, enthusiasm, creativity, and a sense of personal control. So a process orientation on means is more important than a results orientation on ends.

In Buddhism, Right Effort is a process-centered approach to doing any task and an approach to life. It’s best to stay anchored in the present where life’s difficulties and joys are experienced. "Right" means appropriate, effective, or wise. The practices of Right Effort and Right Meditation help us to be where we are or to stay in the present moment. They are about paying full attention to what we are supposed to be doing this moment, e.g., studying when we study or sitting when we sit.

Right Effort and focusing attention is not something that can be forced but must be practiced.

A better way than forcefully trying to attend to the present or pushing out past and future thoughts is to adopt an accepting frame of mind that allows you to relax or settle in to the moment. When you become aware of thoughts and feelings that are not directly relevant to the task at hand, note them without judging them, and gently let them be. Your mind will eventually let them go.


Chapter 8: Right Meditation

One of the most widely used definitions of mindfulness is "…paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally."

There is nothing wrong with discursive thought as long as we only give it the attention it deserves. When a chattering, drifting mind gets int he way of doing what needs to be done and keeps us off track, it is an impediment to effective performance and attaining our goals.


Chapter 10 – 20: Gumption

There is no separation between person and task while working. This absorption in the task produces Quality, and the attitude that promotes Quality as gumption.

Gumption is like Right Effort, it means that you are aware of reality and embrace it. You do what needs to be done without sniveling, self-pity, or self-indulgence. You don’t waste your time wishing things were different. When you have gumption, you meet the world on its terms in all its complexity and beauty in each moment.

Gumption Traps:

Gumption traps are obstacles to approaching tasks with Right Effort. The most general advice on handling these traps is that s soon as you realize one has grabbed you, consider it a sign that you are being unmindful.

One of the biggest impediments to practicing the techniques is remembering to do it. Use post-it notes, etc to overcome this.


1. Ego – keeps your mind from learning what is before you , and they direct all your attention on you.

Use the "I" Drop practice to diminish the ego:

  • First, recognize that you are thinking of "I" instead of driving or riding. This reduces chance of full-blown "I" episode by connecting a bunch of "I" thoughts.
  • Second, let "I" be.
  • Third, return your full attention to what you are doing.

"I" knows that if he can convince you that the way to forget "I" is to actively not think of "I" then he has you. To not think of "I" is to think of "I."


2. Value and Conceptual Rigidity – occurs when your opinion and perspective preclude you from seeing things in a new light or appreciating something new. You reject anything that doesn’t fit in with your view.

With Beginner’s Mind, you enter a situation without rigidly held preconceptions. You’re ready for anything because you’re open to everything.

Value and conceptual rigidity can cause prejudging courses and not even giving it a chance.


3. Anxiety – nervousness or worry about performance and its consequences gets in the way of performing well. Worrying how you look in others eyes takes your attention away from what you’re doing. One way to deal with this is to keep your attention on the task itself. To do this simply practice.

Three areas where anxiety can be troublesome: asking professors questions, presentations, and taking tests.

Asking Questions:The practice of not asking questions destroys gumption.

Presentations:
Fear of public speaking is common. The source of anxiety when presenting is a focus on results, especially on how we will look or what the audience will think of our performance. Prepare! And then follow the prescriptions of Right Effort. Focus on what you are doing not on yourself. Note distractions, observe them, and move on.

Tips: pick a sympathetic face in the audience and focus on him. Or imagine everyone is a baby.


4. Boredom

Mindset is important, understand the meaning of the work. You’re not laying bricks—you’re building a cathedral.

Take breaks.

Multitasking is not an antidote: Once you learn to pay attention to the activity of the moment, you can do it better in less time, and what you are doing becomes more interesting and satisfying.

Go ahead and daydream when your time is not otherwise occupied. But when focusing, recognize these distractions and gently return to task.


5. Lack of Energy and Interest

What’s the sense of even starting? Why not wail until some other time when you know you have the energy and interest to carry you through?

Lack of energy is a symptom of a lack of mindfulness.

Low confidence: If you are unsure of your ability to sustain the level of vitality needed to do the job, then accept whatever shortcomings you perceive, surrender to the task, and get on with the job.

  • Don’t make the mistake of checking with your feelings to see if you should begin or continue a project. You shouldn’t ask permission to start or continue based on reserves of energy and motivation.

Don’t even try a yes-or-no answer. SIMPLY MOVE AHEAD.

Energy is LIMITLESS.

Limitless Source of Energy Visualization: visualize as you breath in that you inhale the energy of the universe into your body and mind. Let its force surge through you so that you feel restored, refreshed, and invigorated. Imagine that you share in the infinite energy of the universe.


6. Impatience

Occurs when you underestimate how log task takes to complete. You should plan a modest amount of work, and give yourself plenty of time to do it.

Break down the job into manageable parts, and give time without rushing.

Waiting to the last minute by convincing yourself that you only work well under pressure. You become frantic with all attention on meeting the deadline. You get edgy and irritable.

The Progress Trap: constantly worrying how long will take to complete a task. E.g., after each page you turn to the end of the chapter to see how many page you have left.

Cause of Progress Trap:

  1. Didn’t allocate enough time
  2. Thinking about results

Good general rule is to estimate realistically time to finish a task AND THEN DOUBLE IT.

Make a daily schedule so you don’t have to make a decision about what to do next each time you complete a task. For this to work you MUST follow it strictly. Don’t fall for any false rationalizations. E.g., watching some YouTube to get over some tension.

Build into the schedule ample time for meditation, breaks, leisure, and exercise.

Be aware of falling into the trap of worrying all the time about being on schedule. Stay with current task and don’t think about the next tasks.

How to solve paradox of following the schedule strictly and not worrying obsessively about being on schedule?

  1. Be REALISTIC with tasks and time!
  2. When writing daily schedule, reaffirm your commitment to do each task with Right Effort. Get yourself in right frame of Right Effort before each task by saying, "For the next X amount of time, I am going to do Y with full attention."

You will alter your schedule some days and that’s okay. Just make sure that you have a good reason for doing it. Never postpone a task you don’t feel like doing because you think you’ll feel more like doing it some other time. Let those feeling dissipate into the ether through your meditation practice.


7. Procrastination

Many types of procrastination (75% simple and 25% complex):

Simple motives:

  • Skills and Knowledge Deficit

Most likely to delay or fail to complete tasks that are difficult, consume a lot of time, and/or require skills, talents, and knowledge that they have not developed.

  • Cool Procrastinator – disproportionate focus on social activities
  • Perceived irrelevance to career

Complex motives:

  • Perfectionist and Cavalier procrastinators lack self-confidence and are caught in the ego trap. Self-focus takes such prominence that there is little attention and energy to apply to the task when they do get to it. The best solution is to increase mindfulness while gradually and gently diminishing self-focus and increasing attention to the task.

8. Story Land or Story Mind aka Rumination

As soon as you realize you are involved in a story, label it story or topic of the story, let it be, and get back into the present.

Stories are complex and persistent. Many are recurring and it brings temporary comfort to play the story lines or run head-movies. You have to remind yourself that they are not real; they are not in the present. The more you practice staying in the moment, the better you’ll get at recognizing stories as they arise.


9. The Big Wombassa aka Arrival Fallacy

The Big Wombassa emerges when we cling to the notion that there is some future point in our lives where everything will be okay and all will fall into place.

This is an illusion. There is no event or point in time that ushers in our personal era of complete and permanent contentment.

Many of us spend our entire lives waiting for our "real lifes" to begin. Our real life, which is our only life in this body, is the life we have this very moment.

We are bad at "affective forecasting. We suffer from impact bias, the tendency to overestimate our emotional response to future events. The anticipated happiness from a new love, job, etc is usually less than the experienced happiness. Set expectations accordingly.

Through present awareness of what you are doing, you experience the intrinsic satisfaction of each moment. The satisfaction that comes from your life right now is more likely to result in a permanent increase in happiness than waiting for your life circumstances to change. You experience this satisfaction repeatedly as long as you pay attention.

Parkinson’s Law also doesn’t help things.


Chapter 21: General Gumption Conservation and Restoration Methods

The general method for handling most of these traps is some variation of mindfulness: (1) monitoring and paying attention; (2) recognizing when your mind wanders; (3) observing and letting be or witnessing and letting go of thoughts, feelings, and sensations that take you out of the moment; (4) gently returning to the present moment.

Techniques in response to gumption traps:

  1. Bagging – designate period of time to worry as much as you want. And then "BAG IT." You are done. If is not designated time and you want to worry wait until Bagging Time.
  2. Relaxation
  3. Exercise – the single thing that comes close to a magic bullet. Do it mindfully. Make the commitment and do it with Right Effort. Focus on process not goals. WHEN YOU EXERCISE, JUST EXERCISE.
  4. The Study Group or Book Dance – literally get up and dance in a group
  5. Bowing and Bells – A bow before before beginning a task symbolizes that you have deep respect for it and you intend to devote you full attention to it. You are surrendering to what needs to be done. At end of task a bow or bell is a way of clearing the mind of previous task and preparing for the next one. Approach each task with Right Effort and your bow will feel natural. In public, just a subtle deliberate nod will do.
  6. The Half Smile – subtle half smile for a few minutes can restore your gumption when frustrated.
  7. Creating A Bigger Container/Spaciousness – having small space in your mind means anything occupies your mind fully. Having a bigger space puts things in their proper perspective. Expand the container:
    1. a temporary expansion: imagine your mind-space expanding to a size large enough to contain questions about everything in your head
    2. permanent expansion: meditation practice; have enough space to handle potent thoughts
  8. The Snow Globe – imagine whatever that is limiting your gumption as whirling snowflakes. Watch the emotional flakes settle to the bottom of the globe.
  9. Daily Affirmations – recite a list of affirmations that reflect the behaviors and attitudes required to carry out your day with Right Effort. Here’s example of reminders:
    1. Be kind to yourself, no matter
    2. Accept event and circumstances.
    3. Live in the present.
    4. Don’t take things personally.
    5. Accept the past.
    6. Don’t dwell on yourself.
    7. Do not criticize others.
    8. Do everything with Right Effort.
  10. The 95MPH Cornball Pitch – "Love Yourself." Loving yourself requires that you accept whatever has happened in your past and what you think and feel in the present. If you are anxious, love, accept, or surrender to the anxious you, and get on with the task at hand. Don’t resist. Batter down the Impostor Syndrome. When feeling the "uns" (e.g., unworthy, unwholesome, unsuccessful, uninspired, unloved), relax and center yourself by counting a few breaths.

Chapter 23 Learning with Right Effort: A Review

Here are some reminders to help learn Right Effort. After practicing for a while develop your own list that is specifically suited just to you.

  1. Clear: Clear your mind by doing meditation for cleansing breaths for a few minutes. You are not trying to achieve a particular state of mind. You are not trying to push anything out of mind. You are just letting things settle.
  2. Relax: Feel you mind relax. Feel your mind open. Prepare your mind to accept whatever you are about to learn or whatever you are about to do.
  3. "Beginner’s Mind": Find your beginner’s mind. Let go of expectations. Prepare to go on a journey to a place you have never been where you will learn something new and valuable. Forget about the destination. It’s the trip itself that’s important. Don’t worry about goals and results. Focus on process.
  4. Commitment: Make an explicit commitment to yourself to do your work with Right Effort for a set amount of time or until you finish certain tasks. Promise yourself that you will focus exclusively on what is in front of you. Let go of other times, places, and tasks. Convince yourself that the only proper thing to do in the allotted time is what you are supposed to be doing. Don’t give yourself the choice of doing anything else.
  5. Acceptance: Accept that you have to be where you are, doing what you are doing. Right now there is no place you can be other than where you are.
  6. Stay in the "Now": Stay centered in the moment and the task at hand. When you notice that your thoughts are straying from your current task to other times and places, let go, and gently return your mind to your work.
  7. No Separation: There is no separate self and task or person-task distinction. You and your books are inseparably melded in the task of of the moment. Thoughts of a separate you working on the task only get in the way. The real you right now is the one intimately involved in whatever you are doing.
  8. Basics of Mindfulness: Remember to follow the general process of meditation, mindfulness, or Right Effort. This includes: (1) monitoring staying alert, or paying attention; (2) recognizing when your mind wanders; (3) observing and letting be or witnessing and letting go of thoughts, feelings, and sensations that take you out of the moment; and (4) gently returning to the present moment.
  9. Purpose: Work as if it’s the only reason you were put on this earth. Remember that right now, in this moment, is the only time there is.

After trying Right Effort for a while, conduct a self-assessment to determine which particular impediment interferes most with your application of Right Effort. Then include as part of your Daily Routine the techniques that address your particular set of problems.

Book notes: The Mindful Way to Study

Book Notes: Peak

by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise
by Anders Ericsson

Purposeful Practice

Get outside your comfort zone but do it in a focused way, with clear goals, a plan for reaching those goals, and a way to monitor your progress. Also figure out a way to maintain your motivation.

Mental Representations

A mental representation is a mental structure that corresponds to an object, an idea, a collection of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about.

These models are preexisting patterns of information—facts, images, rules, relations, etc—that are held in long-term memory and that can be used to respond quickly and effectively in certain types of situations. They make it possible to process large amounts of information quickly, despite the limitations of short-term memory.

The better your mental representation of the skill at hand the more quickly you can learn it.

Experts have higher quality and quantity of mental models than others.

Ex. baseball players able to hit balls coming from 100 mph pitchers.

Years of practice have changed the neural circuitry in their brains to produce highly specialized mental representations, which in turn make possible the incredible memory, pattern recognition, problem solving, and other sorts of advanced abilities needed to excel in their particular specialties.

The main purpose of deliberate practice is to develop effective mental representations, and, thees models in turn play a key role in deliberate practice.

Mental models aren’t just the result of learning a skill; they can also help us learn.

When practicing a new piece, beginning musicians lack a good, clear idea of how the music should sound, while advanced musicians have a very detailed mental model of the music they use to guide their practice and performance of a piece.

Higher skilled music students were better able to determine when they’d made mistakes and better able to identify difficult sections they needed to focus their efforts on. They had more effective mental models.

Virtuous cycle: the more skilled you become, the better your mental representations are, and the better your mental representations are, the more effectively you can practice to hone your skill.

Deliberate Practice

Deliberate practice is purposeful practice that knows where it is going and how to get there.

Characterized by:

  1. develops skill that other people have already figured out
  2. takes place outside of comfort zone and requires constantly try things that are just beyond current abilities
  3. involves well-defined, specific goals and target performance
  4. requires full attention and conscious actions
  5. involves feedback and modification of efforts in response to feedback
  6. depends on effective mental representations. Improving performance goes hand in hand with improving mental representations; as one’s performance improves, the representations become more detailed and effective, in turn making it possible to improve even more
  7. involves building or modifying previously acquired skills by focusing on particular aspects of those skills and working to improve them specifically

Most effective learning: role-play, discussion groups, case solving, hands-on training. Least effective: lectures.

Steps in Everyday Life

  1. Hire a teacher that can give you feedback. Must be accomplished and have history of improving other students. You will outgrow a teacher at some point. Keep moving forward.
  2. Focus! Maintain close attention to every detail of performance.
  3. Better to train at 100% effort for less time than 70% effort for longer period. Once can no longer focus effectively, end the session.

How to break through Plateaus

p. 165

  1. Figure out exactly what is holding you back. What mistakes are you making, and when? Push yourself well outside of your comfort zone and see what breaks down first.
  2. Design a practice technique aimed at improving that particular weakness. Once you’ve figured out what the problem is, you may be able to fix it yourself, or you may need to go to an experienced coach or teacher for suggestions.
  3. Either way, pay attention to what happens when you practice; if you are not improving, you will need to try something else.

Three Steps to Starting Out – teaching children to want to learn a skill

p. 184
(using chess as example)

STAGE ONE – starting out

Children are introduced in a playful way to what will eventually become their field of interest. (Finding chess pieces and liking their shapes). Nothing more than toys to play with.

In the beginning, the parents play with their child at the child’s level, but gradually they turn the play toward the real purpose of the "toy." They explain the special moves of the chess pieces. Parents give the child a great deal of time, attention, and encouragement. They teach the child such values as self-discipline, hard work, responsibility, and spending one’s time constructively.

Many children will find some initial motivation to explore or to try something because of their natural curiosity or playfulness, and parents have an opportunity to use this initial interest as a springboard to an activity, but that initial curiosity-drive motivation needs to be supplemented. One excellent supplement, particularly with smaller children, is praise. Another motivvation is the satisfaction of having developed a certain skill, particularly if that achievement is acknowledged by a parent.

Often the children picks up particular interests of their parents. Parents who were involved with music often found their children developing an interest in music, as it was a way they could spend time with the parents and share the interest.

The children don’t practice per se, but many children do manage to come up with activities that are part play, part training. Competition with sibling may be motivation as well.

There’s a slightly different pattern in the early days of the children who would grow up to be mathematicians and neurologists than in the athletes, musicians, and artists. In this case the parents didn’t introduce the children to the particular subject matter but rather to the appeal of intellectual pursuits in general. They encouraged their children’s curiosity, and reading was a major pastime, with the parents reading to the children early on, and the children reading books themselves later.

At some point they become very interested in a particular area and show more promise than other children of similar age. The child is then ready to move on to the second stage.

STAGE TWO – becoming serious

Next step is to take lessons from a coach or a teacher. This is first exposure to deliberate practice. Teachers don’t need to be experts at the skill but need to be good at working with children and motivate to move forward through deliberate practice.

Parents help establish routines and prioritize their practice.

Motivation must ultimately be something that comes from within the child, or else it won’t endure.

STAGE THREE – commitment

By early or mid-teens they make major commitment

Often seek out best teachers or schools for training.

STAGE FOUR – pathbreakers

Some move beyond the existing knowledge in their field and make unique creative contributions.

The most successful creative people in various fields find that creativity goes hand in hand with the ability to work hard and maintain focus over long stretches of time—exactly the ingredients of deliberate practice that produced their expert abilities in the first place.


Innate Talent

IQ only gives slight edge at the beginning of learning a new skill. But once skill is established there is no correlation between IQ and skill performance. Amount of practice was the deciding factor in skill.

Early noticed "innate talent" has no correlation with how good they’ll be at higher levels.

Speculation:

Some people might be naturally able to focus more intently and for longer periods of time than others; since deliberate practice depends on being able to focus in this way, these people might be naturally able to practice more effectively than others and thus benefit more from their practice.

It makes sense that if genes do play a role, their role would play out through shaping how likely a person is to engage in deliberate practice or how effective that practice is likely to be.


Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Children who are almost one year older do better because they are a little bit more formed intellectually. They are seen as "smarter" and so they are the one’s that encouraged and supported as the "talented" ones. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is human nature to want to put effort—time, money, teaching, encouragement, support—where it will do the most good and also to try to protect kids from disappointment. The best way to avoid this is to recognize the potential in all of us—and work to find ways to develop it.

Another example of this is with children with slightly higher IQs. They learn just a little quicker and so they are the ones who are labeled "gifted" and extra attention and training is put on them. This advantage propagates through the school years.

This is the dark side of believing in innate talent. It can beget a tendency to assume that some people have a talent for something and others don’t and that you can tell the difference early on. If you believe that, you encourage and support the "talented" ones and discourage the rest, creating the self-fulfilling prophecy.


Piecing It Together

Importance of MENTAL MODELS / REPRESENTATIONS:

If you teach a student facts, concepts, and rules, those things go into long-term memory as individual pieces. But if a student then wishes to do something with them (i.e., solve a problem, reason with them to answer a question) the limitations of attention and short-term memory kick in. The student must keep all of those different, unconnected pieces in mind while working with them toward a solution. However, if this information is assimilated as part of building mental representations aimed at doing something, the individual pieces become part of an interconnected pattern that provides context and meaning to the information, making it easier to work with.

You don’t build mental representations by thinking about something; you build them by trying to do something, failing, revising, and trying again, over and over. When you’re done, not only have you developed an effective mental representation for the skill you were developing, but you have also absorbed a great deal of information connected with that skill.

When preparing a lesson plan, determining what a student should be able to do is far more effective than determining what the student should know. It then turns out that the knowing part comes along for the ride.

From the Physics class teaching experiment: put together a list of what the students should be able to do, then transform it into a collection of specific learning objectives. This is a classic deliberate-practice approach: when teaching a skill, break the lesson into a series of steps that the student can master one at a time, building from one to the next to reach the ultimate objective. While this sounds like like scaffolding approach used in traditional education, it differs crucially in its focus on understanding the necessary mental representations at each step of the way and making sure that the student has developed the appropriate representations before moving to the next step.

Physics students and experts do equally well on solving equations and quantitative problems, but students are far behind the experts in their ability to solve qualitative problems, i.e., why is it hot in summer and cold in the winter? Those questions require understanding of concepts that underlie particular events—that is, good mental representations. Understand the fundamentals deeply.

A major benefit for someone who develops a mental representation is the freedom to begin exploring that skill on his own. In music, having clear representations of what musical pieces sound like, how pieces fit together allows ability to improvise and explore on their instruments. They no longer need a teacher to lead them down every path; they can head down some paths on their own.

Creating a mental representation in one area helps to understand exactly what it takes to be successful not only in that area but in others as well.

Book Notes: Peak

Book Notes: The Tao of Pooh


Winnie the P’u: the Hero of the Story


P’u: Uncarved Block

The essense of the principle of the Uncarved Block is things (or people) in their original simplicity contain their own natural power.

When you discard arrogance, complexity, and a few other things that get in the way, sooner or later you will discover that simple, childlike, and mysterious secret known to those of the Uncarved Block: Life is Fun.

From the state of the Uncarved Block comes the ability to enjoy the simple and the quiet, the natural and the plain. Along with that comes the ability to do things spontaneously and have them work.


The Scholarly Owl and Fallacy of Intellectual Knowledge


“The wise are not learned; the learned are not wise.”
—Lao-tse

Rather than learn from Taoist teachers and from direct experience, he learns intellectually and indirectly from books.

The Confusionist Dessicated Scholar is one who studies Knowledge for the sake of Knowledge, and who keeps what he learns to himself or to his own small group, writing pretentious papers that no one else can understand, rather than working for the enlightenment of others.

Scholars always using Big Words that some of us can’t understand and are there to keep us from understanding.

For scholars, putting names on things is the most vital activity in the world.

Scholars are useful in that they provide a lot of information. It’s just that there is Something More, and that Something More is what life is really all about.


Cottleston Pie and Inner Nature


Mechanical judgments and clever remarks tend to prove inaccurate with passing time, because it doesn’t look very deeply into things to begin with.

The thing that makes someone truly unique, Inner Nature, is something that Cleverness cannot really understand.

“A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly.”

Trying to fit square pegs into round holes, ignoring the clear reality that Things Are As They Are.

Everything/one has its own place and function.

When you know and respect your own Inner Nature, you know where you belong. You also know where you don’t belong.

“A fish can’t whistle and neither can I.”

I have certain limitations, and unlike Tigger I know what they are. There can be lots of things wrong with blindly trying to do what you aren’t designed for.

The wise know their limitations; the foolish do not.

“One disease, long life; no disease, short life.” Those who know what’s wrong with them and take care of themselves accordingly will tend to live a lot longer than those who consider themselves perfectly healthy and neglect their weaknesses.

Your limitations can be your strengths.

“Why does a chicken, I don’t know why.”

We don’t need to play Abstract Philosopher, asking unnecessary questions and coming up with meaningless answers. What we need to do is recognize Inner Nature and work with Things As They Are.

Everything has its own Inner Nature. People are easily led away from what’s right for them, because people have Brain, and Brain can be fooled.

Inner Nature cannot be fooled. But many people do not look at it or listen to it, and consequently do not understand themselves very much. They have little respect for themselves, and are therefore easily influenced by others.

The Way of Self-Reliance starts with recognizing who we are, what we’ve got to work with, and what works best for us.

Point our weaknesses or unpleasant tendencies in a different direction than we have been.

The Wise are Who They Are. They work with what they’ve got and do what they can do.


Wu Wei is the Pooh Way


Don’t try too hard. Be like water flowing over and around the rocks in its path.

Wu Wei means “without doing, causing, or making.” But practically speaking, it means without meddlesome, combative, or egotistical effort.

When we learn to work with our own Inner Nature, and with the natural laws operating around use, we reach the level of Wu Wei. Then we work with the natural order of things and operate on the principle of Minimal Effort.

Tao doesn’t force or interfere with things, but lets them work in their own way, to produce results naturally.

Wei Wu Wei – Do Without Doing

Cleverness takes all the credit it possibly can. But it’s not the Clever Mind that’s responsible when things work out. It’s the mind that sees what’s in front of it, and follows the nature of things.

Knowledge tries to figure out why round pegs fit round holes, but not square holes. Wu Wei doesn’t try. It doesn’t think about it. It just does it.

The surest way to become Tense, Awkward, and Confused is to develop a mind that tries too hard—one that thinks too much. The animals in the Forest don’t think too much; they just Are. People think they are a Superior Animal because they can think (and overthink).

“If people were Superior to Animals, they’d take better care of the world.” —Pooh

Things just happen in the right way, at the right time. At least they do when you let them. Follow the natural progression of things.

The Wu Wei approach to conflict-solving can be seen in T’ai Chi. The basic idea is to wear the opponent out either by sending his energy back at him or by deflecting it away, in order to weaken his power, balance, and position-for-defense. Never is force opposed with force; instead, it is overcome with yielding.


Bisy Backson and Unreachable Jars of Honey


The Bisy Backson is almost desperately active. If you ask him what his Life Interests are, he will give you a list of Physical Activities.

The Athletic sort of Backson is concerned with physical fitness, he says. But for some reason, he sees it as something that has to be pounded in from the outside, rather than built up from the inside. Therefore, he confuses exercise with work. He works when he works, works when he exercises, and works when he plays.

If you want to be healthy, relaxed, and contented, just watch what a Bisy Backson does and then do the opposite.

The chronic Backson always seems to have to be going somewhere. He doesn’t go out for a walk, though; he doesn’t have time. Always going somewhere, somewhere he hasn’t been. Anywhere but where he is.

Our Bisy Backson religions, sciences, and business ethics have tried their hardest to convince us that there is a Great Reward waiting for us somewhere, and that what we have to do is spend our lives working like lunatics to catch up with it.

Unreachable jars of honey gives people Something To Do. A way of life that keeps saying, “Around the next corner, above the next step,” works against the natural order of things and makes it so difficult to be happy and good that only a few get to where they would naturally have been in the first place—Happy and Good—and the rest give up and fall by the side of the road, cursing the world.

Those who think that the rewarding things in life are somewhere beyond the rainbow.

The first Bisy Backsons in this part of the world, the Puritans, practically worked themselves to death in the fields without getting much of anything in return for their tremendous effort. They were actually starving until the wiser inhabitants of the land showed them a few things about working in harmony with the earth’s rhythms. Now you plant; now you relax. Now you work the soil; now you leave it alone. They never really believed in it and so everything is tasteless, all products of soil that was not allowed to relax.

Remember the Pooh dialogue about why he’s not busy because he’s enjoying the nice day listening to the birds. p. 101

The rootless, dissatisfied ancestry:
Miserable Puritan > Restless Pioneer > Lonely Cowboy > Bisy Backson

The Backson thinks of progress in terms of fighting and overcoming. Real progress involves growing and developing, which involves changing inside, but that’s something the inflexible Backson is willing to do.

Instead they change everything else (the Bulldozer Backson), and everyone (the Bigoted Backson) else but himself, and interfere with things he has no business interfering with, including practically every form of life on earth.

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” —George Bernard Shaw

The irony of Bisy Backson Society: they worship youthful energy, appearance, and attitudes but developed no effective methods of retaining them. A lack testified by the unnatural False Front approach of cosmetics and plastic surgery. Instead has developed ways of breaking youthfulness down and destroying it. Those damaging activities that are not part of the search for the Great Reward seem to accumulate under the general heading of Saving Time. (E.g., Soylent, fast food, microwave, supermarket,)

Versus China’s Teahouse and France’s Sidewalk Cafe. Practically every civilized country in the world has a place where people can go to eat, relax, and talk things over without worrying about what time it is.

If timesaving devices really saved time, there would be more time available to us now than ever before in history. But we seem to have less time than even a few years ago.

It’s great fun to go someplace where there are no timesaving devices because, when you do, you find that you have lots of time. Elsewhere, you’re too busy working to pay for machines to save you time so you don’t have to work so hard.

The MAIN problem with this great obsession for Saving Time is very simple: you can’t save time. You can only spend it. But you can spend it wisely or foolishly. Bisy Backson has no time because he’s too busy wasting it by trying to save it.

Taoist Immortals: practice Taoist exercises, believing that exercise which strains and tire the mind and body shortens life. Favorite way of travel was “walking lightly.”

“Sit like a turtle, walk like a pigeon, and sleep like a dog.”

Honey doesn’t taste so good once it is being eaten; the goal doesn’t mean so much once it is reached; the reward is not so rewarding once it has been given. If we add up all the rewards in our lives, we won’t have very much. But if we add up the spaces between the rewards, we’ll come up with quite a bit.

Christmas presents once opened are Not So Much Fun as they were beforehand.

Goals cause us to go through the process, and it’s the process that makes us wise, happy, or whatever.

Enjoyment of the process is the secret that erases the myths of the Great Reward and Saving Time. This is The Way.

What do we call the moment before we begin to eat the honey? Some call it anticipation, but we think it’s more than that. It’s awareness. It’s when we become happy and realize it, if only for an instant. By Enjoying the Process, we can stretch that awareness out so that it’s no longer only a moment, but covers the whole thing. Then we can have a lot of fun like Pooh.

When we take the time to enjoy our surroundings and appreciate being alive, we find that we have no time to be Bisy Backsons anymore.


That Sort of Bear


No matter how Useful we may be, sometimes it takes a while to recognize our own value.

In order to take control of our lives and accomplish something of lasting value, sooner or later we need to learn to Believe. We don’t need to shift responsibilities to some Deity or Fate. We simply need to believe in the power that’s within us, and use it. When we do that, and stop imitating others and competing against them, things begin to work for us.

Story of Buckminster Fuller: almost committed suicide before he realized he was free to take risks, initiate action on his own, and, by doing so, to help other people. He committed himself to the work that he believed the universe wanted him to do, instead of what he had been taught to do.

The play-it-safe pessimists of the world never accomplish much of anything, because they don’t look clearly and objectively at situations, they don’t recognize or believe in their own abilities, and they won’t stretch those abilities to overcome even the smallest amount of risk.

Story of Roo Swimming and the North Pole: once we see what the situation is and what we can do about it, we need to use everything we find along the way in order to accomplish whatever is required. More often than not, the things we need are there already; all we have to is make use of them.

Tz’u is “caring” or “compassion” and is based on the character for heart.

Lao-tse names it as his “first treasure” and wrote “From caring comes courage.” And from that also comes wisdom. Those who have no compassion have no wisdom. Knowledge, yes; cleverness, maybe; wisdom, no. A clever mind is not a heart. Knowledge doesn’t really care. Wisdom does.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
—Thoreau

We can stop our desperate clinging to hollow life-substitutes, and set ourselves free. The Tiddely-Pom Principle / Snowball Effect can work negatively or positively. The important thing is to make it work for yourself and for the benefit of others, or face the Ugly Consequences.

Piglet Gives Tree to Owl Story: Do you want to be really happy? Using the Snowball Effect, you can begin by being appreciative of who you are and what you’ve got. Do you want to be miserable? Begin by being discontented.

“A tree as big around as you can reach starts with a small seed; a thousand-mile journey starts with one step.” —Lao-tse

Wisdom, Happiness, and Courage are not waiting somewhere out beyond sight at the end of a straight line; they’re part of a continuous cycle that begins right here.


Nowhere and Nothing


T’ai Hsu – The Great Nothing

It means just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.

“Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing.” —Lao-tse

To have no thought and put forth no effort is the first step towards understanding the Tao. To go nowhere and do nothing is the first step towards finding peace in the Tao. To start from no point and follow no road is the first step towards reaching the Tao.

An Empty sort of mind is valuable fro finding pearls and tails and things because it can see what’s in front of it. An Overstuffed mind is unable. While the Clear mind listens to a bird singing, the Stuffed-Full-of-Knowledge-and-Cleverness mind wonders what kind of bird is singing. Knowledge and Cleverness tend to concern themselves with the wrong sorts of things, and a mind confused by Knowledge, Cleverness, and Abstract Ideas tends to go chasing off after things that don’t matter, or that don’t even exist, instead of seeing, appreciating, and making use of what is right in front of it.

“Music is the space between notes.” —Claude Debussy

Many people are afraid of Emptiness, however, because it reminds them of Loneliness. Everything has to be filled in, it seems—appointment books, hillsides, vacant lots—but when all the spaces are filled, the Loneliness really begins. Then the Groups are joined, the Classes are signed up for, and the Gift-to-Yourself items are bought.

The power of a clear mind is beyond description. If you trace ideas back to its source, you will discover that it came from Nothing. To find the epiphanies must be completely awake.

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.” —Lao-tse

It starts when we are children, helpless but aware of things, enjoying what is around us. Then Adults. But the adult is not the highest stage of development. The end of the cycle is that of the independent, clear-minded, all-seeing Child. That is level of Wisdom. “Return to the beginning; become a child again.” —Lao-tse. Why do the enlightened seem filled light and happiness, like children? Because they are.

The wise are Children Who Know. Their minds have been emptied of the countless minute somethings of small learning, and filled with the wisdom of the Great Nothing, the Way of the Universe.

It is the journey of attaining knowledge and then systematically removing it to attain Wisdom.

Abstract cleverness of mind only separates the thinker from the world of reality, and that world, the Forest of Real Life, is in a desperate condition now because of too many who think too much and care too little.
The masters of life know the Way, for they listen to the voice within them, the voice of wisdom and simplicity, the voice that reasons beyond Cleverness and knows beyond Knowledge.


The Tao of Pooh
by Benjamin Hoff

Book Notes: The Tao of Pooh

Book Review: The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels

Fossil_fuels
The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex Epstein

I heard an interview with the author, Alex Epstein, of this book on the anarcho-libertarian Tom Woods podcast. I am nowhere near anarcho-anything but I love contemplating the wild ideas that come out of that corner. Anyways, keeping an open-mind is critical so I dug in.

His main thesis is that our standard of value benchmark is to make human life better at the expense of everything else. Fossil fuels have made human lives better, therefore fossil fuels are good.

What I agree with

Before I go in to my issues with his thesis I am 100% with him on nuclear energy and he calls out the “liberals” for their unwarranted stance against it. Yes the idea of the black swan event is scary but look at the statistics. Nuclear power caused deaths on a per watt produced basis are a miniscule fraction of deaths from coal, oil and even solar for that matter. CANDU and underground salt reactors are exceptionally safe and there’s serious promise in even safer thorium reactors. Harnessing nuclear fusion is within our physical limits and would create such an abundance of exceptionally safe energy with essentially no radioactive waste that this topic would be moot.

For every person killed by nuclear power generation, 4,000 die due to coal

ARE FOSSIL FUELS OUR SAVIOR OR SOMETHING ELSE?

The problem with his thesis is that fossil fuels is only a vehicle for and not the underlying mechanism of human flourishing. Industrialization is what has created such wealth and high standards of living. The book would have much more clout if it were called Moral Case for Industrialization. It is the clever harnessing of mechanical energy from potential energy that has transformed the human world. Fossil fuel just happened to be the most convenient (or as Epstein hammers into our heads: the cheapest, most plentiful, and most reliable) modality for this era.

We all are very grateful for Industrialization 1.0 but we’re now at a tipping point in technological advances that will allow us to transition to renewable fuels. Industrialization 2.0 will allow continued exponential growth with less downside. I’d give him slack on this but he holds the stodgy opinion that not only should we continue relying on fossil fuels but that we should expand our reliance. It’s almost like he’s doubling down in his convictions as a way to strengthen his argument. Kind of like how some people think talking louder will somehow prove their point.

PHILOSOPHICAL DISAGREEMENT #1: Fight fire with fire… FOREVER?

He argues we can use fossil fuel technology to “dampen” the effects of any fossil fuel caused climate change at the expense of any non-human entities. For example, build bigger, coal-powered air conditioners for the hotter climate.

Let’s use an analogy of a boat at sea with a fist-sized hole that is slowly growing in size. The hole has finally reached a size that our bilge pumps can’t keep up and the hole is too big to patch with our current technologies. Keeping a long-term viewpoint, should we invest in:

  • A) high output bilge pump technology that will continuously improve to meet the gradually growing hole size
  • B) technology to plug the hole while it is still relatively small

He says bilge pumps and waders. I say high-tech spackle. I come from the tech world and when we have the resources we always do root-cause analysis so that we can address the root cause. It’s served us well. Band-aids give us a job in the short-term but we can’t be cost-competitive in the long-run.

I think Lao Tzu dispenses all the wisdom you need to derive the correct path in this case:

“Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small.”

PHILOSOPHICAL DISAGREEMENT #2: THESIS, ANTITHESIS, SYNTHESIS

Epstein holds this overly simplistic view of how human life is our standard of value. The way he explains it is it would be best for human life if we paved the world with concrete because it would eliminate disease, bugs, walking on dirt, and pesky bird calls. To “get back into nature”, underground parks would be built with artificial lighting, manicured landscaping, and perfectly controlled climates. On paper in a reductivist’s world, this would be ideal for the modern human. Personally not for me, walking in nature soothes my soul. And interestingly he delineates between human nature and nonhuman nature. Nonhuman nature IS human nature.

Humans and the massive amount of bacteria in our stomachs did not evolve in this concrete environment. Our evolutionary stable strategy involved wading through mud, swatting mosquitoes, and building makeshift homes. When you start eliminating species on a quest for the most sterile, “human-friendly” environment there are major consequences in the ecosystems upstream and downstream.

Finally, human life in the long run is indeed our standard of value. But it should be about synthesizing human technologies in to our ancestral environment. More of the same for short-term comfort and monetary gains is not what an intelligent species prioritizes. Unknown and known externalities and their effects like CO2 accumulation and climate change are not something as a species we should be gambling with. There will be some pain at first, but that comes with any magnificent challenge worth doing.

CHEERLEADING FOR KODAK

A great majority of humans are grateful that film photography came to be and gave us movies, a new form of art, and shareable visual memories. But with the technological advances in digital photography there is no valid reason to continue to expand analog film technology other than a few who prefer the nostalgia and visual effect of film.

Epstein’s position is like an oblivious, short-sighted Kodak major stakeholder in 2002 who thinks everyone is wrong to increase digital camera use because of all the great things film photography did for us in the 20th century and digital is too expensive and has lousy quality. Yes, at first, digital photography was expensive and quality not so great. This was when the technology was in the initial deceptive growth stage of that oh so lovely exponential curve that is so prevalent in the digital world. We’ve now entered the part of the curve that has allowed digital photography/video to become dirt cheap, compact, and very high quality only within a few years.

expontential_magic
My horribly terrific sketch of the beauty of the exponential curve

 ELECTRIC CARS

He devotes a full half-page to electric vehicle technology and summarizes by saying that battery technology is not advanced enough. The laws of physics are in favor of much improved battery solutions with incredible energy densities and charge/discharge rates. This is another situation where deceptive exponential growth comes in to play. The economics and technology have not been in favor up until the early 2010’s to invest in solutions but things are changing very quickly. Prices are coming down and there is a great race to solve the battery problem. It’s an exciting time in the industry!

I will only touch for a moment on how electric vehicles are a much more elegant solution to internal combustion vehicles. There are much fewer moving parts, less maintenance, noise, and much more efficient power conversions both in terms of less energy lost to heat and electric motors are highly efficient at 90% of the operating RPMs. This is most evident by the Tesla Model S P85D vehicle. Tesla Motors just started releasing electric vehicles in 2006 and they already have a vehicle that goes from 0-60 in 3.1 seconds and can hold seven people. This is super-car performance in a large sedan form factor. Just search Youtube for “Tesla Model S P85D” and watch it blow away gas vehicles from Lamborghini and Ferrari that have had almost one-hundred years to optimize their internal combustion engines for performance. It also has the safest rating possible and is the highest rated vehicle Consumer Reports has ever tested! This is only just the beginning!

SOLAR TECHNOLOGY

I sound like a broken record but again he underestimates the power of the exponential curve and the effects of scaling. The more solar is used and built, the cheaper it gets. This can not be said for coal, oil, and natural gas. And you can clearly see this in the below chart from this Solar Energy – Disruptive Technology article.

The plummeting cost of photovoltaic cells (green line) per watt from 1977 to 2013
Solar capacity graduating from deceptive growth to where the MAGIC happens! Notice the time scale is over only 9 years! Before 2011, capacity looked forever helpless.

At the moment the percentage of energy from solar is small but the wonders of exponential growth will make this not the case shortly. Just think about the concept that if you start with a penny and double your total amount every day you will have over a million dollars after thirty days. We are talking the same principle here. Right now we have sixteen cents and in just a dozen proverbial days we’ll be banking!

swanson-effect
There’s plenty more of charts showing similar exponential curves at http://costofsolar.com/cost-of-solar-panels-10-charts-tell-you-everything/

Another argument he states is that solar can’t handle base load and that cloudy days and nights limit it’s reliability. Molten salt storage is actually making concentrated solar a viable base load power source and solves cloudy day and night demand. And such a power plant will be coming online soon. This will take a while to scale and we should continue to use coal and natural gas plants as base load until the technology is mature enough.

CORRELATION VS CAUSATION

He relies on these really compelling charts showing correlated curves between fossil fuel use and variables like life expectancy and GDP. But he does absolutely zero explaining of how fossil fuel use increases these values. One could surmise that indirectly fossil fuels (ahem, industrialization) freed up time to improve on these problems, but I want him to explain the causation. It’s just lazy.

fossil_fuel_correlation

I could just as easily throw in similar charts just by Google Image searching for “exponential growth chart”. Oh look national debt growth correlates with fossil fuel use… so what?

Random chart that correlates just as well as the charts in the book
Random chart with a correlation to fossil fuel use just as strong as the charts in the book

GRATITUDE

Finally, he claims that anti-fossil fuel people would prefer fossil fuels never were touched. I don’t know what sane person isn’t appreciative for advances in medicine, transportation, and the world in their pocket gained from the post-steam engine age.

It’s also odd how he takes it personally that people don’t thank every coal worker, oil driller, and petroleum engineer as they are making life good for all of us. It’s not like they are volunteers with some altruistic mission. Many jobs in the industry require few skills and get paid handsomely and the high skilled jobs get compensated higher than similar jobs in other fields.

There were other issues with his arguments along the lines of battery storage, wind, and his general resistance of change to superior technologies. I’d give the horse / car transition story here but I don’t think it’s necessary.

Image

Book Notes: MONEY: Master the Game by Anthony Robbins

Somehow I got sucked into reading his new 600 page MONEY book at B&N and ended up taking it home. It’s half-filled with useful information albeit with a lump of salt and the remainder is typical Robbins emotions/story-based filler. The advice he provides is not his, but rather is the collected (and sometimes conflicting) byproduct of over 30 interviews with some of the top money managers and investment billionaires. A lot of it is common knowledge if you float around the Boglehead forums so will only highlight a few of the strategies, tools, and products I was either unaware of or want to add to my bag of potential tricks:

  1. Roth 401k??? – yep look it up. Basically same concept as your tax-deferred 401k but is taxed immediately. I checked my 401k and found the option to contribute to a Roth version. Would make sense to go that route if you feel you will make more money in your retirement and/or you believe taxes in general will go up in the future.
  2. 401k fee checker – pull up a report of how your company’s 401k expense ratios compare to others. By law companies must reevaluate 401ks yearly so you may be able to convince HR to move to a cheaper 401k solution.
  3. Fixed Index Annuities –  there’s many varieties but main sell is that they offer a market-linked annuity with less downside (part of the theme in the book of asymmetric risk/reward). Here is some info and caveats. Really the most cost-efficient route is to cut out the middlemen and build your own here and here . Although as DIY longevity insurance, will I be coherent enough to rebuild my ladders at the ripe age of 105?
  4. Structured notes – basically a loan to a bank linked to a stock/bond market. After maturity date the bank pays back most of the upside of the market or if the market is down will pay original principal back (100% downside protection in this case). This could be a very good hedge for someone within 5 years of retiring who needs protection from a devastating situation where a market downturn coincides with beginning of retirement. Here is SEC’s cautionary warning.
  5. PPLI / private placement life insurance – called the Rich Man’s Roth. You’ll need a substantial initial investment to qualify. It’s basically an insurance wrapper for your investments that will not be taxed when taken out.

As a reminder to myself: always invert! Look for disconfirming evidence critiquing all these products and strategies and weigh your decision only after you can argue the other side just as well as your side.

Book Notes: MONEY: Master the Game by Anthony Robbins