The Intimacy of Shared Silence

We are embraced by silence and silence cares for us deeply. In the embrace of silence we sense the essence of living things radiating loudly. 

To sit in silence with other people is one of the most intimate experiences imaginable.

Most of the time, we deprive ourselves of that intimacy. We avoid silence in social gatherings. It creates discomfort.

If there’s a gap in conversation, we try to fill it with small talk about sports. Politics. Work. Weather. Something. Anything.

The problem is, we dissipate a lot of energy in this way.

If you’re willing to endure shared silence for a few minutes, you’ll discover that on the other side of discomfort is something oddly beautiful.

The people you are most intimate with are the people who are most willing to be silent with you.

One mark of people who have loved each other for decades is the capacity to sit with each other for hours — in silence.


Stop talking and thinking, and there is nothing you will not be able to know.  

When our children were young, we wanted to take them to church.

This was hard.

I’d been raised Lutheran. My pastor once told me that non-Lutherans do not go to heaven. I had friends who weren’t Lutheran. 

Faced with a choice between heaven and companionship, I chose my friends. And at age 17, I stopped going to church.

But with children of my own, things seemed different. I wanted them to grow up in a spiritual community. It would have to be an open-minded group of people who were willing to create something beautiful and profound in each other’s presence.

So we visited a lot of churches, looking for that.

We drank coffee with Unitarians.

We sang hymns with liberal Baptists.

We event went to some Lutheran churches to see if anything had changed.

We never found what we were looking for.

The Quakers came the closest. They were willing to sit in silence for a while. But then someone would get up to speak, and all the energy leaked out of the room.

So we gave up on churches. Instead, we chose to spend an hour every Sunday morning doing yoga and meditation at home with the kids.

Eventually, this worked.

At first, I wanted to fill that hour with content. I prepared little homilies. I chose quotations to read and discuss.

Then I let all that go. We’d pull out our yoga mats, stretch together, and then sit in meditation for a few minutes.

During those weekly minutes of shared silence, I felt closer to my family than ever before.

Our kids are grown and have homes of their own. But am I confident that they will remember the silence.


The more we rest in this silence, the more we come to know it as our essential nature. It is this silent core of being that remains unmoving and unbroken throughout the glories and tragedies of “my life.” When we keep coming back to this silence, we become more rooted in it, even in the midst of the vicissitudes of life, and eventually it is recognized as the backdrop to the movie of “me,” and gives rise to the true fulfillment of our innate wholeness.

Silence is still my main spiritual practice. Actually, I don’t have to “practice” it. I surrender to silence, and the silence “practices” me.

The silence will gently sweep you up and carry you, if you let it.

There are two levels of silence. One is external silence — a reduction of noise in our physical environment.

Entering that level of silence eventually opens up the second level of silence — internal stillness.

You get to that second level if you’re wiling to sit though all the internal noise created by your stream of thoughts.

At first the thoughts come in torrents, like crashing waves. Then, eventually, they slow down. Your mind becomes more like a still lake with sparkles of sunlight glinting off the water.

At that point, you can actually see where thoughts begin and end. And in the gap between two thoughts is a space.

In that space, you’re aware but not thinking.

This is the space that the meditation and yoga teachers talk about. Getting to that space is the purpose of their teachings.

You get there through silence.

At the end of a meditation, when you are feeling more peaceful, stronger, and happier, remind yourself that these feelings came about not because you got something you thought you needed, or because you fooled somebody into thinking that you are worthy of his or her love and affection, but rather because you simply quieted down your mind enough to experience what we all have, all of the time, if we just remember 

Note: The quotes in this article are from:

Practices for a Pandemic Year—a Guide to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Sheltering in place, social distancing, and isolation during the recent pandemic forced many of us to live more like monks. As Leo Babauta put it, we’re all monastics now

I don’t say this with any romantic notions about monastic life. In fact, I’ve never wanted to be a monk. I like being married. I like sex. I like happy hours and parties. 

I do, however, resonate with Shinzen Young’s definition of a monastery as any place that forces you to change or become miserable. 

This form of monasticism descended upon many of us, whether we like it or not. 

Thomas Merton said that he did not become a monk in order to suffer more than other people, but in order to suffer more effectively. 

Taking a cue from him, I asked: How can we experience a pandemic effectively? 

As monks for the moment, can we possibly emerge from such experiences a little more wise, more loving, more free? 

Perhaps distancing and isolation can help us take our spiritual practices and self-care habits to a deeper level. Perhaps we can even move closer to enlightenment, liberation, or some form serenity that does not depend on circumstance.

Meditation and yoga are core practices for me. I also take refuge in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an approach that has strong support both in clinical practice and peer-reviewed research. 

I’m excited about ACT because it blends the best of East and West — mindfulness practices with values-driven behavior change. When combined, these create powerful practices for any difficult circumstance, including a pandemic. 

Distinguish “dirty” discomfort from “clean” discomfort

The first thing to do is free ourselves from the burden of relentless positivity. If you’re feeling unhappy during the conditions such as the pandemic, you’re not wrong: You’re just normal. 

According to ACT, there’s nothing wrong with waves of sadness, anger, or fear. And the true test of any practice is not whether it immediately makes those feelings go away. 

Contrast this with the premise of many New Age-y self-help books — that you’re supposed to feel good most of the time. And if you don’t, then there’s something wrong with you: You’ve failed to remove the blocks to your inner radiance and let your inherent bliss shine through.

ACT rejects this. According to ACT therapists, unpleasant emotion is not abnormal or evidence that we’re “sick.” Our nature is not bliss but constant emotional change. And unpleasant emotions are part of the cycle.

This means that some level of discomfort in our lives is simply a given. According to ACT, however, we can transform discomfort by changing our response to it. 

We experience dirty discomfort when we try to deny, avoid, or “fix” unpleasant emotions. Those emotions are challenging enough, but then we add a whole layer of struggle and resistance on top of them. 

In contrast, clean discomfort occurs when we drop the struggle and release the resistance. Instead, we simply allow emotions — whether pleasant or unpleasant — to arise and pass away in their own time. We treat emotions simply as internal events rather than problems to solve.

Tony de Mello, a Jesuit priest from India, had a perfect description of clean discomfort:

Before enlightenment, I used to be depressed: after enlightenment, I continue to be depressed. But there’s a difference: I don’t identify with it any more. 

Yes, we will experience discomfort, especially when our routines and relationships are disrupted. But emotional discomfort does not define us, and we do not need to make it a problem.

Redefine happiness

This is where we get to the ACT definition of happiness — full engagement with life in the midst of any circumstance

Happiness is not a feeling state.

Happiness is not a life that’s free of discomfort. 

Happiness is doing what matters to you and caring for the people you love, even when life is hard and you’re weathering emotional storms. 

For example, we can feel sad about the loss of in-person contact with coworkers — and still meet with them online. 

We can feel sluggish — and still go outside for walks while greeting neighbors from a safe distance.

We can miss the happy hour scene at our favorite restaurants — and still support them by ordering take-out once in a while.    

In short, we don’t have to put off living until we feel good and the circumstances of our lives are “right.” We can live the meaning of our lives now, no matter what’s happening inside our outside of us.   

What makes all this possible? According to ACT, the primary practices are mindfulness and values-based action.

Practice mindfulness

In his book The Happiness Trap: Stop Struggling, Start Living, ACT therapist Russ Harris defines mindfulness as:

Consciously bringing awareness to your here-and-now experience with openness, interest and receptiveness.” There are many facets to mindfulness, including living in the present moment; engaging fully in what you are doing rather than ‘getting lost’ in your thoughts; and allowing your feelings to be as they are, letting them come and go rather than trying to control them. 

Moreover, mindfulness is not one practice but rather a cluster of related skills:

  • Defusion
  • Acceptance
  • Contact with the present moment
  • The observing self


I once saw a bumper sticker that said Don’t believe everything you think. That’s the essence of defusion — the ability to have thoughts without being had by them.

Defusion means stepping back from our thoughts and viewing them impartially. We learn to see thinking as a stream of internal events — words and mental images — rather than literal truth, binding commands, or statements about who we ultimately are.

Defusion is a sanity saver when we’re dealing with thoughts that do nothing except create dirty discomfort. Albert Ellis, founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, referred to these thoughts as irrational beliefs and concluded that they are all variations on three basic statements:

  • I must do well and win the approval of others or else I am no good.
  • Other people must do “the right thing” or else they are no good and deserve to be punished.
  • Life must be easy, without discomfort or inconvenience. 

When we fuse with thoughts that are this unrealistic and absolute, we are bound to suffer. Learning to defuse from them can immediately lighten our load.

ACT therapists use metaphors to describe defusion. Visualize thoughts as cars driving past your house, Harris says, or leaves floating down a river. This makes it easier to “hold them lightly instead of clutching them tightly.”

Other ACT techniques for defusing from a thought include:

  • Repeating it out loud over and over again until it sounds utterly meaningless
  • Singing it to the tune of Happy Birthday
  • Imagining it written inside a thought bubble in a comic strip
  • Saying it in the voice of Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Mickey Mouse, or another cartoon character
  • Saying Thanks, mind, for that interesting thought
  • Speaking the thought out loud and prefacing it with I’m having the thought that….


Defusion becomes easier when you allow thoughts and feelings to come and go without clinging to them or resisting them. That’s the essence of acceptance.

Accepting thoughts is not the same as agreeing with them. Rather, acceptance is simply allowing thoughts to be present for the moment — holding a temporary space for them as they float by. Doing this eventually reduces their impact.

The opposite of acceptance is experiential avoidance. This term refers to struggling with our internal experience — especially unpleasant physical sensations and distressing thoughts. We try to push away anything that’s painful, and we cling to anything that’s pleasant.  

When practicing experiential avoidance, we treat unpleasant emotions as problems. And we start looking for solutions — *anything* that makes those emotions go away.

Problem solving helps us deal effectively with many situations in the external world. If you have a bacterial infection, for instance, you can take an antibiotic to get rid of it. If your car dies, you can get a new one.

Things start to break down quickly, however, when we apply problem-solving strategies to our internal world — thoughts, feelings, and urges. When we treat them as problems and try to get rid of them, our efforts eventually backfire. We get a rebound effect: The unpleasant experiences remain or get even stronger. We end up suffering even more.

Again, acceptance means dropping all that struggle and releasing any resistance to our internal experiences. The one thing that we can count on is that any feeling — no matter how strong or unpleasant — will eventually fade.

Contact with the present moment

During the years that I worked outside of my home, I drove the same route to work every day. One day I found myself sitting in my parked car outside my office and wondering how the heck I got there. I’d been so lost in thought during the commute that I had no conscious memory of making the trip.

How many routine tasks do you perform mindlessly, on autopilot? During those tasks, you lose contact with the present moment.

Contacting the present moment means showing up psychologically as well as physically. Instead of merely going through the motions, we pay full attention to the sights, sounds, and other sensations occurring right now. This is another way defuse from thoughts.

ACT therapists have a term for lack of contact with the present moment — dominance of the conceptualized past and future. This is a fancy way of saying that we get “stuck inside our head.” 

It happens in many ways. For example, we:

  • Spend hours reliving painful events from the past. 
  • Create elaborate and unrealistic fantasies about the future. 
  • Worry about things that are unlikely to ever happen and imagine the worst possible outcomes.
  • Ruminate — replay the same trains of thought over and over again. 

All this mental activity removes us from raw sensory experience — what we’re seeing, hearing, or feeling right now, in the present moment. 

And yet it’s easy to get out of our mind and get back into our body. Start by looking around the room and simply noticing three things that you see, three things that you hear, or something that you can smell or taste. From this humble beginning can come a mature mindfulness practice.

The observing self

Your mind has two aspects. One is the part that thinks. The other is the part that simply observes that thinking.

In ACT, the thinking part is called the conceptualized self, or self as content. In his groundbreaking book Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life, ACT co-founder Steven C. Hayes describes it as:

… the verbal ‘I am’ self, as in: I am old; I am anxious; I am kind; I am mean; I am unlovable; I am sweet; I am beautiful; and so forth. The conceptualized self is brimming with content: this content is the story about you and your life that you’ve been selling to yourself. It contains all the thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, memories, and behavioral dispositions that you’ve bought into and integrated into a stable verbal picture of yourself. 

We use the conceptualized self to explain the world to ourselves — to create a personal narrative that makes sense of ourselves, other people, and events. 

This “stable verbal picture” often comes with a price, however. It can turn into a rigid script that blunts our capacity to change and locks us into a cycle of self-created suffering.

“Have you ever noticed that if someone thinks he is unimportant, most events in his life appear to confirm that view?” Hayes adds. “Or have you ever observed that if someone sees herself as a victim, somehow she keeps ending up (in her mind or in actuality) being victimized?”

Fortunately, we can practice contacting the other part of our mind — the observing self or self as context. (Spiritual teachers have many terms for this, including the witness and pure awareness

The wondrous thing about the observing self is its continuity. It’s present for your entire lifetime. The “you” that watched the events of your past is the same “you” that watches what’s happening in the present. That “you” will also be there as the events of your future unfold — right up to your last breath.

The observing self is a wonderful place to hang out because it’s impervious to harm. In the midst of constant change, the observing self remains unchanged. Defusion, acceptance, and contacting the present moment will help you spend more time there. 

Align your behavior with your values

ACT culminates in taking action based on what’s most important to you. This is the practice of committed action, which involves:

  • Defining your values 
  • Setting goals based on your values
  • Planning actions to achieve your goals

To begin this practice, remember the difference between values and goals.

Goals are outcomes that you can achieve and then cross off your list as done. 

Values are never done, however. They are desired qualities that inspire all your goals — past, present, and future. 

For example, getting married and raising children are goals that can be achieved by someone who values being a loving spouse and parent.

Fusion, experiential avoidance, loss of contact with the present moment, and the conceptualized self can drive us to lose touch with our values — what truly matters to us and how we ultimately want to show up in the world. 

This can happen in many ways. Fear of social gatherings can lead to avoiding people, for instance — even if we value close relationships. Sadness can lead to inactivity and fast food consumption — even if we value exercise and good nutrition. 

ACT therapists recommend two ways to this cycle.

First, put your values in writing. You might start out with a list of abstract qualities, such as love, creativity, and health.

Make those qualities more specific by turning them into domains of activity. For example:

  • Spending time with my children
  • Writing in my journal
  • Exercising daily

Second, check for alignment between your written values and your behavior. Take the stand of an objective observer whose job is to infer your values only by watching what you do everyday. What would this person see? 

Take it from someone who knows: This takes guts. Be prepared to discover facts that contradict your stories — behaviors that not only fail to align with your values but actively undermine them.

For example, I can say that I value physical activity but still spend most of the day on my butt in a chair.

I can say that I value writing in my journal but discover that my last entry is dated six months ago. 

This is where we get to practice self-compassion. The key is to mindfully notice any discrepancy between your values and behaviors. From that non-judgmental place, you can plan to rewrite your values, [change your habits](, or both.

For more details on defining values from an ACT perspective, see this cool worksheet.

The bottom line — psychological flexibility

“The goal of ACT is to create a rich and meaningful life, while accepting the pain that inevitably goes with it,” Harris notes. In ACT, the technical term for this is psychological flexibility.

A shorter version: “be present, open up, and do what matters.”

We can live with vitality and connect with our values even during moments of discomfort, such as grieving, enduring illness, or sheltering in place. 

“There is as much living in a moment of pain as in a moment of joy”, says Kirk Strosahl, cofounder of ACT.

And there is the knowledge that no circumstance — not even a pandemic — can prevent you from living the life of your choosing. 

Learn more about ACT

Russ Harris’s list of free online resources is a good place to start. 

Harris also offers an inspiring video about practicing ACT in the midst of the pandemic. Look for a link to the accompanying PDF.

Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, co-authored by Steven C. Hayes is a popular introduction to ACT.

Also recommended is Hayes’s most recent book — A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters.

In addition, Hayes offers a free introduction to ACT. He includes practical exercises that will give you a genuine feel for this approach.

Don’t Boost Motivation: Just Ride the Wave

Have you ever been forced to sit through a presentation by a “motivational speaker” — someone who’s been hired to squeeze more work out of you by whipping you into a frenzy of positive emotion?

If so, how long did your motivation last?

I’m betting that it was just long enough to look at your to-do list and see some things that you really didn’t want to do. It was then that the frenzy faded and you sank back into your emotional status quo. 

So long, motivation.

Pete Seeger described this experience in song: “My get up and go has got up and went.”

This is where so many self-help “experts” try to sell us a bill of goods. They treat motivation as a problem to be solved. They work like mad to boost our motivation or help us ramp it up by ourselves.

But notice what happens when we internalize the gurus’ messages, do everything they say, and still feel unmotivated: We’re likely to see ourselves as failures.

Well, I have good news from Stanford University psychologist BJ Fogg: All the frenzy and shame are unnecessary.

Lack of motivation is not a problem to be solved. Nor is it a character defect to eliminate.

When you don’t feel motivated, in fact, you’re just normal. And starting from this premise gives you a much more effective way to solve the “problem” of motivation.

This is the big idea from a presentation by BJ Fogg, who developed a powerful and unique system for habit change.

Remember that motivation is a wave

The first thing to notice, says BJ, is that motivation is slippery. More precisely, it’s a wave. 

Motivation rises and falls. It peaks and ebbs. This is something that any of us can verify by simple self-observation.

A second insight flows directly from the first: When motivation peaks, we temporarily feel like doing hard things. And when motivation ebbs, we gravitate toward easy things.

These are insights that we can apply to behavior change.

Match your behavior with your current level of motivation

Consider an example related to a key health habit — exercise. There are at least two ways to lay the ground work for this habit:

  • Do something easy, such as simply picking out a pair of running shoes. At this point you don’t have to go for a walk. You don’t even have to put the shoes on. You simply choose a pair that you intend to use in the future.
  • Do something hard, like finding a list of personal trainers, calling one up, and committing to working with this person on a regular schedule.

When your motivation is low, go for easy. Give yourself permission to just pick the shoes. If you instead try to schedule a trainer or go for a run, then you have to deal with the inner gremlin who says: Naaahhh. I just don’t wanna.

If you try to squelch that gremlin by artificially ramping up your motivation, you’ll just compound the problem.

When your motivation is high, do the harder thing, such as scheduling the trainer. If you instead settle for simply choosing a pair of shoes, you squander an opportunity to accomplish something worthwhile and challenging.

BJ sums up the big take-away: Don’t worry about motivation. Just choose the most desirable behavior that matches your current level of motivation — whatever that is.

In other words, ride the wave. When motivation peaks, do something hard while you still have the chance. And when motivation falls, go with the flow and do something easy. (For many more ideas about the latter option, enroll in BJ Fogg’s free course on Tiny Habits.)

Harness high motivation in three specific ways

High motivation is temporary. It can disappear in a matter of days, hours, or minutes. So, seize the precious opportunity that high motivation presents.

According to BJ, the most valuable things that you can do when highly motivated are:

  1. Structure your future behavior. Structured behaviors are presets — default options. For example: If you want to reduce your spending, then cut up your credit cards. If you want to stop eating junk food, then remove all that stuff from your kitchen and throw it away. This strategy is powerful for a simple reason: Reversing an earlier commitment forces you to exert extra effort, such as calling a personal trainer to cancel a scheduled appointment.
  2. Reduce barriers to future behavior. For instance, go to the grocery store and buy a lot of vegetables. Then go home, wash them, cut them, and put them into serving size containers. This reduces a barrier to making healthy meals when your motivation to cook is low. You’re less likely to choose the easy option — going out to eat.
  3. Increase capacity. When your motivation to cook a healthy meal is high, for example, then take that opportunity to learn a new recipe. This is harder than going out to eat or chopping vegetables. But as you practice making the new meal over the coming weeks, you’ll find it easier to do — even on days when you don’t feel like cooking.

Note that I’ve numbered these options in the order that BJ recommends. So when motivation peaks, start with #1 before trying #2. And opt for #3 after experimenting with #2.

Don’t motivate change — facilitate it

Riding the motivation wave is especially crucial for people design programs for behavior change.

Is your job about helping people to exercise more, eat better, or adopt some other desirable habit? Then forget about boosting their motivation to do hard things, says BJ. Change your job title from motivator to facilitator. Start guiding people to surf their natural waves of motivation.

Bill Wilson and Carl Jung on Addiction and Spirituality

This post is about alcohol, addiction, and God.

We start with a question:

How do you define spirituality?

I used the word for years with no clear definition.

I talked about being “spiritual and not religious.” Thankfully, no one asked me to explain the difference.

This dilemma resurfaced recently while I was browsing my back issues of Parabola magazine. There — in a moment of grace — my fingers landed on the Summer 1987 issue and led me to an answer.

It was an article titled “Spiritus contra Spiritum: The Bill Wilson / C. G. Jung Letters.”

Wilson on the necessity of hopelessness

Wilson, cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, began the exchange in 1961. His purpose was to acknowledge Jung’s role in the birth of AA.

It all started, Wilson wrote, with Roland H.

Roland was an alcoholic who came to Jung in 1931 for treatment. Fearing a relapse, Roland saw Jung as his “court of last resort.”

Jung, however, described Roland’s situation as hopeless — beyond the reach of any further medical or psychiatric treatment.

There was one possibility, however. Jung said that Roland could “place himself in a religious atmosphere and hope for the best.” There he might be able to experience “a genuine conversion” — a spiritual experience stronger than the craving for alcohol.

It worked. Roland returned to New York and found sobriety in the Oxford Group, a Christian evangelical movement.

Wilson’s “white light”

Wilson, too, was an alcoholic under the care of a physician, Dr. William Silkworth. And Silkworth believed that Wilson’s only option was permanent “commitment to an institution.”

What turned Wilson’s life around was a visit from Edwin T. (“Ebby”) — recovering alcoholic, Oxford Group member, and friend of Roland’s. Ebby’s serenity and sobriety impressed Wilson, who later wrote: “I knew at once I must find an experience like his, or die.”

“In utter despair, I cried out, ‘If there be a God, will he show himself,’” Wilson recalled. And what followed is known in AA as “Bill’s white light experience”:

Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words to describe. It seemed to me, in my mind’s eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man.

Wilson never drank again.

He spent the rest of his life trying to understand what happened.

Conversion as “ego collapse”

Wilson eventually turned to Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, a popular book among Oxford Group members.

James devotes an entire chapter to the conversion experience. He describes it as an emotional shock that leads to a new “center of gravity” — a permanent change in thinking, feeling, and behaving.

In his letter to Jung, Wilson described this as “ego collapse at depth.” He must have had it in mind while he wrote Step One of AA: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Jung on alcoholism as ‘low level’ spirituality

One week later, Jung replied to Wilson. Jung recalled his work with Roland:

His craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.

Jung admitted that such language is doomed to be misunderstood in the modern world.

He also noted that the craving for alcohol must be met with “real religious insight or by the protective wall of human community.” Without those counteracting forces, the “unrecognized spiritual need” will lead alcoholics straight into “perdition.”

Near the end of his letter, Jung makes this distinction:

You see, alcohol in Latin is “spiritus,” and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.

Defining spirituality

In short, Jung described alcohol craving as a proto-spiritual quest. But beyond mentioning a thirst for “wholeness,” he offered few details.

For more insight, I turn again to Varieties of Religious Experience. James treats mysticism at length, describing mystical experiences as:

  • Ineffabile — impossible to capture in words
  • Noetic — bearing revelations and authoritative knowledge
  • Transient — lasting at most for an hour or two
  • Passive — received from “superior power” rather than produced by an act of will

Surely Wilson’s “white light” experience met these criteria.

And here is a working definition of spirituality — an answer to my opening question: practices that foster ineffable and noetic experiences in a context of ethical behavior.

Looking beyond ersatz enlightenment

I can easily picture an alcoholic at a bar reaching for a fourth or fifth and cocktail. He or she feels expansive, invincible, illuminated. The drinks have delivered the goods — revelations from above that seem both ineffable and noetic.

The literature of addiction and recovery is filled with people sharing their stories of ersatz enlightenment. There’s the narrator of Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, for example. High on speed and hashish, he declares: “I knew every raindrop by its name, I sensed everything before it happened.”

James reveals the means to such revelations:

The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes.

For the active addict, it easily ends in ruin — obsession with a drug and compulsive use despite life-threatening consequences. Revelations are long forgotten by the time that getting and using a chemical becomes an end in itself, the addict’s lonely calling.

But like Jung, we can see addiction as a pointer beyond itself — a reminder of our sacred impulse to expand, unite, and say yes.

And, we can obey this impulse through practices that complete us rather than defeat us.

Taking Refuge in ‘Big Sky Mind’—the Observing Self

According to many meditation teachings, there is an aspect of you that is free of suffering. 

This part of you is immune to stress and untouched by difficult circumstances. And it is available to you at any time and any place, if you only know how to access it.

This aspect of ourselves is often called the witness, the observer, or “big sky mind.”

This ancient idea has found its way into the third wave of cognitive-behavioral therapies. For example, practitioners of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) refer to big sky mind as the observing self and teach a variety of ways to discover it.

How language obscures the observing self

According to Steven Hayes, psychotherapist and developer of ACT, the observing self transcends our ordinary identity. That identity is created by language — specifically, by the ways that we complete the sentence I am….

For example:

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

Language is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it creates a coherent sense of self — a definite someone who experiences the events of everyday life and creates a story to make sense of them.

On the other hand, we can hypnotize ourselves into thinking that our sentences tell the whole truth about ourselves.

The problem is that language is static and reality is dynamic. Thoughts and feelings — even the most ecstatic or distressing — come and go like clouds in the sky. Nothing about our internal experience is fixed or permanent.

Sentences such as I am sad and I am happy just don’t do justice to this fact. As result, they lock us into a fixed identity.

Ask these questions

Our refuge is big sky mind — the witness, the observer. The challenge is to discover this aspect of ourselves, since it cannot be fully captured in language.

In Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life, Hayes offers three questions that point to a direct experience of the observing self:

Where is “here”? This word does not always refer a specific place, such as the address of your home or office. In essence, “here” is a place from which observations are made.

When is “now”? This word does not always refer to a specific time such as Tuesday or 8 am. In essence, it is the time from which observations are made.

Where is “I”? You can’t use your finger to point to “I.” Again, this is simply a space from which observations are made.

This sense of an observer is fascinating. We have direct experience of it. Yet is has no boundaries in time or space:

Notice that you are here in this moment reading, and notice too that the person behind these reading eyes was there when you ate breakfast this morning and was there when you were a child. 

You’ve been you your whole life, though there have been many changes in your thoughts, your feelings, your roles, and your body. 

Treating thoughts and feelings as problems

This notion of the observing self has immediate applications.

Start with our reaction to unpleasant internal experiences — distressing thoughts and feelings.

Our typical approach to those experiences is to treat them as problems to be solved. We try to get rid of them, avoid them, or prevent them.

This approach fails.

Distressing thoughts and feelings are not like weeds in a garden. We can’t root them out, mow them down, or spray them with psychic weed killer. 

In fact, our efforts to suppress certain thoughts and feelings can actually increase our distress.

Russ Harris, author of ACT Made Simple: An Easy-To-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, notes that “ virtually every addiction known to mankind begins as an attempt to avoid or get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings, such as boredom, loneliness, anxiety, depression and so on.”

Making space for thoughts and feelings

When it comes to our internal world, ACT therapists take a radical approach.

They toss the problem-solving paradigm out the the window.

These therapists refuse to label any thought or feeling as a problem. The word symptom is largely missing from their vocabulary. And they do not focus on reducing symptoms.

Instead, ACT is based on mindfulness — the moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness of thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness fully allows these internal events, revealing that they will eventually pass if we simply let them.

In other words, we greet internal experiences with big sky mind.

Thoughts and feelings are clouds that arise and pass away in our conscious awareness. Even violent storm clouds — intense feelings — eventually disappear.

ACT therapists use other analogies to describe conscious awareness. For example:

  • Space. Consider the space in a room. It allows people to enter and leave the room. Those people can laugh, cry, or scream at each other. But no matter what happens in the room, the space remains unaffected. In the same way, awareness remains unstained by any thought or feeling.
  • Game board. Intense battles unfold on the squares of a chess, checkers, or Monopoly board. Yet all the games eventually come to an end. The pieces are picked up, and the players disperse. Thoughts and feelings are just as impermanent. 
  • Container. “What if you aren’t defined by your pain,” asks Steven Hayes in Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life, “but rather you are the conscious container for it? ”

Thaddeus Golas, author of The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment, says essentially the same thing:

When you look at a lake, there is no water in your mind. Put another way, the awareness of a hard object has no hardness in it. The awareness of confusion is not confused. The awareness of insanity is not insane.

I often recall those words from Thaddeus when I’m feeling stressed — especially the last sentence. They are my way of taking refuge in Big Sky Mind. 

Sam Harris on Spirituality Without Religion

Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, philosopher, and atheist who is deeply committed to spiritual practice. 

How is the possible, you might ask?

The answers are in Sam’s book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

“Unlike many atheists, I have spent much of my life seeking experiences of the kind that gave rise to the world’s religions,” Sam writes. 

Indeed, I was surprised by how much meditation practice Sam has done, and by how many prominent teachers he’s studied with, including Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche and H. W. L. Poonja.

Waking Up sums up his lessons from those experiences — insights that result from Sam’s particular blend of open-mindedness and skepticism.

Sam’s goal is to stake out a middle ground between religion and atheism. This is a brilliant star to shoot for, and Sam takes us closer to it.

Following are the big ideas I gained from Waking Up — plus a few things I’ll ask Sam if I ever have the honor of conversing with him.

Spirituality is for all of us — including atheists and agnostics

I appreciate the way that Sam defends the use of the word spirituality:

…there is no other term — apart from the even more problematic mystical or the more restrictive contemplative — with which to discuss the efforts people make, through meditation, psychedelics, or other means, to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce nonordinary states of consciousness.

Several of Sam’s other books describe the dangers of irrational religious beliefs, especially when they lead to intolerance and violence. Yet he concedes that “there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit.”

For centuries, in fact, people of many religious traditions — as well as atheists and agnostics — report similar states of “nonordinary” consciousness. 

Sam wants to reclaim such experiences, including states of self-transcendence and radical compassion. And, he says, we can discuss them in scientific terms without resorting to irrational beliefs. 

Spirituality is about non-duality 

During a visit to the Sea of Galilee — the place, according to many Christians, where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount — Sam gazed at the surrounding hills and sank into a feeling of primordial peace:

It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self — an “I” or a “me”—vanished. Everything was as it had been — the cloudless sky, the brown hills sloping to an inland sea, the pilgrims clutching their bottles of water — but I no longer felt separate from the scene, peering out at the world from behind my eyes.

This is a prime example of non-dual experience, where the border between the observer and what is observed simply disappears.  

Over the centuries humanity has produced a vast literature about such experiences. They are reported by people of many faiths — and no faith whatsoever

In fact, the Buddha made anatta (no-self) the centerpiece of his teaching. 

I could list many more examples. Meditation teacher Michael Taft aptly describes them as “intimacy with everything”

You don’t see the mountain, you are the mountain. You don’t hear a bird, you are birdsong. Awareness is no longer split into an experiencer and the thing that is experienced, there is just pure experience with no divisions.

For Sam, non-dual experience is the sine qua non of spirituality. And Waking Up is largely an argument that our conventional sense of self — an isolated observer housed in a body separate from everything else — is an illusion.

Non-duality includes good will

There’s also a form of non-duality that involves relationships. Sam experienced it while taking the MDMA (“Ecstasy”) with a friend.

During this psychedelic trip, Sam recalls, he was suddenly struck by the simple knowledge that he loved this person:

I was no longer anxious, self-critical, guarded by irony, in competition, avoiding embarrassment, ruminating about the past and future, or making any other gesture of thought or attention that separated me from him.

Moreover, this goodwill expanded to include others:

I was feeling boundless love for one of my best friends, and I suddenly realized that if a stranger had walked through the door at that moment, he or she would have been fully included in this love…. It was simply obvious that love, compassion, and joy in the joy of others extended without limit.

Spirituality and science are compatible

Sam emphasizes that non-duality is not something that we have to take on faith.

Psychologists know that altered states of consciousness are possible and universal. We can talk about them in secular terms, like scientists, basing our conclusions on logic and evidence. 

In fact, our ability to have a selfless experience of the world is consistent with what we know about the brain. Waking Up goes into much detail on this point, including an entire chapter about the brain processes that mediate our experience of selfhood. 

The bottom line: There are many such processes, they spread across the entire brain, and it is possible to disrupt any of them. 

Caveat: The experience of non-duality is not a basis for making claims about the origins of the universe or the nature of the cosmos. Subjective experience does not automatically translate into objective truth — the claims made by scientists.

Sam encourages to stick with what we can reasonably claim about spirituality:

Our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.

Spirituality does not require religious beliefs

We can practice many Eastern forms of spirituality without belief in miracles or supernatural realms. As Sam reminds us, Siddhartha Gautama — the founder of Buddhism — was not a God. He was “merely a man who woke up from the dream of being a separate self.”

The sacred literature of Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta in particular are simply “lab manuals,” Sam writes — instructions for meditation. Accordingly, the literature is testable: Follow the instructions and see if you get the intended results. 

For example, Advaita “reduces to a series of very simple and testable assertions”: 

Consciousness is the prior condition of every experience; the self or ego is an illusory appearance within it; look closely for what you are calling “I,” and the feeling of being a separate self will disappear; what remains, as a matter of experience, is a field of consciousness—free, undivided, and intrinsically uncontaminated by its ever-changing contents.

You can experience non-duality for yourself

Our sense of self as a separate entity is language-based. When we talk, we divide the world into subjects (ourselves) and objects (other people, events, and things). And, we talk to ourselves constantly.

Experienced meditators will tell you that it’s possible for this internal conversation to wind down and eventually stop for brief periods of time. And when that happens, the distinction between self and other — along with all other distinctions — gradually disappears.

There are a couple of caveats here as well:

  • Non-dual experience is not always immediate. Getting there can take many hours of meditation practice. Be patient
  • Authentic non-duality requires a healthy sense of self. This is paradoxical: You can’t safely transcend yourself unless you first develop a functional ego. In practical terms, this means treating mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression before you begin meditating.

Suffering begins and ends in the mind

For centuries, wise human beings have reminded us that misery is mind-based. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them.”

Albert Ellis, founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, echoed this insight. He said that we suffer because due to the irrational beliefs that: 

  • We should succeed in everything we do.
  • People should always do exactly what we want them to do.
  • Events should always turn out the way we expect.

The Buddha, too, taught that suffering and nirvana (the absence of suffering) are fundamentally mental experiences. When we feel miserable, it’s because we’ve allowed ourselves to become prisoners of our thoughts. 

“Our minds,” as Sam notes, “are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others.”

Spirituality reveals consciousness beyond its contents 

Our subjective experience of the world boils down to two primary events:

1. Thoughts, feelings, and urges to act

2. Awareness of those thoughts, feelings, and urges to act

Sam refers to 2 as consciousness and 1 as the contents of consciousness. 

This is not a mere technical distinction, says Sam. Spiritual practice is all about going beyond the contents of consciousness and learning to rest in pure consciousness. The more that we do this, the more we will be free of suffering.

This might sound strange, but consider the process: Meditation allows us to mentally stand back from any mental state. We learn to simply witness those states as they changes, continually arising in consciousness and then passing away. 

Our speaking can reflect this insight: Instead of saying I am anxious or I am depressed, you could say: Anxiety (or depression, or any other emotion) is arising in me.

This shift is subtle and profound. It reminds us that in any moment we can change our relationship to our thoughts. Instead of identifying with them, we can simply witness them and hold them lightly. 

Spiritual practice involves precision and acceptance 

Mindfulness meditation is analytic. The practice is to systematically deconstruct yourself.

Take the experience of anger, for example:

  • How is it arising in this moment? And the next? And the next one after that?
  • What words and images does it bring to mind? 
  • Where exactly in the body do you feel it?

The practice is to see yourself as a scientist — a neutral observer. Your job is to collect as many data points as possible. And you can do that only if you stop judging emotions as good or bad. Instead, simply say that they are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.

Spirituality takes us toward unconditional serenity

Practicing in this way reveals that you can be free of emotions even in the midst of experiencing them. 

As Vipassana teacher Shinzen Young says: It’s not that This too shall pass. It is: This is passing right now, in the present moment. 

In short, says Sam, consciousness is never stained by what it knows: “That which is aware of sadness is not sad. That which is aware of fear is not fearful.”

This insight alone can change your life. Over time we can develop a stable serenity in the midst of constantly changing events. In the words of another Zen saying:

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.  

In summary, Sam’s radical claims are that:

  • States of well-being are inherent to the human mind.
  • We can access these states through meditation.
  • These states are available in the midst of ordinary life with all its difficulties and constant alternation between pleasure and pain.
  • We experience these states independently of satisfying any desire or meeting any goal.

Spirituality can involve psychedelics

In addition to MDMA, Sam has experimented with LSD and psilocybin as aids to meditation practice. 

His conclusion: Psychedelics are a mixed bag.

On the one hand, these drugs can open up the flood gates of awareness and give you a sublime taste of non-duality. LSD and psilocybin in particular can do this non-toxic and non-addictive ways.

On the other hand, psychedelics can also trigger hellish mental states that resemble psychosis.

In short, psychedelics don’t guarantee that you will experience wisdom and compassion. They simply guarantee that the contents of your consciousness will change.

The beauty of meditation is that it’s a much safer way to change your mind. Sam compares LSD to “being strapped to a rocket,” while meditation “is like gently raising a sail.”

Gurus can go astray

The spiritual path present us with both delights and dangers. There are compassionate and competent teachers. There are also charlatans who milk their followers for money and insist on blind obedience.

Unfortunately, it’s often hard to tell the difference. 

As Sam puts it: “One can’t fake being an expert gymnast, a rocket scientist, or even a competent cook — at least not for long — but one can fake being an enlightened adept.”

The problem is that an unscrupulous teacher can take any objection raised by a student and recast it as fear, attachment, or some other form of resistance to the teaching. This dynamic creates the constant potential for abuse.

Sam gives many examples of gurus who went off the rails. (One that fascinates me is Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama who Sam describes as a sexually promiscuous and violent drunk.)

The fact is that teachers with genuine insight can also be ethical landmines. Sam offers guidelines for protecting yourself:

  • Distrust anyone who says that they’re infallible.
  • Avoid any spiritual practice that’s forced on you without your consent.
  • Continue with a spiritual practice only if it makes sense to you and produces concrete results.
  • If a teaching is based on numerology, prophecies, or channeling the teachings of invisible entities, then run away. 

What’s missing for me

I found myself eagerly highlighting juicy passages throughout Waking Up.

Overall, though, Sam tried to do too much in this book. It’s part spiritual memoir, part brain biology textbook, and part meditation manual. Waking Up reads like several unfinished books rolled into one. 

I had some specific disagreements with Sam as well.

You can’t think your way into non-duality. The main goal of Waking Up is to convince us that non-duality is real. 

To test Sam’s presentation, I recommended Waking Up to my book group — six sophisticated readers. No one was convinced. 

I can’t blame them. I’ve had non-dual experiences, and they were revelations. But I don’t think you can access them by reading and writing and talking about non-duality. 

The reason is simple: It’s the process of thinking that creates duality in the first place. 

Non-duality is possible only when the mind is still and free of concepts. It’s non-symbolic — an experience that’s not mediated by language. 

Thinking about non-duality is like trying to erase your image in a mirror by wiping it away with a cloth: No matter how hard and long you rub, you’ll still be there.

Better than attempting intellectual proof is offering instructions for meditation. This makes it possible for readers to have a direct experience of non-duality — the most powerful form of persuasion. 

To his credit, Sam does include several sidebars throughput Waking Up with practice instructions. These might be the best parts of the book.

There is a place for duality. I wouldn’t recommend living in non-duality all the time. In fact, there are times when a clear sense of separation is useful. If you’re being sexually or physically abused, for example, then your safety lies in setting clear and non-negotiable boundaries.

I like how Shinzen Young explains it: Rather than talking exclusively about no-self, he suggests having a flexible sense of self — one that can expand or contract in healthy ways based on your current context.

We need more help with integrating the experience of non-duality. Non-duality can be disorienting. If no one is really home, then how do I explain my sense of myself as an agent — an individual who makes decisions and chooses my behaviors? How do I carry out the tasks of daily life — interacting with people and going to work? And how do I tell people about what I’ve experienced? 

There are many possible answers to these questions. Sam doesn’t explore them, however, and I wish he had.

There are other forms of spirituality. Sam equates spirituality with nonduality and focuses on just two paths — Buddhism and Advaita. We have more options, however. 

Take the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, for example. Here is another potent form of spirituality without religion. Non-duality can be transformational, but recovering addicts will tell you that getting sober is nothing to sneeze at either. 

Let’s not vilify religious people. We can practice Buddhism and Advaita without believing in miracles or other supernatural events. This is not possible, Sam says, with Christianity and Islam, which require unscientific beliefs.

I doubt this. People who call themselves Christian range from intolerant fundamentalists to mystics such as Thomas Merton with a deep affinity for non-dual experience. The same can be said of Islam.

Again, the whole phenomenon of religion is more complex than Sam describes. I don’t assume that anyone who goes to church is a superstitious boob.

Ethical behavior is a prerequisite for spiritual practice — not a result. Sam describes “forms of mental pleasure that are intrinsically ethical: feelings like love, gratitude, devotion, and compassion.” 

Well, okay. But all the fallen gurus remind us of an inconvenient truth: Even profound spiritual experiences do not guarantee ethical behavior. 

In reality, the spiritual path begins with ethical behavior. Morality is the foundation of meditation practice — not the fruit. In his formulation of the Eightfold Path, the Buddha explicitly recognized this.

Let’s not oversell non-duality. I’m fascinated by non-duality, enlightenment, or whatever else you want to call it. It’s fun to explore, and Sam illuminates the path. 

And yet non-duality is not a panacea. The people we describe as enlightened can still struggle with sex, money, relationships, and a host of other issues. 

Let’s keep it all in perspective. Yes, the spiritual path can help us soar to planes of existence that defy description. But when it comes to waking up, compassion matters more than anything else. 

The highest expression of our spirituality is not in altered states of consciousness: It’s in our ordinary acts of kindness.

‘Every Moment is Fresh’ and More Slogans for Constructive Living

David Reynolds, author of Constructive Living, is fond of slogans, and so am I. Slogans can be powerful tools for immediately refocusing our attention and changing our behavior.

Following is my personal library of Constructive Living slogans. They’re drawn from books by David Reynolds and Gregg Krech, executive director of the ToDo Institute.

To get the context for these slogans, see my summary of Constructive Living principles. Then return here often to find a particular slogan that resonates with you.

Every moment is fresh

Who among us could bear being held accountable for every mistake we’ve ever made? Our past actions are beyond our control.

All we can do is apologize, make amends — and use the present moment to make a choice that sets a new direction.

Whatever you did just a second ago has already flowed into the stream of the past. The present moment brings a new possibility.

Even something that you’ve already done a thousand times can be done in a slightly different way, with greater attention and more precision.

I’m feeling…; what needs doing now?

There’s one aspect of being human that’s profound, easy to verify, and easy to forget: When appropriate, we can separate feelings from actions.

We can feel sad and still do the laundry.

We can feel stage fright and still give a speech.

We can dread doing our taxes and still sort our receipts.

We can feel angry with someone and still listen to what they say.

If we wait to take important actions until we feel “motivated,” then we could end up waiting a long time. Maybe a lifetime.

Variations on this slogan:

  • Feelings are for feeling.
  • Feelings change like the Japanese sky.
  • Making friends with fear.
  • Don’t try to shovel away your shadow (that is, control your feelings by will power).

And closely related: You can’t make anyone else feel good.

All I can do is…the next thing and the next thing and the next

“Moment by moment,” writes Reynolds, “reality brings us tasks in just this order.”

This slogan reminds us that there is no such thing as multitasking. When people say that they’re multi-tasking, they’re not really doing several things at once. They’re actually doing one thing for a few seconds, then another thing for a few seconds, and then another…ad infinitum.

The problem with this is that rapid switching between tasks imposes cognitive burdens that our poor brain is not designed to bear.

How much better it is — and how much more fun — to do one thing at a time with full attention.

A variation on this slogan: There is always just enough time to do what needs to be done.

Behavior wags the tail of feelings

This is one way to deal with procrastination. For example, don’t wait to do yoga until you feel like doing it. Waiting probably won’t generate the desire to get moving. Rolling out your mat, and doing one simple stretch might.

But even if this behavior doesn’t change your feelings, you’ll still be doing yoga.

A variation on this slogan: If it’s raining and you have an umbrella, use it. (If you can change unpleasant circumstances by taking action, then do so.)

Thanksgiving, not thanksfeeling

Recognize when other people deserve your gratitude even when you don’t feel grateful to them. Demonstrate this recognition through simple actions such as writing thank you notes to them and giving them token gifts. As a byproduct, such actions can actually generate feelings of gratitude.

A variation on this slogan: You care about what you care for.

Have it be the way it is

Cars get stuck in snow banks. People get laid off from their jobs. Accidents take place. Why pretend that reality is anything other than what actually happened?

If a problem surfaces, accept it. That is, permit yourself to have it for now (along with all your feelings about the problem). Then choose your next action.

A variant on this one is: Things turn out the way they do.

Run to the edge of the cliff and stop on a dime

Notice the three key words in this slogan:

  • Run refers to doing whatever you can to solve a problem.
  • Edge means keep taking action up to the moment that a solution appears.
  • Stop means letting go of the results of your efforts, which are ultimately beyond your control.

When we forget the meaning of these words, we fall into the traps of denying that the problem exists, making only half-hearted attempts at a solution, or blindly trusting that everything will “just work out.”

Variations on this slogan:

  • Effort is good fortune.
  • Flounder with full attention.
  • Don’t put your life on hold.

Action brings experience; experiential knowledge is dependable

Anxiety and depression can lead to over-thinking and under-acting. We waste time by spinning scenarios in our mind and predicting negative outcomes.

Taking action breaks this cycle. Some ideas can be understood only when implemented.

When reading self-help books, I look for ideas that I can turn into behaviors. I often wonder if the authors have ever done what they’re suggesting that I do.

Testing ideas through our own behavior gives us reliable knowledge about what works for us.

Give and give until you wave goodbye

We might feel tempted to disengage from a relationship long before it ends. Doing so is not necessary, and it can make matters worse.

Another option is to do everything possible to resolve the conflict until it’s clear that leaving is a wise choice. There’s inherent value in acting impeccably in difficult circumstances — and with difficult people.

And if we eventually choose to end the relationship, we can do so without regrets — knowing that we did our best.

For all of my dreams, I am what I do

It’s fine for us to imagine big possibilities for our lives — having a dream career, achieving financial independence, or even becoming enlightened. But dreaming is different than focusing on a specific outcome and actually doing something that moves us one step closer to the goal.

Repeating affirmations, chanting mantras, and doing mental exercises to “manifest your dreams” are no substitutes for taking action.

Stick it in your hara

Hara is a Japanese word for your lower abdomen. In certain spiritual traditions, this part of your body is considered the seat of wisdom — not your head. Americans might say that hara is “gut wisdom.”

The suggestion here is to refrain from acting impulsively, especially when your actions could alienate or hurt other people. Let your intention sit in your hara for a while. Act only after your gut wisdom has spoken.

Many “me’s”

You are a bundle of different identities. When with your parents, you might revert to a childhood role. At work, you might be competent and assertive. At a party with friends, another version of you emerges. Behavior depends on context.

This is useful to remember when you’re tempted to label someone in your life as “toxic” or “neurotic.” No single behavior or set of behaviors defines a person in an ultimate way. All of us have neurotic moments. Even “toxic” people have moments of clarity and compassion.

Unpleasant doesn’t mean “bad”

Many symptoms arise from positive intentions.

For example, someone who feels anxiety about public speaking wants to perform well. The person who fears getting on an airplane wants to stay safe. The person who is compulsive about making lists wants to make sure that everything gets done.

Remembering this can help us temper our judgments of ourselves and other people. It can also free up energy for taking constructive action.

Variations on this slogan:

  • Suffering grows from a seed of beauty.
  • Muck grows out of the lotus.
  • Look for the beautiful source.
  • Moldy perfume.

Symptoms are misattention

Symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other emotional ailments are strongest when we grant them our undivided attention. Constructive activities such as meditating, exercising, preparing healthy meals, and taking time to see friends can redirect our attention and reduce our suffering.

A variation on this slogan: When you’re not noticing your grief, where is it?

Self-centeredness is suffering

To dwell on our resentments is to place ourselves at the center of the universe. This is a recipe for neurotic suffering.

A constructive alternative is self-transcendence. For instance:

  • Instead of griping about how the government fails you, sign up to volunteer at your local food shelf.
  • Instead of complaining about loneliness, invite others to a dinner party at your house.
  • Instead of competing with other drivers for a prime parking space, drive to a more distant spot to relieve the congestion.

When our mindset shifts from What’s in it for me? to How can I serve?, life takes on a new quality.

Exchange yourself for another

We feel most self-conscious when we’re focused on our performance and worried about what other people think of us. The alternative is to redirect our attention to our larger purpose and moment-to-moment experience.

When making a speech, don’t dwell on how nervous you feel. Instead, focus on the point that you want to make and how to make it clear to your audience.

During yoga class, focus on doing the asanas with precision. Notice the body sensations that arise with each movement. Don’t worry about whether the other people in class think you’re too fat, too stiff, or too old.

As David Reynolds notes:

Self-consciousness disappears when attention is merged with reality. When the shy woman loses herself in her companion, when the beachgoer becomes the wave in which he swims, there is no awkward introspection.

Variations on this slogan:

  • Go be a wave.
  • Melt into the moment.

Reality is more interesting than all our ideas about it

Our default mental mode is distraction. We get lost in our mind by recycling events from the past, worrying about what will go wrong in the future, and spinning sexual fantasies.

Meanwhile, we become blind to the beauty and sensory richness of our environment. We stumble through our days on cruise control, not really noticing the world outside our head.

Take a few minutes every day to stop and simply notice colors, sounds, textures, shapes, and aromas.

Take a short break to close your eyes and feel the physical sensations associated with breathing.

During a conversation, observe the other person’s nonverbal language and tone of voice. Stop thinking about the next point that you want to make and pour 100 percent of your attention into hearing that person’s words.

The world is fascinating. If only we’d tune in to it!

I wish I weren’t miserable

Albert Ellis, creator of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, said that three beliefs are responsible for most of our misery:

  • I must always be perfectly competent.
  • Other people must always behave exactly the way that I expect.
  • Events must always turn out exactly the way I expect.

Since these statements all include the word must, Ellis also referred to them as examples of musterbating.

The spirit of musterbating is also present in statements that begin with:

  • If only….
  • They should have….
  • Why didn’t I just….

As an earlier slogan reminds us, things turn out the way they do. And, nobody is perfect. When circumstances disappoint us, the most constructive response is note that feeling and ask: What can I do about it?

Two kinds of “can’t”

Some of our difficulties result from sloppy language. Often we use the word can’t when what we really mean is:

  • I’m not willing to….
  • I’m afraid to….
  • I just really don’t want to….

In these cases, can’t is a sign of procrastination or a simple unwillingness to endure temporary discomfort.

Save can’t for the rare times when it’s actually physically impossible for you to do something.

Confidence follows success

Courage is the willingness to work toward your goals even when you feel unsure about achieving them.

Courage is the student who moves far away from home to attend college in a strange new city.

Courage is the person who starts a new business while knowing the risk of failure.

Courage is the first-time author who sits down to write a book — even if she feels inadequate to the task.

David Reynolds puts it this way:

Some people believe they should undertake a venture only after they feel confident of their ability to do it. With that attitude they rarely start any ventures. Trembling and unsure, without confidence, we give life a try. Confidence comes after we have succeeded, not before.

Freedom through discipline

After mastering the rules of grammar, great writers can use sentence fragments and neologisms (invented words) to great effect.

After memorizing musical scales and patterns, great jazz musicians can improvise gorgeous melodies on the spot.

After learning to draw with near-photographic realism, Picasso created masterpieces of cubism and abstraction.

Mastery begins with learning the basic techniques and materials of your craft. Then, after knowing the rules, you are free to bend or even break them.

In Constructive Living, mastery begins with learning to take charge of your behavior in the midst of constantly changing emotional states. This is a fundamental life skill that increases your effectiveness in any vocation.

Active rest

If you’re feeling tired, the most appropriate response might be to take a nap. On the other hand, staying in bed for more than nine hours a day might be an attempt to avoid problems.

Often we can refresh ourselves by simply switching activities.

If you feel foggy after sitting for long hours at the computer, then get up to take a brisk walk.

If you feel drained after a long day of meetings at work, then step on to a yoga mat and stretch for a few minutes.

Relaxation is not always the same as withdrawal from activity.

Bonus slogan #1: If nothing changes, then nothing changes

This slogan does not from David Reynolds. But it’s so closely aligned with Constructive Living that I feel compelled to include it.

Some people complain endlessly about their circumstances while refusing to change their behavior. They want better health, more money, and more friends. But they’re not willing to exercise more, eat better, gain new job skills, or invite a friend out to lunch.

When I’m not satisfied some aspect of my life, I ask: What am I doing to create this outcome? And, What can I do differently?

Bonus slogan #2: Eat, move, sleep

Again, this is not an “official” Constructive Living slogan. In fact, it’s the title of a wonderful little book by Tom Rath — Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes.

However, “eat, move, sleep” fits perfectly with another Constructive Living slogan: Depressed? Get moving!

Many self-help books for anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues focus on techniques for changing self-defeating thoughts. But equally important is the simple stuff that we do everyday to maintain our fragile human body — sleeping, eating, and exercising.

In Constructive Living, David Reynolds suggests a simple experiment: Eat, sleep, and exercise regularly for one week. Then notice the effects on your overall emotional state.

Here’s his rationale:

Many of the troubled people I know have neglected these fundamental aspects of human life. A lot of moodiness, depression, nervousness, and even craziness improves when these simple needs are met in regular fashion. Erratic uncontrolled lifestyles produce erratic uncontrolled people.

This sounds drop-dead simple. And, it can be a Herculean challenge to carry out.

Why? Because you will meet walls of resistance in the form of rationalizations and fluctuating emotions: I’ll exercise tomorrow…. I don’t have time to cook…. I feel too tired to get up when the alarm goes off.

If you acknowledge all this resistance and act on your plans anyway, you will make one of the most liberating discoveries possible for a human being: You can take constructive action no matter what you feel.

Thoughts come and go. Feelings arise and fade. But none of them need to stop you from living a life based on your values.

Pay Attention and Act Purposefully—the Heart of Constructive Living

Constructive Living is the name of a book and a body of teachings by David K. Reynolds. The book is one of my favorites — a simple and eminently sensible path to mental health.

You can easily test the principles of Constructive Living for yourself:

  • Accept your feelings
  • Act on your values
  • Refocus your attention
  • Reflect on what you’ve received, what you’ve given, and the difficulties you’ve caused

Accept your feelings

Unpleasant feelings are…well, unpleasant. Our natural tendency is to try to “fix” ourselves with a variety of strategies for making those feelings go away.

David says that our attempted solution is in fact the problem. Trying to control feelings is like trying to control the weather. Since we cannot change them by sheer force of willpower, the wisest course is simply to accept them.

Accepting feelings is easier to do once we see their true nature — complex, often illogical, and morally neutral. Feelings are not good or bad, right or wrong. They simply are.

Moreover, feelings are fluid. Over time, most feelings — even the most intense — will fade on their own. We can simply allow them to wash over us and let them pass without fanfare.

Note: Nothing in Constructive Living is an injunction to deny or suppress your feelings.

Feelings are important. They help us survive. They are cues to take care of ourselves: Fear is a signal to avoid danger. Sadness prompts us to slow down and take to grieve a loss or recover from a failure.

The point is that we can heed such messages and channel them into constructive behaviors.

And when we give up on fixing feelings, we are free to focus on what we do control to a far greater extent — our behavior and our attention.

Act on your values

Instead of dwelling on unpleasant feelings, we can accept them and simply ask: Now, what is my purpose? What is important to me? Today, how will I translate my core values into action?

Remembering to separate feelings from behavior allows us to avoid the trap of motivation — believing that we have to feel inspired, energized, or enthusiastic before taking action. For in fact:

  • We can feel sad and still do the laundry.
  • We can feel uninspired and still sit down to write.
  • We can feel fear and still stand up to give a speech.

In short, motivation is a luxury — nice when it happens, and not necessary.

This is good news: Our feelings don’t have to stop us from acting our intentions. And once we move into the stream of action, our unpleasant feelings will often start to fade: We might even feel less sad when the laundry is done.

In short, we can respond in a constructive way to our circumstances — no matter what they are, or how we feel about them in the moment.

To understand this at a gut level is a taste of unconditional freedom.

Note: It helps greatly to define your values as areas of activity and then translate them into clear next actions

Refocus your attention

There’s a saying in Constructive Living: “Self-centeredness is suffering.”

When I’m feeling sad or angry, my attention is usually on myself — often on my resentments and fears. This line of thought serves little purpose but to increase my negative mood.

The alternative is to refocus my attention on the world outside my head. Instead of dwelling on others’ faults and what’s missing from my life, I ask: 

  • What’s going on around me, and what calls upon me for a response?
  • What tasks in my environment remain undone?
  • What promises have I made to other people?
  • What’s the very next thing I can do to keep my promises?

This shift in perspective reveals that there are many useful things to be done in the present moment: Dishes to wash. Papers to be filed. Books to read. Bills to pay. Friends to call. And much more.

Here — in the homely details that are revealed by paying attention — is our opportunity to live impeccably.

Refocusing our attention reminds us that Reality is our most reliable and ever-present teacher. Our actions — and inactions — have visible consequences in the material world. Observing those consequences gives us valuable clues about what to do next.

Reflect on these three questions

In creating Constructive Living, David drew on a Japanese tradition called Naikan. This is a Japanese word for introspection, or “seeing oneself with the mind’s eye.”

Naikan is a structured method of reflection developed by Yoshimoto Ishin, a Buddhist monk. He taught the value of systematically answering three questions:

  • What have I received from others?
  • What have I given to others?
  • What difficulties have I caused others?

In Japan, people go on extended retreats and write out detailed answers to these questions — often focusing on specific people during specific periods of life. Naikan is also used in the treatment of alcoholism.

Yoshimoto described Naikan as developing “a thankful heart in order to prepare for death.” This is a profound practice that promotes appreciation and a visceral sense of our interdependence. It leads — quite naturally and joyfully — to the expression of gratitude.


Reduced to its core, Constructive Living reminds us that mental health springs from a balance between reflection and action. When troubled by negative feelings, we can apply the above principles to achieve this balance.

I’ll end with this quote from Constructive Living, where David sums it all up:

The key to successful living is to pay attention and act purposefully. Life won’t be trouble free that way — but then no life is trouble free. Being on top of the world depends on being on top of the world: being in control of you acting in the world.

Where to learn more

David Reynolds has written many books. In addition to Constructive Living, I recommend his “water series,” with their Taoist-inspired titles:

  • Even in Summer the Ice Doesn’t Melt
  • Water Bears No Scars
  • A Thousand Waves
  • Pools of Lodging for the Moon
  • Rainbow Rising From a Stream
  • Playing Ball on Running Water

Another wonderful resource is the ToDo Institute, a non-profit organization in Vermont that’s dedicated to the theory and practice of Constructive Living.

The Art of Crap Detection

One purpose of liberal education is gaining the ability to detect crap. And crap detection is necessary for one simple reason.

Because you are a fool. 

And so am I.

Please do not be offended by the above statements. They are cause for compassion, not criticism. 

We are all partners in fool-hood. We live, move, and have our being in foolishness. 

And it’s not our fault. We are born into foolishness, and precious few are the voices that call this fact to our attention—let alone point a way out.

Crap as commodity

Pundits and politicians of all stripes utter foolishness. Much of what we see in print and find online is foolishness. 

Sometimes the first words that come out of our mouth on any given subject are pure foolishness.

This is otherwise known as bullshit, or more simply: crap. 

“Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him,” said Ernest Hemingway. “It also should have a manual drill and a crank handle in case the machine breaks down.”

That’s not exactly a warm fuzzy. But what a useful insight. 

Hemingway was not the wisest or most compassionate member of the human race. But on this point he was right: Crap detection calls for eternal vigilance.

Finding mentors in crap-detecting

Crap detection is an inexhaustible subject, the study of a lifetime. Fortunately we can find mentors in this craft. 

Many of these folks are dead, but that matters little. Crap is timeless, and so are the ways to avoid it. 

One beacon is “Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection,” a 1969 speech by Neil Postman.

Also check out On Bullshit, by Princeton philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt.

My favorite anthem to crap detection is Politics and the English Language by George Orwell. It’s worth re-reading every year or two.

According to Orwell, we utter crap when we string together:

  • Words that have no clear meaning
  • Assertions that violate logic
  • Arguments that have little or no supporting evidence
  • Sentences that are unnecessarily ugly 

These guidelines get to the heart of crap detection. To them I humbly add a couple of my own.

Beware the oft-told story

Case in point: the “boiling frog” story. Though there are countless versions of it, the key points are:

  • If you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately jump out.
  • However, if you put the frog in a pot of lukewarm water and gradually heat it to boiling, the frog will fail to notice the temperature change. In fact, the frog will sit there until it boils to death.
  • Likewise, human beings often fail—to their peril—to notice gradual and dangerous changes in their environment.

There’s just one problem with this story: It’s crap.

The Consultant Debunking Unit at Fast Company’s website nailed it with Next Time, What Say We Boil a Consultant

This article quotes two biologists who point out that the story radically underestimates frog intelligence. As soon the water gets hot, in fact, the darn things will leap out faster than heck.

The bottom line: When I hear an anecdote more than three times, my crap detector glows red.

Avoid brand-building books

I thoroughly enjoyed this article by Dave Logan about the banality of many business books. He describes them as “air sandwiches”—first and last chapters with little of substance in between. 

“One of my mentors told me to read the first and last chapters of a book,” Logan writes, “because everything in the middle is either stories or takeaways so simple that watching Mr. Rogers is a better use of your time.”

I’m afraid these comments apply to many nonfiction books beyond business titles. This is especially true in the era of brand-building books, commonly published by consultants who want to boost their credibility and build their client base.

A few of these books are actually worth your time. But a great many of them are simply overgrown business cards.

Are you thinking about writing a book to build your brand? If so, start by asking some inconvenient questions:

  • Do I have a book-length idea—one that actually merits 50,000 words? Or, do I actually have a magazine article? Or a blog post?
  • Can I support my thesis with something more than personal anecdotes?
  • Can I balance clarity with complexity—that is, offer credible solutions without over-simplifying the problem at hand?
  • Can I go beyond superficial take-aways and help readers to do the hard work of thinking?

For more guidance, see Should You Write a Book? by John Butman and his own book—Breaking Out: How to Build Influence in a World of Ideas.

In any case, please be careful. Because anything you read—including some of what you find on this very website—might be pure, unadulterated crap. 

BJ Fogg on the Myths of Habit Change—and a Method That Actually Works

 I could bore you to tears with stories about my failed attempts at self-improvement. 

Take, for example, all those times that I returned from meditation retreats declaring that I’d begin each day with a heroic session of hatha yoga followed by an hour of silent sitting. 

These declarations suffered the common fate of New Year’s resolutions. Despite my plans for dramatic and sudden behavior change, I eventually defaulted to the status quo — sleeping late and seldom making it to the yoga mat or meditation cushion. 

The result was a half-hearted spiritual practice and a loss of self-esteem. 

After many incidents like this, I was relieved to discover BJ Fogg and his Tiny Habits method, which is documented in his book Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything.

BJ urges us to scale down our grandiose plans for behavior change, start with small changes that scale up over time, and celebrate success at every step along the way.

Release the self-defeating myths

BJ is on a mission to stop us from blaming ourselves when our attempts at habit change change backfire. The real problem, he says, is unscientific models and methods that almost guarantee failure. 

Following are some examples.

Myth: You fail at habit change because you lack motivation, willpower, or both. Not at all, says BJ. In fact, it is possible to design habits so that they require little or no willpower. If you’re struggling with habit change, then stop looking for personal flaws. Instead, look for design flaws. 

Myth: When you fail at behavior change, the solution is to get more information. This is a common weakness in corporate wellness programs. Does your company have too many employees who smoke? Give them more facts about the health risks of smoking. Too many employees who sit all day? Give them more statistics about the benefits of exercise. 

This reasoning sounds so…reasonable. And yet there’s little evidence to support it. 

Providing information alone does not consistently change behavior — especially when you don’t give people any guidance in what to do with the facts. BJ calls this the Information-Action Fallacy.

Myth: Epiphany is a reliable method for behavior change. Behavior change can result from  altered states of consciousness such as spiritual awakenings and mystical experiences. (For examples, see the chapters on conversion in The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James.) BJ refers to such events as epiphanies

Alas, epiphanies are beyond our control. We cannot make them appear at will. 

What’s more, epiphanies can fail to change behavior. There are plenty of celebrated gurus whose post-enlightenment behavior continued to harm people. 

To avoid ethical land mines, we can supplement our spiritual practices with some wise guidance for habit change.

Myth: Successful habit change includes setting goals. The word goal is ambiguous. It can refer to:

  • An aspiration — an abstract ideal, such as being a loving husband and father
  • An outcome — an visible and measurable result
  • A behavior — for example, exercising or sleeping eight hours per night

Instead of talking about goal-setting, BJ uses these three words for greater precision. 

Myth: Successful behavior change includes behavior tracking. I remember a viral post about behavior change from 2007. It centered on an anecdote about comedian Jerry Seinfeld

Jerry wanted to develop a habit of writing jokes every day. So, the story goes, he armed himself with a wall calendar and red magic marker. For every day that he actually completed his task of writing jokes, Jerry put a big X on the calendar with the magic marker. He knew his habit was stable when he saw an unbroken chain of Xs on the calendar.

In short: If you want to develop a habit, track your behavior and don’t break the chain. This single phrase spawned a host of copycat blog posts and Don’t Break the Chain apps. 

Even so, BJ does not include behavior tracking in his behavior change model or methods. His research does not support this technique. 

On this issue, I’m choosing to go with the behavior scientist over the Internet meme. 

Myth: You can change or break habits with a single, powerful intervention. We live in a culture that thrives on stories about overnight success, including sudden and dramatic behavior changes. 

But think about it: How many times has such transformation actually occurred to you, or to people that you know well?

BJ’s research reveals that transformation is more likely to occur in increments, the cumulative effect of many small behavior changes. In fact, there’s a whole chapter in his book (Growing Your Habits From Tiny to Transformative) with examples and explanation.   

Clearing the conceptual decks and getting back to the data

Releasing myths about behavior change allows us to drop a lot of baggage. 

Forget blame and shame. 

Forget willpower. 

Let go of dependence on information, goal-setting, behavior tracking, or epiphany. 

What relief!

Instead, we get to see behavior change as a skill — or, more accurately, a set of skills. 

We can let go of self-judgment and get down to the real work of applying design principles to find habits that “stick.” 

On this path there is no such thing as failure. There are only behavior change experiments, which give us data about what works and what doesn’t. 

In the process, we get to move past behavior folklore to behavior science. Tiny Habits is based on data that BJ gathered from more than 40,000 people who took his free Tiny Habits course. (For more details about the research, see his references.)

What’s more, BJ  has personally coached people to use the Tiny Habits method. He brings both quantitative and qualitative perspectives to this topic — a rare and valuable combination of skills. 

Above all, the Tiny Habits method is testable. The steps and specific and concrete, and it’s easy to tell whether or not it’s working. 

The results you get are crispy, as BJ likes to say, rather than fuzzy or abstract. 

To understand this, let’s start with BJ’s model of human behavior. Then we’ll see how it’s applied in his method for habit change. 

The Fogg Behavior Model 

First, says BJ, remember that any human behavior (B) occurs only when three factors intersect:

  • Motivation (M) — you want to do the behavior. 
  • Ability (A) — you can actually do the behavior. 
  • Prompt (P) — you are reminded to do the behavior. 

You can express this as a formula: 


Next, remember some key points about how these factors interact: 

  • The higher your Motivation to do a behavior, the more likely you are to actually do it. BJ’s first maxim of behavior change is: “Help people do what they already want to do.”
  • The higher your Ability to do a behavior, the more likely you are to actually do it. To succeed at habit change, choose a behavior that’s simple and easy to do. As BJ says, “Simplicity changes behavior.”
  • Motivation and Ability have a reciprocal relationship. When your motivation is high, you can do harder behaviors. But when your motivation is low, you’ll gravitate toward easier behaviors. 
  • Motivation is fickle. Like a wave, motivation rises and falls. You can wake up one day feeling excited to exercise and another day absolutely dreading it. For this reason, BJ cautions us to avoid the “Motivation Monkey” — the temptation to make big behavior changes that depend on having high motivation all or most of the time.
  • No matter what your levels of Motivation and Ability, behaviors happen only with a Prompt. Some synonyms for prompt are cue, reminder, and trigger. For example, I designed a habit to do yoga right after I start coffee in the morning. When I see the “on” light for the coffee turn to bright blue, that’s my prompt to step on the yoga mat. 

All this has two major implications for starting new habits and stopping old ones:

  • You can make a behavior more likely by increasing motivation, making it easier to do, or adding an effective prompt. 
  • You can make a behavior less likely by reducing motivation, making it harder to do, or removing the prompt.  

Which leads us to the essence of behavior design: 

Tinker with motivation, ability, and prompts until you get the desired behavior. 

(For more details and a visual representation of these ideas, see the Fogg Behavior Model.)

Tinkering means iterating like crazy, running lots of experiments, and learning from failure until you find some combination of these factors that actually works. 

The Tiny Habits method 

Now we’re ready to apply the behavior model in a more explicit way to habit change. 

1: Choose a tiny behavior. This is one that:

  • Fits in with your existing behaviors
  • Takes less than 30 seconds to do
  • Is something you can do right now
  • Is easy

Examples of tiny behaviors include:

  • Flossing one tooth
  • Doing one push up
  • Stepping on the yoga mat 
  • Taking one mindful breath

Examples of behaviors that are not tiny include:

  • Flossing all your teeth
  • Doing 20 push ups
  • Doing 20 Sun Salutes (a sequence of 12 yoga poses) 
  • Sitting down to meditate for 60 minutes

The underlying principle at this point is to dial down the amount of Ability required. You want a behavior is simple enough to do even your Motivation is low. 

This — like many aspects of BJ’s work — is counterintuitive. It seems to contradict much of what we “know” about habit change. 

If this is an obstacle to you, you can get past it by remembering two things.

First, review your past experience with habit change. Chances are that the accepted “wisdom” about this topic has not served you well. Again, that’s because it’s probably based on myth and misinformation. 

Second, small changes scale naturally over time. Success with the Tiny Habits method leads to behaviors that grow and multiply. 

For example, my first Tiny Habit involved simply stepping on to my yoga mat. I did not commit to doing any specific postures or practicing for any specified period of time. All I committed to do was simply place my feet on the mat. 

At first, this seemed absurd — such a trivial commitment. But it soon became clear that I can step on the mat even on days when the last thing I feel like doing is yoga. 

This particular combination of Motivation and Ability — arrived at after several Tiny Habit for yoga designs that failed — now works beautifully. After stepping on the mat, the thoughts that run through my head are: 

Well, I’m on the mat. I made it this far. I might as well go ahead and do something as long as I’m here. 

On most days, the result is that I end up doing several sun salutes followed by squats, push ups, and a plank pose.

Tiny Habits offers many more examples of how habits scale up naturally over time. If you’re skeptical, just test it for yourself. 

2: Pair your tiny behavior with a prompt. Use this Tiny Habit template:

After I [fill in your Prompt] I will [fill in your Tiny Habit].

For example: 

  • After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth. 
  • After I wake up and put my feet on the floor, I will say It’s going to be a great day. (BJ refers to this as the “Maui habit” and tells its origin story.) 
  • After I walk into the kitchen, I will drink a glass of water. 
  • After I start the dishwasher, I will write one sentence in my journal. 
  • After I pour my morning coffee, I will text my mom. 
  • After I walk in my door from work, I will get out my exercise clothes. 
  • After I put my head on the pillow, I will think of one good thing from my day. 

Tiny Habits includes an appendix with 300 such Tiny Habit examples. This alone is worth the price of the book. 

By the way, some of the most useful thinking you’ll ever do is to make a list of the “anchor moments” in your day — your current and stable habits that can serve as prompts for a new Tiny Habit. 

3: Celebrate every time that you do your tiny behavior. To complete your behavior design, add a specific way to celebrate that feels authentic to you. For instance:

  • Smile big.
  • Nod your head. 
  • Say Yes! while doing a fist pump. 
  • Imagine your favorite teacher saying Well done to you. 
  • Do a short victory dance. 

Again, Tiny Habits includes many more celebration techniques. All of them illustrate the underlying principle: Habits are “wired in” with positive emotion. 

Celebration is a big deal to BJ. “People change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad,” he writes. And, his second maxim of behavior change is: Help people feel successful. 

In fact, BJ claims that:

Celebration will one day be ranked alongside mindfulness and gratitude as daily practices that contribute most to our overall happiness and well-being. If you learn just one thing from my entire book, I hope it’s this: Celebrate your tiny successes.

Remember to celebrate every time that you do your Tiny Habit. If your plan is to do one squat after you turn on the water for a shower, then celebrate that single squat. 

If you happen to do five, ten, or even more squats — great. You’re welcome to do some extra celebration. But celebrate every time you do your designed behavior, even it it’s the minimum. 

4: Create a Tiny Habits recipe. BJ recommends writing out a recipe for every Tiny Habit. The acronym for a complete recipe is ABC:

  • Anchor — the Prompt, referred to here as an anchor so that we get the nifty ABC acronym 
  • Behavior — your Tiny Habit
  • Celebration — your preferred way to celebrate

If you buy Tiny Habits, you’ll get access to a PDF with printable Tiny Habit recipe cards.  

5: Rehearse your Tiny Habit. When your Tiny Habits recipe is in writing, the design phase of the method is over. Next comes rehearsal, which leads naturally to execution (actually doing your Tiny Habit during the course of your day).

To rehearse a new Tiny Habit, mentally picture yourself doing the behavior in response to the anchor and then celebrating. 

Also physically rehearse your ABC sequence a few times. Success with behavior change hinges on remembering to do your Tiny Habit in the first place. This is no small matter, and rehearsal helps a lot.

How to learn more

There’s much more juicy material in Tiny Habits about how to change your behavior. I’ll cover more of this in a future post. For now I’ll simply refer you to the website for this book and the free Tiny Habits course.