Tag Archives: happiness

How to Practice Taoism: 3 Steps to Happiness

“Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to know.” – Winnie the Pooh

winnie-the-pooh-piglet-what-day-is-itAfter some tough training on Sunday morning, I got coffee (no sugar) with a couple friends in what was jokingly referred to as a book club. The three of us recently agreed to read The Tao of Pooh. It’s a book that introduces Taoism through the example of Winnie the Pooh. I prefer philosophy to be delivered with a baseball bat not with a cute fuzzy half-naked bear, but I knew very little about Taoism so this served as a good introduction, despite the style of the delivery.

I’ll cut to the chase. Taoism is a philosophy of going with the flow: not resisting nature but going with it. Like love, sex, fighting, psychodelic drugs, it’s a thing that can’t be fully described with words, it has to be discovered through experience, through searching. Ultimately, taoism is less book club, more fight club. Less think, more do. Less intellect, and more direct sensory experience.

So, now to the title of the post… There is no clear way to “practice” taoism, but here are three ways in which I look to apply the ideas of taoism in my own life.

1. Taste vinegar with a smile.

Enjoy all experience, good or bad, without resisting it, for the inherent beauty and richness of the balance it produces in the world. Without bitter, there is no sweet. PS: The vinegar reference refers to the vinegar tasters:
“Sourness and bitterness come from the interfering and unappreciative mind. Life itself, when understood and utilized for what it is, is sweet. That is the message of The Vinegar Tasters.”

2. Embrace this life, here, now.

Don’t look too much around the corner for what’s next. It’s good to have goals just to give you a practical reason to move along the path of life, but it’s the very act of moving that IS life. The day-to-day process of life is the thing to be enjoyed, embraced, experienced. Here’s Alan Watts conveying this idea with music as a metaphor:

3. Embrace the inner snail.

Do whatever you do in the easiest and most relaxed way you can manage. Move with intention but smoothly, softly without sudden jerks. Without tension or excessive emotion of anger or excitement. Remove the clumsy and the spazzy from your movement and your life. Here’s a good short Gus Van Sant clip describing this very concept of efficiency and grace in movement:

The Tao of Pooh Quotes

Here are some quotes from The Tao of Pooh that I saved on my Kindle.

Two catch phrases to live life by are: (1) “things are as they are”

“You’d be surprised how many people violate this simple principle every day of their lives and try to fit square pegs into round holes, ignoring the clear reality that Things Are As They Are.”

and (2) “life is fun”:

“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.”

Resistance is futile, and ultimately a waste in the grand scheme of things:

“Things just happen in the right way, at the right time. At least when you let them, when you work with circumstances instead of saying, ‘This isn’t supposed to be happening this way,’ and trying harder to make it happen some other way.”

More, simple human-to-human interaction is just more natural and enjoyable when you don’t try so damn hard. Don’t try, just do.

“The surest way to become tense, awkward, and confused is to develop a mind that tries too hard – one that thinks too much.”

Don’t invest too much of yourself in the “race”. Goals help guide you, but goals are meaningless outside of that. The journey is the experience, and experience is life.

“There are things about ourselves that we need to get rid of; there are things we need to change. But at the same time, we do not need to be too desperate, too ruthless, too combative. Along the way to usefulness and happiness, many of those things will change themselves, and the others can be worked on as we go. The first thing we need to do is recognize and trust our own Inner Nature, and not lose sight of it.”

Happiness is in the today not the tomorrow:

“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.”

The journey of discovery should start by be directed inwards. And does it ever need to go beyond that?

“How can you get very far,
If you don’t know who you are?
How can you do what you ought,
If you don’t know what you’ve got?
And if you don’t know which to do
Of all the things in front of you,
Then what you’ll have when you are through
Is just a mess without a clue
Of all the best that can come true
If you know What and Which and Who.”

Finding Nirvana: The Imperturbable Stillness of Mind

“Finding Nirvana is like locating silence.”
– Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

finding-nirvana-is-like-locating-silenceWhen I point the focus of my little ape brain outward into the immensity of nature, the people, the busy world around me, I’ll feel a scared chuckle build, like: “Fuck, this moment is all I have.” It’s fear. It’s beauty. The possibility of finding happiness or losing happiness or is this happiness?

Wikipedia defines the state of nirvana as “the imperturbable stillness of mind after the fires of desire, aversion, and delusion have been finally extinguished.”

It’s not the storm, it’s the calm after the storm. And there it is, the thought I have often is that the most real, rich moments are those punctuated by sadness. It’s the leaving that makes the staying for a moment fill with the life-affirming feeling of quiet meloncholy. It’s the snooze button of love, friendship, experience: just 5 more minutes and then we’ll go. It’s the violonist giving his best performance on the deck of a sinking Titanic.

And that brings me to a poem by Charles Bukowski called Nirvana. Bukowski, like many poets and writers, from the vulgar to the refined, chase the capture of this feeling in their work. Some give up, some patiently don’t try. So here it is, the poem, read by Tom Waits:

Nirvana by Charles Bukowski

Not much chance, completely cut loose from purpose,

he was a young man riding a bus through North Carolina on the way to somewhere.

And it began to snow.
And the bus stopped at a little cafe in the hills and the passengers entered.
And he sat at the counter with the others, and he ordered, the food arrived.
And the meal was particularly good.
And the coffee.

The waitress was unlike the women he had known.
She wore a tiny skirt and Lashes by Lisa.
She was unaffected, and there was a natural humor which came from her.
And the fry cook said crazy things.
And the dishwasher in back laughed a good clean pleasant laugh.

And the young man watched the snow through the window.
And he wanted to stay in that cafe forever.
The curious feeling swam through him that everything was beautiful there.
And it would always stay beautiful there.

And then the bus driver told the passengers that it was time to board.
And the young man thought: “I’ll just stay here, I’ll just stay here.”
And then he rose and he followed the others into the bus.
He found his seat and looked at the cafe through the window.
And then the bus moved off, down a curve, downward, out of the hills.

And the young man looked straight forward.
And he heard the other passengers speaking of other things,
or they were reading or trying to sleep.
And they hadn’t noticed the magic.
And the young man put his head to one side,
closed his eyes, and pretended to sleep.

There was nothing else to do,
just to listen to the sound of the engine,
and the sound of the tires

in the snow.

Balancing Work and Training Leading Up to a Major Competition

bjj-hand-raisedI’m now three weeks out from NY Open. This is where things get tough. Stepping up the training, and still managing a few trips, conference talks, research paper deadlines.

Time is not necessarily the issue here. I choose my priorities carefully, but of course even having one passion is enough to fill every minute of every day. I do the things I love and that make me happy. Right now that means two things: (1) research and (2) grappling.

Do What Makes You Happy

The biggest challenge of balancing work and training leading up to a major tournament is staying mentally focused and motivated. I have to take my body to the limit for 1-2 hours a day and then go home for 8-10 hours programming behind the computer with the same level of dedication and focus. Day after day after day. Again, the only way any incredibly taxing schedule of that sort is manageable is if it’s something you love. And indeed, it is something I love, and the moment I don’t, I stop doing it.

Gene Zannetti from Wrestling Mindset has a mindset video up that recommends before competition you focus on the things that you’ve always loved about wrestling, and not let any of the pressures of the actual tournament creep into your mind. His list (starting at the 2 minute mark of the video) is a good one and reflective of a good wrestling mindset:

  • The hard, the challenge of it.
  • The 1-on-1 combat nature of the sport.
  • Breaking the opponent, making the other guy tired.

These are some of the same reasons I love competing as well, but I would expand that list to include technical mastery. I love drilling the crap out of a technique until it becomes effortless so I can pull it off against a stronger, bigger, younger, better conditioned opponent. In other words, I love the “art” of it as well as the “heart” of it.

Sources of Stress

Throughout the training process, there is a lot of room for stress to creep in. I have to be very alert and aware of anything that’s making me at all unhappy, and figure out immediately how to remove that negative source of stress. In the past, for me, the #1 source of stress has been cutting weight. If all I did was train and sleep, then cutting weight would be a lot easier. But as sleep goes due to deadlines and work in general, the mental wear of a strict diet grows exponentially. So I was faced with a choice: don’t compete or don’t cut weight. I decided to remove the thing I hate, and keep the thing I enjoy. I moved up a weight class (I’m now about 12 lbs under) that allows me to eat as much as I want (still everything healthy, but amount is less restricted). It’s more important to remove stress, than to compete against smaller dudes. Winning is not done at the tournament. Winning is done in the years, months, weeks leading up to the tournament. And to make that process optimal, I have to enjoy the hell out of it each and every day.

A lot of times I hear advice about surrounding yourself with positive people and “removing” negative people from your “circle”. Perhaps I’ve been lucky in life, but I’ve really never encountered a person who hasn’t made my life better in some small or big way. There are a few cases when I was put under a tremendous amount of stress, but even in those situations I’ve gained so much from the experience, and am forever grateful for that. Actually, more often than not, I feel like I’m not giving back enough to my friends who are incredibly patient with my occasional bullshit.

Anyway, time to embrace the grind. Back to work…

Hikikomori: The Dim Underworld of Society’s Ghosts

I was introduced by a friend to the word hikikomori which is a Japanese term that refers to a person who seeks extreme degrees of isolation. Apparently, this is a widespread phenomenon in Japan.

After reading about it a bit online and watching some videos, this seems to be almost a part of their national identity, and is closely connected to the growing power of computer games to consume an individual’s life to the point that all other activities fall off the radar of interest. It’s a drug with the addictive power of hard drugs, but without the associated ability of those drugs to kill you.

I think many of my ex-girlfriends would characterize me as someone who doesn’t get out nearly enough. I think it’s important to hear that, and understand that, but it’s also important to be able to live life the way I want to without regret. I love good intelligent conversation with close friends. I love reading books that challenge me or fill me with awe. I love doing jiu jitsu and judo. And more than that, I love learning cutting-edge ideas and coming up with new ones myself in and around the field of computer science. Often times, all that somehow adds up to me having to say “no” to a lot of parties and social outings. This creates a perception of hikikomori, but I think that’s very far from the truth.

I’m not scared of life, of people, and of pursuing my passions with all the dedication I can muster.

But I very much find it fascinating that there is large mass of people who are pursuing their passions, and in so doing somehow gradually fall off the path that is healthy for their happiness and productivity, and find themselves trapped in the cage of their sterile habits and dim isolated existence. I suppose it is the danger that anyone with a singular passion risks. But a successful life requires successfully walking the line between crazy and happy.

Old Computer Games: Looking Back to Simple Joys of Childhood

This morning, I was sitting back, eating breakfast, thinking about the impossibly hectic life of my landlord’s maintenance man at 7am on a Tuesday. In such moments, while chewing a bit of spinach and eating canned tuna, I get to consider my life: where did I come from, where am I going?

I was skimming through science and technology news, when my eye caught the mention of “XCOM”. I could almost feel the neurons in my brain desperately trying to wake up their comrades in the attic, the long forgotten keepers of long forgotten memories. I felt as if an ex-girlfriend from a far away past showed up at my door at 3am, as must happen to everyone at least once per ex-girlfriend. I felt a melancholy smile build and clicked the link to the news article.

X-COM, the way I remember it, was a 1995 sequel to a 1994 computer game called UFO: Enemy Unknown. It has often appeared as the top 5 game of all time in IGN rankings, and  several times made it to #1. Of course, I’m not an sufficiently avid game to justify that ranking, but I will say that it is one of the only games that has ever affected me on a psychological and emotional level. I clearly remember times when I was genuinely afraid for my life while playing it. It sounds ridiculous, but I have never since been able to reach that level of immersion with any game, movie, book, or simulated experience.

Of course, it wasn’t just that the game was good. I’m sure it was. But I was also the perfect age (~12-13) to achieve a thorough suspension of disbelief to a degree that the pixelated drama on the computer screen became real drama in my life. I miss those days, when the joys and disappointments were simple, big, and all-encompassing. The bigger context not only didn’t matter, but didn’t even exist. Friendship was eternal. Love was pure. And any time I sat to play a game of UFO, I had to be prepared for a life-altering experience.

Anyway, back to Earth now, XCOM came up in the news, because a sequel is coming out today. The reviews are great and for a damn good reason. I checked out the gameplay footage, and the folks behind this sequel did what too many companies fail to do when they make sequels to classics: they stuck very close to the basic gameplay of the original. This is challenging given that the original was 17 years ago. They made the graphics sexier, the flow a little more natural, but didn’t touch any of the core personality of the game. Well done! Here’s the footage I looked at:

I only wish I was 12 again and could throw away all the baggage of deadlines, commitments, pursuits, and “real-world” goals to enjoy many hours of playing the game without feeling like I was somehow skipping out on the “more important” responsibilities. It’s sad to acknowledge that while I can still enjoy a game like this, it would not be the same, because I am no longer the same person.

Happiness is a Cheap Bike

For the last 3-4 years, I have been riding a $100 road bike purchased at Walmart. Concerned friends told me that it’s a waste of $100 because it would break down in a week. Instead I was recommended by said friends to buy something like a 1985 Bianchi at a garage sale (for the same price) and that would last me much longer, or instead save up and get a legitimate new $700+ version.

Let me tell you something, friends. I like my life simple and functional, and while I understand that you have to pay for value, I’ve found that in most aspects of my life, I can be happy with the cheap option, at least at first. I like learning about what works for me by starting with the cheap option, embracing it, and fully exploring the ways in which it is awesome and of course the ways in which it sucks.

If the cheap option leads to a serious interest in the activity it relates to, I then invest in a more expensive option. In most aspects of my life, I have yet to move past the first stage of enjoying the hell out of the cheap option. For judo and jiu jitsu, all my gi’s are still some of the cheapest out there (Fuji). Same goes for mp3 players, computers, furniture, food, cellphones, coffee, and women (only kidding on this one).

Well, my bike finally “broke down”, because the repair guy messed up an inner tube swap ($5) that now requires a $40 axle replacement. I said screw it and bought a new bike for $70. This time: a mountain bike. I’m as happy as a little kid with it. It’s not going to be as fast as a brand new Bianchi, but it’s pretty damn comfortable, and gets me from A to B in style.

Life is good.

Ultramarathon Man Confessions of an All-Night Runner

Comfort is not Happiness

An excerpt from Dean Karnazes book Ultramarathon Man:

Somewhere along the line we seem to have confused comfort with happiness. I’ve now come to believe that quite the opposite is the case. Dostoevsky had it right: “Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness.” Never are my senses more engaged than when the pain sets in. There is magic in misery. Just ask any runner.

This gets at the idea that I usually try to explain to friends, acquaintances, girls when they ask why I live my life the way I do. I don’t watch TV, I don’t go to parties / bars, I rarely drink (though when I do, I drink like a champion). Things that most people consider “comfortable” or “relaxing” don’t make me happy. If I’m not challenging myself mentally and physically, it’s not just not worth doing, it’s simply not fun for me. I enjoy relaxing, sleeping not as an activity in itself but as preparation for difficult tasks ahead. Similarly, I seek balance in my life only in as much as it helps me be most consistently productive for long periods of time.

I used to be more apologetic about these values, but then I realized that apologizing for such things is absurd.

Diet: Pizza Blues

I went to the kitchen at work, to reheat my usual lunch of string beans and lean ground turkey. In the microwave, filling the room with its aroma, was a container of spaghetti and meatballs swimming in tomato sauce. Despite the odds being against it, the spaghetti looked delicious and smelled even better.

Chicago-style deep dish pizza

What I found surprising, is that while I appreciated it deeply, I wasn’t tempted at all. I had no desire to eat it or what it made me think of: a Chicago-style deep dish pizza (pictured above). I removed the container from the microwave and replaced it with the green beens and lean ground turkey. I waited the 2 minutes while my lunch spun casually around in circles in the comfort of knowing that my diet has seized to be a diet and has become a part of my life. A part that I genuinely enjoy.