Contemplative thinking

John Cuddeback writes on fostering leisure:

Aristotle has distinguished amusement and leisure, calling the former a kind of ‘medicine’ that causes relaxation so that one can return, rested, to more serious things. Leisure, on the other hand, “of itself gives pleasure and happiness and enjoyment of life.” If amusement is medicine, leisure is the center of the healthy living one seeks.

But what are these mysterious and seemingly elusive activities that are supposed to be so meaningful? Aristotle points to the ‘contemplative activity of reason.’ This phrase that might leave us a bit perplexed calls for a closer look. What is ‘contemplative activity’ and where is it to be found? Here are a few things that can help us think about this.

Contemplative thinking always implies that we ‘see’ something—with our intellect—that is beautiful, worth simply gazing upon. This gazing is more of a resting than a moving, since an insight has already come and is now savored.

For instance, one might come to the insight that so many aspects of life have been a gift—a gift that could not have been anticipated and cannot be fully repaid. This can be almost overwhelming, and it calls among other things, that we simply see this truth and rest in it.

This insight could come while observing children play, or when reading a story, or when walking in the woods. We might be alone, or with someone we love. Whenever it comes, it calls for lingering, and entering into it, and receiving it. While such insights cannot be simply fabricated or demanded, we can foster them. We can set aside times and do activities that lend themselves to their arising, and to their having a place to be received. A mindset of readiness, and of longing to see more deeply can go far.

Leisure: The Basis of Culture was one of the most important books I read in my 20s. What proper leisure looks like, and how to cultivate it, has been something I think about often, and try to bring about as much as possible.

Magnanimous, ‘great-souled’ people

I walk at a fast pace. But John Cuddeback warns against being in a hurry without good reason:

As is often the case, these words of Aristotle must be carefully considered. “The man who takes few things seriously” can sound like a man who doesn’t really value things—as though he were excessively nonchalant and under-estimates the worth of things. From the context it is clear that Aristotle rather is pointing to the man who properly judges things: a man who has recognized the few things that are really important in life.

So the man who judges things well, seeing things for what they are, is not in a hurry. Indeed, he usually walks with a measured, peaceful gait.

I had seen this text long ago, and I didn’t really make much of it. Then last week I was on retreat, and I kept catching myself rushing, bounding up and down stairs as though there wasn’t a minute to lose, when in fact there was no real need to hurry.

… I let myself get in a hurry, even though there isn’t a pressing need. An example comes to mind: how often have I gotten angry at my children when I go to pick them up somewhere if they so much as linger an extra moment to say farewell to their friends? “How dare you keep Daddy waiting!” As though the standard assumption is: Daddy has way too much to do, and you’re holding him up! Let’s get on with this! …

I’ve decided to start by slowing down my gait. It’s been hard. Even harder will be to learn really and truly to put first things first, to recognize what really matters and what doesn’t, and to act like it. The magnanimous man, which literally means the ‘great-souled man,’ takes seriously what he should. And for that very reason he is careful not to be in too much of a hurry.

John Cuddeback is consistently thoughtful. It’s worth receiving his emails.

Walking, habitually

Amy Fleming takes a walk with Shane O’Mara, a neuroscientist who reminds us that walking—and specifically making walking a habitual part of our lives—is both good and healthier than many alternatives:

I witnessed the brain-healing effects of walking when my partner was recovering from an acute brain injury. His mind was often unsettled, but during our evening strolls through east London, things started to make more sense and conversation flowed easily. O’Mara nods knowingly. “You’re walking rhythmically together,” he says, “and there are all sorts of rhythms happening in the brain as a result of engaging in that kind of activity, and they’re absent when you’re sitting. One of the great overlooked superpowers we have is that, when we get up and walk, our senses are sharpened. Rhythms that would previously be quiet suddenly come to life, and the way our brain interacts with our body changes.”

From the scant data available on walking and brain injury, says O’Mara, “it is reasonable to surmise that supervised walking may help with acquired brain injury, depending on the nature, type and extent of injury – perhaps by promoting blood flow, and perhaps also through the effect of entraining various electrical rhythms in the brain. And perhaps by engaging in systematic dual tasking, such as talking and walking.”

One such rhythm, he says, is that of theta brainwaves. Theta is a pulse or frequency (seven to eight hertz, to be precise) which, says O’Mara, “you can detect all over the brain during the course of movement, and it has all sorts of wonderful effects in terms of assisting learning and memory, and those kinds of things”. Theta cranks up when we move around because it is needed for spatial learning, and O’Mara suspects that walking is the best movement for such learning. “The timescales that walking affords us are the ones we evolved with,” he writes, “and in which information pickup from the environment most easily occurs.” …

Some people, I point out, don’t think walking counts as proper exercise. “This is a terrible mistake,” he says. “What we need to be is much more generally active over the course of the day than we are.” And often, an hour at the gym doesn’t cut it. “What you see if you get people to wear activity monitors is that because they engage in an hour of really intense activity, they engage in much less activity afterwards.”

But you don’t get the endorphin high from walking, I say. “The same hit you get from running is what you’d get from taking morphine? We simply don’t know that’s true,” he says. “People who study this area don’t go on about endorphins and there may be a reason for that.” Not that he is opposed to vigorous exercise, but walking is much more accessible and easily woven into everyday life: “You don’t need to bring anything other than comfy shoes and a rain jacket. You don’t have to engage in lots of preparation; stretching, warm-up, warm-down …” O’Mara gets off his commuter train a stop early so that he can clock up more steps on his pedometer. To get the maximum health benefits, he recommends that “speed should be consistently high over a reasonable distance – say consistently over 5km/h, sustained for at least 30 minutes, at least four or five times a week.”

It’s the simple things…

JUMP bike commute

I’m now heading downtown each morning to our new office near Dupont Circle. There’s no straightforward way to get from Georgetown to Dupont Circle by Metro, but there is by bike. When I left this morning, I opened Uber, pulled up the map of nearby JUMP bikes, and walked to P Street where I this bike was locked and ready for use.

JUMP Bike in Georgetown

This JUMP bike is one of the refreshed models, with a much simpler QR code-based reservation/unlocking process compared to the more cumbersome pin-code system of the JUMP bike I used last summer. I felt like a flew down P Street to Dupont Circle, and then Connecticut to the office. At 15 cents per minute, I ended up paying $1.75 after tax for the ten minute ride.

I’ll commute by JUMP bike as much as possible this summer, when I don’t walk.

Writing as a habit

Seth Godin writes:

For years, I’ve been explaining to people that daily blogging is an extraordinarily useful habit. Even if no one reads your blog, the act of writing it is clarifying, motivating and (eventually) fun.

A collection of daily bloggers I follow have passed 1,000 posts (it only takes three years or so…). Fortunately, there are thousands of generous folks who have been posting their non-commercial blogs regularly, and it’s a habit that produces magic.

Sasha, Gabe, Fred, Bernadette and Rohan add value to their readers every day, and I’m lucky to be able to read them. (I’m leaving many out, sorry!) You’ll probably get something out of reading the work of these generous folks, which is a fabulous side effect, one that pays huge dividends to masses of strangers, which is part of the magic of digital connection.

I’ve been writing or sharing something daily for a few years now, but Seth Godin has been doing it for much longer. I think he’s right that daily writing is “a habit that produces magic”, at least for me insofar as it’s helped me learn to be accountable to myself first.

When I write here, I sometimes think about the possibility that these words will be read by friends or family generations from now. I also realize there’s a possibility some of these words might never really be read by anyone. Both outcomes are alright.

I’ve written here before that I think it will be amazing to future generations that we who were so connected generally said and left behind so little. We share and post and engage on platforms like Facebook and Twitter and elsewhere, but we rarely share coherent stories there, or narratives or anything other than little vignettes. Even assuming those those networks preserve that content, the idea of grandchildren or anyone else trying to make sense of most of it will be like sifting through the charred remains of family letters after a fire; what’s there will still be valued, but very little will tie together.

What got them up in the morning? What did they believe about the world? When did they decide to start a family? What were their challenges and triumphs?

We can think and write out loud now, and if we’re comfortable being a little vulnerable in doing so, we might do more than just create a record of the sort of things we’re doing and experiencing and thinking about—we might just foster a culture that’s a bit more empathetic and connected, too.

And no, writing doesn’t require having an audience in mind and it doesn’t require being perfct. Develop a voice, then speak.

Rowers on the Potomac

Often after work in Arlington, I’ll get one of the nearby Capital Bikeshare bikes and ride across the Key Bridge to Georgetown. Recently I’ve been riding across the bridge near sunset, and a number of times I’ve been coming across just as what I presume are Georgetown rowers are rapidly making their way along the Potomac.

I stopped briefly on the bridge the other day to take this photo. On the left is a little speed boat with a coach and a bullhorn, and you can hear him hollering encouragement as they all speed along the waters.

That’s it. Just a nice routine I’ve found myself in, for however long it lasts.

It’s better to try

Seth Godin writes:

…if the cost of finding out [whatever you need to find out] is a phone call, make the call. No need to spend a lot of time planning how to call or when to call or which phone to use when execution is fast and cheap.

The digital revolution has, as in so many other areas, flipped the equation here. The cost of building digital items is plummeting, but our habit is to plan anyway (because failure bothers us, and we focus on the feeling of failure, not the cost).

The goal should be to have the minimum number of meetings and scenarios and documentation necessary to maximize the value of execution.

The key idea is that “when execution gets cheaper, so should planning.”

Now, this doesn’t (or shouldn’t) mean “don’t do things intentionally” or “just act for the sake of acting”. What it means is that it’s easier to try things, and the financial/reputation cost for trying new things tends to be incredibly low.

A small example is a company embracing videoconferencing when consensus dictates the need for a conversation versus 10 business days of communication to schedule meetings to talk about issues that might already be moot.

The purpose of meetings is to talk through how to do things. Since we often won’t really know until we try, it’s often better to try than to plan.

Mount Nittany Marathon, again

Earlier this year I shared my reflections on my first Mount Nittany Marathon, which I ran in 2013 over Labor Day. The marathon was sponsored by the Mount Nittany Conservancy as both a way for people to run a marathon in Centre County and as a novel way to experience the Mountain and surrounding areas. They stopped after year three (which I registered for, but ending up not running), but I did run again in their second marathon in 2014, again over the Labor Day weekend. Sharing what I wrote at the time:

The Mount Nittany Conservancy hosted its second Mount Nittany Marathon on Sunday, and I ran it for the second year. Running last year’s inaugural Mount Nittany Marathon was also my first marathon. This year was different; most noticeably I was more at ease through the whole run. Now familiar, the 26.2 mile course and its highs and lows felt more manageable.


I tweeted that out after the run, and it turns out I finished just a bit faster than I thought, in 4h:34m:35s, placing 119th of 193 finishers. Consistency is reassuring, so I can’t complain.

Like last year, the marathon started and ended at the intersection of Beaver Stadium and Medlar Field at Lubrano Park. A key difference in the experience of the run from last year was the sky opening up and pouring blankets of heavy, thick, warm raindrops just as the race began and continuing through Mile 12 or so. The marathon also began at 7am, an hour earlier than last year; so coupled with the rain, the entire thing felt much funner since more of the run was in less of that late summer dead-heat sort of weather.

The course was largely the same as last year, except for a change between miles 14 to 16 that took us off of Atherton and through Scenery Park. This was much nicer, though in talking with John Hook afterwards apparently meant that stretch’s terrain was a bit more difficult.


I’m thinking of write up something more for Onward State, but for now I’ll highlight what I wrote last year and still applicable:

It’s safe to say that the Mount Nittany Conservancy really succeeded with the Mount Nittany Marathon, bringing people together from across the community to put on a great new event. A takeaway from Conserving Mount Nittany is that this is the epitome of the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s founding mission: it’s meant not only to steward the Mountain, but also to create cultural experiences that enhance through first-person experience the magic of the Mountain.

I was again grateful to Jerry Harrington for capturing the runners as we neared Mile 17 where we crossed Atherton Street. For whatever reason in both years I’ve managed to be mid-blink for these photos, but this one does give a good look at how wet everything was even late into the race.


I wasn’t sure if I’d run the Mount Nittany Marathon again, but I’m glad I did. Every supporter of my crowdfunding campaign came to mind over the course of the run, particularly Gavin Keirans’s comment: “Pace and certainty will get you to the finish line.” It did.

Soul > process

A Book of Elements: Reflections on Middle-Class Days” by Michael Novak was released in 1972. It’s a fascinating book from a young liberal who’s today an elder conservative. From the original Kirkus review, these lines stick out:

Novak collaborated with his wife, artist-sculptor Karen Laub-Novak, in this series of explosive pensees concerning “the reliable elements of life.” … In impulsive prose which ranges from the quick insight to the self-indulgent sprawl, Novak explores, as a middle-class paterfamilias-suburbanite, concepts of being and self; political and social ethic; domestic living; and the awareness of God above and through humanity. He comments on the American way of life which he sees as mechanistic-bound, “not at all on the human scale.”

Far and away my favorite short chapter was 27, which opens by asking the question, “What dehydration of soul makes organization possible?” I excerpt the chapter in full here, emphasis mine:


What dehydration of soul makes organization possible? The spirit of a practical society is a bureaucratic spirit, fascinated by process, procedures, methods.

It is true, of course, that procedures affect the content of what is done. Sometimes they determine the content completely.

But it is not true that if you attend only, or even chiefly, to questions of process, procedures, and methods, you can guarantee results.

Thinking about procedures has a single goal: routine. Once we get the process down (we think), we can produce many similar contents rationally and efficiently.

At its worst, process thinking tends to imagine a world organized like a machine. It is production-line thinking.

At its best, it remains thinking from-outside-in. It views content as what is to be shaped. It concentrates on the shaping procedures. Powerful in dealing with machines, in dealing with humans it is incompetent.

For example, democracy. Many seem to imagine that democracy is a matter of machinery: who votes, when; parliamentary rules and reforms; methods for identifying interests; procedures for reconciling interests; mechanisms for handling grievances. Even radical thinkers concentrate on processes.

One can identify process thinkers early by the metaphors inseparable from their thinking: “Set it up,” “We need a mechanism,” “Operationalize that,” “Figure out the best procedures,” “Sort out the elements,” “Break it down into smaller steps,” “How to structure the committee,” “Once we get it going it will take care of itself,” “The problem is the procedure,” “Inputs,” “Outputs,” “Crank it up with,” “Safety valves…”

Process thinkers sound like auto mechanics on their day off.

It seldom occurs to process thinkers—to our elites in the intellectual and managerial classes—that democracy requires qualities of soul, in persons and in their families, and in their social groups.

If you reduce humans to atomic particles without social cohesion, without social trust, without joy in sacrifice, without social pride, democracy disintegrates.

If you reduce human atomic particles to inputs, outputs, and mechanisms of need and desire, democracy becomes an illusory dream machine and its springs snap, bolts fall off, panels rot away, organisms rust and decay…the machine ceases to function.

Democracy is not a matter of reasonable discussion merely, of intelligent consensus, of the decorum of a New England town meeting circa 1663. It includes pressure groups, interest groups, conflicts, the use of force, threats, bitter dissent.

But where persons are not proud of their own lives, independent and sturdy in their views, committed to mutual trust in their morals, larger police forces are needed. Suburban communities become, like medieval towns, walled cities. People go out seldom. No one evinces pride in work or workmanship. Each person takes what he can get, and gives a minimum. Transactions between salesgirls and customers, between agents and clients, are reduced to the most minimal mechanical forms: a grunt, a reluctant gesture of direction. Cold hostility intensifies between bus drivers and passengers, servicemen and homeowners, mechanics and auto owners. Surliness and contempt multiply. Citizens trust no government official. Officials are cynical about the people.

Where private and familial and occupational habits turn from cooperative to mistrustful, democracy dies. Not all the processes or procedures or methods in the world, even if enforced by penalties and arms, can hold a society together.

The radical disease of American life lies in a quarter no one wishes to face. Everyone wants to tinker with the system. More profound is the collapse of personal and social virtue. Humility, graciousness, warmth, trust, spontaneity, and generosity of soul are disappearing slowly but steadily from our lives. We are not humane in the small transactions of daily life. We do not, in fact, love, sympathize with, or trust most of the human beings we meet each day. We are on our guard. They, too, are on their guard.

If we become a garrison state, the sole cause will not be an industrial-military complex. Truly, if our major corporations mass-produced marshmallows instead of sophisticated weaponry, the impact of mass-production and bureaucracy would be the same: the disease of thinking from-outside-in.

A society is humane if and only if the dominant note of its private, familial, and societal transactions is reverence for what other persons are suffering: respect for thinking from-inside-out.

Each human is already lonely, trapped in the coils of his (her) own ego, unhappy, silently in pain. If you assume that this is true of each person you meet, seldom will events prove you mistaken. Why, then, would you add to the enormous weight of pain which grinds into their shoulders?

The dry bureaucratic sentiment is: Design a procedure that every one has an interest in.

The liquid democratic sentiment is: Listen to the suffering of each, and life the burdens.

The bureaucrat trusts administration. His way of making law is to fund an agency.

The democrat relies on himself and mutual trust. His way of making law is to articulate an ideal that men will agree to live under, cooperatively.

The bureaucrat worries about sanctions and administrators and investigators. He is not entirely wrong. But he tends to neglect the soul.

Dissent in order to begin a new way of life is not the same as dissent in order to spread contempt, hatred, and distrust.

Dissent which does not lead to deeper sympathy, to deeper sinking down of roots, is a sandstorm beating leaves from living trees.

The contrast, William James wrote, is between the “soft” thinkers and the “hard.” More accurate is the contrast between those in whom juices run, and those who think only where arid methodology permits.