Small groups

“All [meaningful] change begins with a small group, for the small group is the unit of change. Even a large [gathering] uses small groups to create connection and move the action forward. The small group is the structure that allows every voice to be heard. [It’s irrelevant whether] everything has been said [unless] everyone has said it. ”

-Peter Block (Civic Engagement and the Restoration of Community)


“A gathering is hosted; it is the product of an act of hospitality. [In contrast], meetings are called or scheduled. They are intended for production rather than hospitality. They are mostly designed to take the past and will it into the future. So they become one more version of the past. They either review the past or embody the belief that better planning, better managing or more measurement and prediction can create an alternative future.”

-Peter Block (Civic Engagement and the Restoration of Community)

Voting behavior

It is too difficult and time-consuming to make a “fully rational” voting decision, so we use heuristics (“rules of thumb”). In particular, we use:

The nature of the times heuristic: When times are good, you vote for continuity. When times are bad, you vote for change.

The identification heuristic: You are more likely to vote for people you identify emotionally with, with people who, you sense, “get you.”

Francisco Toro (via Evangeline White)

Racism as squandered alliance

“I strongly believe that for all the ways white people benefit materially from racism, that we’re very damaged by it. [Many] poor white people see themselves as white before they understand themselves as poor. There’s a potentially very powerful alliance between poor whites and poor blacks in our country, and that alliance has been undermined. And ultimately, I think, who it benefits is a tiny, tiny little segment of the society — this is another way of talking about the one percent.”

-Eula Biss (via On Being)


I’m starting to understand how the whole concept of willpower is a sham.

It’s sort of funny because I took an entire college course on the psychology of willpower. All sorts of experiments have been conducted on people’s ability to do things like “delaying gratification” (such as looking at but not eating a bowl of cookies) and voluntarily withstanding various types of pain (how long will you immerse your hand in ice water?). There are mathematical models describing how willpower is depleted and renewed and how it relates to the immediacy (or lack thereof) of the anticipated reward.

The first signs of brewing trouble came (for me) in the form of studies showing that diets, exercise programs, and other regimes of “do it because it’s good for you” (including some religious doctrines) generally speaking do not work. They often work in the short term, but in the long term are more likely to leave participants worse off than they were before they started.

Then I began to see that the whole concept of willpower is antithetical to mindfulness, wholeheartedness, integral psychology, Zen, etc. These approaches first and foremost teach us to get out of our heads and tune into the sensations and experience of the body in the present moment. We work to fully experience our feelings, our body’s needs like hunger and movement, and our spiritual needs like connection and compassion. We then try to proceed in life honoring those needs without overriding them with preconceived notions about what’s “right” or “proper” or “civil” or the way to fulfill some other role that we are used to occupying (student, parent, spouse, employee, caretaker, and on and on).

Willpower is forcing oneself to overcome one’s own instincts and needs. Mindfulness is compassionately accepting and integrating our whole self, as it is, right now. These are polar opposites.

Ironically, the creators of the diets and workouts — and the prophets who headline our major religions — most likely were enlightened. That is, in a compassionate and mindful way they discovered methods by which they achieved health and happiness. Then they wrote those methods down for the benefit of the rest of us. And then, the rest of us started trying to force ourselves and each other to do those things.

Clearly there is no intrinsic problem with eating healthy and getting exercise and being honest and treating your neighbor as you would like to be treated. The problem comes when we try to do those things by force of will rather than out of compassion and mindfulness for what our whole self wants and needs.

I say this as someone who has been more or less stuck in my head for my entire adult life and who is at the present moment deeply hungry but putting off getting food because my mind wants to write this article and is afraid of pausing even for a few minutes because the rest of my body might realize that there are other, more pressing needs.

If that’s willpower, I no longer want it.


Good and Bad

One of the ideas that stuck with me after reading Nonviolent Communication (Rosenberg, 3rd ed. 2015), is that words such as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘better’, ‘worse’, ‘right’, and ‘wrong’ can often be problematic. For example:

In expressing our feelings, it helps to use words that refer to specific emotions, rather than words that are vague or general. For example, if we say, ‘I feel good about that,’ the word good could mean happy, excited, relieved, or a number of other emotions. Words such as good and bad prevent the listener from connecting easily with what we might actually be feeling. (p. 43)

Notice how Rosenberg very intentionally did not say that using vague words is bad or wrong — which would of course be a contradiction! Rather, he walked the talk and described a specific problem that can arise when such words are used. (Elsewhere in the book he describes all sorts of terrible problems that can arise from using judgmental language including “right” and “wrong”.)

Part of what’s poignant about this is how easy it is for my mind to jump to the simplified version: that using these words is bad or wrong. They appear frequently in conversation, social media, news, and books. So now every time I notice one, I have an opportunity — I can judge the wrongness/badness of the writer, or I can simply become curious and see if I can think up a more specific way to phrase what they may have meant (helping to improve my own communication skills). Sometimes my mind does both. Sometimes I end up liking the author’s word choice a lot.

In a way, the most remarkable thing about Nonviolent Communication is that it is a self-help book (which we would presume to contain some ideas about what sort of behavior is good or bad) written entirely without resorting to judgmental language like “good”, “right”, “should”, and “must”. Instead, everything is framed as techniques that can be employed to achieve certain goals or qualities.

If our objective is only to change people and their behavior or to get our way, then NVC is not an appropriate tool. The process is designed for those of us who would like others to change and respond, but only if they choose to do so willingly and compassionately. The objective of NVC is to establish a relationship based on honesty and empathy. (p. 81)

I think it is critically important to recognize that someone who does not practice nonviolent communication is not bad or wrong. They may be suffering unnecessarily, but they are doing their best.

The realness of thinking

I sometimes wonder why our culture finds brain physiology so compelling. For example, I often see science writing that goes something like this: “After performing [some mental or physical task], subjects displayed improved [memory, cognition, sleep, mood]. But not only that, MRI scans showed that their brains literally changed size and shape!

That’s like saying: “After [some exercise program], subjects were able to lift on average 20 more pounds than they were at the start of the program. But not only that, their muscles literally changed size and shape!

Issue 1: If the goal is to lift more weight, then the details of what happened physiologically are irrelevant to whether or not the intervention was a success. (Either the participants got stronger or they didn’t.)

Issue 2: The fact that physiological change occurred should have been obvious, since any change in behavior or ability must be reflected in our physical bodies.

Similarly in the brain-training studies, if the goal is to achieve improved cognition, sleep, mood, etc., then the details of what happened physiologically don’t have any bearing (positive or negative) on whether the intervention was a success. (If cognition/sleep/mood had not been affected, even a radical observed change in brain size would not change the fact that the intervention failed. Conversely, if no brain changes had been observed, that wouldn’t detract from any success the intervention enjoyed — it just means that the anatomical aspect of the change has not yet been discovered.)

Likewise, the fact that a physiological change occurred should not have been surprising. Unless you believe that minds somehow avoid the laws of physics, they must have a physical representation in the body. So any change in thinking or behavior must be represented physiologically somewhere. While it is indeed exciting that neuroscientists are able to see some of these changes in brain scans, their existence is expected — it confirms the known laws of physics.

Yet it seems to be a continuing source of surprise that just by thinking, you can change the physical structure of your brain.

Perhaps it’s a surprise that thinking is that real.

As more of us learn how to observe and change our own patterns of thought — and witness the very real effects on our emotions, behaviors, and psychosomatic physical illnesses — maybe then the realness of thinking will become less of a surprise.

Real life

“Kathleen was 35 years old and… came from a large Catholic family. She had been stuck in early adolescence for years and was destined to stay there for the remainder of her life, as many parochial school students do, having learned from the nuns that the most important thing in life was to put on an act for parents and overseers and live your real life on the side.”

-Brad Blanton, Radical Honesty (p. 45)