Minding Mindfulness

I’ve been a card-carrying member of the Humboldt Skeptics for many years (actually we have no cards or even a formal organization). I even attended a national skeptics conference in Las Vegas back in 2013. So, I pride myself in questioning things that smack of “woo”, nonsense, accepted wisdom with no evidence. But years earlier, before I converted, I dabbled in enough spiritual pursuits to earn my bonafides as a hippie-dippie Northern California boomer. Most of my non-Western dabbling was grounded in the body: Yoga, Tai Chi, Aikido. I loved them all, but finally, abandoned them at some point.

 

And now, in spite of my hard-earned skepticism, I’m back at it. But this time, with a decidedly non-physical approach: Sitting. I am giving mindfulness meditation a try, and I am looking for evidence of its efficacy, not necessarily in scientific evidence (there’s not much), but in personal experience. Is meditation changing me for the better? Am I less anxious? Can I concentrate on one thing for longer? Can I notice and separate myself from moments of anger? Am I as Dan Harris says “…less of an asshole?”  These are the kind of changes I would hope to see from regular practice over time. These are some of the promises it holds.

After several months of practice and study, I can say that small changes are beginning to happen. Am I imagining them? Perhaps. Is it a placebo affect? That’s a distinct possibility. However, placebos are used in medicine because they work.

Dueling Skeptics

I’m not really looking for enlightenment. Yet. I’m not following a particular spiritual path. As an atheist that holds no interest. But mind and consciousness are certainly mysteries to be explored, and my own mind is just as good a lab as another. Still, I remain skeptical. I don’t want to delude myself. One of my skeptical heroes, Steven Novella wrote a good blog post about the lack of solid scientific evidence that mindfulness meditation has any special qualities that support some of the outlandish claims made by some proponents:

But I am not convinced by the existing research that there is any other phenomenon at work here, that there is something specific to mindfulness, or that it has benefits beyond other similar behaviors. There may be – perhaps there is something specific about certain mindfulness practices that we can isolate and study. We are simply not there yet.

Further, public hype supporting a billion dollar industry has gone way passed the existing evidence.

On the other hand, one of my other skeptic/atheist heroes, Sam Harris, wrote a whole book about the topic (Waking Up) which convinced me to give it a try. If you’re curious and you’re a skeptic, this might be a place to start. I’m about to read Dan Harris’ new book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics. That pretty much describes me.

What do you think? Is it all a bunch of new age baloney? Is there something there? Is it just the latest trend that will pass when a new one comes along?

Side Note

When I was living in the Sierras in the early 70s, one of my housemates was entranced reading “Be Here Now”, the new age classic by Baba Ram Das. He was so entranced he didn’t notice that the lighted coal from his cigarette had fallen onto the sofa and was quietly burning a hole into the interior. Only when the entire living area was engulfed in smoke, did he call out in panic for help dragging the thing out on the deck and soaking it with with a hose.

Listen Up! A Cornucopia of Podcasts

Back in 2009, I wrote about podcasts and how much I liked them. I felt compelled to because I’d been listening to podcasts for years already and had gained so much from them. Surprisingly, most of the shows I listed back then are still around and several of the remain relevant to me.

Since then, beginning with the wildly popular Serial, the podcast landscape has changed dramatically. The audience has grown easily tenfold, the number of shows has exploded, and the caliber and professionalism has transformed market. Many of the podcasts on my old post were either just recordings of existing radio programs, or produced by enthusiastic amateurs. Now, real money is being made through advertising and/or direct listener support. Now many shows are part of fledgling networks of shows such as Gimlet Media and Panoply.

Additionally, now there are podcasts about podcasts, how to make podcasts, and how to market and make MONEY from podcasts. There are newsletters that review or promote podcasts they have discovered and some podcasts are crossing over to TV and movies!

I have become so enamored of the medium I’ve wanted to start my own and even have made moves in that direction. But I may be spending too much time listening to make one. It’s a lot more work writing, recording and editing a show than just putting in the earbuds and hopping on the elliptical at the gym. Still, the pull is there. I may get it done one day.

The Main Podcasts

Until I do, here’s a list of some of my current favorites if you’re looking for recommendations. These are in no particular order. My actual subscription list is much much longer. So this is just the current highlights. These are the podcasts  for which I eagerly await every episode. I time my workouts and bike rides around them. They make me laugh out loud, cry, and ponder. Often all in the same episode. I rate and review them on iTunes and I support them financially when I can.

Juts a note: I link to the websites of each show rather than to the iTunes source since you may want to use another tool for listening like Stitcher. And the websites often have lots of additional information and resources surrounding the shows.

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History: Hardcore is right. I recently finished listening to a single, 6 hour episode called The Celtic Holocaust! Well researched deep dives into a section of history, old school style: Just Carlin, talking in to a microphone. No whiz bang production, music, sound effects. But each episode is so well-written and spoken, it’s hard to stop listening.

Very Bad Wizards: Two guys, one a professor of psychology, one a professor of philosophy, take on a variety of gnarly topics of morality, reality, and pop culture. Tamler Sommers (philosophy) and David Pizarro (psychology) make the discussion of these potetnially weighty topics not so heavy. In fact, they are really entertaining.

Waking Up with Sam Harris: Harris is a neuroscientist, philosopher and author. These long, in-depth interviews with writers and thinkers from many disciplines is consistently challenging, stimulating and often spell-binding. I have purchased and read several books after listening to episodes.

Left, Right and Center: An oldie (it was on my original list) but goodie. The show features commentator of various political leanings in discussion about the current news. Through the years of listening, the personnel has changed and the show has expanded from a half hour to an hour. But the consistency has remained.

On the Media: Another long standing favorite, this show gets to the heart of so much of what we are bombarded with in the news and public affairs. Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield are skeptics of much of what is produced by the media and they dig in to stories that illuminate the otherwise dark corners of our shaped reality.

Crime Writers On: Four writers have a fun and fascinating conversation on true crime, fictional crime, crime podcasts and TV shows, criminal justice and aspects of pop culture. I’ve been a fan of crime fiction and true crime stories for years and that’s what drew me to this show. But the conversation, led by Rebecca Lavoie with her boisterous and infectious laugh, touches on so many issues I always come away entertained and informed.

The Gist: Mike Pesca used to be a sports commentator on NPR. That’s how I knew him, anyway. But he broke the bondage of sports to sport his own podcast about, well, whatever Mike wants to talk about. He usually has an opener on a topic in the new, then an interview, then a kind of rant he calls the spiel. 30 minutes, but the guy can talk fast, so you get a lot of bang for your buck. Often very funny, and always insightful.

 

Microphone and Headset
Very Bad Wizards
Waking Up: Sam Harris
Left, Right and Center
Crime Writers On
The Gist with Mike Pesca

Special Mentions

I linked to Serial above. The original season was a fantastically told story of a murder and trial that took place in Baltimore. This series really did help change the face of podcasting in its themes, writing, and production values. Season two was good, but not nearly as compelling. It’s unclear if there will be another season and if so, when. But the producers created another true crime podcast called S-Town (actually it’s Shit Town, but for some reason they blushingly use the lame obfuscation in the title). S-Town, takes you into the world of rural, small town America. The storyteller is a producer on This American Life and it’s as much about his own journey as it is the incredible characters he encounters in Shit Town.

Hi Phi Nation: Another philosophy based podcast but here, ideas are explored through real life stories and interviews. Host Barry Lam has a knack for pulling out thoughtful questions and themes and pointing us to further reading and exploring. There have only been 10 episodes their blog promises a new season sometime, “late fall”.

The Daily: A relatively new podcast from the New York Times, the Daily (it’s really not daily, only on weekdays) focuses on one or two main stories from the paper, and then a short summary of other important news. All about 30 minutes.

Origin Stories: New to my list of must listens, this show produced by the Leakey Foundation is, as their site describes: “…about what it means to be human and the science behind what we know about ourselves and our origins.”  If you like science and how it can help us inform who we are, this is worth your time.

I could go on. And on, and on. As I say, my list is rather long. But enough about ME. I would love to hear you opinions on these or any other show or podcast resources. Feel free to comment.

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The Perils and Joys of Twitter

TwitterI’m an early adopter of Twitter and I really liked it when I started. Then I sort of just forgot about it for a couple years. I can’t really explain my neglect. I think I just got distracted by exploring all the other tools that developed, including, the Facebook monster.

Recently I have gone back to Twitter,  started to get involved again, and am remembering why I was originally drawn to this particular social media platform. From the beginning, Twitter’s structure has made it challenging to understand for the casual user. The open API adds another level of complexity with lots of third party apps building on top of Twitter adding functionality.

Th ability to direct Tweets at other users by including their handles, the hashtag (#) system allowing for Tweets to be discovered by others and categorizing content creates the possibility for a great amount of interaction between people of all types, not just your “friends” on Facebook.

The same features that can make Twitter feel like a worldwide open discussion also allow for trolls a bots to shadow that world. These things can make Twitter seem like a mean and frightening place. Many well-intentioned people have been driven off Twitter by its dark side. So, if you decide to play in that schoolyard you may need to arm your heart agains the bullies.

The complexity, the seeming chaos, the potiential threats, virtual and real life that can emerge, are all reasons that are probably why Twitter’s user numbers continue to struggle compared the anodyne but seemingly magnetic Facebook. But if you can wrap your arms and mind around all that, it can be a fascinating, exciting and fun place. This time around, I can’t seem to stay away for long. A day off Twitter and I fall victim to FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). My fingers begin to twitch.

Still, I think of myself as a novice. Features have been added since I first started years ago. The third-party tools have changed. New strategies and techniques that I had never heard of have evolved. I barely have enough time to stumble around in the platform, let alone make a concerted effort to study the techniques for effect particiapation.

One of my stumbles forward was when I made the following post after listening to a podcast about free speech. Shortly after finishing the episode I saw a related news story and tweeted the participants in the podcast about that story.

This post caught the eye of many people. It was retweeted many times, “liked” (thes heart icon) by hundreds and a conversation with many, many people (the cartoon talk bubble icon) involved for about two weeks. Given the average life span on a Twitter news feed is about 20 minutes, this was astounding, at least for me.

It’s difficult to say what triggered this reaction. Probably, it was a perfect combination of the topic (free speech is a hot topic on Twitter), including the two Twitter handles of the people involved in the podcast and the news item about Richard Dawkins having his talk at U.C. Berkeley cancelled.

I’ve yet to recreate the success of this Tweet. I don’t consciously set out to do so. But it is in the back of my mind as I fumble my way. Since I do use the platform to also talk about my business, perhaps it’s time to learn, to make an effort to be more systematic, strategic and effective. If you’re on Twitter (and I encourage you to be), please follow me and see how I do. I will follow you back. Promise!

Reviving the Blog

Look out! After a few years of neglect I have decided to put some time back in to this blog site. It’s one of the oldest sites I still have so the record goes back pretty far. I’m putting a new look on it and that will be developed over time. But the point is, suddenly I have things to say that I don’t have another great place for.

Stay tuned!