Great housemates!

Six House Rules To Live By

At my old house in Seattle, my roommates and I decided to make some house rules to help us build community and live intentionally. At first, these were straight-forward, kind of silly things. No Facebook. No internet at home (easy, because we didn’t have internet). No drunk texting/emailing exes (we had elaborate rationale about how calling was fine, just not the passive-ness and permanent-ness of texting). Eat a lot of beans. Okay, this might not have been an actual rule, but it was a fundamental principle the house was built on.

Needless to say, we had a good time with it. Breaking a rule meant a dollar in the jar, to be spent at some future date on something fun for the house. We gradually acquired more and more rules, but eventually started to realize that while these highly-specific stipulations were fun and good for building community, they weren’t helping us to do better or live more fully (except No Internet at Home – that rule was the best!). Instead, we decided to set positive intentions for how we ought to live our lives.

Experience New Things

Well, this seems obvious. Except that a lot of the time it’s not. Often when we’re deep in our routine, we need special impetus to go out and experience something new. Whether it’s an art walk, a basketball game, joining a kickball team (this is a popular thing in the Northwest), or just going for a walk in a new neighborhood, we need to keep it fresh. One of the major advantages of living in a city is that there are more new things to do than can be done in a lifetime. Not to mention getting out of the city, which is wonderful. But even in a smaller place, there is always new experience to be had. This goes hand-in-hand with always learning and generally being a curious, creative person.

Meet New People

Along the lines on experiencing new things, we can always be meeting new people. We don’t have to become best friends with everyone we meet, but we need to keep putting ourselves out there and seeing what kinds of connections arise. As we grow and change, we often find that some of the friendships and connections we’ve had have become stale. Sometimes, this is the perfect opportunity to reconnect and reinvigorate those relationships. Other times, we need to recognize that we can’t be friends with everybody all the time, and that people drift apart. This is a natural part of the mobile society we live in. Slowly, we may find our tribe of people who support and inspire us. Even then, that tribe may evolve and shift as we continue to grow and explore.

Be Mobile

Winter in Seattle is dark. Portland, too, although not quite as much. It’s not freezing cold or blustery like the northeast or midwest. But it’s dark. Cool and wet. Getting out into the world can be a serious challenge to even the most optimistic person’s psyche. The other thing about Seattle is that it’s a city of neighborhoods, and while each one contains everything you’d ever need, there are whole parts of town you never go to. The geography of the city makes it tough to go from one to another. Hence our third rule: be mobile. Get out there and do it! Bike around! Get wet! Play sports! Visit people! Try new parts of town! We basically decided that it was not acceptable to decide to skip an event because of its location. This was one of the hardest rules to follow, but it paid off. As a transplant in a city, being mobile is the only way to get to know an area and meet people outside our immediate circle of friends.

Don’t Hold Back

Do you feel like you’re holding back? This could be in any sphere of life: in physicality, in love, in friendship, in work. There is often a nagging feeling of “I could have done more,” or “I could have been more committed, more present.” Don’t hold back! Just don’t do it. We need to put ourselves out there, be vulnerable, make mistakes. This is how we learn. This is how we build up experience and wisdom. Not by reading about it on the web. By actually going out and experiencing it, by giving ourselves completely to our endeavors. Also, it’s a great thing to yell down the stairs when your friend is walking out the door to go on a date.

Be Generous

Generosity is one of the most magical character traits. It is so wonderful to be around generous people. People who are generous with their time, money, and attention are the ones we like the most. The positivity generous people create comes back to reward them, too. Life is all about abundance and sharing, not scarcity or greed. Sharing whatever we can with people close to us (and people not so close to us, but in greater need) is one of the best feelings. We tried to make generosity a built-in practice in our house, usually by sharing food and making an effort to bring people together however our means would allow.

Practice Gratitude

If generosity is the most magical outward-facing trait, gratitude is the most magical inward-facing trait. Developing a deep sense of gratitude fills us with love for life and appreciation for all the people around us, while diminishing any negativity that comes our way. We have so much to be grateful for. Just the fact that we are alive and here on this planet is astounding. That we live in an affluent and free country? Almost unbelievable. Not to mention a good education, our strong networks of friends and family, our clean drinking water, our relative peace and security. Practicing gratitude every day makes us fall in love with the world. It makes us want to give back, and to make it better for everyone else. It makes us calm, kind, and compassionate. It’s the best.

What are your house rules? What do you live by? What do you like to yell down the stairs to your friends to get them excited about life?

For a Lost Friend

Every so often, the simple fact that life is short comes into stark relief, and did so for me recently with the death of a friend. We say “life is short” often, but I don’t strictly believe that to be true. It is hard to know how long life is, or how long it feels, as our perception of it changes all the time. Childhood feels a lifetime away, and even my college days are a faint memory, despite only being a decade past. In that sense, life feels long. I could live another sixty years, which would certainly make the feeling of these days small and perhaps insignificant.

What this sentiment is really trying to get at, I think, is that life could end any moment. We are used to continuity of consciousness. It’s the only thing we’ve ever always had. And still, everybody dies. At some point that continuity will come screeching to a halt. It could be in sixty years, it could be in a decade, it could be next week, or it could be in five minutes. We often take for granted that we will live long, relatively healthy lives. And I hope we do, I truly do.

At the same time, always believing that we’ll live long, relatively healthy lives may make us complacent. “There will be time for that.” Will there? Maybe. Maybe not. For the absolute most important things, it is not worth taking the risk that there will be time for that later. This includes visiting loved ones, reminding them how much we love them, hugging, making eye contact, and generally having a lot of close human connection. The things we do have time for later probably include: working, running errands, checking our email, watching TV, and cruising the web.

This past week has made this especially clear for me. Our community has been struggling to come to terms with the tragedy of our lost friend. We haven’t been working (much, at least). It just hasn’t felt possible. We have been visiting each other, bonding, talking about what happened, trying to figure out life, and taking solace in our connections with each other. We’ve been meeting up in groups of various shapes and sizes, grieving collectively and individually.

One piece of this which has been especially troubling is the fact that our friend took his own life. There is a constant nagging of “What could have been done? What could I have done?” We tell ourselves “nothing,” or “I’ll be more vigilant with my friends in the future,” but that doesn’t make the feeling go away. Ultimately, we have to live our lives as fully and as lovingly as we can. We have to spread compassion and joy, and empower others to do the same. We can’t change the past, but we create our own future by deciding how we act in the present.

Alan Watts has an idea of “living as if you’re already dead.” This is not about being fatalistic or nihilistic. It is about living with the knowledge that we could be dead at any moment, and that in a relatively short time we, and everyone we know, and everyone who knows them, will be dead. Not too much longer after that, nobody will even know we existed. The experience of this brief continuity of consciousness is fully ours to create and embody. We have no reason to hold back. We have every reason to live whole-heartedly, to speak boldly, and to share as much love and compassion as we can muster.

We can say life is short. Or we can say it is long. In a sense it is both. And in a way that aspect of it doesn’t matter at all. What matters is how we live, how we connect with others, how we express ourselves, and how we love. In a better world, we would not have to lose a friend to be reminded of this.

Sitting With Discomfort

Imagine you’re sitting on a train. Not a plush, air-conditioned, Western European train. It’s hot and sticky. The seats are fake leather, so the layers of grime they’ve collected scrapes off on your skin. Your seat is a bench with a straight back, and there’s not enough room to recline. Maybe there will be in a few hours, you hope. The air smells faintly of burning trash, and the train is crowded. You can’t understand anybody, but they’re very curious about you. You’re sweating through your clothes a little bit, and luckily the faintest draft from the window finds its way to your seat. You’re going to be on this train for 34 hours, surviving off greasy street food and tiny Dixie cups of tea. Welcome to India.

This was my experience traveling from Chennai in the south of India to Delhi in the north. It was one of the most beautiful and memorable experiences of my entire trip. The sweat and grime all washed off easily, but the peaceful sound of the train rumbling through wheat fields still remains. This trip could have been terrible. It was physically stifling. I could have told myself ahead of time that it was going to be so bad that I would have decided to fly instead. What is memorable about a two hour flight? I’ve been on train trips in the US and Europe, but now I’ve been on a train trip. This is what trains are all about. It was beautiful. It was not comfortable.

What’s the first thing we do when we’re uncomfortable? We try to fix it. If we have enough foresight, we try to avoid it. This is why we stay in unhealthy relationships, and why we pay more to take a sterile route from A to B. What if we didn’t? What if we looked discomfort in the eye, and instead of backing away, we just smiled at it?

The comforts of American society have taught us to avoid this at all costs. Get a softer couch! Don’t let your belly ever feel hungry! Take this drug or that supplement so you feel good all the time! Is your kid annoying? Try Ritalin! Can’t write that paper? Try Adderol! Body hurts? Try Percocet! Now obviously these drugs can have positive effects, and when we need them to function, we can take advantage of the wonders of modern science. But they are also symptomatic of a wider trend in our society: we avoid pain and suffering rather than explore, confront, and sit with it.

For me, this is what yoga is all about. Yoga is not comfortable. It will never be comfortable. That’s the whole point. There is no final destination of yoga, no ultimate understanding (at least not in this lifetime). It’s about finding the edge of comfort and going a little bit beyond. That edge might not always be in the same place, but going just beyond it is always similar. The sensation of muscles stretching or tensing is the same sensation as pain. In yoga, it is controlled and done with intention. We sit with it. We explore the sensation, and learn to see it as being just that: a sensation in our minds. It is not the world ending. As long as we’re being healthy and aware, our muscles will not break (well, actually, they will, but only a little).

Why do it? Discomfort is all around us, suffering is all around us. Practices like yoga where we sit with discomfort allow us to train our minds to start to be okay with that. Meditation does the same thing. We learn to recognize that the constant fluctuations of thought in our minds are the same as sensations as physical suffering in our bodies. If we spend our lives running away from discomfort, we’re never going to find true comfort, no matter how soft our couch. If we learn to sit with it and just be, however, we’ll be comfortable everywhere, even on a sweaty train for 34 hours. Even when things don’t go exactly as we want them to.

Have you ever had your heart broken? It’s the worst thing. So, so bad. There are all sorts of things we can do to cope with that pain. We can drink, we can eat, we can sleep, we can watch sappy movies until our eyes bleed. At some point, though, if we hope to move beyond the heartbreak, we have to just sit with the pain and start to accept it. It hurts now. A lot. It won’t hurt forever. But it really hurts now. And that’s okay. It hurts because we’re emotive, caring, sensitive beings. Other people might just be the most important thing in our lives. It sucks to feel like we’ve lost that. But it’s beautiful to be reminded of the truth of our humanity. This sensation of pain in our minds is also not the world ending. It is a sensation. It has arrived, and it will pass. It’s okay to feel it. It’s good to feel it. It makes us more resilient, better equipped to face life compassionately in the future.

How can we practice sitting with discomfort? Things like yoga and meditation are great, intentional techniques for it, but honestly it can be done anywhere. Get the worst chair at the conference table? Make it work. Ameliorate the pain but sitting well and with good posture, but also listen to your body. What is it telling you? It doesn’t like something. Okay. Why? Is it going to damage you? Maybe if you sit in the chair and slouch for hours every day, but probably not if you sit here for an hour. It’s okay if it’s not the most comfortable thing right now. Maybe you got in a fight with a friend or loved one. Okay. It happens. Maybe if you can sit with the pain and examine the sensation you’ll be in a better place to work it out with him later on. Maybe you’ve decided you want to start running, but your legs are sore from trying it a couple days ago. Well, first of all, running again is the best way to get rid of the soreness. But maybe try going for a run and seeing what the pain feels like. Is it a sharp, joint pain? Okay, stop running, that’s bad. Is it a diffuse, soft muscle pain? That’s okay. That’s what legs feel like when they work. It’s what our bodies do. Each day, we can find small ways to practice being with discomfort. I’m not suggesting we all become masochists, just that we work on being okay with things being not okay. It’s a practice that gradually makes everything more okay.

Giving Up Porn

Here’s something we never talk about. We need to. This is mostly aimed toward the men out there, but it’s important for women to know as well (and for all I know, female porn addiction could be a thing, too). Our generation is struggling with a pervasive, subtle (or not-so-subtle), and destructive porn addiction. Internet porn has slowly become ubiquitous and accepted as part of our society. So many men watch porn that researchers can’t study it because no control group (i.e. non-consumers) exists. The effects of high-speed access to porn are rarely examined by the user. We just assume that it will continue to be part of our lives.

Here’s the problem: internet porn is terrible for our minds. Here’s a fifteen-minute video that will do a better job describing the science and implications than I can. Watch it. It might be fifteen minutes that change your life. The following is my take on it, and my personal experience of giving up porn.

The basic idea is that having fast, unlimited access to “new mates,” in the form of online porn, trains our brains through dopamine response to become desensitized to real-life experiences and to continually seek novelty. Porn becomes better than sex. It is easily available all the time, so our drive to seek pleasure through meaningful action and fulfilling relationships slowly deteriorates. This is particularly devastating for young brains, as they are establishing some of these habits and sexual expectations for the first time. I feel lucky to be part of the last generation raised without cell phones and instant connectivity.

Not having a cell phone or broadband internet until college may have shielded me from the worst of what porn has to offer, but I haven’t been exempt, either. I’ve been watching porn regularly since sometime in college (and infrequently before that). Although I’ve never gotten to the point of feeling like it was taking over my life, today is probably the first time in a decade I’ve gone a month totally porn-free, aside from when traveling abroad. My conversations and experiences point to this being a fairly common usage pattern among men my age and younger (I’m 30). I know people who have gone much deeper into a porn addiction, and it can truly be just as bad as a drug addiction. But even for those who are not seeking a daily (or multiple times daily) hit, the effects are still there, and porn is making our lives not-quite-as-good as they could be. Sometimes much worse. For years, I’ve felt just slightly detached from my relationships, not particularly drawn to intimacy, and inconsistent in my energy/positivity level. I always feel bad after I watch porn, and I don’t have any positive memories of using it. Talk about a massive waste of time.

About a month ago, I watched a few TED talks (links at the end) on what porn does to the brain, stumbled across a supportive online community, and decided I would try giving up porn and masturbation. In the last month I’ve become more committed to the task, improved my life, and realized that a lot of people are way deeper into the negativity of porn than I was. I have more energy, better focus, and I’m more interested in building all my relationships, whether romantic or not. The not-masturbating part of the transition is really tough (but important, I think, for strengthening the transformation), but I don’t miss porn at all. It turns out all I needed was the accountability of some strangers online to keep me from going back to it. The group I found was on reddit, but there are plenty of others out there if you hate reddit.

I have a lot of women friends who watch porn, and on some level they tend to find it empowering and exciting. Some of them are surprised that I quit porn, as they don’t see it as all that bad. The popularity and acceptance of things like the amateur adult film festival Humpfest attest to this. I’m not saying there isn’t validity to this perspective on porn. I can see how some kinds of porn could encourage personal growth through sexual confidence and ownership, and I can imagine circumstances in which the careful and intentional use of porn could strengthen a relationship. But I believe this interaction is fundamentally different from the typical vicious cycle of use and abuse men have with high-speed internet porn. So women, please be gentle and encouraging if you have male friends who are trying to give up porn.

Men: it’s time to give up porn. Seriously. Try it. You might not think you’re addicted, but then you might also find it impossible to go a week without wandering back to a porn site when you’re feeling bored or lonely. The research is out there. Nobody is going to regulate porn or make it harder to find. The industry is booming. It’s up to each of us individually to say “no,” and to reclaim our sexual energy. Your partner will thank you, and you will thank yourself. Do it now.

Here are some resources that can help:

TED talks:

Setting Yourself Up for Success

Once upon a time I worked at a fairly high-aspiration “green collar” company. We would do all sorts of goofy tests and surveys to discover what kind of leader we were, what kind of motivation we responded to best, and which Hogwarts House we would best fit into (Ravenclaw, but wishing I was Gryffindor). Although most of them didn’t stick, one lesson stayed rooted in my mind. It’s a concrete method for working to achieve a specific goal, or more generally to create the life we want to live. This may not have paid off for the company, as it helped encourage me to leave and pursue a more creative and self-aware life. But I’ve always appreciated it, and I feel that it’s worth sharing.

A bit of internet research reveals that this is also referred to as the “Six Sources of Influence.” It doesn’t seem to be a widely-discussed strategy, but it’s out there if you’d like to find out more about it. Here’s the general idea:



Type Motivation Ability
Personal Learn to enjoy what you’re doing. Practice the skills required to do it well.
Social Surround yourself with people who are excited about what you’re trying to achieve. Spend time with people who are better than you at what you want to do.
Structural Create internal systems and rewards to urge you in the right direction. Build your physical space to encourage you to work on your goals.


I like tables.

Personal Motivation

So easy to say, so hard to achieve. Personal Motivation can be the most elusive piece of the puzzle. It takes concerted effort to develop a love for what we’re doing. We think of inspiration as this beautiful, fleeting thing that hits us in the face and makes us write or paint or whatever for fifteen hours straight. Yeah, right. Maybe once. After the honeymoon phase of any project, love for the subject must be cultivated and nurtured. It’s a relationship. Do we want to have a one-night stand with creativity, or build a long, healthy life with it? We need to appreciate the ups, the downs, and the all-arounds.

Personal Ability

And then there’s the actual work. Practice, practice, practice. Failing over and over again. It’s how we learn, how we improve. This is the everyday, gritty, painfully slow process of chipping away at something barely conceivable. It is putting in the hours even when we forget why we started doing it in the first place, even when the motivation isn’t there. Doing it anyway.

Social Motivation

The social pieces of this process are about the community we surround ourselves with. Social Motivation is finding the people who get us psyched about our projects, either because they’re doing similar work or because they’re avid supporters. Gotta have some cheerleaders. The antithesis of social motivation is that group of people who ask, “Why are you wasting your time on that?” They’re all over the place, and sometimes so subtle in their discouragement. There’s no space for those people in our lives, period.

Social Ability

We learn from doing something over and over, but also by watching other people do it. Our brains are great at mimicking, and at turning visualization into real practice. This happens in rock climbing all the time. I’ll try a route over and over and get stuck in all sorts of different places. Then I’ll watch someone do it flawlessly, and on my next attempt, make it all the way through. Ideally we can surround ourselves with people who are farther along the path we are pursuing. We can learn from their failures as well as our own to progress twice as fast.

Structural Motivation

Structural Motivation is the most subtle aspect of this method. I basically think of it as using psychology to trick ourselves into doing the right thing. Pre-paying for a monthly gym membership is a good example, and has always been a motivator for me. I keep a tight budget, so if I know I’ve already paid for the climbing gym or yoga studio, I’m going to get myself over there as much as I can to take full advantage. Paying as I go, on the other hand, encourages me to save up those passes for the best possible moment, which ultimately means less exercise. Different things motivate different people, though, so it’s important to know yourself and to experiment. Small rewards for accomplishing steps toward a goal can be effective, as can penalties for failure to meet deadlines.

Structural Ability

Structural Ability is such an important aspect for achieving our goals, but it’s one of the easiest to slack on and postpone endlessly. The idea is to create an environment which will allow us to succeed. This includes making the tools we need easily accessible, while keeping distractions out of our work space. One way I could personally do this better right now is with my art supplies. My paints are stored in a box in my closet. It only takes about ten minutes to get them all out and set up, but that’s ten minutes worth of motivation I don’t always have. I could improve my structural ability to paint by setting aside a space that stays relatively set up. Reduce the barriers to entry, basically.

Keeping in mind these six principles, we can maximize our creativity, output, and growth. Each takes intention and work to execute, but the payoff is huge. Of course this can all happen organically, but having the system makes it more concrete, and makes it easier to find our weaknesses. We won’t just magically end up with the life we want to live. We have to build it.