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Mindfulness, The Shortness of Life, & What a Brain is For

Resource: A Life of One’s Own: A Penetrating 1930s Field Guide to Self-Possession, Mindful Perception, and the Art of Knowing What You Really Want

“That tuning into one’s most elemental being, she came to realize, was the mightiest conduit to inhabiting one’s own life with truthfulness and integrity undiluted by borrowed standards of self-actualization.” -Maria Popova


Inner stillness is the foundation for meaningful movement. What gives greatest pleasure and significance to our actions is the interior solitude out of which they’re born.

Watchfulness is the state of observing your thoughts without pushing them away or hiding from them. In watchfulness, you simply let thoughts arise and disperse of their own accord.

Sometimes we think of thoughts as a cart-horse to pulled along by our efforts, but thoughts also have a Pegasus-like quality whereby the land aside us and swoop away without us know where they come from and where they go.

So much of our lives is filled with busyness and goal-achievement. This is the narrow focus. There is also the wide focus: a state of mind whereby we slow down and look at the big picture without forcing our observations to have utility.

It’s easy to internalize other people’s desires for you while fooling yourself into thinking you’re being an independent individual. The only way to liberate yourself from second-hand ideas/purposes is to take a break from so much goal-oriented action and get to know the voice of your own silence.

Happiness is among the hardest work there is. It’s easier to settle for someone else’s desires for you even if that involves “being productive.”


Beautiful introduction:

“In 1926, more than a decade before a team of Harvard psychologists commenced history’s longest and most revelatory study of human happiness and half a century before the humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm penned his classic on the art of living, the British psychoanalyst and writer Marion Milner (February 1, 1900–May 29, 1998) undertook a seven-year experiment in living, aimed at unpeeling the existential rind of all we chronically mistake for fulfillment — prestige, pleasure, popularity — to reveal the succulent, pulsating core of what makes for genuine happiness. Along her journey of “doubts, delays, and expeditions on false trails,” which she chronicled in a diary with a field scientist’s rigor of observation, Milner ultimately discovered that we are beings profoundly different from what we imagine ourselves to be — that the things we pursue most frantically are the least likely to give us lasting joy and contentment, but there are other, truer things that we can train ourselves to attend to in the elusive pursuit of happiness.” -Maria Popova

On the hard work of happiness:

“Let no one think it is an easy way because it is concerned with moments of happiness rather than with stern duty or high moral endeavour. For what is really easy, as I found, is to blind one’s eyes to what one really likes, to drift into accepting one’s wants ready-made from other people, and to evade the continual day to day sifting of values. And finally, let no one undertake such an experiment who is not prepared to find himself more of a fool than he thought.” -Joanna Field/Marion Milner

On the narrow/wide focus:

“As soon as I began to study my perception, to look at my own experience, I found that there were different ways of perceiving and that the different ways provided me with different facts. There was a narrow focus which meant seeing life as if from blinkers and with the centre of awareness in my head; and there was a wide focus which meant knowing with the whole of my body, a way of looking which quite altered my perception of whatever I saw. And I found that the narrow focus way was the way of reason. If one was in the habit of arguing about life it was very difficult not to approach sensation with the same concentrated attention and so shut out its width and depth and height. But it was the wide focus way that made me happy.” -Joanna Field/Marion Milner

How inner experience and self-awareness is enhanced by the effort to describe it:

“Not only did I find that trying to describe my experience enhanced the quality of it, but also this effort to describe had made me more observant of the small movements of the mind. So now I began to discover that there were a multitude of ways of perceiving, ways that were controllable by what I can only describe as an internal gesture of the mind. It was as if one’s self-awareness had a central point of interest being, the very core of one’s I-ness. And this core of being could, I now discovered, be moved about at will; but to explain just how it is done to someone who has never felt it for himself is like trying to explain how to move one’s ears.” -Joanna Field/Marion Milner

How mindful observation, detached from considerations of utility, leads to wisdom/meaning:

“If just looking could be so satisfying, why was I always striving to have things or to get things done? Certainly I had never suspected that the key to my private reality might lie in so apparently simple a skill as the ability to let the senses roam unfettered by purposes. I began to wonder whether eyes and ears might not have a wisdom of their own.” -Joanna Field/Marion Milner

On remaining open to life’s hidden purposes and not forcing the self into a preconceived theory:

“I had been continually exhorted to define my purpose in life, but I was now beginning to doubt whether life might not be too complex a thing to be kept within the bounds of a single formulated purpose, whether it would not burst its way out, or if the purpose were too strong, perhaps grow distorted like an oak whose trunk has been encircled with an iron band. I began to guess that my self’s need was for an equilibrium, for sun, but not too much, for rain, but not always… So I began to have an idea of my life, not as the slow shaping of achievement to fit my preconceived purposes, but as the gradual discovery and growth of a purpose which I did not know. I wrote: “It will mean walking in a fog for a bit, but it’s the only way which is not a presumption, forcing the self into a theory.” -Joanna Field/Marion Milner

On the difference between being yourself versus taking ownership of what someone else wants for you:

“I had at least begun to guess that my greatest need might be to let go and be free from the drive after achievement — if only I dared. I had also guessed that perhaps when I had let these go, then I might be free to become aware of some other purpose that was more fundamental, not self-imposed private ambitions but some thing which grew out of the essence of one’s own nature. People said: ‘Oh, be yourself at all costs’. But I had found that it was not so easy to know just what one’s self was. It was far easier to want what other people seemed to want and then imagine that the choice was one’s own.” -Joanna Field/Marion Milner

On the Pegasus-like nature of thoughts/ideas:

“I came to the conclusion then that “continual mindfulness” could certainly not mean that my little conscious self should be entirely responsible for marshalling and arranging all my thoughts, for it simply did not know enough. It must mean, not a sergeant-major-like drilling of thoughts, but a continual readiness to look and readiness to accept whatever came…. Whenever I did so manage to win its services I began to suspect that thought, which I had always before looked on as a cart-horse, to be driven, whipped and plodding between shafts, might be really a Pegasus, so suddenly did it alight beside me from places I had no knowledge of.” -Joanna Field/Marion Milner

How a mindful, non-judgmental watching of one’s thoughts leads to the knowledge of one’s true needs:

“I had also learnt how to know what I wanted; to know that this is not a simple matter of momentary decision, but that it needs a rigorous watching and fierce discipline, if the clamouring conflict of likes is to be welded into a single desire. It had taught me that my day-to-day personal “wants” were really the expression of deep underlying needs, though often the distorted expression because of the confusions of blind thinking. I had learnt that if I kept my thoughts still enough and looked beneath them, then I might sometimes know what was the real need, feel it like a child leaping in the womb, though so remotely that I might easily miss it when over-busy with purposes. Really, then, I had found that there was an intuitive sense of how to live. For I had been forced to the conclusion that there was more in the mind than just reason and blind thinking, if only you knew how to look for it; the unconscious part of my mind seemed to be definitely something more than a storehouse for the confusions and shames I dared not face. […] It was only when I was actively passive, and content to wait and watch, that I really knew what I wanted.” -Joanna Field/Marion Milner

On the vigilant practice of mindful understanding as the key to liberating oneself from second-hand ideas/agendas:

“By keeping a diary of what made me happy I had discovered that happiness came when I was most widely aware. So I had finally come to the conclusion that my task was to become more and more aware, more and more understanding with an understanding that was not at all the same thing as intellectual comprehension…. Without understanding, I was at the mercy of blind habit; with understanding, I could develop my own rules for living and find out which of the conflicting exhortations of a changing civilization was appropriate to my needs. And, by finding that in order to be more and more aware I had to be more and more still, I had not only come to see through my own eyes instead of at second hand, but I had also finally come to discover what was the way of escape from the imprisoning island of my own self-consciousness.”

Resource: Life is Short

“Bullshit…is the junkfood of experience.” -Paul Graham

“Relentlessly prune bullshit, don’t wait to do things that matter, and savor the time you have. That’s what you do when life is short.” -Paul Graham


Life is short if you think about it in terms of how many opportunities you’ll get to enjoy specific stages/types of experience. For example, you get no more than 6 years to experience your child as a teenager. You get no more than about 8 years to experience the phenomenon of “Christmas as magic” with your children.

Thinking about the shortness of life helps you minimize the amount of time you spend on bullshit.

Strategic and successful bullshit avoidance is essential for a happy and healthy life.

There are two sources of bullshit: the kind that you’re forced to deal with circumstantially and the kind you create for yourself by wasting your own time on things that are high in short-term pleasure/ease but low in long-term value.

A good thought-experiment for helping yourself to avoid bullshit is asking yourself “will i enjoy this in the future?” Will my future self thank me for this? Will I be happy that I did this when I’m 50, 60, 70, etc?

The shortness of life always catches us by surprise and we tend to err on the side of overestimating how long our windows of opportunity will remain open.


The fleeting nature of life’s stages and how kids help us quantify time:

“Having kids showed me how to convert a continuous quantity, time, into discrete quantities. You only get 52 weekends with your 2 year old. If Christmas-as-magic lasts from say ages 3 to 10, you only get to watch your child experience it 8 times. And while it’s impossible to say what is a lot or a little of a continuous quantity like time, 8 is not a lot of something. If you had a handful of 8 peanuts, or a shelf of 8 books to choose from, the quantity would definitely seem limited, no matter what your lifespan was.” -Paul Graham

On the difference it makes to know/believe that life is short:

“It means arguments of the form “Life is too short for x” have great force. It’s not just a figure of speech to say that life is too short for something. It’s not just a synonym for annoying. If you find yourself thinking that life is too short for something, you should try to eliminate it if you can.”

Minimizing bullshit is a perennial practice:

“It may be that less bullshit is forced on you than you think, though. There has always been a stream of people who opt out of the default grind and go live somewhere where opportunities are fewer in the conventional sense, but life feels more authentic. This could become more common.”

On minimizing bullshit as an entrepreneur:

“if you consciously prioritize bullshit avoidance over other factors like money and prestige, you can probably find employers that will waste less of your time.”

“If you’re a freelancer or a small company, you can do this at the level of individual customers. If you fire or avoid toxic customers, you can decrease the amount of bullshit in your life by more than you decrease your income.”

How imagining your future self can help you minimize bullshit:

“One heuristic for distinguishing stuff that matters is to ask yourself whether you’ll care about it in the future. Fake stuff that matters usually has a sharp peak of seeming to matter. That’s how it tricks you. The area under the curve is small, but its shape jabs into your consciousness like a pin.”

On the illusion of indefinite time and how shortness surprises us:

“If life is short, we should expect its shortness to take us by surprise. And that is just what tends to happen. You take things for granted, and then they’re gone. You think you can always write that book, or climb that mountain, or whatever, and then you realize the window has closed. The saddest windows close when other people die. Their lives are short too. After my mother died, I wished I’d spent more time with her. I lived as if she’d always be there. And in her typical quiet way she encouraged that illusion. But an illusion it was. I think a lot of people make the same mistake I did.”

Resource: Getting Things Done


The brain is at its best when it’s making connections, not when it’s remembering facts.

An external brain is to your biological brain what an automobile is to your ability to walk. In terms of getting you where you want to go, it can take you further and faster.

Being organized is not an end in itself. It’s a way of facilitating flow.


GTD as a way to increase meaning, mindfulness, and flow in your work:

“GTD is more than just a way to manage tasks and projects. In many respects it is more concerned with fundamental issues of meaningful work, mindful living, and psychological well-being than simply offering methods for being more efficient or productive for their own sake. ”

On what your brain is there for:

“Your mind is designed to have ideas, based upon pattern detection, but it isn’t designed to remember much of anything! ”

“Because of the way the mind developed, it is brilliant at recognition, but terrible at recall. You can glance at today’s calendar and in the course of a few seconds get a coherent sense of the day and its contents and contexts. But you’d have a terrible time trying to recall the contents of the next fourteen days on your calendar merely from memory. ”

The fundamental unreliability of memory:

“The bottom line is that when you use your memory as your organizing system (as most everyone on the planet still does, for most of what they’re doing to manage their lives), your mind will effectively become overwhelmed and incompetent, because you are demanding of it intense work for which it is not well equipped. “

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