Sunday Selection 2021-05-16

It’s been a little over two weeks since my second shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. Here in the US we are starting to see a gradual return to normalcy, though at least in Massachusetts masking in public spaces and reduced capacity will continue to be a part of life for a little while longer. On a personal note, I’m in an extended transition period: I’m moving soon, and for the first time in a number of years will be living on my own. My housemates are in the process of moving out, the house is a mess (but also feeling more like my space), and the cats are increasingly perturbed by the changes. I am looking forward to having my own space, but not super thrilled have to do everything on my own again. And I’m not exactly happy about the not-quite-extortionate amount of rent I’ll paying starting next month.

Like many transitions, this one has gotten me thinking about life again, something I last did at the start of the year. In particular, I have been thinking about practice as a way of life. As someone whose life has often been about chasing goals, or reaching certain milestones as quickly as possible, the forced slowdown of the last year was a shock to the system. As doing things becomes possible again, I am trying to cultivate a life that is about more than moving from one thing to the next as quickly as possible.

How to Practice

Here’s a realization I didn’t have until after I turned 30: that life (for most of us) is actually quite long. And that, somewhat paradoxically, making the most of that life requires a certain amount of slowing down. It’s not going slow for its own sake, but rather, slowing down is a prerequisite for the intentionality required for a good life. As Ann Patchett tells us in this narrative, that intentionality is improved by practice and imagination.

Private Practice: Toward a Philosophy of Just Sitting

On the other hand, often the point of practice is just that: to practice. This again, is somewhat paradoxical, and I began to appreciate it only after a couple years of a regular meditation practice. It was also something that completely eluded me in the several years that I spent playing the violin as a teenager. I suppose practice is requirement of that elusive state: mindfulness, the feeling that you’re actually here, living your life and not just passing through it. And learning to just sit, for maybe 10-15 minutes a day, is a good way to get started.

What’s the Point If We Can’t Have Fun?

Closely related to practice, I think, is play. In fact, as this article suggests, play or fun might just be one of the foundational organizing principles of the universe. Given how much our brains seem to require meaningful work and play in balanced proportions, this idea strikes me as a having a certain amount of credibility. Besides, living with cats for two years has firmly convinced me that the importance of play reaches deep into the animal kingdom.

The Man Who Found the Flow

Finally, it seems likely that practice and play (and meaningful deep work) both help us tap into the psychological state of flow. I first encountered Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas in college, I have been thinking more about them recently, especially in context of a year when doomscrolling become a de facto part of our daily routines. It’s perhaps unsurprising that later in life I become interested in meditation, which I think helps bring about a similar state of mind.

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