The Opposite of Distraction isn't Focus
PLUS: Life Philosophies, The Emergence of a Sensemaking Tribe and Why Our Brains are Wired to Deny Mortality
|Jonny Miller 🐢||Sep 14, 2019||2|
👋 Mahalo Curious Adventurer
It always brings me joy sitting down to write these newsletters. I think I figured out (one of many) reasons why—the process of assembling my thoughts creates a common thread amidst the enthusiastic flailing of what can feel like disjointed days—this coherence-making is like a life raft for a perpetually curious mind, or perhaps like a conductor to bring rogue soloing musicians into the same key.
👨🎓Deep Work Bootcamp // I’m officially building a course! It’s going to be an online bootcamp teaching breathwork + meditation energy management techniques alongside deep work rituals for remote workers. The curriculum is still mostly in my head but if you’d be interested in becoming indistractible please reply with the words: ‘I’m Curious’. Or if you know anyone who might appreciate being a guinea pig for this please forward on this email.
🎙️Casting Pods of Joy // Excitement for podcasting is at an all-time high. I’ve recently posted two great episodes: with NASA astronomer Kevin Hainline and 12-year old eco-fashion founder Hanalei Swan, with many more compelling conversations in the pipeline.
⏳ TEDx Countdown // It’s officially too late to back out of my TEDx Ubud talk in October, although my friend Arthur is kindly helping me commit it to memory using mnemonics and good old fashioned index cards.
🙋♂️ How to Human // I’ve begun drafting a book proposal (an intimidating process) but in all honesty, my sense is that it feels like this project wants to become a podcast (at least initially). So I’ve started exploring funding model possibilities and reaching out to potential podcast networks—if you have any ideas or suggestions along these lines please do let me know.
📝Recent Interview // I was interviewed here by Tomas Lau and enjoyed the process because… well it's always flattering to be asked, but mostly because it's a chance to reflect on important questions like 'What’s one question that helped you understand the world better?' Or 'How do you manage time?'
🇯🇵Japan Explorations // I’m counting down the days until my first trip to Japan, exploring Nara, Osaka and Kyoto with fellow Curious Human and good friend Paul Millerd. So if you consider yourself a Japanophile, please do share any recommendations for us in any of these places.
I’m typing these words in-between freedives, so if the content below in this particularly newsletter deviates off-key more than usual… let’s just blame the oxygen deprivation.
As always, stay curious out there!
p.s. Curious Humans *almost* has 1,000 subscribers. Not that I’m motivated by such arbitrary numbers... but I can't deny my OCD tendencies and one-thousand-readers would bring disproportionate satisfaction. So please
forward this link
) to a friend who might appreciate these musings.
Two New Podcast Episodes 🎙️
#009 // Life Lessons from 12 year Old Conscious Fashion Entrepreneur Hanalei Swan 🧒
Hanalei is a conscious designer, international speaker and world traveller... and she's just turned 12. Most kids are asked, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Hanalei was asked:
“What do you want to be now?”
This question changed her perspective on what she could do at such a young age, and instead of thinking she had to wait to become a fashion designer until she was 20 or 30, she decided to do it now and started designing at the age of 7 years old. If you ask me, our future is in good hands... it's the 'grown-ups' that have the catching up to do!
#010 // Astronomy as a Lens to Understand Yourself with Kevin Hainline 🔭
This was one of those spontaneous conversations that made me feel grateful for having started a podcast… it was with NASA astronomer Kevin Hainline, recorded sitting next to a stream up in the Spanish pyrenees.
We went completely off the deep end and I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that he changed the way I look up at the night sky and sent me into a rabbit hole of researching how different cultures around the world tell stories about the constellations they see. Here’s a sense of what to expect:
"The stars are a set of templates that we put our own hopes and fears and non understandings and stories on and it’s really fun to find the ones that cultures that never talked with each other because they were separated by vast distances had the same thing."
Seven Ideas Worth Contemplating 💡
1 // The Opposite of Distraction Isn’t Focus 🤦♂️
The opposite of distraction is intention. And sometimes your intention might be to say go for a walk and deliberately allow your mind to wander. And that’s okay!
Many of you will have come across the term ‘Deep Work’, Cal Newport’s philosophy of removing distractions and carving out uninterrupted hours of focused output.
But the reality is that our mind sends more internal notifications (also called thoughts) than Email, Twitter and Slack combined (approximately 50,000 of them daily).
So the real challenge for prolonged states of creative ‘deep work’ is training our awareness to not be pulled from our intentions.
Susan Sontag believed she had 'attention surplus disorder’. The more I dig into this subject the more I feel that it is almost foundational to everything else and in my experience the reward of meditation practice has been exactly that ‘attention surplus’ which leads to a greater depth across all areas of life.
I believe that the quality of our life experience increases in proportion to our capacity for delight, and our capacity for delight increases in proportion to our quality of attention. Therefore, consciously working on the quality of our attention, like a muscle to be trained, is one definitive way to enhance our experience on this planet.
2 // Our Brains are Wired to Deny Our Mortality 💀
From the ancient Stoic ‘memento mori’ skulls and Ernest Becker’s writing on the ‘Denial of Death’ to more recently Tim Urban’s ‘Tail-end’ post and a multitude of Death Clock chrome extensions reminding us of how many days we '(likely) have left on the planet. In my opinion, one of the most powerful sentences in the entire Buddhist canon is:
“Death is certain. Its time is not. What to do?”
Yet it seems as if – in order to gain perspective on what truly matters – our brains need constant reminders of our own mortality.
So I was fascinated to find this paper on how the brain is wired to shield us from existential threat,which essentially demonstrates for the first time a ‘plausible neural-based mechanism of death-denial’.
3 // You Have Three Brains 🧠
At least according to the Australian aboriginal tribe who assert the belief that we have three brains: one in the stomach area, one in the heart area and of course the one we have in the head.
An octopus has decentralised vertebrate brains, and our hearts and stomachs are formed in the womb before the head… so this isn’t such an out there idea.
But the two lower brains tend to get far less airtime. The challenge for the Aborigines is to create balance and greater awareness between these three centres.
It turns out that our state of wellbeing (and brains) is largely influenced by the largest nerve in our body: the vagus nerve, and there is an increasing amount of science showing the remarkable connections between how emotions change the physical shape of our heart and the physiological benefits of heart / brain coherence.
So perhaps the challenge for us always-on, phone-addicted apes is to build external brains and meditation practices that clear away mental clutter and enables deeper wisdom or insight to emerge.
4 // A Better Way to Treat Wrong-doers ❤️
I came across a moving perspective on life practiced by an African tribe whose birth date of a child is counted not from when they were born, nor from when they are conceived but from the day that the child was a thought in its mother’s mind.
That’s already interesting, but then when this happens, the woman goes off and sits under a tree, by herself, and listens until she can hear the song of the child that wants to come.
When the child is born into the tribe, the entire village community learn the song of that child. It is sung through rites of passage or as a way of honouring that child in times of celebration. But this is what I found most powerful:
If at any time in that child’s adult life they commit a crime or act from a place of anger, then that individual is called into the centre of the village where the entire community forms a circle around them. They then sing their song to them.
Wow. Clearly there are implications here for the way that we in the west treat those who have committed crimes, but I’m more interested in how we punish ourselves when we slip up.
When one of our aspects of self acts out of line – maybe we respond in anger shouting at someone, or maybe we fall short of our own high expectations – what if instead of beating ourselves up (the equivalent of the punishment model) we could instead sing our own song, and remind each other of who we truly are, and that these cycles of forgetting and remembering are part of the human curriculum.
5 // Have You Defined a Philosophy of Life? 🤔
You might not think of yourself as a philosopher. But you still have a philosophy of life. This is what essayist Andrew Taggart makes the case for:
“The crux at the heart of this approach is that the unexamined life entails not knowing oneself in a very real sense.
The point is that if we don’t explicitly examine our driving beliefs and have introspective practices then there’s a good chance we’re still living life in default mode. My most recent podcast guest Tiago Forte, shared how he stumbled into his own practical philosophy that can be summarised as one of servant hedonism.
Perhaps most impressively, Curious Humans reader Buster Benson, has created his own ‘Book of Life’, which is essentially an operating manual for his personal belief system (I’m also excited for his upcoming book on productive disagreements).
Finally, Stoicism is also seeing a revival in recent years I believe precisely because it offers a practical philosophy to orient ourselves in an increasingly uncertain and chaotic world.
NB: For those of you looking to cultivate a bit more more self-reflection, my friends at Holstee have just launched this thoughtful Reflection App that I’ve been beta-testing and enjoying immensely 💯📱
6 // #GameB: A Sensemaking Tribe Emerges 🌎
Rumi once wrote:
'Sit, be still, and listen, because you're drunk and we're at the edge of the roof',
This feels like where many of us are at personally and collectively (if you're brave enough to follow the news).
Beneath the surface noise, there has been a movement growing – seeded in a handful of podcasts and now coming together as a tribe on Twitter and elsewhere under the umbrella of ‘sensemaking’. It’s an exciting corner of the internet that I’ve been following, mostly via the Rebel Wisdom and Future Thinkers podcasts, but now seems to be picking up real momentum.
At first glance the conversation around what’s known as #gameb can feel dense, inaccessible and frustratingly slippery but it’s worth investing some time into because to me at least, it feels like a very thoughtful group of people are asking what it might look like to navigate the convergence of meta-crises facing our planet today and how we could possibly transition into what Charles Eisenstein calls a ‘story of interbeing’.
For the best primer on this sensemaking world, I’d recommend listening to either this conversation with Jamie Wheal on the Future Thinkers podcast, or this Rebel Wisdom intro video to their new series on ‘Collective Intelligence’.
And for those of you interested in going deeper, there is a shared Google Doc here listing some of the sensemaking concepts / resources and if you want to go down a deep #gameb rabbit hole click here.
7 // Give Up Your Seven Most Treasured Things 😨
Re-acquainting myself with some of Joseph Campbell’s writing I came across what he described as one of the most interesting experiences of his life. He tells the story of how two professor friends facilitated a ritual that begin with asking:
‘What are the seven things for which you feel your life is worth living?’
Then you were to gather seven little objects, small enough to hold in your hand that represented each thing.
That evening, the small group which included Joseph, made their way down a wooded road to the mouth of a dark cave. At this entrance was a man wearing the mask of a dog (representing Cerberus at the gates of hell).
Cerberus put out his hand and said, ‘Give me that which you least cherish’.
Which Joseph did and then proceeded through an enormous cave, along the way being asked to surrender the remaining six treasured objects one by one, and wrote about how the order by which he chose them was revelatory.
I intend to write more about this, but there’s something that feels immensely potent in this ritualistic ‘de-attaching’ of yourself to these things (both physical and psychological) that reminds you that your sense of joy and connection isn’t contingent on anything external, and paradoxically frees you to love and appreciate them even more deeply.
😲 10X Time
🎈 Balloon obsessions
😴 The Dim Hof method
😃From FOMO to JOMO
👨🏭Sought after jobs in 2025
👵 How to be a good ancestor
🥗 The future of food is indoors
📚City bookstores per 100,000 people
🚆 Commute Noise pollution visualised
📝 Mark Manson’s Take on Vulnerability
🎧 Heartfelt meditative story with Krista Tippet
🧠 Why we genuinely only use 10% of our brains
👑 Glorious return of the internet’s most loved philosopher king
Parting Poem 📝
A whale sings
The sweetness of Spring.
New life unfolds
Midwifed by spirit
Into this lineage of
Wow, you made it to the end… if you’re feeling a little more curious than before, consider supporting my projects to join the growing league of curious human subscribers and get access to bonus content below.