Dec 15

Piano

I recently discovered a song that embodies one of my favorite genres of music. It’s a simple, melancholy piano recording by Aphex Twin. You can listen to it here: aisatsana [102].

It has a curious way of slowing things down. Of calming the mind. Of welcoming back mindfulness.

Living in New York City, it’s easy to lose presence of mind. Bustling streets move quickly here. Step outside and you’re swept into the current without permission. Walk too slowly and you’re knocked aside. Block someone’s way and you’ll collide.

To avoid confrontation, we naturally quicken our pace. We walk faster to match the speed of the streets. It’s just too difficult to struggle against the flow.

Imagine one morning, you’re late for work. You find yourself impatiently waiting behind a 90-year old man. He’s directly in your way, hobbling and grasping the handrail. You hear your train approaching and don’t have time to wait. So you push by him, more roughly than you’d like to admit. A dozen onlookers then follow your lead.

Without realizing it, we’ve accidentally become the cold-hearted New Yorkers that used to callously bump into us.

How did this happen? When did we become so cold? When did we begin making the current even faster?

We probably can’t point a specific moment. Small, thoughtless transgressions build up slowly over time. No act is ever heinously worse than the last. But each one subtly calcifies the sense of empathy that connects us with everyone else. The empathy that connects us with the journey itself, not the destination.

Empathy and mindfulness can be difficult to cultivate in places that value continual movement over contemplation. And that’s the essential character of Manhattan; it’s defined by an urgent sense of constant upward motion. That collective attitude pulls people like a magnet from all over the world. And when millions of people laser-focus on their individual ambition, it’s no surprise that many lose touch with the simple joy of the current moment.

So it’s in this context – constantly barraged by a storm of eight million combatting ambitions – that Aphex Twin’s soft piano music starts to play. It begins drawing my attention back from the future, toward this moment. The sound of blaring car horns and aggravated pedestrians begins to fade.

Awareness shifts to my breath. Projected scenarios and anxious conjectures about next week momentarily fade. My consciousness plunges deep into a reservoir of feeling. For a minute, my to-do lists release their monopoly on my mind.

All this happens with Aphex Twin’s notes as my guide. They are understated and meandering. Each one feels deeply personal. There is no rush. There is no destination. There is only the act of contemplation, Reflection. Simple repetition. Recollection. Nostalgia for things past. And a somber acceptance of right now.

As it continues, finally I’m in the right headspace to let it fill me completely.

It drips with beauty.

Sadness permeates my pores as I indulge in the rawness of the experience. I’m flooded by physical sensations, shadows of those moments in my life that were heartbreaking and meaningful. It feels like a rich blend of melancholy and overwhelming gratefulness, simply for having the experiences I’ve had.

I feel connected to all the people I care about in this state. Friends. Family. Lovers. Coworkers. Acquaintances. Every single one is having just as fully-felt a human experience as I am. To write that sentence sounds plain, but it washes over me – the profundity of simply being alive, now.

For five minutes and 22 seconds, I hold gratitude and empathy in my entire being. I am awash with the beautiful contentedness of nostalgia, momentarily undistracted by daily obligations.

And I remember the importance of being grounded in this very moment. Something so easy to forget in this city.

For these reasons, I hold a special place in my heart for Aphex Twin’s song, aisatsana [102].

Oct 10

Dancing Wu Li Masters

As part of my Excerpt of the Day series, here’s a great quote from The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav.

“When I tell my friends that I study physics, they move their heads from side to side, they shake their hands at the wrist, and they whistle, ‘Whew! That’s difficult.’

This universal reaction to the word ‘physics’ is a wall that stands between what physicists do and what most people think they do. There is usually a big difference between the two.

Physicists themselves are partly to blame for this sad situation. Their shop talk sounds like advanced Greek, unless you are Greek or a physicist. When they are not talking to other physicists, physicists speak English. Ask them what they do, however, and they sound like the natives of Corfu again.

On the other hand, part of the blame is ours. Generally speaking, we have given up trying to understand what physicists (and biologists, etc.) really do. In this we do ourselves a disservice. These people are engaged in extremely interesting adventures that are not that difficult to understand.

True, how they do what they do sometimes entails a technical explanation which, if you are not an expert, can produce an involuntary deep sleep. What physicists do, however, is actually quite simple. They wonder what the universe is really made of, how it works, what we are doing in it, and where it is going, if it is going anyplace at all.

In short, they do the same things that we do on starry nights when we look up at the vastness of the universe and feel overwhelmed by it and a part of it at the same time. That is what physicists really do, and the clever rascals get paid for doing it…

The fact is that physics is not mathematics. Physics, in essence, is simple wonder at the way things are and a divine (some call it compulsive) interest in how that is so.

Mathematics is the tool of physics. Stripped of mathematics, physics becomes pure enchantment.”

For more great thoughts on science and philosophy, check out the full book here on Amazon.

Oct 1

The Tim Ferriss Show – Naval Ravikant

I’ve been listening to Tim Ferriss’ podcast a lot lately, because it never fails to leave me with some kind of golden nugget to think about. If you haven’t heard it, Tim interviews high performing people from all walks of life: Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn), Scott Adams (Dilbert), Ed Catmull (Pixar), Josh Waitzkin (chess prodigy), Peter Thiel (PayPal and billionaire VC), and many more.

One of the reasons I enjoy it so much is because he asks fantastic questions to really interesting people. And he gives interviewees as much time as they want to really thoughtfully respond.

This was no exception in his interview with Naval Ravikant, founder and CEO of AngelList and Epinions. Naval is an entrepreneur I’ve greatly respected from afar, both as a fellow founder who has turned multiple ideas into truly successful organizations, and also as a force of nature evolving our entrepreneurial ecosystem and bringing it into modernity.

Totally on the fly, while touching on the importance of honesty, Naval summarized his view on happiness in a way that really struck a chord with me. It perfectly dovetailed the excerpt of the day about Zen philosophy from two days ago:  “..the present moment has been compressed to a tiny sliver on the clock face between a vast past and an infinite future. Zen, more than anything else, is about reclaiming and expanding the present moment.” (You can read the full excerpt by Tim Lott here).

After rewinding the podcast to hear Naval repeat this several times, I transcribed it and had to post it:

“As I get older in life, I realize that a lot of happiness is just being present. And whether you get this out of Buddhism or cognitive therapy or drugs or wherever, you realize that to live in the present moment is the highest calling. It’s the source of happiness. And when you’re not honest with somebody else, or even withhold something in your mind, you’ve created a second thought process, a second thread in your head that then has to stay active, keeping track of what you’ve said vs. what you’re really thinking. That takes you out of the moment and brings you unhappiness over time. You will not realize it in the moment, but it will create stress and distraction. So if you really want to be happy, you have to be present. And one of the core tenants of being present is to be completely honest at all times.”

- Naval Ravikant

And that is the golden nugget I’ll be thinking about a lot for the next couple weeks. Thanks to Tim and Naval for capturing this so articulately.

You can find them on Twitter here: @naval and @tferriss.

Sep 29

As part of my Excerpt of the Day series, here’s a quote from the essay Off-beat Zen: How I found my way out of depression, thanks to the writings of the English priest who brought Buddhism to the West by Tim Lott.

Alan Watts

“The emphasis on the present moment is perhaps Zen’s most distinctive characteristic. In our Western relationship with time, in which we compulsively pick over the past in order to learn lessons from it and then project into a hypothetical future in which those lessons can be applied, the present moment has been compressed to a tiny sliver on the clock face between a vast past and an infinite future. Zen, more than anything else, is about reclaiming and expanding the present moment.

It tries to have you understand, without arguing the point, that there is no purpose in getting anywhere if, when you get there, all you do is think about getting to some other future moment. Life exists in the present or nowhere at all, and if you cannot grasp that, you are simply living a fantasy.”

I highly recommend reading the whole post here.

Sep 25

As part of my Excerpt of the Day series, here’s an interesting quote from Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World by Mark Miodownik.

Stuff Matters Book Cover“Sadly the receipt will not survive long enough for Lazlo to read it. It is already fading, as the thermal paper on which it is printed degrades over time.

The reason for this is that printing on thermal paper does not mean adding ink to it. Rather, the ink is already encapsulated within the paper, in the form of a so-called leuco dye and an acid. The act of printing requires only a spark to heat up the paper so that the acid and dye react with each other, converting the dye from a transparent state into a dark pigment. It is this cunning paper technology that ensures that cash registers never run out of ink.

For more interesting facts about the science of materials, check out the full book here on Amazon.

Sep 20

As part of my Excerpt of the Day series, here’s an interesting quote from Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World by Mark Miodownik.

Stuff Matters Book Cover“Most paper starts out life as a tree. A tree’s core strength derives from a microscopically small fiber called cellulose, which is bound together by an organic glue called lignin. This is an extremely hard and resilient composite structure that can last hundreds of years.

Extracting the fibers of cellulose from the lignin is not easy. It is like trying to remove chewing gum from hair. Delignification of wood, as the process is called, involves crunching up the wood into tiny pieces and boiling them at high temperatures and pressures with a chemical cocktail that breaks down the bonds within the lignin and frees up the cellulose fibers.

Once achieved, what is left is a tangle of fibers called wood pulp: in effect, liquid wood—at a microscopic scale it resembles spaghetti in a rather watery sauce. Laying this on to a flat surface and allowing it to dry yields paper. This basic type of paper is raw and brown.

Making it white, sleek, and shiny requires a chemical bleach and the addition of a fine white powder such as calcium carbonate in the form of chalk dust. Other coatings are then added to stop any ink that is laid on top of the paper from being sucked too far into the cellulose mesh, which is what causes ink to bleed. Ideally the ink should penetrate a small amount into the surface of the note paper and then dry almost instantly, depositing its cargo of colored molecules, which sit there embedded in the cellulose mesh, creating a permanent mark on the paper.

It is easy to underestimate the importance of note paper: it is a two-thousand-year-old technology, the sophistication of which is necessarily hidden from us so that, rather than being intimidated by its microscopic genius, we see only a blank page, allowing us to record on its surface whatever we choose.”

For more interesting facts about the science of materials, check out the full book here on Amazon.