Alan Watts: Who Are You?

What did you forget?

I’ve changed so many times since this morning, you see..

No Perfect Balance

I realized something interesting today. Life, of course, is a game of balance. We can’t kill ourselves working too hard, but without meaningful work our lives are empty. No person is an island, but we don’t want to drown in the sea of society. This balancing act shows up in many different philosophies, especially Buddhism’s middle way, Aristotle’s golden mean, and (sort of) the Taoist yin and yang.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the balance between compassion and justice. On the one hand, as Shakespeare said, the quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven. On the other hand, humans need to be reprimanded for their errors or malicious deeds — otherwise we tend to believe the myth that our bad actions have no harmful effects for us.

As a teacher, I am confronted by this question on a regular basis. I believe compassion, loving-kindness, and forgiveness are supreme virtues that should be exercised constantly, especially by adults in positions of authority. Punishing children may be necessary, but it’s hard to do — and it’s easy to get carried away on a power trip. So I try to be understanding and patient.

On the other hand, any teacher on the planet can tell you that when you give a student a little bit of leeway, s/he will push and shove in an attempt to grab more. Eventually it’s easy for the teacher to feel like a pushover or doormat. To make matters worse, lax discipline in one classroom can make life more difficult for the next teacher.

Mark Twain wrote a perfect crystallization of this dilemma in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Tom’s Aunt Polly feels bad for not being more strict with the mischievous boy. She says:

I ain’t doing my duty by that boy, and that’s the Lord’s truth, goodness knows. Spare the rod and spile the child, as the Good Book says. I’m a laying up sin and suffering for us both, I know. He’s full of the Old Scratch, but laws-a-me! he’s my own dead sister’s boy, poor thing, and I ain’t got the heart to lash him, somehow. Every time I let him off, my conscience does hurt me so, and every time I hit him my old heart most breaks.

So our lives are forever caught in this sort of impossible balancing act. We have to exercise and keep up with the news, but leisure is a guaranteed human right. Delicious food is yummy, but eating healthy is so very important. We can’t obsess over what other people think about us, but we don’t want to be clueless buffoons or scumbags who constantly (and probably unwittingly) anger or belittle people.

So here’s the interesting thing I realized: We can never achieve a perfect balance. Sometimes we’re going to work ourselves too hard, and other times we’ll be shiftless and lazy. Sometimes we’ll be too hard on kids, and other times we’ll be too lenient. Sometimes we’ll feel like we need more me-time, and other times we’ll feel isolated and lonely.

Sometimes I strive to achieve this perfect balance, and I get angry with myself if/when I don’t strike it. But now I realize that’s just a trap of the ego. (The ego has so many devious traps! Side note: The song “HelloHiHey” by Lifesavas is probably the best text about the ego created in the last 50 years.)

The key is not to strive for an impossible balance, but to know thyself — there it is again, temet nosce — and be aware of when you need to switch from one side of the scale to the other.


Here, I’ll embed “HelloHiHey” for easy listening/reading. (The lyrics are part of this video.) Enjoy!

Srikumar Rao Ripped Me Off

Srikumar Rao is a business writer and management-spirituality guru who advises companies and executives on how to be more well-adjusted and efficient and happy at work. In 2010 he wrote a book called Happiness at Work: Be Resilient, Motivated, and Successful — No Matter What.

Forbes magazine featured a cute little slide show recently with advice from Dr. Rao about how to make your work life more joyous and peaceful. For example, he says, we need to decide that we’re going to be happy. Then we will be: “Do what you have to do, but don’t surrender your calmness and sense of peace.”

Now take a look at #11 in that series, “Swap Multitasking for Mindfulness“.

Rao thinks that multitasking gets in the way of happiness. “Multitasking simply means that you do many things badly and take much more time at it,” he writes. He recommends instead working on tasks for 20-minute intervals that you gradually increase to two-hour spans. Turn off any electronic gadgets that can be a distraction. He claims that with practice, you’ll be able to accomplish much more and with less effort.

Sound familiar? It should! I wrote the exact same thing here four years before Dr. Rao’s book! My post was even called “The Madness of Multitasking and the Magic of Mindfulness“.

Ours is a world aflood with temporal psychosis. We’re plugged in, switched on, and linked up to the point where nothing is itself any longer. All things are necessarily tiny bits of other things, reassembled as befit the breakneck whim of the myriad users.

Do you really expect us to believe, Dr. Rao, that you just accidentally wrote the exact same thing as I did, four years later, and didn’t expect anyone to notice? Well, I noticed! And j’accuse!

But don’t panic. Just fork over $5,000 to ETAN and ACLP and we can make this all better. (I know you’ve got money, because business-management book-writing is a lucrative racket.)

It’s like West Virginia all over again.


Dear The Room: You’re my favorite horrible movie. Here’s the flower shop scene. Keep the change!

Today I’m listening to: Richie Cunning!