Take Back Your Thinking

Riding on the coattails of  Ben’s ‘Take Back Your Distance’ section of last week’s Things Fall Apart (Part 3) – Politics, I thought I would share the personal journey (with links at the bottom of this note) I have been on for the past few years to take back the ability to think about things for sustained periods of time, and to know what I am thinking about and why.

I started on the journey to ‘take back my thinking’ as I could feel myself getting caught up in the fast moving swirl of communication and ‘news’, and losing the distinction between what I was thinking and what I had simply been exposed to and thought that I was thinking.

You could say that I had developed ‘Fiat Thought’.

As a citizen and as a leader, it seems to me that mistaking Fiat Thought for real thought is the single most dangerous thing one can do, and so I decided to develop and deploy ‘three lines of defense’ to try to take back my thinking:

  • Make my personal tech somewhat inconvenient and limited.
  • Introduce a couple of hours per day of ‘boring’ (low external stimulation) time.
  • Take on daily doses of Śūnyatā.

Overall it has been a much more difficult journey than I thought it was going to be.

Most things I tried in building these defenses were at least initially quite unpleasant (the inconvenient tech irritating and friction-y; the boring time boring; the Śūnyatā doses occasionally quite disturbing), and many things I tried simply didn’t work or didn’t stick. But after a solid couple of years of sustained effort I’ve stabilized on a set of protocols for the three lines of defense that, as far as I can tell, are collectively fairly effective.

Unfortunately the Fiat Thought defense protocols I arrived at are more like the malaria prevention protocol (daily Malerone pre-, during- and post- + bug spray + nets) rather than a one-and-done (well, two-and-done) inoculation like the measles vaccination, and so I keep them up whenever I am in a high risk area (e.g., a major metropolitan area with unrestricted internet access), which is kind of a chore.

As it happens, whenever I’m not in a high risk Fiat Thought area, I’m usually in a high risk malaria area, so you pick your poison, I guess.

Anyway, here are the three lines of defense I’ve stabilized on and have been running for the past couple of years:

Make my personal tech inconvenient and limited

  • Turned off notifications on my phone, with phone always in silent mode (switch from ‘push’ to ‘pull’).
  • Turned my phone to greyscale (makes apps literally dull).
  • Set phone screen brightness to minimum (makes apps even more dull).
  • Removed all non-utility apps, so just left with: SMS, calendar, clock, Google Maps, Uber, bike share app, Spotify (note: on iPhone I couldn’t actually figure out how to remove Safari but I could hide it and password protect it with a password I don’t know).
  • Stopped carrying my phone on the weekend.
  • Read the WSJ daily print edition instead of online aggregated news (The FT print edition would be better, but I’ll take what I can get).
  • Use an old 1st generation Kindle for reading books (instead of reading on my phone).
  • Use only an eight-year-old iMac desktop at home, so I have to intentionally go to the computer and then wait for it to boot instead of having an ‘always on’ device around.
  • Got off Facebook and Twitter (I haven’t deleted my profiles as I can’t be bothered to figure out how, but I no longer post to either, which has removed the interest for me).

Introduce a couple of hours per day of ‘boring time’

  • Walk to any appointment that is a 30 minute or less walk time, and take public transit for any journey where it is less than a 25% time increase vs. taking a car (Google maps is very good as predicting this).
  • An hour-ish simple daily meditation practice, with some longer more intensive periods a few times a year to really stare at my thoughts.

Absorb daily doses of doses of Śūnyatā

This one is tricky to write about.

I use the romanized Sanskrit term ‘Śūnyatā’  here in the in the way it is commonly used in translations of the Tibetan Buddhist canon, rather than the romanized Tibetan of ‘stong pa nyid’ , which is quite a mouthful, or the typical English translation of ‘emptiness’, which is misleading.

Regardless, whatever word we use, the exercise I ended up taking on and maintaining is something like Marcus Aurelius advocated in Meditations – daily consideration of the true nature of things (for Stoics the logos) and their impermanence, one’s own impermanence, etc. As Aurelius considers and notes in Meditations book 4.4, “The world is truly nothing but change. Our life is only perception.”

After a fair bit of exploration and experimentation, I believe that the Tibetans have far and away the most sophisticated and reliable technology for acquiring Śūnyatā, although for sure many other traditions have equivalent concepts and sophisticated methods for acquisition.

In summary

So, the culmination of this journey to ‘take back my thinking’ is that, outside of the office, I’m limited to an iPhone that I have spent a lot of time and effort turning into a greyscale dumb phone, an old desktop computer that takes a couple of minutes to boot, and a ten-year-old Kindle. I spend a fair amount of time sitting on a cushion half-staring at a blank wall. I’ve become a bad Uber customer. And I spend a bunch of time thinking about (literally) nothing.

I appreciate what an immense privilege it is to have the time / money / freedom to do this, and so the question is: Is it valuable, or is it just some next-level-tech-elite-anti-tech-BS?

I say without a doubt that it is beyond valuable.

In a world of Fiat News that quickly becomes Fiat Thought, taking back my thinking is absolutely foundational to my identity.

As Christopher Beirn commented to a recent Rabbit Hole note: homo sapiens is a hackable animal. So the only question really is whether you are hacking yourself or someone else is hacking you … and if someone else is hacking you, then you’re just the unwitting host for the program.

Links follow:

Why and how to make tech inconvenient:

  • Firstly, to know who you are competing with in the race to hack yourself, check out BJ Fogg, a leading thinker and practitioner on how computers can be designed to influence attitudes and behaviors.  He is the author of the seminal book, Persuasive Technology, (subtitled: Using Computers To Change What We Think and Do). This is a somewhat overwrought, but really quite good Medium post that examines that dark side of using the type of ‘persuasive techniques’ that BJ Fogg developed.
  • Tristan Harris offers his take here on ‘How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds — from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist’.
  • From a practical perspective, here’s a bunch of ideas conveniently collected together by Tristan Harris’s Center For Human Technology on how to make your tech dull and inconvenient.

Why and how to have periods of limited external stimulus:

  • There are literally thousands of books on ‘Why meditation is great’ but ‘10% happier’ is one of the least irritating and easiest to read. Full title: 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story by Dan Harris (a TV new anchor).
  • If you don’t have a meditation practice and want to get one going, my best advice is to kick start it by doing a minimum of five days in a silent Vipassana-style retreat. Here is a Medium post of a pretty average experience of attending a 10 day Goenka (a common variety) one. As the writer makes very clear: It will most likely hurt.


In many ways I hesitate to offer any links or thoughts on this.

For calibration, even Pema Chödrön – arguably the leading Western light on Tibetan Buddhism, someone who has been a serious, full time student of Tibetan Buddhism for 40 years, someone who studied directly under the legendary Chögyam Trungpa – skipped commenting on the Śūnyatā chapter (chapter nine) in her commentary on the classic ‘The Way of the Bodhisattva’.

But then, in the noble spirit of Silicon Valley, after briefly hesitating and realizing I am fundamentally unqualified, I proceed anyway:

  • As mentioned above, while Meditations by Marcus Aurelius covers much more ground then just concepts of impermanence and emptiness, I find it extremely accessible and inspiring as an account of a real-world struggle to integrate this type of ‘philosophic’ thinking and perception into day-to-day action. The Modern Library edition also has a terrific introduction by Gregory Hays.
  • For the Zen version I would go straight to the writing of Eihai Dogen (the 13th century founder of the Soto Zen school) who offers such sage advice as “When you ride on a boat and watch the shore, you might assume that the shore is moving. But when you keep your eyes closely on the boat, you can see that the boat moves. Similarly, if you examine myriad things with a confused body and mind, you might suppose that your mind and essence are permanent. When you practice intimately and return to where you are, it will be clear that nothing at all has unchanging self” … hmm …
  • The Rinzai sect has its own method of ‘koan study’ (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?” etc.) to push through conceptual thought to the “selfless-self”. I personally have never gotten along with koan study. Others swear by it.
  • The Tibetan canon is so vast it’s hard to say where to start. The writings of Chögyam Trungpa are pretty available and accessible (Trungpa was a kind of maniac rock-n-roll Buddhist meditation master with some pretty troubling behaviors but, man, could he write).

One final comment: If you decide to go get yourself some Śūnyatā, and go after it in an intensive and sustained way (say, spending more than an hour or two a day on a combination of contemplation and meditation for more than a few months), I would strongly advise working with a professional as you will likely bring about significant adaptations to your brain and nervous system. So, y’know, if you’re not a trained brain surgeon better not to self-operate.

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  1. Regarding philosophy of consciousness, I recommend Thomas Metzinger. I think his more accessible book is titled The Ego Tunnel.

  2. Awesome - thank you.

  3. An excellent piece, very personal, very helpful. I appreciate the pointers and the personal take on each approach.
    As for Aurelius’ “Our life is only perception” I would substitute “My life is only perception.” I know about your life only through my observation of your expressions, written or otherwise communicated, only through your interpretation and translation of your own life experiences and thoughts. I do not share your perceptions, I can only infer by comparison or analogy what your feelings and emotions and thoughts must be. This is as it has always been with sentient beings.

    It does seem that silence, quiet thought, contemplation is avoided more and more; I infer a fear of boredom out there, and of course in here as well. When I feel that fear building in myself, I find it difficult to move back to thinking, to take back my thinking. Establishing protocols such as you have done is brilliant. Thanks, Neville.

  4. Complexity vs Simplicity
    As impressive as Complexity is, wisdom sides with Simplicity every single time. And yet we almost always choose Complexity, especially when we spend more time looking forward than backward.

  5. Avatar for ET82 ET82 says:

    re: hackable humans

    This brings to mind a recent twitter thread by a former Google worker who did programming for YouTube’s AI algorithm. He illuminates how his work has resulted in flat earth videos being heavily promoted to many new audiences. From Guillame Chaslot’s thread:

    “So basically we have the two best AIs of the world, on Instagram and YouTube, competing to convince people that the earth is flat. Because it yields large amounts of watch time, and watch time yields ads. This is a #raceToTheBottom 11/”

    The most frightening impact he mentions is how flat earther videos have likely been used as justification by Boko Haram to murder teachers and burn down schools in Nigeria. Reminds me how some joker in the US would upload a video burning a Quran onto the internet and all of a sudden rocks are being thrown at our soldiers on the other side of the planet.

    For our context, it’s worth noting that things which are attempting to hack us are not even necessarily intended to be doing so.

    Protect your psyche accordingly.

    [Guillame Chaslot thread: https://twitter.com/gchaslot/status/1064527592428986368 ]

  6. Avatar for fvc fvc says:

    Thanks Neville, I appreciated the Fogg article as a new parent. Removing apps ability to “trigger” to steal your attention is something I try do. I also switch phone to do not disturb between home hours to not get caught in the dopamine hit loop.

  7. Thanks Neville - once addicted, I find it harder & harder to put down my smart/stupid phone. It’s refreshing to see this discussion, and it is overdue. Thank you.
    A good friend of mine took a good look at my up-time and blessed me with a plaque, with the request that it be placed where it could be viewed daily. It says “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” - Socrates . We aren’t so unique in this, are we?
    Freinds that know us are truly a blessing, especially when they care enough to reach out. Keep up the good work, for the sake of the pack.

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