Ignorance about retiring early

It’s been eleven years since I retired, at age forty-eight.

I hesitated at first to call it “retiring early,” even though in my head that’s exactly what I was doing. Partially that was because I hadn’t decided to take the plunge. I had been intending to retire early, doing the planning, doing the saving. But part of a proper early retirement is deciding that you’re ready, based on having established an income stream that covers your expenses.

I hadn’t done that. What I did was learn that my employer was closing down the site where I worked, and then wing it. I counted my money; I did some figuring. I secretly figured that I could retire, but I didn’t tell people that. What I told people was that, “Although I couldn’t retire, I had reached the point where I didn’t need to work a regular job any more.”

I’d meant to celebrate the 10-year anniversary with a post about how things had gone, but haven’t gotten around to it. And I guess this isn’t going to be that post either, because I’ve gotten so annoyed by an ignorant article  by Jared Dillian in Bloomberg Opinion, The ‘Radical Saving’ Trend Is Based on Fantasy—which manages to both be wrong about the facts, and (more fundamentally) miss the whole point—that I’m compelled to write a response.

Dillian’s item number one manages to be both wrong on the facts and miss the point in roughly equal measure:

Most people save now because they want to consume later. But the FIRE folks don’t want people to consume. For the FIRE folks, the point of saving is simply not to have to work. To give you the freedom to do whatever you desire over the last 50 years of your life. Trouble is, the freedom to do anything you want isn’t much fun when you’re hemmed in by a microscopic budget.

First of all, the “financial independence/retire early” (FIRE) folks do want to consume. It’s just that they’ve figured out that, at some point, just consuming more doesn’t make your life better. Rather, they’ve thought deeply about what they need to consume to make themselves happy, they consume that, and then they stop consuming.

I think of it as drawing a line under the stuff that’s worth paying up to get all I want of exactly what I want, and then paying zero for the things that don’t make the cut. (Most people don’t do this. Instead of a cutoff they have a gradual trickle off, spending smaller and smaller amounts as they work their way down the list of things they want. This is no way to be happy. The money they’re spending on stuff they only kinda want eats into the money they could be spending on the stuff they really, really want.)

Second, the whole point of FIRE is not to “simply not have to work.” Rather, the point is to free yourself to do whatever work you want, instead of whatever work pays best. Everybody I know who’s retired early still works at something.

This point is made very clearly by literally everybody I know of who has written about FIRE. To miss it suggests either that Jared Dillian was very careless indeed in doing his research, or that he is willfully missing the point.

Third, it’s simply false to say that “the freedom to do anything you want isn’t much fun when you’re hemmed in by a microscopic budget.” Rather, the freedom to do anything you want enables you to do the most important thing you can think of.

Maybe the most important thing you can think of is really expensive (in which case you’d have saved a lot of money to fund your retirement). But very likely the most important thing you can think of is free, or cheap, or even modestly remunerative. (The list is endless—crafting musical instruments, researching obscure topics in your field you didn’t have time for while working full time, helping care for a family member, documenting the history of your ethnic group, researching the natural history of your region, working for a candidate or a political party or a non-profit that’s trying to stop global warming or child trafficking or hunger or poverty…)

Finally, who says your budget has to be microscopic? Rather, your budget should fund your planned expenses. If the most important thing you can think of is to take a round-the-world cruise every year, you’ll want to save more money than someone whose most important work is to study the local mosses.

I’m going to skip over his second item, because he just makes the same mistake again, imagining a purpose of being able to “consume more later” is a better justification for saving than being able to live exactly the life you want to live and do your most important work.

His third item manages both to make the same mistake yet again, and to insult everybody who understands the difference between the most important work you could do and the work that pays the most:

What is wrong with working? Why do the FIRE people dislike working so much that they want to quit at age 35? Working gives people purpose… I have had unpleasant jobs, and even working an unpleasant job is preferable to not working at all. I am one of these people who thinks there is dignity in working, that every job is important no matter how small.

(I left out a random swipe against basic income.)

I don’t know any FIRE people who dislike working. I know a lot of FIRE people who dislike working at regular jobs. I know a lot of FIRE people who dislike working for psycho bosses, bosses who take inappropriate advantage of them, and stupid bosses who don’t know how to do their job well. I know a lot of FIRE people who think there is great dignity in choosing to do whatever they think their most important work is, regardless of whether it pays enough to live on.

I’ve worked at bad jobs now and then. Not unpleasant jobs, which are okay as long as the work is worth doing. But some jobs are not worth doing.

One example: a manager one place I used to work put huge pressure on employees to finish a task, despite knowing that the project the task was for had been canceled —because completing the project on-time was required for the manager to get a big bonus. That is work that was not worth doing. (Literally. It produced nothing of value to the company, while keeping the employees from doing something that would be valuable.) That sort of situation, which is more common that you might think, is what FIRE people are trying to escape.

Finally, Dillian suggests:

The biggest issue with the FIRE movement is that it’s the ultimate bull market phenomenon. FIRE seems to work because the stock market has gone straight up. A bear market will change that. Even if stocks do return 8 percent to 12 percent over time, it’s not going to be any fun living on a shoestring budget and watching your nest egg decline in value by 30 percent to 50 percent.

Here I have actual first-hand experience. My early retirement started in the summer of 2007, and pretty much right after that came the financial crisis in which my stock portfolio lost about 40% of its value.

I engaged in some pretty dark humor during those first two years, joking about how I wouldn’t want to be retiring early in that kind of market.

In fact, I was just fine. I did the obvious things: I found a way to earn a little money (in my case by writing, which was what I wanted to do anyway), and I got a little extra frugal (on a temporary basis, to preserve my capital).

So, yes, I did live on a “shoestring budget” for a few years while watching my nest egg decline—although not by as much as 30%, even though the stock portion lost 40%, because the bond portion soared and the cash portion remained stable (although the income it produced declined).

Contrary to Dillian’s concerns, it was actually great fun. I was writing full time—fiction in the mornings and articles about personal finance and frugality for Wise Bread in the afternoons—which was exactly what I wanted to do. We didn’t travel much, and we didn’t buy much in the way of new clothes, but we were very happy.

Since then my portfolio has more than recovered. Part of that was just the bull market. Part of it was basic portfolio re-balancing, which automatically had me sell bonds near the peak and buy stocks near the bottom.

After all, the 4% rule (which I assume is what Dillian is implicitly rejecting) was never a law of nature. It’s always been just an empirical guideline. The FIRE people all understand that you can’t just “set and forget” your spending. Instead you need to pay attention, and adjust as needed. Maybe you need to spend less. Maybe you need to find a way to earn a little money. I did both those things, although not very much of either one.

For eleven years now I’ve spent every day doing exactly what I chose to do.

What I chose to do has varied, of course. At first it was all writing. When I realized that I wasn’t taking full advantage of not needing to be at my desk during working hours, I rearranged my schedule so I could spend more of the daylight hours engaged in outdoor exercise. I took a taiji class, discovered that I really enjoyed the practice, and persisted with it. Now I teach taiji, and it has become one of those modestly remunerative things I was talking about.

But for eleven years, it’s always been whatever I most wanted to do.

Movement in 2017

I’m pretty pleased with 2017 on a movement front. As I sat down to write this, I had been feeling a little discouraged about how slow my progress seemed on the strength front, but when I looked back at where I was one, two, and three years ago, I can see that I’m actually making steady progress. (And, after I’d started drafting this post, I managed to do a chin-up, so I’m especially pleased about that.)

I feel like I’ve pretty much managed to internalize my realization that movement trumps exercise. I certainly don’t move enough, but I’m much more inclined to notice now whenever I do something that minimizes or outsources my movement. This gives me a chance to say, “Never mind. I’ll go ahead and do that myself.”

Since I don’t move enough, I have to add exercise to the mix. Especially in the winter, when the cold and the dark and the ice make it tough to fit all the movement in, I exercise. And I pick my exercises with the goal of improving the capabilities—mobility (especially), strength, control and access to appropriate movement patterns—that I found were limiting factors last summer.

This last—access to movement patterns—is new. I’m just coming to realize that in many cases my limitations are not (or not entirely) a lack of strength or flexibility, but rather are due to poor patterning of the movement. More on that below.

Exercise

I stuck with the exercises I’ve been focusing on for three years now, and added a couple.

Squatting

I finally made real progress in squatting, and it turned out to be a really simple thing that made the difference—and probably a movement pattern thing.

In one of the classes I took with Ashley Price, she had us find the best squat we could do with perfect form. That is, we got in neutral posture with our feet hip width apart, our feet pointing straight forward, our femurs neutral, and then we squatted down only as far as we could go while keeping our shins vertical.

My discovery was that by first getting as far down as I could with my shins vertical, I was in a posture that let me easily lower down the rest of the way into a deep squat. It’s not a perfect deep squat (I wouldn’t want to load up my back with a heavy weight and lift it) and it’s not quite to where I can comfortably rest at the bottom of a deep squat (although it is getting pretty close), but it is now a useful capability. For example, on the last day of the year I got down in a deep squat to look over the choices in our liquor cabinet, and ended up lingering there for some little time. (The range of choices is rather large just now, thanks to a generous gift and a bit of splurging on our own.)

Basically, I’m happy with my progress on squatting.

Hanging

Here I’m finally making great progress—chin-up!

Other than that I’m pretty much doing what I’ve been doing—negative pull-ups. Sometimes I do them for volume (I’ve done as much as 3 sets of 7, or 2 sets of 8 plus a few). Other times I’ve been doing many fewer sets and reps, concentrating instead on doing them very slowly.

Just since doing my chin-up I’ve begun to recognize a movement pattern issue here as well. Based on how sore my traps were after my first chin-up, while my lats weren’t sore at all, I think I’m failing to initiate the pull with my lats. I’m addressing that two ways. First, I’m doing the negative pull-ups very slowly, trying to find the point where I transition to using my lats and emphasize that part of the move. Second, I’m trying to specifically engage the lats by pulling my shoulders back and down before trying to pull myself up.

Besides all that I’m sticking with my other hanging exercises—swinging side-to-side and back-to-front, leg raises, knee-ups, and I’ve added some twisting knee-ups as well, turning my hips to alternate sides and raising my knees toward my elbow on that side. I’m also ready to start doing some traversals along the bar.

Wall dip

I haven’t made much progress here, for much the same reasons as last year: wall dips are hard, and I’ve been working on various progressions instead. I play around with bench dips and (rather shallow) parallel bar dips and wall supports.

Another reason I’m not making much progress here is that for my main pushing exercise I’ve been emphasizing pushups.

Toe stretches

I’m reasonably pleased with my progress on toe flexibility as well, even though I haven’t actually increased my range of motion much. What I’ve done is improve my ankle dorsiflexion enough that I’ve been able to start doing the things I couldn’t do because of limited toe flexibility.

There’s a particular move I wanted to be able to do, that involved shifting from a squat to a deep knee bend, then lowering the knees to the ground and then kneeling. It can also be reversed by flexing the ankles to tuck the toes under, rocking back to get into a deep knee bend, and then shifting to a squat for standing back up.

Among other things, this is a martial arts move: You can move from kneeling to standing while keeping your hands free to block an attack (or prepare to launch one).

I can sorta do that now. Not smoothly, and not without an amount of toe stretching that feels a bit excessive, but vastly better than two years ago where a single attempt hurt my knees and toes enough that it took weeks to recover.

Pushups

As I said, instead of dips I’ve instead been focusing on pushups. I’ve made good progress here as well: I can now do 8 pushups (up from 1 a little over a year ago). I’ve also greatly improved my form—keeping my elbows tucked in close to my sides, rather than letting them flair out as I’d probably done since I was a kid in gym class. (Your humeri should be neutral with your elbow pits pointed forward.)

Now that I can do 8 pushups it’s about time to start doing multiple sets—maybe starting with 2 sets of 5? I’ll try that in a couple of days.

I don’t have long-term plans to emphasize pushups though. I’ll keep doing them, but once I can do a couple of sets of pushups and still have some strength left in my triceps, I’ll get back to work on the various sorts of dips.

Kettlebell swings

This year I added kettlebell swings to my exercise regimen. I want to talk about this a bit, because there’s a story here.

About a year and a half ago I was out on a very long walk with Jackie. Toward the end we sat down on some concrete benches for a short rest, and I found that there was an uncomfortable lump right behind where I was sitting. Shifting around to find a lumpless spot was not successful. Eventually I figured it out: I had lost enough weight that I no longer had enough cushioning to keep my tailbone up off the bench; the lump I felt was my coccyx.

Figuring that bigger glutes would be a better choice for keeping my coccyx up off the bench than fat anyway, I started boosting the weight I used in my goblet squats. Then I remembered an old post by Tim Ferris that recommended kettlebell swings as the best glute exercise. Then some anonymous kind soul donated a 45 lb kettlebell to the Winfield Village fitness room.

Looking at my training log, it appears that I started doing kettlebell swings in January, and worked up to 3 sets of 25 by April. As Tim had recommended 75 reps as a target, I’ve left it there. I don’t have data on the size of my glutes, but I’m no longer bothered when I sit on a hard bench.

I use the kettlebell swings as my high-intensity interval training as well. A set of 25 swings spikes my heart rate up right toward my max heart rate. (I’ve actually seen heart rates above my estimated max heart rate, which just means that the estimate is a bit off.) Each set takes about 50 seconds, and I follow it with as much rest as I need to get my heart rate back down around 100, which works out to two or three minutes.

I’ve toyed with the idea of adding a fourth set, and might yet do that.

Non-exercise movement

My main non-exercise movement is and always has been walking. It was a bit limited in the second half of this year because I hurt my feet, and one foot in particular has taken a long time to recover.

I think what happened was this: I was waiting for the bus, which unbeknownst to me had been rerouted due to road construction. Seeing the bus zip past a block away, I took off running to try to catch it at the next stop. In the rush I think I must have fallen into an old heel-strike movement pattern, bruising my heels, resulting in this nagging foot pain. Only in the last few days of the year does it seem to finally be completely resolved.

Walking

I still walk a good bit for transportation, just less than I was doing before I hurt my feet. I’ve also done less walking with Jackie since she started working at Great Harvest bakery. (This does not mean less walking for her—she walks to work most days.)

I expect my walking quantity to return to its old baseline quantities in the new year.

Running

Running was also curtailed by my foot injury. Before I hurt my foot I had been increasing my running distances as well, working my way up to where I did an 8-mile run for the first time in many years.

Some of my running is exercise, but a good bit is movement (as, for example, the sprint to catch the bus where I injured my feet.)

Parkour

I did spend a little time with the campus parkour club, but once again timidity (both movement timidity and social timidity) kept me from doing as much as I might have.

Each summer I mean to step this up. Maybe 2018 will be the year.

Taiji

For most of the year I teach two taiji classes—a beginners class that meets for an hour twice a week, and a group practice for continuing students (we don’t consider ourselves “advanced”) that meets for an hour three times a week. Besides that I do some taiji and qigong throughout most days. I do some qigong to loosen up in the morning. I do some before lifting to warm up, and then I do some between sets as “active recovery.” I might do a whole short form when I feel like a little moving mediation would do me some good, or even a whole long form when I feel like a lot of moving meditation would do me some good.

Basically, I do a lot of taiji.

Even when I’m not teaching I include it as part of my daily movement, simply because it has proven itself such a powerful tool for helping me move and feel better.

Push hands

Over the summer I got back together with my friends who practice push hands a few times, but we were never able to get a regular thing going, which is very sad. I’ll try again next summer.

Stewardship work days

I have continued my practice of joining Jackie for occasional stewardship work days at natural areas in and around Urbana. (I even did one without Jackie—a prairie burn.)

These are perfect examples of non-exercise movement: We don’t do them for the exercise (although we get plenty); we do them to improve the land.

They are very satisfying for many reasons—doing hard work with friends is always satisfying, contributing to the community (making the parks better) doubly so. I think an additional reason is that the actual physical movements and mental activity that we do while locating and removing invasive plants is virtually identical to those that our hunting-and-gathering ancestors must have done for most of the past two hundred  thousand years. (I see now that I made exactly the same point last year.)

Looking ahead

With one possible exception, my plans for the new year don’t include big changes, just continuing progress. (The possible exception is treating myself to a month pass to Urbana Boulders and putting my new upper-body strength to work climbing walls.)

I have had some success in getting my mind right with the cold, this year in particular, but also gradually over the past several years. I’m getting in more outdoor exercise this year than last, and a lot more than I did five or ten years ago. That, plus the indoor strength training and the taiji, look to stand me in good stead for getting 2018 off to a good start.

We’re planning a spring trip to some national parks in southern Utah which will entail a good bit of walking, so we have that bit of extra motivation to keep up with our walking over the winter.

Happy New Year!

Recover the ability to move well

Recovering the ability to move well after decades spent sitting still is hard. I’ve spent years working on it, making fitful progress—walking more, running (when I managed not to injure myself), riding my bicycle, lifting weights, doing taiji, etc. I feel better than I have since I was much younger, and I move with more flexibility, mobility, power, and control. I am very pleased with my progress, especially these past three years since I went down the rabbit hole of natural movement, but it was a hard trip.

The internet is a help—there are many, many videos of movement gurus demonstrating how to move well, and many pages with advice, corrections, and exercises for getting from here to there. One good place to start is with Katy Bowman, whose eight books and thousands of blog posts provide step-by-step instructions on recovering the ability to move well (and much else besides). But as I say, it’s hard to do without local support, and until the last few weeks my efforts had just one source of local support—my taiji instructor and community of fellow students (now my students).

So I am delighted that we now have one of Katy Bowman’s students teaching here in Champaign-Urbana: Restorative Exercise Specialist Ashley Price. I’ve taken several of her classes and can assure you that she knows her stuff and knows how to teach it.

(She also knows how to geek out about it, which is a marvelous delight for someone like me. I learned so much about shank rotation! Learning to get my humeri into neutral position made a world of difference for my rhomboid pushups.)

I gather that her special interests are things like diastasis recti, pelvic floor dysfunction (and pelvic function in general), which are potentially issues for everyone, but especially pregnant and postpartum women, but she also teaches the full range: foot function (did you know that your foot contains 26 bones and 33 joints?), squatting, neutral posture, core function, shoulder mobility, etc.

Getting this sort of local support earlier would have helped me a lot. Although most of the work of recovering the ability to move better comes in the form of time spent moving, it’s easy to exacerbate problems rather than improve things when you start to move more. I’ve certainly limited my own progress many times by trying to up the intensity when I should have been becoming more grounded in the basics, or simply by practicing moving incorrectly.

Taiji is an excellent movement practice, being as it is about having an intention to move in a particular way, and then paying attention to whether or not you are executing your intention. But its roots in martial arts give it a particular focus, and it does not serve all areas of movement equally well.

The first time I tweeted something about Katy Bowman, one of her senior students tweeted back, welcoming me to the fold. I said something like, “I’m just working my way through the archives of her old posts,” to which Petra Fisher responded, “That’s how it starts.” I have to admit that she was right.

If you want to learn to move better, and you’re local to the Champaign-Urbana area, I recommend Ashley Price highly.

Two bumblebees

I missed joining Jackie for a volunteer stewardship day at Meadowbrook Park yesterday because I was doing taiji in Morrissey Park instead. She wasn’t quite done when I got there to pick her up, so I used the time to walk in the prairie.

While I was there I got some pictures of bumblebees that turned out pretty well. Click through to embiggen enough to actually see the bumblebees.

Bumblebee on flower:

Bumble bee on flower

Bumblebee in flight:

Bumble bee in flight

 

Feeling good versus feeling young

A friend of mine posted to her Facebook page recently criticizing a whole category of ageist comments along the lines of “You’re only as old as you feel.”

It caught my interest in particular because I’d been mentally composing a post about how I just turned 58, but I’m not suffering the aches and pains that supposedly go along with getting old. My friend’s post reminded me that referring to this as “feeling young” is problematic. And yet, I find that I come down on the other side of this issue. Sure, there is a certain irrefutable accuracy to say that your age is the current year minus your birth year, but age is many things besides a mathematical calculation—at a minimum it’s a social construction, and also perhaps a collection of biological circumstances.

It’s true that what I mean—and what perhaps I should say—is I feel good. Better, in fact, than I’ve felt in years. I’m stronger, more flexible, and more agile than I’ve been in longer than I can remember. I move with more ease, more power, and more control. I have more endurance. I’m certainly more comfortable in my own skin.

A lot of this is just good luck, of course—good genes, avoiding serious injuries and serious illnesses so far.

Beyond good luck I credit my movement practice for most of the rest. Taiji. Walking and hiking. Running (merely an adjunct, but one I enjoy in particular). After years of lifting with machines to little noticeable effect I now do almost all my strength training with bodyweight exercises and am having much more success. (The main exception to pure bodyweight exercise is doing kettlebell swings for my high-intensity interval training, which I ought to write about because it seems to be doing some good, and is also quick and fun.) Push hands I wrote about recently. Animal movement ditto. So new I haven’t had a chance to write much about it yet, I did yoga for the first time last week.

But to bring this back full circle, I’m not so sure that it’s wrong to talk about “feeling young.” My friend is right—growing old is a privilege not everyone enjoys. It is indeed better than the alternative: dying young. But just as I can see her objections to denying age (as if refusing to acknowledge it meant something), I object to denying one’s felt experience. If someone says that they “feel young,” does an appeal to mere arithmetic justify correcting them?

Certainly I am not the only person to feel this way. There are always people trying to express health and fitness in terms of age. There are websites that will suggest a guess as to your physiological age vaguely based on your weight and your activity level. Various practitioners of various disciplines will measure specific things ranging from your maximum heart rate to the length of your telomeres and use the results to calculate a biological age.

They’re all pretty dubious, but I find that I do not object in principle to thinking and talking about concepts like health, fitness, and vitality in terms of age. Even though there are many unhealthy young people and many old people who are fit and vital, I think the notion resonates in a useful way.

As for me, I feel good. I also feel younger than I’ve felt in years.

Expanding my movement practice: Push hands

I haven’t written much yet about adding push hands to my movement practice, mainly because I don’t feel competent to describe it well.

Push hands is a taiji training technique—a way to learn how to accept and redirect force. I view it as falling roughly at the midpoint between taiji as moving meditation and taiji as a martial art.

My taiji teacher wasn’t really interested in push hands, I think because he wasn’t really interested in the martial aspects of taiji. He did give us the barest exposure to pushing, so I wasn’t a complete novice, but nearly so.

I am interested in the martial aspects of taiji, so I was delighted last year when I met a couple of people who were interested in pushing. We got together several times last fall, then let our training fall by the wayside over the winter, but started meeting again once the weather turned nice in late spring.

One of the friends I push with describes push hands as a test or diagnostic for your form practice: If your form practice is sound, you will be good at push hands.

Already my push hands practice is informing my form practice, as I learn to shift my weight to move, but simply to turn my waist to accept and redirect energy. I’m trying to learn to keep my shoulders down (a work in progress), and I’m trying to learn to keep my arms and shoulders connected to my core (same, but with less progress).

Great fun.

Free group tai chi practice

Free tai chi group practice: Monday/Wednesday/Friday at 8:30 AM in Morrissey Park!

A bunch of my students from the Savoy Rec Center (and a few other people) meet in Morrissey Park over the summer for free group practice sessions. There’s no teacher, but plenty of folks are willing to demonstrate moves—we’ve had several people learn most of the 48-movement form just by coming all summer and asking people, “How does that next move go?”

A typical hour includes 30 minutes of moving qi gong, 10 minutes of standing meditation, one or a few short forms, and then the Chen 48-movement form.

We meet Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 8:30 AM to 9:30 AM in Morrissey Park. We generally gather south and west of the tennis courts.

This year we’re starting Monday, June 5th.

Because there’s no teacher there’s no one to make an official determination that it’s too rainy for class—just decide for yourself.

Teaching meditation as a bad meditator

Because it’s part of the taiji practice that I learned from my taiji instructor, I teach meditation as one aspect of my beginner taiji class. (I also include meditation as one aspect of the class for continuing students as well, but they know how to meditate so I don’t need to try to teach it.)

I worry that I don’t do it well, because I think of myself as a bad meditator. I’m easily distracted. Too often I spend half my time thinking about what I’ll do after I’m done meditating, and half my time thinking about stuff that happened in the past and how it went well or poorly.

But I do, now, actually meditate, however badly. That wasn’t always true. I came to meditation slowly. For a long time after starting to practice taiji I just went through the motions. I would sit while we were sitting and stand while we were standing, but not really even try to meditate. And, quite predictably, I saw few of the mental and emotional benefits of meditating.

I did, though, see some of the physical benefits—also predictably, because the physical part of sitting or standing was the part I was actually doing. I wrote about this a few years ago in a post called Physical benefits of standing meditation.

And it was then—when I saw the physical benefits of meditation—that it occurred to me that it might be useful to actually try to meditate and see if maybe the other benefits might accrue to such a practice. And they have, if only perhaps in a small way, because I’m a bad meditator.

In any case, I thought I’d go ahead and write down what I say to my meditation students, in the hope that it might be useful to others. It’s usually something like this:

To my mind, meditation is about paying attention. There are many meditation traditions which suggest different things that you might pay attention to: a repeated word or phrase such as a mantra or a prayer, or an object such as a crystal, or an image such as mandala, or your posture, or your breath.

What you choose to pay attention to is not important. What is important is simply that you’re paying attention.

In this room where we practice there are things that may distract you. The refrigerator or freezer may turn on and make noise. The people who work out front may come into the room to get their lunch. The lawnmower may go past outside the window. These things are not distractions from your meditation. Rather, they are things that are actually happening at that moment. If they capture your attention, that’s just fine. That’s what meditation is: Paying attention to what is actually happening in that moment.

What would not be fine would be to become attached to those things beyond the moment.

It would not be meditating to worry that the fridge might turn on. It would not be meditating to become annoyed at someone coming into the room to get their lunch. It would not be meditating to think that the lawn mower is going by because today is Wednesday and Wednesday is the day they mow the lawn.

Still, these things will happen. Things that capture your attention will continue to hold it beyond the moment when they are actually happening. Other thoughts will inevitably intrude. These things happen to everybody, even people who are very good at meditating.

What makes someone good at meditating is not that these things don’t happen—although they may happen less as you get better at it. What makes someone good at meditating is getting better at noticing when it has happened, and better at letting go of those thoughts and returning your attention to what is actually happening right now, right where you are.

I like this way of teaching meditation. I think it is authentic—I claim no expertise whatsoever, which is good because I’m not very good at meditation. But I think what I say is true. I think it’s what meditation is about at its deepest level.

Movement in 2016

This year didn’t have a stunt like last year’s Kal-Haven Trail walk. Instead I tried to spend the year turning my realization that “getting plenty of exercise” is a poor substitute for “moving all day” into something that guided my behavior all the time.

I did not have perfect success. I still spend too many hours sitting at my computer during the day, and then spend too many hours sitting and watching videos in the evening. Neither did I fail. I included movement throughout the day most days of the year, especially through the spring, summer, and fall.

Although movement was my focus I certainly did not give up on exercise. In particular, I used exercise to make progress on developing certain capabilities that I lack.

Exercise

I had four specific things I was going to work on for 2016: squatting, toe flexibility, hanging, and wall dips. I made good progress on all them except the toe flexibility.

Squatting

My limitations in squatting turn out to be almost entirely mobility. (My personal test for this is the goblet squat. Using a modest weight—just enough to serve as a counterbalance so I can get down into a deep squat—I can do a dozen reps.)

The other ways (besides a counterbalance) to compensate for squat-limiting mobility issues are heel bolstering, hanging onto something in front of you, and taking a wide-legged sumo stance. I don’t practice the last, but use it when I want to look in my mailbox (which is down low) or into a low cabinet or the bottom of the refrigerator. I don’t much practice hanging onto something while squatting either. Most of my practice has focused on bolstering.

With a modest amount of heel-bolstering I can now get down into a deep squat, and linger there comfortably. Almost every day I do my calf and hamstring stretches and then do some squatting with progressively lower heel bolstering. I haven’t done as much hip flexor stretching as I probably need to. I’ll add that to my daily routine, both for the stretching itself, and also for the motor control practice—I’m kind of wobbly doing a hip flexor stretch, which probably causes all the related muscles to tighten up some.

Hanging

My hanging is probably where I’ve made the most progress. I can now hang for long enough (90 seconds) that there’s time to do stuff while hanging—things like swinging back-and-forth or side-to-side, pulling my knees up toward my chest, or raising my legs up in front of me.

To just hanging I added negative pull ups. After an ill-advised increase in volume hurt my shoulder in July I eased up just a bit, but still made good progress, working up to 3×5 negative pull ups.

When that turned out not to have enabled even one pull up, I changed the exercise just a bit: Now I’m doing the negative pull ups even slower, trying at each point to see if I can (from that point) lift myself up, or at least stop my descent.

Soon. Soon I will be able to do a pull up.

Wall dip

I thought I was ready to do wall dips a year ago, because I could do wall supports—support myself with my hands on the top of a wall. I could even sort-of do one wall dip—lowering myself and then pushing back up.

I didn’t train that exercise enough in the summer, largely because I didn’t have a good wall to practice on. When I came back to it in the fall, I found that going from one wall dip to two wall dips was quite challenging.

Something that is well-known in the bodyweight exercise community—that I know, but always seem to have trouble applying to myself—is that when an exercise is too hard you should back off to an easier progression.

So, just now that it’s winter, I have finally backed off a bit to an easier dip progression: bench dips (where you have your hands on a bench behind you, with your legs stretched out in front of you, and you lower and raise yourself with your arms while some weight rests on your heels).

I’ve already worked up from 1×8 bench dips to 1×12. Pretty soon I’ll be doing 3×12. Then it’ll probably be time to return to wall dips. I’ll also keep up with my wall supports, when I happen upon a good wall.

Toe stretches

The area where I’ve made the least progress is toe dorsiflexion. That’s been kind of frustrating.

This may be one area where what I need is not just more stretching (which hasn’t seemed to do any good at all) but some sort of deeper tissue work to break up adhesions, recover space in the joint capsule, etc.

It just now, while writing this, occurred to me that I probably I need to expand my focus to include my whole foot and not just the toes. So that can be my winter practice: the same, plus extra foot mobility.

Pushups

I’m adding a fifth area of focus for 2017: Pushups.

They had not been a priority before, because pushing strength in that plane is not particularly important for parkour. And yet, it’s such a basic exercise, it seems silly not to give it a little attention—particularly because I was actually really weak in that area: I could barely do one pushup.

I just decided to add pushups a few weeks ago, about the same time I figured out I should back off from wall dips to bench dips. So when I found I could barely do a pushup, I quickly realized that I should back off to something easier for that move as well. So I’ve just started doing bench pushups (hands on a bench, rather than on the floor). I can do 1×8 of those as well.

Because trying to do a pushup is so easy, I probably won’t wait until I can do 3×12 bench pushups before switching back to regular pushups; I’ll just include an occasional few (as many as I can do) in the mix. Once I can do 5 or 6, I’ll switch back to actual pushups.

Non-Exercise Movement

Walking

Without a stunt walk to work up to, Jackie and I did not walk as much this year as last, but we did plenty of long walks and at least one very long walk. Some of our walking is exercise, but most of it is either just a way to get places, or else companionable social time together—often both.

Running

I also did a good bit of running, especially before August. As I’ve been doing more and more these past two or three years, I skipped most of the short and medium runs, letting walks stand in for those, and just did the long runs. That worked surprisingly well, and in July I did a 7.25 mile run, my longest run in years. This is probably a slider as to whether it counts as “exercise” or not, but I do it as much because I enjoy it as I do it for fitness, so I think it legitimately goes here.

Parkour

Early in the summer I did some training with the campus parkour group, which was great fun. I found it a bit stressful: I’m not strong enough to do some of the basic moves, and I’m too timid to commit to some of the ones I could do if I’d just go for it. I quit going in July when I hurt my shoulder, and then never got started again. I will go back. Maybe being stronger will help some with the timidity as well.

Taiji

I’ve continued to teach taiji, and to do taiji for myself when I’m not teaching it. The qigong practice that we start each session with provides a pretty good mobility routine (although lacking in the things I mention above: hip flexion, ankle dorsiflexion, and toe dorsiflexion). It builds strength (especially leg strength), balance, and precision (matching movement to intention). It includes a meditation practice—in each class we sit for a few minutes and stand for a few minutes, as well as trying to approach the form itself as moving meditation. It fills so many rolls it goes way beyond exercise (although it’s that too).

Push hands

One new thing I added—perhaps the most fun of all—is push hands. Closely related to taiji and qigong, it’s kind of a transitional step between taiji as a moving meditation and taiji as a martial art. It deserves a post of its own, so I won’t try to describe it here, and instead just thank the new friends I’ve been able to push with and say how much I’m looking forward to practicing again now that the holidays are over.

Volunteer stewardship work days

This doesn’t really describe a category of movement at all, which is I guess the way in which this is totally not an exercise.

Jackie’s master naturalist program includes a substantial volunteer commitment. It can be met a lot of different ways, but one is working in the various parks, doing things like clearing invasive plants, planting native species, and so on.

I’ve just done a few of these, but spent a couple of hours each time moving. Some of the movement—in particular, gathering prairie seeds—must have been identical to what our ancestors would have done in gathering seeds. Others were perhaps slightly different—we had saws and pruning clippers that our earliest ancestors would not have had—but once something has been cut, the lifting and dragging is right back to being the exact same movements that humans have been doing for hundreds of thousands of years.

I’m always torn this time of year, between looking forward to spring and being able to move outdoors again, versus motivating myself to get outdoors anyway (also: finding ways to move more indoors). I’m trying to discipline myself not to just defer my plans to the spring even implicitly such as by saying “I’m looking forward to spring and being able to move outdoors again.”

I’m pleased with 2016, a year of great progress in my movement practice, and I have every reason to hope that 2017 will be even better.