Of the many good things about spring, about now is when the lightening sky starts providing useful cues for waking up. If it’s still dark, I don’t need to check the time and can just go back to sleep. And if it’s getting light outside, it’s time to get up.

On Sam Harris and Stephen Fry’s Meditation Debate

Interesting thoughts about meditation here:

Meditation, by contrast, is more palliative than instrumental, especially in its modern secular applications. It’s meant to soothe mental dis-ease, not to unlock accomplishment previously unobtainable to our species.

Source: On Sam Harris and Stephen Fry’s Meditation Debate – Study Hacks – Cal Newport

It clearly bears more thinking about, but my almost automatic response is to point out that the earliest traditions of meditation that we know about were not the “palliative” mindfulness meditation currently being taught to a mass audience, but the meditative practices of shamans and such, whose purpose was to induce altered states of consciousness along the lines of those produced by psychedelic chemicals.

Those practices were precisely to unlock capabilities otherwise unavailable.

Walking to Mordor

A few years ago Jackie and I undertook to walk to Rivendell, replicating (the mileage of) Bilbo’s journey. We started, but we found that tracking the mileage in a notebook or spreadsheet didn’t really suit, and our venture rather petered out. (We got plenty of walking in that year. We just quit tracking it against Bilbo’s journey.)

Recently our friend Ashley Price started a walk to Mordor, replicating the mileage of Frodo’s journey from The Lord of the Rings, and it turns out that now there’s an app for that. You enter your mileage for each leg, and it tells you as you reach each milestone along the way. It also has a mechanism for “friends,” so you can see as they reach their milestones.

So Jackie and I are taking another stab at it. I installed the app, and for several days now have been entering our daily mileage.

If you want to join us, feel free to install the Walk to Mordor app yourself and friend me! (I’m in there as Philip Brewer, although perhaps I should have had some hobbitish name.)

Today we walked some in the University arboretum.

Unfortunately we got started just as the weather turned awful, so we haven’t been making very many miles per day so far. But as soon as it gets a little nicer, I’m sure we’ll start racking up miles as fast as our little hobbit feet can move us along.

Edited to add: We are also re-reading the Lord of the Rings. We meant to read along with our walk, but so far we’re reading quite a bit faster than we can walk. Maybe we’ll catch up at Rivendell where there’s a bit of a pause in the walking, but the prose carries on.

Our 8-movement taiji form

I have always let my students make videos of me doing the form, for their own practice. This session it turned out that, instead of several people wanting their own video, everybody noticed one video being made and all asked for copies. So the guy posted the video he took to YouTube.

There’s both a front view (so you can see my hands) and a rear view (for following along).

If you’re a student and want access to the video to study or practice with, or if you’re just interested in the taiji form I teach in my class, here you go.

Front view:

Rear view:

I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out. Videography by Randy and Marti Markward.

How meditation is like weight lifting

On a recent podcast, Tim Ferriss and Peter Attia drew a parallel between weight lifting and meditation that really resonated for me.

Some people really like weight lifting. They enjoy the ambiance of the gym. They like doing the reps. They like “feeling the burn” as they finish a good set. They like the way their muscles feel trashed at the end.

Other people hate all those things, and loath every minute that they spend in the gym—but they lift weights anyway for the benefits that result: stronger muscles, stronger tendons, stronger bones, healthier joints, improved insulin sensitivity, increased neurogenesis and brain plasticity.

In much the same way, some people really like meditation. They enjoy the sitting (or standing, or moving). They enjoy the centeredness. They like bringing their attention to their breath (or their mantra or their mandala). They like the focus. They like the stillness. They like the peace.

Other people hate meditation. They find it boring. They find it uncomfortable. They find no stillness or peace. Their attention constantly wanders. Their efforts feel like repeated failure.

While everybody knows that you go to the gym and lift weights to get stronger—not to prove that you’re already strong—many people fail to understand that the same is true of meditation. You don’t meditate to prove that you have great focus. You meditate to get better at noticing when you’re thinking and better at letting your thoughts go.

The point of a meditative practice is not to have a 20-minute session that feels like a success. When you are sitting and you notice that you are thinking, and you let that thought go, and return your attention to your breath—that’s a rep. That’s what you’re practicing. If you do it twenty times in a five-minute meditation session. . . . Well, that’s twenty reps. That’s an extremely successful session of meditative practice.

My point here is that doing the work of practicing meditating is worth doing, even if the meditation sessions themselves feel like one failure after another. Just like the point of lifting weights is to be stronger in the other 23 hours and 40 minutes of the day when you’re not lifting, the point of a meditation practice is to be better at paying attention the other 23 hours and 40 minutes of the day when you’re not meditating.

Adulting my to-read pile

For some time now I’ve found myself in the middle of an unusually large number of books. Actually, that’s not quite true—I’ve forever gotten myself in the middle of multiple books; what’s different lately is that I’ve found it difficult to crank on through to the end of them.

I recently figured out why, which led to me telling Jackie, “I used to be able to just sit down for four or six hours and finish a book or two or three, but I don’t seem to be able to do that any more.”

Jackie of course immediately spotted the issue, which was why I put it that way. “With your new focus on movement,” she said, “you’re much less willing to just sit down for four or six hours to do anything.”

I actually have data showing this. My new Oura ring has a feature to alert me if I spend 50 minutes sitting (or standing) still, but that nagging function is going virtually unused—I’ve gotten exactly one ding for a “long period of inactivity” in the past month. I just don’t sit still for as long as fifty minutes any more.

Getting in plenty of movement is great, and I certainly feel better for doing it, but until recently has had an unfortunate side-effect: I’ve found it very easy to waste those less-than-fifty-minute blocks of time.

In fifty minutes I can check my email, scroll through my twitter feed and my facebook feed, read a couple of articles people have shared links to, and check my RSS feeds. And then after going for a walk or a workout (or just making a cup of coffee), I can waste another fifty minutes.

But fifty minutes is plenty of time to get something useful done, such as reading a chunk of a book. Just lately, finally, I’ve been using those blocks of time that way. (Like a grownup!)

By applying myself to reading books, I am making good progress. I just finished Eliot Peper’s Borderless, which was excellent, and I’m more than halfway through Mathew Walker’s Why We Sleep, which is absolutely fascinating. I hesitate to start Sean B. Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful until I finish the sleep book. But, having made some progress, I feel like . . . . Well, not like I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. More like I figured out how to go spelunking in the book-reading caverns without bonking my head, scraping my knees, and getting a crick in my back.

It’s not like the old days, when I could curl up in a chair (or sprawl out on the floor) and read for hours. But it’s probably better.

Wall of Plufs

Several of the exercises Jackie’s physical therapist had her do involved stepping over padded blocks, both forward and back and sideways and back.

That was fine in the gym where the therapist worked, but at home we lacked the padded blocks, so Jackie had to improvise. It turns out that a three-pack of plufs is pretty close to the height of two of the padded blocks stacked on top of one another, and we had a few three-packs on hand.

One thing I had noticed when Jackie was doing the exercise in the gym was that she tended to swing her foot out to the side, rather than lift it up high enough to clear the obstacle. To help herself remember not to do that, Jackie went ahead and built a whole wall of plufs. (In fact, sometimes she’d go so far as to stack an extra box on top of the three-pack to the side, so that straight ahead offered a lower barrier than to the side.)

The course of physical therapy has worked very well for Jackie. After just seven visits over less than a month, she has recovered “normal”range of motion in her hip. The improvement has also shown up in her gait.

Jackie wanted me to use this post to solicit comments from other people about improvised exercise equipment. What household stuff do you guys use?

(I should also mention that our facial tissue of choice is “Puffs plus lotion.” But that’s too long to say, so we call them “plufs,” a term which you are welcome to adopt for your own use.)

Fixed my Clarion journal

Some time ago (trying to fix something else) I switched my web host to run PHP version 7.2, and didn’t notice that doing so had broken the glue code that made my Clarion Journal entries work.

When I did notice that it was broken I didn’t fix it right away. Partially that was because I had been meaning for some time to import all those journal entries into the WordPress blog. (Among other things, that would mean all those entries would be properly included in my site map.) More to the point, it was because fixing it would require debugging and coding PHP, something I hadn’t done in more than 10 years.

Today, though, I got email from a guy who had tried to read my journal and had found it missing, and that turned out to be the kick I needed to go in and fix the PHP code. (The fix turned out to be utterly trivial.)

So, I made the necessary fixes and Philip Brewer’s Writing Progress is once again on-line. (The first day at Clarion is June 3, 2001.)

The vitamin D window opens in 4 hours!

From 11:56 AM until 12:12 PM today, the sun will be high enough in the sky that its powerful actinic rays will reach the earth with enough energy for exposed skin to produce vitamin D.

Of course, the temperature around noon will be about 12℉, so I’m not expecting to have much exposed skin, but it is still nice to know that vitamin D production will be possible.

There might be an unseasonably warm and sunny day at any time this month or next, giving me a chance to make some vitamin D. And soon enough spring will come.

(Ephemeris data valid for where I live. The opening of the vitamin D window will likely be different for you.)