Saturday, June 16, 2018

How To Get Better At Anything

Here’s how you get better at anything you want to do: you keep doing it. More specifically, you keep trying to do the best version of it until you can, making sure to always outdo your last effort.

Anything that humans can do excellently is a skill that can be learned. Everybody is limited only by their luck, circumstances, and disposition (their "karma"). However, these limitations need not loom large in the mind, for they themselves will stop you from moving forward. It is self-defeating to heed doubts centered around things out of your control. If luck, circumstances, or disposition are going to stop you from doing something, they will do so immediately, without warning, regardless of worry. So in any new undertaking, cast aside these unworthy anxieties.

The most excellent instance of the thing you want to do should always be your target. However, you should never measure yourself against this excellence. Perfection should be honored, and one honors perfection by bowing before it every day with your own meager effort. Compare your effort today to your effort yesterday, and vow to surpass that more ignorant, less practiced self.

When you enter a culture of practice - a gym, an art scene, a service, for example - there may be those who deride your effort. Some will do their best to ignore you, and have others ignore you as well. Some will make a big display of disbelief at your inexperience. Some will want you to leave, and tell you that you don’t belong, with any number of justifications. Some will take any opportunity to find your weaknesses and put them on display. These people are distractions. Some are testing you, and will respect you when you have surpassed a threshold of skill. Some are insecure, and will never respect you until they learn to respect themselves. It is not important. You owe them nothing. To take on their values and judgment is to poison your mind. Learn from them only what is useful, and use it to surpass yesterday’s weaker self.

If you have an opponent, find loving-kindness for them. In doing so, you transcend pettiness and resentment, which are poisons for the mind. However, make sure that your transcendence does not give way to pride, another kind of poison. Pride saps your energy and puts you at odds with the world. Pettiness, resentment, and pride are natural reactions, and some people will feel them more strongly than others. The way around them is to focus on your effort. Cut out everything else. It is better for you to be nothing but your effort than to undertake your effort with resentful pride.

Many times when you undertake a new practice, or push yourself beyond where you’ve gone before, your mind will tell you to stop. It will tell you that your effort will lead to disaster, or that a little bit is enough, or that it simply isn’t necessary. This reaction is fear given voice. Fear is ancient and instinctual, the impetus for the scurrying of animals. Mankind did not become the dominant species on Earth by heeding fear.

Sometimes fear does point to a valid concern. However, fear itself cannot judge the validity of a concern. You must subordinate fear to mindful reason, being honest with yourself about your intentions and limitations. Sometimes you do need to rest, and further effort will hamper future effort. We are all bound by flesh and time. Very often, though, the only way to progress is to push past your fear and limitations. Muscles only grow stronger by exerting injuring effort.

Sometimes progress is slow. In many disciplines, progress is fast, fun, and easy at first, but then becomes less rewarding and more tedious. If excellence is your goal, then you must embody tenacity, grit, constantia. The way to this virtue is through another one - faith. I do not mean belief. Belief can strengthen faith, and vice-versa, but it is not necessary for it. Faith is the virtue that allows one to delay gratification and bear suffering. Faith is a cousin of arrogance and insanity. Faith is necessary to have certainty about outcomes that are not ensured. The Bible says that “faith without works is dead” - I say that works without faith are doomed. Due diligence will only bring you so far. Faith will take you the rest of the way.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Difference Between Running and Meditation

In casual conversations about meditation, as infrequently as they come up, I often hear people say "I run, and that's like my meditation," or something along those lines. Instead of running it could be another physical activity, or maybe one that isn't as physical, like cleaning.

I'm not about to say that these things aren't useful, but I will say that they're not meditation.

I've started running recently, and I'm enjoying pushing myself past yesterday's limit every day. As I regularly sit Zazen as well, I've begun to appreciate the difference between the two activities in the mind. There are some important similarities that get to the heart of willpower and focus. However, the intention and result are different.

Running and meditation are similar in that they involve focus and help regulate stress. However, the kind of focus is different in each activity, and they regulate stress in different, though complimentary, ways.

In mindfulness meditation, AKA Zazen, AKA Shikantaza, one sits and observes while mental impressions (emotions, thoughts, memories - the products of consciousness) arise. The idea is simply to "open the hand of thought," and merely observe these impressions, not fixating on them. Of course, because we're thinking creatures we naturally want to follow up on our impressions and their implications. In meditation, when you notice this happening you return to your breath, a constant phenomenon that you can simply observe. The idea isn't to control your breathing, but just to watch it. It can take a while to make this distinction in the mind and be able to "step back" from one's thoughts and conscious control of the breath. But this practice is the development of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is nothing less than a sixth sense: the perception of what's happening in one's own mind. This meta-cognition takes practice and dedication to develop, but the discipline is invaluable. It makes you a more conscious person.

(Mindfulness, by the way, is not the goal of Zen practice, if you can say there's a goal at all. It's a useful tool in the noble eightfold path, but it's not the end of it.)

I listened to a podcast recently where a guest said that mindfulness can consist of simply noticing things. If the ability to notice things is all one needs out of mindfulness, then that may work for you. But I want to strip away the waxy buzzword coating from "mindfulness." It has a specific meaning and comes from a specific context. Mindfulness is a faculty of mind that has to be developed. It has specific characteristics that regular meditators will recognize.

Running, on the other hand, develops a different faculty. In running you practice persistence, pushing past the part of you telling you to slow down and catch a breath. I don't know what most runners and athletes do, but when I feel like quitting, I do what I do when an impression arises in meditation - I focus on the breath. When part of me wants to quit, I see that impulse for what it is, then focus on getting air in my lungs so my muscles have more fuel. My hunch is that when I do so, I engage the same neural pathways that I use when meditating. In this sense the activities are similar.

However, running and meditating not only have different goals, but they're vastly different experiences. Running tends to have very pointed goals: a mileage, a time limit, etc. Zazen has no analogous goal; returning to the breath is just a way to not fixate on impressions. In Zazen you simply observe what's there, while in running you disregard anything not related to the goal. Additionally, running will eventually have a calming, euphoric effect, as endorphins are released during and after exertion. Meditation can actually be somewhat stressful, though in an inoculatory way.

The thing about running is that it becomes a flow state, and I think this is where people become confused. In our daily, action-oriented lives we're far more likely to enter a state of flow than mindfulness. However, this state can feel transcendent, and that may be why people who don't meditate mistake one for the other - it's simply the closest thing in their experience. I don't think that's a bad intuition, but the distinction is important for mental health reasons.

Without getting into the biology, there's an easy way to conceptualize the effects of mindfulness and flow states on stress. Let's say there are two relevant parts of your brain: an Alarm, and a Judge. When you're stressed, or anxious, this is because the Alarm has read your situation and decided to notify you of its urgency. Then, the Judge decides whether the information is relevant or has any bearing in reality at all. If you don't get enough sleep, or nutrition, or good company, or exercise, or a break, this Alarm can go off way more than it needs to. Eventually it can overwhelm the Judge, which leads to decisions being made on a purely emotional level. We become more like machines, or animals.

Mindfulness meditation strengthens this Judge. It gives one more agency by putting distance between feelings and action. It can actually show you why the Alarm is going off so much, so you can do something other than merely react to it. However, the Judge requires willpower, which is more finite than we'd like it to be. Constantly dealing with the Alarm can wear on the Judge.

Running, on the other hand, silences the Alarm. The mechanisms for this effect are still being examined, and endorphins are just part of the picture. But running - or any kind of repetitive cardio work - is known to reduce stress and induce relaxation. And this effect is cumulative; if you run every day, you'll generally be less stressed (unless you overdo it, in which case you might end up more stressed than if you took a break to recover). When the Alarm is silenced, the Judge is free to focus on other things, such as work, or a conversation.

The Alarm will never be completely silent as long as you're alive. That's a good thing, it's part of a healthy mind. However, mental health is largely about balance. For far too many of us, the Alarm is going off constantly and the Judge is too often absent. There are a lot of factors that go into this imbalance - lack of sleep, social media, poor nutrition, stressful work - but running and meditation will do a lot to correct for this. I hope we can soon get to a point where we recognize that exercise is as important for mental health as it is for heart health, and that regular meditation is just as important as regular exercise. These aren't the most fun things to do in the world, but I think they're crucial for maintaining one's humanity under the often-crushing demands of civilization.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Colonial History: Quebec

I'm moving to Canada. I'm not going to say too much about that just yet, but I will say I'm excited. It wasn't really on my radar but the idea has grown on me.

I've been reading up on my Canadian history. American history as I learned it in school didn't teach us a thing about Canada and stopped paying attention to the British situation as a whole after the war of 1812. I'm enjoying reading about it now and filling in the gaps. I didn't realize, for example, that the British province of Quebec once included the entire Great Lakes region. I also didn't realize that the Continental Congresses sent letters to the Canadians in Quebec inviting them to join up, to which they replied "meh."

The larger history is, of course, the history of colonialism. The history of the United States and Canada is synonymous with the history of the British and French colonial empires.

If you've ever seen my timeline of western civilization, you may have noticed a lack of anything substantial about colonization in there. This is mostly because, from a reading perspective, I haven't gotten there yet. I'm reading "A People's History of the United States." Colonial history is only a small part of that book. But as somebody from New Orleans moving to Canada, I realize that the history of New France can provide a greater historical context for both of these places.

New France and New England in 1750

The history of New Orleans has always been a bit confusing to me, but it makes sense when you think of it as being a pawn in the affairs of these great colonial empires. Aside from the important Caribbean islands, France and Great Britain were more focused on colonizing the American north than the south, partially to avoid Spain and partially because their people preferred the northern climates. The British created the future Thirteen Colonies on the East Coast, while France settled Acadia (Nova Scotia) and Quebec city on the St. Lawrence river. France eventually claimed the Mississippi river basin as a way to access the Gulf of Mexico, as well as to check British ambition. Colonial Louisiana's governing capital was first Mobile in 1702, Biloxi in 1720, then New Orleans in 1722. During this time, Quebec City in the north was the administrative capital for all of New France.

France lost it all at the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763, after which Britain owned almost all the territory of New France, with the important exception of Louisiana west of the Mississippi, and New Orleans, which both went to Spain.

Greatest extent of British control in North America, 1763

Borders of the British province of Quebec after Quebec Act in 1774

Later came the American Revolutionary war, which the Canadians were invited to, but they politely declined. This is the really interesting, historically inspiring part. Ostensibly, Great Britain held about half of North America - how did they lose so many of their first colonies? And why didn't the "Canadians" want to join up with the "Americans?" I've lived in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania so the story and characters are very familiar to me. The long story short is that the colonies that would become US states had a strong sense of identity, opportunity, and morality. Their (our) story is one of the oldest and most prime examples of putting Enlightenment ideals into practice. A most cynical reading of history would look at the purely economic, and even imperialistic, interests of the founding fathers. However, one cannot deny the importance of the Enlightenment-inspired language used and agreed upon by those men; "we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Thus the American experiment began, kicking off a wave of revolutionary nationalist movements around the globe that would eventually culminate in the world wars.

The borders of the United States in 1783 after the Revolutionary War

After the Revolutionary War, the United States controlled much of the former province of Quebec. After this point in time, the histories of the U.S. and Canada diverge. However, Napoleon soon enters the picture, bringing Louisiana back under French control only to be sold to the Americans, then ultimately spurring the War of 1812, which pit the U.S. against the northern British forces once again. Events like the Mexican Revolution, Texas Revolution, and Mexican-American war all followed in the wake of Napoleon's actions in Europe. I've been putting off reading about Napoleon for a while, so maybe now is a good time.

As a final note, I don't at all mean to elide the histories of the Native Americans, such as the Iroquois, who played a central role in these events. Nor do I mean to leave unexamined the economic realities of colonialism, which included slavery. I'm recounting imperial colonial history here in broad strokes mostly to connect American history to Canadian history. This larger time-frame, like my timeline of Western Civilization, is merely meant to provide the greatest possible context for any given historical figure or event.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Weight Lifting Prep for Cubicle Monkeys, Part 3: The Adductors

At this point I should clarify a few things. The first is that I have done weightlifting before and that I'm not writing from a position of ignorance. I've done it off and on for a few years now actually, and my difficulties have had more to do with programming (eating enough) than with form. That being said, as I'm getting back into it now, I'm taking the time to make sure I understand the anatomical mechanics of form so that I'm doing it right. The point of these posts is not to pretend that I know as much as Mark Rippetoe - I'm using him as a clear reference. The point IS to help break down some of these concepts for those who live inactive lifestyles and may need to work on core strength and flexibility issues before jumping under the bar. That's why I'm including the yoga asanas here. Asanas are easy to learn, fun to do, and address those flexibility and strength issues related to weight lifting.


The second thing I should clarify, if it's not clear already, is that I'm using Mark Rippetoe's book/program "Starting Strength" as my guide here. Starting Strength is an excellent book because it breaks down the reasons various aspects of form are important. It takes hard stances on things like, well, stances, and goes to great lengths to explain things like why free weights are superior to machines. Rippetoe has an interesting writing style, alternating between stereotypical gym machismo and insightful anatomical knowledge. And really, if you're reading through all of these posts (hello all five of you), Starting Strength will be your next logical progression. Don't be intimidated. With just a bit of preparation and knowledge, you can take on a fun, impressive, rejuvenating new hobby.

That being said, let's talk about your adductors. The adductors play a crucial role in the squat as taught in Starting Strength. There are other versions of the squat that don't work the adductors, but this version provides knee stability... and works the adductors, which you should do.


The adductors are commonly known as the groin muscles. They run along your inner thighs, connecting your femurs to your lower pelvis. The adductors attach to the pelvis along either side of the pubic bone and to the adjacent sit bones (or "butt blades," in medical terminology). These work to bring your thighs together, and this process is called adduction. Abduction, when not referring to kidnapping, in this context refers to the opening of the thighs, usually driven by your glutes. More on those later probably.

The adductors and the hamstrings are vital for knee stability and safety during the squat. A squat that doesn't at least engage the hamstrings is dangerous for the knees. I recommend you read Rippetoe's chapter on the squat for more information on this, because he explains it better than I can. However, the gist is this: when you squat, your quads (tops of your thighs) pull upward on your knees, while the hamstrings and adductors are supposed to pull in the opposite direction, thus providing stability. Failure to engage the hamstrings and adductors can lead to knee injury. I've noticed that if I don't squat correctly, I hear my knee pop.

Technically this is considered a sumo squat - wider stance, bar apparently not over mid-foot

The squat works as a stretch for the adductors (as it does for the hamstrings), and the tension provided by the hamstrings and adductors at the bottom of a squat creates a "bounce" that helps you drive up and out of it. However, this bounce is only felt when one's back is in extension and the knees are pointed outwards, aligned with the feet. If the knees are too close together, the adductors are never engaged. A common problem for beginning lifters is actually that the adductors are too tight, making it difficult to keep one's knees out at the bottom of the squat. If one's knees are too close together in the squat, it makes it difficult to reach proper depth, protect the knees from strain, and stop one's back from entering flexion ("butt wink," as mentioned in part 2).

A handy way of thinking about stretching your adductors is thinking of it as pulling your pubic bone away from your knee(s). I know this may sound counter-intuitive. However, the more distance between your pubic bone and your knees, the more your adductors are stretched directly. This is part of the reason why it's important to keep one's back in extension while squatting: in lumbar extension, the pelvis is locked in place, and as one descends in the squat, the pubic bone is naturally drawn away from the knees (unless your hamstrings are too tight or your back is too weak!).


The best way to stretch the adductors for the squat is also the best way to start practicing for the squat; you squat. More specifically, you do a squat stretch. In yoga, this is called malasana. This is simply the position you'll end up in at the bottom of the squat. From standing position, make sure your heels are about shoulder width apart (or wider depending on flexibility needs), and your toes are pointed out at a thirty degree angle. Then squat, lowering your butt as far as you can. In no part of this should your heels leave the floor. When you're at the bottom, put the palms of your hands together and force your knees apart with your elbows. This will stretch your adductors and give you a nice preview of the bottom of your squat. You get extra points if your feet don't change position on the way down, if your thighs are aligned with your feet, and if your back is in extension, because you'll be doing all that in the actual squat.


Frog Pose is another helpful stretch for learning the squat, and it's a bit easier than the actual squat stretch. Here you're stretching the same muscles and engaging the same hip flexors, only without the pressure of gravity. Start on your hands and knees then spread your knees apart. Engage your lumbar and thoracic spine, putting your back in extension. Then slowly push back, feeling and pushing past the tightness of your hips. Do this slowly so you can get a feel of how flexible your hips are. This is a great pose for gaining some kinesthetic sense for what kind of pressures you should feel in your hips at the bottom of your squat, and for discovering your current range of flexibility. I recommend trying this stretch with and without engaging your psoas muscles. To do it without the psoas, relax them (if you can) and put all of your weight on your arms. Keeping your back in extension, you then push yourself backwards into the hip stretch with your arms.

The other adductor-stretching pose that anybody can do is butterfly pose. Sit on the ground, touch the soles of your feet together, and pull them towards you. For a deeper stretch you can try to fold your torso over your legs.

As with any of these muscle groups, there are a ton of yoga poses out there that stretch the adductors. Simply look up "yoga adductor stretch." Though at this point in this series, you can probably just start looking up "yoga hip openers" and you'll find poses that engage any of the muscle groups I've covered so far. Please be mindful to take safety precautions such as warming up and doing less intense stretches before the more intense ones.

Next in this series: I think there will probably be two more posts. The next one will probably be about calisthenics and yoga sequencing, taking all of these yoga asanas and putting them into a solid routine one can practice for squat preparation. The final post will put all of this information together and walk you through the squat itself. I'll probably go over some more hip openers in the former and Starting Strength in general in the latter.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Weight Lifting Prep for Cubicle Monkeys, Part 2: The Posterior Chain

The Posterior Chain can refer to a number of muscle groups on the backside of a human being, but I'm going to talk about two groups specifically: the hamstrings and spinal erectors. Both of these muscle groups are crucial for weight lifting and play specific roles in the squat.


Cubicle monkeys like myself are likely to have stiff, inflexible hamstrings and weak spinal erectors. Slouching in one's chair all day for years will do that. If one hopes to ever squat with good form then these issues must be addressed. The squat itself, when performed well, will actually stretch the hamstrings and strengthen the back. However, to perform the squat well, it helps a great deal to already be familiar with these muscles and to have flexible hips.

Spinal Erectors

I hate making puns but I'll say this anyway: your spinal erectors are the backbone of your squat. In fact, your back muscles are central to doing a lot of this weight lifting stuff correctly. They're easy to find - any time you arch your back, you're using your spinal erectors. (If you're sitting down while arching your back you're probably also engaging your psoas). When one's back is arched, it is said to be "in extension." The squat, the deadlift, and rows especially require that one's back be locked in extension. To do these exercises well, one has to have a "kinesthetic sense" for what lumbar and thoracic extension feels like.


There are a few yoga asanas that can help you familiarize yourself with your spinal erectors. The simplest is Locust Pose, AKA Superman pose. Simply lie face down on the ground, then lift your arms and legs into the air. Your back will be in extension. For a more conscious extension, alternate between cow and cat pose (Four on the floor. On inhale arch your back, drop your belly, and look up. On exhale round your back, crunch your abs, and look down). In some poses you need to arch your lumbar spine (lower back) to properly stretch your hamstrings, but we'll get to those in a moment. As in weight lifting, in yoga there are far too many uses of lumbar extension for me to list them all.

[Quick note: for those of us with tight psoas muscles, engaging the psoas can often feel like extending the lower back because there's a similar pull on the lumbar spine. Part of the reason I'm recommending these specific yoga poses is to help you develop a kinesthetic sense for the difference between the two. It'll be important later on.]

Lifting weights will strengthen your spinal erectors immensely. Deadlifts especially will do that. It doesn't take very many weeks of deadlifts before one notices that their standing/walking posture is naturally better.

Hamstrings

Hamstrings are not fun to stretch. Some people are more fortunate than I am - I find stretching my hamstrings to be very painful. However, this is one of those "suffer the pain of discipline or suffer the pain of regret" situations. If you start squatting with tight hamstrings, you risk herniating a disk in your lower back. The back pain of regret is supposed to be especially agonizing, and I've heard too many horror stories about people suffering back injuries for whatever reason, getting hooked on opiods, and disappearing from life in general. No bueno. Stretch those hammies.


Everybody knows how to stretch their hamstrings. You stand up then touch your toes. You can also sit on the ground with your legs open and reach for either foot, and you'll stretch your hamstrings, as well as your adductors. However, I like yoga poses because they're dynamic, engage multiple muscle groups, and can flow together. There are a ton of yoga poses that stretch one's hamstrings, but the king of the yoga hamstring stretch is obviously the downward-facing dog. It's great because it's easy to transition to from other poses and to transition from it to another pose. If you try to arch your lower back in downward dog, you'll really feel that hamstring stretch. Another good yoga pose for hamstrings is happy baby, in which you lie on your back, put your feet in the air, and pull on them with your hands. If you arch your lower back and push with your feet against your hands in happy baby, you'll feel the kind of hamstring stretch that you should expect to feel at the bottom of a well-performed squat. Try it next time you're lying down.


Flexible hamstrings, like the kinesthetic sense for lumbar extension, are crucial to the squat. The hamstrings and spinal erectors both connect to the back of the pelvis, and these things together make up the Posterior Chain. The reason inflexible hamstrings can cause injury in a squat is because they pull on the bottom of your pelvis and can take your back out of extension into flexion. This is called "butt wink," and can cause the aforementioned disk herniation. I'll get more into this as I talk about the mechanics of the squat. For now, know that regularly stretching your hamstrings, as painful as that may be, is crucial for good squat form.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Weight Lifting Prep for Cubicle Monkeys, Part 1: Psoas

I'm getting back into weight lifting. I want to do it right this time, making sure my form is correct before I add a lot of weight. Because I sit most of the day, various parts of my body are stiff and inflexible, leading to bad form. So, to have good form, I have to stretch. As I'm learning about this stuff I have the urge to present this knowledge in a readable form. So here we are.

You've probably heard about the dangers of sitting by now. Sitting gives you cancer like cigarettes do, and makes you vulnerable to attack. However, perhaps the most dangerous aspect of sitting is hip stiffness. If you have bad posture and don't move around a lot, various muscle groups will shorten over time and become harder to extend. You'll lose pelvic flexibility and won't be able to twerk, pop, or squat correctly.

Psoas

There's a lot of new-age woowoo out there on the internet about your psoas muscles. Go find it if it motivates you. Here I'm going to outline their basic function and how they play into one's life.


Your psoas muscles run from your lumbar spine (lower back) to the insides of your femurs (thigh bones). These muscles, along with your iliacus muscles (adjacent hip flexors), help you lift your legs up. They also help you sit up straight if you've been slouching. If you're sitting down, try activating your lower back muscles - if you don't also engage your psoas muscles, you'll simply shoot backwards. The combination of lower back and psoas activation makes you sit up straight; the spinal erector muscles make your back straight, while the psoas muscles pull your spine towards your thighs. Another good way to isolate your iliopsoas muscles (both psoas and iliacus) is to lie on your back, pull a knee to your respective breast, then let go with your hands while keeping your leg in place. The activation of your iliopsoas muscles should feel quite sharp and distinct.


If you're a cubicle monkey like me and you sit down all day long, your psoas muscles likely need to be stretched out. When these muscles get stiff and short, it's not good for your back. You can develop a condition called lumbar lordosis, in which your stiff psoas muscles pull on on your lower back constantly. This can create lower back pain and gives you an unstable center of gravity, as your hips are pulled out from under your shoulders. This is an incredibly common condition, and luckily it's not too hard to fix.

A combination of stretching and strength exercises will help treat lordosis and release some of the tension and stiffness in one's hips. Exercise-wise, situps can go a long way. Engaging one's abdominal muscles actually pulls the pelvis forward, counter-acting the tilt created by shortened psoas muscles. Situps are a good assistant exercise for Starting Strength because the program doesn't give much direct attention to the abdominals. They're also easy to do at home and require no equipment. I recommend throwing obliques in there as well, as you tend to activate those muscles as you walk around to keep your hips under your shoulders.


There are also good stretches and yoga asanas for engaging one's psoas. The most basic one is cobra pose, in which you first lie down on your stomach, keep your legs straight, and push up your upper body with your arms, pointing your chest and face toward the sky.


Lunges are also great psoas stretches. Yoga has a few different lunges and they're all worth doing. The trick to a lot of these is keeping your pelvis forward and aligned with your spine. Activating your glutes and lower back helps push your pelvis forward, which, in a lunge, helps keep your psoas stretched. Additionally, the warrior 1 asana is interesting because it engages one half of your psoas muscles while relaxing the other (if you're doing it right).

I recommend adopting a habit of doing these kinds of calisthenics at home. One of the best decisions I've made recently is to wear gym shorts around the house and keep an unrolled yoga mat in my bedroom. This way, it's easy to just throw some exercise or stretching into my day on a whim. It's a great way to feel active and alive and avoid stiffness. Additionally, these stretches and exercises become more fun as you get better at them and become more familiar with your body.

With regular stretching of the psoas and exercising of some of the surrounding muscles, you'll find that, over time, your posture is better, your breathing is easier, and you walk with more confidence. Unlocking your psoas also helps contribute to good form in weight lifting, as you'll have less forces pulling on your lower back.

Part 2 will probably be about hamstrings and/or adductors.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Eudaimonia

Albert Camus once said:
Life is waking up every day and asking yourself whether you should roll a boulder up a hill forever or just kill yourself. 
That's not a very interesting choice! How can you draw any meaning from that?

"One must imagine Sisyphus happy... or else"

Here's a more interesting choice: should I reproduce or not? Here's another one: should I leave my home and travel to an unfamiliar land for the promise of opportunity? Or another one: how much of myself should I give to somebody else and how much should I live for myself? These are questions about what kind of choices we'd like to make, as opposed to Camus' choice about making choices at all.

To answer these kinds of questions we refer to our values, and we do so because we are free to do so. Our freedom to make choices allows their consequences to be meaningful, and that meaning is determined by our values.

Nietzsche once said:
God is dead and that means morality is made up superstition. It's so petty and I hate things that are petty.
The existential philosophers were pretty dramatic. They saw in the death of God the breakdown of ultimate truth and morality. It is true that in an academic sense, questions of truth, morality, and value can no longer be answered by the Bible. However, the existentialists may have underestimated peoples' ability to create meaning for themselves.

I'll venture a guess and say most atheists have morals and aren't suicidal. As for the meaning of life... we already know the answers to most of these questions, right?

Why am I here?
Big bang.

But why me personally?
No reason. We're all accidents. You could have been a bunch of different people.

But why the big bang?
You lose sleep over this?

What's my life's purpose?
That's up to you.

That last one is the hard one. Stated otherwise, the question is "what should I do with myself?" or "why should I be doing what I'm doing?" Assuming one is free, the following question should be "what do I value?" The things we value, be they abstract concepts or concrete subjects, determine our desires, dreams, and morals. Nihilism, the condition the existentialists were reacting to, is the rejection of such value.

Whence comes nihilism, the uncanniest of all guests? It comes from freedom from restraints, and uncertainty of what to do with it. When one's desires, fears, and fantasies pull in opposing directions while reality continues on its course, life devolves into a series of sensations and impulses.

Really, this is a matter of preference. Sometimes a series of sensations and impulses is nice.

(Though, let's address the 10,000 pound gorilla in the room: we might not be free the way we think we're free. Neuroscientists believe that consciousness is a hallucination and free will an illusion - that our decisions are made before we're aware of them, and the rationalization we're aware of comes after the fact. Let's just say that it doesn't really matter because of Hume's law and leave it at that.)

As much as I dismiss the idea we don't have free will on philosophical grounds, it is useful to understand most of our cognition as non-conscious. What Jung called the subconscious is actually where most of thought happens. Our conscious experience is the tip of the iceberg - the rest is the non-conscious self. What this ultimately means is that many of our values aren't consciously reasoned or realized.

So we have non-conscious values, and we have [apparently] consciously reasoned values. Sometimes these conflict with our lives or with each other, and that's the nature of the human condition. What to do about it? How should we live?

THE MEANING OF LIFE

The thing about freedom is that there's no one right way to answer these questions. Philosophically, the question of how best to live falls into the broad subject of axiology, or value theory. This branch includes both ethics and aesthetics. Ethics concerns principles of morality, while aesethics concerns beauty. One might account for both in a philosophy of how best to live.

Such a philosophy existed in the heyday of the Greeks. The concept of eudaimonia, which I've talked about before in relation to the Stoics, means "human flourishing." Aristotle conceived of eudaimonia as the ultimate end of all action, a contextual anchor that gave meaning to life. The various Hellenistic philosophical schools that followed him were forms of eudaimonism, which puts such human flourishing at the center of their ethics. The result of such centering is an ethics of virtue, based around excellence in moral character, with an understanding that virtue is primarily what one needs to live a good life.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment, on the other hand, were more interested in the mechanics of morality than eudaimonia. They hadn't abandoned it per se, it just hadn't been central to philosophy since Christianity dominated the field throughout the middle ages, when ethics were derived from sacred law. The death of God precipitated a scramble for a new source of ultimate moral truth - of course, this was when Nietzsche pointed out that God was indeed dead, and that moral truth was a contradiction in terms.

The trolley problem exemplifies the ethical concerns of enlightenment philosophy

Maybe the Enlightenment's philosophy on how best to live was implicit in its conceptions of freedom and individuality. The people who came to accept the views of Enlightenment philosophy may have answered the question of "how best to live" by replying: "as a nation of free people in pursuit of happiness." Our own lives and politics today are heavily informed by this creed. Yet happiness is vague as a concept and ephemeral as an experience, and as a guiding principle offers little of the personal growth essential for facing life's challenges.

However insubstantial happiness may be, it is a familiar thing that can be striven for. People generally know what makes them feel happy. To live a good and meaningful life is a far more amorphous goal, requiring patience, self-sacrifice, and some luck. To say - even conceive - that there may be a best way to live may be arrogant in the extreme. On what grounds could we even have such a discussion?

A philosophy of eudaimonia today can't be based on supernatural metaphysics, universal moral principles, or shallow happiness, but it can discuss the best ways to navigate the conditions that are common to all human experience. For the absence of objective truth in our moral reasoning has not entirely stopped moral reasoning. Philosophical ethics are still relevant after the "death of God" because our moral values were human rather than divine all along.
It would be most reasonable to drop [the term "morally ought"]. It has no reasonable sense outside a law conception of ethics; they are not going to maintain such a conception; and you can do ethics without it, as is shown by the example of Aristotle. It would be a great improvement if, instead of "morally wrong," one always named a genus such as "untruthful," "unchaste," "unjust." We should no longer ask whether doing something was "wrong," passing directly from some description of an action to this notion; we should ask whether, e.g., it was unjust; and the answer would sometimes be clear at once. - G. E. M. Anscombe, Modern Moral Philosophy
Just as moral principles are based on human values and not universal values, a broader philosophy of life can and must focus on such human values. In science, positive psychology is the field dedicated to the study of eudaimonia. Here, empirical research is done on our aforementioned human values, though the psychologists themselves cannot make value statements for the same reason neuroscience doesn't pose a meaningful threat to free will. However, any debate over the merits of human values that ignores the findings of positive psychology will lack substance.

For the individual, philosophy can only take them so far in helping determine their life's meaning(s). Reason is only as helpful as it is based in reality; we only truly value abstract concepts as they're embodied in the particulars of our lives. Our environment, our culture, our genes, and the events of our lives all play more formative roles in determining the things we value than does our reason.

So when what you should want doesn't line up with what you do want, what do you do? First, you become aware of what you actually want. Meditation and mindfulness can play important roles in becoming conscious of one's non-conscious values. A lot of people use prayer for similar reasons. Therapy and journaling can also be important tools for learning about one's internal world.

Once one is aware of their own values, there's opportunity for philosophy to play a positive role in life. Practical wisdom can bridge the conflicts among one's values, or between those values and one's life. Having a solid conception of what a good life looks like can inform such wisdom, and philosophy can inform such a conception.

There exists no real popular philosophy of how best to live. We have a lot of psychology and self-help books, but no real discourse about the ultimate things we should value in our lives. Meanwhile, we're inundated with messages on social media and in advertising about what happiness and our lives should look like. Research shows that these messages can ultimately be harmful, leading to a negative self-image which affects all other aspects of life. Here, a discussion on what constitutes eudaimonia - human flourishing - can guide us away from the morass of commercial values and towards genuinely meaningful lives.