10 Lessons from majoring in Happiness and living as a Zen monk
A year in review...
In 2021 I graduated with a degree in Happiness and lived as a Zen monk. Here’s what I learned…
“Jackson jacksons like a Jackson. You you like a you. There is no predefined path. There is no answer to the riddle that is my life. The act of solving the riddle is my life – and it is my answer.”
“My fundamental priority was enjoying life instead of working towards an enjoyable life. It was working on happiness TOMORROW without sacrificing happiness TODAY.”
“I feel friggin lovely. It’s so obvious. Fuck all the achievement – ok not all of it. But I usually max out my week with 40 hours of timeblocked high priority work – basically a 10/10 productivity. But it’s sooooo much better to have like an 8/10 and have plenty of time to fuck around with friends, train my mind and body, and take it slow (the taking is slow is most important)!”
These are a few highlights from my 2021 journal review. Reading this you’ll come across lessons about self-regulation (e.g. managing stress and work-life balance), the richness and possibility of every moment, “true” humility, and how to figure out what you should do with your life (spoiler alert – the thing to figure out is you can’t figure it out).
For context – every Sunday I write down a sort of status report and observations about myself and what’s going on in life. At the end of the year I review all these – along with an in depth six month self-review and try to identify patterns and trends.
This year I taught the first ever Happiness 101 course at the University of Alabama. I graduated with a double major in Economics and Happiness (I created that second one). I spent the summer burning through failed entrepreneurial ideas (whoops). And then I lived for four months as a Zen monk. Here’s what I learned in the process…
Balance and Pace of Life
“First thing first don’t ever play yourself, ever.” ~ Scholar and Philosopher DJ Khaled
In the first week of the year I wrote “it’s concerning that I DO NOT look forward to Mondays. As an entrepreneur / independent intellectual that is concerning.” No career or vocation will be perfect all the time. But a persistent sense of “fuck it’s Monday” is a major red flag. Do you ever feel that way? If you do then I encourage you to call yourself out like I am.
Most all successful people offer some sort of the following advice – do work that you enjoy and that you’re best at… Otherwise even if you become wildly successful – what’s the point? You spent a bunch of time doing shit you didn’t enjoy. Now you’re successful and unhappy. Great, worth it!
Look at me, I did it. I’ve made it!
Made what? An ass of myself…
Here’s a neat picture I drew.
Pacing is a key part of balance. I seem to always run a bit too hot. Over and over I see observations like “pushed a little too hard this week”. Often you think this is a once in a while thing. “Okay this is an important project I’m going to grind this week then dial it back to normal”. But if you were to review your notes from every week you’d find that you do that shit like every other week! (At least if you’re anything like me).
Here’s a note-to-self that captures this observation quite well.
April 14, 2021 – I feel friggin lovely. It’s so obvious. Fuck all the achievement – ok not all of it. But I usually max out my week with 40 hours of time-blocked high priority work – basically a 10/10 productivity. But it’s sooooo much better to have like an 8/10 and have plenty of time to fuck around with friends, train my mind and body, and take it slow (the taking is slow is most important)!
Most people spend 24/7 in a semi-frantic hustle. I’m no different. There are a lot of days where I stress over having to take 15 minutes to walk across the quad on a beautiful spring afternoon, surrounded by beautiful 20 somethings, on our beautiful campus. But those 15 minutes weren’t time-blocked! Those aren’t billable hours!
Fuck your billable hours. Who is the accountant anyway? You are! There’s no boss watching and there’s no real deadline. You can call the walk a “performance recovery session” or an “in-motion brainstorming session”; whatever you need to tell yourself in order to quit turning up the speed of your life and start fucking enjoying it.
Having observed this tendency, how do you overcome it? I call this work-life Kentucky windage.
Say you’re shooting a rifle. You aim right at the bullseye and every shot hits 2 inches to the right. Your options are (1) keep aiming at the bullseye, (2) try to disassemble, rebuild, and recalibrate the rifle, or (3) aim a couple inches to the left. Option 1 is what many people do – be an ignoramus. But you and I are smarter than that. So we go with option 2. You tinker with your rifle breaking it down into parts and carefully putting it back together. You refine your productivity plan and optimize your time management systems. Then boom – two inches to the right again. You run a little too hot.
I’ve found that option three is easier and more effective. In shooting terms that’s Kentucky windage – a correction made by aiming to the right or left of the target rather than by adjustment to the rifle. You know you always push yourself a little too hard and take on a bit too much. So aim low. Aim off the bullseye. Intentionally overestimate the amount of slack you bake into your work rhythm.
My last semester of senior year I asked “what is the absolute least amount of work I can possibly do?”. I dropped my third major and most all extracurriculars. I aimed way low – like 20 hours per week of work. I thought I was going to be a slacker. I even worried I might be bored (boredom – a fate worse than death). But by some magic I managed to fill my weeks 35 or so hours of fun and interesting work. That’s Kentucky windage.
They say in a negotiation that if you’re willing to walk away then you hold all the power. This will help you overcome neuroticism. You can walk away from the games you’re playing whenever you want.
My life goal is essentially to earn a few thousand dollars per month from my intellectual work (writing, speaking, teaching, etc.) so that I can spend my time learning and doing work that I really want to do. Because this is such a reasonable and well-thought out goal (according to me) it can be a trap. If it were some dumbass goal like making a billion dollars then I wouldn’t feel very compelled to work towards it.
But when you have a thoughtful, realistic goal that will bring you joy then sometimes you give yourself permission to stress or overwork for a good cause. You feel like you have to stay committed to it because it’s such a great goal. When you have this dynamic you’re stuck. You don’t have walk away power. And your noble pursuit can feel like a prison-sentence.
So remember that you can walk away from the game of life any time. I don’t mean killing yourself. I mean you can just drop whatever it is you think you have to do and life will go on. You want to get your PhD in literature but it’s stressing you out – quit it. You want to turn your organic soap startup into a million dollar company – drop it. At any point you can go live as a Zen monk in one of many lovely temples across the US. You will have your meals and lodging taken care of. And you’ll do like 6-7 hours per day Mon-Fri of simple, thoughtless, peaceful work like trimming bushes, mopping floors, or cooking meals.
It’s one thing to know this intellectually “yeah if I’m not happy I can walk away whenever”. But I’d encourage you to actually walk away for awhile. Go spend a week in a monastery. Go spend a week hiking the Appalachian trail. Go spend a month in Mexico with no phone or computer. And you’ll find that life goes on. And you’ll be able to have walk away power when you come back to the negotiation table with your life’s most important works.
The doctor finished examining my broken, crooked nose. As I walked out of the office I came across a Spanish-speaking family struggling to fill out the patient intake forms. I spent about 45 minutes getting their appointment set up. This earned me hugs from the family, praise from witnesses in the waiting room, and (after I got to my car) crying my eyes out for reasons I still don’t know. But it was a beautiful, cathartic cry that touched the deepest part of my being.
March 15 I write down that I talked to a surprisingly cute cashier at the Dollar General this week (what the hell is she doing there?). A couple weeks later we cross paths at the bar. We close it down together and the next day we take her dog to the park. I’m in love with her by the end of the first night (it took her a week or two longer) and for the next month we’re together almost every day before I had to leave after graduation.
In January a mutual friend says I should meet Louis. We met and I wrote “got coffee with Louis today he seems like a good guy”. By May he had become one of my best friends at school and in September I spent four days living with him and his family.
I decide to walk down to the beach for a few minutes on a Thursday night. There’s hundreds of people there and a massive bonfire. It’s Guy Fox night (the fuck?). I talk to an older couple on the beach. They’re from England. Sarah owns a bookstore and Mark came to the US to help produce Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.
There is an entire universe of possibility available to you in every moment. It is most commonly accessible through other people. It’s right under your nose. I hope these stories illustrate that point. I cannot overstate this –if you bring curiosity, openness, and full awareness to each moment you will be continuously blown away by the miraculous possibility hidden within every moment and every interaction.
Humility and Limitations
I spent over 1,000 hours observing myself this year. That’s what contemplative practice is – it’s studying the self. If you study yourself long enough you’ll humble yourself. Because you’ll realize that you’re delusional, hypocritical, and an ego maniac. That’s the reality of the human condition!
Sure I might have my shit together much more than others. But in an absolute sense – I’m a fool. I’m an idiot. As I meditate I often say “wow I’m trapped in here with a crazy person!”.
This realization is what I call “true humility”. I say true humility because most capable, well-functioning folks (like you and I) have humility. You aren’t arrogant. You don’t brag or put people down. You have external-facing humility. You are humble in your dealings with others but on some level you still think you’re something. You think you’re rational, logical, and on your shit.
That’s what I thought too. Then I found myself sitting in the shower at 2 AM in a two star New Jersey motel pouting because my past love interest (see Dollar Gen cashier above) wouldn’t meet up with me during my one night layover near her house. In that moment I saw myself clearly! And I had myself a good laugh. I thought I was this wise and rational Zen monk who had learned self-mastery. Hilarious! I’m just as cluelessly human as everyone else.
I was humiliated in front of myself. And there’s really no better feeling. A Zen master said in enlightenment you realize that nothing is left to you at this moment but to have a good laugh. This is liberation. This is the feeling of relief of having dropped the burden of taking yourself so damn seriously. Imagine at all times having to be on guard against someone or something infringing upon your idealized view of yourself as this perfectly capable and wise being. You can never relax. If you drop your guard for a second your illusion will be pierced by reality.
What a burden that would be. But when you can just say “I’m a bit of an idiot, I don’t know what to do” or “no wonder I messed that up I’m kind of a dumbass”. That’s freedom. Nothing can touch you. Peace is internal-facing humility. It’s true humility.
On a related note – “I don’t know” is the most accurate thing you can say. One of the most shocking parts of self-observation is realizing that you basically operate in one continuous assumption. I know this is the way it is. I know things should be this way. Do you? Do you really?
I think it’s stupid that people are anti-vax. But can I see why some people distrust the same companies that engineered the opioid epidemic? I think it’s silly to wear a mask into a restaurant and then sit down at the table and talk and eat right next to people. But do I really know the nuances and probability distributions of how a virus spreads? This expert knows that tax cuts will help the poor. The other expert knows that tax cuts will help only the rich. Who knows?
Nobody knows! But everyone thinks they know!
Almost every time I talk or think a little alarm bell goes off – do I really know? And pretty much every time I investigate I realize I don’t. What’s more, the more invested in a belief you are and the more you think you know the more you (and everyone else) are in trouble. The moment you say “I know…” you’re doomed!
I’m convinced that the greatest cause of suffering and dysfunction in the world is this attachment to ideals and fear of saying I don’t know. Imagine you and I are in a room. It’s 68 degrees. You say it’s hot in here. I say it’s cold in here. So we draw a line in the room. I raise my kids under the cold flag and in school they learn about why it’s so damn cold in here. You do the same for yours and in 40 years our grandkids are murdering one another.
This sounds like exaggeration. But that’s what happens. I think it’s too hot. I think capitalism is better than communism. I think we should have the oil rights. Same shit. They’re all thoughts – not reality. They’re all acts of assuming that we think are knowing.
One of my Zen teachers said you should not hold views, but it’s okay to have them. You don’t want to be paralyzed into inaction or refuse to have any views about anything (that would in itself be another form of idealism). But if you honestly study your experience you’ll find that most of the time you really don’t know.
Life has chapters. There’s middle school, high school, college. There are chapters within chapters – senior year, summer break, etc. This year had several chapters – the last semester of senior year, the last summer before adulthood, the four months as a Zen monk.
The last month of senior year I cried almost every other day (tears of 70% appreciation and 30% sadness). The last couple weeks of summer before leaving for the monastery were magical. The last morning in the meditation hall tears of gratitude streamed down my cheeks as I bowed to my seat. I realized the meaning of the Zen saying “just this is it”. Whenever it’s your last kiss, your last dance, your last game, your last day, you realize that just this is it means just this once. This moment will never happen again.
What all these end of chapters have in common is that my fundamental priority was enjoying life instead of working towards an enjoyable life. It was working on happiness TOMORROW without sacrificing happiness TODAY. No matter what happiness-bringing aspirations you’re working on, you must not lose sight of happiness now. You must have zero tolerance for happiness procrastination.
When my priority is enjoying life – being here fully – I end up being about 85% as productive. But infinitely happier. So remember that every day, every week, and every month are the ending of a chapter. Your youth is slipping away, your mid-life is slipping away, your life is slipping away. Life itself is one long act of life coming to an end.
Phil Zimbardo writes about how people have a time-perspective. They tend to be anchored towards a past- present- or future-focus. I’m extremely wired towards the future focus. My default mode is scanning through how I can optimize my every move for the next few days or ruminating about what I should do with my life. So pay close attention to this section if you’re anything like me. And take the advice from Zen master Dogen – don’t leave your element before moving in it.
Finding Your Path
Dogen wrote –
Clear water all the way to the bottom.
A fish swims like a fish.
Vast sky transparent throughout.
A bird flies like a bird.
And I wrote in the margin – a Jackson jacksons like a Jackson. You you like a you.
I tend to drive myself crazy thinking about what I should do with my life. I’ve gone to great lengths trying to figure out what my path should be. I once got (unbeknownst to me) a pretty famous scientist on Zoom. I told him I was trying to decide between business or a PhD. He said guess what – those are both fucking narratives. You made them up.
He explained that he had no “career path”. His field didn’t even exist until he and others created it. There’s no path for you. There’s no answer. It’s your looking for the answer that becomes the answer.
I’m reminded of moving through a pitch black room. It’s not like you know the door is over there and you just go towards it. You feel out one step at a time. You slowly feel around. You bump into something and change course. And eventually you work your way towards where you’re trying to go.
Abbess Fu gave a talk on wayfaring versus navigating. It’s thought that the Native Americans living in many pacific islands got there by setting sail from the mainland and heading west. They had the stars to give a general direction and had to work with the currents. They got there by wayfaring. Navigation implies a GPS with step by step directions. In reality it is impossible to navigate life. You have to wayfair.
You might try to navigate based on some map or template. Go to this good school, then do med school or law school, then get the job, then get married and buy the nice house in the suburbs. And it turns out you didn’t live your life. You lived someone else’s.
You don’t find your path. You pick a direction and then make the path. And if you stay true to yourself in every step then you will have made your Path with a capital P. That’s what it means when a bird flies like a bird and a Jackson jacksons like a Jackson. Don’t stress about knowing exactly what will come next or being two steps ahead.
Just ask “is this next step the right direction?” and make your way through the dark. Right foot, left foot…
It’s been a hell of a year. If this was helpful – or lame – please let me know. And please share this so that I can become famous enough to hang out and meditate and write all day. That would make me quite happy.
Sending you my love and wishing you happiness in 2022.
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