The Refuge of Experience

Remember the Native American legend of the good wolf and the evil wolf? The little boy asks his grandfather which one will win. Do you remember what the grandfather answers? “The one you feed.”

The implication is that we should feed one of the wolves and let the other starve. If we’re patient and consistent enough, eventually, we can eliminate the evil wolf and have only good.

In his teaching, Fred Davis ( makes a distinction between thinking and experience. Experience can mean something we accumulate slowly over time. “She is very good at what she does because she has so much experience.” However, what Fred is talking about is what we might call momentary experience — the experience going on in this moment now.

In each moment, I can trust my thinking or I can trust my experience. If I go with my thinking, I wind up identified with the body/mind, separate, and sooner or later, suffering. When I go with experience, there’s peace, ease, aliveness, connection, and no problems. Only a thought can have a problem. When I catch myself having problems, that’s a clue that I’m identifying with the thinking and an opportunity to shift back to experience.

Which wolf will win? The one I feed more, certainly, but the thinking wolf has its uses. We don’t want to starve it to death. We just want to remember that we can always turn to the wolf of experience for a break from the responsibilities and problems and stresses the wolf of thought brings us.

It might be useful to notice that thought happens within experience. We can have experience without thought, but we can’t have thought without experience. Experiencing awareness has to be present before thought can happen. Moment by moment experience is primary and fundamental. Thought, sensation, everything happens only within that primary and fundamental experience.

Posted by on 2013/04/06 in Uncategorized


Tiny Habits (3)

For the past week, I’ve been working on these habits:

  1. After I peel a banana, I will say thanks for one thing
  2. After I put something in the microwave, I will fill my water bottle if necessary and take a sip
  3. After pulling out of the garage, I will sit in the driveway to watch the garage door close

The banana habit has gone well. Sometimes I catch myself remembering to give thanks for something a few minutes after having peeled the banana. On the other hand, sometimes I notice that I think of the habit a few minutes before getting to the banana and going ahead and finding a gratitude at that point. The purpose of course, is just to get create more gratitude in my life and that’s what’s happening.

The goal of number 2 is to get me to drink water earlier in the day on weekends. When I fix my breakfast, I usually microwave my frozen blueberries for 30 seconds and water for a hot drink for two minutes. So that gives me triggers to take two sips of water. Taking the two sips reminds me that I want to drink more water (and take my water bottle with me when I leave the house), so that’s headed in the right direction.

Number 3 comes from some episodes last year when I thoughtlessly managed to ride off on my bike (or drive off in my car) leaving the garage door open. It’s not such a big deal when Karen is home, but it’s not so good to just go off and leave the house wide open to whatever critters might wander in. So this week I’ve done a good job of paying attention to closing the garage door because of making a point of sitting in the driveway to watch it close.

I may stick with this set for another week. I’m not feeling as automatic and confident with them as I did the first set.

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Posted by on 2013/04/06 in Uncategorized


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Tiny Habits Project (2)

I want to say a little more about the third habit I worked on last week, “After I open the door on my way out of the house, I will touch the door jamb and say, ‘I’ll be back.’”

In the Middle Ages, one of the vows Benedictine monks would make was called stability. It wasn’t about their emotional life, rather it was a commitment to live out their life in a particular community. They promised that they would not pull up stakes and leave without their abbot’s permission.

In a lot of ways, our current home is perfect for us. It’s a condominium, so we don’t have to take care of the yard. It has an attached two-car garage. From our back windows, we see lots of Nature since we overlook a greenbelt that the city has committed to never develop. It’s small so it doesn’t require a lot of maintenance. And we got it new, something Karen had always wanted.

I wanted a simple leave-taking ritual to remind me of all this when I leave the house. That’s what the tiny habit is about. Touching the door jamb and saying “I’ll be back” reminds me of my commitment to this house. We’ve moved enough times already. Our plan is to stay here.


Posted by on 2013/04/01 in Uncategorized


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My Tiny Habits Project

Recently, I learned about something called “Tiny Habits”. I don’t remember exactly how I was directed there, but I watched this video and everything flowed from that.

If you watch the video and follow the links, you’ll learn that what Dr. Fogg offers is, effectively, a method of programming oneself to perform desired behaviors in an automatic and consistent way. His method consists of identifying a “tiny habit”, a small action you can execute reliably and easily in under 30 seconds in response to a trigger or “anchor” you select. He offers a week-long (online) class in which he coaches students through their efforts to identify, execute, and establish three new habits in one week.

He recommends formulating your habits in the following terms:

  • After [anchor], I will [tiny habit].

The anchor serves as a trigger to stimulate, or prompt the tiny habit. Once the easy, tiny habit is automatic, it can be expanded into a much more complex behavior if desired. By taking the process in baby steps, it never feels overwhelming or demanding. For me, it really turned out to be fun. Here are the habits I started out with for the past week (as part of Dr. Fogg’s class):

  1. After I get out of bed in the morning, I will go in the living room and adjust the temperature.
  2. After I open my computer, I will look at the list of messages in my e-mail inbox.
  3. After I walk through the kitchen on my way out of the house, I will touch the door jamb and say, “I’ll be back.”

Dr. Fogg emphasizes that tweaking and revising our habits in an integral part of the process. After my wife beat me to the thermostat a couple of days, I revised habit 1 to be “After I get out of bed in the morning, I will go in the living room and touch the thermostat/adjust the temperature.” That way, I could execute the behavior even if the temperature was already adjusted.

Habit number 2 just gets me to look at my e-mail. Once I look, I’m usually motivated to read some and process some of the stream, but even if I don’t, even if I just look and see, “Oh, wow, 50 messages,” I count it as a win and celebrate. That’s the other piece of the method. Every time you execute one of your habits, you celebrate. A celebration can be a word spoken aloud (“Awesome!” “Righteous!” “Woohoo!”) or internally (“I did it!” “I rock!” “Yay, me :)”), a physical gesture (fist pump, thumbs up, quick little dance, etc.), a quiet smile, or anything else that lets you know that you’re happy with what you just did. It’s a little internal reward.

For habit 3, I found that I needed a more specific anchor, so it got revised to, “After I open the door on my way out of the house, I will touch the door jamb and say, ‘I’ll be back.'”

I was able to complete all three habits every day for the week. It was exciting to see the behaviors become more automatic over the course of the week.

I plan to continue formulating and working on three habits each week and I plan to write more about this project here. In my next post, I’ll talk about the habits I plan to work on in the coming week.

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Posted by on 2013/03/31 in Uncategorized


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The Structure of Experience

When we pay attention to our moment-by-moment experience, what do we notice?

I notice that what I call “I” seems to be awareness or consciousness that is constantly experiencing sensory impressions. Some of those sense impressions are real, that is, they come from the senses, while others are imaginary, that is, they are simulated in the imagination.

For example, if I hear a clock ticking, that’s an example of a real sensory impression. It seems to come from “out there” somewhere. When I focus on my thoughts, what I notice is an imaginary voice speaking them aloud. The voice just recited the statement, “When I focus on my thoughts, what I notice…” as if dictating and I typed it out. Then the next one (“The voice just recited…”), and the next one (“Then the next one…”). Someone sitting beside me would not hear the voice, but it’s quite clear to me — that is, the awareness that I am.

So the simplest description of human experience (mine, anyway — I’m guessing that yours is similar) seems to be: awareness containing real and imaginary sense impressions. Everything else can be built up from that. Thoughts for me are usually spoken by an imaginary voice. Perhaps for some they occur as imaginary images. I have never found a imaginary experience that consisted of anything other than a simulation of one of the physical senses. I can imagine smells, tastes, sounds, sights, tactile sensations, and sensations of movement or pressure in the body. I don’t seem to be able to imagine anything that is not in essence a simulation of one of the physical senses.

So human consciousness has taken imaginary and real sense impressions and used them to convey meaning (Don’t ask me to explain how — that’s way above my pay grade). That is, the experience of seeing or hearing a word can have a meaning. The spoken or written word can point to a concept beyond itself, distinct from itself. Using this fundamental tool of meaning, consciousness operating in many brains over a great deal of time has constructed an amazing edifice of thought that includes religion, philosophy, science, technology, literature, poetry, recipes, and the like. By connecting spoken and written words, consciousness has made it possible to record thoughts so they can be shared with other consciousnesses in other places and times.

A reductionistic view can be very useful for understanding the phenomena of biology, chemistry, and subatomic physics. The reductionistic approach has been very successful at explaining why the world works the way it does. It has been completely unsuccessful at explaining phenomena that emerge from the interaction of large numbers of particles at a higher level. Indeed, the reductionistic view tends to pretend that the higher levels don’t exist at all. Thus, behaviorism denies mental activity or consciousness as worthy of study because it is not directly observable. Psychologists and neurologists have at times ignored emotions in their efforts to understand the brain. Physicists say that chemistry is just applied physics while chemists say biology is just applied chemistry. (see

Ash Jogalekar explains why reductionism has such a struggle trying to explain phenomena that depend on historical contingency and accident. A different perspective is needed for understanding and explaining things like how brains work, how economies work, how all kinds of complex phenomena that emerge from the interaction of many elements, even when the interaction between any two elements is relatively simple and easily described. A higher level description is required to make sense of such patterned phenomena.

So we can recognize the beautiful simplicity of the awareness / sensory impression description of experience, and it’s also important to recognize the varied richness of experience that grows from meaning and the cultural diversity that consciousness has created.

The computer scientist may know that fundamentally the computer only deals in 0s and 1s, but when he wants to write software, he uses a higher level language because doing anything significant in 0s and 1s would be prohibitively difficult. The neurologist may know that the human brain is just a bunch of neurons sending signals to each other, but to understand how the brain functions, she examines higher level structures in the brain than just neurons. And so forth.

Reducing experience to sense impressions in awareness can be useful for realizing what’s going on when experience happens. However, to function in the human world, we have to take a higher level perspective. We understand words effortlessly. We easily track our own emotions and others’. In an instant we can decide whether a financial transaction is in our interest or not (“Should I buy the lime green Yugo for $10K or the royal blue Toyota for $17K?”)

The very ease of functioning at the higher level makes us forget that fundamentally we’re just awareness experiencing sense impressions.  We begin to identify with the sense impressions rather than the awareness “taking delivery” of them. We think that “I” is a physical being when what is actually experienced is a set of sensations in awareness that seem to indicate the existence of a body. (That’s not to say that the body doesn’t exist, just that what awareness experiences is not a body but sense impressions that seem to indicate a body.)

In science, reductionism is good at understanding and explaining interactions at the lowest levels. That kind of understanding facilitates the development of technology. Holism is more helpful in understanding the overall behavior of complex and chaotic systems like human beings and other animals, populations, hurricanes, traffic in a large city, economies, epidemics, and so forth.

When life is complex and stressful, it can be helpful to remember that all I really am is awareness full of sense impressions.

When boredom sets in and a desire arises for meaning and satisfaction in life, it can be helpful to notice the diversity of patterns and remember what is important to me, to notice both how I’m different from everything and everyone around me and how I’m connected to everything and everyone around me, even though it really all boils down to sense impressions in awareness.


Posted by on 2012/11/15 in Uncategorized


When I awaken and cultivate compassion for myself, compassion for all beings thrives.

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Posted by on 2012/11/14 in Uncategorized


Ten Humanist Propositions

A response to the Judeo-Christian “Ten Commandments”

  1. Mindful, attentive presence is the essential skill for living well.
  2. The most effective way to get the respect you want is to give it to others.
  3. If I will attend to the beam in my own eye, the mote in my sibling’s will generally take care of itself.
  4. To have a life full of joy, cultivate gratitude and let go of entitlement.
  5. To have a life of connection, cultivate compassion and let go of judgement.
  6. To have a life of meaning, cultivate love and let go of disdain.
  7. To have a life of learning and growth, cultivate an attitude of open curiosity and let go of certainty.
  8. To have a life full of trust, cultivate honesty and let go of deceit.
  9. Bear in mind that a statement that begins, “The fact of the matter is…” is still expressing an opinion, not necessarily a fact.
  10. What we think, we become, so our best strategy for becoming who we want to be is, as best we can, to work on filling our minds with what we do want rather than what we don’t.

NOTE: Many alternatives to the biblical ten commandments have been proposed. Wikipedia lists a number of them.


Posted by on 2012/11/13 in Uncategorized