Swirling Colors

Easy Decisions

A friend just sent me this article, and it’s really great. Definitely worth a read, even if you aren’t a freshman in college anymore and didn’t go to Stanford. It’s never too late to be who you’re meant to be.

I especially relate to the section on “going with the flow,” the idea that we often choose a path because the decision is easy, even if the path is not. At a number of points in my life, I have chosen to do a specific thing (graduate school, traveling abroad, working in construction and then consulting) not because it meant my life would be the most comfortable, but because the choices were. It’s easy to go to graduate school immediately after college, and it eliminates a lot of hard decisions like where to live and what to do with your time and what to do about money. Deciding to travel was easy, too. I had friends who had gone to Europe to work on farms, and all I had to do was apply for an internship and buy some plane tickets. Not that it wasn’t an incredibly valuable experience; it was life changing. But it was an easy decision.

Deciding to quit my good office job and strike out on my own was a harder decision which opened up all sorts of previously decided variables (location, where to focus my effort, and again, money). But at the same time, it felt right throughout the process. Maybe I had already internalized some of what the author is laying out here, and maybe I’m optimistic enough to think that everything will work out no matter what I do. But it was definitely not the same kind of decision that kept me going on the common path I had already followed to grad school, traveling abroad, and working at an office. It took time and emotional processing and a lot of encouragement to make the decision. Now I am immersed in a world that works much differently than 9-5, one which demands boldness, creativity, and authenticity rather than stability, security, and risk-aversion. I’m still figuring out how to navigate it, and probably will be for the rest of my life. Suggestions are welcome!

Also, I’ve been painting a lot. Check ’em out!

Meditate with Max!

Neuroscience, Society

A lot of the reading I’ve done lately has focused on neuroscience, taking a systematic look at how the brain works best. In many cases, this reinforces our intuition about human interaction. Often, it surprises us. More and more, these readings are highlighting for me areas where our society is at odds with how humans have always functioned and how we function the best. I’m not a neuroscientist (except, aren’t we all?), but here is what I’ve been able to put together.

On a fundamental level, we’re finding that the most important part of life in terms of cultivating happiness and fulfillment is our social engagement. It is a healthy functioning limbic brain (the emotional system common to all mammals) rather than reptilian (reflexes, instincts) or neocortical (higher cognition) that allows humans to flourish in society and not become reclusive, depressed, or psychotic. The limbic system is largely cultivated through close relationships, especially during childhood, but later in life as well. It sounds corny, but the word we’re looking for here is love. Parental love allows our brains to develop properly as infants, love from our teachers helps us learn in school, and love from a partner allows us to deal with difficulties throughout life. This is a wonderful thing to know and be able to put into action, but it’s a devastating lens through which to view our society. Here are a few areas that could be vastly improved by acknowledging the human need for love.


I’ve written about some of my qualms with the internet before, but this one is getting worse. We continue to replace our face-to-face interactions with screen time. Our emotional brains resonate through subtle cues in body language, eye contact, and touch which cannot be mimicked by text messages, email, or Facebook. All this technology gives us the sense of being connected to people, but without any of the deep emotional bonds that goes with it. Instead, we get a quick dopamine fix from the constant stimulation and fall in love with our phones instead of our friends. Have you tried saying hello to strangers on the street lately? It’s nearly impossible.


Our society encourages parents to get back to work as soon as possible once they have kids, even though spending time with their children is the most important thing they can do for their kids and for society at large. It forces single parents to hold down full time jobs while paying for child care, which is no substitute for building the emotional bonds between a parent and child. Even maternity leave (and the occasional paternity leave) considered to be “generous” barely scratches the surface for a child’s emotional development. Combined with the stigma against full-time parenting, we’re churning out generations of emotionally-deficient youth.


Kids learn the best when they have a strong connection with their teacher, and when their teacher is able to devote attention to the child’s needs and progress. Huge classes, teaching to the test, and low teacher salaries all restrict the strength of these bonds and reduce the effectiveness of our education system. Instead, we’re buying bombers and drones which aren’t making anyone happy, except maybe the executives at Lockheed Martin.


Even our food system is suffering from a lack of emotional resonance. The food we buy is so packaged, processed, and reconstituted, that it’s often impossible to know what we’re eating. Eating, and especially eating in groups, is one of the most basic human interactions. As our food loses value, so does the meal itself. Factory farms would not exist if we maintained our emotional connection to the animals we raised for food. We are meant to look into the eyes of the cow that will become our beef and feel a sense of gratitude, gain an understanding of our place in the world. Why put time into preparing and sharing something so synthetic as what we call food today?


Money will not make you happy. Studies are showing that once basic needs are met, more money does not equate to more happiness. We love to measure things, but GDP does not relate to the quality of a nation. Our society is awash in consumerism and the idea that more stuff is better. This is a devastating perspective, and will only lead to more greed and envy.


It seems that doctors no longer have the luxury of actually spending time with their patients. Insurance companies ensure that these interactions are brief, and focus solely on the disease, not the person. It turns out we’re complicated organisms and much of the healing we’re capable of is powered by our emotions. Those who have good insurance might get coverage for a few therapy sessions, but therapy is meant to work gradually over several years. Considering how hard it is to even get decent insurance, we’re pretty much begging for illness and depression.


It seems like Republicans want more incarceration, Democrats want more treatment programs, but nobody wants to deal with the weak family structure that is so often the root of crime and drug addiction. This goes back to the welfare system. If we put more resources into allowing families to form strong bonds, our whole society would be stronger and less reliant on criminal justice to keep order.


My thoughts on this one have been sequestered until further notice.

So, things are pretty bleak. Perhaps as awareness grows of how our brains work and what makes us happy, our society will begin to shift. Living in the bubble that is Seattle, it’s easy to feel like maybe things aren’t so bad. But in thinking about the country as a whole, I’m pretty sure they are.

This is Life

I took a long run yesterday and thought about how people recently have commented that I seem to be doing so much with my life despite my unemployment. This seems like a compliment, I think, so thank you! And it’s true that I have been unemployed before and not done nearly so much. But there is something different this time. It’s not exactly a sense of urgency; I think I’ve maintained a sense of taking things slowly. It’s more a feeling of: this is my life.

This is it.

Right now.

I’m not in some transition period between jobs. I’m not transitioning between school and work, or work and travel. I’m deep into the only transition there is, the transition from birth to death, and what I do today and tomorrow and the next day is my life.

My last stint of unemployment was in 2009/2010 for about 9 months. I was looking for a job the whole time and felt entirely consumed by the process. I did a few other things along the way (mostly I got a lot better at guitar and rock climbing, and read Infinite Jest), but I never felt productive or fulfilled. I was able to stay relatively happy through copious amounts of exercise and coffee, but the job search was exhausting and distracted me from what I had long valued in my life. I didn’t feel like I had the mental time or space to make art, partly because I didn’t feel like making art was what I was “doing” with my life. I was looking for a job, making myself employable, and working hard to make that employment what I was doing with my life. I was not an artist. I was an office worker, temporarily displaced.

This time things are different. I am living consciously, and I have a better understanding of the fact that my life is a collection of days lived, routines established, routines broken, people met, people loved, good books read and absorbed, emotions expressed, and beauty created. What am I doing with my life? I’m not “doing” anything. I’m living. Life is not an activity to be completed, rather an adventure to explore, a wonderful opportunity to grow for a while and then fade away.

So I’m spending my time on a lot of different things, enjoying the fact that life is full and vibrant and profound and hilarious. My run yesterday was thirteen miles, part of training for a marathon. It took me through or past eight parks in Seattle and around one lake, and it was gorgeous. I’ve been painting almost everyday, aiming to have a solid portfolio to show sometime in the next several weeks. I go rock climbing two or three times a week, depending on my tendon integrity. I do yoga most days at least once, and try to meditate every day between five and thirty minutes. I’m part of a community garden, a book club, a string quartet, and an indie-rock band that is starting to pick up some steam in the Seattle music scene. I play guitar and sing almost every day, cook meals with my roommates, and spend quality time with them playing games involving throwing dried beans into jars. I go on outdoor adventures and road trips to visit friends and national parks. I just started helping out a friend with his business leading after school music programs, and I’m in the process of starting a hummus business of my own. I occasionally write blog posts.

These are the things I value, and I am so excited to be able to do them all. Not everybody values the same things, and some of those activities might sound awful to you. But here is the main point. Last time I had time on my hands, I forgot what I valued, what was important to me in life. Once I was employed, I had less time on my hands and my forgetfulness deepened. I became wrapped up in routine and busy-ness. Money felt important, as if it were an end goal in itself. My brain got used to frying in front of a computer screen for hours a day. These things were bringing me closer to death at the same pace I’ve always been moving, but they weren’t allowing my life to flourish. Eventually I realized that these were not my values and I worked out a way to change my daily life to reflect what is important to me. So far it has worked. I feel good. I feel alive. I still drink copious amounts of coffee.

Taking the Plunge: Part 3

It has been a slow plunge to take fully, but I am now solidly submerged. I just read an article in the New Yorker, so my thoughts are filtered through the lens of what it is like to be a twentysomething.

This past Thursday was the last day at my office job. I’ve been working two days a week for about 4 months now, which has been amazing but not perfect. I’ve been able to pay all my bills, and so not draw down my savings which I planned to keep me afloat for about the next year or so. The year or so starts now. Some imperfections of part-time: a gradual feeling of disconnect from the work, making it more and more rote as the weeks go by. A feeling of not-entire commitment to art and creativity. An excuse to not get a lot of other work done, because, hey, my bills are paid.

Already, life is coming into focus. I am twenty-eight. I have no income, but I have no doubt that I could have income if I needed it. I have a bachelor’s degree in physics, a master’s degree in geology, I’ve worked in sustainable agriculture, carpentry, and green building, and I have a feeling that none of them are where I want to put my life’s effort. I am planning to apply to art school in Iceland, but also have no idea how long I’ll want to do that. I am currently reading about five good books and have no conception (literally, zero) of where I will be in two or five or ten years. I am single and have been for a while, and I can’t really imagine what it would be like to incorporate another person into my life. I am not usually lonely. I spend between one and two dozen hours a week at coffee shops. I try to make art and play music everyday, but rarely manage for three days in a row. I am working on starting a tiny hummus business. I exercise twice most days and meditate about five times a week. I am about to take a 10-day road trip to Southern California because I have that much free time. I am completely at sea and full of contradiction, and I am the happiest I’ve ever been.

It is hard to say what is going on. I have always thought that happiness would come through some greater purpose, by some well-examined life on a direct path to some clear-cut definition of success. I have always been competitive and driven, but I have not always been happy. Now that I am relatively aimless, I feel present and alive and exuberant. I have the time to be inspired by life. I laugh when the sun is out in the morning (a rarity in wintertime Seattle). I also laugh when it is raining, thinking about all the people grumbling. I laugh at the way raindrops ripple a puddle. If you had a recording of my life, you would think I was crazy, laughing all the time and grinning while I walk around town in the cold and damp. There are some concrete things that contribute to this behavior: low but daily doses of caffeine, vitamin D supplements, consistent exercise, lack of internet/TV/media, good sleep. But it is the intangibles that really do the trick. Freedom of time and space in good measure (not so much as to be bogged down by choice), quality socializing, a clear mind (aided enormously by the lack of internet/TV/media), a desire for creativity, expression, and openness.

Will this happiness last? I don’t know. I do feel a push for something bigger, but a lot of the things I’m chipping away at now could be bigger at some point. I’ll probably start volunteering when I’m back from my road trip, which should help inre: purpose, community, socializing. But here’s why I think this all might be valuable even if I never become a successful artist or writer or musician. I feel like I am teaching my brain how to be happy. I’ve been reading a bunch of neuroscience-y books, and it sounds like this is possible. Maybe the most important thing I am accomplishing right now is setting up pathways in my brain that will persist beyond this expansionary phase of my life (although I don’t plan for this phase to end). I’m about to read Happiness, which I think will solidify these ideas and probably be life-changing in lots of positive ways. Also good: A General Theory of Love, The Geography of Bliss, anything by Rumi.

People seem to be worried about whether this life is economically feasible. I guess my response is, what’s the point of having an economically feasible life if it isn’t one you want? Is the purpose of our perplexingly short time on this planet to make ends meet? Of course not. To be slightly pragmatic yet thoroughly optimistic: if I am deeply happy and intensely satisfied with what I am doing with my life, and willing to share that with others, it will become economically feasible. If I make bad art long enough and love doing it, it will get better. If I am a terrible writer for ten years and put my heart and soul into it, at some point I’ll be a good writer. If my fingers are slow on the guitar and my voice is out of tune, but I do it every day because there is nothing I’d rather be doing, eventually I’ll play beautifully. I feel lucky to have a head start on so many good things, and to be in a place where I can focus on expanding my own awareness of life. So here I am, submerged.

Bold colors, drips

Art and Soul

This fall I decided to work through two new “how-to” books, one on creativity and one on kung fu. I thought this would get me going in two different directions since these two things are so clearly distinct. One is about art, one is about the body. I slowly realized, however, that I was essentially dealing with the same beast: energy, life flow, chi. This is one of those ideas that automatically makes whoever is talking about it sound hippie-dippy, like someone who has never picked up a science book and spends a lot of time waving around sticks, wearing overly-comfortable tie-dyed pajamas. I’m not saying I would never wave sticks around like that (and who doesn’t love comfortable pajamas?), but I do also have more than the average number of degrees in hard sciences (2). I’m pretty sure we have this mental image about energy flow because of the way the media characterizes it, maybe some remnant of a backlash against the 60’s spirit of free-love or something. I’m too young and un-media-savvy to know. But to the point.

Here’s what I’ve been working on. For creativity: The Artist’s Way. The subtitle reads “A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity,” to give you an idea. Once I started this, I found out that it’s actually quite popular among certain groups, and there are meet-ups for people scattered on coffee shop bulletin boards all across the country. And for kung fu: The Shaolin Workout. Subtitled: “28 Days to Transforming Your Body and Soul the Warrior’s Way.” I haven’t met anyone else who has seen this book, but I don’t travel much in martial arts circles.

I’m on week 5 of 12 in The Artist’s Way, and day 17 of 28 in The Shaolin Workout. I’ve been going about half speed in The Artist’s Way, often getting distracted for a few days and finding myself behind schedule. I’ve found that the “days” referred to in The Shaolin Workout are more metaphorical, along the lines of “four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, three in the evening.” This book contains a lifetime of movements to be learned and perfected. Many of the later exercises are near impossible without years (I presume) of focus on flexibility (“standing tall, kick one leg up to graze your toe against your forehead with control while keeping both legs straight” kind of stuff).

Here’s the basic idea behind The Artist’s Way. Creativity is not something we can simply focus hard on to produce. Rather, it is a flow that travels through us from some external force, some god or higher power or what-have-you. We, as artists, have to learn to disconnect our internal censors from this flow and just let it rush through us. Without our censor blocking the flow of creativity, we will be able to fill pages or canvasses or rolls of film. The important thing is that it doesn’t matter if you “believe” in where this energy is coming from. You don’t have to believe in God, per se. But thinking about it in this way will allow you to create art in a non-destructive way, a way that doesn’t require drugs or alcohol or addictions to silence the censor for you.

I’m not sure that I’m necessarily very far along this path right now, but even the short moments of clarity I’ve had with it have been wonderful. It comes with a feeling of openness, expansiveness, connectedness. It allows me to do one of the most necessary and difficult things to do when practicing something new: to fail. To make terrible art and trite writing. I’m starting to understand how important this is, and how I’ll never get any better unless I actually do it and work on it and slowly get better.

It’s good that I’m learning to be OK with failure, because kung fu is HARD. This is not something my body is used to. My hips and hamstrings are tight with a lifetime of sitting in cars and chairs. I cannot graze my toe against my forehead with a straight leg in a controlled way, or in even a wildly uncontrolled way. That’s going to take a lot of practice and stretching. At the end of each workout there is a meditation to focus on for the rest of the day. Things started to come together when I got to the Chinese proverb, “Be not afraid of moving slowly, be afraid only of standing still.” So I’m chipping away at the tightness in my hips, just as I’m chipping away at the censor blocking my creativity.

But here’s the thing. Both of these are actually working on the same thing. Kung fu focuses on releasing chi and letting that energy rush through me. The Artist’s Way focuses on releasing creativity and letting that energy rush through me. The tightness in my hips is constricting my chi, making it harder to stand up straight and tall, making my body a less-than-ideal place for this energy to pass easily. The creative blocks I’ve built up through years of being a perfectionist are making it difficult for me to sit down and paint. After doing the kung fu stretches, my body feels loose and energized, and I feel a sense of exuberance and life. When I actually do sit down and draw, my mind feels free and energized. As my energy flow increases, my head buzzes with openness, expansiveness, connectedness. I feel that I am (or at least am nearer to being) a fully empowered and creative being.

I’m not a neuroscientist, but I’ve read some books. I also don’t know much about energy flow, chi, etc, aside from what I’ve picked up through kung fu and yoga. But I think this all has something to do with the right side of the brain. I’ve written about the right side of the brain before, and this talk by Jill Bolte Taylor gets at a lot of what I think I’m talking about. It does make sense that martial arts would put you in your right-hemisphere, though. The movement of the body and spatial awareness that creates is exactly the kind of thing that shifts your focus from the analytical to the holistic. If this irrational, emotive hemisphere is also where the creativity to practice visual arts comes from (as it seems to be), then the two are perfect complements. More chi, more energy, more creativity, more flow, whatever that means. More kung fu, and more art. A life of openness, expansiveness, connectedness. Sounds good to me.