Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Leo Babauta (@zen_habits), a bestselling author and the founder of Zen Habits, a website dedicated to finding simplicity and mindfulness in the daily chaos of our lives. Zen Habits has more than two million readers, and Time magazine has named it one of their “Top 25 Blogs” and “Top 50 Websites.” He is also a student of Zen and on a mission to help the world open through uncertainty training. Transcripts may contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss, and welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show. My guest today is a friend, Leo Babauta, B-A-B-A-U-T-A on Twitter @Zen_Habits, zenhabits.net. He is founder of Zen Habits, a website dedicated to finding simplicity and mindfulness in the daily chaos of our lives. Zen Habits has more than two million readers. That is a lot, and Time Magazine has named it one of its top 25 blogs and top 50 websites. Leo, we could talk for many hours. This is just the round one, but welcome to the show. It’s nice to have you on finally.
Leo Babauta: Yeah, it’s great to be here. It’s a huge honor, honestly.
Tim Ferriss: I figured for people who don’t have context, we could start at the beginning, or I should say maybe just the beginning of a transition of sorts. I’d like to flash back to more than 10 years ago, and I want you to correct the timing if I’m not getting it just right, but around 2005, prior to Zen Habits, the phenomenon, prior to the bestselling books, prior to all of that, could you paint a picture of where you were, what you were doing, your circumstances and situation at the time?
Leo Babauta: Yeah, that was definitely a difficult period of my life, and really, it feels like a whole different lifetime ago, a different person, but 2005, I was married with a huge family, mixed family, five kids with one more on the way, in a job I didn’t like. I was overweight. I was a smoker, sedentary, kept trying to change a lot of these habits. I was a big procrastinator, very deeply in debt and really not being able to pay my bills and just really felt stuck and felt really bad about myself, which I think a lot of people can relate to some aspect of that story. It was just really tough for me having to provide for people but not being able to make ends meet, feeling terrible about myself as a father, not a good example, and just feeling really discouraged about my ability to make any change stick in my life. So that’s where I was in 2005.
Tim Ferriss: Geographically, where were you at the time?
Leo Babauta: Oh, yeah. I was in the Island of Guam, which is where we’re from, me and my family.
Tim Ferriss: So we start there. This is almost like a screenplay. We start there, and what happens over the subsequent handful of years or the catalyst, so to speak, for some of your successful changes? What actually happened that was the impetus or the spark, so to speak, for some of the subsequent changes?
Leo Babauta: People say sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you can climb out of it, and so I hit a number of really deep, low points for myself. One of them was, as I talked about debt, just not being able to put food on the table for my family. I remember one heartbreaking moment of that depth was when I had to break open my kid’s piggy bank to be able to put some like milk and cereal on the table, and so that was a real dark point where I felt like a failure as a father. Smoking, as well. My wife was pregnant, so she quit smoking while she was pregnant, but I knew that she was going to start again as soon as she gave birth, so I had to quit in order to set an example for her, but I also knew that my kids were much more likely to smoke, and so I had to quit for them as well.
There were just a number of points where I just felt despair and like a failure. I felt like I had to save my life, and so I think that was the realization, was like I am killing myself in a lot of different ways. I’m failing myself and failing my family. That was the most heartbreaking part, was that I was failing my wife and kids. So, from that like heartbreak and feeling of despair and like I was killing myself, I realized I had to reach for a lifeline. I had to do something to save my life and my family as well. So I decided I couldn’t change all of these things at once. I was trying to multiple times, so I decided to just change one thing, and it was smoking.
So, I committed to that in a really big way to a lot of different people, to my daughter, to my wife, made a promise that really felt meaningful to me. I did a bunch of research, found out a bunch of different techniques and tried them all. That’s when I tried meditation as a replacement for smoking for stress. So I started meditating. I started running because I needed to do something when I felt like I needed to smoke. So I finally — I actually made the smoking habit stick, that I quit smoking for the first time in my life. I had tried like seven times before, and that felt like a huge success. So I felt so much encouragement from that. I felt like I could take on the rest of the things.
So, one thing at a time, I started changing everything about my life. I started eating healthier. I started running more, ran a 5k. I committed to running a marathon. That’s how optimistic I was after running the 5k. I started waking up earlier, started writing after wanting to write for years, started procrastinating less. My wife and I made a plan to get out of debt. One small debt at a time, we started paying them off until like a year later, my entire life was changed. I lost 30 pounds in a year. My whole life was different. I ran a marathon at the end of 2006, and it felt like such a huge success. I had learned a bunch of things that changed those habits along the way. One after the other, I applied the same ideas to changing those habits, and that’s when I started Zen Habits to share all of those things that I’ve been learning.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s zoom in on a few aspects of this.
Leo Babauta: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: It sounds like, on some level, almost a Cinderella story, right, like everything was wrong, and then 12 months later, you were able to address so much of it. Let’s double click on the smoking because —
Leo Babauta: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: I know that seems to have been a huge point of leverage and also a proof of concept and also a proof of confidence in a sense for you. You mentioned you’d attempted to quit seven times before, and I’d love for you to expand on what made the eighth attempt successful. Why did this attempt succeed when the others had failed?
Leo Babauta: Yeah. It was such a pivotal moment in my life, so I’m really glad you’re zooming in on this one. A number of things changed, but the first one was that I had a very meaningful reason, something that mattered to me. Again, I mentioned my wife and my kids, making a promise to my daughter. I think before that, it was only promises to myself, which I never really keep, or I didn’t at that time. I didn’t trust myself to keep those promises. So making a promise to someone else and really feeling like this was for something that mattered, saving their lives as well as mine. So I really got clear on that and felt it in my heart, and just that really started everything else because it motivated me to make a big commitment.
I joined a forum online, so I had some social accountability. Social accountability turned out to be a big one not only for this but for all future habits. I learned about triggers, and so what are the things that triggered me to smoke? I really zoomed in on those things. Stress and anxiety, and feeling bad about myself and just a — being overwhelmed, all of these things really, I got clear that they were the things that caused me to smoke or that triggered me to want to smoke.
I also learned to just recognize when I had the urge and then sit with that urge, so it was a form of meditation, is just sitting with the physical sensation of needing to smoke without needing to actually smoke. So I learned to separate the urge from the action. Before that, whenever the urge happened, I had to take action. It felt like a command, like there was no choice, and there was no separation between them. But when I learned to separate the two, I learned that the urge is just a feeling in my body that I could sit with, and it would rise and get really strong and feel incredibly urgent, but then it would pass. So learning that actually unlocked so much for me because I learned that none of the urges that I thought I needed to act on were actually commands, but they were just feelings in the body. So that liberated me a lot.
I learned about rewards. I learned about all kinds of motivations. One of the other big ones was a dip in the habit. So there’s a time with every habit that we feel great, everything’s going great, and then at some point, we hit this dip that feels like we can’t do it, and so we want to give up. So our usual pattern when we get hit by this, it’s like getting punched in the face. It’s like, “Okay, that’s enough. I don’t want to do this anymore,” and so we get really discouraged. I learned that if you have a plan for when you get punched in the face and you practice with that, the dip doesn’t have to be the end of the story. It’s just a part of it.
Tim Ferriss: Is the practicing just a rehearsal of sorts or anticipation that the dip will come, or is there another way to prepare yourself for that punch in the face? Is it knowing that it happens roughly X period of time after you start? How have you done that successfully?
Leo Babauta: Well, knowing that it’s going to happen is a big one and then preparing for it — because usually, what happens is we think that it’s not going to happen. This time, it’s going to be different. Then, when it happens, we’re like, “Ah, crap. It happened, and so that must mean there’s something wrong with me.” So knowing that it’s going to happen, that it’s just a part of the process, is a really big one because it allows you to be mentally in a place where you can embrace this. Then, the other part of it is practicing what you’re going to do beforehand. So if you know what’s going to happen and you know how it’s going to feel because it’s happened a number of times before, you can say, “Oh, I’m in it.”
Then, you have a plan, and you mentally rehearse this beforehand. You can practice with it in smaller versions. I highly recommend practicing any time you get like a micro-discouragement, is practicing with that, so giving yourself some compassion, having some kind of a way to pull yourself out of that state. So for me, just having someone to talk to was a big one like, “I’m screwing this up. I can’t do this,” having someone else to encourage me, and then I eventually learned to encourage myself. So there’s lots of different things we can do to encourage ourselves, and then just learning to like write it out was part of it just because it just, it’ll go. It’ll pass.
Then, another thing that I learned, this is not right away, but I learned it multiple habits into it, is actually, that period is one of the deepest periods of learning that we can have. So if we can learn to see it in that light where, “Oh, like I can learn a lot about myself in this period,” it doesn’t have to be a negative thing when the dip happens. It’s like, “Oh, this is actually when I learn what I’m all about. This is how I learn what the negative thought patterns that happen for me are and how to deal with those.” So it’s actually a really rich area, and most of us don’t want to be in it, but if we learn that, “Oh, this is where the growth really happens,” then it doesn’t have to be anything that we need to get out of right away.
Tim Ferriss: I’m going to ask you about your physical movement, not in the running sense but actually the relocation sense. You’ve had a number of moves, and I want to talk about how those choices were made, but before we get there, just a couple of things that came to mind as you were expanding on everything you just mentioned. The first is that the dip happens in so many areas. It happens in physical training often in the form of a plateau of some type. It happens in skill acquisition with, say language learning. Very predictably, there’ll be a period where you try to take on more complex grammar, and you take steps backwards that feel like you’re failing if you aren’t anticipating that as something predictable.
The embracing — I can’t remember the athlete who said this to me, but embracing the suck is concerned — Jim Dethmer, who’s a previous podcast guest and a very, very wise practical guy, has put it to me that when you have those moments, and I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, always excellent at seeing things this way when I’m in the midst of it but —
Leo Babauta: Of course.
Tim Ferriss: — he said “View this as a pop quiz from the universe.” The universe says like, “Oh, yeah, you’ve been training and doing all these things. Mindfulness, meditation, breathing practice for stressful moments. Here’s your fucking stressful moment. Let’s see how you handle it, hot shot. You’ve been doing all this supposed practice in the safe confines of your living room. Let’s see how you operate in the real world,” and —
Leo Babauta: That’s right.
Tim Ferriss: That has been a helpful, not always a miraculous reframe but certainly helpful. If we talk about or if we look at your moving, so you moved from — let’s see. You left Guam at one point, and then, you have moved a number of times since. Could you speak to why you and your family left Guam, and what has driven your decisions to move? Because a lot of people, as we record this, this is late September 2020, are moving. There are many people choosing to move for many different reasons, and I would just love to know more about what the insights and drivers were for you.
Leo Babauta: We moved in 2010 from Guam to San Francisco. That time, we were a family of six kids, so a family of eight. We were in a really comfortable place in Guam. We had so much family around us, a huge network. I knew that we could just go on that way and be fine, but I also knew that it was comfortable, and the kids were going to be trained in comfort and that they would then get stuck in that because that’s what had happened for me. So I wanted us to move out of our comfort zone into a new place and experience that together where I could help them with that mind shift and see the world and be able to basically have access to the world, and then have a choice. They could go back to Guam where we love Guam, or they could pretty much move anywhere in the world.
It was a hard thing because first of all, it’s just heartwrenching to say goodbye to so many people that we love. We sold everything. We moved with like a backpack each to San Francisco, knew almost no one there. I met you there; that was pretty great! We basically were in a place where it was just completely foreign to us. The kids had never seen a homeless person before or anyone using drugs. They got quite used to that over the years we were there. So, actually, it was really hard because they didn’t want to be there. I felt like I was maybe making a mistake, so it taught me a lot about how I questioned myself in those hard moments, but it really taught them a lot about their first reaction, not liking it is not always right because they look back on it and say, “Oh, I’m so glad that you made that choice, but I didn’t want to do it. I was really unhappy for a while.” So that really taught them a lot about how we react to these kinds of things.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s talk about the family a little bit more and that move to San Francisco.
Leo Babauta: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: To a lot of folks listening, they’re going to think to themselves, “Holy smokes. Six kids.” How many, just as a bit of backstory, how many of those kids were homeschooled?
Leo Babauta: Oh, yeah. So, well, we’re a blended Brady Bunch family, just to make that clear. So I have two from my ex-wife. My wife has two from her previous marriage, and then we came together and had two more. So we have three boys and three girls, and it’s a very blended family. So my two from my ex-wife went to regular school, and then the other four were all homeschooled. In fact, we do a version of it, as you know, called unschooling. We still have two teenagers in the house now who are being unschooled, and then we have two adults who went through the unschooling process who are basically doing the same thing but as adults.
Tim Ferriss: All right. We’re going to dig into that.
Leo Babauta: Would love to.
Tim Ferriss: I want to talk about unschooling. Before we get to that, just so I don’t lose my train of thought, when you moved to San Francisco at the time, presumably, you and your wife discussed this. Decisions were made. At the time, the kids did not feel like this was perhaps the right decision. How do you think about making decisions for the betterment of the family even when, or perhaps especially when, not everyone is in agreement? When you may face that type of blowback or resistance, how did you think about it, or how do you think about it?
Leo Babauta: Well, we went through a process. So doing anything like this with other people, you can’t just make a unilateral decision, so we went through a process with them back when we were in Guam. We had a whole discussion about the reasons why. I think they really were only like 50 percent convinced, but they agreed to it. So that was kind of the idea, was we asked them to and agreed to like this kind of adventure mindset to try something new, to explore things that they didn’t know. I think they were hesitant, but they agreed to it. A piece of me knew that they were resisting this, and so part of it is just kind of talking about the adventure and the excitement and all these new things that we’d be able to explore together. So they were like, “Okay, well maybe I can do this discomfort stuff if there is a good reason for it.”
So, there was that, but also part of me knew that I had to guide them to be able to deal with all of the negative stuff because everything comes with a cost, and so they were going to be heartbroken to say goodbye to people. I knew that was actually a good thing for them, is to learn how to deal with that even though it was painful. Really, it’s the same process, as you talked about, how I think about this, it’s the same process that I think about for myself when I make these decisions. I know I’m going to go through discomfort. There’s a part of me, the little kid in me that doesn’t want to do the hard stuff, that wants to just be in comfort, and there’s an adult part of me that has to guide the little boy, Leo, that doesn’t want to do it. So that adult has to kind of give compassion and reassurance, but also, that’s the part that needs to make the decisions.
When I’m in the like little boy Leo state of mind, I don’t let myself make decisions at that place because I know that that one wants to hide or run. When my kids are in that state of mind too, I usually don’t let us make a decision at that place. We work through that, and then when they get to a place where they’re not wanting to shut down, that’s when we make a group decision. So that’s the same exact process for myself.
Tim Ferriss: Super helpful. We’re going to come back to unschooling, but I think that a lot of people, present company included, would be very interested to look at the early years of Zen Habits, because it seems like — when did Zen Habits start? When was the site launched?
Leo Babauta: January 2007.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. January 2007. In some respects, people must remember that 2007 to 2009 was a golden era of blogging. It was very competitive, very similar to podcasting now, in some respects. And blogs are still very, very powerful, but hugely competitive. Many, many entrances, so to speak, new blogs, options for readers. But it seems like, in a relatively short period of time, let’s just say 18 to 24 months, that Zen Habits had really become, in the eyes of many, a behemoth, a real force to be reckoned with. How did that happen? What can you point to, if any, decisions or particular posts or anything at all that helped to put Zen Habits on the map?
Leo Babauta: Yeah. It really did happen in a matter of months. And a part of me wants to just say, “I stumbled upon something just out of pure luck.” And then another part is that, “Well, no, you worked your ass off, Leo, so give yourself some credit.” Yeah. So I started really just to blog about a lot of the things I had been learning and changes that I was making. And so it really started just to — partly as accountability. But I got some early responses from some readers, it was only a handful in the beginning, that really encouraged me and it got me excited. And I remember, maybe, two and a half months into it, a point where I said, “Oh, my God, I really want to do this all the time.” And I had a day job at the time.
Tim Ferriss: What was your day job, if I may ask?
Leo Babauta: Yeah, I was working for the government in Guam. At the time, I think it was the Guam Legislature. I was helping with veterans from the legislature. So, yeah, it was not — it didn’t take up all my attention. Let’s just say that. It was a kind of job where a lot of people will play like solitaire for like a quarter of the day. And I realized I didn’t want to do that, and so I just used all of my spare time, even when I was supposed to be doing other work, just doing blogging. A switch just flipped where I was so passionate about it, and I realized, “This could be my calling.” And so I had never had that before, this idea that something could be my calling. It was always kind of like, just do something for the paycheck.
And when I had that switch flipped, I went on this crazy hyperdrive, where I was writing a post every day for Zen Habits. I also started freelancing for other blogs, where I was writing one post a week for them. So, for five different ones. So it was five posts a week for those paid blogs. And then I would do guest posts for other blogs. And I was doing about five of those a week. And so it was like 15 to 20 blog posts a week.
Tim Ferriss: How did you choose the five outlets or blog post options? How did you select those?
Leo Babauta: Well, I was already doing freelance writing for magazines in Guam. And so I decided, instead of writing for those, which I wasn’t inspired to write for, I’d write for the online ones even if the pay was less. So I looked for a blog strategically that, first of all, they were paying people, freelancers. And second, their audience had some kind of overlap with mine. So there was productivity, there was mostly self-improvement type stuff. So, similar audiences, and the effect that I had, and I realized this early on when I started making the switch, the effect was that, if you’re reading about self-improvement, there was a good chance that you would come across me. Because all of these self-improvement blogs that were paying me, I was there every week. And then a bunch of other blogs that were doing self-improvement would allow me to be a guest poster.
And so, if you’re reading this blog about self-improvement, you probably came across Leo of Zen Habits. If you were within this certain kind of sphere, it was almost like I was everywhere. And that was kind of crazy that I could do that at the time. But yeah, I actually had people write to me and say, “Man, you are just on every blog that I read.” And of course, I wasn’t on every blog in the world, but for this particular type of person that I was trying to reach, I was on almost every blog that they were reading.
Tim Ferriss: Now I’m trying to step into my mental time machine and go back to, say, 2007 to 2009. I want to say that, at the time, there would have been some powerhouses to reckon with in the productivity space, Lifehacker, 43 Folders, and the others. Were there any particular outlets that, looking back and doing 80/20 analysis of sorts, that really seemed to help you reach critical mass for any number of reasons?
Leo Babauta: It’s hard to remember. I remember the first time that I got linked to from a bigger blog, it was a blog called Dumb Little Man. I think they’re still around. But they had so many more readers and I had like 20 or something like that. And somehow, they had read my blog and linked to it. And I remember looking at the stats and it just spiked up into the thousands. And it was just this mind-blowing thing.
Tim Ferriss: Which piece did they link to, or what was the subject?
Leo Babauta: It was like 20 Productivity Hacks or something like that. I definitely wrote a lot of linkbait type headlines at the time. I try to put real wisdom, real useful stuff in there, but I played around with a bunch of types of titles for the posts that were attention-grabbing. And eventually, I moved away from that because I just didn’t feel very good, but definitely, I was doing a lot of it at the time, just experimenting. I wanted to just basically try anything because I didn’t know what would work or not. So I tried everything. That was the kind of, like I said, hyperdrive that I went into, is I basically tried every single thing because I didn’t know what worked.
And then by the end of 2007, I figured out the things that worked and the ones that didn’t. And so I stopped doing the ones that didn’t feel in alignment with me and then really just focused on the important stuff. But I think that’s the case when we try anything that we don’t know how to do, we try everything possible, and then we narrow it down to what actually does matter. By the way, I want to say that 2007, when Zen Habits took off, is when I met you online. We never met in person that year, but you had come out with The 4-Hour Workweek, which was just this powerhouse of a book.
And you were starting out with your blog as well. And I was also coming out with a book, which I didn’t know how to do. And you’re coming out with a blog, which you were new to. And so we kind of crossed paths at that point, where I was good at blogging and not good at books. You were good at books and not good at blogging. And eventually, you got really good at blogging. Your blog just took off. And so it was just really cool to see you rise up in that space just because, I think, anything you set your mind to, you’re going to be really good at.
Tim Ferriss: I appreciate you saying that, man, it was really fun to have those early interactions. And just like you, in the very beginning, I did a lot of experimentation with all sorts of clickbaity titles and headlines and blogrolls of various types. And I really threw as much as I could against the wall. And it’s true, it’s very true that you have to throw a lot against the wall to know what works. But I would add to that, you need to throw a lot against the wall to determine what works for you. Because if you’re experimenting in a new medium, you really don’t know what you’re going to enjoy and you don’t know what you’ll be good at.
And I think those are very closely related in the sense that your power zone tends to be some degree of inherent skill or predilection towards a certain format. That’s true with podcasting too. And that predilection or enjoyment then gives you the stamina to outlast and compete. So I think that both of those are extremely important ingredients. And if I think back to one of the inflection points, for instance, for my blog, it’s very clearly getting on the front page of Digg, D-I-G-G, for the first time, with my Geek to Freak post, which is about building muscle.
Leo Babauta: I remember that one.
Tim Ferriss: A controversial post, and the amount of traffic that that brought was just unimaginable to me. Were there other particular posts of yours that you recall, or projects, Zen to Done comes to mind as one that I’m wondering if that kind of grabbed people in a way, or if that type of writing grabbed people in a way that brought you dedicated readers? Is there anything at all that comes to mind, as having done a lot of heavy lifting?
Leo Babauta: Yeah. And by the way, Digg was a big one for me too. I got on the front page of Digg a bunch of times. And those were like the early days of social media. Reddit was also getting big, and there is a bookmarking site called Delicious, where if you got on their front page, you’d also get a bunch of traffics, I remember. You’re bringing back all these early memories. The ones that really worked for me were around productivity and motivation. Habit change, and then the other one that was a big surprise to me, actually, I didn’t think anyone would be interested in it, was simplicity. And that’s when I said that luck was a big factor because there were a lot of productivity and motivation blogs at the time. There weren’t that many that blogged about habits at the time, but there were a lot around productivity and motivation.
So mine wouldn’t have stood out if it were just about that. But I brought an element to everything that I wrote about, of simplicity. So my blog was a lot about simplifying your life, but I realized like, “It doesn’t have to be just about simplifying your possessions. I could write about simple productivity and simple motivation.” And so I brought simplicity, that lens, to almost everything that I wrote about. And that turned out to be a distinguisher for me, that I just kind of lucked upon. But again, you throw everything against the wall. So simplicity was something that I thought I was only interested in and not a lot of other people were.
So I wrote about it because I liked it, but I thought that wasn’t going to resonate. I had to write about productivity and motivation. And it turns out that I tapped into a nerve, that people really crave simplicity in their lives when they’re feeling overwhelmed and chaotic and just overloaded with all the stuff, all the emails and the messages, and everything that we have. Simplicity struck a nerve that I wasn’t expecting to strike. That was the one surprise for me that year; of many surprises, that was the biggest one. And I still feel really lucky that I wrote about that and tapped into this zeitgeist at the time.
Tim Ferriss: How would you suggest people think about simplification? I’m sure many people listening would like to simplify, they listen to your story of each family member with a backpack, and they don’t know how to go from 0 to 60, so to speak. And given that you have so much practice applying simplicity to different areas, if you were — and I know you don’t necessarily do this, but if you were doing sort of — maybe you do, you tell me, but sort of one-on-one high-end consulting and someone said, “I want to find my life.” What would you say to them or do with them?
Leo Babauta: By the way, I do do one-on-one coaching. I didn’t do that until a couple years ago, but now, I do. The place to start is how things got not simple in the first place. Because you can get rid of like 90 percent of your stuff and simplify your day, and then I’ll be done with you as a consultant and consider that a huge success, and then I come back in three months and things are back to their complicated things. So how did we get here in the first place, I think is really important to look at. And the reason why we have so much stuff and we have so much debt and we take on so much in our lives is really because of uncertainty and anxiety.
You notice, this year, as we record this, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, is the most anxiety that people have felt in a long time, probably since like war times and the Great Depression. And so, as that has gone up, people started ordering things online more, as one of the things that people started to reach for. And so we got so many Amazon packages because we couldn’t go anywhere and release that anxiety. And so that was a way for people to release that. And so that’s always been true, is that we always have gone to getting more stuff as a way to feel control in our lives or security or like, “I have some kind of protection against the chaos of this world.”
And so I think that’s the place to look, is like, “How did you get there? What are the mindsets and the thought processes that trigger you to having so much in your life?” And this also applies to having too many commitments and too many goals and projects and meetings, and things like that. How did we fill our lives up so much? And then we can start to look at the underlying stuff in dealing with the uncertainty and anxiety, because the external stuff is only symptoms, and I’m not someone who just likes to treat symptoms, but the symptoms are fun to treat too. It’s just, you can’t just do that.
Tim Ferriss: Got it. Let’s look at the commitments and nonphysical forms of clutter. Because I, at least selfishly for myself, feel pretty good about possessions and material accumulation. But the commitments and projects are perhaps, unexpectedly to some listening, are an area where, at least, as a stress response. In times of acute stress, I will often over-commit myself, I think, as a way to not feel whatever is coming to the surface. What would your prescription be to someone who wants to become better at saying no, or simply someone who wants to reverse the trend of over-committing?
Leo Babauta: I love that you’re bringing this up, because it really strikes to the core of what I’ve been digging into in the last few years, which is uncertainty and anxiety. But in terms of overcommitment, I would say, it’s really good, actually, to make an external commitment, that I want to only have this much in my life. That’s really the place to start. So we don’t necessarily have to start underneath. We start externally. I know I’m contradicting what I just said, but it really helps to see the stuff underlying. If you say, “Okay, I commit to only doing one project at a time or three projects at a time, or I commit to taking completely Saturdays, Sundays off and Friday afternoons.” Something like that, where you commit to something externally, which is a limitation.
And then what happens is, you see yourself rebelling against that when things feel really uncertain. And so it’s the urge to undo that commitment that we start to work with. So the underlying part of it is like, “I’m feeling a lot of anxiety.” We actually don’t usually notice when we’re feeling anxiety. We just start to go automatically to our ways of reacting to that anxiety, which, like you said, I think a lot of people listening can probably relate to what you just said, which is, we go and take on a bunch of stuff, we go and do a bunch of things, or for other people, it would be like Netflix or YouTube. So comfort things, is one common response. Procrastinating on a lot of things is another common one. But for people like me and you who are doers, we go out and do a bunch of things. And that’s our way of feeling more in control when things are feeling out of control.
So, if you have a commitment, externally, to only do a certain number of things and you notice like, “I’ve broken that commitment in the last week,” then you can start to see like, “There’s something under that, that is coming up. There’s anxiety here.” And that allows you to bring awareness to the anxiety, and then to start to work with that in a way that doesn’t break the commitment. And so, if you have that kind of external thing that holds you in that commitment, and I really like having accountability. So like you commit to a group of close friends that you’re only going to do a certain number of projects, that kind of thing, or have a certain number of meetings, or “My meetings are only going to be on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” or something like that. Then it really helps you to highlight all the times when you’re trying to rebel against that.
Tim Ferriss: What are some of the rules, constraints, forms of accountability that you have found powerful in your own life?
Leo Babauta: As you can imagine, I’ve tried everything. And it changes over time, as some of them get easier after a while and so I take on something else to adjust to the level that I’m at right now. So, like right now, I realized that I was filling up almost every single day, seven days a week, with Zoom calls. First, it was like, there was only going to be on certain days, and then it started to fill up every other time. And so I started, first of all, having weekends off, no calls on weekends, which meant I had to move things away from that. Then I started doing no calls on Friday.
So, I could still work on Fridays but no calls. And then I started taking — I decided I was going to take Decembers and Junes off of coaching people and then also doing meetings. Each step along the way, I had to make some shifts. And then I had to watch myself rebel against that, which — I have actually recently started filling up Fridays, even though I’m like, “Oh, it’s just this one time.” So, if I’m going to get to do a podcast with Tim Ferriss, “Oh, that’s okay.” Because that’s a big deal, but nothing else. And then once you start to do that, you start to see yourself doing it a bunch of other times after you kind of open up the floodgates.
Tim Ferriss: I know. I’m the snake in the tree. You’ve got to be careful.
Leo Babauta: Yeah. Tim’s an enabler!
Tim Ferriss: I’d love to talk a bit or hear, rather, a bit about Zen Buddhism. So Zen Buddhism, for a lot of people, I think, is, more than anything, unclear and confusing. And you have recommended in, for instance, in my last book, Tribe of Mentors, recommended a few books related to Zen Buddhism. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunyru Suzuki. And also, What Is Zen? subtitle, Plain Talk for a Beginner’s Mind, by Norman Fischer. F-I-S-C-H-E-R, are you still finding Zen Buddhism to be helpful in your life? And if so, why? How would you describe it and its impact in your life?
Leo Babauta: It’s such an interesting topic because, in some ways, if you start to dive into it, it does become really confusing. And I actually don’t recommend Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, as the first book. It is a great book, it’s got so much wisdom in it, but when you start to read it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. So if you read one book to start with that, What Is Zen? by Norman Fischer, is a great intro. But also, if you don’t dive into it and you just have this idea of what Zen is, people think of it as calm, and tranquility, and simplicity. And in some ways it is, it does work with that kind of stuff. When I started, I had that idea like, “It’s going to be just mindfulness and simplicity and calm.” And then I started diving into it and I had that same response, which is “I don’t understand what this is about at all. I don’t know what they’re talking about.”
And if you go to, like a Zen temple and meditate with them, there’s a bunch of chanting and it feels really off-putting and confusing. So I completely acknowledge there’s a lot of confusion that comes up around it. And it’s just because it’s like this old tradition where they have their ways of doing things. But I do find it really useful. I study with a Zen teacher, and I am setting the precepts, which are like, don’t intoxicate yourself, and don’t abuse sex, and that kind of stuff. So I study with these precepts as a way to deepen into the practice and I’m planning to take some vows in the near future. So it’s something that I am diving deeper into. And the reason why I find it so helpful is not because I need to be like some Zen monk, some Zen master, or anything like that, but because it is a way of practice that allows you to open up in the middle of the most difficult stuff that you could face.
The dip that we talked about earlier, the uncertainty and anxiety that we talked about that’s coming up this year, and allows you just to be completely open in the middle of that. It’s that “embracing the suck” that you talked about. And it’s even realizing the suck isn’t even suck. It’s actually just life. And so it allows you to open up in the middle of life, some of the hardest stuff, and be completely open and relaxed and present with it. And it’s just a completely different way of being than what we’re usually taught. And it’s not something that you can just do, like in a week, you have to actually practice with it for a long time. That practice can be discouraging. It can be something that we shy away from because we’re busy. And then when you notice yourself discouraged, that’s when you bring the practice to that. That’s how I’ve been practicing with it lately.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned the precepts, the bodhisattva precepts.
Leo Babauta: That’s right.
Tim Ferriss: Are you open to sharing what vows you are considering taking?
Leo Babauta: You brought the word bodhisattva. So the bodhisattva vow, in general, is just — I know you’re familiar with it, but for those who aren’t, it’s this idea that you’re going to help all beings. And which is like this impossible vow. It’s like, how the hell are you going to help every single being on earth? Which is actually one of the amazing things, is that you turn towards this thing that feels completely impossible. And you ask yourself the question, bringing curiosity to it, what would it be like to turn your heart open to helping all beings to this intention, this really wholesome, heartfelt intention to help people who are suffering in the world? And so that’s what the bodhisattva vow is. And it’s about to basically uphold the 16 bodhisattva precepts, which I have not memorized, so if you gave me the pop quiz, I won’t be able to list them off.
But they’re all actually really the same vow, which is this thing to open up beyond our self concern, which is where most of us are almost all the time, is we’re in self concern. And, “What does this person think of me? Will I be judged? Am I going to fail? Should I take on more?” All of these things are all about ourselves. And there’s nothing wrong with that, that’s not a bad thing, but the bodhisattva vow is about opening beyond that to all beings. And it’s this amazing way of being that you are no longer only in self concern, you still care about yourself, but that’s not the thing that limits you. And that’s not where your mind is at, and where your heart’s coming from. And so it really actually is the most powerful thing. It’s almost like what I talked about when I talked about quitting smoking, is having some reason to do it other than yourself.
When I made the vow to my daughter and my wife, it actually held me in the darkest parts when I didn’t want to do it, when I was faced with discomfort or punched in the face. If you have something that matters more than yourself, you can actually go through the hardest discomfort. And the same thing when I hit a marathon, at the point when I hit the wall in the marathon, why was I doing this? And I had to have a reason other than my own comfort, because I was not feeling comfortable at the time. And so I had to have a reason to do it that was more important to me than my own comfort. And that’s what the bodhisattva vow is.
Tim Ferriss: What was it in the case of the marathon for you?
Leo Babauta: It was my kids. Honestly, if you’re going to ask me a number of all my different motivations, 90 percent of the time it’s my kids. But nowadays it’s not just them. But at that time, that was the most accessible thing for me, that was beyond myself, was my wife and kids. And so it was so easy, looking at their faces, to really care about them and their hearts and being an inspiration to them. And just to show you how that actually did pay off, a few years later they did a birthday party for me where they celebrated me as a superhero. They had Superdad, and this is how they saw me, was this person who was larger than life and willing to be a hero. And it was so touching because that was what I wanted for them was to have this example who wasn’t stuck in comfort zone, who could go out of that for something that was more meaningful. And that’s what it was for me when it came to the marathon was, I’m doing this to show them that this could be done.
Tim Ferriss: I’m looking at the bodhisattva precepts on Wikipedia, and of course you can go as deep as you want on this, but just to give people a flavor. And I want you to correct me if this doesn’t sound familiar, but I’m looking at the Brahmajāla Sūtra, which has a list of 10 major and 48 minor precepts, so something for everybody. And what strikes me about these is there’s some similarity to, say the 10 commandments. There’s, in the 10 commandments’ case, thou shalt not kill.
Leo Babauta: Right.
Tim Ferriss: But here there’s an addition to that, and of course these are all translations, but not to kill or encourage others to kill. And at the end of each of there is, or encourage others to X. Not to use false words in speech or encourage others to do so, not to broadcast the misdeeds or faults of the Buddhist assembly, nor encourage others to do so. Not to harbor anger or encourage others to be angry, and so on and so forth. And so it is, as you mentioned, broader than just the skin encapsulated ego that we refer to as I. By the wording at least that I’m seeing here in the precepts. If we harken back to family and the family, your kids, being such a form of drive and motivation and accountability, I want to ensure that I don’t miss unschooling.
Leo Babauta: Okay.
Tim Ferriss: Could you speak to how, on God’s green earth, you have had so many kids homeschooled? And is it you and your wife doing the homeschooling, do you have help? I think for a lot of people who have kids right now, they have seen in some cases, how woefully underprepared they are to assist with schooling at home. And there are certainly technical hurdles, but this is a thing that has been forced upon, by circumstance and [inaudible] through pandemic, quarantine, and so on, millions of people who have been completely unprepared. So I would love to hear from you what unschooling looked like.
Leo Babauta: I do want to dive into that, but I want to speak just briefly to something that you talked about in the previous section, which was the bodhisattva vows. Yeah, because you compared them to the 10 commandments and there’s a big difference that I want to just touch on. Which is that they aren’t rules or commandments so much as ways to examine how you’re practicing with this stuff. So like shall not kill, there’s a similar precept to that, and encouraging others, as you said. But the difference is, it’s only a lens to examine, how are you practicing with the main intention of all of this stuff? And it’s not about making yourself wrong and judging ourselves, which is where we usually come from in our Western society is all kinds of ways to judge ourselves. And so that’s something I just wanted to bring out is, it’s really just like, “Oh, maybe I haven’t killed anybody, but have I done anything that is aggressive towards people?”
And so looking at that, and then there’s always deeper ways and there’s even much deeper ways to go into these things. So I just wanted to share that they’re really only just practice tools for this area.
Okay. Unschooling, which is an amazing topic, but I have to start by saying, if you ask how on God’s green earth, my secret ingredient of course is, and not so secret, is my wife. So she decided to quit her job as a teacher, so she had some background in education, and then homeschool our kids. And at the time we just did homeschooling, which is school in the house. So we had the same kind of classes, same kind of lessons and books and everything. And to this day, she’s down there right now doing that with them. So definitely, I’m a big part of their unschooling, but I just have to say, we’re actually really lucky that she gets to do that as a full time thing.
Tim Ferriss: How was that decision made? I don’t want to skip over that.
Leo Babauta: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: Why did that happen?
Leo Babauta: Well, we were inspired by my sister, who was homeschooling her kids, her two kids. And that was one thing. And then the other one was, we realized for some of our kids who were in school, school was not working out for them well. We had one son who, very intelligent, but he didn’t conform well to the rules of school. And what we realized as we started to look into this stuff is that school, in a lot of ways, is very much about conformity. And follow the rules and you’ll get along fine. And it doesn’t matter so much about how much you’ve learned, but especially in the early days of school, how much you can actually follow the rules. And so he was learning a lot, but he was not following the rules. And so one day he had read whatever was supposed to be read in the class, and was bored. And so he broke out a novel that he was reading and started reading it. And he got sent to the principal’s office because of that. And that was our wake up call.
It’s like, “Oh, okay, they don’t care that much about him learning. It’s more about him following the rules.” And so that was one, it was following the rules versus learning. And so we started to look at it like, “Is this possible for her to quit?” So that was why we made the decision. But another thing that we learned along the way that I think is really important in this day and age, is that unschooling, so we went away from the structure of schooling, to the structure of homeschooling. And then we tossed all of that out in favor of unschooling. Which is a way of learning that is completely unstructured, other than what the kid wants to structure for themselves.
And so the idea behind unschooling is that you’re learning in the same way that you and I do today, Tim, as adults. You and I have not stopped just because we’re out of school, we haven’t stopped learning. We’re actually probably learning more than we did when we were in school. But we’re learning on our own terms because we are motivated by it, at our own pace, with our own structure. And that’s what unschooling, is empowering the kids to actually decide for themselves what they care about, what they want to learn. And what that means is that they’re not going to necessarily learn everything that everyone is, quote, “supposed to learn” by the age of 13. But they would have learned a whole different set of things.
And the really important thing is that actually learning can be incredibly fun. That they learned how to face uncertainty. They learned how to motivate themselves and create their own structure. They learned that it’s okay to give up on learning something if you found something else that you’re more passionate about. They also learned how to hold themselves into learning something when they are feeling discouraged about it. So there’s a whole set of meta learning that is available to unschoolers that isn’t given to regular schoolers. And I wanted to say, you’re not making a bad decision if you’re sending your kids to school, and you’re not a bad person if you’re a teacher or a bad parent. So I don’t judge anybody who does that. But school by its nature is someone making the decisions for the kids, so it takes away all of the decision making for them. It takes away the uncertainty of their learning path, because someone else has laid it out for you.
So you feel like, “Okay, this is laid out for me. So I’m just going to follow it.” And then you get to college and the same thing is, there’s a path laid out for you, and then you get out of college and then you’re like, “Now what do I do?” Because there’s no path laid out for you as an adult. And so what happens to most people is that they get out of the schooling thing and they look for another thing to replace that. How can I go to a place where someone else has made the decisions for me and I can have that certainty of following someone else’s path that they’ve laid out? And as you know, as an entrepreneur, the most rich learning areas are where someone has not laid the path out for you, and you have to make these decisions for yourself. And you constantly question whether you’re doing it right. And that’s what unschooling is, really, in a nutshell.
Tim Ferriss: Do you feel in that case that you are preparing them for entrepreneurship, predominantly? because I would imagine, and I want to hear you speak to this just because I’m speculating, but that in the process of unschooling your kids, you are providing them with a lot of adaptability, but probably handicapping their ability to travel a more traditional path afterwards to say colleges. Is that not the case? I would just love to hear how you think about some of the trade offs there are.
Leo Babauta: First of all, I don’t know if it’s handicapping them, but definitely, it is a little bit harder to get into college, but there’s plenty of homeschoolers and unschoolers who get into college. It’s definitely a path. My kids so far have not chosen that, the ones who were unschooled, but it’s definitely a path. And it’s not that difficult. It’s just, you have to put on a little bit of extra effort, because it’s not all laid out for you. So I would say that’s one thing just to make sure that’s clear, there’s actually books written on how to get into college as an unschooler. But the entrepreneur thing, I do want to speak to that, because my favorite person to talk to this about is people like you, who are entrepreneurs or creative types, authors. Anyone who’s done anything that deals with uncertainty and discomfort, and knows what that’s like. Any kind of leader, anyone running a nonprofit, those people get it.
So as I start to talk about having to figure out your own path, the people who have had to do that for themselves, they instinctively get it. They already know what that’s like. And then if they have a kid or they’re about to have a kid, but their kids aren’t in school yet, they haven’t made that decision yet, that’s the perfect time. That’s the golden zone to reach someone. If they’re an entrepreneur or a creative type or leader of some kind and they have a kid or about to, who’s not in school yet. It’s absolutely a preparation for any uncharted territory. If you’re going to be an entrepreneur, if you’re going to be any kind of a leader in any kind of organization where you’re not being told what to do, but you have to figure stuff out and deal with the uncertainty of that, the self doubt, unschooling is an incredible preparation for that.
And it’s constantly filled with uncertainty, self doubt, people judging you and not getting you, which is exactly the path of an entrepreneur. And yeah, constantly having to deal with all of that stuff. And discouragement, motivation, structure, all of the exact same stuff that you and I deal with on a daily basis, that’s what an unschooler starts to do from day one. And they’re not going to be good at it at first. And so it’s great to have someone who’s there to guide them, but they get trained in it. By the time they get to be 18, they could definitely figure out their path to college there. But they can also realize, “Actually I don’t need college for most professions. Unless I’m going to be a doctor or a lawyer or something like that, I can actually do without college.” So there’s the un-college route as well.
Tim Ferriss: Are there any resources that you would recommend for people who would like to learn more about homeschooling and unschooling and common pitfalls, best practices?
Leo Babauta: Yeah. There’s a bunch of books. I’m totally out of date, to be honest. So there’s some radical stuff about just completely liberating. There’s one called Teenage Liberation Handbook, which I highly recommend. And there’s an author named Alfie Kohn, K-O-H-N, something like that, he’s actually also pretty radical. I would actually lean towards anything that talks about unschooling rather than homeschooling. It’s an important distinction. Unschooling is a subset of homeschooling, so it is at home, but it’s really about all the stuff that I talked about, choosing your own path and dealing with that. I wouldn’t recommend any book that’s focused on homeschooling itself, because there’s usually about how to do school in the home.
Tim Ferriss: Well, let’s talk more about charting the unknown.
Leo Babauta: All right.
Tim Ferriss: This is unknown to me, maybe known to you. But I am looking at a quote from a Fast Company piece that you wrote in 2015, about the constant tension and struggle between contentment and self-improvement. And here’s the paragraph.
“For the last eight years, I’ve had an internal struggle: between wanting to improve myself, and wanting to be content. To be honest, I haven’t completely figured out how to resolve that struggle. But I’m working on it. What’s the root of this struggle? Well, when I started Zen Habits more than eight years ago, I had been working for more than a year on changing all of my habits, with lots of success. All those changes were rooted in my dissatisfaction with myself. I’d had a lot of success, but the dissatisfaction never went away.”
So this is dated of course, it’s five years ago, or even a bit more. And I’d just love to hear from you, as I’ve also observed your writing shift from productivity, which we could, in some sense, pair with self-improvement, to tossing out productivity and thinking about simplicity and many other subjects. Are there any particular changes in your life habits, new beliefs, anything that has had the greatest impact on your contentment, or a large impact on your contentment?
Leo Babauta: I think the thing that I did is I kept digging deeper. I was never content, to use that word, with just the surface level stuff, which is where I started. And there’s nothing wrong with that stuff, the productivity and all the systems and all that kind of stuff, I think it’s amazing. And there’s always deeper levels. And so for me, it’s like, “Oh, why am I not content? I got my life under control, I got my debt under control, habits and everything like that, but there’s still something that I’m not satisfied with.” And so I started to dig into that.
And I think what I hit upon was this underlying uncertainty about myself; “Am I good enough?” is the question. That feeling of inadequacy that a lot of us will feel, and there’s nothing wrong with that feeling. I think that’s something that gets bred into us by our society. So it just becomes part of our world, I’m not enough. And the world is constantly giving us messages of that. And we give ourselves that message. So I learned to sit with that feeling. And I realized it was just a feeling, it wasn’t actually the end of the world. And then I learned to tap into self-compassion. And I think that was a huge one for me, was learning to be compassionate for myself.
Tim Ferriss: If I may pause you just for a second, please don’t lose your train of thought. What did that look like in practice?
Leo Babauta: Yeah, that was a hard one for me, because first it was more of a mental, intellectual exercise. Just kind of let myself off the hook. “I’m not such a bad person,” and just reassuring talk. But it actually became when I started practicing more, not only with meditation, but with heart-centered meditations like metta, and I’m sure you’re familiar with that one. Loving-kindness meditation. And so I started practicing with that and that one, for those unfamiliar with it, is basically this thing where you picture someone else or a group of people and you start to wish an end to their suffering, for example, or wish happiness upon them. And it’s just a lovely little meditation. So you start thinking these thoughts, “May they be happy?” And you think about your loved ones in pain and suffering. “And may they be happy?” Think about other people in the world who are suffering. “May they be happy?” It’s just a really beautiful meditation. But what I learned as I kept practicing with this was there was a feeling in my heart that would be generated of loving-kindness. And that’s really the main point of that, is not so much this thought process of loving-kindness, but a heart feeling, which is really hard to describe until you start to practice it. And then you start to realize like, “Oh, yeah, that’s the same thing that I feel like instantly when someone who I care about is actually in pain. I really want them to not be in pain.”
So this is a human thing, but you can actually conjure it up. And so I learned to do that through this meditation. And I started to notice when I am feeling inadequate or there’s something wrong with me or I’m not doing enough, or I got through my day really busy, but I still didn’t do enough. So there was always this feeling of not being enough that I had. And I started to give myself compassion when I started to recognize this loving-kindness compassion in my heart. And so it was almost like this pouring out of this loving feeling towards myself, towards my own wounds. Which sounds very woo woo, I think there’s people who won’t resonate with that, but actually it was a really powerful thing when I started to practice that for myself, because we don’t do that, we’re not trained in that as a society.
Tim Ferriss: And by practice, would that show up as you, say, being really hard on yourself and before you go into dinner with your family, just taking three minutes with your eyes closed to do a loving-kindness self-talk meditation, or did it look like something else?
Leo Babauta: I think of it more like this salve that I just put on a wound anytime I’m feeling it act up, you know? I have like all these wounds from childhood and so forth, and so yeah, when I feel like, “Oh, I’m not enough,” or “There’s something wrong with me,” or I’m just judging myself and kind of stuck in one of those kinds of thought patterns, it really just feels like a wound in my heart. So I just noticed that. I’m like, “Oh, I’m feeling some anxiety right now. Can I give myself some compassion? Oh, I’m feeling really down about myself in how much, how little I’ve done this week or how addicted I’ve gotten to something, and so I’ll just give myself compassion.”
It’s really any time anything difficult is showing up, so like frustration, anxiety, fear, self-doubts, and anger, things like that. So, yeah, you’re feeling frustration with someone, you can point your finger at them and really focus on them, but you can also notice you’re feeling hurt, and just give yourself some compassion. That really helps with that frustration. You can’t really be like open-hearted and open-minded towards this person who you’re frustrated with until you’ve given yourself some compassion first and dealt with your own pain.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that strikes. That strikes me as very true certainly with a lot of my reactive behavior over the last few decades. I want to also recommend for people who are interested in metta, M-E-T-T-A, or loving-kindness meditation, it really can have a very pronounced, very fast effect on your state. One book that gave a great description of this, there are many, but is Joy On Demand written by Chade-Meng Tan, so C-H-A-D-E-M-E-N-G, last name T-A-N, who created a massively successful course internal to Google at the time called Search Within Yourself, I believe. The book contains some really fantastic descriptions and prescriptions for loving-kindness meditation, so I just want to share that for people who might want to explore.
Leo Babauta: Yeah. Another one, just to mention another resource, because I know your listeners love resources, Tara Brach. I think you’re familiar with her work.
Tim Ferriss: I am.
Leo Babauta: Yeah. Radical Acceptance, that’s what it is. Yeah. She’s awesome.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Radical Acceptance is a great book. Yeah, that’s also one of the key books in the quiver, which like a lot of things, has a very generic kind of seemingly hand wavy, squishy title with a lot of very practical, tactical applications within. I’m looking at some of the notes in front of me, Leo. This is a — might seem like a left turn, but it’s of interest to me because we’ve been speaking somewhat broadly, I mean specifically about your experience but broadly, in terms of say gender experience, right? Everything we’re talking about applies to everyone, at least to the extent that I can tell. In 2018, you went through training with a men’s group that’s deep into masculine practice. It seemed to relate to the sort of masculine and feminine polarity work, David Deida. Here, I’m just taking a note. John Wineland. Can you speak to why you did that training, and some of the things that you took away from it?
Leo Babauta: Why did I do it? I think there was a part of me that would collapse in the middle of discomfort, so like let’s just say an argument with my wife or pain from like a family member or something like that, and so I would collapse in the middle of that. Not physically, but like my heart would close, and I’d be so discouraged and just frustrated with them. So I was looking for something to work with that with. I did a workshop with John Wineland, who is a disciple of David Deida, but he’s also branched out and done his own work. So I actually think he’s really an incredible teacher for this kind of stuff. We did some practices there. They’re mindfulness type practices that were quite incredible, and so I decided to just dive deep with him. I went into a nine-month program with John and yeah.
Just to be clear, the polarity work here, they talk about the energy of the masculine and the feminine. This is not necessarily gendered. Every single person in this framework has both masculine and feminine energy in us. So this is really about practicing leadership of our own emotions in order to be able to provide leadership for, let’s say our families or in our relationship. So the leadership is the masculine where you’re providing structure and consciousness and able to be with all of our pain and emotions and all of the stuff that comes up, which would be considered feminine. All of our emotions, all change, all destructive and creative energy is the feminine in all of us, and so the masculine in all of us is the consciousness and structure and stillness.
So learning to practice in this way was a really profound thing for me that allowed me to practice with my own inner, wounded self and my own emotions, but then be able to do that for my kids, for my wife, for all my other loved ones, and for my readers and the coaching clients that I work with and the groups that I work with so to be able to hold space for them was really important to do this practice. Because the practice is not just knowing it intellectually, but it’s actually getting it in your nervous system so that you’ve trained in it for a number of months. In fact, it’s a lifetime practice so that when someone shows up as a coaching client, for example, who is like completely complaining about you, instead of complaining about them back, you just kind of hold space for them with complete consciousness and love, and you don’t need to collapse.
Tim Ferriss: Could you give an example of one framework or concept or concrete practice that you took from that training?
Leo Babauta: One of the best ones, this is the most like — I know people like you and me love practical, like tactical stuff that comes from deep stuff, right? So one of the best ones that I use tactically on a daily basis, it’s part meditation and part trying to make a decision. So let’s say I have a lot of things on my plate and I have to decide, “Okay, what do I need to do today?” It really could be anything, and I’m feeling pulled in a lot of directions. So I think a lot of people can relate to that. What I’ll do is I’ll drop into, it’s like a little mini meditation where my consciousness goes like wide, almost as wide as the universe, right? So, like, really open mind and really like deep consciousness.
So, you go into a state like that, and it could really — with practice, it could really take two seconds to get into that state. Then, in that state, and again, I want to give complete credit to John Wineland for these practices, in this state, I drop in the question, “What is life calling me to do?” You can interpret that in a lot of different ways, life, God, your inner heart, your intuition, whatever it is, but in that state of wide-open consciousness, we’re no longer in our place of self-concern. What comes up for me is usually just one thing, and it’s really clear. So I’ll do that at the beginning of the day, is just drop in that question, “What is life calling me to do?” It’s just one thing, and then I’ll just do that. I might, after that, ask the same question and then just do that and one after the other, just ask that question. It’s usually the most important thing. It’s not the most urgent or the thing that I’m most afraid about, but it’s actually just the most important thing.
Tim Ferriss: Have you had any answers pop up that were surprising or particularly unexpected for you? Did you get anything completely out of left field?
Leo Babauta: Yeah. Sometimes, I think like, “Oh, it’s this fire that I need to put out,” but then —
Tim Ferriss: “Eat nachos now.” Something like that?
Leo Babauta: No, not yet. I’m sure that will come up, but actually, I have had some where it’s like, “Oh, you need to take some rest.” I thought I had to go and do a bunch of things because I was feeling very overwhelmed, and I was like, “No, you need to rest.” So maybe the nachos would have been a good part of that, but another one that surprises me is “You need to go and apologize to somebody,” like someone came up in the middle of that and I’m like, “Oh, I hurt them unintentionally, of course, but I did hurt them and I need to go and make amends.” So sometimes that comes up and I’m like, “Oh, shoot. I didn’t even think of that until I asked that question.”
Tim Ferriss: Well, Leo, I want to give readers plenty to chew on but not too much to chew on. I think we’ve covered a lot of ground. Is there anything else that you think we should explore in this conversation?
Leo Babauta: We’ve touched a number of times on uncertainty and anxiety, and I want to just leave people with something here that I think is really important, and it’s this. So, in this world right now that we’re in, again, as we record this, we’re in the middle of pandemic and lockdowns and frustrations with other people, and in our country, it’s the the elections and racial protests and also wildfires if you’re on my side of the country. So there’s just like a lot of uncertainty in the world and a lot of anxiety that comes from that uncertainty.
So, I’ve been doing a lot of training around that, and I think it’s so important for us to become present with that uncertainty and anxiety. What I’ve learned is that we can train in that. It doesn’t have to be a thing that shuts us down or gets us spinning out of control. What I’ve learned is, first of all, we all have uncertainty every day of our lives, and we have some habitual ways of responding to that. Smoking and all the things that I’ve talked about, procrastination, eating nachos would be some good examples of that. Netflix and YouTube and social media and email, all of the things that we’re familiar with. These are habitual responses to uncertainty, to a feeling of uncertainty in our heart of like, “I’m not sure how things are going.” The way that we usually feel that is some kind of tug on our heart or almost like an elevator is dropping out from under our feet. It’s this feeling of groundlessness.
Again, we have habitual responses that we’ve been training ourselves in for years for our whole lives, and those aren’t always helpful. Sometimes, they are. Sometimes, they’re not, but they’re automatic, and so we don’t have choice because we have trained ourselves to do it automatically when uncertainty arises. Right now, you’ll see yourself — again, I mentioned going to Amazon and ordering a bunch of things, going to Netflix or YouTube or whatever it is, whatever thing that you go to, you’ll notice yourself doing it more now than ever before. That’s a highlight of your habitual response because the uncertainty is so intense. The anxiety is so intense in our lives right now.
So what I would say is that this is the best time to train. This is the most important time to train because it’s so in our faces that we can’t avoid it. So why not turn towards it and welcome it and open up to it and practice with it? The practice that I have been training people in and training myself in, I think is so helpful, is to drop into the body when you’re feeling it. You notice you’re feeling it because you’re going to your habitual responses, all of the things that I’ve mentioned. Drop into the body and drop your attention into bodily sensations. So just notice what you’re feeling in your chest, in your stomach, in your throat. Usually, it’s somewhere around the chest area. You’ll feel like a tightening or a tug or a pain or an energy.
The energy itself of uncertainty is not a problem. What we can do is turn towards it mindfully and be with it with a curiosity. When we have curiosity with us, it’s no longer something we need to run from or get rid of. It’s actually just completely fine. It’s just an energy in our body, and we can just be curious, wanting to know more and being open with it. If you train with it in this way, and we have so many opportunities to train right now, it’s a very, very rich training ground right now. You can actually learn to be completely comfortable with uncertainty and not need to run to habitual patterns. What that means is you’re now in choice. You can still eat the nachos, and you can still do all of the usual things. That’s nothing wrong with those, but you also can decide to stay in the discomfort, do the hard thing to turn towards the thing you’re turning away from, to say sorry to someone. All of those things are now available to you when you practice with it in this way.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. This is a practice that is certainly very present for me at the moment. If you can hear the ice smashing in the background as we are recording — the only place that I have reliable Wi-Fi is in the attic of a restaurant, which seems to be in rush hour right now. So it’s immediately present for me as how to not compulsively go into the thought loops and the default behaviors that we use as temporary painkillers and how we can learn to be more comfortable with the discomfort and certainly expect to have greater and greater need of that in the upcoming months with the not just unpredictability that is naturally occurring, but the sort of engineered spectacle and theater of uncertainty as they would call it in the business context. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt. That’s FUD. When people are selling FUD, which is certainly the job of many political campaigns with respect to their audience is fear, uncertainty, and doubt.
So, whether by choice or by force or by chance, people will be dealing with a lot of uncertainty. Are there any other approaches that you found particularly helpful or mantras, any type of self-talk, anything at all, really that you’ve found helpful for surfing the chaos that is part of life and maybe more acutely now than ever for a lot of people, a part of their daily or weekly experience?
Leo Babauta: There’s a quote actually by Chogyam Trungpa, who you might be familiar with. He’s a Tibetan Buddhist master, and he has this quote, which is, “The bad news is that you’re falling through the air with no parachute.” So you can feel already in the middle of this quote, you can feel the intense groundlessness, the intense anxiety that might arise. The second part of his quote is, “So the bad news is that you’re falling through the air with no parachute. The good news is there’s no ground below.”
I really love that quote because it just makes you realize you’re not in danger even though it feels completely groundless. You can relax in that kind of like visual picture, right? You can just relax in the middle of that. What I’ve found is available to us if you can just relax with the uncertainty that’s arising, even anxiety, is there’s like an openness that’s available to us that’s always there, and it’s just really liberating.
So, what I’ve done is actually started to train myself, and now, I train other people in it, of setting myself these practice periods of like, let’s say an hour or half an hour of meaningful work that I normally would turn away from, some big project that’s really meaningful to me. I’ll set that as like my practice period where I’m intentionally inducing uncertainty in myself, I’ll actually just set an attention in the beginning, the reason why I’m doing this, the thing that I care about, and then I’ll let myself practice with this. I’ll notice that I’m trying to go towards my email and just sit with the uncertainty of it and then just go move towards the actual doing with this kind of openness.
So I’ll do it as a daily practice, but also practice pretty much all the time whenever anxiety or uncertainty comes up, and it just becomes like no big deal. So that’s another phrase that really helps me is like “No big deal,” like it’s just an energy of uncertainty. It’s not a big deal. So those are the ways that I practice with it right now.
Tim Ferriss: I love the good news, bad news, or rather bad news. Bad news, you’re falling through the air with no parachute. Good news, there is no ground. That’s spectacular. Leo, Leo Babauta, finally on the podcast, Twitter @Zen_Habits and of course, zenhabits.net. All things simplicity. Such a pleasure to have you in conversation and to be able to explore all these things. I always love asking questions of friends who otherwise would feel like they’re being interrogated in weird format, but it works. Is there anything else that you would like to add or say or share with people before we wrap up anything that you would like people to take a look at or consider? Anything at all?
Leo Babauta: Well, I have to say too that this is just a tremendous honor. Just really love the work you’re doing in the world, Tim, so thank you for having me on this, but yeah, the thing that I would leave people with is sometimes, in this crazy world that we’re in right now, we have the luxury of finding ourselves in, it can be really difficult. The anxiety can be so hard. That’s really hard to practice with it. So when you find yourself in that place where you’re just wanting to shut down and curl up in a ball and like it’s just too hard to practice with in this way that I’ve just talked about, just bring back that self-compassion that we talked about earlier. This is an important time to just take care of yourself. Give yourself some compassion. Give yourself a warm bath. Have some hot tea. Let yourself eat the nachos. It’s okay. Yeah, it’s such an important time to take care of ourselves.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Yeah. The world will be hard enough on you without you beating yourself up.
Leo Babauta: That’s right.
Tim Ferriss: Lady Luck or fortune does not need your help flagellating you.
Leo Babauta: That’s right.
Tim Ferriss: You have challenges and obstacles enough and good lessons, good medicine for right now. To everybody listening, of course, I will include links to everything we’ve discussed, to Leo’s work, to resources on unschooling, everything else. The Zen precepts that we discussed at one point and much more will all be at tim.blog/podcast. Leo, thank you once again. I really appreciate you making the time.
Leo Babauta: Thank you, Tim.
Tim Ferriss: To everybody out there, until next time, thank you for listening.
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