Hey, hey! We’re at the start of another week. I’m still on a nature high after visiting the Grand Canyon this weekend. (In fact, I completely forgot to post this yesterday!)
Have you visited the Grand Canyon? Difficult to put the experience into words. It also happened to be the National Park Service centennial when we went, so it was quite the occasion. Pretty crazy that it has been around for 100 years. As beloved as the parks are, though, they are also threatened. It’s up to all of us to protect them for the next hundred years.
What else interesting happened over the last seven days?
The Hawaii Mars simulation ended Monday. Curious to see what they found out from this.
Hello, friend. Are you enduring a heat wave? 2016 is well on its way to being the hottest year on record, and the 108° forecasted high for today where I live is definitely confirming that. Stay cool, stay safe, stay woke.
So many great Upgrades this week. At least we have that going for us.
For something that takes up about a third of our lives, it’s surprising that sleep is still rather mysterious. It’s not fully clear why we need it the way we need it. There are people who have died from lack of sleep. There are researchers trying to “hack” human biology so that some people–for example, soldiers–are able to function reasonably well for several days at a time without any. And others, including the current GOP presidential nominee, brag about how little sleep they require. Do you have one of those people in your workplace?
We all know what it feels like when we get a really good night of sleep. But it’s not always apparent what led to sleeping so well. Was it the right amount of hours? Going to bed at the right time? Avoiding alcohol and caffeine before going to sleep? Because you were able to sleep in?
Even if we don’t fully understand why we sleep, there are definitely some steps toward improving it.
For starters, four or five hours is probably too little. Ideal hours vary with age, and surely from person to person also. But even for older adults, who require less sleep than children, the bare minimum is probably about 6 hours. Four hours plus three cups of coffee is unlikely to allow for full rest overnight and good brain function during the day–even though it might feel like you’re doing OK. And we’re finding out that it’s actually dangerous to your health to think that you can “catch up” on sleep on the weekend or other days that you can sleep in.
The hours you sleep need to be deep sleep, as you’ve probably figured out. A huge hindrance to that in the age of smartphones is our screen time leading right into bedtime. The lighting of smartphones and other devices actually tricks the brain into thinking it’s daytime–making it harder to fall asleep and achieve restorative, REM sleep. Many people sleep with their phone right next to them, and any kind of sound or vibration doesn’t help either. Smartphones are the epitome of an always on, always connected society. That’s not a friendly condition for achieving good sleep.
Getting the hours on a regular schedule also seems to be especially important. It helps your body lock into a consistent rhythm of waking and sleeping. Alert when you’re usually up; asleep when you’re usually in bed. We need that usually to be as consistent as possible.
So how can you start to put these things together in a practical way?
Try to go to bed and wake up around the same time every day. The rhythm and length are clearly important. As you start to get closer to regular going to sleep and waking up times, think about how your body is responding to the number of hours that you slept. Do you feel better with 7 than with 8? Does it seem like your body might need something more like 9 to be your best? Having regularity will give you a feel for how much sleep is right for you.
Have a ritual when you go to bed. Start working on shutting off phones and other tech a little while before you think you might climb into bed so that your brain can unwind from the screen activity and other stimuli. Make sure your bed is a haven of rest and relaxation: good pillows, regularly cleaned sheets and blankets, good room temperature, and all that. My wife and I have experimented a bit with essential oils and salt lamps, and things like that can definitely help you relax and sink into sleep. There’s an old rule for many that the bed is for sleeping and sex–nothing else. Maybe you need to give that rule a try.
In the morning, don’t hit the snooze button! Time and again, sleep research has shown that this significantly ruins your rest rather than adding to it. Maybe you need to establish a morning ritual too that gives you an enjoyable reason to get out of bed: a tall glass of cool water, making some coffee, climbing in the shower, going for a walk, meditation, whatever. Just don’t grab for your phone right away. It may be tempting, but it’s the wrong kind of engagement with the world when your brain isn’t even fully alert yet.
Are these things easy? Of course not. A night of too much drinking, 2am texts, or stressing about life can easily ruin the best sleep intentions. And going to bed with too few hours before your alarm is set to go off, or sleeping in late on a Saturday, can throw you way out of rhythm–even (or especially) if you had rhythm for several days beforehand.
But intention is an important place to start. This week, see if you can get your bedtimes and waking times to occur around the same hour or two each day. Maybe one night you go sleep at 10:30pm, and the next, 12:15am. Then you can work on narrowing it to something like between 11pm-12am every night. That’s better than 10pm some nights and 3am others.
I’ve found that I feel pretty great with about 7 hours of sleep–around 11pm to 6am. Give me a nice cup of coffee at 7:30ish when I’ve been up for a bit, and I feel ready to tackle most anything the day can throw at me.
Because even if we don’t fully understand sleep yet, you’re going to spend a third of your life doing it and the other two-thirds either buoyant or in agony based on how you spent the sleeping third. You might as well try to get some good sleep. You deserve it.
Do you ever feel like you want to hide because you can’t stand other people?
My wife has a t-shirt that cracks me up every time she wears it. Across the front reads:
All I care about is coffee and like two people.
Hyperbolic, obviously. But the exaggeration that makes it hilarious is based on a relatable truth. Sometimes we long to retreat to a bubble of comfort and intimacy to protect us from the barrage of inhumanity we feel from others. It can be overwhelming.
Because, let’s face it, default human nature is not particularly benevolent. Most of us, the majority of the time, will choose the path of least resistance, and the unevolved parts of our humanity are in full force. Self-centeredness. Power plays. Laziness. Stealing credit, ideas, or property. Excessive rationalizing. Subtle lies. Stereotyping. I’m sure you could name several other qualities you’ve experienced–even in just the last few days.
Does anyone think these things are good? Not unless they’re wrong in the head. But it takes effort to move beyond our basic nature as human beings, and so more often than not we don’t. It seems too demanding. It feels like others don’t really deserve it. It doesn’t seem like anyone else is trying, so why should you? In a world of the default, it feels natural to want to protect yourself from the cuts and bruises. With certain destructive people or situations, you definitely need to.
Expecting things from others before you give them, though, is also part of our raw nature as people. A quid pro quo community is not a very enlightened one. We know the bar can be set higher, and that we could probably reach or exceed that bar if we actually tried. If we want to receive more enlightened, mature actions from other people, we might have to be the ones to make the first move. There’s a reason a quote like, “be the change you want to see in the world,” or variations of the golden rule–”treat others how you wish to be treated”–show up all over the place, even if they seem cliche. In every time and place, new ways of bothering and hurting other people emerge. There is an endless opportunity to try to be a better person yourself and hopefully elevate others around you because of it.
Is that a guaranteed response? Of course not. People will still steal your lunch out of the fridge, or inexplicably try to make you look weak or unintelligent, or fail to do something when you had hoped they would. But the intriguing challenge to climb to a second nature–a better human nature–is always there. It’s one you learn and develop; not the one that comes easy or instinctual.
There is a rewarding, transformative way of being human that you can grow into if you try. I think deep down most of us know it’s the journey we’re all meant to take. A cultivation of empathy, patience, humility, generosity, cooperation, honesty, and much more. It’s just that it can be a painful one personally so we’re discouraged or avoidant.
Sometimes we really do need a cup of coffee and the two people we like. But it’s precisely because that affectionate, core experience reminds us that there is a better way of being human in the world. That it is possible and meaningful even if it’s uncommon. And that the comfort and reinvigoration at the center of our lives are there so we can step out again amongst everyone else and try to expand the circle.
Maybe this is the week someone–perhaps someone unexpected–becomes the literal or figurative third person you like. Or, at least, a person that you intentionally try to get to know better instead of playing tit-for-tat games with.
May you now and going forward strive to be the person of your better nature.
It would not be surprising to find out that for most people busy has replaced good as the auto-response to a How are you?
All 168 hours in the week may not actually be blocked out with schedule commitments in your smartphone calendar, but it certainly feels that way sometimes. Some of that is surely the acceleration of life that unprecedented technological innovation has enabled. Until recently, we didn’t have to worry about things like creating laws about email cutoff times to prevent people from barraging each other with messages late into the night. Workdays had clean boundaries.
Some of the busyness may be purposefully self-inflicted. A number of artists and academics have wondered if we try to preoccupy ourselves with busyness to avoid confronting feelings of emptiness, mortality, or meaningless. Even if we know it’s exhausting or stressful, busyness is better than nothingness.
The problem is that busyness for busyness’ sake is just a different kind of meaninglessness: spinning your wheels instead of being parked and paralyzed. In its best form, we’re busy because we’re engaged in activity that’s worth doing. Work we love. Learning a new hobby. Training for a marathon. Cooking for the family.
But the good kind of busy, worthwhile activity, is still only half of a flourishing way of life. The other half is rest and disengagement. The most basic form, of course, is sleep. This is not a biological complication in need of a technical fix to eliminate it. Sleep is essential to our ability to function properly during waking hours. Yet many of us wear a badge of honor proudly proclaiming how few hours of sleep we think we can get by on. Even then, we shoot ourselves in the foot in the race to REM sleep by gluing our eyes to blue-screened devices (blue = clear skies of the daytime = be awake, brain!) right up until we lay our head down on the pillow. During the day, our bodies work hard to maintain periods of stable energy and then let us know when they need rest, but we hijack that cycle by consuming all sorts of uppers and downers: coffee, tea, energy drinks, supplements; cocktails, beer, wine, sleeping meds, and the like. Most of us can’t hear our bodies telling us when we can be exerting and when we should rest.
Activity and rest are the most fundamental set of complements of a well-rounded life. We need engagement, risk, and sweat; and we need disconnection, mindfulness, and sleep. If we’re primarily just one or the other our lives get out of sorts. Just activity: exhaustion and bewildering bustle. Just inactivity: melancholy, occasional self-loathing, and extra pounds of bodyweight.
There are several other complements that flow out of the foundation of activity and rest. Exercise and recovery. Work and time-off. Socialization and solitude. Teaching and learning. Being in the city and being in nature. Self-critique and self-love. And many others.
These are not antagonistic binaries. Rather, there’s a sliding scale for each set of complements from one to the other. So if purely active is the left edge of the active/rest scale, purely restful is on the opposite end. Since binaries, scale, and purely this or that probably reads like a whole lot of jibjab, take a look at it visually.
Depending on what’s going on in your life and the time of the day, you’re likely closer to one or the other end. If you’re purely active, you’re probably not reading this because you’re too busy and about to pass out from exhaustion. If you’re purely restful, you also are likely not reading this because you’re in deep sleep. The rest of us are somewhere a bit left of center (middle of the workday, in the midst of a workout) or somewhere a bit right of center (streaming a movie, browsing through cake blogs).
Life feels chaotic whenever we’ve been too far to one side for too long.
Because we don’t swiftly jump back and forth between really active and really restful like alternating electric current. It takes a while for your body to recover from a long day of work or other strenuous activity. You’re trying to mellow out, pick up carryout for dinner, and go put sweatpants on, but you’ve still got adrenaline and cortisol flowing and a high-strung mind. Your body is still active when you’ve hit a time to rest. It takes a little while to slide over on the scale.
The middle of the scale is the goal. It’s balance; well-being; stability and contentment. To find that balance requires rhythm. Rhythm is understanding where you’re lodged on the scale and what you need to do to bring you closer to the center. If you’re off-center to one side, you need the contrast of the other side. If you’re in a state of hyperactivity you need an equivalent form of rest. It’s like counterweights. Or better: like the dials on a stereo or equalizer in a music app. If there’s too much bass in a song, you turn the dial to increase the treble to compensate. If your life has too much bass (and let’s be honest, we were a little too all about that bass, no treble for a while, there) you need to counterbalance to bring things into equilibrium.
This is true for any of the complementary pairs that contribute to your well-being. Too much exercise: you need recuperative things. Too much work: you need a vacation or a staycation. Too much socialization: you need some solitude. Too much city: get out in the woods. Too much teaching and leading other people: crack open a book in a quiet place to learn something new for yourself. Too much self-critique: do things that encourage self-love. Too much connecting: time for a bit of digital detox. And, of course, they can all overlap and interconnect. Some need to counterbalance this way, some that. If you’ve been in a downtown workplace completing work on a smartphone (too much work, connection, and solitude), you should get out and go for a hike with some friends (out in the woods, digital detox, socialization).
On an average day, it’s easy to get caught up in one thing after the next. You drop off your significant other. Work gives you a handful of surprises to resolve. You realize it’s 3 hours past lunchtime so you stop at a sandwich chain or a convenience store. Life just kind of happens to you, and you set the alarm to get up and do it again tomorrow. But when you consider where you’re at on the different scales, you can start making a day or a week happen with some design. You start living with some intentionality, the way that will help you feel balanced and well. Finding rhythm gives you a gameplan, a beat, a flow. It gives you a guide for the thing or kinds of things you should do next—and after that, and after that.
This means that most things we might do on a regular day aren’t inherently bad, but they might be bad for you in that particular moment because of where you’re at on the scale. They’re not a counterbalance right now: they’re a chaos catalyst. If you had a cheeseburger and soda for lunch, and then have fried chicken and a few beers for dinner, you’re going to put your digestion and energy out of whack. You want to think about something lighter for dinner (can’t go wrong with some pho). But if you’ve been eating light all week, maybe it’s a good night to treat yourself to a bit of comfort food. Fried chicken and beer isn’t evil—it’s just indulgent—and you might be self-sabotaging if you’re already well into the comfort food side of the scale instead of the health-conscious one.
Nobody’s going to be a flawless balancer. If we all were perfectly in the middle of each of life’s scales, unicorns and rainbows would probably spontaneously appear. But they don’t, and we’re not. It’s OK. Remember, there’s a self-critical/self-love scale to try to keep balanced too.
If we’re at least trying to find rhythm there’s a good chance that we actually will a lot of the time, and we’re going to have some real well-being and contentment because of it. That’s a lot better than busying ourselves into the meaningless chaos we were hoping to avoid.
Human beings treat most of life as if “the way things are” was inevitable, and that it can be expected to endure. When we go to sleep, we should be able to wake up the next day and take a long, hot shower, whip together a few organic items for breakfast, commute about town in a trendy vehicle filled with a tank of reasonably priced gas, pick up a quick, well-made latte on the way to work, and settle into our workplace–a climate-controlled environment replete with all sorts of technology we want to use to complete the tasks at hand. And that’s just the basics of everyday life.
Thanks to “progress,” we have a whole spectrum of innovations and comforts that have made our lives easier, faster, more convenient, and more predictable. The way things are now seem like the way they were alway meant to be, and tomorrow will bring more of the same–or better. We’re on the upslope to the (really) good life–thanks in large part to more “stuff” and more manipulation of the world around us to achieve the ends we desire. “We can drill way down into these shales for natural gas and be energy-independent!” “We can brew up great coffee at home on a Keurig, skip the coffeeshop, and save time and money!” “I can stream Game of Thrones on my smartphone way out here in the woods!” And all of that. It’s been a pretty great setup for a while, and feels exactly like the kind of pleasant, ideal path humans were meant to tread. I enjoy many of modern life’s great comforts myself: I’m typing this on a tablet, connected wirelessly to happenings across the world via WI-FI, and sipping great coffee recently shipped over from a country thousands of miles away.
The thing about the inevitability, and the expectation, and the comfort, and the predictability, is that as much as it feels like things are supposed to always be this way, it’s only been so for a relatively short amount of time. We, and our planet, have never known what it would be like for human beings to be able to explore, and dig, and reconfigure, and use just about anything, anywhere, for years and years of time. In recent decades, we’ve had our eyes focused a little more carefully, our ears to the ground, and some of the devices we’ve constructed out and about collecting data to try to understand how the world we are manipulating–which is also the environment in which we live–is changing in response to our dominion. We’re finding out, rather unsurprisingly, that its servitude has led it into a dilapidated state that’s in stark contrast to our perceived “progress.”
If you’ve followed the news in the past several weeks, you’ve likely heard about both the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and the White House reports on the status of our planet and its climate, and watched the ensuing–often partisan–furor. The news wasn’t good. If you were open to the notion that the planet is changing in a dramatically negative way–particularly in ways less hospitable to people living on it–they were a fresh reminder that the hot shower-gasoline-Keurig-smartphone dream is actually taxing our world ecosystem in unsustainable ways. If you were unsure or doubtful about an (anthropogenic) changing climate–especially because those with political views you can’t get on board with won’t stop talking about it–these reports and the ensuing activism likely only exacerbated your doubt and irritation.
The problem is that those who actually research such things professionally have had near one-hundred percent unanimity about a human-caused changing climate, in a negative direction, for years now, while the opinion of the general public is that things are probably A-OK on the whole. Or if our opinions are otherwise, we’re tacitly accepting the unsustainable status quo the majority of the time with our action and inaction.
What will it take for us to be shaken out of our expectations-filled, denialist/avoidance slumber? What thing will be the splash of cold water that gets us to jump out of bed and alter the harsh dominion we have held? Will it be when good coffee disappears, potentially later this century, because the growing regions of the world no longer support the plant or climate-change-friendly fungus destroys everyone’s crop? Perhaps we’re willing to settle for much less delicious hybrid varietals of coffee bean, or some other drink altogether–thought tea and cocoa aren’t expected to fare well either.
Will it be a couple of decades straight of debilitating drought in places like California, where I live–resulting in overwhelming water shortages, intolerable heat, and the complete loss of one of the country’s major food-growing regions?
Why is it human nature to wait until it’s too late or too close to home before we actually do something about the challenges before us–especially when we’ve caused them in the first place?
The earth will likely go on just fine long after the planet no longer supports human life at all. It might take a new age or era of time to stabilize from the ways we’ve messed things up, but the world should go on clicking for millions or billions of years pleasantly without any people around. We are not inevitable.
It’s our own future as people who can live and flourish on this planet that is in the balance, and in our power to control toward either a sad end or a different kind of progressive future. And it’s not just the future of generations after us–it’s the future of how we will live, struggle to live, or be overcome as the earth continues to change in our own lifetimes. The most urgent change we need to make is with energy. Fossil fuels, which took hundreds of millions of years to develop, are being culled and combusted in a matter of decades–contributing to an exponential increase in the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is driving the changing climate. Natural gas, a recent darling, is an imposter of an alternative. A quick watch of Gasland, despite its rather propogandic ethos, makes that quite clear.
But before we can make large sweeps in energy policy, we have to get everyone to even agree that the climate is changing in troubling ways. Maybe it needs to be selfishly personal: coffee, maple syrup, drinking water, local air quality, whatever. Find something the skeptic and the complacent will be compelled by. And then, when the furor is a more united voice gaining volume and influence, we have to convince the economic powers in the energy sector to do what is, for them, unthinkable: leave the fuels in the ground. There’s more there to burn than can run out before it’s too late for the climate. But we’re culpable in that too.
Michael Pollan, professor of journalism at the University of California-Berkeley, has famously reiterated with regard to food that we get to place “a vote with our fork” of what we want the food industry and food policy to look like. If we stop buying certain things altogether then there will no longer be a market for those things that aren’t getting purchased. The less we all use anything powered or shipped by means of fossil fuel, the smaller the industry will be. It costs energy corporations $1.8 billion daily just to explore for new sources; it’s doubtful they’d continue if there is no longer a future for them.
While we pursue meaningful energy change on a worldwide scale, it’s up to us all locally to decide each and every day the kinds of things we want to support with our purchase, consumption, and use, and the kinds of things we wish and need to disappear. They will if we all stop supporting them. Life as we know it will disappear if we don’t.
“Because a thing is going strong now, it need not go on forever…This craze for motion has only set in during the last hundred years. It may be followed by a civilization that won’t be a movement, because it will rest upon the earth.” (E.M. Forster, Howards End)