Why I Wrote Hard Truths

HardcoverBig

Ever since I launched The Book of Hard Truths on April 23rd, I’ve had lots of people ask me why I wrote it. I usually mumble a few words about the importance of facing up to difficult truths, I mention Brené Brown’s excellent talk about The Power of Vulnerability, which shows why not shying away from unpleasant truths is so important. I also mention Alain de Botton’s excellent book and TED talk, in which he claims that we have “secularized badly”, and that we have abandoned the great redeeming power of visual art to dry, academic institutions.

But people don’t seem satisfied with mere intellectual reasons, and I can understand why. So now, a month later and with almost 300 copies in people’s hands (some 200 as free PDF downloads), it’s time to confess:

I wrote this book for myself.

I wrote it because I felt like I wasted too much of my life running away from these truths. And that my life has been a very gradual, very uncomfortable process of discovering them and (in good cases) coming to terms with them. I don’t know about others, but I felt that I received very little help from society in dealing with these questions. Nobody had that tough chat with me early on, to explain that I will always share the basic limitations and vulnerabilities that all human beings have. That I will never be invulnerable, all-knowing, immortal, or infallible. I will never be perfect. I will never “arrive”.

Despite being an Atheist, when I first read the Serenity prayer years ago, it had a powerful effect on me. It goes something like this:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

It made me wonder: Why don’t they teach you these things in school? Surely there are things we tend to think we can change, but cannot. If someone else has already figured them out, why won’t they tell me?!

Well, it turns out they have. There are any number of books about these subjects, and if we consider that most religions are a response to just this kind of question, then it’s safe to say people have been trying to address hard truths for millenia.

So why wasn’t I getting this message?

Because I was brought up in secular culture, and because Alain de Botton is right: We have “secularized badly.”

Fan pic of Alain de Botton. March 2012. Taken right after he signed my copy of Religion for Atheists after a NYC talk.

 

We have psychologists to deal with mental illness, and professors to impart theoretical knowledge, and philosophers to research and debate truth, and artists to express their personal truths and anxieties. What we don’t have is a system or a field to address the universal needs of the psyche. A profession devoted to helping us grow up, evolve as human beings, understand our emotions, find balance in our lives, face up to the challenges of life, be happy and peaceful in the face of obstacles, connect better with our fellow men. In these incredibly important areas of life we are left more or less alone to find our way. We go out searching for answers in books, films, talks, art museums, and we do find some. But secular society does not help us much when it comes to organizing, curating, or repeating these lessons. And for the most part neither do our parents, our teachers, or our therapists.

This is why, when I read a friend’s impassioned essay about how accepting death has changed him, it hit me. I had a growing list of these hard truths in my own journals, and I knew that accepting them was vitally important to achieving peace and happiness. And I had Alain de Botton’s admonition about how we waste the power of visual art ringing in my ears. (I had just been to one of his talks in NYC and got his book.) And so, in a flash, the idea came to me:

I will create a book of visual art that carried home the painful lessons of life that were holding myself and perhaps others back. It would be a trap for the mind – my own mind, but also other people’s – to lure us into confronting these hard truths and coming in contact with them periodically. A book of artworks one could turn to for perspective and consolation.

I pitched this idea to John Cox, the most talented illustrator I knew, and he liked it. But it wasn’t until I saw his take on the first truth, the truth of death, that I was convinced I had to write this book. A feeling of peace and acceptance permeates these illustrations and that was clear from the very start.

You’re going to die. John’s illustration of hard truth #1.

 

A couple of years later, the book is now out and I couldn’t be prouder. John’s art is remarkable in its empathy and depth. And people seem to generally respond to the book in the way I hoped. They like browsing through it, but even more than that they seem to like the idea of having it around.

I still find the book helpful in my own daily life. I still pick it up and browse through the illustrations to check myself and remind myself of the larger picture. And I rejoice at having the original illustrations to hang on my walls.

And this is the truly personal truth: It’s for my own use, before anyone else’s, that I wrote The Book of Hard Truths.

How to Tell News from Propaganda

(I first wrote this post as a Quora answer a couple of days ago. I’m reposting here for your benefit.)

I’ve never lived in a country without freedom of speech, so I’m used to judging news outlets based on what I assume the owner’s editorial policy and agenda is, and it’s easy to compare different sources to get the full picture.

I have, however, studied the effects of censorship and state-control on speech during my history studies and later for my writing. I think these principles could help people identify when their news is significantly tainted with propaganda, whether state-controlled or otherwise:

    • Too Simple – Truth is always complex and subtle. Any story that is too simple is not complete and therefore suspected propaganda. If you are not given facts that go against the primary narrative, then what you are reading is not reporting but an opinion piece disguised as reporting.

 

    • No Disclosure of Biases – Every person has biases. When the person does not admit and disclose his biases in reporting, and does not acknowledge the possibility that others might disagree with him, that is likely propaganda.

 

    • Single Interpretation – Facts have more than one interpretation. If you are only presented with one interpretation, someone wants you to draw particular conclusions. In which case, you may have to doubt the facts, too.

 

    • Consistent Glamorization or Attacks – Reporting that consistently sucks up or glamorizes people in power is propaganda. The same is true of reporting that attacks certain people consistently and no matter what they do.

 

    • Strong Emotional Tone – When there is a very strong emotional tone to the news, without an attempt at objective detachment, you know that there is at least grave risk of propaganda.

 

    • Drowned Voices – When one side never gets to finish a sentence, when it is clear that interviews have been heavily edited, when one side of a debate is demonized without having a chance to speak for itself, that is very likely propaganda.

 

    • Hypocricy & Contradictions – When obvious contradictions and hypocrisy are ignored: for instance one moment praising candidate X for doing something, the next condemning candidate Y for doing the same thing, this is propaganda.

 

Hope this helps!

Hard Truths Links

The Book of Hard Truths contains multiple links to recommended books and talks that will help you explore the truths further. If you have a version that doesn’t allow hyperlinks, please use the links below.

Talks

Books

What is the meaning of life?

(Originally published on Quora on March 16th, 2012)
I used to think that “What is the meaning of life?” is a misguided question, because it assumed the existence of a creator with an intention or a plan, which I never thought was warranted.
But I’ve come to realize that there’s a different way to think of meaning. I think when we ask “what is the meaning of life?” most of us really mean “How should I interpret life in the grand scheme of things? And what value should I assign it?” I think those are very good questions.As a confirmed Atheist, I nevertheless spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about life, its meaning, and how this meaning should guide us in our everyday lives. It’s almost a personal obsession of mine.

What follows is my best attempt at a universal “meaning”:

You are an intelligent being, and intelligent life is the latest, most awe inspiring stage in universal evolution. Its birth was the moment in which the universe has evolved the sufficient complexity  to be able to perceive, direct, and re-imagine itself, and this process is only beginning – through you.

From the first micro-second of its existence, the universe has been a vast though inanimate battleground between two universal mathematical trends: order and chaos, creation and destruction, syntropy and entropy.

Your life, and human life in general, represent the universe’s single best hope in the battle against randomness, entropy, and chaos; the single best reason to believe that creative forces, order, and harmony will prevail.

The way to fulfill this promise is to think and act like an intelligent being. To find a use for that marvelous brain of yours in the service of progress. To create things that are good and useful. To empower others to do the same. And to be happy, truly happy, because that’s the only way to make sure that you are not a force of entropy after all.

What are some big ideas western societies should learn from Buddhism?

(Originally published on Quora on June 28th, 2012)
I’m very new to Buddhist ideas, and have only read a couple of books, so take this as a layman’s description of what I found valuable in certain Buddhist texts.
I can’t tell yet if those are universal to all Buddhist traditions or if they only represent some traditions or teachers, or maybe just the books I’ve been reading. All I can say is that I found these ideas extremely beneficial:

  1. Dependent Origination – 
    Everything we see and experience around us, including ourselves, is not a singularity but an aggregation of elements, causes and conditions.
  2. Impermanence – 
    Everything that is subject to birth, is subject to death. Or in other words: the very fundamental causes and conditions that brought something into existence are the ones that will enable it in time to go out of existence.
  3. All Suffering Comes from Clinging – 
    All suffering comes from an attempt to battle the basic impermanence of experience and force it into a rigid permanence, which is impossible. We must not cling to specific outcomes, but do our best and allow change to unfold as it will.
  4. Three Personality Types – 
    Three broad personality types encapsulate our relationship to this impermanent world. The Grasping Personality is always reaching for something better than is possible at the moment. The Aversive Personality tends to see flaws and reject present experience. The Deluded Personality tends to be confused and indecisive.
  5. Small Self vs. Big Self – 
    Self can be identified as the “Small Self” which includes your particular personality traits, knowledge, desires, and everyday interests, or the “Big Self” which is that pure consciousness that can observe the particular emotions, interests, and experiences of the small self without identifying with them or repressing them.
  6. Everything is Empty of Self – 
    When looking at any particular object, precept, or experience, we find that it is not our self. Therefore, we should not identify too strongly with any particular object, precept, or experience. Just like everything around us, we are an aggregate, not a singularity.
  7. Self as a Process, Not a Thing – 
    Self is a process, not a thing. It changes and evolves. It includes elements at one time that it may not include at another time. It is not finished, and not static.
  8. Everyone Has a “Buddha Nature” – 
    The road to being a better, enlightened person is open to everyone. Everyone has the tools to become enlightened. One just need the right intention, focus, and effort.
  9. Compassion as Selfish, Not Selfless – 
    Unlike the West, that sees compassion as an altruistic, self-sacrificing act, Buddhists seem to think compassion starts with compassion for the self. If one has no compassion for themselves, they will not have compassion for others. If one approaches it from the right perspective, concern for the happiness of others promotes rather than prevents ones own happiness.
  10. The Power of Empathy – 
    Empathy for others as a great tool for self-fulfillment, and as a great way to overcome fear and resentment. Being able to see events from another person’s perspective is a liberating experience that allows you to deal with others better, and also to liberate yourself from your own, often narrow perspective on events.
  11. The Importance of Generosity – 
    Giving without expecting a return is seen basically an exercise in non-clinging. Unlike in the West, where the act of giving often gains value in direct relation to how painful it is, the stress in Buddhism seems to be on the giving being genuine, based on true friendliness, and never more than one can happily give. As such it’s seen as a tool for happiness, a way to train your mind to be generous, rather than as a form of self-sacrifice.
  12. Countering Emotions with Their Opposite – 
    Emotions tend not to co-exist with their utter opposite. In Buddhism this fact is often used as a tool for growth, because it means you can counter anger with gratitude, counter fear with love, etc.
  13. The Power of Concentration – 
    The act of calming and concentrating your mind helps provide greater insight when one observes complex internal states, such as complex emotions. Training your mind in concentration can have cascading effects throughout one’s life, can increase your power to notice and react to things appropriately in real time.
  14. Mind Cultivation and Training – 
    The idea that you can cultivate good personal qualities through simple practice, in the exact same way that you train your body to increase its fitness. This idea in itself seems rather obvious these days, but Buddhists through the centuries have actually developed these cognitive and behavioral training techniques, and many of them are quite brilliant!
  15. Change from the Inside-Out – 
    Buddhists seem to believe that changing behavior is not enough. That right intention and right understanding precedes right speech and action. Mindfulness training seems to put the stress of fully understanding your own thought patterns and habits without trying to force better behavior. Better behavior follows insight organically.

These are the main points I can see right now. Would love to hear about major points I have surely missed!

Stress and Coping: How do I get over the feeling of stress?

(Originally published on Quora on August 15th, 2013)
The essential antidote for stress is to be able to concentrate fully on what you are doing at any given moment, instead of worrying about what comes next. I will simply list the elements I believe are critical for this:

  • Don’t Hold It All In Your Head – get todos/projects off your head and onto some trusted system (read up on Getting Things Done or other productivity methodologies.)
  • Make Decisions – If there are decisions you’ve been avoiding making, make them now, or at least set a deadline for when you must make them.
  • Accept Your Limitations – Things that are beyond your power to change should not cause you stress. Making a clear distinction between what’s within your power to change and what’s beyond it can work wonders on stress.
  • Learn to Concentrate – Vipassana meditation as well as many other meditation techniques train you to focus your mind on the activity in front of you, rather than jumping around, worrying about the future or remembering the past.
  • Broaden Your Perspective – If a stressful situation becomes unbearable, I find it always helps to look at it from a broader perspective. Is it going to matter much in a year, five years, a decade? Is it possible for you to be happy even if the worst case scenario happens? What are the chances of the worst case scenario playing out? Are there things to be grateful for, to appreciate about this situation?

Hope this helps!

What can people do to cope during times of uncertainty?

(Originally published on Quora on May 9th, 2013)
This is a timely question for me, and a topic I’ve wrestled with quite a bit in the last couple of years. I think that dealing with uncertainty is primarily an issue of attitude. In Western society we are generally well equipped to rationally evaluate various courses of action with multiple risk factors. We can think about these things on a very high level and come up with a pretty good understanding of most situations.
Still, for many (and certainly for me) uncertainty is accompanied by a deep sense of suffering and frustration. A sense of struggle. Changing my attitude about uncertainty itself, and being more mindful of my feelings at any given moment had done wonders to my ability to deal with and tolerate uncertainty.Many of my ideas about the subject come from my experience with Insight or Vipassana Meditation, and Buddhist psychology in general. However, they do not require training in meditation or interest in Buddhism to apply.

Specifically, here are some attitudes/ideas that helped me tremendously in dealing with times of uncertainty:

  • Remembering that Life is Uncertain – 
    Times of uncertainty make us feel especially vulnerable, but it helps to remember that these times are not really different in kind from the rest of our lives. We all live with limited knowledge of the myriad causes and conditions that shape our futures. Accepting that the future is always, on a fundamantal level, invisible to us will help us feel less sorry for ourselves in the present predicament.
  • Accepting the Limits of Your Power – 
    Look at your particular situation very deeply. Analyze and understand the different causes and conditions, the different risk factors and odds involved. Then, ask yourself these simple questions: What’s within my power to change? What’s within my power to influence? What’s outside of my power to either change or influence? Focusing on the factors you can actually affect, and fully accepting that other elements are completely out of your hands, including often the ultimate outcomes of the situation – will help you stop fighting reality and begin to work with it.
  • Relaxing Control – 
    Even as you intellectually grasp that certain elements are outside of your control, your emotions may still cling to certain outcomes. If you look deeply inside, you’ll find it: almost like a clenched muscle holding on to a desired outcome, a painful, throbbing knot in your mind where peace could be. Through meditation or simple mindfulness it is possible to directly relax that tension. If you find that place of clenching and unclench it, the suffering could stop almost instantly.
  • Finding “You the Observer” – 
    A crucial piece of dealing with uncertainty is having the type of self-image that does not require certainty. It’s possible to become a bit less invested, especially in times of crisis, in the limited self (the one that’s concerned with job offers, relationships, your reputation, your financials), and to identify more strongly with the experiencing self: the “pure consciousness” self that is always experiencing, always curious and open. The “Observer” self will have plenty to observe, plenty to learn, plenty to experience in either scenario. Letting go of your limited self-image will leave you free to grow and change without artificial restrictions.
  • Being Grateful – 
    It’s very easy to be bogged down by self-pity, and focus on the negative. In almost all cases, though, a wider perspective will remind you that there’s much to be grateful for. Think of the great resources you do have, the people who are there for you, and all the knowledge and skills you do posses. This is not some hippy-dippy “positive thinking” exercise. By all means be as realistic as you can about the depth of the problem and the difficulty of the challenge. But then be equally realistic about the advantages you’ve had that others might not have.
  • Enjoying the Present Moment – 
    Once you’ved decided on a course of action, accepted what’s outside of your control, and found the positive in the situation, you can appreciate the present moment. Remember that the future scenarios you’re worried about or wishing for don’t exist yet. What is real is the present moment, which is often peaceful, beautiful, and most importantly: passing. If you don’t let yourself experience and enjoy what you have right now, it really doesn’t matter what happens in the future because you’re likely to not enjoy that either when it comes.

The principles described above are part of many spiritual and religious traditions. As an Atheist, it’s been a long struggle to find and accept them through the veil of myth and mysticism that usually surrounds them. I hope I managed to write clearly and cleanly enough so that the above come through as practicable principles as opposed to more spiritual nonsense!

Working with Imperfect Models (Part 1)

Lego HouseWhat does your prediction of an acquaintance’s reaction to a piece of news have in common with the weather forecast? They are both based on models of incomprehensibly complex systems; models that approximate, but do not fully capture the underlying reality, and can therefore prove very wrong.

I use the term “model” here to mean any of the condensed mental constructs we use to represent a far more complex reality. These include concepts, principles, visual models such as maps, mathematical representations, and representations of change such as workflows. More often than not, our models use several of these put together, to create a more complete representation of a particular system.

Human beings need models of reality to survive, of course. They allow us to explain current and past behavior, predict the future, and imagine alternative routes of action. And for the most part they work remarkably well: When an architect designs a building, for example, he can calculate the forces and tensions his building must withstand and can counteract them using his model of sound engineering.

But not all of our models are so reliable. Follow most nutritional or exercise theories with 100% dogmatic adherence in the same way that an architect must adhere to the science of building, and you are likely to harm your body. Trust the weather report too much and you’ll end up wet. Believe in your own self-image too much and you end up stunting growth and afraid to take risks.

It’s easy to conclude that the particular model is at fault: simply find another diet, find a better weather prediction algorithm, or change your conception of who you are to a more “correct” one, and you’ll be happy ever after. But many if not most models are inherently imperfect. Specifically, when dealing with systems of extreme complexity, any condensation of information is a net loss in accuracy and predictive ability. Yet, this condensation has to happen for us to be able to hold the model in our limited brain.

So what do we do? I find it useful to try to keep in mind that I am dealing with a model, not with reality itself. Once you introduce the concept of a “model” into your thinking, you can begin to interact with your models as models, and have a healthier relationship with them. Specifically, you can:

  • Keep Your Eyes on the Road – While the map is a useful model, the road is what really matters. Do not get so involved with the map that the road becomes invisible to you. If you are on a new diet, the “road” is what your body is telling you. If you are getting to know someone new, the “road” is what they actually say and do.
  • Identify Limits – Always keep in mind the limits of your models. Try to find the blind spots, the inaccuracies, the oversimplifications, and the edge cases the model doesn’t account for. If you’re an architect, for example, it’s good to ask yourself whether you’ve accounted for unusual strains such as an earthquake or a hurricane; or whether the forces in play change after reaching a certain height.
  • Expect to Adapt – Models are mental constructs, and as such easier to revise than the underlying reality. Yet most people spend their lives trying to make reality conform to their impossible models. Life is a process of revision and rewriting of your models based on new experiences and new skills. So nurture your models, learn from them, but never worship them!
  • Use the Baseline Rule – When you must rely on a model you know is not 100% accurate, such as the model for a healthy diet, or a training regime, try to determine a baseline that you would follow in absence of this model. This can be based on current or common behavior that has a known outcome. Once you’ve established the baseline, experiment in the space between that baseline and the new model. This will help protect you from the cases where the new model is imperfect and potentially harmful.

Remembering the inevitable gap between reality and our imperfect models of it is tough, especially when it comes to models that are emotionally charged. An inaccurate model, though, can yield frustration and suffering, often in direct relation to how blindly we follow it.

I’ve been fascinated with the idea of models, and the ways they change over time, and interact with our emotions in interesting ways. I’ll write more on that in Part 2 of this post. In the meantime, I hope you found these musings helpful! Would love to hear your thoughts, additions, or corrections.

How effective are yoga and meditation at healing old traumas?

(Originally published on Quora on October 21st, 2012)
I can only speak from personal experience with my own meditation practice, as I’m not involved in any type of research and have not looked at any statistics on the subject.
So here goes: After reading about Vipassana, or Insight Meditation in a post on Sam Harris’s blog (see here – http://www.samharris.org/blog/it…), I became curious and took an 8 week class at a local center.

The technique, though very challenging in practice, is very simple in principle. You stabilize and concentrate your mind by focusing only on your breath. Whenever your attention wanders, you proceed to look at the new object of attention – be it a sensation, an emotion, or a thought – with your full attention. You then name it, and  gently and without judgment return to focusing on the breath, where you try to remain most of the time. I was instructed to sit for 20, then 30, and eventually 45 minutes a day doing just this, though some further guidance was of course provided, and my questions answered.

Within a week, I was noticing patterns in my own thinking that had been there all along but which I had never noticed before. Within a couple of weeks, I could see some of the reasons for these patterns. By the third week I had vivid memories of past traumas, and could see very clearly the connections between those traumas and some of my unproductive behaviors.

I’ve had moments of personal revelation or “sudden clarity” throughout my adult life, long before meditation, and those had always helped me grow. But nothing had prepared me for the consistency and sheer breadth of the insights I’ve gotten from practicing Vipassana meditation. For a couple of months, it was like a reliable assembly line was producing insights day in and day out. As if those insights were waiting just under the surface and came gushing out as soon as I had payed stable, nonjudgmental attention to them.

Those insights, moreover, were of a different kind than any I’ve experience before. The trigger for most of my past insights was intellectual: I would be thinking about an idea and suddenly realize that I had been wrong. Or I would realize intellectually that I was acting irrationally in some instance, and would force myself to think it through. In meditation though, much of my insights felt more like undirected observations: I would observe my own thinking and noticed it was tinged with a certain emotion. I would look at that emotion and see it was actually three different emotions, all mashed up together, but in actuality arising because of different causes and conditions. I would look at each one in turn and see how it arose, and often time remember, for the first time in years, a traumatic event that gave rise to it. And by seeing the connection so clearly, I could start laying down new foundations and weakening the old ones.

As weeks went by I was aware that I was beginning to let go of many of these patterns, little by little, and that the unproductive behaviors were significantly reduced or stopped completely. I continue to practice and reap the benefits of meditation daily. I have not tried other forms of meditation, and cannot vouch for their effectiveness. I can’t even guarantee that Vipassana meditation would work for you. But I do believe that paying calm and nonjudgmental attention to the content of your mind once a day is a great first step in coming to terms with trauma.

 

What’s Syntropy?

Syntropy is the opposite of entropy.

It is the appearance of order out of chaos. The self-organizing tendency of matter, over long periods of time. The tendency towards greater complexity and harmony that occurs naturally and counteracts the universal law of entropy, in living systems as well as inanimate constellations.

The term is not in common use. A more common name is “Negentropy”, or “Negative Entropy”. Wikipedia describes the term’s evolution as follows:

The concept and phrase “negative entropy” were introduced by Erwin Schrödinger in his 1943 popular-science book What is Life? Later, Léon Brillouin shortened the phrase to negentropy, to express it in a more “positive” way: a living system imports negentropy and stores it. In 1974, Albert Szent-Györgyi proposed replacing the term negentropy with syntropy. That term may have originated in the 1940s with the Italian mathematician Luigi Fantappiè, who tried to construct a unified theory of biology and physics. Buckminster Fuller tried to popularize this usage, but negentropy remains common.

Whatever word we use, I believe that the concept is of the utmost importance:

To the extent that there is a single “reason” for our existence, and for everything around us, the fact of syntropy is it. And if any one concept can guide us forward, as the rate of technical innovation accelerates and the very way we think of humanity expands, I believe that syntropy is that concept.

This is my personal blog, and I intend to blog about many things including philosophy, technology, art, and the psychology of human happiness. But I also hope to express some of my ideas about syntropy and its applications. I hope to engage with others who are thinking about similar topics. And I hope to get more people talking and thinking about syntropy.

Enjoy the ride!