Reducing the Stress of Writing: Allow for Three Kinds of Time

Kenneth Atchity’s A Writer’s Time: Making the Time to Write is a classic that changed the way I work. The book is crammed with insights that can reduce the angst that plagues writers.

One is the concept that not all writing time is created equal. In fact, there are three distinct phases of any writing project:

  • First Time
  • Middle Time
  • End Time

Each phase comes with its own dynamics. And woe to the writers who gloss over them. For they shall suffer needlessly.

First Time

First Time — beginning a writing project — is the toughest. This is your initial confrontation with an idea, which can feel as hard and humiliating as learning a new dance.

Your first attempts to wrestle words on to the page call for intense effort. If you find yourself staring at a blank screen for 30 minutes or feel like checking your email every few seconds, this is normal.

Atchity offers two solutions:

  • Allow for First Time. When scheduling a writing project, give up the expectation that you’re going to produce an equal number of words every day. The first two pages will take more time—and more sweating—than any other two.
  • Eliminate First Time. That is, don’t start at the beginning of your outline. Dive into the middle the story, or the end, or anywhere else that beckons you. This is like walking in to the shallow end of the pool before you start swimming laps in the deep water.

Middle Time

Middle Time is characterized by exhaustion. This is no surprise. You’re plodding through scenes or sections, one at a time. You feel that you’ll never each the end.

Solution: Vacations. As many as you can squeeze in, given the realities of your project schedule.

Vacations don’t have to be long. They can be mini-breaks. For example, don’t plan to write every day. Take weekends off.

End Time

End Time is marked by high energy and urgency. The words do more than flow on to the page—they flood all over the place. You find yourself pouring out a page per minute and know that there’s a lot more to come.

Solution: Allow for End Time. Clear your calendar. Eliminate distractions. Go some place with no Internet access and no interruptions. Then write until you drop.

Some people use procrastination for this purpose. They don’t start an article until the day before it’s due. “I don’t do my best writing under deadline,” a journalist friend told me. “I do my only writing under deadline.” That’s End Time.

Please experiment with this notion of the three writing times and let me know how it works for you.

Helping Readers Succeed at Behavior Change: What Writers Need to Know

Many business, self-help, and “how-to” books have a single purpose: guiding readers to life-changing insights and lasting behavior change.

This usually means giving instructions for acquiring a skill — for example, reducing stress, responding constructively to an unhealthy craving, or speaking assertively.

If you plan to write such a book, then this post is for you. It summarizes my key take aways from three decades of experience in this genre.

Writing for the whole person

The challenge as we write instructions is to appeal to the whole person — our human capacities to think, feel, and take action.

Besides knowing what to do, readers want to know why they’re doing it and how to start. When our writing touches people on all these levels — instruction, insight, and next action — our odds for success improve.

Following is a guide for doing this. I’ve used these ideas to create workbooks on a variety of topics. However, you can apply many of the following suggestions to creating instructions in other media as well.

Embed your main topics in a table of contents

State the purpose of your book in one sentence. For example: The purpose of this book is to help readers double their productivity by doing a regular weekly review of their current projects.

Restate your purpose as your “big question”: How can readers double their productivity by doing a regular weekly review of their current projects?

Next, list smaller questions implied by the big question:

  • What is productivity?
  • How do we measure productivity?
  • What is a weekly review?
  • How does a weekly review boost productivity?
  • How can I build the habit of doing a regular weekly review?

Finally, arrange your questions in a logical order and restate them as chapter headings:

  • Chapter 1. A Definition of Productivity
  • Chapter 2. How We Measure Productivity
  • Chapter 3. What a Weekly Review Includes
  • Chapter 4. How a Weekly Review Boosts Productivity
  • Chapter 5. Making Your Weekly Review a Habit

Limit chapter content

Don’t overwhelm your readers. Limit each chapter to a handful of key points. To make them obvious, include points as subheadings within chapters.

Remember that divisions — chapters and subheadings within chapters — allow readers to take breaks between major chunks of content and enjoy a sense of accomplishment as they progress through your material.

Start with an engaging introduction

Begin with an introduction that briefly describes:

  • Pain points experienced by your readers
  • A better future that is possible for them
  • How the content of your book can help readers create that future
  • Why the author is qualified to write this book

Create clear chapter structures

Make sure that each chapter includes:

  • A preview of what’s included
  • Clear transitions between sections
  • Summaries at the end of each section and the end of the chapter

Also flag the key points in each chapter with design elements such as:

  • Boldface headings
  • Lists
  • Charts, tables, and diagrams
  • Illustrations, photos, and cartoons
  • Icons that signal major points and recurring elements
  • White space between sections

For more ideas, see this post by Francis Miller.

Illustrate key points with examples

Immediately follow each new point with at least one example and prompt to practice. Include non-examples as well — errors in applying a concept or performing a skill.

For a complex skill with many phases or steps, include running examples and one long example at the end of a chapter to demonstrate the whole process.

Include effective stories

Turn some of your examples into stories, remembering the power of stories to entertain, inspire, engage emotions, and make your material relevant to readers.

The best stories include the elements of good fiction — compelling characters, realistic events, authentic dialogue, and gritty details. This does not mean that you have to become a novelist. Just remember to:

  • Write stories in present tense and first person.
  • Use real-life examples and verbatim dialogue in your stories whenever possible.
  • Avoid stories that are flat, simplistic, sanitized, jargon-laden, or thinly veiled lectures.
  • Avoid stories that are too complex or contradictory to support your key points.
  • Alternate brief anecdotes with longer stories that reflect a variety of situations and continuing events in a character’s life.
  • Structure longer stories around key characters who reappear at various times to reinforce key points.

If possible, offer stories in several media — text, audio, and video.

Include prompts to practice new skills

Invite readers to immediately apply what they read. You have many options here:

  • Ask readers to restate the key points in a chapter and provide relevant examples from their own lives.
  • Present summary case studies — stories that demonstrate how a process works, followed by questions that direct readers to the key points.
  • Present problem case studies — stories that leave the main character with a problem to solve, followed by questions that invite readers to suggest solutions.
  • Offer sentence completion exercises that prompt readers to restate key points, offer examples, and plan their next steps.
  • Provide checklists that include your key points and specific ways to apply them.
  • Provide scripts for what to say or do in specific circumstances — for example, how to defuse conflict with “I” statements.
  • Guide readers to create their own scripts for behavior change, such as Tiny Habits.
  • Suggest that readers rehearse their scripts in the presence of other people (peers, instructors, counselors, mentors) and get immediate feedback on their performance.
  • Suggest that readers practice a new behavior, observe the outcomes, and share their insights with another person.
  • Help readers troubleshoot their behavior plans by listing potential problems and ways to solve them.

Above all, remind your audience to act as scientists who carry out experiments and collect data without self-judgment. Encourage readers to plan specific behavior changes, act on those plans, and simply notice what works and what does not.

End with a call to action

Summarize your book with a checklist of key points. Then issue a call to action that explains what readers can do immediately after finishing your book. Finally, point readers to more resources on your topic.

Keep your conclusion brief. Don’t introduce any new content at this point.

Revise for completeness and concision

Review your material to make sure that all the key points are:

  • Previewed
  • Made obvious to the reader
  • Illustrated with examples
  • Summarized
  • Followed by prompts to practice

At the same time, be alert for material that you can leave out. Many drafts can be improved simply by making them shorter. Save anything that you cut for possible use in the future.

Revise for clarity

Use a vocabulary that’s already familiar to your audience. Cut unnecessary technical terms and jargon.

Write many simple sentences with a subject-verb-object structure and a minimum of internal punctuation. Arrange sentences into concise paragraphs that start with a clear topic sentence, focus on one idea, and move from general to specific.

Express each action step in specific and concrete language. Describe visible, physical behaviors that readers can actually do in daily life.

Revise for authenticity

Write with an informal style, including contractions and any slang that will engage readers.

Review examples and stories to make sure that they demonstrate key points and “ring true” with readers. If you discover any motivational pep talks that ramp up enthusiasm in a phony way, delete them.

Be careful about quoting experts in support of your ideas. A certain amount of this supports your credibility. But too much can lead readers to distrust your instructions as too academic and removed from “real life.”

Write to the reader in second person, as you — except when it might come across as confrontational. In general, avoid references to yourself. If you do refer to yourself, do so in the first person, as I.

Revise for consistency

If you’re creating instructions in several media — print, audio, video, online — then create a style guide to ensure consistent content, structure, terminology, voice, and design across the entire program.

Bottom Line

Whenever possible, test your draft by asking members of your target audience to use it and give their feedback. Then keep revising until you can answer yes to this question:

Will my readers — with their current knowledge, attitudes, and skills — be able to carry out my instructions and achieve the intended outcomes?

Writing for Insight and Behavior Change — Nathaniel Branden on the Joys of Sentence Completion

Sentence completion is a practice that can supercharge your journal writing. Use this tool to prompt reflections that surprise you and support positive change in your life.

Begin with an incomplete sentence (stem) that begs for completion. Consider these examples from psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden:

  • To me, self-responsibility means…
  • When I look at what I do to impress people…
  • Sometimes I keep myself passive when I…
  • Sometimes I make myself helpless when I…
  • If I want to grow in independence, I will need to…
  • It is slowly and reluctantly dawning on me that…

When done well, sentence completion encourages you to bypass your internal censors and express pre-conscious thoughts and feelings. Sentence completion can also help you turn vague intentions into concrete plans.

Ideas for sentence stems

Branden offers two 30-week sets of sentence completion exercises. Part one is here, and part two is here.

Of course, you have many other options.

One is to create sentence stems based on the theory of implementation intentions. These intentions pair an environmental cue with a specific future behavior. For example: “When I get my paycheck, I will deposit 10 percent of it in my savings account.”

Use the following sentence structure — which includes two stems — to create implementation intentions:

When… I will….

Another option is to create sentences that prompt Tiny Habits. This is a strategy for behavior change based on the work of BJ Fogg at Stanford University.

A Tiny Habit links a specific cue with a “baby step” — a new behavior that requires:

  • No more than 30 seconds
  • No new ability
  • No motivation.

For example: “After I walk in the door from work, I will hug my wife.”

So, the stem sentence structure for a Tiny Habit is:

After I… I will….

Getting the most benefit

Branden suggests the following ways to create more value from sentence completion:

Focus on a small number of stems each week. Complete the same sentence stems each day, Monday through Friday. Keep the number of stems limited.

Copy the stems to a personal journal. The goal is to build a written record of your responses so that you can review them at the end of the week. Every day, copy the sentence stems into your paper-based journal or a document on your computer. Leave space beneath each stem for writing. Then write 6 to 10 endings directly below each sentence stem.

Write your sentence completions early in the day. Whenever possible, do them in the morning before you start the day’s business.

Complete sentence stems quickly — without stopping to revise. If the day’s writing takes more than 10 minutes, Branden notes, then you are censoring yourself or overthinking it. Remember that sentences don’t have to be profound. Your aim is simply to expand each stem into grammatically complete sentence. If your mind goes blank, just invent any ending.

Fresh start each day’s writing. Do not read the sentences you wrote on a previous day. Repetitions from day to day are no problem.

Observe the effects of writing. After your 10 minutes or so of writing each day, go ahead with your planned activities. Notice any changes in your thinking, emotions, or behavior that seem to follow from sentence completion.

During the weekend, sum up the week’s writing. Review your sentence completions, looking for themes and major insights. Then write at least 6 endings for this stem: If any of what I wrote this week is true, it might be helpful if I…

See for yourself

Branden makes big claims for this form of writing practice:

Doing sentence completion on a daily basis as described here is a kind of psychological discipline, a spiritual practice, even, that over time achieves insight, integration, and spontaneous behavior change. People sometimes ask, “How do I integrate the things I am learning in sentence completion?” The answer is that practice itself, done repetitively, brings about the integration.

I invite you to test these statements by doing sentence completion for yourself. At the very least, you’ll gain a way to get unblocked when you open your journal to a fresh page.

Robert Pirsig on Coming to Terms With the Death of His Son

Robert Pirsig wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a seminal book for me and hordes of other people in my generation. I reread it every 10 years, and each time it speaks to me in a new way.

In 2017, when I heard that Robert died, I remembered an essay of his — “Looking Ahead at the Past” (New York Times Book Review, March 4, 1984). It begins with the most heart-breaking sentence that a parent could ever write:

Chris, my son, is dead.

Chris was murdered in San Francisco on the evening of Nov, 17, 1979 as he left the San Francisco Zen Center. According to witnesses, Chris was robbed and then stabbed by two strangers near the corner of Haight and Octavia streets. He died shortly after the assault.

“I go on living, more from force of habit than anything else,” Robert wrote, recalling that the murder happened just two weeks before Chris’s 23rd birthday.

Robert packed Chris’s things into a truck and drove them to Minnesota to be stored at his grandfather’s house. On the way, Robert became obsessed with philosophical questions — just as he did during the earlier motorcycle trip with Chris that’s described in Zen.

Robert’s original obsession was: What is quality? But after his son died, the question changed: Where did Chris go?

He had bought an airline ticket that morning. He had a bank account, drawers full of clothes and shelves full of books. He was a real, live person, occupying time and space on this planet, and now suddenly where was he gone to? Did he go up the smoke stack at the crematorium? Was he in the little box of bones they handed back? Was he strumming a harp of gold on some overhead cloud? None of these answers made any sense.

Eventually Robert received an answer:

What had to be seen was that the Chris I missed so badly was not an object but a pattern and that, although the pattern included the flesh and blood of Chris, that was not all there was to it. The pattern was larger than Chris and myself and related to us in ways that neither of us understood completely and neither of us was in complete control of.

The experience of being a parent has helped me to understand this.

The people who care for a child on a daily basis find themselves engaged in predictable patterns of behavior. It starts with the daily realities of infant care —changing diapers, feeding, dressing, and the like.

As the child grows up, the patterns of caregiving behaviors change, of course. But at every stage of development the child is an object of attention and affection.

A child’s death tears a huge hole in the center of all that. And the people who loved the child become desperate to fill that hole. They long for someone who can become a new object of love. They long for someone who can once again become the center of their caregiving patterns.

Metaphorically speaking, we can describe that hole in center of the pattern as the “spirit” of the dead child. It is something invisible and real that remains behind and waits for a new body to enter.

Shortly after Chris’s death, Robert’s wife became pregnant. It was unexpected. Robert was in his 50s and felt strongly at first that he did not want to become a parent once again.

But one day he stopped and realized something about the pregnancy: “It was the larger pattern of Chris, making itself known at last.”

Robert and his wife decided to go ahead and have the child, whom they named Nell. In her they felt the spirit of Chris:

This time he’s a little girl named Nell, and our life is back in perspective again. The hole in the pattern is being mended. A thousand memories of Chris will always be at hand, of course, but not a destructive clinging to some material entity that can never be here again….

What is seen now so much more clearly is that, although the names keep changing and the bodies keep changing, the larger pattern that holds us all together goes on and on.

Robert reminds us of a perennial insight from the world’s spiritual traditions: In the midst of everything that changes, there’s a center.

I don’t know whether this perspective can comfort anyone else who’s lost a child. But I offer it for your consideration.

How Not to be a Self-Centered Jerk: David Foster Wallace on Metacognition

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

So begins David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2005.

This speech got a lot of online buzz shortly after Wallace delivered it. Recently I stumbled across it and was pleasantly surprised: Wallace says something here that’s timeless.

His main point: Many things worth thinking about are invisible to us, as water is to fish.

I doubt that Wallace set out to write a “self-help” speech. Yet that’s exactly what he did — if by self-help we include making the effort to examine our assumptions in ways that reduce suffering.

One of our primary challenges is to question three unconscious beliefs that seem to be hard-wired into us:

  • I am the center of the universe.
  • Everything that happens is ultimately about me.
  • Everything that happens should satisfy my wants and needs first of all.

As Wallace says:

Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Like the Buddha, Wallace argues that this natural lens of self-centeredness leads us to needless and near constant suffering.

In a speech at a prestigious liberal arts college, Wallace could have wandered next into an abstract and purely academic discussion. He didn’t.

Instead, he reveals a homely secret to the robed and newly graduated students seated before him: Much of adult life involves dealing with petty frustrations such as traffic jams, crowded parking lots, and long checkout lines at the grocery store.

In situations such as these, one thing that can send us straight to an internal hell is our thinking:

What happens, for instance, if I regress to my default belief that I am the center of the universe? Then the primary fact about the traffic jam or crowded parking lot or long line is that it inconveniences me. This leads inevitably to anger that everyone else is in my way. And that is both an injustice and a tragedy.

In any moment, however, we have another option. We can stand back from our habitual internal monologue, examine it, and even choose different thoughts. This is the essence of metacognition — thinking about our thinking.

Wallace explains how to use metacognition during a traffic jam:

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

The punch line of Wallace’s speech is that metacognition is the whole point of a liberal education:

… learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

When we do exercise this kind of choice, every little frustration becomes a chance to drop a dose of compassion into our collective consciousness.

After all, it’s not all about me. You and I are in this together. And if we choose, we can be a little kinder to each other.

It all stems from the way we think.

Wallace’s commencement speech was published as This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.

Crap-Detecting Self-Help Books: What to Avoid, Who to Trust

Self-help books have a lousy reputation. Dwight Garner — a critic for the New York Times Book Review — said it well after forcing himself to consume several of them:

These books are padded. The vital information in all three, about 900 pages combined, could be edited down and tattooed on my palm. They’re jargony and slogany. None made me laugh, or even smile.

Philosopher Alain de Botton acknowledges this:

There is no more ridiculed genre than the self-help book. Intellectually-minded people universally scorn the idea of them. Self-help books don’t appear on reading lists at any prestigious university, they’re not reviewed by highbrow journals and it’s inconceivable that a major literary prize could ever be awarded to one of their authors.

The above quotes often come to mind when I pick up a book written by someone with instructions for changing my behavior.

On the one hand, I feel a sense of possibility and hunger for new ideas.

At the same time, I brace for disappointment.

Panning for gold

It’s true that many self-help books are trashy. And yet a precious minority of them are filled with ideas that can make a profound and positive difference in our lives. The trick is to find these works.

Remember that self-help comes from an ancient and venerable tradition. Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, Plutarch and Marcus Aurelius all wanted to help readers solve problems, make effective decisions, and live well in the light of death. Books such as Seneca’s On Anger and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations “are among the greatest works of literature of any nation or era,” Botton notes.

Our continuing challenge is to spot signs of bogus self-help. With these red flags in mind, we can light a path to authors who merit our trust.

Knowing what to avoid

The worst self-help books are written by ego-driven authors. Their work is not data-driven. You won’t find references to published studies, theory, or even compelling anecdotal evidence.

This can lead to some serious problems.

Harmful content

One egregious example is Rhonda Byrne’s book The Secret. It presents the “law” of attraction — the idea that you can get what you want simply by thinking about it a lot.

For example, Byrne quotes a woman who claims that she healed herself from breast cancer by believing that she was healthy.

The logical implication here is that if you develop a disease such as such cancer, it’s your fault: You just didn’t think positively enough.

Worse yet, if you decide to forego medical treatment and depend on the law of attraction instead, you could seriously harm yourself.

Fortunately The Secret has been widely parodied. This includes a Saturday Night Live skit where actors chastise a starving man in Darfur for his negative thinking.

In his book Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By, psychologist Timothy Wilson points out another example of harmful self-help content: Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD).

Advocates of CISD encourage people who experience a traumatic event to air their feelings as soon as possible with a trained facilitator.

Sounds logical, right? After all, we’re often warned about the consequences of suppressing our feelings — especially painful ones. Wilson notes that police departments across the United States were trained to offer CISD.

However, research reveals that CISD can actually harm people by forcing them to narrate traumatic events over and over again.

A more effective intervention is one described by psychologist James Pennebaker, author of Writing to Heal: On four consecutive nights, sit down with your journal and put your deepest thoughts and feelings about a traumatic event in writing. It works best if you do this alone, with the only facilitator being your personal journal.

This is a potent reminder to question our assumptions about self-help. Even techniques that sound like they just should work can hurt us.

Untested content

Doing literature reviews and scientific research is a hassle. Many self-help authors simply don’t bother. They don’t know — or don’t care — about creating sound theory and offering credible evidence for their ideas.

The problems with untested content are so egregious and widespread that I can only touch on them here. One useful treatment of this topic is a classic series of blog posts by April Hamilton about self-published nonfiction books:

In short, April urges us not to trust self-help authors who:

  • Lack credentials to write about their topics.
  • Base their books on a handful of anecdotes or apocryphal stories.
  • Mistake correlation or coincidence for causation.
  • Present no evidence of replicated results — that their instructions have worked for people other than the author.
  • Give instructions that fail to describe concrete behaviors and rely on isolated “tips” rather than unified processes.
  • Load their book with jargon and “baroque terminology.”
  • Include disclaimers so broad that they essentially invalidate the book.

Much of what April describes is cognitive bias — the fact that we are prone to self-delusion.

There is a vast literature on this subject. Here I will simply mention a few cognitive biases that plague self-help books:

  • Confirmation bias — relying on information that confirms our existing beliefs and dismissing anything that contradicts those beliefs.
  • Survivorship bias — basing our conclusions on a sub-group of people rather than the entire group (for example, the small percentage of people who complete a treatment program rather than the large percentage who drop out early).
  • Sunk-cost fallacy — defending an idea, behavior, project, or product simply because we have already invested time, money, or emotional energy in it.
  • Memory distortions — stories that morph mysteriously as they are retold over time, with key details that are discounted or entirely forgotten.

Generic content

Writers and speakers are often appealing to the masses. Authors splatter a lot of ideas on their audiences, cross their fingers, and hope that the content resonates with as many people as possible.

This is about as precise as painting a barn door by throwing open cans of paint at it. Individual differences get ignored. Self-help techniques that work for someone else might fall flat for you.

Orin Davis is a psychologist who has a lot to say about this. Check out his talk Help Yourself to Self-Help.

Derivative content

Sean Blanda describes this problem perfectly in a post about the bullshit industrial complex. He calls out bloggers who reference the same old tips, strategies, and examples — all gleaned from second- and third-hand sources, and all presented as original ideas.

In short, what you get from such authors is a diluted mix — random mash-ups of personal stories and uninformed opinion. Often the result is a vanity piece, a thinly-disguised memoir or exercise in platform-building.

And yet many of these authors are charming and charismatic. Some are riveting presenters who leave you feeling entertained, energized, and inspired — at least temporarily. This just makes them all the more dangerous.

Knowing who to trust

To avoid self-help bullshit, go directly to data-driven authors — qualified professionals who write books for the general public. These authors typically have advanced degrees, do original research, and publish their findings in peer-reviewed journals.

Many data-driven authors are also academics. This does not mean that their books are dull, abstract, or jargon-driven. In fact, their books for general audiences are often filled with clear and practical suggestions.

For starters, look for books by these authors:

Also consider these sources:

Caveat: Science has limits

I’m always pleased to find self-help books that are based on scientific research. Yet this is complicated. Research-based does not always translate to useful.

For one thing, research is complicated. It takes time, money, and expertise in research methods that few people have. If we wait for research-based solutions to all the problems we have, we’ll be waiting a long time.

Also, science doesn’t prove anything. It simply fails to disprove hypotheses. Scientific findings are always open to revision based on new data and research methods. When authors claim that their methods are scientifically proven, you can be sure of two things: It’s not science, and it’s not proven.

Sometimes research-based means that authors don’t actually do research but simply quote published studies that seem to support their ideas. But cognitive biases can easily surface here, including cherry-picking studies that confirm prior beliefs and ignoring studies contradict them. Besides, many authors don’t have the expertise to understand and apply scientific research.

In addition, not all studies are created equal. Some are poorly designed and based on small sample sizes. For more about this, see psychologist Stephanie A. Sarkis on what makes a good research study.

Finally, even well-designed research conducted by experts can lead to mixed results. This is a point well-made by BJ Fogg, Stanford University psychologist and author of Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything.

Writing about his research and references for that book, BJ reminds us that context matters: “Scientific lab experiments about human behavior do not give us clear guidance about how things actually work in the real world.”

Even though BJ collected over a half-million data points about habit change, he supplemented this information by personally coaching people to make their desired behavior changes. This unique combination of quantitative and qualitative research led to models and methods that he recommends with confidence.

A reasonable standard

Given all the challenges in crap-detecting self-help books, do we simply quit consuming them? That approach is radical and impractical.

There’s no such thing as a perfect self-help book. They range on a continuum running from scammy to trustworthy. I simply aim to hit the latter side of the continuum as often as possible.

In particular, I look for work that is original and tested, remembering that there are many ways to test content.

For example, consider Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity by David Allen. Even though David did not base it directly on scientific research, I admire this book because:

  • David personally coached hundreds of executives in real-world settings to apply specific techniques in the Getting Things Done (GTD) method.
  • He revised the method based on the results he observed over two decades of coaching.
  • In the appendix to his book, David summarizes scientific studies that lend indirect support for GTD.
  • GTD offers clear instructions, describing concrete behaviors that you can actually do.
  • Many people report specific and positive results from doing GTD, as some quick online research will reveal.

This all adds up to compelling anecdotal evidence — a reasonable standard for us to apply.

Crap-detecting self-help books is a nuanced affair. Easy answers about how to solve problems and transcend suffering will forever elude us. Our challenge is to be open-minded and skeptical at the same time — the work of a lifetime.

The Early Teachings of Shinzen Young: Clarifying the Self

Who are you, anyway?

One answer is that you are the sum total of your self-referential statements. These are the endless ways that you complete the sentence I am…. For example:

  • I am happy.
  • I am unhappy.
  • I am afraid.
  • I am sad.
  • I am angry.

But do such statements really make any sense given the fact that all your thoughts and feelings are impermanent?

Can anything that changes constantly truly be called I, me, or mine?

Constructing a self

Shinzen Young described the self as “highly constructed”: We say “I” to only a fraction of our experience — whatever thoughts and feelings we happen to be aware of at a given moment.

In short, our ordinary sense of self is based on huge gaps in awareness.

The result is a kind of prison. The world gets sharply divided into subject and object, self and other. And whenever there is a sense of other, said Shinzen, there is fear.

Self as an embedded wave

Meditation helps us to relax this distinction. With continuous awareness, we find that no aspect of our experience can harden into something separate from the world.

The physicist who observes matter at the sub-atomic level sees mostly empty space and vibrating particles. Likewise, the meditator who observes inner experience sees nothing solid — just continuous waves of sensation.

The human body is dynamic and permeable. Over a lifetime all our body cells will regenerate several times. Many substances — such as food, water, and oxygen — pass through us daily. We are deeply embedded in our physical environment.

Self as co-created

The same is true of our psychological environment.

Our behaviors depend on interpersonal context: With people who understand and accept us, we feel safe to express ourselves fully. With people who resent or fear us, a different set of responses emerges.

Whenever we interact with another person, we are creating each other anew.

“You are the world,” Shinzen said during one memorable retreat. Whatever you call “other” — anything from flowers or clouds to politicians or garbage cans — is simply another aspect of you.

Seeing this is enlightenment. It is also compassion.

Self as elastic

Insights such as these lead some teachers to declare our sense of self as a delusion — something to lose.

Shinzen did not do this. We don’t lose the self in meditation, he said: We clarify it.

To say there is no self is inaccurate. We do have a sense of self, Shinzen said, but it is not fixed. Instead, it becomes elastic. Our sense of self can expand or contract as appropriate to the situation (hence the name of Shinzen’s YouTube channel — expandcontract).

While meditating, for example, you can allow boundaries between self and other to fall away. You can bask in the sweet bliss of Oneness with everything.

In other situations, however, you’re free to temporarily “freeze” your sense of self into something solid and separate.

This is especially true when you find yourself in the presence of someone who intends to harm you. Then it’s useful to resurrect the boundary between self and other. Run away, defend yourself, or do anything else needed to maintain your safety.

Here is one of the subtle beauties of the meditative path — embracing paradox. Our sense of self becomes more defined and more transparent at the same time. Gradually we become a little less confused about who we truly are.

The Early Teachings of Shinzen Young: Nirvana as the Un-Driven Life

One of the most startling insights from meditation is seeing how driven I am. Much of my behavior is an unconscious attempt to chase pleasure and escape discomfort.

A prime example has been my relationship to food. 

I’ve spent most of my life eating for pleasure — not for nutrition. I’ve raced through thousands of meals, rarely stopping to savor the taste of one morsel of food before shoveling the next one into my mouth.  

I ate like an automaton — the way a machine would eat if it could consume food. I was being driven like car, with cravings behind the wheel.  

During meditation retreats with Shinzen Young, I learned about mindful eating — a spiritual practice all its own. Shinzen reminded us to slow down and savor every bite, greeting the sensations of eating with concentration, clarity, and equanimity.  

This transformed my experience of food. A new world of aromas and flavors opened up to me. I discovered that one morsel can explode into deeply fulfilling sensations that ripple throughout my body. And I can eat less overall while still feeling satisfied. 

Practicing with driven-ness

According to Shinzen, behavior changes such as this follow from responding to pleasure with less craving.

We can also practice an un-driven response to discomfort. Shinzen described stages in this process:

  1. Feeling totally drivenI have to end this discomfort right now.
  2. Beginning awarenessI feel this discomfort as sensations at specific points in the body and specific thoughts about them.
  3. Expanded awarenessI am open to watching these sensations and thoughts with precision and equanimity.
  4. Insight and purificationI see now that these sensations and thoughts are nothing but fluid, flowing, impermanent energy. They simply arise and pass. They do not limit or define me.

Skilled meditators can experience awareness, insight, and purification even during extreme pain. If you can remain present to such discomfort, Shinzen said, you can plunge into the Witness Self — the alert and dispassionate observer of whatever arises in the body-mind.

Melting into heat

I experienced the above stages during one particularly challenging meditation retreat led by Shinzen. It took place during mid-July in a building with no air conditioning.

There I was, perched on my meditation cushion in that scorching room. Sweat streamed from my body into drops on the floor. My shirt and shorts were soaked.

I remember some thoughts that passed through my mind during that fiery sitting:

This is unbearable. I cannot endure this. I simply must end this. I have to stand up and walk out of this room. NOW.

But at that moment I remembered something that Shinzen said a few minutes earlier: “See if you can hang out with any strong sensation for just one more mindful breath.”

So I did —  for several more breaths, actually.

And then, suddenly, I was free of suffering.

The heat was so intense that I simply saw the futility of resisting it. The resistance, in fact, dropped away on its own.

The crushing weight of heat and sweat changed from solid walls of discomfort into shimmering sensations that pulsed through my body without interference — like streams of a river flowing effortlessly into an ocean.

Tasting a drop of sweat that flowed from my forehead to my lips, I smiled. In that moment I saw what is like to flourish in difficult circumstances rather than avoid or endure them. 

It was a glimpse of nirvana, the un-driven life.

The Early Teachings of Shinzen Young: Understanding Nirvana

When people talk about Buddhism, they often mention the First Noble Truth and summarize it as Life is suffering.

And yet…that’s not it, really.

Yes, the Buddha acknowledged the fact of suffering. But what he emphasized is the end of suffering — nirvana.

This is one of the many insights I gained from Shinzen Young.

Shinzen said that nirvana does not refer to some vague, spacey experience of bliss. Our purpose as meditators is not to get pleasantly buzzed in a “spiritual” way.

In fact, nirvana is often translated as extinction — not bliss or pleasure. But what, exactly, is extinguished?

The answer to this question takes us to the core of Buddhism.

Developing a new relationship to pleasure and pain

To begin, consider our instinctive relationship to pleasure and pain.

When pleasant sensations arise, we try to prolong them. The Buddha called this craving.

When unpleasant sensations arise, we try to resist them. This is aversion.

Moreover, we often fail to notice these responses. Craving and aversion happen without our conscious awareness. This is ignorance.

Meditation targets craving, aversion, and ignorance. It is these factors — the kilesas — that create suffering.

What is nirvana, then? It is what arises when the kilesas cease.

In short, meditation is not about adding anything to our life. It’s about releasing the primal habits that create suffering.

The Buddha compared suffering to the flame of a candle. Once we extinguish the fire of craving, aversion, and ignorance, nirvana appears.  

Pleasure and pain on a continuum

In his talks about nirvana, Shinzen defined pleasure and pain in broad ways.

Pleasure is a continuum, ranging from moments of mild relaxation to the ecstasy of orgasm.

Pain is another continuum, ranging from mild stress to paralyzing terror or the agony of a migraine headache.

If it helps, think in terms of comfort and discomfort rather than pleasure and pain.

Where pleasure and pain converge

We tend to think of pleasure and pain as polar opposites. But, said Shinzen, there is a point where they converge.

Both pleasure and pain are made up of thoughts and sensations flowing through the body-mind. These thoughts and sensations have different qualities, but they manifest in the same way — as waves that rise, crest, and pass away.

Our instinctive responses to pleasure and pain — craving, aversion, and ignorance — also have much in common. They are attempts to interfere with the free flow of thought and sensation.

Shinzen often referred to this interference as locking. We try to “lock” pleasant sensations in place. We also try to block painful sensations, which also requires us to “lock on” in order to battle them.

It is this locking on pleasure and pain — not the pleasurable or painful sensations in themselves — that creates suffering.

What to remember about suffering and nirvana

Shinzen, who is fond of mathematics, summarized this with a formula: suffering = pleasure + pain + locking.  

What meditation holds for us is the possibility of pleasure and pain without locking: nirvana = pleasure + pain — locking.

Of course, these formulas are abstractions. They reduce the raging chaos of our subjective experience to neat little categories.

Even so, formulas can keep us focused on fundamentals — handy reminders that point to the heart of nirvana.

The Early Teachings of Shinzen Young: Why Meditation Matters

I’ve learned more about Buddhism and meditation from Shinzen Young than anyone else on the planet. 

Whenever I meet people who think that meditation is fuzzy, wimpy, or New Age-y, I point them to Shinzen. His approach is rigorous, no-nonsense, and no-bullshit. You take nothing on faith. Belief is not required.

Only one thing matters — willingness to carry out Shinzen’s instructions and see what kind of results you get. 

I’ve already posted about Shinzen’s approach to fear and anxiety. That’s an excellent place to start, and there’s more to explore. 

This series of posts is based on what I learned during meditation retreats led by Shinzen. To begin, I’ll summarize Shinzen’s overview of meditation — what the practice is all about. In future posts I’ll follow up with Shinzen’s ideas about:

  • Benefits of meditation
  • Developing a daily practice
  • Integrating meditation with the rest of your life

Please  keep two caveats in mind.

First, my posts are based on meditation retreats that Shinzen led between 1987 and 1992. Since then, Shinzen’s teachings have evolved. For his latest insights, see The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works and expandcontract, his YouTube channel.  

Second, I’m offering my personal understanding of Shinzen’s teaching. Any errors or omissions are mine.  

Serenity is a skill

Shinzen says that our human possibility is unconditional serenity. This is not perpetual pleasure. Instead, it is a baseline of psychological stability in any circumstance. We can experience this state while lying on our death bed as much as while making love. 

Our possibility is also unconditional freedom. This does not mean choosing our circumstances all the time. It means choosing our response to whatever shows up. 

Contrast these ideas with the belief that we must acquire something before we can be happy: some circumstance, possession, or feeling. This leads to the life of seeking — and often not finding — that mysterious something. 

To understand how this happens, consider the roots of our suffering — cravings and aversions, along with ignorance of their effects. In Pali, the language of the Buddha, these three factors are called kilesas (sometimes translated as kleshas, or kleśas).

When the kilesas are active, we find ourselves pushing and pulling on thoughts and physical sensations. When they’re pleasant, we cling to them (craving). When they’re unpleasant, we resist them (aversion). 

But these efforts are doomed because thoughts and sensations are in constant flux. They are subject to anicca (impermanence, or “passingness”). They arise, peak, and pass away like waves. Trying to make thoughts and sensations behave differently is like trying to scoop out an ocean with a spoon — pointless. 

Our fundamental human problem is to how to respond skillfully to the kilesas. This is the purpose of meditation. 

Discomfort is not suffering

Because the Buddha spoke so much about suffering and impermanence, many people think that Buddhism is pessimistic. Albert Schweitzer, Jack Kerouac, and many others made this error.

In reality, the message of Buddhism is overwhelmingly positive. We can do more than reduce suffering. In fact, we can end suffering completely. 

Note: This does not mean that we can get rid of discomfort. Through meditation, however, we can experience discomfort in a way that does not create suffering. 

The distinction between discomfort and suffering is perhaps the central teaching of the Buddha. And it is one that Shinzen emphasized. 

If discomfort is impermanent, then we can endure it. We sometimes say: This too shall pass. Through meditation practice, we take this idea to another dimension: This discomfort is passing — right now

Likewise, if pleasure is impermanent, then we can savor it without clinging to it — and welcome the next wave of pleasure when it arrives.

Shinzen quoted a Buddhist scripture on this point: 

No matter how assailed, anger need not arise. No matter what the pleasure, compulsive longing need not arise. No matter what the circumstances, a feeling of limitation need not arise.

This insight can become more than a concept. We meditate to see it directly, in a way that transforms daily life.