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Reading is useless

I like this post by graduate student Beck Tench. Reading is useless, she says, in the same way that meditation is useless. It’s for its own sake, not for something else.

When I titled this post “reading is useless,” I was referring to a Zen saying that goes, “Meditation is useless.” It means that you meditate to meditate, not to use it for something. And like the saying, I’m being provocative. Of course reading is not useless. We read in useful ways all the time and for good reason. Reading expands our horizons, it helps us understand things, it complicates, it validates, it clarifies. There’s nothing wrong with reading (or meditating for that matter) with a goal in mind, but maybe there is something wrong if we feel we can’t read unless it’s good for something.

This quarter’s experiment was an effort to allow myself space to “read to read,” nothing more and certainly nothing less. With more time and fewer expectations, I realized that so much happens while I read, the most important of which are the moments and hours of my life. I am smelling, hearing, seeing, feeling, even tasting. What I read takes up place in my thoughts, yes, and also in my heart and bones. My body, which includes my brain, reads along with me and holds the ideas I encounter.

This suggests to me that reading isn’t just about knowing in an intellectual way, it’s also about holding what I read. The things I read this quarter were held by my body, my dreams, my conversations with others, my drawings and journal entries. I mean holding in an active way, like holding something in your hands in front of you. It takes endurance and patience to actively hold something for very long. As scholars, we need to cultivate patience and endurance for what we read. We need to hold it without doing something with it right away, without having to know.

Source: Reading is Useless: A 10-Week Experiment in Contemplative Reading | Beck Tench

The cost of a thing is the amount of life which is required to be exchanged for it

This article in The Atlantic by Alan Lightman points out how biophilic we have been historically as a species, and how that’s changed only recently.

None of this, of course, helps with the climate emergency and the concomitant biodiversity collapse. I read the WEF Global Risks Report for 2022 and, well, I’ve read more hopeful documents.

Distorted image of nature (by Nico Krijno

Most of the minutes and hours of each day we spend in temperature-controlled structures of wood, concrete, and steel. With all of its success, our technology has greatly diminished our direct experience with nature. We live mediated lives. We have created a natureless world.

It was not always this way. For more than 99 percent of our history as humans, we lived close to nature. We lived in the open. The first house with a roof appeared only 5,000 years ago. Television less than a century ago. Internet-connected phones only about 30 years ago. Over the large majority of our 2-million-year evolutionary history, Darwinian forces molded our brains to find kinship with nature, what the biologist E. O. Wilson called “biophilia.” That kinship had survival benefit. Habitat selection, foraging for food, reading the signs of upcoming storms all would have favored a deep affinity with nature. Social psychologists have documented that such sensitivities are still present in our psyches today. Further psychological and physiological studies have shown that more time spent in nature increases happiness and well-being; less time increases stress and anxiety. Thus, there is a profound disconnect between the natureless environment we have created and the “natural” affections of our minds. In effect, we live in two worlds: a world in close contact with nature, buried deep in our ancestral brains, and a natureless world of the digital screen and constructed environment, fashioned from our technology and intellectual achievements. We are at war with our ancestral selves. The cost of this war is only now becoming apparent.


I am not so naive as to think that the careening technologization of the modern world will stop or even slow down. But I do think that we need to be more mindful of what this technology has cost us and the vital importance of direct experiences with nature. And by “cost,” I mean what Henry David Thoreau meant in Walden: “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” The new technology in Thoreau’s day was the railroad, which he feared was overtaking life. Thoreau’s concern was updated by the literary critic and historian of technology Leo Marx in his 1964 book, The Machine in the Garden. That book describes the way in which pastoral life in America was interrupted by the technology and industrialization of the 19th and 20th centuries. Marx could not have imagined the internet and the smartphone, which arrived only a few decades later. And now I worry about the promise of an all-encompassing virtual world called the “metaverse,” and the Silicon Valley arms race to build it.  Again, it is not the technology itself that should concern us. It is how we use that technology, in balance with the rest of our lives.

Source: This Is No Way to Be Human – The Atlantic

Matching work activities to mind modes

This by Jakob Greenfeld reminds me of Buster Benson’s evergreen post Live like a hydra — especially the sub-section ‘Seven modes (for seven heads)’.

Of course, you can’t always be driven by what mood you happen to be in. Sometimes, you have to change things up to ensure that your mood changes. But hey, all bets are off during a pandemic, right?

I recently discovered a simple step-by-step process that significantly increased my personal productivity and made me happier along the way.

It costs $0 and no, it’s not some note-taking or to-do list system.

In short:

Step 1: develop meta-awareness of your state of mind.

Step 2: pattern-match to identify your mind’s most common modes.

Step 3: learn to pick activities that match each mode.

Source: Effortless personal productivity (or how I learned to love my monkey mind) – Jakob Greenfeld