Arbitrary Legality Makes Bad Laws

Recently, out of curiosity, I scanned the daily jail log for Curry County. I had never done so before and probably won’t do it again. Afterward, I felt guilty and was ashamed of myself.

I learned something interesting, though. Half of the people — five out of 10 — booked into the jail that particular day weren’t even accused of having done anything wrong; only things that have been arbitrarily declared illegal.

What’s the difference?

An act that violates an individual’s life, liberty, or property is wrong; a real crime, whether or not the law considers it a crime. These acts are wrong in and of themselves. The Latin term for this is “mala in se.”

Those booked into the jail that day and accused of having actually harmed someone were claimed to have either harmed others physically or to have violated someone’s property rights. Your main responsibility as a human is to respect the rights of others, so I have no sympathy for anyone who chooses to violate others.

This is assuming they actually did what they are accused of, which isn’t necessarily a reasonable assumption to make these days.

The other half of those jailed weren’t even suspected of harming anyone. The only justification for caging them was that they had offended the government in some way. Either they refused to identify themselves to a government employee, didn’t have the required permission papers, had forbidden substances, or tried to avoid being apprehended and kidnapped by an armed government employee. This makes these inmates political prisoners, not criminals. Even if I believed in punishment and imprisonment instead of justice, I wouldn’t believe these people deserved it. They are the real crime victims.

I understand why government would like for you and me to think of those things as crimes, but they aren’t They can’t be. Instead, these acts are “crimes” only because someone wrote legislation designating them so — a made-up rule with no ethical foundation. “Crimes” only because government employees say so. The Latin term for these acts is “mala prohibita.”

If you get aroused by punishing others, you probably don’t care. “It’s the LAW! It has to be obeyed,” you might insist.

Still, if you want your laws to be respected, you’ll first need to make them respectable. A good beginning is to get rid of all those laws based on nothing but the empty opinions of politicians.

This would eliminate all of your counterfeit mala prohibita “laws.”

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Focus as an Antidote for Wanting to Do Everything

I have a problem, and I think most people do as well: I want to do everything.

OK, not actually every single thing, but I want to do more than I possibly can:

  • I want to do everything on my long to-do list, today
  • I want to take on every interesting project
  • I want to say yes to everyone else’s requests, even if I know I’m already too busy
  • I want to travel everywhere, and see everything that’s interesting
  • I want to try every delicious food, and I always want more of it (and I always eat too much)
  • I want to watch every interesting TV show and film
  • I want to read everything interesting online
  • I want to take on a lot of interesting hobbies — each of which would take me many hours to master
  • I want to spend time with everyone I love, with every friend — and also have a lot of time for solitude!

Obviously, this is all impossible. But I bet I’m not alone in constantly wanting all of this and more.

There’s a term for this in Buddhism that sounds judgmental but it’s not: “greed.” The term “greed” in this context just describes the very human tendency to want more of what we want.

It’s why we’re overloaded with too many things to do, overly busy and overwhelmed. It’s why we’re constantly distracted, why we overeat and shop too much and get addicted to things. It’s why we have too much stuff, and are in debt.

Greed is so common that we don’t even notice it. It’s the foundation of our consumerist society. It’s the ocean that we’re swimming, so much a part of the fabric of our lives that we can’t see that it’s there.

So what can we do about this tendency called greed? Is there an antidote?

There absolutely is.

The traditional antidote to greed in Buddhism is generosity. And while we will talk about the practice of generosity, the antidote I’d like to propose you try is focus.

Focus is a form of simplicity. It’s letting go of everything that you might possibly want, to give complete focus on one important thing.

Imagine that you want to get 20 things done today. You are eager to rush through them all and get through your to-do list! But instead of indulging in your greed tendency, you decide to simplify. You decide to focus.

Let’s talk about the practice of complete focus. It can be applied to all of the

The Practice of Complete Focus

This practice can be applied to all of the types of greed we mentioned above — wanting to do everything, read everything, say yes to everything, go everywhere, eat all the things.

Identify the urge: The first step in this practice is to recognize that your greed tendency is showing itself. Notice that you want to do everything, eat everything, and so forth. Once we’re aware of the tendency, we can work with it.

See the effects: Next, we need to recognize that indulging in the greed tendency only hurts us. It makes us feel stressed, overwhelmed, always unsatisfied. It makes us do and eat and watch and shop too much, to the detriment of our sleep, happiness, relationships, finances and more. Indulging might satisfy a temporary itch, but it’s not a habit that leads to happiness or fulfillment.

Practice refraining: Third, we can choose to refrain — choose not to indulge. The practice of refraining is about not indulging in the greed tendency, and instead pausing. Noticing the urge to indulge, and mindfully noticing how the urge feels in our body, as a physical sensation. Where is it located? What is it like? Be curious about it. Stay with it for a minute or two. Notice that you are actually completely fine, even if the urge is really strong. It’s just a sensation.

Focus with generosity: Then we can choose to be generous and present with one thing. Instead of trying to do everything, choose just one thing. Ideally, choose something that’s important and meaningful, that will have an impact on the lives of others, even if only in a small way. Let this be an act of generosity for others. Let go of everything else, just for a few minutes, and be completely with this one thing. Generously give it your full attention. This is your love.

Clear distractions: If necessary, create structure to hold you in this place of focus. That might mean shutting off the phone, turning off the Internet, going to a place where you can completely focus. Think of it as creating your meditation space.

Practice with the resistance: As you practice focus, you are likely to feel resistance towards actually focusing and doing this one thing. You’ll want to go do something else, anything else. You’ll feel great aversion to doing this one thing. It’s completely fine. Practice with this resistance as you did with the urge: noticing the physical sensation, meditating on it with curiosity, staying with it with attention and love. Again, it’s just a sensation, and you can learn to love it as you can any experience.

Let go of everything, and generously give your complete focus to one thing. Simplify, and be completely present.

You can do this with your urge to do all tasks, read all things, do all hobbies, say yes to all people and projects. But you can also do it with possessions: choose just to have what you need to be happy, and simplify by letting go of the rest. You can do the same with travel: be satisfied with where you are, or with going to one place and fully being there with it.

You don’t need to watch everything, read everything, eat everything. You can simplify and do less. You can let go and be present. You can focus mindfully.

If you’d like to train in this kind of focus, train with me in my Mindful Focus Course.

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A Simple Mindful Method to Deal with Tiredness, Loneliness & Stress

“I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment. That joy is in everyone, always.” ~Byron Katie

A loved one has been going through a hard time, dealing with tiredness, stress, and loneliness, and my heart goes out to them as it does anyone going through such struggles.

They can break your heart, these difficult emotions.

But beyond compassion, what I tried to help her with is a fairly simple method for dealing with these difficulties mindfully. I offer it to you all as well, as something to practice and test out.

Here’s the method, to practice if you’re feeling stress, frustration, loneliness, sadness, tiredness:

  1. Notice that you’re feeling this difficult emotion, and notice how it feels in your body. Bring a sense of curiosity to the sensations, just being present with them for a moment.
  2. Notice what thoughts you have in your head that are causing the emotion. For example, you might be thinking, “They shouldn’t treat me like that” or “Why does my job have to be so hard?” or “These people are stressing me out! Things should be more settled and orderly.” Or something like that. Just notice whatever thoughts you have. Maybe write them down.
  3. Notice that the thoughts are causing your difficulty. Not the situation — the thoughts. You might not believe that at first, but see if you can investigate whether that’s true.
  4. Ask yourself, “What would it be like if I didn’t have these thoughts right now? What would my experience be right now?” The simple answer is that you’re just having an experience — you have feelings in your body, but you also are experiencing a moment that has light, colors, sound, touch sensation on your skin, and so on. It’s just an experience, a moment in time, not good or bad.
  5. In fact, while this experience is neither good nor bad, you can start to appreciate it for what it is, without the thoughts. Just seeing it as a fresh experience, maybe even appreciating the beauty of the moment. Maybe even loving the moment just as it is.

Obviously some of these might take some practice. But it’s worth it, because while you might not be able to get rid of tiredness (some rest would help there), you can let go of the thoughts about the tiredness that are causing you to be unhappy. You might not be able to get rid of the loneliness, but you can let go of the downward spiral of thoughts and emotions that make the situation worse.

And just maybe, you can find some incredible love for your experience in this moment. Yes, you feel tired, but you can love the tiredness, and everything else in this moment, without needing anything to change.

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Irresponsibility Is the Youth-Killer

There’s this myth in our culture that youth is a blank check to be irresponsible. “Have fun and cut loose a little,” older folks tell us, not without a little envy.

But being young is not the opposite of being responsible. And to be carefree is not the same as to be irresponsible. In fact, irresponsibility is the youth-killer – the very reason that our older friends and family look and feel the part of the elderly before their time.

The 20 or 30 year-old who eats irresponsibly (“donuts! pizza!” etc.) becomes the overweight and chronically-ill 40 or 50-year old.

The 20 or 30 year-old who manages finances irresponsibly (“let’s go out for margaritas every night!” etc.) becomes the 40 or 50 year-old with no retirement plan and debt which will outlive them.

The 20 or 30-year old who fails to take responsibility in work (“I just want to have a high-status job,” etc. ) becomes the corporate drone, the underachiever, or the sycophantic overachiever at 40 or 50.

The 20 or 30-year old who dates irresponsibly (“I’m just looking for a good time!”) becomes the 40 or 50-year old with one or more divorces.

This should scare you very much.

Time goes quickly (as 20-somethings discover), and action inevitably seeks its consequences. If you would keep your youth, dump this idea that your youth gives you so much margin for error. You can make some mistakes, but you can’t afford to live destructive lifestyles day-in and day-out.

Run like hell from people who want you to squander your youth with them.

Youth is a gift your parents’ responsibility gives you at birth. It’s a gift you only get to keep if you choose the path of responsibility. That path of responsibility is the only thing which maintains the attributes of youth which we (rightly) love: good health, strength, freedom, curiosity of mind, beauty.

These things we value take great work and great care. And they can last for a tremendously long time. There are 70-somethings running long distances and 80-somethings skiing down mountains. And you can be one of them.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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The Peace of Mind in Probabilistic Thinking

I’m a big believer in agnosticism. (See what I did there?)

There are so many things that don’t require a strong opinion or position, and don’t warrant dying.

It’s very stressful to be confronted with questions and claims about culture, physics, politics, psychology, health, economics, history, ethics, aesthetics, and philosophy and feel the need to have a clear answer. Especially when answers immediately get interpreted as sides and you’ll get lumped in with some tribal collective blob and be associated with whatever bundle of biases they may have, real or imagined. It’s like behind every possibility lurks a mob shouting, “Are you with us or against us?!”

This is bad for curiosity, learning, and fun.

Besides having fewer opinions and focusing on individuals instead of collectives, another way I’ve found relief from relentless pressure to pick is to think in probabilities instead of binaries.

“Do you think eating gluten is bad for you?” is the kind of question that makes you feel a bit uneasy. You know about the weird tribes in this debate and don’t want to be in them. Still, maybe you’re interested in the topic for yourself or as a general curiosity. If you’re not content with, “I don’t know”, try assigning probability.

“I think there’s a high probability that too much gluten is one cause of my digestive problems” is way more relaxing. You don’t have to give up the examination. You don’t have to stay out of the conversation entirely. But you distance yourself from binary conclusions and tribes, individualize your opinion, and leave open the possibility that your sliding scale of probability can change with more information.

You can’t fake it though. If deep down you’re a hard-liner (which is not all bad in every situation, just very, very dangerous), pretending to be probabilistic to seem sophisticated will only make you more stressed. If you can begin to unwind the reactive need to pick a yes/no and assign probabilities, you will find a release of tension and an expansion of curiosity. You may even be able to read Twitter debates with a smile instead of rage!

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US Schools Are Leaving Students Ill-Equipped to Compete with Artificial Intelligence

We have long known that the robots were coming, but now that they are here, the mismatch between our modern education system and the technology-fueled workplace is glaringly apparent. As robots expertly perform routine tasks and increasingly assume broader workforce responsibilities, we must ask ourselves an important question: What is our key human differentiator?

The Power of Creativity

According to Boston University professor Iain Cockburn, who just published a new paper on the impact of artificial intelligence, the human competitive advantage lies in optimizing “what we can do better than machines, which is imagination, creativity, judgment.” In the paper, Cockburn and his colleagues suggest that it’s possible the robots will catch up to us soon in these realms, but they are not there yet. They write:

Instead, recent advances in both robotics and in deep learning are by and large innovations that require a significant level of human planning and that apply to a relatively narrow domain of problem-solving (e.g., face recognition, playing Go, picking up a particular object, etc.). While it is of course possible that further breakthroughs will lead to a technology that can meaningfully mimic the nature of human subjective intelligence and emotion, the recent advances that have attracted scientific and commercial attention are well removed from these domains.

If human imagination, creativity, and judgment are our primary tools for competing successfully with today’s robots, then it would make sense for current education models to focus on cultivating these qualities. The sad fact, however, is that most schooling is stuck in a 19th-century system of command and control, memorization, and regurgitation that may successfully train young people to be robotic workers but not innovative thinkers.

It’s Time to Adapt

Recognizing the inevitable effects of automation, artificial intelligence researchers have been calling for dramatic changes in the education of our youth since computers first appeared. One futurist was Seymour Papert, a renowned mathematician who became co-director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in the 1960s.

Papert was a critic of education models based on top-down instruction and passive learning. He believed that “the model of successful learning is the way a child learns to talk, a process that takes place without deliberate and organized teaching.” So firm was his vision of the ways technology could facilitate authentic learning, Papert foreshadowed the end of conventional schooling. In his 1980 book, Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, Papert writes that “schools as we know them today will have no place in the future.”

Of course, Papert’s vision hasn’t emerged. Other than the ubiquity of computers, most present schooling looks remarkably similar to schooling in the 1980s, and passive learning and a teach-and-test approach to education endures. American public school students now take more than one hundred required standardized tests from preschool through high school graduation—a number that has skyrocketed in recent years. At the same time, their creativity scores are plummeting. College of William & Mary professor Kyung Hee Kim discovered that American creativity scores have been falling precipitously since the early 1990s, with elementary school-age children experiencing the sharpest drop in creativity.

We should all be alarmed. If human creativity is our key competitive advantage against robots, and that creativity is declining, the forthcoming workplace disruption and job losses that will accompany increased automation will be more severe than they otherwise should be. Some educators suggest doubling down on efforts to foster creativity. John Maeda, the former president of Rhode Island School of Design, said in an interview:

I wouldn’t say [creativity] can be taught in the normal sense of adding knowledge and wisdom to someone. I would say instead it can be re-kindled in people—all children are creative. They just lose their capability to be creative by growing up.

But it’s not a consequence of growing up that causes creativity to decline: It’s our antiquated system of forced schooling that was designed to crush creativity in the name of conformity. As I spotlight in my upcoming book, Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom, young people who learn without school, or in other non-coercive learning environments, retain their natural creativity and curiosity. We don’t need to rekindle creativity; we need to stop destroying it.

To compete with robots, we need an education model that nurtures human imagination and ingenuity. Forced schooling is ill-equipped to do this, but models of learning without conventional schooling are ideally positioned to take on the pending robot challenge.

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