I’m a minimalist. I caught on to the idea of living smaller and getting rid of the extra stuff in my life. Meaning mostly that anything that I don’t need to make music needs to go. I have limiting beliefs about this, but I notice that the smaller I get the more those around me fight against it.
If it weren’t a problem enough to “fight” against yourself to cut things from your life, one thing you find as you go against the grain (in any endeavor) is those closest to you say and do things to ACTIVELY stop you. These are people you love, who love you, who cannot stand the idea of you doing something “risky” or “abnormal”. They do not want to see you hurt, which is good, but they haven’t thought it through.
People tend to think that you would enjoy their lives. It is human to not use empathy. We assume that everyone sees the world as we do, and find it difficult to imagine other ways of living. We also find flaws in other lifestyles to justify why we did things the way we did.
The implications here are strong. No one has an unbiased view of your life. Everyone around you is viewing you through the lens of their experience. Unless they have results that your want, you must ignore them. As Scott Wilson says “Don’t take professional advice from amateurs”. My parents, my aunts and uncles, my siblings, my friends and co-students are all amateur Josh Birches. I am the only professional full-time employee at Josh-co. Therefore, my direction for life is solely the product of my idea of how things aught to be and the sum of life experiences THAT ONLY I LIVED!
Others mean well, but they don’t have access to the information you are using to choose your life.
When you strike out you are threatening the way of life they have worked hard to obtain. Imagine that you spent you entire 50 years on earth trying to make money to raise a family, and some kid comes along and won’t shut up about how having kids and a mortgage is total slavery. You wouldn’t drop your life and agree with the prick. You would fight. Hard. You would justify everything, and learn to see your life in a better light just to prove to yourself that you made the right call.
The kid, and his stupid ideas about minimalism, are causing you a great deal of cognitive dissonance. It is easy to see, using empathy, why others wouldn’t take kindly to you changing your life, pursuing your dreams, etc. They didn’t, and it truly hurts them to watch you try.
It is the same phenomenon when you watch someone younger than you play. You hope they sound bad, even if them sounding good doesn’t hurt you. You listen without empathy or sympathy. You listen with hate, impatience, and think only of the future where you tell all your friends how he sucks compared to you, and how important experience is compared to talent.
All garbage. You could have chosen to enjoy that moment and lift up a fellow musician. Instead, you chose to feel like trash, and that IN NO WAY MADE THE KID SOUND WORSE! It serves no purpose to stand in other people’s way. “The one who says it is impossible should not interfere with the one who is doing it”.
This is your life, and it really doesn’t matter what other people think. They will tell you not to double, they will tell you need more than 300 square feet to live and have a family, they will constantly highball the costs of life to convince you that 20,000 a year is simply not enough (when a great many billions get by with less). They will scream that you need a degree, and a life that impacts everyone on earth, and published papers in order to matter.
They are wrong. You are right.
“Boredom is … a vital problem for the moralist, since at least half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it.” -Bertrand Russell
We are creatures of habit. This is true in our love lives, our diets, our jobs, our emotional states… heck, even when we feel like going to bathroom runs on habit. Many people lament this. They think to themselves “If only I didn’t do things habitually, I could quit doing all this bad stuff on auto pilot!” But this is incorrect. A great deal of good comes from being able to use our tendency toward habit to our advantage. In fact, every great thing done can be reduced to the daily habits that brought it into being. So it is not worthwhile to whine about our habit nature, instead we must embrace it and learn how habits are made and broken in order to bring about positive change in our lives. Let’s take an example. Recently I have started blogging, and I have already formed habits related to this activity. One is that my paragraphs are huge and difficult to read, another is that I often feel that I “should” blog even though there are literally no negative consequences for not doing it. Weird right? What approaches could I take to solve these problems without using a goal centered approach?
First, for paragraphing I could start chunking smaller ideas together as opposed to taking the entirety of a literary idea and using each sentence in the paragraph to back up the main point. This behavior is what I like to think of as “vestigial”, left over from another activity that I used to do, but now apply where it doesn’t belong. A prominent example in my life would be when I first moved back into my parent’s house for real. Every depressing thought and feeling I used to have in high school CAME FLOODING BACK for no good reason after about a month or so of being back. I went manically depressed, until I realized… “That guy doesn’t live here anymore”. In fact, he doesn’t live anywhere anymore. He is, for all intense and purposes, dead and remembered fondly. “Past Josh” for those that watch “How I Met Your Mother”. In that case, as well as the paragraphing one, insight into why I was doing a behavior led to it changing. I felt like crap because that is how I used to live here, and I type in huge paragraphs because that is how academic papers are written. Knowing that allowed me to just get over it and think/act (thinking and feeling are acting… I promise) differently and reduce my suffering. You would be surprised how many undesirable behaviors can be changed this way.
However, those behaviors were easy to change because they didn’t fulfill any real human “needs” that I had. Vestigial behaviors are easy to change. You just become present to them, think about why you do them and BAM, take life up a notch. If behaviors fulfill needs, or heaven forbid create NEW NEEDS that need to be filled (drugs can do this, so can destructive relationship behaviors) then it can be more difficult to change them. One way that works well for me is still to firstly determine the real, deep, human need that is being fulfilled by the behavior I want to change. Boredom is a big one. The desire to be socially accepted is another that I have to tackle quite frequently (this one is a trip, and we all deal with it, some of us much more than others). Since it is unlikely that I am going to stop desiring being accepted, or be able to sit in a blank room all day and not feel bored (this is actually a thing to work toward if you are a minimalist… which I am if that isn’t clear yet.) then I take a new approach. Instead of removing the ultimate trigger to the behavior, I replace the behavior with a new positive one that fills that same need at the same time that the old behavior occurs. For example, I used to play mafia wars. That game is retarded. I stopped by realizing that I did it because I was bored, then when I was bored after that I would do anything else that I felt good about that fulfilled that need. This took time, and energy, and patience, but now I don’t play that stupid game anymore.
The mafia wars thing also taught me another lesson. That sometimes you can remove a behavior’s ability to fulfill a need, and thereby make it less powerful and easy to change. Before I stopped playing that game, I found a program online that would play it for me. That’s right. You read correctly. My computer would play a game for me. A game… For me. Games, which are for fun, which computers can’t have. Anyway, that decision (as irrational as it was… I learned later that no one is rational at all anyway, so that didn’t matter) allowed me to stop playing for a long time, which was key because then I never played just out of habit. What I did start doing was managing the computer program out of habit, but then it slowly dawned on my what a huge waste that was and I stopped. But the program took some of the sting away by removing the ultimate cause of the behavior: “for mindless fun”. It turns out my need for efficiency is greater than my need to not be bored… go figure (robot alert).
So those two things work great for me for behaviors that I know are a waste and I can’t really remove the ultimate causes for… but what if the behavior creates its own ultimate cause? Drinking too much soda, for example. OK, let’s examine this action for moment. Why do people drink soda to start with? That is different for everyone, but a lot of it has to do with the way we are raised I think. People who grow up around soda drinkers tend to also drink soda. This was certainly my case. When I was going to Snow College, I drank about 6 or 7 Mountain Dews a day. It was so bad, that I eventually wore down my teethes resistance to acidity and gave my self pretty considerable acid reflux. I don’t lament it though, or blame myself, I had no idea at the time it was having such a negative impact. When the time came though, it was really hard to give up. It felt like there was this new driving need in my life “the need for mountain dew” right up there with “the need to be accepted by peers”. This need was self-created, that is the first realization. I drank it because I had created this need, and because I created I could also un-create it. This knowledge is key. You aren’t a product of your past habits, they are the product of a past you. “Past Josh” had screwed me over, now it is up to “Present Josh” to deal with the cards he has been dealt. Other than the aforementioned ways, one thing that helps when dealing with a powerful addiction is to take it one step at a time. Go from 7 Dews, to 4 Dews, to a Dew a day, then every other day, until it is weak enough to just kick altogether. Another thing that is huge is to take on a new behavior that you value more that the current one. For me, this was Drum and Bugle Corps. It is impossible to march and drink soda all the time. The summer of ’09, I had one MD, and the next day I felt like such trash that I almost developed a residual sickness to the beverage. Corps stayed, Dew went. It was easy choice when put into that perspective.
Presence has a lot to do with it. Before you do the behavior, take a quick second to take a deep breathe in and a deep breathe out. When you pause and listen to the moment, you can sometimes see how silly what you are about to do is, and how it is not the way you want to live your life anymore. This is the method for behavioral change I recommend the most, because presence will not only allow you to change behaviors you already know are causing you and others suffering, but will also point you in the next direction you need to go in to reduce the general suffering of your life. That is how I build momentum for activities, like the one I am doing now.
When I sat down to write this, I had a thought. “I should blog”. Then, that thought turned into a feeling: self-evaluation and judgement. Then, because I just happened to be there to recognize that I feeling, I remember that I do this for fun. I have few readers, and I don’t advertise. My blogs are about stuff that care deeply about. This is just an enjoyable activity, and I was adding a behavior to this that literally served no function. This realization allowed me to pull my favorite trick out, “Just write once sentence, write the title” So I did. Then I wrote the rest of this all in one sitting. Why? Because I freakin love to write. That is how I write poems too. I often just think of the last rhyming couplet, and then write the poem backwards from the end. Two lines turns into four, which turns into two stanzas until I am done. This is also how tunes are written. And academic papers. “Just write the thesis.” or “Just work on the conclusion for 5 minutes” the work is a self-reinforcing behavior because it is fun, but starting it is not. Momentum is an important concept for behavior change, and starting it can be just as difficult as stopping it. But just as necessary! Many of the ideas I mentioned earlier can be used in reverse to gain momentum.
Sometimes it is difficult to start a process that is goal oriented because the goal fulfills a different need than the process. Many musicians start playing to become famous and soon realize that while you are practicing, no one is paying any attention to you at all. This goes against the natural order of things, and will not last long. For me, music these days is a way to communicate with my friends and one of the ways I reach the present moment and the peace that is there. The process of practice fulfills these needs, and therefore is not difficult to start or maintain. If you are progress oriented, it is difficult to improve because you can become easily frustrated with how slowly improvement comes. Change the reason you play, and you will play more often (and achieve those old nasty goals, even though you don’t care about them any more… you are too busy having a great time!). Real quickly, while I am thinking about it, the two blogs I learned most of this stuff from are zenhabits.net and Ramit Sethi’s blog: IWTYTBR.
Often though, there are behaviors we have such an adverse reaction to even THINKING about doing that we are blocked significantly from doing them, even if we are truly motivated to get them done. Applying for jobs, going to the gym, starting a diet, all these are great examples. But I have a better one. “Mitch, you have no idea how hard it is to quit smoking. Yes I do. It is as hard as it is to start flossing” -Mitch Hedburg (who died on April Fool’s day… weird right?). Flossing is stupid. And it used to be that all my cavities were in between my teeth, because I never flossed. This is irrational. It costs a lot of money to not floss, and almost no money or time to do so. But literally everyone hates it. How do you stop hating it? You turn it into a habit. How? Floss just one tooth. That’s it. Every night, or morning (whenever you brush most often, try to link those behaviors) floss one tooth. If you continue flossing that is a bonus. But you are required to floss the one. Do this every night, and you will pretty surprised to find how quickly you manifest the whole behavior. Starting a behavior that you “need” to do by chopping it into digestible chunks is an essential practice in my book, and one I would not be able to live without. I am positive I have known this intuitively my whole life, but being present to it has made me happier and more productive than I have ever been before. That’s it! You are the gardener, go get rid of some weeds and plant some neat flowers! They all start from seed!
“Though we all know what boredom is, most normal adults do not experience sheer boredom very often. We are stressed, rushed, and worried, but we are seldom purely bored–in part because we are so stressed, rushed, and worried. Time without anything we must attend to usually feels like a breather, not like a monotony. To get a feel for what sheer boredom is like, we must hearken back to childhood. Children and adolescents are frequently bored, so bored they can hardly even stand it. Their perfectly normal developmental need for constant stimulation, for exploring and ongoing learning, is often thwarted in a world of long trips, rainy afternoons, and study halls. In childhood, boredom can be excruciating, like a chronic spiritual headache, or a powerful thirst with no beverage to be had. It can hurt so bad that the poor kid feels like yelling out loud, or throwing something noisy at a wall. Extreme boredom is arguably a form of pain.” -Martha Stout
I like Tim Ferriss. I’m not an entrepreneur (in the standard definition of the word) but I really do believe that if you want to make any money, you have to deal with business and so I read a great deal about business. Tim is good at it, but he is good at a great many things because of his approach to learning skills. He believes that for any skill, there is a small set of activities that yield the majority of possible improvement. The simplicity of the approach is clear, but what isn’t clear is how to identify which practices are worth pursuing and which aren’t. One way to tell the difference is to become aware and present to the task at hand, and wait for inspiration and insight to naturally arise. But another equally valid (and related) way is to seek counsel from those who can already do what you aspire to. Tim is a writer, and has a vast personal network, and so he has come up with a bit of a jewel on his blog. Paul Coelho (who wrote “The Alchemist”, one of the best selling books of all time) answers Tim’s questions here . His response contains a great many things that I feel strongly about, one of which is that Paulo does not have deadlines.
Paulo describes his creative process at the beginning of the interview as being a sort of avoidance. He checks his email, he does his chores, and generally doesn’t write. Then, all at once he convinces himself that he will only write for 30 minutes. And he says it so brilliantly “And of course, this half an hour becomes ten hours in a row”… of course! Because Mr. Coelho has developed a true love for his craft, it is only the first step that gives him any trouble at all. It reminds me of Newton actually, “Any object in motion has a tendency to stay in motion”. Obtaining momentum is the trick, and the thing that causes us as artists the most guilt. “I haven’t practiced in so long” or “But a half an hour is so little time” are thoughts that can easily be avoided if you just take the first step. Kenny Werner, in his book “Effortless Mastery” (if you do one thing from this post it should be to read that book) describes a similar process he gives to his jazz students. He tells them to practice for 5 minutes. And “of course” that 5 minutes turns into 10, and 30, and an hour. But it is not the amount of time spent doing the activity that is truly important, it is the fact that now, as opposed to before, you are actually doing it. To quote my friend Melody (this is her poetry blog, she is a fine singer songwriter too… go find her on youtube.) “You either do something, or you don’t. give yourself the option for maybe, or for some of the time, or most of the time, and it isn’t gunna work out”. And not to overdo it, but it reminds me of Yoda’s most sage advice “Do or do not, there is no try”. Paulo Coelho doesn’t try to write as far as I can tell (I am not in his head). He “just does it” – Nike. His process is simpler than that of most writers. Sit down, and allow the technique you have express the ideas that are connected to the present moment. One of his morning rituals is to take a walk, which he describes as his meditation. He uses a great many of the same words that zen students use to describe his walking, he doesn’t think so much as connects with the present. Simple. He has very few people that he works with, so he can spend most of his time with his “blessing”. Simple. He writes in spurts where he starts a book and doesn’t come out of “the tank” until he is done. Simple. ‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’ There is no set plan. No rigorous and dedicated schedule to be followed. The approach is flexible, and the results show its effectiveness. Aside from being more effective, this method of creating allows Paulo to live his life as oppose to just observing it like a robot. Which brings me to my next point, which is that Paulo does not have to strive for ideas creatively because he works this way.
One of the questions posed to Paulo is about how he gets his ideas, where does he go for inspiration, what does he do etc etc. To which he responds “If you want to capture ideas, you are lost.” You do not need to constantly think about what you are going to write about in order to write great things. What is in the here and now when you are at the train station is more than good enough. Paulo even goes so far as to say that he will take notes at night just to get those ideas out so he can sleep, he promptly admits to never using his notes. They are a vestigial remainder of the writing that occurs during the day, an overflow. You do not need to create everything you think of creating. Much can be let go of. In “Bird by Bird”, Anne Lamott tells her readers that they are going to have to write a great many drafts, and throw large portions of those drafts away to find the golden nuggets of good writing that happen in the moment. There is no one way to create. There is no right way. But there is a pattern to how the greats do it, and many make the same complaint. What is most difficult is actually sitting down and getting to it. The rest is like pushing a boulder down a hill. An exothermic reaction (for the chemists out there). Creativity is an inherent human characteristic, and all of us are blessed in the way that Paulo is blessed. But we restrain ourselves out of fear, and out of judgement, we must learn to remember that “What is important remains, and what isn’t important goes away”. The product will be what it is going to be, what is truly important is having a free, loving process of which you are not critical. I believe that modern technology makes it easier to meet these criteria. The mechanisms for creating have come so far in the past few years, and continue to grow at a rate that only the incredibly wealthy can truly keep up with, and even they have no where near enough time to master the platforms of creation that have come up.
We live a world with blogs, and podcasts, and streamed radio, and torrenting, and websites dedicated to one person’s photographs, and youtube, and facebook… etc. The mediums for expression are growing, rapidly. There are stewards of the old way of doing things who say that this is bad. Perhaps it will result in fewer books. But perhaps those will be more precious and of higher quality as a result. In the same way that the car saved the horse, the blog and the eBook will save the hardcover. In the same way that CDs saved vinyls, torrenting will save music as a business (for the musician, who is the person that actually deserves the money dangit). Progress is not to be scorned, and scorning it isn’t going to change things anyway. Grow, take a deep breathe, and master blogging too. What harm could come of it? I love that Mr. Coelho agrees with me on this point, because academia doesn’t seem to appreciate it very much. Free art helps the artist do what they have never been able to do for themselves before. Advertise. Now every card is on the table, and it is no surprise which artists are disappointed with that. A new wave of creatives are being born into a world that will have a millions choices, and be able to craft for themselves (creatively) a set of influences so varied and vast that the potential growth in our era of art will be unparalleled by any other era. Thanks once again to technological improvements. Those with the stones necessary will cut through forests of art that no one has even begun to map yet, and find that they wind their way back to classic forms the way that has always been done. I can’t remember now how he said it, but in “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” Shunryu Suzuki says that for every step forward you take, you also take one back. The new and the old are one, and so to scorn the new just because it is new is also to scorn the old (Bach used to be the punk new kid on the block, and don’t you ever forget it). We are just as, if not more creatively valid, than the generations that have come before us, and we are going to have to own up to it. The world is essentially our oyster as far as I can tell, we just need to remember how the mussel is drawn from the shell. Thank you Paulo Coelho.
I have considered doing this for a while. Years actually. I guess the kick in the pants was when my friend Jeremy started his blog, and that really got me to thinking I should just get going on this. So here we are. My name is Josh Birch. I have a god complex. I am pretty much great at everything, and I would like you to know a small fraction of the things I know, so we can evolve and invent machines that will allow us to travel space and time and fix humanity for eternity, ending suffering and misery as we know it (we will probably have to use superconductors or something… WON’T THAT BE NEAT!)
Anyways, I have been playing the saxophone for a long time, and one of the main foci of this blog will be to discuss problems of a musical nature and how they can be addressed in practice. By the way, those problems will most certainly not be restricted to the saxophone, my musical education has been primarily in doubling and I believe that all musicians share fundamental problems to which little has been done to address by the public music education system. No fear though, they are definitely addressable. Examples include understanding harmony from a practical standpoint, how work on feel and rhythm independently of other musical skills, training and maintaining aural skills (tuning and transcribing to name a few), and learning how to practice without judging yourself (WON’T THAT BE NEAT!)
Also, I am currently a Botany major at Utah Valley University. I think that life is neat, in fact it is the neatest thing we know about in the universe as far as I am concerned, so another foci of the this blog will be to inform you, the reader, of the neat life things we know about (as I learn them, and I am far from an expert in this field). That will be fun, and you will like it, because I am just that great.
The biggest thing in my life at the moment though is minimalism and zen. The idea that peace, contentment, presence, right action and control are skills that can be practiced and honed through active attention is a huge breakthrough in my life, and I would love to share it with people. “If there were such a thing as a silver bullet, this is it.” – Dr. Ray Smith (about the mouthpiece exercises he invented, BUT STILL). Such topics being discussed in this manner will be goal-lessness and why it is preferable to goal-edness (and also what it really truly means to be goal-less), meditation and how to start doing that thing (and how to talk to people about it in this community), and probably other “spiritual” topics including atheism (and why that’s OK) and the philosophical problems with tolerance (this is a big one for me).
So if you are with me, and think that the journey through life isn’t a struggle, and you think that taking a pill to solve your problems isn’t the way out, and you think that there is a great deal that can be explored in our world both inside and out, then I hope you take a moment of your day to relax your mind with me by stretching it, and letting the stresses of constantly running slip away as you and I…
take a deep breath.