So there’s this skill I’m working on, and it’s called “mindfulness.” I pull this term from a Swedish poker player, known online as “boywonder,” who once wrote:
“Next time you are washing your hands, take a moment to listen to the water running before your start washing. Feel the water, take a few extra seconds to look at your surroundings, smell the soap. You will see that this experience is dramatically different from the million other times you have washed your hands. This, is mindfulness.”
“boywonder” came on the scene towards the end of my online poker career. He was crushing 5/10 NL, and nobody really knew how. It is not easy crushing 5/10 NL on the internets. If only you knew about all of the brilliant minds in that game! “boywonder” once did a “well” (where people ask you questions and you sit on your computer all day refreshing the internet and answering them), on either twoplustwo.com or leggopoker.com, and explained a bit of the method behind his success.
Basically, his mental workings were just sharper than those of the rest. He understood variance, intimately. He knew that patterns and connections don’t exist in meaningless data or statistical noise. He was aware, attentive, patient, vigilant, and keen. And he did all of this – “mindfulness” – better than anyone.
I’ve written about mindfulness before, albeit briefly, in a blog entry about a hiking trip in Tasmania. I think one of the best applications for mindfulness is hiking. To really enjoy, understand, and unite with the experience, you don’t just put one foot in front of the next. Instead, you take your moments. You take your moments to listen to the water move, the trees shake, the birds shouting across the room. You take your moments to feel how your feet move, how your shoes grab the ground, how the winds throw a chill up your core. In essence, you observe, act and exist in a way aware of all 5 senses, simultaneously. It’s not easy, but I’m getting better. Try it next time you hike – or wash your hands. Like the boy says, the experience will be dramatically different from the million other times you’ve done the same.
Though boywonder’s concept of mindfulness is important, it is inherently limited. It is limited because it is only relevant to a student’s interaction with and approach to mathematics. There is no person on the other end. While online poker is definitely people battling people, boywonder’s concept of mindfulness is geared only towards a greater understanding of variance, and how the brain deals with variance.
To make the concept more broad, we introduce people. How do we apply the concept of mindfulness to understanding others, and understanding ourselves? This is the skill I’m working on, and here’s what you do.
Take a day out of your life, or even a lunch break, and dedicate it to being mindful. I’m fortunate enough to have a lot of these days. Pick a day when your mind is clear, and go for a walk. The first thing we want to do on this walk is just observe. Walk slowly and deliberately. Observe others, their facial expressions, and how they move. Quickly or slowly? Why? We want to look at others, and try to understand who they are, where they are from, what they do with their lives, and why. You’re not going to be right every time. But the skill develops. You essentially want to turn off every bias, every attachment, every stress, and become totally neurally numb in the most mindful, aware, and receptive way possible. You want to learn from, appreciate, digest and deconstruct your surroundings – just by observing. You want to learn osmotically. You are not thinking about yourself, about your work life or job, but about others. You are thinking about who they are, why they are, and how you can help them. Osmotic learning, real learning and existence, is the goal.
After a while, life becomes art. The details become delightful. The sounds of the day, the way the chandelier glows dimly, the way I’m currently blogging at a crusted wooden bar table, in a beautifully-lit hostel in an old Victorian mansion in La Paz, Bolivia, as the sun gradually goes and the freeze moves forward, the French girls in front of me calmly writing in their journals and starting the night right, and the bass beginning to pump thump and kickstart the room. Stress is the biggest enemy. Stress kills the whole thing. Put your stress on hold for a second. And observe. Learn from, about and next to others. Visualize our insignificance, the pale blue dot as viewed from 4.2 million miles away, and that turning your engineering sustainability problem set in a day late just doesn’t matter. Appreciate the art of it all. The way the small things come together, the sound of a name, what country you’re in and the context of its being, how good good food tastes and why life is a gift after all. We’re here, aren’t we? We won’t be pretty soon. That’s math too – easy math even – that there is nothing at all mandating the posterity of humankind. We’re meant to extinguish, like the innumerable other animals and planets and lives that have trod throughout space and time. So, while we are here, take a moment to turn your mind off while fully and completely turning it on, and be mindful of what’s around. Do this calmly, unbiased, and osmotically. Enjoy your existence! Appreciate your existence. Learn, and understand others. And of course, in time, you learn about the only thing you truly have control over. That being yourself.
Five senses (don’t take the “taste” one too seriously though – we can’t just go around eating rocks and licking people’s faces), no stress. No expectation or bias. A full (yet empty) mind – a ready mind – an open mind! This is mindfulness. Thanks boywonder, and thank you online poker.
For real, thank you online poker (this as good of a segue as ever – this is the ode continued). I started with The Biggest Thing I’ve Learned After 9 Weeks on the Road, and a First-Time-Public Thank-You to Online Poker, and I will continue here. I never talked about it much before. The reason being, mostly, because people have crazy notions about what online poker is, and I was never too keen on spending 30 minutes defending the brethren. Mostly, I just said I sold drugs (with a dumb smile on). That’s how I’m traveling.
But no. I came up through the ranks. Fifty dollars to small empire. And once more, but definitely not for last, I say thanks. First, I say thanks because of the brilliant minds involved. The brilliant minds involved are enough to make anybody with a bit of childhood smile broadly. The people I became friends with, the ones I looked up to, the ones across the world I had the privilege of battling day in and night out. It was an absolute treat to be in the presence of, and to be constantly interacting with, the ferociously ambitious body of sickness and intelligence that defines online poker. The things I learned throughout, about math, about learning, about variance, about patience, discipline, conviction and hard work, are honestly and truly not things I could have learned elsewhere. The whole thing was just a treat – a gift. I won’t forget it, and I wouldn’t be the same person or student without it. BELIEVE IT, Mom and Dad. It worked out in the end.
And yes, that’s why I’m here. With more lessons and knowledge than I could ever process. And fortunately, most of it carries over into the “real world.” So thanks, boywonder, and thank you to poker on the internet. I wouldn’t be blogging from Bolivia without you.
Signed and sincerely,
P.S. West Africa momentum is building – BUILDING. I want it. No promises though. But it’s building – like Bob that cartoon character. Checking Gmail has suddenly become far more interesting than checking Facebook.
nice posting.. thanks for sharing.
Nice post Will. Look up Jon Kabat-Zinn, he is largely responsible for bring mindfulness to secular American culture out of more traditional Buddhist meditative practices. Also he has pioneered the scientific study of mindfullness techniques and their relationship to stress, health and well-being. I’m currently taking, almost finished, his well know Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course. The techniques are powerful, inspiring, and well grounded in science. A good book if your interested in starting a practice is Full Catastrophe Living.