Intellectualizing vs. feeling deeply: a chance to re-connect with empathy by Michael Sloyer

As I begin my journey back to Ghana, I can’t help but think this is an opportunity to reconnect with my emotions. This is my chance to reconnect with my heart, with my spirit, and with my feelings of oneness towards other human beings in this world. A chance to not only intellectually remember, but a chance to truly feel deeply what all that hard work putting together charity events and fundraising campaigns actually means.

But, to be honest, I am scared. I am scared not that anything bad will happen to me in Ghana, or that the kids won’t like me, or that the living conditions or the food won’t be satisfactory. Those all may be true, but they are not what I am really scared of. I am scared that I don’t have the capacity to truly feel deeply the pain and suffering of what others experience in their lives. I have a fear of failure in my emotional being able to experience true empathy and compassion. In a life where I have been successful in most areas that I have put some effort into, I can’t really say the same thing about my emotions.

Whether it be with good friends who might be going through a tough moment in their lives or with complete strangers who are less fortunate in terms of being able to afford life's necessities, it is often not my first or my natural instinct to feel their pain. And naturally, if I can’t feel their pain, it is almost impossible to be with their pain and be there for them emotionally in the way that they may need it. And I feel very ashamed about this.

To be clear, true empathy is very different than doing good for others and trying to make the world a better place. Taking action, being involved in philanthropy, and being a champion for those that cannot help themselves, have always been important to me. Once a need is articulated, and I find myself with the motivation, resources, and time to take it on, I can be a huge do-er of good. But this is precisely not what I am talking about.  

In fact, my fear of failure when it comes to my own empathy is only exacerbated by the fact that I do do good in this world. How could I be a champion for those whom I have never met, but I often can’t meet the emotional needs of my close family and friends? Am I an emotional fraud?  Do I have a heart of stone to be able to look someone in the eye and ask them to donate to a cause when I don’t feel the feelings at that exact moment that most people probably do when they are doing acts of kindness? Could I only be doing it to satisfy the needs of my own ego or to quench my never ending thrist for external validation? Or am I just hoping to fake it until I make it? Maybe if I do enough good, I will start to feel the same feelings that most “good” people usually do? Yes, lots of cognitive dissonance and issues regarding identity going on here. My actions paint one picture of me. My internal feelings another. And it eats me up inside every day.

I would be being too hard on myself if I said that I never experienced empthy. I do have my moments. During a meditation or after a good workout when the endorphins are flowing, I might get that fleeting feeling of how difficult it must be not to have equal educational opportunities, or not be able to feed your family, or to be discriminated against becuae of race, religion, or gender. During these moments, I really get it. I deeply feel it. I know it, even though I myself am not going through it. I guess, this is what true empathy is. And it is often from those fleeting moments that my longer lasting desire to do good comes from. After feeling the feeling once, even only if for a split second, I can “intellectualize” the feeling, “storing” and “preserving” it so I can talk about it and take action based on it. The feeling may be gone, but somehow, the inspiration remains. So, a few weeks later, when I am talking to a potential donor or spending endless hours negotiating rates for my photography supplies, my motivation perserveres.

I am not saying that I shouldn’t be taking action based on feelings that are “intellectualized” rather than “felt.” But it would represent a big step on my journey of emotional growth if I can somehow find a way to reconnect more frequently and more deeply with the original feelings that got me here in the first place.

So maybe that is what this Ghana trip is all about. A chance to un-intellectualize and re-emotionalize my emotions. A chance to drop the ego, a chance to drop the talk about how much money we raised, a chance to drop my own story about how much hard work I have done...a chance to finally be there with the people who need a smlie and a hug more than anything else.

I am just the salt in the dish by Michael Sloyer

“I am just the salt in the dish.”

Given salt’s generally low position on the totem poll of food preparation, when speaking in metaphorical terms, this is a real statement of humility. It is a statement of humility down playing our own importance in any specified process in deference to the larger goal or some greater good. It can be loosely translated as, “It’s not about me” or less succinctly as, “It’s not about me. I am involved in the process, and I help the process to run more smoothly, more efficiently, or make it better in some other way. But, ultimately, the mission is more important than any of my individual needs.”

Especially in situations involving public service, education, and philanthropy, this statement can be easy to preach, but hard to live by. In fact, no matter how much we know “it’s not about us” it still somehow feels about us. After all, we are the protagonists in the narratives of our lives. We are the center of our own world constructs, and no matter how hard we try, we end up relating just about everything we observe and do back to us.

As an example, I recently facilitated a workshop with the goal of helping participants to explore their own and their team members’ personality types in order to build trust, self-awareness, and compassion among the team members. In preparing for the workshop, I tried to repeat the mantra, “I am just the salt in the dish.” (hat tip: Rasanath and Hari Prasad). I knew the content would make a real difference in the lives of the people who would be attending, so in reality, it should have been all about them. But as I prepared, it didn’t feel all about them. I felt such intense pressure to deliver the perfect workshop that the purity and value of the work itself became a bit lost in the shuffle. My preparation, therefore, was less about how I could best serve the needs of the participants, and more about how I could deliver a shiny performance. And it was stressful. Because whenever a thought crept into my mind about how I could possibly slip up or when I might forget to mention a certain concept in a pre-scripted way that I had worked so hard to come up with, I got hit with a wave of anxiety. Instead of keeping the big picture in mind and feeling excited and grateful for the opportunity to positively affect the lives of people that I care about, I was worrying about what everyone would think of me. I shamefully concede that it became “all about me.”

This whole thing is a bit of a catch 22. It is a catch 22 because, at least for the time being, while I am still my mortal and flawed self, I might be more motivated by the external validation and feelings of personal satisfaction I get when I deliver a successful workshop, than I do by the actual improvements in the lives of the participants. And, in this case, these motivations caused me to work really hard to deliver a great experience for the participants. Because…if I am going to be salt in the dish, I am going to be the best possible salt in the dish I can be. By making the workshop about me first, and the mission second, I did effectively serve others.

The problem with my attitude is multi-fold. First of all, although we may be “effectively” serving others, we are not “optimally” serving others. To optimally serve others, the needs of the others need to be taken into account. So going back to the workshop example, in preparing, I should have thought more about the learning styles of this particular group of people. I should have thought more about what content they might have been able to relate to the most, and about how they would have most effectively been able to retain that content. Even if that meant interrupting the rhythm of my shiny workshop to periodically to review content from earlier in the session, if that is what would have benefitted participants the most, then that is what I should have done.

Another problem with my attitude is that it is neither sustainable, nor will it produce consistent results. We may not always get the external validation from others that we desire or someone else may play a more central role in achieving the mission. Even though the greater good is being served, our motivation may wane or it could hinder collaboration. In the long run, this will leave everyone worse off.

And finally, if it becomes about us, we may eventually lose sight of the original mission we were intending to serve in the first place. We may deliver a lesson (in the case of education), enact a policy (in the case of govt/public service), or make a contribution (in the case of philanthropy) that serves our own purpose and the mission’s purpose. However, even if we can’t see it at the time we are doing it, if we put our own purpose first, the mission’s purpose will be sacrificed in one way or another. We may distracted by things like fame, money, power, and validation, and we may forget what it was like when we first got that super tasty hit of inspiration that caused us to dedicate a part of our lives to whatever it is that we are doing. We may still be operating under the pretense of the mission, but since it is just a pretense, we could actually end up doing more harm than good.

So what is the solution?

Well, not that I am particularly skillful in making things “not about me,” but I think the key here is to be clear about what the mission actually is and to have a consistent dialogue and debate about whether we are staying true to the mission. Working together with a group of people that are also dedicated to the mission and feel accountability to that mission can go a long way in keeping us on track. And finally, if you are like me and need a constant reminder, a little yellow sticky note on your desk with the phrase, “I am just the salt in the dish,” doesn’t hurt either.

The funny thing about choice by Michael Sloyer

One of my all-time favorite things to do, especially when I am travelling or somewhere new, is to look around at people. I look around at people and think “wow, isn’t it awesome that all of these people are doing the best they can do on the journey we call life….isn’t it awesome that these people have made the conscious choices that they have made in order to have the best life possible.” The guy in Namibia selling painted chestnuts for 30 cents a pop by the side of the road. The middle aged salary man in Tokyo riding the same crowded train home that he has been riding for the last 20 years. The clown at the circus juggling six bowling pins in the air while balancing on stilts. The stressed out lawyer still at her office in London three hours after everyone else has gone home. The Nepalese monk meditating on the side of a mountain. Everywhere we look, people making choices to maximize their own happiness.

It’s the economic theory of capitalism functioning on an individual level. But instead of it just being true for capitalist societies, it is true for everyone…everywhere. All people just trying to get the best metaphorical deal for themselves. Pretty awesome.

It may sound a bit cold to love the idea that everyone is trying to maximize their own happiness all the time, but this doesn’t mean that we are all a bunch of selfish individuals. Maximizing your own happiness is done differently by different people. And the “good” people feel happy and fulfilled when contributing to others, and as a result, do more good things for others than not-so-good people. I’ll save the discussion of “is there such a thing as an unselfish good deed” for another post, but suffice it to say that I don’t believe there is one, and that I believe this is fantastic news because it turns out that most people are smart enough to realize that contributing to others is one of the most enduring and potent ways to live a happy life.

But going back to my fascination and appreciation for everyone making choices to have the best life possible, how much choice do we really have in making the decisions we make? Or maybe more appropriately asked, how much of our decisions is a product of circumstance vs. free will? Is the guy in Namibia selling chestnuts on the side of the road and the salary man in Tokyo riding the same train home doing what they are doing by choice?

The funny thing about choice is that there is always a gray area. And clearly we are all a product of circumstance. We only have free will on a spectrum. We never have absolute free will. We were born to certain parents in a certain country during a certain period in history. We had a certain education. We have certain socio economic circumstances. We have had certain life experiences. We have been loved. Let down. Inspired. Castigated. We have been empowered. Denied. Respected. Cheated. Our hearts have melted, and our hearts have been broken. In different ways and to different degrees. And through the lenses of our natural tendencies and our life experiences, through both nature and nurture, we make choices. So to my earlier statement, I will make an addendum: Everyone is trying to maximize their own happiness within the constraints of their reality.

And admittedly, the constraints of reality can be brutal. Heart wrenchingly brutal. So choices, even though they are choices, don’t always feel like choices. If given the choice, I suspect that a lot of people would prefer to make different choices than the ones they get to make. If you ask a guy if he wants vanilla or chocolate, he gets to make a choice. But maybe he prefers the vanilla-chocolate swirl. Or maybe he would have wanted rocky road or maybe the fruit cocktail.

But even though life can be painful and even though choices don’t always feel like choices, from a bird’s eye, the wonder and amazement that I feel when watching people in action, when watching “life living life” doing the best they can out there in the world is what makes the whole experience of living so worthwhile to me. My circumstances might be totally different than the Namibian chestnut salesman, but I feel a oneness and a connection to him because just like him, I too am trying to do my best within the constraints of my reality. At the very moment that I see him, he may not be feeling those same feelings toward me, but deep down, I know they are in there somewhere. He is my brother in this gigantic family we call humanity. And how cool is that.

To believe or not to believe by Michael Sloyer

For some reason, I have been thinking about the not-so-light topics of God, religion, and spirituality recently, I am not sure why. Maybe it is because I have been spending more time in the presence of spiritual people. Maybe it is because I am growing closer to making some life changes that would put me on a more spiritual path. Maybe it is because feelings of loneliness have caused me to turn inward and search for a more fulfilling way that is less dependent on the material world. Regardless of why, it has been on my mind. So I thought it would be useful to jot down my thoughts about where I stand on things related to these mildly important matters.

The disclaimer is that these are just my thoughts. Maybe you share them. Maybe you don’t. But I am just a speck in this gigantic universe of ours, so my thoughts don’t really matter all that much. Please don’t take it too personally or too seriously if my thoughts conflict with yours.

So here we go…

I don’t believe in a God that looks like an elderly man with a long white beard that sits in a big chair in the sky.

I believe that science doesn’t even come close to fully explaining issues of how we got here, why we are here, when we got here, and if we will continue to remain here.

I know a lot of people who are way smarter, more thoughtful, and know way more about science than me who believe in God. And I really admire thoughtful people who believe in God.

I don’t agree with people that that believe in God because they were told to by their family, community, or religion.

I don’t agree with people that think that God will reward/punish them for doing good/bad acts.

I don’t like it when anyone, including public athletes and movie stars, thank God publically for whatever good fortune they are experiencing. I believe they are oversimplifying whatever God may or may not be and whatever God’s role may or may not have been in their good fortune. However, in the spirit of giving others the benefit of the doubt, I must also leave open the possibility that these people are practicing consciousness and gratitude in their public expression of thanks for God, and are not actually thoughtless believers.

I don’t believe that humans that believe in God have enough language to be able to describe the God they believe in.

I believe that God might be a feeling that we get. If people believe this feeling can help guide them, then I can understand why they might believe that God has the power to guide them.  

My rational for not doing bad things is not so I can go to heaven or because I want to be judged favorably on judgment day. I don’t believe in heaven or judgment day. I don’t believe in an after life. I believe it goes black and quiet when you die.

My rational for not doing bad things is because they are generally counterproductive in allowing me to achieve what I would consider the purpose of life. In my (humble) opinion, the purpose of life is three fold: 1. To love and be loved. 2. To experience authentic connection 3. To experience pure bliss

I believe in karma…kind of. I don’t believe that if you do a bad thing and no one finds out about it, something bad will still happen to you as a result. I do believe that bad things happen to people that do bad things because there is significant psychological and situational costs of doing bad things (vice versa for good things). For example, if someone steps on an ant, nothing bad will happen to that person directly because of the ant killing. However, over time, the negative thoughts that build up in that person’s brain each time he kills an ant will have real negative effects on that person. Additionally, if others witness the killing of the ant, this person may be judged unfavorably by his fellow human beings and be either directly or indirectly punished by them.

I don’t believe in fate. I do believe in odds. I believe we should do everything in our power to maximize the odds of living the most authentic and purpose filled life we can imagine.

I don’t believe that we control most of what happens to us in life. We only control a small percentage. However, this small percentage can make a huge difference in our lives. For example, we don’t control if a meteor will slam into Earth and kill us. However, we do control how much effort we put into the various relationships that are important to us, and as long as the meteor does not slam into Earth in the near future, the extra effort we put into our relationships will lead to a more fulfilling life.

I don’t believe anything exists independent of the mind. I do believe everything exists interdependently with your mind (a Buddhist teaching). You, therefore, have control of how you react to any situation.

As a corollary, I love the message of the Serenity prayer: “God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.”

I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason. I do believe that things happen. And these things lead to other things, and without the original things, we would be in a different situation today than we would have been otherwise. So things have consequences. But they don’t necessarily have reasons. As Steve Jobs says, we can always connect the dots looking backwards.

When it comes to religion, I, to some degree, believe in the Machiavellian philosophy that “the ends justify the means.” It seems to me that people who thoughtfully believe in God and/or have a religious or ritualistic practice, live happier and more fulfilling lives. That doesn’t mean we should trick ourselves into believing things we don’t. It just means we should focus on what is true for us. For me personally, the truth is that many of the actions that are associated with religion, like meditation, reflection, prayer, and philanthropy, improve my quality of life and the lives of those around me.

The feelings of a shared history and the social aspects of religion have also been extremely important to me throughout my life.

Ultimately, consciousness is the X-factor here. All this religion and God stuff are associated with consciousness, which seems to be the critical factor in living a fulfilling life. If you don’t believe in God and don’t practice religion, you can get more than your requisite dose of consciousness from consistent expressions of gratitude, acts of compassion, statements of love, meditation, and a focus on the present.

So…while I don’t really believe in statements like “God is omnipotent”, “God is omniscient”, and “God created everything”….phrases like “God is love”, “God is oneness”, and “God is connection” make more sense to me.

And while I am not ready just yet to declare that I definitely believe in God, I would rather explore my possible belief in God and use it as a tool for a more fulfilling life than get stuck on my inability to prove the existence of God. In other words, I would rather be happy than right.

And for me, this is a big step, because anyone who knows me, knows I often act like I prefer to be right instead of happy. 

The truth about non-truth shall set you free by Michael Sloyer

They say the truth shall set you free. From what, you might ask. Maybe it is from others, maybe it is from delusion, maybe it is from ourselves. I am not exactly sure. But what I have become more present to as I have gotten older is the feeling I get when there is real truth happening.

Truth can happen in an endless variety of forms. An insight, a conversation, a criticism, a thought, a discovery about the nature of myself, a discovery about the nature of reality, or just the simple truth of the present moment.

There are lots of ways to get high, but I find it hard to beat the high I get when I discover truth for myself or have truth bestowed upon me by others. For the latter, however, even if the insight comes from someone else, I have to get fully present to the truth for myself for that high to exist.

So why? Why do we get high on truth? Truth is light. Pretense and delusion are heavy. Truth is easy. Pretense and delusion are complicated. They are full of gray areas. With truth, there is nothing to hide, nothing to cover up. No effort needs to be made to disguise truth from the world. Secrets can take on an entire life of their own. Once we are hiding something form ourselves or from others (even if we are not aware of the fact that we are hiding it), we become slaves to the secret. It may feel as if our survival depends on the maintenance of this secret. We lose our freedom to operate with love, creativity, and empathy in the world.

The high from truth is akin is to the high from an “A-Ha” moment. Chemicals are literally released in our brain. We rid ourselves of the proverbial “monkey on our back.” The world becomes our oyster.

And isn’t it interesting how real truth is the exception rather than the rule? We have to work hard to discover real truth. We don’t have to work very hard to discover delusion. The hard work and lack of freedom comes from the maintenance of the delusion, rather than the discovery itself.

In my almost daily (if not hourly) existential quest to discover why I am here (or at the very least, what I should be doing while I am here), I think a lot about the delusions that are running (and potentially ruining) my life. One of my big secrets/pretenses/lies (whatever you want to call it) is the notion that “I got this” and “I can do it on my own.” Very much related is the impossibly high standard I sometimes hold others to, even when I am not close to upholding this standard myself. These notions are made even more exhausting and heavy by the fact that I am not aware that I am carrying them around with me most of the time. I do things like pretend I have heard of that famous actor when I have no idea who he is, pretend that it doesn’t bother me when some friends have an email chain without me, or that I don’t always need the love and support of the people who care about me. I do things like pretend that answers are obvious even when they are not and give others a hard time for making mistakes. Ideas like perfection and “I can do it all on my own” are not truths. They are my delusions. They are my pretenses. And they make life a whole lot more sub-optimal than it has the potential to be.

The complicated part about all of this is that pretense and facades are often pretenses and facades for a reason. It is not that we are malicious or ill-intentioned people when we have them. We can’t necessarily see them ourselves. And almost by definition, they have a gray area, so there is often truth embedded within them. They often serve a purpose. They fuel our voracious egos. They make us feel protected from the difficulties of the world. They are our defense mechanisms. They are how we have always dealt with our insecurities. They run deep. They are engrained within us. And if we let go of them, we would be letting go of parts of us that we might feel we could not live without.

And in discovering these for myself, I come face to face with the truth of just how much of my life is lived in pretense, delusion, and a pho-reality. But herein lies the silver lining, which is that one of the best highs comes from telling the truth about not telling the truth, from being authentic about being inauthentic. Once we strip down to our birthday suit, really admit that this is me and this is what I have done, then we are immediately living in a world of truth. The heaviness, the complications, and the exhaustion all begin to fade away. We become unfettered from the shackles of delusion. Light and liberty prevail. The truth about non-truth has indeed set us free.

Imagining Reality by Michael Sloyer

If we were to imagine reality, what would it look like? Would it no longer be reality? Would it just be imagination? And in our culture, why does imagination seem to have a better reputation than reality? From our earliest days in school, imagination was always the "cool kid," while reality was the kid with no friends who always got the short end of the stick. 

The bottom line is that it is a lot of responsibility and a bit risky to be satisfied with what we see and have in reality. Extolling imagination over reality means that we do not have to accept responsibility for appreciating the real world. It means that we can hang our hat on what could have been or what might be. It is safer to glorify that which does not exist. Glorifying reality, on the other hand, comes with great responsibility. It means that the answers to the questions “what’s next?” and “what else?” are “nothing next” and “nothing else.” This is it. This is what we got. This is what is.

And what’s so bad about that? This is IT. It’s all about how you say the “it.” An ascending “it” is very different than a descending “it.” The ascending “it” implies satisfaction, contentment, and presence. The descending “it” can imply longing, displeasure, and emptiness. The ascending “it” will often be followed by an exclamation point. The descending “it” will often be followed by a question mark but will really be a statement of discontent disguised in the form of a question.

To be clear, I don’t condemn imagination. I just glorify reality. The visual treats in reality available for our consumption are essentially infinite. Well they are finite in a literal sense, but infinite in a practical sense. From the most pristine of natural landscapes, to the most empty of city alleyways, to the most spectacular of mountain tops, to the most intricate of man made structures, reality is visually awesome. Like totally freakin’ awesome. Nature and humans have teamed to make what, when combined, would be impossible to imagine. So in that sense, reality trumps imagination.

Take the zebra print, for example. It is a truly incredible design. Could the designers at any of the top design firms have really thought of a design like that by themselves? Well maybe they could have, but I doubt they would have. The zebra print is beautiful. Potent. Loud. Elegant. Passionate. Chic. Sexy. Intoxicating. I never really appreciated the zebra print as a naturally occurring design until I got to see zebras in the wild while on safari. I was bedazzled. I could not stop staring. It was mind blowing to contemplate how such an emotion inducing design occurs naturally, in reality, without any imagination or human intervention necessary. And 750,000 zebras get to wear it everyday of their lives without being called “ostentatious” or “showy” like a human might be called if one decided to wear zebra print everyday.

And the man made stuff is pretty awesome as well. I concede that the man made stuff required imagination at some point (not only in design, but also in engineering, construction, etc), but what really amazes me is the visual spectacles created by the interaction of the man made with nature. Take the Chinese Fishing nets in Kerala in India during a sunset, for example. Or Machu Picchu in Peru as the cloudy mist lifts itself from the mountains to reveal the buildings just after sunrise. These are not some imaginative dreamscapes. These are what our Earth already has on offer. These are reality.

And I stand in awe of this reality. I feel feelings of oneness, bliss, and connection when I am in the presence of such reality. I get my “flow moments” during these experiences. Why? Well, here are a few reasons that may transpire on their own or in some combination of varying degrees…

1.    These experiences help us to feel closer to the truths of the universe. They remind us that we are all made of the same stuff and that everything we are and everything we see originated from one physical point at one discrete point in time. We are the same in our composition and origins as the sun, the stars, the rocks, all of the animals, and our fellow humans. Remembering that the truth is in fact this simple, in stark contrast to the complexities of truth in our everyday human material world, is both beautiful and comforting.

2.    We feel small and insignificant. And there is so much freedom in that because we can become unburdened by all the stuff that we give so much weight and importance to in our daily lives. No matter how much our boss likes us or how much the cute girl in our homeroom pays attention to us, the beauty of our natural world will be there. It can be a wonderful reminder not to sweat the small stuff.

3.    These are often (but not always) novel experiences. And novelty gets us out of our comfort zones and into the zones of openness, acceptance, and gratitude. I like to call these the “Bring it on” zones.

4.    They give us a feeling of connection to the humans that have come before us, even if it was centuries ago (as in the case of Machu Picchu for example). Carl Jung advocated the idea of a collective or transpersonal unconscious, a level of unconscious shared with other members of the human species comprising latent memories from our ancestral and evolutionary past. We often feel that this area of our unconscious is activated in the presence of aesthetically pleasing displays, especially if our ancestors would have had a chance to have similar experiences in the same location.

5.    We can experience awe induced by the actual physics of the scene. How could light possibly be refracted in such a manner? How could a volcanic eruption possibly produce this mountain range? How could the snow fall in such a perfectly soft and precise way? We might not know the answer to these questions, but we do know we are glad that the laws of physics that govern our universe allowed reality to transpire the way it did.

So back to the original question. If we were to imagine reality, what would it look like?

For me, it would be bold and beautiful. It would be colorful and have lots of contrast. It would reflect light in crazy ways. It would by mystical and mysterious. It would be massive without feeling overwhelming. It would contain great details without getting lost in the detail. It would speak to me. It would teach me. It would inspire me. It would throw me off my rocker. It would challenge me. It would induce feelings of love and gratitude.

In other words, it would be exactly what we already have…in reality.


Am I alone in this world? by Michael Sloyer

Am I alone in this world?

A question loaded with implications and one that has plagued me for as long as I remember. It has plagued me through the best of times and the worst of times. It has plagued me through my most intimate relationships and through prolonged periods of singleness. It has plagued me while traveling alone and while surrounded by large groups of people. It has plagued me in the seconds before I fall asleep and in the moments just after I wake.

But before I even attempt to answer the question, why is it important? Why does the mere thought, “Am I alone,” incite such anxiety within us? We humans are pretty rational creatures, so there must be some rational explanation for why we have this great fear that the answer might, in fact, be “yes.”  

First of all, we know from experience that some (if not the majority) of our most fulfilling moments in life have come about either in the presence or as a result of others. We have experienced feelings of true emotional and physical connection with another, we have been supported and provided support in times of need, and we have shared encounters with others that simply would not be the same if we had experienced them alone. We feel grateful for these experiences and recognize how sub-ideal it would be not to have them anymore.

Secondly, we understand that life just works better when we have others around us. It sometimes feels as if the world is made for couples with the ubiquitous 2 for 1 specials and Costco-esque shopping opportunities. After all, no sane individual can eat three pounds of blueberries before they go rotten no matter how many cancer-fighting antioxidants they might have. Our jokes are funnier when others are around to laugh at them. Activities like eating out at a restaurant or going to the cinema are much more comfortable in the presence of another. Taxis are cheaper when we share them with others. We can comfortably fall asleep in the lap of another while waiting at the departure gate for our plane to take off, and if we need to use the bathroom, we don’t have to lug all of our luggage with us across the airport.

Thirdly, from a pure Darwinian survival of the fittest perspective, our chances of continued existence on this earth are greatly increased if we have another. If we get sick or have an accident, having a companion can be the difference between life and death. A partner can give us CPR, a partner can call an ambulance, and a partner can literally or figuratively talk us back from the edge.

Next, emotional well being, lower stress levels, and lower heart rates may all be associated with having a companion. Similar to having a dog, being in the presence of another can remove us from the stresses of being in our own head. From life experience, I know that caring more about others is much more rewarding and stress mitigating than caring about myself (even if I don’t always act like I know it). Being in love has taught me this. And of course, there is the ability of the other to comfort us during difficult situations. Even if the other person is unable to change the circumstances of a situation, simply being told “everything is okay” or being on the receiving end of a gigantic hug can be all the difference.

And finally, there is that good old procreation thing. It has been in our nature since our early ancestors appeared on earth 1-2 million years ago to be extremely adamant about passing on our genes on to the next generation before we die. Whether it be for reasons of the ego or because we have some unselfish inclination to help the species extend its existence, I will never be sure. But having a partner makes that process a bit more seamless and a whole lot more socially acceptable.

So yea, it seems pretty reasonable that the question, “Am I alone in this world?” might bring on the kind of anxiety that it does.

But loneliness is not all bad. In fact, some pretty smart people have advised me that it is the gateway to personal growth and that I will never be able to be in a truly loving relationship if I don’t know how to be alone. Being alone (and I’m not just talking about being alone for a few hours on a Saturday morning as we get our lives back together after a big Friday night or while we have a cappuccino and read the New York Times) can give us the space we need to experience peace of mind. It can give us the freedom to be creative. It can liberate us from feelings of envy, greed, and lust that we often experience when we closely observe the situations of our fellow human beings. It can liberate us from distractions so we can think, process, and reflect. It can give us an incentive go out of our comfort zone and truly experience the world through our own eyes. And to be frank, sometimes other people just stress me out. Nothing personal, but other humans have all sorts of needs and desires, and sometimes, I would just rather not have to deal with them.

So now on to the matter at hand.

“Am I alone in the world?” 

The way I see it, this question can be answered in six different ways.

1. Literally

Am I in the presence of at least one other human being right now? Yes = not alone. No = alone.

2. Status

What is my relationship status? Serious relationship or married = not alone. Everyone else = alone.

3. Theoretical

I may be physically alone right now, but if I so desired, could I have company, either physically or virtually? Would someone pick up my call to talk to me? Would someone answer my text if I sent one? Would someone meet me at a bar for a drink? Yes = not alone. No = alone.

4. Connection

Do I feel emotionally connected to another? Can I show affection for another and have it be returned. Do others respond to my “emotional bids” (i.e. either explicit or implicit calls for love and support) and do I respond to others? Yes = not alone. Not = alone.

5. Understanding

Do the people around me and in my life see me as I truly am? Do they see me for the real me? Have they experienced my vulnerability? Do they see past my song-and-dance and the barriers that my ego puts up? Do they see through to the loving, generous, fun-loving individual that is underneath? Yes = not alone. No = alone.

This one is particularly tricky because sometimes (or really, always) we don’t even know who we truly are. And for me personally, this one is intensely complicated because even in my most vulnerable moments, I find that my ego still holds something back. It is almost like a controlled vulnerability, as I read the other person to determine how I should be vulnerable, instead of just actually being vulnerable in the true sense of the world. I don’t believe it is manipulative as it sounds, but I do believe other people can sometimes sense this, and it can prevent them from feeling truly close to me and from fully seeing me for who I am.

6. Acceptance

Do I truly accept others for the way they are and do they accept me for the way I am? Do I love others in my life unconditionally and do others love me unconditionally? No = alone. Yes = not alone.

Another very tricky one because other than a parents love for a child (which I have not yet experienced myself from a parent’s perspective), I can’t think of any love that is truly unconditional. In my own experience, there always seems to be conditions on love with Condition #1 being I won’t love you unless you love me 

So, for most of us, the question “Am I alone?” is difficult to answer with any sort of conviction because the answers to the questions above (especially #4, 5, and 6) are not binary and are constantly changing. One minute, we may feel incredibly connected to and understood by those around us, and the next minute, we may feel that there is not a single other soul out there who can even begin to grasp what we are going through. Even if external circumstances don’t necessarily change, our brain chemistry is such that consistent answers to these questions are very hard to come by.

And for me personally, I find the loneliest times to be when the answers above point to contradicting conclusions. Specifically, I feel the most lonely when I feel lonely IN SPITE OF being surrounded by a ton of friends or having a romantic partner. When I am physically alone, it is easy to understand why I feel lonely. But when I am not physically alone, and I still feel alone, it throws me off my rocker. It is extremely disconcerting, and only serves to strengthen the discomfort of this emotion we call loneliness.

So, as I have gotten older and experienced a few more things in life, it has become clear to me that the quality of “aloneness” has nothing to do with the number of people around. It might have something to do with the quality of the people around. Or maybe more accurately, it reflects the quality of our relationships with the people that are either around or with the people that are not around. I feel way less alone knowing there is a friend across the world who “gets it” and “gets me” than a guy standing next to me who cannot even begin to understand what I am going through. Carl Jung said, “Loneliness doesn’t come from having no one around you, but from being unable to communicate the things that are important to you.”

So now really on to the matter at hand.

“Am I alone in this world?”

Yes and no. Yes, because factually, I am an individual. I am alone in the physical space that I occupy. And when I go to bed at night and close my eyes, even if there is someone lying next to me, the fact remains that I am alone in my mind and in the darkness that my eyes can see. And no. No, because I am not going it alone in this world. I share the planet with 7 billion other humans, and if I play my cards right, I can serve as pillars of support for many of them, and in turn be served myself. I have access to the infinite love of others and by being truly vulnerable (not just pretend vulnerable like I have a tendency to do), I can be truly “gotten.”

Paul Tillich put it nicely when he said, “Our language has wisely sensed these two sides of man’s being alone. It has created the word "loneliness" to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word "solitude" to express the glory of being alone.”

So next time, when I am feeling a bit lonely, whether I am in an empty room or in the middle of Times Square/Lan Kwai Fang/Roppongi on a Saturday night, maybe I’ll just do a little re-framing of the emotion. I will call it “solitude” rather than “loneliness.” And with the re-framing, maybe I can bask in the glory of my loneliness, or at the very least, take comfort in the knowledge that any discomfort associated with this emotion will eventually pass.

Growing old together by Michael Sloyer

The need to belong is one of the most basic human needs. In fact, it is the third (and middle) rung of the triangle that makes up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (with physiological needs and safety as the bottom two, and esteem and self-actualization as the top two). 

The need to belong, when fulfilled, can be the basis for some of the most wonderful moments of our lives. Family life, romantic relationships, friends, sports teams, clubs, religious organizations, community groups, etc. all thrive, at least in part, due to the basic human need to belong. 

But just like there can be no darkness without light and no happiness without sadness, there can be no inclusion without exclusion. And I think it is fairly obvious that it is this truth that has resulted in some of the worst moments of humanity over the years. War, torture, terror, prejudice, repression, and plain old just not being nice are the vicious side effects of the need to belong. I cannot belong to something unless others are excluded. Or can I?

I was having one of those endorphin inspired moments the other day where the world just seems delightful and everything seems to line up. A flow moment if you will. And I began to take a look at the humans living their human lives all around me. And it dawned on me that each of these humans that I saw share something very special with me. They are living right now. They exist on the same planet as me at the same time as me. The statement “we grow old together” is usually reserved for our most intimate and long lasting of relationships. But in the non-metaphorical sense, we (i.e. all humans that exist today) are literally growing old together. And how cool is that.

It is only partially true that I not excluding anyone when I fulfill my need to belong by thinking about all those humans that are sharing the earth with me now. There are 7.2 billion people living right now. There have been an estimated 108 billion humans that have lived since the beginning of time, so in fact, I am excluding 93.3% of all humans that have ever existed. My group has a 6.7% acceptance rate, making it more exclusive than Princeton. And the best thing about it is that no one really gets upset about being excluded. Anyone that has the potential to want to be included is already included and anyone new to the human scene is automatically added. Seems like a pretty war-proof, violence-proof, terror-proof, and prejudice-proof way to form a group and feel like we belong.

Joking aside, getting present to the fact that we really are in this together has huge ramifications. Even the worst of the worst villains of our society want the same thing: to love and be loved and to have the best possible life for themselves and the people they care about. These villains just have a lot of (metaphorical) crap in their way and a pretty screwed up way of going about achieving these goals. So, while I certainly don’t condone their actions, I have started to see more of the basic goodness in people and really understand that deep down, they want the same beautiful things that I do. I have also found this shift in perspective to be incredibly comforting in times of loneliness or hopelessness. I can look around and feel automatically connected to the guy next to me at Starbucks who won’t stop coughing or the young kid crying into his mother’s shoulder on the MTR. Life is not a dress rehearsal as they say. It is the real thing, now, and we only get one chance. There are 101 billion people with whom I will never cross paths, and even though some of these people are my direct ancestors, I can’t say I have a whole lot in common with them. But the old Chinese guy fixing shoes on the cobblestone street, well I know that he and I have at least one pretty important thing in common.

Not so peacefully existing within the comfort of my mediocrity by Michael Sloyer

There comes a point in all of our lives when we get a glimpse into just how spectacular we can actually be. In this moment, we come face to face with our true potential. Literally FACE to FACE. I am not about talking the little moments when we realize that a little extra effort could go a long way. I am talking about the big moments, when we realize we have the potential for a lasting shift in our “being” of who we are for ourselves and who we are for other people. We have the potential for a lasting shift in what we stand for and we want out of life. Simultaneous to this moment, we may get a glimpse of the trials and tribulations and sacrifices it might take to get there.

For me, these moments come in different forms and originate from different sources. But they generally involve one of these four areas: creative endeavors and thinking, service to others, having peace of mind, and experiencing true empathy on a consistent basis. These are the areas of life where I know I have the potential to be extraordinary. These are the areas for me from which true fulfillment will come. They will certainly be different for each individual, but regardless of what they are, having one of these moments where we are faced with our true potential is extremely confronting and can be downright petrifying.

After we get over the initial shock of having one of theses moments (and whatever “hit” of inspiration that might come along with it), we have a few choices. 1. We can decide that whatever we saw as our potential is either not worth the effort or that we never actually wanted it in the first place. 2. We can decide to take it on by doing a few symbolic things. In other words, we commit, but not really. Or 3. We can fully, no-kidding, commit to it. For real. And we can powerfully take the concrete steps towards creating the life we aspire to have.

I must admit that I am master of choice 2. I am a man of aspiration and good intention and symbolic action. And I despise myself for being this way. I despise myself because mediocrity might just be the only thing worse than failure.

I have always lived inside my self-serving belief that “I am fine,” that “I am doing as well as I can do,” and that “sure, it would be nice to be extraordinary, but in the meantime, while I am not extraordinary, well, I am fine and I am doing my best, so it’s all good.” My biggest supporters in life help to perpetuate these feelings by giving me lots of metaphorical high fives and chest bumps, and saying things like “nice life you have”. These sentiments are wonderfully self-serving. They prevent me from feeling invariably bad about myself and from waking up with an existential crisis every morning. They allow me to lead a productive life without the prospect of paralysis in the mundane tasks of the everyday.

So I have clearly learned to survive not being extraordinary. But why? Why do I seem to be stuck on choice 2? Why haven’t I been the extraordinary being that is fully committed to the things that I know I am truly capable of?

I am a pretty rational guy, so the payoffs of me not being extraordinary must be pretty compelling. First of all, I avoid the responsibility of having others rely on me. Extraordinary beings can be depended on to show up for life all the time. Sometimes, I don’t want to show up. I would rather hide. I would rather sit in the back of the room. I would rather not raise my hand. I would rather sacrifice true engagement for short-term comfort. Second, I avoid the future responsibility of having to be extraordinary. If I am extraordinary once, the story in my head goes, then others will expect it from me in the future. And although I feel confident I can be extraordinary when I feel like it, do I really want that expectation hanging over me all the time? Next, I have this senseless story that the rest of the population would be uncomfortable in the presence of an extraordinary being. Maybe it would be some internally generated pressure or a latent inferiority complex coming to the surface, but regardless of what it is, I somehow feel that I would be making others uncomfortable by going beyond what I normally do. It is akin to how others sometimes get uncomfortable, and even make fun of me, when I choose to eat healthy, not drink alcohol, or decide to go to bed early. I know this sounds arrogant and like a lame excuse, but it is real to me and definitely prevents me from being my best self sometimes. Finally, I have a big fear of failure and fear of not being good enough. If I declare that I am going to be extraordinary, even if just to myself, then I am putting my whole “I can’t fail” need at risk. I am making myself vulnerable.

It is scary to say all this out loud. It is scary to reveal my fear, arrogance, and insecurity to the world. These are not exactly the parts of my personality of which I feel proudest. But at the same time, it is a big load off my chest. All of this stuff has felt like a big secret of mine for a long time, one that I have been hiding from the world by going about my life in a “good enough” way.

But now that I said it, it is a lot less scary. It is a lot less scary mainly because none of what I say is actually true. Statements like “if I am extraordinary once, then others will expect it from me in the future” and “the rest of the population would be uncomfortable in the presence of an extraordinary being” are a bunch of nonsense. They might feel “real” to me, but in reality, they are not true. They are just reasons my subconscious self has come up with to get the payoffs I describe above. It is also a lot less scary because I suspect that some of the other people in this world feel the same way. Maybe the details of their survival mechanisms are different, but it must also scare others to see glimpses of what they are capable of. And it must also be the case that others have made the case to themselves through delusional reasoning that they are perfectly happy peacefully existing within the comfort of their current mediocrity.

I must caveat all of this with, and what makes this all so confusing, is that all of my rhetoric above conflicts with my own commitment to myself to give myself a break. It conflicts with my pledge to be more compassionate to myself, to be my own friend, and to say to myself, “hey Michael, relax, you are doing pretty damn well in life doing your thing, so sure, do what you can to improve, but no need to be so hard on yourself.” So maybe, that’s the real end game: to give myself permission to be extraordinary sometimes, mediocre at others, and plain incompetent at others. Or maybe the real answer is that there is no end game. And we are all just distracting ourselves with lots of inconsequential nonsense until we end up in the ground. Poetically gruesome, I know, but maybe…just maybe…I am overthinking it.

So which do you prefer by Michael Sloyer

At the end of “A Life of Pi”, Pi poses the question, “So which story do you prefer?” He is asking the writer with whom he is speaking to decide whether he prefers the beautiful story of Pi’s survival on a raft boat with the majestic tiger Richard Parker or the more “realistic” story of his survival involving the death of his mother and his killing of the cook to avenge her death. But on a deeper level, he is asking us to consider questions of faith and logic, of spirituality and rationality. He is asking us to consider some questions with which I perpetually struggle: Does the existence of faith/logic presuppose the nonexistence of the other? Can we actively choose to have faith or is this inherent to our psyche? Is it possible to discover that we don’t actually believe what we thought we believed?

The answer to Pi’s original question is actually quite simple for me. I prefer the story with the tiger. I prefer the majestic. I prefer the spiritual. I prefer to have faith. But having a preference is the easy part. Preference involves desire and intention. Preference does not involve truly being. In fact, my personal pendulum of preference often swings away from my natural inclinations of being (I am, after all, my own harshest critic) and therefore the way I want to be can deviate from the way I am. And in this case, my inclination up until this stage of my life has leaned away from faith and toward the cold hard facts. I have tended to spend my time dwelling in the physical world rather than contemplating the spiritual. I have spent my time in reality, rather than in awe. I have spent my time questioning, rather than believing. I would like to change this, but can I?

I already hear the screams from the more rationally inclined, “Why do you aspire to be delusional? Why do you aspire to believe in something you don’t?” Well, I don’t aspire to be delusional and to be perfectly honest, I am not quite sure what I believe. I do know, however, that I aspire to lead a more fulfilling life. I aspire to be compassionate. I aspire to be loving. I aspire to be happy. And the old way doesn’t work. At least not as well as I would like it to work.

And what about God? Well, I want to believe in God, but I have always had trouble with this. I have had trouble because a belief in God has always come with so much baggage. And because I somehow felt that it required believing in an anthropomorphic old man with a beard sitting in a chair in the sky who doles out gold stars and slaps on the wrist. But the more I have read and listened to deeply introspective and intensely critical “believers,” the more I realized that the kind of God that I don’t believe in is the same kind of God that people who don’t believe in God don’t believe in. As Lawrence Hoffman says in his book about Jewish prayer, the question is not “Do you believe in God?…the question is whether God is a real presence in our lives.” He talks about how we don’t say we “believe in” some of the noblest things in life –things like love, duty, justice, hope, and care. But these things can be a real presence in our lives. They are real because they are really experienced by us. We feel them. We know them. Not all the time, but they are real. And the more I think about it, the more I “believe” God is the same.

The truth is what works. So sometimes I meditate. And that helps me to feel fulfilled and peaceful. Sometimes I contemplate the mysteries of the universe. And that helps me to feel wonder and awe. And “Sometimes,” as the Avicii/Pretty Lights/Flo Rida song goes, “I get a good feeling, yeah. I get a feeling that I never never never never had before.” And for me, sometimes I get a good feeling of faith in that which I cannot control or comprehend. And that makes me happy.

Blind spotting my fear of failure by Michael Sloyer

I have a fear of failure in life. I am scared that I am not good enough. There I said it. Well that wasn’t so hard. Well, actually it was. Because it took a hell-a-va lot to get to this point. To get to the point of being able to say something like that. Both out loud to all of you. And more importantly, to figure it out myself. Because, for the longest time, which I would define as approximately 28 years, this fear of failure has been in my blind spot. I have been looking in the rearview mirror, but a narrative I have called “I am someone with a healthy desire to succeed” has been in the way. It has been masking the truth.

“Semantics,” you say. Fear of Failure. Desire to succeed. Po-tay-toe. Po-tah-toe. Well yea, that’s what I always thought too. Because the process and the results seemed to be the same.

The process looked something like this: 1. Invent a new idea/activity/goal/project  2. Enroll myself and others (if necessary) in it  3. Execute  4. Win/succeed/accomplish  5. Receive external validation  6. Feel satisfied  7. Repeat steps 1-6.

Moving to Asia. Photography projects. Charity events. Building a website. Writing a blog. Triathlons. Traveling. Blah blah blah blah. This is what life looked like. For 28 years. And it was fun. And I felt happy a lot. Genuinely happy.

But throughout the last few months, this blind spot has revealed itself. Actually that sounds a bit too mystical. What really happened is that I started to inquire. I inquired into the nature of myself and what really drives me. And as much as it pains me to say, I discovered that fear of failure, and not a healthy desire to succeed, has been steering the ship.

For me, there are two major differences between having a healthy desire to succeed and having a fear of failure. First, having this fear of failure has prevented me from taking on things in which I am unsure if I will succeed. It has prevented me from playing big games. It has prevented me from taking chances. There is no freedom in this fear because when my ultimate goal is to avoid failure, I am not free to do things that I might fail at. The tricky thing, and one of the reasons it took me so long to figure this out, was that sometimes the decisions I made looked like risky decisions to the outside world, and I let my perception of the outside world’s perceptions convince me that I was taking a risk. Take my decision to move to Asia, for example. Was this really a big risk? Was I really not going to have a great time? Was I really not going to learn a lot about myself? Was I really not going to do well in my career and make good friends and have a nice life? The outside world told me, or at least I thought it did, that this was a risky decision. And I believed it. But it was not the truth. I am not belittling the decision at all, but the reality was, for me, moving to Asia was not a big risk. It was another one of those games in which I knew I could succeed.

So what would playing a big game look like? Clearly the answer is different for everyone. But for me, it would look like learning a language. It would like learning to play the guitar. It would look like giving up a high paying job to spend more of my time helping others. It would mean doing things I want to do without craving the external validation that may or may not come about as a result of doing those things. It would mean always honoring my commitments for no other reason then because I said I would. To put it simply, it would mean not having my cake and eating it too. At least not all the time.

And the other difference is that having a fear of failure is exhausting. Totally exhausting. It is filled with anxiety and apprehension. It requires a lot of effort. It requires a lot of scheming, plotting, and figuring out how not to fail. It leaves a lot less room for just "being." And for me, the best times in life have been when I just "am." Perfect the way I am. And perfect the way I’m not.

When I had the ah-ha moment and really got present to my fear of failure, I was inclined to explain it away as a necessary evil. My “story” was that my fear had allowed me to accomplish what I had in life and was to thank for my quality of life. But the reality is that having this fear of failure did not allow me to accomplish anything. It was my actions and the amazing people around me that have caused the results. Plain and simple.

To use a sports analogy, the basketball goes in the net because you shot it in there. Not because you were scared of missing it. And not because you practiced a lot because you were scared of missing it. You may have been scared of missing it, and you may have practiced a lot because you were scared of missing it, but it didn’t go in there because you were scared of missing it.

This distinction that my fear is not the source of my results provides a huge clearing for me. A clearing to be free and joyful. A clearing to take on things I may fail at. A clearing to try to get the results without worrying about the results. A clearing to forgive myself.

So really, not much has changed on the surface. I am still the same regular guy. I just have a new distinction. And one less blind spot. But the world seems a whole lot brighter. And I like it that way.


zen and the art of beginner’s mind by Michael Sloyer

I spend a great deal of time, effort, and mental stamina trying to become an expert in my own life. Over the years, I have developed habits and routines that that keep me focused, on time, and on a path to obtain whatever it may be that I want out of life. But as my ways of doing and ways of thinking become more ingrained, the boundaries of what’s possible in life can feel like they are stagnant or even shrinking. So even though this expertise may “work” in the most literal sense of the word, it is not actually working in the most important sense of the word. As the Zen Master Shunryo Suzuki says, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Beginner’s mind, or Shoshin as the Zen Buddhists call it, is the idea that we should approach life as if we are doing it for the first time — without prior knowledge, beliefs, or expectations. Beginner’s mind is humbling. Because we are not good at things we do for the first time. Beginner’s mind is limitless. Because we have not yet encountered any obstacles that might get in our way. Beginner’s mind is creative. Because there are not yet practical considerations to constrain our ideas and our actions. Beginner’s mind inspires awe. Because we tend to feel amazed by things we have not yet experienced before. Beginner’s mind is exciting. Because we feel like we are doing it for the first time.

Beginner’s mind runs in direct contrast to a few of the syndromes from which I suffer.

  • The “I know” syndrome
  • The “what’s the point” syndrome
  • The “smartest guy in the room” syndrome
  • The “Socratic method” syndrome (aka the “death by logic” syndrome)
  • The “I’m too old/good for that” syndrome
  • The “efficiency” syndrome
  • The “I’ll be happy when” syndrome

With beginner’s mind, I seem to be relieved of all these syndromes.

  • I definitely don’t know
  • I am the least knowledgeable guy in the room
  • The point is to figure out the point
  • I don’t yet have the information to use proper logic
  • I cannot know that I am too old/good for something I have not experienced before
  • I cannot think about efficiency and optimization when I don’t know how to do it in the first place
  • I have no choice but to be fully present now if I am going to learn something new

Anyone who knows me (or who has read my blog before) knows that I am constantly questioning my motivations and preferences. A common question I have is: are my hobbies my hobbies because I truly enjoy them or because I enjoy the idea of being someone who enjoys them. Understanding my own experiences with beginner’s mind and the feelings of love, oneness, and passion I have when I operate with beginner’s mind has made me more confident that my hobbies are genuinely activities that I enjoy.

Take traveling to new places, as an example. This activity literally has “built in” beginner’s mind tendencies. Other than the superficial information gleaned from a guidebook or a friend’s recommendation, we have very limited information when we travel to a new place. Everything is a novelty. Our senses are consumed by stimuli we are encountering for the first time. Our beginner’s mind goes on autopilot. We cannot help but feel wonderful feelings of curiosity and awe. We are humbled by our ignorance. We ask questions like “Why” and “How” with greater frequency and with a more passionate inquisitiveness than we do in our daily lives.

Photography also naturally lends itself to beginner’s mind proficiency. As photographers, we are using our camera as a cropping tool for the world. Though we may have come across the objects or people we are capturing before, the way we capture them and the specific circumstances under which we capture them are unique. As Bresson reminds us, “Life is once, forever.” Through the viewfinder of a camera, we find beauty in the conventional and enchantment in the everyday. We become an artist with the world as our canvas. We notice objects and points of view we have never noticed before. We see the world through a fresh set of curious and creative eyes. We are kids in the candy store of visual delights.

Beginner’s mind can be experienced naturally in many other areas of our lives: when we learn to play an instrument, when we attend the first day of school, when we eat at a new restaurant, when we meet a new group of friends, or when we read a book about a topic that we don’t know much about. I personally would like to exercise my beginner’s mind next year by learning to surf and to play an instrument.

But the reality is that novel circumstances and experiences are not the issue. The challenge is to cultivate the experience of beginner’s mind during the more mundane parts of our lives: while we commute to work, while we are interacting with people we interact with everyday, while we are brushing our teeth, etc.

The first step is an awareness that there is actually nothing inherently mundane about mundane things. The only thing mundane about them is our perception of them as mundane. So if we start to see extraordinary in the ordinary, the ordinary won’t seem so ordinary anymore. If you pass a tree on your commute to work everyday, think about the amazing process of photosynthesis and how the tree can convert light energy into nutrition. If you have to interact with an annoying colleague at work everyday, contemplate how incredibly infinitesimal the odds actually were of this human being ever coming into existence. If you feel bored by the world around you, look up and contemplate the size of the universe and how there are likely to be other universes out there that are just like it.

So is beginner’s mind a vaccine for the syndromes I mentioned above? Absolutely not. It is merely a transient therapy, providing hits of inspiration, humility, and awe. But like therapy, beginner’s mind can also be instructive and can put us on the path to enduring solutions. Or more appropriately phrased, it can put us on the path towards greater contentment with what is. Because with beginner’s mind, we start to realize that nothing actually needs fixing. All that’s needed is a little change of internal scenery.

I get lost in my mind by Michael Sloyer

It is that eternal feeling of existential angst. That feeling of apprehension and disquietude we get when we rediscover our lives have no inherent meaning. That feeling we get when we realize there is not actually some bearded guy on a gilded chair in the sky who is worrying about how happy we are today. It is a feeling that can present itself for a myriad of reasons. But for me, it is often unscheduled time on my own that really gets the existential juices going.

Consider this completely theoretical scenario: It is a Saturday morning. I manage to get a decent sleep the night before. I get up early to go to a yoga class. I grab an egg sandwich on the way home. I shower. I get dressed. It’s a beautiful day. It’s 10am. The work week seems like a distant dream, something I can barely recall. And nothing but weekend lies ahead. I haven’t scheduled anything to do. No weekend trips to other cities, no hiking adventures around Hong Kong, no brunches with friends, not even an errand I have been meaning to do. This unscheduled time was not a product of conscious thought, but I just hadn’t gotten around to filling it up. And even if I had thought about it briefly during the week, a free Saturday in my home city has a nice ring to it. A day to relax. A day to engage in fulfilling activities. A day to enjoy.

But herein lies the dilemma. Actually it’s not just a dilemma. It’s a full on crisis. “A “first world problem” as they say. Because there is nothing relaxing, fulfilling, or enjoyable about literally doing nothing. Or maybe there is. But I haven’t been very successful at figuring this out. I still feel the need to do something in order to relax, to feel fulfilled, and to enjoy. Staring at a blank wall just won’t cut it. And now I feel pressure to come up with that something.

Should I go out exploring with my camera? After all, photography is my favorite hobby and Saturdays are for both hobbies and exploring, right? It would satisfy my artistic itch and would allow me to engage with the people of the city and feel appreciation for the beauty of the physical world around me. But that somehow doesn’t feel productive enough because I don’t have a particular area of town I have been meaning to shoot. Or maybe I should read my book in the park? That would allow me to spend some much needed time outdoors and would certainly fulfill the relaxing part of the equation. But I don’t need a whole day to do that, do I? I could just do that for a half hour on the way home from whatever thing I do decide to do.  Or maybe I should text a bunch of friends I have been meaning to catch up with to see if they are free for a coffee? This would be both productive and enjoyable, but what are the chances that anyone has made the same mistake I have regarding waking up to a day without plans? Plus, what if they counter with a proposal to meet later in the day, which would create the new dilemma of having plans smack in the middle of the day, which would take all the other wonderful options off the table. Should I go to a coffee shop to write? This would allow me to express my everlasting internal monologue in a more coherent and formalized fashion. And if I was productive enough to finish a blog post today, it would serve the purpose of allowing me to reconnect and share my thoughts with my loved ones back home. But what if I don’t write something interesting or intriguing enough? What if it isn’t worthy of publication, or what if I won’t have time to finish it for another few weeks? Should I go do an errand and buy something that I “need”? This would also be productive, but since I don’t really need it (hence the quotation marks) and because this activity scores below zero on the fulfilling test, I think I’ll skip it.

And so the existential dance continues. My whole “life is beautiful” and the “world is my oyster” outlook has soured. It has become stressful. It makes me call into question my entire self-imposed identity as a driven, curious, world-loving soul who wishes there were 30 hours in a day and that humans only required 4 hours of sleep. Are my hobbies my hobbies because I love to do them? Or are they my hobbies because I like the idea of being someone who has those hobbies? Are relaxing things actually relaxing or do they just have the reputation for being relaxing and actually become another thing on the to-do list?

As the Head and the Heart song goes, “I get lost in my mind.” I have gotten so lost that I seemingly can’t find my way out. But then…the wonderful “AHA” moment. The realization that none of this angst that I have is based on reality. It is all based on stuff I have made up in my mind. It does not exist independent of my mind. Like a rainbow. The only thing that is real is that I have a decision to make regarding what I will do today. And so today, I have chosen to write in a coffee shop. I have chosen to write what is on my mind. I have chosen to connect with all of you. And how wonderful is that.

I stand in awe by Michael Sloyer

I stand in awe. I stand in awe of the world. I stand in awe of the natural world. The man made world. And the world I see when I shut my eyes. I stand in awe of the things I know. The things I don’t know. And the things I don’t know I don’t know. But not all the time. Sometimes I stand in awe of nothing. Sometimes I feel frustrated, jaded, indifferent, exhausted.

We’ve all had those tough days. At work, at home, or otherwise, where we just want to turn off the world. We want to crawl up into a ball and hide in our most comforting vice. But isn’t it ironic that when the material world fails us, we look for solutions by digging deeper into the material world (via technology, food, alcohol, etc). This is exactly when we need to be turning on the world. Because the world we live in is fantastic. It is full of color, full of mysteries, full of miracles. It is full of inner peace and human connection.

I love yoga. Yoga means union. The union of mind, body, and soul. Such a beautiful concept. Especially the part about the soul. And though I subscribe to the belief that human beings have souls, this has always been a rather abstract and complicated concept for me. What does having a soul actually mean? And why does the beauty of contemplating my own soul sometimes feel clouded by the not so great aspects of organized religion? But I recently came across an admittedly very simple yet useful explanation: the body describes that which we share with other forms of life, and the soul describes whatever makes us uniquely human.

Humans have the unique ability to think about thinking. Like animals, we wake up in the morning and take care of our physical needs in a routine fashion. But as the scholar Lawrence Hoffman says, we also have the ability to “de-routininize our daily routine so as to stand in ‘radical awe’ at being alive.” But too often, we choose not to take advantage of this unique ability. Or maybe we just forget. But forgetting is really just a passive way of not choosing.

Choosing to feel awe? Really? Is that possible? While I agree there is nothing like that feeling of spontaneous awe — when we watch a baby come into the world, when we come across a touching photograph, or when we realize for the first time that who we are is actually one step above the voice in our head — awe by luck is not the only source of awe. We can be active participants in our own awe. We can choose to marvel at the things around us, above us, and within us.

There is of course a fine line between authenticity and superficiality. Just because I look up at the stars and think “wow, we really are just a tiny speck of dust in this mind boggingly immense universe” doesn’t mean that I truly feel the immenseness of the universe. But there is something to the old age adage, “Fake it until you make it.” I have found that if I actually stop and take a minute, and I think authentically stopping and contemplating are the keys here, I can glimpse that wonderful feeling that makes life so worth it. Sharing observations and thoughts that lead to feelings of awe, or even just saying them out loud to myself, can also be incredibly helpful. Because once I release them into the world, they become real. They become real to me and to the person on the receiving end. And together, we can go from feeling nothing to feeling feelings. We have been empowered to actualize our own peak experience. Because special means special. Special doesn’t mean rare.

So from today on, I will make it a point to marvel like I have never marveled before. I will find real beauty in the mundane. I will ask questions like “Are there more grains of sand on the earth or more stars in the sky.” I will be authentic, but I will also marvel for the sake of marveling. Because it feels damn good to marvel. And to take a stand for awe.

conscious of being conscious by Michael Sloyer

It’s that classic shot in a film. The heroine is climbing the wall of a skyscraper in pursuit of the villain. The camera zooms out to reveal a bird’s eye, aerial, 360 degree view of the city. The heroine becomes the size of an ant. But just for a moment. A special moment. A moment of stillness. A moment of perspective. But as quickly as the camera zooms out, it zooms back in. The pursuit comes back into focus. The heroine’s sticky situation becomes real again. Drama.

If this scene is a microcosm of life, then I spend the vast majority in “zoom in” mode. In fact, I am so zoomed in that I spend most of my time inside my own head. Or more accurately, listening to the voice in my head. Trapped. Thinking. Plotting. Planning. Debating. Labeling. Judging. By definition, I exist physically in the present, but that voice seems more comfortable hanging out in the past or in the future. The default is what was or will be. What could have been or what could be.

This way is not working. Well, actually it does work. But only in the most practical and least fulfilling ways possible. It generally allows me to have a good grasp of what I am going to eat for dinner that night and allows me to determine exactly how frustrated I am with the old guy on the escalator who doesn’t appreciate that the left lane is for people that can walk a little faster. I am quite thankful that there is no way (that I am aware of) for anyone to track the length of time I spend with each of my thoughts. Because I would be mortified with how long I spend with the most useless ruminations, especially the negative ones. But maybe that is exactly what I need. Some hard data to shock my world.

But if you ask me about how I am feeling or how I am doing, I will generally reply with an expression of satisfaction. An authentic expression of satisfaction. I am a lover of life and feel incredibly grateful to share this planet with fellow humans. So what gives? How can this zest and gratitude be reconciled with the unfulfilling time spent living inside my own head?

The answer lies in those moments where the camera zooms out. Those moments of oneness where everything aligns. Body, mind, and spirit. Where we feel connected with not only other humans but with the dirt underneath our feet and the water in our oceans. We recognize that we are ultimately made of the same stuff. We feel a divine connection. Presence.

These moments can occur at almost anytime. Some in more expected situations (after a workout, while meditating on the side of a mountain, after taking drugs or alcohol, during a meaningful conversation) and some when we never see it coming (when a young child holds the door for us, when a cool breeze of air passes by our face, or in the moment just before we drift off to sleep). And though these moments may occur far less frequently than we would like, there is a shift in consciousness in which we can actively engage that will get closer to where we would like to be.

We can create moments of presence, or more accurately, “just be,” by recognizing that the voice in our head is not really us. It is our ego. Instead, who we truly are is one step above. We are that which can observe the voice in our head. So it is not the I that is the subject of the scene in the movie where the camera zooms out, but the I is the camera itself. We are the ones with the bird’s eye view. As Eckhart Toole talks about in his book “The New Earth”, we can be conscious of being conscious. And by being conscious of being conscious, we are present and in fulfillment of our true selves.

Peace and the compulsion to do by Michael Sloyer

My eternal feeling of existential angst. An intense desire to create meaning, connect with other humans, feel productive, validated, and most of all just plain happy. Even when I experience true feelings of contentment and peace, like during a mediation or after a long run, my initial response is often to think, what should I “do” with this positive feeling? How can I channel it into a greater good? How can I convey it to others? Should I write it down in my journal? Should I write a blog post about it for all the world to see?

Why do I feel so compelled to do something? Why can’t I just be at peace with being at peace?

I have a number of hypotheses.

1) I feel insecure about the authenticity of my feelings and emotions. Without concrete evidence that they existed, might they never have existed at all?

2) I am seeking validation from the external world. Like it or not, it feels good to be thought of as “introspective” or “spiritual.”

3) I see it as my chance to give back to the world. A selfish guy has to take advantage of his fleeting feelings of selflessness.

4) I fear uselessness and wasted time (with the corollary that I am addicted to production). If everything is a means to an end, then it is never a waste of time.

5) Or maybe the answer is just grounded in biology and neurology. After all, the part of the brain responsible for these good feelings also happens to be the part of the brain responsible for our species ultrasocial propensities.

And to be clear, this compulsion to do and to share is not wrong. The intention behind it is so pure. So genuine. So generous. It comes from such a good place within the heart. And feeling at peace can create wonderful calls to action. I personally find myself with a desire to reconnect with friends and family with whom I have shared deeply meaningful experiences in the past. I find myself thinking more creatively about big ideas, about interesting photography projects, blog ideas, or charitable endeavors I might want to pursue. I often think about gifts I can give to other people or something I have been meaning to do for the benefit of someone else.  All really positive stuff.

But the reality is that this desire to take action can take away from the wonder and singularity of the moment. As Buddha teaches, desire creates suffering. By definition, not being at peace about being at peace is not being at peace.

And the good news is that, like all of our compulsions, this one can be tamed. I am personally not very good at it, but on a handful of occasions (yes, 5 or less), I have been able to just be with my peace. It goes something like this: “Wow I am really content with the way things are this very moment. All is right in the world. And it is ok that all is right in the world. I don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to produce. I don’t have to tell anyone. I don’t have to write it down. I have nothing to prove.”

And inevitably, in a matter of seconds (or maybe a minute if I am really lucky), this feeling of total contentment will fade. And inevitably, I will scratch the itch of my compulsion to do, to write, and to tell. But I will be ok with that. Because all it takes is a glimpse to know that these fleeting moments of peace are worth the hardships that come with the journey of discovering them.

The entropy and extropy of India by Michael Sloyer

India, a palette of colors splashed and splattered across a gigantic canvas, is abstraction personified. At first glance, the chaos and crowds confound. Poverty is ubiquitous. Begging is persistent. Everything is for sale. Honking is performed liberally amidst a backdrop of repressive traffic. The concept of personal space does not exist; I cook, you spit, and we just happen to do it in the same place. My kitchen is your bathroom. His cricket field is her temple. Our bathing ground is their cremation ground. Without explanation, people stare. Public toilets are few and far between. But this chaos is only at first glance.

On second glance, the chaos becomes organized. The crowds become endearing. Personal space doesn’t seem all that necessary. And suddenly, you find that you have 1.2 billion friends. India is a feast for the senses, but for the visually and photographically inclined, this dramatic country is especially thrilling.

This past November, my father and I embarked on a two week journey across India. We set out with one piece of luggage each, an endless supply of trail mix, and an intense desire to see, to learn, and to experience. We were fortunate to travel with several basic comforts, but this did not stop us from traveling with a backpacker’s state of mind. And as the eastern religions teach us, it is our state of mind, not our physical body that is our ultimate reality.

We began the journey in Delhi, the nation’s capital and the epicenter of all things chaotic. Armed with our Nikon DSLRs, we explored and captured the narrow streets of Old Delhi where human foot traffic competes with tuk tuks, rickshaws, automobiles, vespas, and the not so occasional farm animal. From Delhi, we travelled to Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal. Given all the hype about the Taj and its status as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, I had prepared myself for disappointment. Could one building possibly be worth the near death experience of traversing the roads from Delhi to Agra? But this architectural gem did not disappoint. In fact, it did just the opposite. It exhilarated, it provoked, and it inspired. As I entered through the famed gateway, I marveled at the symmetry of the four imposing minarets, the change in hue of the white marble against the setting sun, and the cypress trees lining the reflection pools. The culmination of both man and nature was utterly breathtaking. After this rather emotional experience, we travelled on to Jaipur, the “pink city” and the capital of the semi desert lands of Rajasthan. In Jaipur, we enjoyed the opportunity to ride elephants up to the beautiful Amber Fort, explored the palaces of the maharajas, and browsed the colorful gems shops that seemed to be as omnipresent as the hawkers and beggars.

Our next stop was Varanasi, the spiritual heart of India and for us, the most visually charismatic. Life in the city began before sunrise as thousands of Hindu pilgrims from all over the world headed down to the banks of the Ganges River. As dawn broke over the river and the mist lifted, we observed in reverence as the devotees performed ablutions in the chilly waters. With their emergence from the water came feelings of lightness and freedom as they had symbolically washed away the sins of their former selves. Between clicks of the camera, my father and I managed our own time for prayers and mediation. After sunrise, the ghats along the banks burst into action: young Brahmin boys read aloud from the Holy Scriptures, wandering Sadhus lined the narrow alleys with their begging, and bowls elderly priests marked the faces of pilgrims with colorful paints and holy ash. The cremation ghat embraced its role as the last sacred stop of this human life; where bodies leave their earthly pasts behind and embark on new journeys in the next cycle of life.

Night time in Varanasi brought a more festive atmosphere, though no less spiritually and visually enchanting. The main event was the Hindu Aarti Ceremony at the Ganges River ghats. Thousands of pilgrims and other visitors watched in awe as the Brahmin priests swung their Aarti lamps. The fire lit up the sky and incense smoke soon formed billowing opaque clouds. The singing of the Om Jai Jagdish Hare, a devotional song to Hindu deities, and the rhythmic beats of the myriad percussion instruments combined to create a surreal atmosphere

From Varanasi, we flew down south to the state of Kerala, where the climate is tropical. We explored European fishing ports that felt like journeys back in time and spent a night out on a houseboat drifting in the peaceful backwaters. We relished the simple yet endless beauty of the agrarian landscapes.

The last stop on our trip was the rumbling, bustling city of Mumbai. Here, one kilometer taxi rides lasted in excess of an hour as frustrated drivers unconvincingly claimed that road rage does not exist. We explored the hanging gardens, marveled at the arcing promenade (called the “Queen’s necklace”) overlooking the Arabian Sea, and got a peak into everyday life for the 21 million residents of the city. We even managed to squeeze in a yoga session as we attempted to shake off the chronic entropy in favor of a more centered consciousness. Yoga + India = zen.

When all was said and done and we had made our way back to the states, we reflected on our photos and our memories. The photos told a colorful story of an Indian nation, its people and its history. The memories told a slightly different story: one of personal growth as well as a deeper understanding and appreciation for the diversity of our world.

Black and white and its timeless appeal by Michael Sloyer

In a world inundated with color, the black and white photograph has done a remarkable job in retaining its appeal. Even as color photography has surged in popularity over the last hundred years, we still place black and white on some sort of divine “fine-art” pedestal. We use adjectives like pure, artsy, and classic to describe it and feel intellectually sophisticated when engaging with it. I don’t think any of us would argue against the beauty of the black and white photograph, but why? Why do we find it so appealing? Why are we so intrigued by the absence of an element of reality?

For me, one of the main reasons is that a black and white photograph depicts a world different than our own. Cameras can see in black and white. Humans cannot. And as humans, we tend to glorify that which is inaccessible. It’s the old “the grass is always greener” cliché. Have you ever noticed how we use and overuse the word “interesting” as a way of describing things with which we don’t normally have exposure? Isn’t it interesting that things tend to get less interesting once we have exposure to them? But I digress. Black and white photography is our tunnel to a world without color, a world that we might never know otherwise

The allure of black and white photography also lies in its purity. Color can be distracting. Without color, we are left with the basic elements of photography that truly establish it as an art form – composition, contrast, texture, lighting. Hence, our use of the word “artsy.” In black and white, silhouettes and shadows tend to have a more dramatic impact. Shape and form take on an elevated consequence. The photographer, and thus the viewer, cannot hide in the bright colors. As the Oracle of Omaha once said in a letter to his Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, “It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.”

I think another reason we find black and white photography so appealing is it tends to have an inherent emotional quality. The mere absence of color can be as an emotionally suggestive as the subject itself. Especially with expressions of melancholy and contemplation, the additive effect can be potent.

Finally, it is the “classic” nature of black and white photography that makes it so appealing. Black and white came before color. Many of the masters of photography shot primarily in black and white, often because that was the only medium available. We see it as a nod to the masters. Just like the unknown, humans have a tendency to glorify the past, to glorify the good old days, the days that once were. By removing color, we can often make our photographs today look like they were shot a century ago. Black and white photography puts yet another layer between ourselves and reality, helping us to reclaim the timelessness for which we yearn.