foundational tools

There are four foundational tools (or ideal habits) that I value for personal development: meditation, journalling, cataloguing useful and generalizable information, and cardio exercise. Meditation allows one to improve attention, emotional awareness, cognition (such as memory), pain perception, and increase self-esteem, empathy, and trust.  Journalling is empowering through creating a concrete feeling of one’s place in history through the structured formulation of a narrative. Cataloguing information allows you to build an internal and external library in order to science. Cardio exercise can help cultivate equanimity and prevents neural decay. I find these tools provide me with stability and insight.

Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation is the process of being present with phenomena as they come to attention: the body, feelings, quality of mind, and objects of mind. Recognizing the impermanence of things. Equanimity amid the flux. Repeatedly cutting through the illusion of self by becoming familiar with the experiential nature of your consciousness in the present moment. Intent to create a mode of cognition that is undistracted, accepting, and non-conceptual. Cultivating positive emotions, such as compassion and patience. Being at ease in the world for no reason, even if only for a few moments at a time. “The goal is to come out of the trance of discursive thinking and to stop reflexively grasping at the pleasant and recoiling from the unpleasant, so that we can enjoy a mind undisturbed by worry, merely open like the sky, and effortlessly aware of the flow of experience in the present” (Sam Harris). “The path is the goal” (Chogyam Trungpa). Seeing things as they are, and not as you would like them to be is equivalent to nonjudgemental acceptance. The more general process of deliberately shifting your own attention can be valuable in work and social contexts as well.

Actionable: Start meditating with this great free online class.

Here I try to define journaling as the primary tool used in cognitive therapy. “Studies on journaling show that writing about negative as well as positive experiences enhances our levels of mental and physical health” (J.W. Pennebaker). From this view, journaling compliments meditation. This is because while meditation is about cultivating a calm inaction or desireless waiting, journaling can be used to employ a tool box to try and fit a better frame, and to explore unknowns (all good entries start with a question).

From this view, journaling is a structured exploration of one’s personal narrative. Our subconscious creates a simplified interpretation of reality. Journalling can be viewed as an attempt to alleviate biases resulting from this simplification.
It also has a potential to reconstruct narratives, by exploring your past through the lens of the present: “The past is just a story we tell ourselves”. Having a finer feeling of one’s personal place in history is an empowering view on one’s identity.

“Draw a sharp line between your thoughts and your speech. Inside your head, anything is allowed.” -Paul Graham

Actionable: start gathering interesting questions about your life, and try answering them in a journal. Or every evening for two weeks, spend 5-20 minutes writing down a simple explanation of your day.

Cataloguing Useful and Generalizable Information
This mostly refers to text-based information: books, blogs, essays, etc.

Cataloguing Information has three parts: (1) finding information, (2) externally synthesize/organize/index, (3) internally synthesize.

#1 finding information: The goal is to answer this question: given all the useful things, which are most general? What are the best heuristics for answering this? Obviously, the internet is a useful medium [1]. And knowledge is power, so if one can define a function for power, then finding the powerful through the internet seems incredibly useful. In general, this seems similar to navigating an unfamiliar space.

#2 externally synthesizing/organizing information: writing summaries, making maps, and indexing books for efficient future use.

#3 is accomplished if you can teach it, or explain it. One goal here is to create primers for your mind, so that your written stream of consciousness (along with your catalogued libraries) produces something that is valuable, relevant, and previously unknown.

Actionable: read a piece of non-fiction you are interested in. Interact with the book as you read it (mark interesting parts, write comments in the margin, etc.). After you are finished, find a topic thread that interests you (the thread could originate from inside, or outside of the book). Try to write about that thread using your own words as much as possible. Refer here for my favorite style of writing.

Cardio Exercise
Cardio Exercise here encompasses many things: running, biking, swimming, resistance training, etc. The criteria for it being “cardio” is whether the aerobic and anaerobic thresholds are central to the workout routine. This means that an aerobic exercise should be right below the anaerobic threshold, and an anaerobic exercise should oscillate between the two (interval training).

Cardio exercise is important for physical health, and can help to decompress.  It improves one’s willpower reservoir (as does meditation). It is an opportunity to practice equanimity: composure in a strenuous situation. Also, aerobic exercise decreases neural decay and improves neural plasticity.

Minimum Actionable: Find a safe and exciting way to do an aerobic exercise every day for 30 minutes for two weeks.


[1] Some think cataloguing information is becoming irrelevant because of Google searches. This is false. The efficacy of a search engine is inherently anchored to the internal library of the user: A search is the creation of a sufficiently precise information context. Creating that context (‘Google Fu’) depends on one’s internal library.

Some searches require more contextual complexities than others (thus raising the minimum threshold of information precision). Therefor, an internal library is necessary in proportion to the contextual complexity of the query.

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