Saturday, 17 June 2017

Daily meditation: what works and what doesn't -- my practical recommendations

 
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In 1422, Bernardino of Sienna was facing a disastrous situation. The plague had wiped out half of the monks in his monastery. To make things worse, the crop had been lost, partly because of insufficient cultivation, partly because of an unusually harsh winter. The monks that had survived had no resources, no energies, and no motivation to go further.

Those still alive were looking at Bernardino, hoping that he would be able to figure out a solution. He was the spiritual magnet that had attracted them to the Franciscan Order, prompting them to abandon parents, friends, and possessions. He was the fountain-head from which they had always been able to draw strength in times of trouble.

To everyone's surprise, Bernardino did not convoke a chapter to discuss the situation. He also didn't provide any instructions, explanations, or words of encouragement. Instead, he just announced that he needed to be alone for a while in order to meditate. "I will be back in two weeks," he said, before walking out of the monastery, and heading for the nearby woods.

Bernardino spent the next weeks in solitude, thinking about the challenges he was facing. During that period, he drew nourishment from wild fruits, drank water from the Arno river, and slept in an improvised shed.

When Bernardino returned to the monastery, he was saluted sombrely by John Capistrano, the monk who had taken up Bernardino's functions during those two weeks. "Did you find an answer?" asked John Capistrano. Bernardino nodded. "When I meditate, I always find answers," he replied, "and these are answers I could not find by reading a hundred books."

In fact, what Bernardino had accomplished through meditation was not so much finding the answers to his problems, but letting the answers find him. He had made himself ready to see the invisible, ready to let solutions take shape before his eyes, ready to overcome obstacles that seemed insurmountable. He had allowed nature to speak to him, and point him in the right direction.

"Letting the answers find you" constitutes the perfect definition of meditation. Instead of exerting pressure, you create conditions that render pressure unnecessary. Instead of pushing for decisions, you let them emerge naturally. Instead of agonising about the future, you trust that the right process will always deliver the right results, given enough time.

Through the years, my attitude towards meditation has evolved from total scepticism to daily practice. This evolution however is not the result of a philosophical revelation, but of trial and error. It is the result of acknowledging what works and discarding what doesn't.

"In order to learn, you need to accumulate, but in order to understand, you need to simplify," observed Lao-Tzu. His words provide us an accurate description of the meditation process. The whole point of meditation is to grasp the principles, patterns, and structures that shape our lives; to draw practical conclusions from a multiplicity of facts, intuitions, and emotions; to become better, more effective human beings.

Yet, my daily practice of meditation has only served to increase my suspicions towards grandiose pronouncements about "becoming one with the universe" and "understanding that we are all one."

My approach to meditation may be viewed by many as unorthodox, but that's too bad for them: I find proven success more convincing than grandstanding. I prefer a solid track record in problem-solving to the possession of arcane knowledge.

If you are practising meditation in the traditional Eastern style and it's not working for you, you may want to take a look at my unorthodox methods:
  • instead of meditating in a yoga position, put on some comfortable shoes, and take a one-hour walk.
  • instead of emptying your mind and controlling your breathing, carry with you a brief list of the main issues you are facing, and focus your thoughts on those.
  • instead of looking for solutions to problems, seek only to formulate the questions accurately, and then let the answers find you.
  • instead of meditating only at certain times during the week, take breaks every day at irregular intervals, enjoy a cup of herbal tea, and meditate for ten minutes.
  • instead of demanding immediate results from your meditation sessions, accept the fact that the benefits will be non-linear, benefits such as gaining deep insights at unexpected moments, and coming up with creative solutions to problems while you are performing unrelated tasks.
  • instead of meditating about little things, focus your reflections on big principles, big patterns, and big structures; ignore irrelevant details, and concentrate on essential traits and large commonalities.
  • instead of following a meditation routine, explore different set-ups and sequences to see which one works best for you; do not pay attention to people who claim that their meditation method is the best for everybody.
Anyone who has read my books won't be surprised to hear that I regard beneficial meditation and a consistent philosophy as indissolubly linked. I don't think that you can have one without the other.

Meditation -if understood and practised as intense, quiet thinking- will render you happier and more successful, if only because it will improve the quality of your decisions and actions. As Longfellow put it so beautifully in his Psalm of Life: "Not enjoyment and not sorrow is our destined way, but to act so that tomorrow finds us further than today."

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: photograph of classical painting; photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2016.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books

 
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Thursday, 1 June 2017

Five massive advantages of rational living

 
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These days, when irrationality is frequently predicated as the only way to go, it is important to remind yourself of the massive benefits you can draw from rational living. 

How often do you hear that you should trust your emotions blindly? Or that you only need to believe something on order to make it true? Or that you cannot be sure of anything because the veracity of facts depends on the viewer's standpoint?

The problem with relativism and subjectivism is that, in addition to rendering you hesitant and ineffective, they can also make you poor, sick, and conflict-prone. Let me illustrate these risks while I present the advantages of rational living.


Speed is the first difference you will remark if you compare rational and irrational individuals. And by “irrational,” I don't mean stupid. What I mean is wildly emotional, confused, and erratic. People who trust their emotions more than they trust facts can only maintain their course of action for a while, that is, until their emotions change, something that might happen next week, the next day, or the next hour.  

Without the consistency provided by rationality, you will only be able to advance towards your goals slowly, if at all, because, with every change of mood, your direction will also change.

Rationality enables speed because it helps individuals keep going on their chosen direction day after day. Over time, such constancy will allow them to cover long distances so fast that it seems inconceivable. Conversely, slowness is the way of life for wildly emotional persons because their erratic behaviour prevents them from going far in any direction.

2. Self-confidence

Self-confidence is also something that you will immediately perceive when you deal with rational individuals. In contrast to the endless hesitations of emotionally-driven people, rational persons can establish their goals on the basis of facts, and make their plans on the basis of logic. An orderly thinking process provides rational men and women a strong determination to succeed.

If confronted with opposition, rational people don't fall apart. If faced with obstacles, they don't give up. If hit by misfortune, they don't despair.  Their self-confidence is based on a realistic assessment of their possibilities, an assessment that entails the acceptance of occasional errors, adversity, and setbacks.

In contrast to emotionally-driven people, rational individuals can confidently keep advancing towards their goals because they know that steady, focused work will lead to beneficial results, if given enough time. 


The ability to create wealth is quintessential to rational individuals. Wildly emotional people may occasionally come up with brilliant ideas, but their erratic personality will prevent them to bringing those ideas to fruition.

Irrational people may conceive grandiose plans, but their inconsistent behaviour will prevent them from implementing them. They may now and then propose compelling projects, but their irregular efforts will not suffice to turn those projects into reality.

Only rational men and women can exert the sort of sustained, consistent efforts that create wealth, and enable wise investments.


A good health (or at least, better that it would have been otherwise) goes hand in hand with rational living because only rational individuals possess the self-discipline to eat sensibly, exercise regularly, and get sufficient rest each night.  

Rational men and women commit themselves to a sensible lifestyle, and strive to stay healthy. They follow a sensible diet because they understand the dangers of overindulgence. They go to bed on time because they grasp the risks of overexerting themselves.

In contrast, wildly emotional people tend to be addicted to low-quality food, risky activities, and burning the candle on both sides. Such habits can cause tremendous harm to one's health in the long term.


Last but not least, I want to mention an aspect that you will rarely hear anyone mention: Irrational people tend to be conflict-prone, that is, vociferous, hurtful, and self-centred. By putting their emotions on the driving seat, they often fail to pay attention to what other people say and feel.

Contrary to what many movies portray, emotionally-driven persons tend to lack empathy because empathy requires the willingness to analyse the context of problems. While rational individuals go to great lengths to have harmonious relationships, irrational people, due to their lack of perspective, will often provoke unnecessary clashes.

In  conclusion, your commitment to rational living (starting with the adoption of a rational philosophy) can deliver you large advantages. The efforts you exert to develop your prudence, self-reliance and thoughtfulness can enable you to make faster and better decisions, and help you implement them effectively.  Rationality is an invaluable asset, which especially in times of adversity, can make the difference between a glorious victory and a painful defeat. 

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: photograph of classical building; photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2016.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books

 
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 Here is the link to a media interview, just published:

Saturday, 13 May 2017

The missing link in personal development

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The importance of having good systems becomes particularly clear in times of turmoil. When problems become acute, you need systems that get things done, systems that enable you to move forward, irrespective of the size of the obstacles. 

When we talk about having good systems, we should not forget about philosophical systems, since those are indispensable for making correct choices in the face of complexity and uncertainty. 

Personal development, if taken seriously, is driven by patterns, not by isolated events. You need effective habits, principles, and structures in order to keep growing as a person year after year. The fact that many people lack a solid philosophy explains why they collapse psychologically when they face a major challenge. Relatively few individuals manage to keep their mental balance when they are accosted by illness, financial hardship, and family quarrels.

A rational philosophy is essential for living effectively in good and bad times. Without such a philosophy, it is impossible to keep a cool head when thing get hot. Cost consciousness is an essential part of such philosophy, and sets apart practical, well-grounded individuals from hopeless, unrealistic dreamers.

Yet, cost consciousness is so rare in personal development that I have come to call it "the missing link." Encouraging people to take action “to develop themselves” without having regard for costs can easily lead to disaster. Let me give you five examples that show how to enhance your cost consciousness, and accelerate your personal development:


If you want to guide your life by a rational philosophy, you should take into account the opportunity costs every time you make a major decision. Already in the nineteenth century, Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850 ) observed that, unless we make the effort to assess alternative scenarios, we can be easily fooled by our tendency to think short term. It takes effort "to see the invisible," explained Bastiat. It takes a rational philosophy to open our eyes, and see the hidden costs of our choices.

When you decide to go in one direction, you should also assess the hidden cost of your not going in other directions, or for that matter, the cost of staying put and doing nothing. For example, the direct cost of playing video-games five hours a week is negligible, but the long-term opportunity cost of wasting five hours a week is huge. Think of what you could do in the long term if you employ those five hours productively each week: You could learn a second language, start your own business, or become an accomplished public speaker. 


Another critical but often overlooked aspect of personal development is making fair comparisons between present and future costs. Individuals will often refrain from taking action because they grow discouraged by assuming (wrongly) that they cannot reduce their costs. People will regard obstacles as insurmountable because they assume (wrongly) that they cannot find an inexpensive way to circumvent those obstacles.

Entrepreneurship, understood in a wide sense, is essential to your personal development. The ability to understand and identify future cost variations can give you a large advantage when making major decisions. Already three centuries ago, Richard Cantillon (1697-1734) regarded this ability as a key element in economic success.

For instance, individuals will sometimes fail to pursue promising opportunities because they overestimate the costs (tangible and intangible) of moving to another city or country. In fact, those costs tend to rise only during the initial six months, which is the length of time it takes to find your way around in a new environment. Later on, those costs can be typically compressed.


The subjective elements in the perception of cost should also not be overlooked. Many outstanding initiatives have been abandoned when the originators made the mistake of asking other people for their opinion. "It is too expensive," they got to hear. "It is too risky. It will take too long, and you are already too old for that."

The problem is that, even if those remarks are made with good intentions, they are bound to remain subjective. Even when critics argue that their remarks are based on hard data, those remarks will still be tainted with subjectivism.

Already in the Middle-Ages, Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444) realized that prices are naturally set by comparing the intensity of subjective desires. Exactly the same principle applies when it comes to assessing the cost of personal development projects.

A learning process that should "objectively" take years can often be compressed into months thanks to the extraordinary motivation of the individuals involved. Similarly, senior men and women who should "objectively" possess limited energies can display enormous levels of dedication when they are reinvigorated by a strong sense of purpose.


The apparent "certainty" of cost can also be misleading. The truth is that, when you are making major decisions such as getting married or changing the course of your career, you will never be able to forecast the cost with certainty. As Jean-Baptiste Say (1767-1832) put it so wisely, cost optimisation is “a process of constant trial and error." 

If the cost of pursuing your dreams appears too high, this should be a call for caution, not a call for defeat. Personal development projects are challenging precisely because their long-term cost is bound to remain uncertain. Yet, such uncertainty should not prevent you from applying your creativity to reducing those costs as much as possible through “a process of constant trial and error."


When it comes to personal development, millions of men and women will routinely underestimate their capabilities and fail to seize their chances because they compare themselves with people in different circumstances, and wrongly assume that they cannot afford to compete.

Such conclusion can often be proven false. Already in the eighteenth century, Adam Smith (1723-1790) observed that products and services tend to gain value when they are complementary to others, a phenomenon that Smith called "competitive advantage."

If you want to develop yourself in a certain area, you should not be discouraged by the fact that other people are already firmly established in that area. In those cases, a good strategy is to use your particular circumstances to develop skills that are complementary to those already existing on the market.

For instance, if you want to establish yourself as a public speaker, you don't need to imitate the skills and cost structures of people who are already well-established in that profession. Chances are that you can attain success faster and at a lower cost if you identify and exploit your competitive advantages, whatever those may be. 


Cost consciousness (and the associated actions to manage costs effectively) are the missing links in personal development. A rational cost assessment is a crucial factor that you need to take into account every time you make a major decision in your professional or private life. 

For the attainment of long-term  happiness, I regard cost consciousness as no less important than knowing yourself, understanding your environment, and sustaining your long-term motivation.

Twenty-six centuries ago, Confucius was asked if human beings can gain knowledge about life after death. Confucius dismissed the question by saying that "before worrying about life after death, we should first try to gain knowledge about life before death." By becoming cost conscious here and now, you can deepen your knowledge, make sound decisions, and build a better life for yourself.

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: photograph of classical painting; photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2016.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books

 
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 Here are the links to five media interviews, just published:

Friday, 28 April 2017

Why reason and prudence are preferable to unbridled positive thinking

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"Just do it, go for it, do not hesitate." Those pieces of advice are omnipresent in our culture. Will you follow them, and place your life at risk? Will you act now without thinking of tomorrow's consequences? 

I very much hope you don't because, instead of solving your problems, you would only be placing your future at risk. Instead of improving your life, you would only be jeopardising your assets. 


Wisdom starts and ends with reality. Opportunities need to be rationally assessed, investments carefully researched, alternatives prudently weighed. If you make important decisions on the spur of the moment, you will commit grievous errors. Blind enthusiasm is not the way to go. 

Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher who lived twenty-six centuries ago, already warned us against exaggerated pursuits. “A wise man does not rush,” he wrote. Wise men are prudent and steady, not foolhardy and over-anxious.

Calmness, realism, and patience may not be popular these days, but they work a million times better than hot-headiness, rashness, and wishful thinking.

You will do much better if you assess the distance before you jump. You will advance much faster if you look ahead and circumvent obstacles, rather than crashing against them.

Japanese management techniques provide us detailed prescriptions about how to enhance our prudence and effectiveness. And those prescriptions do not require us to maintain a cheerful appearance at all times. 


Rationality, not enthusiasm, is the key to getting things done quickly, with high quality, and without errors. In particular, you want to avoid the three major negative consequences of unbridled positive thinking, three consequences that the Japanese have named "muri,” “mura,” and “muda." 

"Muri" means excessive physical or mental strain, which tend to have detrimental effects. We all know that over-stressed individuals often experience anxiety, insomnia, and a higher propensity to infections. Do not allow yourself to fall into the “muri” trap. If you avoid over-commitments, you will do much better in life. Keep a cool head. Protect your health, and be realistic about how many hours you can work.

"Mura" is a synonym of "unevenness" or "irregularity." It means that, on Monday, you perform a fair amount of work; on Tuesday, you do a bit less; and on Wednesday, you do three times as much as on Monday, with the result that you feel exhausted, irritable, and out of control. Although unevenness can make you look creative and enthusiastic, it will inevitably drain all your energies. Definitively, this is not a good way to live.

"Muda" means "waste" and includes all types of actions that consume our resources, but fail to advance our cause. Typically, those are errors we commit when we give more weight to your enthusiasm than to our logic. Examples of “muda” are performing unnecessary tasks, engaging in unnecessary travel, and establishing unnecessary requirements. A little less positive thinking and a little more cool-headed planning can go a long way.

Unfortunately, some individuals trust their positive thinking so thoroughly that they overlook the signs of "muri,” “mura,” and “muda" until it is too late to avert reality's harsh revenge. It is always sad to witness disasters that could have been prevented if people have kept their eyes open, but without a rational philosophy, who can resist the pressure of exaggerated emotions? 


The story of a man who was afraid of his shadow is attributed to Lao Tzu: The man tried to run away, but could not escape. He ran and ran, trying to get rid of his shadow, until he eventually dropped dead out of exhaustion.

Those who guide their lives by unbridled positive thinking are no better off than the man in the story. They run and run without caution, measurement, or planning. And in doing so, they render themselves highly vulnerable. 

There is a better way: the way of reason and prudence, the way that I present in my books. By learning and practising the principles of rational living, you can spare yourself plenty of trouble, increase your chances of success, and maintain an optimistic, but still realistic outlook.

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: photograph by John Vespasian, 2017.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books

 
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 Here are the links to six media interviews, just published:

Friday, 14 April 2017

The most frequent obstacle to personal growth -- and how to surmount it


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Few people know that sharks change their teeth all the time. New teeth grow on the back of a shark's denture, and then the teeth move progressively to the front side, until they are eventually discarded. Sharks have evolved into constant tooth changers for a reason essential to their survival: They need to keep their teeth sharp for hunting purposes.

If sharks were to lose their razor-sharp teeth, they would be unable to hunt, and it would not take long before they disappear as a species. We human beings don't need such sharp teeth, but we do need to think accurately if we want to thrive. We need to stay alert and proactive if we want to improve our lives. We need to pay attention to what's going on, draw logical conclusions, and implement them consistently.

Unfortunately, we stifle our personal growth all too often because we let emotions distort our perceptions, weaken our alertness, and undermine our understanding.We grow too rapidly discouraged when we encounter failure. We view setbacks too readily as final. We regard obstacles too quickly as insurmountable.

The underlying cause

The underlying cause for this problem --in fact, the underlying cause for our excessive willingness to give up-- is our tendency to think inaccurately,  fragmentarily, and short-sightedly. While evolution has led the shark teeth to grow constantly and automatically, it has not granted us the power to think accurately without effort.

We really need to push ourselves if we want to exercise this capacity, and surprisingly enough, we even have difficulties to remember in daily life the lessons taught by 4500 million years of Planet Earth history, and from the animal evolution in the latest 500 million years:
  •  Even nature can make mistakes in the sort term and have animals evolve into suboptimal shapes and functions, but in the long-term, it will correct those mistakes in an endless pursuit of perfection. Nature has no qualms about acknowledging errors, and reverting to previous shapes (e.g. fish developed legs and become reptiles, and then some reptiles discarded their legs and became snakes). Why on earth would you be reluctant to acknowledge and correct your own mistakes?
  •  Nature has no problems to apply in a new context solutions that have already proven successful in a completely different  context, even if those solutions seem unorthodox and weird (e.g. some species of turtles have developed beaks, similar to those of birds. The beaks make those turtles look weird, but they also make the turtles highly effective in their environment). Is your demand for orthodoxy preventing you from solving your problems, and accelerating your personal growth?
  • Nature tends to operate multi-dimensionally, allowing animals to accentuate useful shapes and functions, even if those are totally unrelated (e.g. while reptiles were learning to fly 300 million years ago, they were also evolving into warm-blood creatures). Is your tendency to think uni-dimensionally preventing you from achieving your goals in unrelated areas? 
Best chances of  success

I recently read the diary of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), and I must tell you that I was not impressed by the depth of Beethoven's philosophical insights. Sure, the man was a musical genius, but an accomplished thinker was he not. I had assumed that excellent skills in one area mean excellent skills in other areas, at least in those that appear closely related, but I was wrong, totally wrong.

Indeed, I was making the quintessential mistake that frequently prevents our personal growth. I was thinking too linearly.  I was interpreting facts incorrectly. I was making unrealistic assumptions. Exercising our capacity to think accurately is a daily and never-ending challenge, but it is our best chance to maximise our creativity, innovations, and achievements.

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: photograph of ancient mosaic; photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2016.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books

 
Free subscription to The John Vespasian Letter


**********
 Here are the links to four media interviews, just published: