A working definition of spirituality

Spirituality is one of those great undefinable words. It is doubly undefinable: the word itself is difficult to define, and the thing it describes is also undefinable: ephemeral, opaque, unseen.

But when they’re important enough to accompany us throughout life, things that defy definition need to be defined.

Even if it’s just to give ourselves a helping hand as we go through our days.

Spirituality is different for different people, from different cultures, at different stages of life, with different experiences behind them.

For me, a working definition of spirituality as of today.

Spirituality is thinking with feeling, and feeling while thinking.

Those Myers-Briggs personality tests and other psychometrics tools place people into buckets, or at some point along a spectrum: are you a thinker or a feeler?

To be spiritual is to be both, at the same time. To think with feeling, and to feel while thinking.

Thinking is our great gift as a species, honed over half a million years of evolution.

Feeling is all the matter of the universe’s great gift to us, collectively and as the unique, one-time-in-history individual that each of us is.

If we embrace both thinking and feeling, if we can hold in our hands at the same time both the light-bulb of thought and the candle-flame of feelings, a deep spiritual experience is available to all of us.

#130: The enduring appeal of fakeness, and the path to true identity

One thought from me: The appeal of fakeness

The phrase, “Do as I say, not what I do”, has approximately 300,000 results on Google. It’s often reserved for politicians, but it’s also offered up in relation to preachers, parents, and almost any public figure.

For all that we say we value openness, honesty, transparency, integrity, there’s a strong sense in what we do that we find great appeal in fakeness too.

Whether it’s a magician’s sleight of hand, or our enduring vulnerability to falling victim to too-good-to-be-true scams, or our aspiration to be seen in a better light than we see ourselves — resulting in the multi-billion-dollar industry that produces everything from the lipstick in the bathroom cabinet to the growth of permanent make-up tattoos to cosmetic surgery that nips here and tucks there — fakeness seems to appeal greatly to us.

It’s greatly apparent in these times we’re living through, as broadcasters make TV sports without stadium crowds more palatable with either fake fan noise or CGI-implanted fans in the seats.

So it’s worth asking the question: what do we truly value? Do we value integrity and transparency and honesty? Or is fakeness easier to deal with? Is fakeness in the moment more palatable than considering the big questions of truth and authenticity?

Perhaps it is something ingrained in human nature itself, but it’s worth considering, because it seems impossible to have both. It seems impossible to value truth while hiding that truth from the world.

One thought from someone else: The path to true identity

Steven Pressfield is a novelist and screenwriter. His first published novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance, which was later made into a Hollywood movie directed by Robert Redford and starring Will Smith and Charlize Theron, was published in 1995, when Pressfield was 52.

He had worked a long array of jobs as he tried to make a go of his true calling to write and create art, and lived out of his car for a spell while doing so.

He is perhaps best known these days for The War of Art, a sort of self-help bible for creatives … and he classifies creatives as a broad expanse of humanity, “from starting a plumbing supply business to running for political office”.

As a part of that vocation, he writes Writing Wednesdays, a short weekly blog for writers about writing.

This week’s piece — “Get to True Identity” — jumped out at me, and not for the act of writing at all, but for what it says about our lives. We are on a quest to get to true identity. To find a way, however we can do it, to shuffle off the fakeness that protects us, and to fully inhabit our true identities.

Here’s a pathway. Pressfield writes:

Pick any one of a thousand books or movies (dramas, tragedies, comedies … the principle applies across the board) and you’ll see more often than not this paradigmatic progression:

Act One: Hero starts with a warped and deformed self-conception (Huck, Thelma, Bogey).

Act Two: Hero is compelled by events and her own decisions to embrace a new and initially terrifying (to her) view of herself.

Act Three: In climax, hero embraces this new identity-what we as viewers and readers can see clearly as her true identity-whole-heartedly and in a manner that permits of no going back.

Read the full “Get to True Identity” piece here

One question for you

Where are you adopting true authenticity in your life? Where are you relying on any lingering fakeness?


Quick update about Magnificent Irrelevance…

This is a new project. A shot in the dark with the aim of delivering something meaningful for a small but committed niche of people around the world.

Magnificent Irrelevance got a new homepage headline this week — Soul-searching sportswriting — and I really like where this is going. It feels right.

The project is called Magnificent Irrelevance, and you can find all about it here. or sign up for separate Friday updates on the development of that here.

Magnificent Irrelevance - Soul-searching sportswriting

Do you feel the tension?

Do you feel the tension right now? It’s not pervasive, yet, but it is apparent, when you tune in your awareness.

People are angry and fearful.

In Ireland, there was a political golf society get-together last week, which contravened official public health guidelines on gatherings designed to limit the spread of coronavirus, which had been tightened up earlier in the week.

The fall-out of the event, which has been given the title and social media hashtag #golfgate, has run deep. A Government minister and European Union commissioner resigned. Several political party members were stripped of the “party whip” (expelled from their parliamentary party for not following leadership instruction).

Peel back the layers, and it’s clear to see the reason: People are angry. People are fearful. People are tense.

They’re angry because the people charged with making the decisions and enforcing them appear to have one rule for the masses and a separate one for themselves.

They’re angry because the consequences of lockdowns are unequal, and while human nature makes inequality almost inevitable, inequality still cultivates unfairness, and unfairness leads to anger.

They’re fearful because there’s a new virus and disease sweeping the world, and it’s not hard to find an expert with an opinion that suits your version of events, or fits your worst fears.

They’re fearful because they’ve seen empty supermarket shelves for the first time in living memory.

They’re tense because they don’t know what’s around the corner: a great depression as deep or deeper as the 1930s, a decade which precipitated a world war that killed millions, left millions more starving, and brought the planetary destruction power of nuclear arms into existence? Something bad but not quite as bad as that? Something even worse?

They’re tense because nobody’s job is secure, so nobody’s income is secure, so nobody’s safety and health and wellbeing is secure, and they’re tense because they walk around the streets and see recently buzzing coffee shops closed and stark yellow warning arrows on the floor and security guards decked out in masks and padded vests.

All the anger, fear and tension manifests in behaviours.

So we unleash on social media, or on public figures who have failed us, or on the stupid f***ing driver up ahead who’s driving 10 kph under the speed limit.

The first law of thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created nor destroyed; it can only be transferred or changed from one form to another.

Our anger, fear and tension is energy, and by unleashing it, or by deflecting it, we’re almost certain to get it back in the future, perhaps with greater force.

We can observe that energy within the anger, fear and tension, and choose to do two things.

  1. We can choose not to judge it negatively, because judging it negatively is its own form of repackaging the energy.
  2. We can choose to change it into some other form, into something positive: by proactively seeking out something to be grateful for, by being mindful with our complaints and criticisms, by noticing moments of wonder amid the woe.

These choices are difficult choices to make.

But they can be powerful when we choose to make them.

Patrick Bet-David and Brené Brown on taking steps forward

Some of the inspiration for yesterday’s short post on reaching your potential came from two people I admire in very different ways.

Brené Brown has spoken about something she calls FFTs (“f***ing first times”) and Patrick Bet-David produced a wise video on “How to reach your potential”, which is especially worth checking out if you’re into entrepreneurship or business.

Potential is an ephemeral thing.

It invites us to step forward into an uncertain future which then quickly becomes an uncomfortable present as we figure out what to do.

I liked both of these perspectives on stepping forward boldly into the uncertainties that are unavoidable in our own individual lives.

Brené Brown on FFTs

For all of us, being new at something is incredibly vulnerable. Even when we’re excited and committed … the awkward, uncomfortable time comes right after the excitement, and it feels awful.

If the definition of vulnerability is uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure, then being new at something is the epitome of vulnerability.

The only way to get to the other side of the discomfort of being new is to push right through the middle.

Source: Brené Brown on FFTs, Unlocking Us podcast

Patrick Bet-David on reaching your potential

Say you’re playing an RPG role-playing game. The idea of video games is to do what? To move up, another level, another level, and as the levels go higher, the game gets tougher but you also become tougher as you’re levelling up. Can you imagine playing a video game with 20 levels and next getting past level 5?

What’s your true capacity? Why not wake up today and say, ‘It’s about time I seek my capacity?’

What is your level of capacity?

If you say, ‘I feel I can be anythign in life, because my mom told me I can be anything in life!’

Your mom lied. You can’t be anything in life. You can’t be Lebron James. You can’t be Usain Bolt.

But you do have your capacity.

Source: Patrick Bet-David on Reaching Your Full Potential

[If you enjoyed this, you might also like this essay on navigating uncertainty in an uncertain world.]

Five quick thoughts about reaching your potential

Potential seems to be mostly invisible. And it’s invisible by definition. If it was already achieved, it would be visible, and it would no longer be potential.

We can always, always, always do more. That doesn’t mean we always necessarily should do more — doing more, at certain times, might not be productive or even healthy — but whether we should or should not do more, it is always within our power to do more.

The poet Robert Browning wrote,

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?

It’s almost impossible to imagine a situation where something more or better might not have been achieved. And yet perfection in anything is almost impossible.

Here are five quick thoughts about potential that seem to be true.

1. The next level is always within reach

We might see several levels up, but we can’t move several levels at a time. Each one must be navigated in turn. And the next one is always within reach.

2. You probably know someone who’s already there

Most people now have networks, real world and Internet world and a mix between the two, and we have the agency to grow those networks in any way we like. When we seek to climb to the next level, getting a hand up is always a good idea. You probably know someone who’s already on the level you’re aiming at.

3. You always struggle when you first get there

Levelling up brings headaches and problems which you might never have anticipated. As you climb the levels, you’ll come to expect the headaches, and figure out the detail and the way past them as you go. You will be tempted to think that it might be easier to drop back to the previous level. Like all temptations, this will be a test.

4. While striving for the next level, you can still talk nice to yourself

Negative self-talk is never a sustainable strategy. It might occasionally start the engine, but it will never refill the tank, and eventually, if you persist in negative self-talk, you will crash and burn. One big thing about negative self-talk: when you’re aware of it, it’s much easier to interrupt it. So the trick is in flexing the awareness muscle.

5. There’s always a next level

It never stops. There is no line in the sand that marks the end-point. There is no mountain-top. Many climbers who climb Everest try to do it again by a different route, or in shorts. No matter where you are, there’s always another step up. It doesn’t mean that you fail if you choose not to take it, but choosing not to take it doesn’t mean it’s not there.


Conservation and scarcity

The scarcity mindset is a real thing. I wrote about scarcity vs abundance mindset on the blog quite a while ago.

Having a mindset that is built on scarcity can hold us back from some of the most wonderful moments that life has to offer.

But we can’t just pretend that the elements that add up to a scarcity mindset are all bad, or unjustified, or unhelpful.

If we look at it another way, some of the things that might be criticised as hallmarks of “scarcity mindset” could equally fall in the category of conservationism.

Abundance mindset is often good, but when it relates to natural resources, it’s better to lean on the side of conservation.

For a century or two, we have plundered the planet of finite natural resources, and we’re paying a price for that — and asking our children to pay a price — in ways that we’re only beginning to understand.

When it comes to resources, being conservative is not scarcity mindset.

It’s being clever, and mindful of the future, and generous.

The world isn’t here to give us everything we’ve ever wanted.

And that’s a good thing.

202 words on the shortness of life

Life is short and despite all the troubles and struggles we endure, it is beautiful too.

It’s a rainy Sunday morning here in Ireland. Some blue skies are pushing through the cloud, but the dark clouds heavy with rain are visible in every direction.

As I parked the car just now, I saw a man who reminded me of my uncle Paddy.

Paddy was full of life. He never stopped moving. He was a mechanic and a welder and an all-round tinkerer; he played around with things to make them work if they didn’t work, or move if they didn’t move, and if he could do it he might find someone to buy them.

He built a workshop and eventually he had to work outside the workshop because inside was so full of the stuff he’d been working on.

As this man whose gait, as he fixed his mask to his face, looked so much like my uncle walked past me in the rain, I thought of one of the last times I saw him.

When he was lying in a bed he would never get to leave, one night it rained heavily.

“I would love to be out there,” he said.

The power of the placebo effect

There’s something unspoken and unwritten that usually accompanies the words “the placebo effect”.

It goes something like this.

“The placebo effect is imaginary. The effect is real, but because it’s caused by imaginary factors, it’s less important than other factors that can be proven and repeated by science.”

There’s much that science doesn’t yet know about the human mind.

Outer space and inner space might be the two biggest frontiers for science for the 21st century and beyond: how far we can progress human understanding of the universe way out there, and the multiverse inside our brains.

One of the most fascinating things about the human mind is the placebo effect.

Placebo in Latin means “I will please”.

The placebo effect is how our mind changes things without any external factor.

The placebo effect can cause the progress of illnesses to be stopped or reversed.

The placebo effect is used in pharmaceutical test labs to test whether an experimental drug is effective.

Routinely, trial participants will be separated into two groups, one given the trial drug and one given a “sugar pill”.

Also routinely, the trials are conducted “double blind” so that neither the participants nor the testers know whether they’ve received an active drug or a sugar pill.

Often, both groups report benefits.

If a statistically significant difference is not proven in a repeatable way, the drug will not be approved.

Sugar pills can create placebo effects.

Many other things can also have the same result.

Meditation and positive self-talk affirmations are two other activities that can have placebo effects.

There’s a recurring theme in the old Napoleon Hill book Think and Grow Rich, called “the power of auto-suggestion”.

It’s the same thing.

By changing the way we think, we change the way we talk, dress and show up in the world.

The impact is powerful for ourselves as individuals, which is a great thing.

Maybe even more importantly, it’s powerful for the people who need us.

The placebo effect usually comes accompanied by some negative tone, something pejorative or diminishing.

Changing the way we think about the placebo effect has the power to change everything.

#129: Adding things without taking things away, and three ways to see time

One thought from me: On adding things without taking things away

It’s easy to add things.

New purchases, new opportunities, new projects, new commitments.

New friendships and new relationships are more difficult to add, or take longer, but still most of us are continually in the process of adding and building new relationships, whether that’s professional, personal or intimate.

There’s a phrase in software development: “scope creep”. It relates to how so much software development can go off course by the desire to add new things, so much that the original idea or vision is lost.

As humans, we are in one long series of cycles of birth and rebirth, growth and development, and decay or pruning.

But we can’t keep adding things without taking something away.

I’ve realised that if I keep adding and choose not to take something away, something will in the end be taken away from me anyway.

I’ve also realised that it’s better to make a tricky but voluntary choice about what to remove now, rather than go through a difficult but involuntary experience when something is forcibly removed later.

One thought from someone else: How the Ancient Greeks saw time

This one came to me for the first time during my most recent podcast interview, with Professor Carlos Moreno, who has devised the concept of the 15-minute city.

Prof Moreno explained his four motivations for the work that he does, and one of those is how life in cities (and, there’s an argument, for much of the rest of humanity too) has lost two of the three ways of seeing time as

He said:

In the ancient times, in particular for the Greeks, time was thought of in three ways.

● Chronos, of course, the linear time. One hour, two hours, 24 hours
● Kairos, the time of creativity, the time of new ideas, the time of inventivity
Aion, the time for my own spirituality, my intuition, myself and the cosmos, and my inner way

And I consider that in fact the modern way for building cities, we have lost the time. We have lost the creativity for time, the kairos, we have lost all the time for spirituality, the aion, because the only time that exists is the chronological time, one hour, two hours, 24 hours.

You can listen to the full podcast interview with Prof Carlos Moreno here (or on any of the regular podcast playing services: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or just by adding a new feed to your podcast app and searching for the Life Well Lived Podcast).

[My podcast dropped this week at almost the same time, and very coincidentally, as the latest podcast by the Irish economist David McWilliams, which is also about the 15-minute city and the future of cities. These two podcasts might go well as a pair. You can listen to the David McWilliams podcast on Apple Podcasts here.]

One question for you

Where in your life have you made commitments that it might be liberating to remove?


Quick update about Magnificent Irrelevance…

This is a new project. A shot in the dark with the aim of delivering something meaningful for a small but committed niche of people around the world.

Magnificent Irrelevance got a new homepage headline this week — Soul-searching sportswriting — and I really like where this is going. It feels right.

The project is called Magnificent Irrelevance, and you can find all about it here. or sign up for separate Friday updates on the development of that here.

Magnificent Irrelevance - Soul-searching sportswriting

How important ideas work

There are a few sites that I read, or try to read, regularly.

RSS feeds have been valuable here — while Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn are governed by multi-layered algorithms which choose to display content for me based on how other people in my network are reacting to that content, RSS feeds are beautifully dumb.

They just display content in reverse chronological order, as they’re published, from the list of websites you want to follow.

For big media sites like the BBC or the Irish Times, this wouldn’t be so helpful, but for smaller, more niche websites, it’s a lovely experience, so much more relaxed / less stressful than the general flow of the Internet and social media, with its relentless moving elements and advertising and psycho-emotional manipulations.

You can group your RSS feeds into categories, and browse through them at your leisure.

This is what one of my RSS feeds, Tech and Culture, looks like:


The best thing that can be said about reading is that it makes you think differently. Making you think differently, it changes your mind on something, and when you change your mind, you can change your life.

The top item here, “When The Magic Happens”, made me think differently today.

It starts with:

This is a story about when big innovations happen.

Not how, but when. And to some extent, why.

Hopefully you find it counterintuitive at first before it quickly seems obvious. That’s how most important ideas work.

The piece goes on to discuss the invention of cars and airplanes, and how for years, decades, after those inventions, the key use for cars and airplanes was military.

Few saw a plane and said, “Ah-ha, I can use that to get to my next vacation.”

What they did say early on was, “Can we mount a machine gun on that? Can we drop bombs out of it?”

But let’s rewind to one line above:

counterintuitive at first before it quickly seems obvious. That’s how most important ideas work.

This is important.

I know that counterintuitive decisions have made a big impact in my life.

Lots of people advised me against removing all dairy from my diet, because of the protein and the calcium that we so readily get from dairy products.

But my mental and physical health improved within two weeks, and more than three years later, I’ve no intention ever to go back.

When I left my last full-time job in late 2016, for a while it felt like I was rudderless, failing to match up with the great mass of people who were productively working jobs for big and small companies. But by accident — counterintuitively, for sure — that mostly involuntary decision has led to a series of the most incredibly liberating, horizon-broadening learning experiences of my life. I feel like I’ve achieved more in the past three years than I did in the previous 13.

A couple of thoughts that are moving around my mind that seem counterintuitive, but could in time seem obvious.

For one example, depression.

My counterintuitive thought is that so much of what’s given the name “depression”, and treated with medication, usually expensive and often over a prolonged period of time, is a development in medicine which is designed more to increase the profits of drug companies than to treat people’s depression. This thought is provocative to many, but who’s to say that in the future depression will not be a much smaller and less common condition which can be effectively dealt with by medicines or treatments that many would consider crackpot now. (Such as magic mushrooms…)

For another example, mortgage finance.

In a world where more and more people will be able to work from anywhere, will there be any wisdom in picking up debt for three or four decades for a place that keeps you in the same place?

For a third example, the economy, and economic growth.

Economic growth is spoken about in uncritical terms, as if economic growth is the only worthwhile way for a country to be. But what if economic growth is actually bad for the majority of a country’s citizens?

All of these thoughts are no more than mental experiments, to be questioned and teased out.

But asking questions helps us to see, think and live differently.

So, where in my life are there other things that seem counterintuitive, but when I open my mind and think differently it could be life-altering in a wonderful way?

How about in yours?