In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “You must be not only present in the body, but watchful in mind, if you would avail yourself of the fleeting opportunity.” I am always surprised by how hard it is to actually be present at any given moment. Our minds think far faster than we can talk or do any physical activity. From what I remember from a psychology class in college, our minds can think somewhere around 400 words per minute. We talk at about 200 words per minute when talking quickly and our pulse is much closer to about 60-ish beats per minute when just sitting around relaxed (just off memory so double check those numbers if you are really curious). Our brains are seriously quick, and that gives the mind extra time to jump around outside of our body and outside of our current setting.
I started reading the first Harry Potter book as a little break from non-fiction and one of the surprising things about the book is how quickly I detach from the present moment. Throughout the series, which I am now reading as quickly as possible it seems, I have found myself completely unaware of my physical surroundings and I have noticed my mind continually wanders away from the present in a day-dream. I will admit that I have enjoyed the books and the time that has flown by while reading them, but I do find it a little concerning how quickly my mind will jump out of my body into the story and steal away 10 minutes, an hour, or an entire evening in story, absent of the present moment and the things that my mind originally intended to do.
Seneca’s quote is about opportunity, and this morning I am reading it more as a quote about intention and doing meaningful things that we want to do. A good quick example to illustrate my thoughts comes from the world of sports. When we really train for something in a serious manner, we know that we have to put in deliberate practice. If we are just trying to stay fit then it is fine to hit the gym with our music, listen to a podcast while lifting weights, or lose ourselves in our thoughts or music while jogging comfortably. However, if we want to train to be a great martial artist, if we want to train to make a free throw when the game is on the line, and if we really want to stick that ski jump landing, then we need to focus on our physical body and what we need to do to perfectly execute our desired sports performance. If we are not also mentally present, then we miss the opportunity to apply ourselves in a serious way.
Presence is a sense of awareness of where we are, of the time, and of the opportunities in front of us. This is what the Harry Potter series, while I have enjoyed it, has stolen from me. I am physically present and where I need to be, but my mind has been running at 400 words per minute through a fictional world and magical fantasy. I think it is great to read fiction and get some story exposure in our minds, but we should remember the opportunities we miss if we can’t bring ourselves back to a mental presence. We need to be aware of our physical situation and also our mental situation if we really want to make the most out of the time we have on our planet.
Sometimes I find that we can’t really define what outcomes we actually want, what goals we are actually working toward, and what purpose is actually driving our behaviors. For much of my life I see this in what I do, and where it really worries me is in the policy world. I focused on public administration and public policy for my masters degree. I think a lot about the thing that is lying at the heart of our political arguments and debates, and I think frequently about what it is that any one group is trying to accomplish when they frame an issue a certain way, respond to a crisis, or try to get a specific item on the agenda. Looking at the purpose behind the messaging and behind the actions is incredibly revealing and helpful for understanding where we are, and I think it is crucial to understand to develop effective policy.
In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, author Colin Wright hits on the importance of understanding the why behind our actions and work. He writes, “The question of what we’re actually trying to accomplish with our actions is important because it demands we question our existing habits, biases, and goals.” We can move through life without examining what we are doing and why we are doing it, but autopilot by itself is not actually that good of a pilot. Someone has to set the course, determine the direction, and make sure things are pointed down the right runway before autopilot can take over. In the world of policy, this is all done behind the scenes and out of the way of the public. Not because someone is trying to be shady (most of the time) but because it is really boring detail oriented work. At the heart of all of it, its never really one person but a collective ethos in society that says things like, “people should be working if they expect to get help from the government” or “people have been discriminated against and can’t pull themselves up by the bootstraps because the system is rigged.” We take these broad sentiments, develop boring policies that try to address problems, and the public responds. However, the underlying goals of these sentiments are often unclear and hard to decipher. Policy seems to branch forward unsure of what the real goal is and unsure of what should be accomplished. When we then enter into political discussions without offering real objectives and clear goals, policy meanders and doesn’t really solve anything.
Our lives are a lot more like the policy scenario I described above than what we likely realize. We have vague thoughts and intuitions about how our lives should be. We have a sense of what we need to do to impress others, make people proud of us, and to accomplish things we want. What we don’t always do, however, is sit down and truly think about what our goals should be and why we want those goals to be the things we work toward. Doing this and being more intentional about our objectives and motivations can help us build a life that doesn’t just branch forward and bumble along, but that creates measurable milestones that we can work toward. This allows us to align our life with things that are meaningful and allows us to build habits and routines that an be meaningful and developmental.
Goal setting and prioritization is an incredibly challenging and difficult process. It is hard to know what one really wants to do and what truly motivates someone. We hold a lot of competing values in our head when we try to set our goals, and often we get tripped up and set goals for ourselves that we don’t really want to pursue, but that we think we should. We want to impress other people, live up to the expectations we think our parents have for us, and do something we think we will enjoy and be well compensated for. Often, these things don’t all align, and often goal setting in this way doesn’t actually make us happy or put us on a path toward something we can truly be motivated to pursue.
In his book Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday helps us think through a framework for setting goals. The first step is to be aware of the factors in your decision that are purely ego enhancing. Those things that we do to impress others or to raise our own social status without necessarily doing something meaningful or something that truly interests us. After we can recognize what we do for ego purposes, we can ask ourselves new questions about our goals. Holiday writes, “In this course, its not ‘Who do I want to be in life?’ but ‘What is it that I want to accomplish in life?’ Setting aside selfish interests, it asks: What calling does it serve? What principles govern my choices? Do I want to be like everyone else or do I want to do something different?”
Ego can still cause all of these questions to be derailed and miss the mark, but each question encourages us to think about what we do for ego purposes, and whether we want to pursue the ego or whether we want to do something important that other people are not pursuing. In a recent interview on the Tim Ferris Show, author Jim Collins recommended an approach to making these types of decisions. Building on his “Hedgehog Principle” for businesses in his book Good to Great, Collins suggested that we find something we are coded to do, something we do exceptionally well, something we can be world (or local/community) leading in doing, and something that truly motivates us. Pursuing that will help us do meaningful work. Following his instructions and keeping Holiday’s warning about the ego in mind will ensure we focus on rewarding goals that help bring substantial positivity to the world.
We can follow everyone else and try to increase our status and have a standard career focused on ourselves, or we can step out and try to be intentional about our choices and actions. Collins compared this approach to creating artwork on a blank canvass compared to following a paint-by-numbers board. We can live a meaningful life following everyone else and taking the paint-by-numbers approach, but to truly do something different and have the biggest possible impact on the world, we need to be self-aware, avoid ego boosting decision-making, and try to paint our lives on a new canvass.
Thich Nhat Hanh wrote the book The Miracle of Mindfulness to share his thoughts, experiences, and lessons learned from a life of practicing mindfulness. He details the benefits of living a more mindful life, describes techniques to bring mindfulness into our lives, and presents our daily consciousness in varying perspective to highlight the importance of mindfulness as we move through the world. For Hanh, mindfulness helps with living an intentional life and gives one the ability to be more calm and collected and less reactive to the world and all of its stressors.
“Mindfulness is at the same time a means and an end,” Hanh writes as he describes what mindfulness should really mean to us. Mindfulness is a tool that helps us think more deeply and clearly about our life and the decisions that we make. A practice of mindfulness helps us recognize when we are working toward our goals and when we are distracted from them, and hopefully helps us identify ways to get back on track. Mindfulness also is a state where we are more productive, thoughtful, and peaceful with ourselves, a goal that we all share as we work to be happy and fulfilled. In this way, mindfulness is an end state that we desire, but also a tool to help us improve our lives and reach our goals.
Hanh goes further and describes mindfulness as more than a goal to work toward or even a tool to help us increase our self-awareness and perception. Mindfulness, Hanh describes, is in some ways our real lives. He writes, “But mindfulness itself is the life of awareness: the presence of mindfulness means the presence of life … Mindfulness frees us of forgetfulness and dispersion and makes it possible to live fully each minute of life. Mindfulness enables us to live.”
In the past I have written about routines
, examining my personal conflict of living effectively with a routine that aids me in health and productivity while simultaneously making me feel as though my life is on autopilot, slipping past me beyond my control. Mindfulness is a way to bridge the conflict that I experience. Becoming a mindful person means that you practice self-awareness and work toward building self-control in your actions and habits. Rather than setting yourself to autopilot, mindfulness brings you to the present moment and helps you focus on what truly matters and how you are using every moment. When you fully experience the present, because you are self-aware and are thinking of what you are doing now, Hanh argues, life will not fly past you in a rush that you cannot remember. Instead, you will be able to take steps to be intentional with how you live, and you will develop the capacity to be cognizant of how you travel through each moment in space and time.