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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Climate Strike

I was the chauffeur last Friday who took my youngest granddaughters to the Climate Strike demonstration in front of the Fayette County, KY, Courthouse. I did this at the request of their mother, my daughter, the hydrologist who works for the Kentucky Environmental Protection Agency.  The young women are a teen and a pre-teen on the cusp.

These may seem to be odd arrangements and relationships for someone, such as I, who has a very decided stance on global warming. Just last week, I wrote a blog entry that criticized those who would hide behind complexity.  But I will hasten to add that global warming is very complicated — too complicated for humans, apparently.  Let me make some observations:

  • I supported my granddaughters and my daughter because I support their spirit of civil disobedience.  The point of the climate strike was that school children would skip school to express their impatience with the seeming complacency of their elders.
  • I was concerned for the safety of my granddaughters.  This turned out to be misoverestimated, but I am a contemporary of those gunned down at Kent State University, so I always get queasy when people come up against the police state.
  • I had lots of time on the 60 mile round-trip to Lexington to share information with my granddaughters — and I have the rest of my lifetime as well, just so long as we expect one another to be rational.
  • Most of our climate information comes to us from people whose hair is on fire — the media, the deniers, the protesters, the promoters, and the politicians.  How many pictures have we seen just this year of the edge of the ice.  There is always an edge to the ice!  Somewhere!  The Earth is not covered in solid ice.  Yet these photos are presented to us as evidence that all the ice in the world is melting at a breakneck pace.
  • At demonstrations, you will nearly always hear that you must vote.  I pointed out to the young women that those of us who are over 18 only get to vote against Mitch McConnell once every 6 years, while the coal industry gets to vote every day, with dollars.  The deck is stacked.
  • One of the entities at the Lexington event, distributing flyers and speaking through a bullhorn, was the Kentucky Democratic Socialists.  They claimed to have an environmental project to justify their presence, but one suspects they have a project for every occasion.  Their agenda suggests that they were politicizing this event.
  • The crowd was underwhelming.  About twenty minutes in, I counted just over forty people, and school children were less than half of that number.
  • Three suits watched us from the vestibule of the federal courthouse.  US Marshals?  FBI?
  • Most of the high school students who spoke at the event were articulate, but they are the outliers.
  • Although I am a scientist, I am jaded about people who claim that authority as their main argument for a holding.  As a scientist, I always suspect fortune telling and handwaving.
  • It would not surprise me if the world were indeed in a warming phase, of some finite duration.
  • It would surprise me to find that there is some set of incontrovertible evidence predicting the future.  I am reminded of Butch Cassidy‘s movie prognostication that “The fall will probably kill ya.”  Are we sure that nothing else will get us before global warming does?
  • Do we think that politicians even care?  Do we think that corporate CEO’s, who are concerned only with this year’s books, care about the future?
  • Anthropogenic is the 50 cent word we use to show we are smart enough not to insist that humans take the blame for global warming.  Human nature is part of Nature.  We are the ones who buy extended cab pickup trucks and Mercedes SUV’s as soon as gas prices dip slightly.
  • Do we think that people, who have been engaged in war throughout their history, will suddenly do something that makes sense?
  • Do we think the Earth was created only for the short term health and welfare of the few generations living today?
  • I am not a denier.  I am not a decrier.  I am not a seer.  I am not a fearmonger.  I am not a scientist who thinks he is part of a priesthood.

— Verbal Vol

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The Difference That Difference Makes

Here’s what comes with the territory of being an individual.

What’s obvious to you will seem obscure to others.

This can be a source of great irritation and inconvenience in relationships.

It can also be a source of great purpose and power.

The difference is mostly a matter of decision.

In a talk I gave called “Dreams Don’t Come True, Decisions Do,” I make the following observation:

If everyone was inspired and irked by the same things as you, there wouldn’t be much of a need for you.

You can despise the differences that exist between yourself and others OR you can embrace those differences as evidence for the existence of a unique contribution that you’re here to make.

When others say “I don’t see things the way you do,” it might be more of an affirmation than an attack.

Another way to hear such words might be “I don’t see things the way you do AND that’s exactly why we need someone like you.”

I can only imagine how terrible music, art, literature, technology, and commerce would be if everyone was turned off and turned on by the same things as me.

It’s a good thing that we live in a world where there are people like you.

I hope you see it that way too.

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Words Poorly Used #139 — Complexity

When a minion uses the word complexity it is an action of CYA, not a true description of a problem.  After all, conventional wisdom holds that if you can truly define a problem, then the solution is forthright.  Complexity is not a definition of a problem.  The speaker of the word complexity is essentially saying, “leave me alone … you are playing with fire (and pay no attention to the man behind the curtain)” and/or “I am a member of the priesthood, and you’re not.”

Complexity is an ambiguous word covering any combination.  It is a minefield.  It is the stuff of unforeseen consequences.  The user of the word can stretch its meaning to post-describe any set of relationships.  Compound relationships can contain more compound relationships, including serial relationships.  Serial relationships can contain more serial relationships, including series of compound relationships.

Number one, the wielder of complexity at least understands the complexity without being able to divine the unforeseen consequences, and number two, such wielder understands that, within limits, she understands more about the complexity than the wieldee.

The use of the word, complexity, does not mean the problem is fully plumbed with a solution at hand.

— Kilgore Forelle

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Canada’s Universal Child Care Program Suggests Elizabeth Warren’s Plan Would Be Disastrous for Children

The state does such a stellar job of nurturing and educating children from preschool through high school, we should expand its role from birth onward. That’s the new proposition unveiled this week by US Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. On Tuesday, the Democratic presidential candidate outlined a vast federal program of free and subsidized child care for children from birth until school-entry, including creating a network of government child care centers modeled after the federal Head Start early childhood program. Warren states: “Child care is one of those things we’ve got to do for working parents and we’ve got to do for our children.”

The popular idea that the state should do things for parents, rather than allowing parents to do things for themselves and their own children, illustrates the pervasiveness of the welfare state mentality. What is framed as helping families instead strips them of their individual power and autonomy, making them more reliant on, and influenced by, government programs.

Defying Economic Laws Has Consequences

Warren’s program is to be financed through a “wealth tax” on the most asset-rich American households and reportedly assures that all child care workers will earn wages that are on par with those of local public school teachers. Like other attempts at government price-setting, however, the economic impact of such a program would inevitably be to drive up prices, reduce variety and competition, and lead to more widespread shortages.

The intentions of universal, government-funded child care may be good. Supporting children and families is a worthy ambition. But as Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman warned: “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.” We should reject Warren’s proposal both on principle and on consequence.

The results of similar universal, government child care programs are dismal. In 2005, economists with the National Bureau of Economic Research, including Michael Baker of the University of Toronto, Jonathan Gruber of MIT, and Kevin Milligan of the University of British Columbia, analyzed the effects of Canada’s government-subsidized, universal child care program. Similar to Warren’s proposed child care plan, the Canadian program is available to all families—not just those who are disadvantaged. The researchers discovered that demand for child care increased significantly under the government plan, as more parents abandoned informal child care arrangements with family and friends in favor of regulated child care programs.

While demand increased, the researchers found that children’s emotional and physical health outcomes declined dramatically with the introduction of government-subsidized, universal child care. Children in the Quebec program experienced increased rates of anxiety and decreased social and motor skills compared to children elsewhere in Canada where this program was not offered. The researchers write:

We uncover striking evidence that children are worse off in a variety of behavioral and health dimensions, ranging from aggression to motor-social skills to illness. Our analysis also suggests that the new childcare program led to more hostile, less consistent parenting, worse parental health, and lower-quality parental relationships.

Last fall, these economists published updated findings on their analysis of Canada’s universal child care program. Their recent research revealed similarly alarming results of government-funded child care, including a long-term negative impact of the program. They assert: “We find that the negative effects on non cognitive outcomes persisted to school ages, and also that cohorts with increased child care access had worse health, lower life satisfaction, and higher crime rates later in life.” This early institutionalization of children may have enduring, undesirable consequences.

While it’s not clear exactly what is causing the negative outcomes of Canada’s universal, government child care program, the research hints at some possibilities. A primary explanation is that the program funneled more children into government-regulated, center-based child care facilities and away from more informal child care arrangements. There was also a drop in parental care, as the opportunity cost of stay-at-home parenthood rose.

Centralizing Child Care Is Not the Solution

Proponents of universal, government child care programs often tout the expansion of allegedly “high-quality” child care options, suggesting that parental care or other unregulated child care arrangements are subpar. But who determines quality? If Canada’s program is any indication, the government’s definition of “high-quality” child care may, in fact, be harming children.

In his recent article on the economic causes of current child care shortages and correspondingly high prices, Jeffrey Tucker explains that the key to affordable, accessible daycare for all is to reduce government regulation of child care programs and providers and allow parents to choose the child care setting that best suits them and their child. Let parent preferences drive the market for child care options, not government interventions that squeeze supply, devalue informal caretaking arrangements, and unnecessarily raise the cost of stay-at-home parenthood.

We should all heed Tucker’s conclusion: “Daycare for all is a great idea. A new government program is the worst possible way to get there.”

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There’s No “One Size Fits All” For Living

How much of what you want government to do is based on your emotions? On your feelings about what you wish other people would do or believe they should do, and your willingness to use government violence to make it happen?

If it’s more than “none” it’s too much.

I recently ran across a quote by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in which he said, “Some people are less emotional, more reasoned. We call these people ‘libertarians.’ There’s actually data on this — that libertarians are lower on emotion, higher on reasoning ability. They have worse relationships; they care about people less, but they are better able to just reason through a lot of data.”

Fortunately, he’s not quite right.

Libertarians are not less emotional, but — at our best — we are less controlled by our emotions. I can hate drug abuse and still understand I have no right to use government violence to impose drug prohibition. As long as I don’t let emotion overpower reason I won’t advocate harming someone who isn’t violating anyone’s life, liberty, or property.

Libertarians know a crime requires the intent to harm. An accident might result in the same harm as a crime would, but without an intention to violate someone there is no crime. Emotions triggered by the event might try to steer us along a different path, but it would be a wrong path.

A debt is often created by an accident, but again, a debt isn’t a crime. To confuse these things creates tragedy for individuals and sickness in society.

He’s also wrong about libertarians caring less about people. I care about people very much. This is why I don’t accept any justification for violating them. How can staunchly respecting people’s natural human rights be mistaken for not caring?

It’s not “caring” to use taxation to steal from some in order to fund government programs that keep people impoverished. It’s not caring to force people to live as you believe they should.

So would I support government if only libertarians, with their superior ability to reason, were in charge? Not at all. Even those who are better able to reason have no right to govern anyone but themselves.

No matter how well a person can reason through data, they can never know all the circumstances of everyone else’s life as thoroughly as each individual can know their own life. There is no “one-size-fits-all” way to feed a family, dress, or live … or to govern. It’s foolish to pretend otherwise.

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