Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Focus Word

Every now and then a word pops into my life that represents a virtue that I truly respect in others and try to model in myself.  It becomes the highest virtue that I acknowledge, the greatest compliment that I can give at that time.

I steep this word within me: as it rests in my vessel, it permeates who I am with its flavor. 

I swaddle myself in this word: it rests between me and the world; all of the world's forces come to me through it and it warms me from the cold. 

I wear this word as an outfit: at first it may seem rakish and uncomfortable, not fitting, it's not yet tailored to who I am, but eventually it takes on my form and appears less of a costume and more as a fitting strength--how I wear it is changing, I become comfortable with it.  This takes time.

Of course, it is not really the word that I choose, but the virtue that it represents.  Still, words do have power (discussion on this coming soon), and focusing on a word like a mantra brings that virtue to you.  Maybe it is because it focuses the mind, maybe it puts the thoughts magically out into the universe, maybe it just makes you aware of opportunity; whatever the mechanism, it is a useful tool.

Power of a focus
“Always remember, your focus determines your reality.” - Qui-Gon to Anakin, Star Wars Episode I (I lifted this quote from the Zen Habits blog post on "The Magical Power of Focus ".)

Having a focus has been shown time and time again to make it easier to hit goals and make life more enjoyable and meaningful.  Better results just seem to show up.  Having a focus is a benefit in all areas of life, whether this is in business, in sports/fitness, or in another field.

Having a solitary focus is relatively new for me; it began as professional guidance a few years ago.
  For much of my life, I would tend to focus on three things at a time, thinking that I had sufficiently narrowed it down to the magic number 3.  Then along came a manager at work.  In my performance reviews, he did a magical thing.  He gave me one word (just 1!) to focus on at each review, to work on for the next half year.  Sometimes his word was one of the three things that I had written on my review.  Sometimes it was a blind spot that I didn't know about.  Even if I never learned anything else from that boss, the lesson of a solitary focus was a very potent gift from him, for which I will be forever grateful.  And each six months, I picked up a new virtue through focus on it.  If I were to try to focus on three things, it would likely take me two years to really nail them all, that is if I did manage to make progress - instead I could pick up three things in a year and a half.  This was definitely more efficient over the long run.  The words that he gave me to work on in turn were "consistency", "efficiency", and "predictability". 

Since then, I've naturally adopted a similar practice for myself.  I focus on a single word at a time; however, my process is a lot less deliberate (more on that below).  My most recent three foci are "earnest" (any part of speech will do, not merely nouns), then "compassion", and now "authenticity".

Of course, picking a fitting focus can be a challenge.  It is quite possible to accidentally pick a goal that is short-sighted or not the intended aim.  Marshall Goldsmith talks about this danger in his post Mission or Goal (also from his book What Got You Here Won't Get You There):

In the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai, the main character, Colonel Nicholson, is a prisoner of war in Burma who leads his men to build a bridge for his Japanese captors. Nicholson is an officer of high integrity, dedicated to excellence, a great leader of people - and thus well trained to complete any mission that he is given. / So he skillfully inspires his men to build a near-perfect bridge. By the film’s end, he finds himself in the painful position of defending the bridge from attack by fellow British officers who want to destroy it - to prevent Japanese trains from using it. / There’s a chilling moment of realization, right before the bridge is detonated, when Nicholson (played by Alec Guinness) utters the famous line, “What have I done?” He was so focused on his goal - building the bridge - that he forgot his larger mission - winning the war!

Perhaps going to war was not even the best way to meet that higher purpose.  It really requires a lot of insight and introspection to set the right goals.

How I choose a focus word

I'm not really sure where these words come from, or why they rise out of all of the possible choices of virtues in which to focus, but they do and I go with that.  It is not a deliberate process where I sit down with a dictionary, talk with a guru, or pull out some revered text.  My current word is authentic (possibly the subject of a future post), which I find fitting.  When the word rises out of my unbidden--at least as far as I know--it feels authentic to give that word a proper place of respect and focus.  There's no real set amount of time that a new word takes over in my life, but they seem to fit for 6 months of so.  It's clearly not set by an arbitrary calendar.  There's a flip side to this, since I don't really know where the word comes from in me or why it takes on such shape, it is quite possible that I have been primed deeply by society or inauthentic forces.  My approach to this is to acknowledge that it may be the case and allow for exploration of this if it arises, without over-thinking it.  How do I recognize it?  I don't know.  I'm sure that there are some false positives that I later realize are not the true focuses, that I'm really still on the previous word.

Actually, this happened to me a bit during the last word compassion.  I kept thinking that I was adopting other words like love, loving-kindness, and empathy only to realize later that these were facets of compassion and helping me explore this gem from all sides, rather than taking the prize position.

This time around, the word had heralds.  Lately I have been bandying about the terms "sincerity", "genuine", "true", "real" and other similar terms.  "Authenticity" came up in my first discussion with a new mentor.  The word authenticity is really the one that I was being prepared for.  Authenticity came to devour my world.

There's something to be said about being deliberate in the choice, too.  There are likely some great techniques for picking out a focus, maybe I'll explore this at some time in the future. For now, I'll leave a link to the The Magical Power of Focus on the Zen Habits blog, which covers the topic some.

Make it stick
My friend's mother had an annual tradition of bringing a word in and kicking a word out.  She'd pick something to leave behind in the past year, then she'd put the written word on a little boat that she'd launch ablaze on the water.  She'd watch it be consumed in fire, then sputter, fizzle, and die as it was snuffed out of her life.  She would also pick a new word to bring into her life for the new year.  It is very effective to replace the old with a new, as supported empirically in psychological studies.  The best known way to rid oneself of an old habit is to replace it with a new one, as Azrin and Nunn demonstrated in Habit Control in a Day--"It is a clinically tested method for stopping ... nervous habits. They obtained 90% reduction in the habit the first day and 95% reduction within the first week and 99% within a month." (Dr. Clay Tucker-Ladd's Psychological Self-Help, Chapter 4)

Going through a ritual such as burning the effigized out-word may not be to your style, though there's a lot of significance to ritual.  Gaelen Billingsley writes: "Ritual speaks to older and deeper parts of the brain, feeding the unconscious the food of mystery, and authentic human connection. Ritual also helps us communicate with the more creative, less verbal, right hemisphere of the brain, accessing vital creative energy, ideas and power to manifest the lives we want." 

Another great technique for making it stick is to enlist allies.  I tell my friends, colleagues, mentors, mentees, and partners about what I'm working on, and they often offer books, advice, suggestions, and reminders that help me stick it out.  Further, the broader I spread the thoughts and share the ideas, and the more they're out in the universe, forces just seem to conspire to help me work on the focus.

So give it a shot, remove something from your life and add something new, and do it through ritual to commit it energetically throughout your brain, let the universe and maybe loved ones be witness to it. 


Request for comments: (from now on, I'm going to have specific requests for comments on my posts.  I love comments and respond to each of them.)

Do you have any rituals that help you cement a focus?

What specific words of focus do you choose?

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Mind as a Committee

In the '90s, I used to watch the sitcom Herman's Head, which had a pretty neat premise: while Herman was going about his day, there would be flashes to a set representing the inside of his head, where 4 distinct personalities argued out the decisions that he would make. The characters in Herman's Head as defined in Wikipedia (link) are:
  • Angel represented his sensitivity. As the only female character in his brain, Angel also represented his feminine side, or in Jungian terms the anima, and sometimes used this fact to manipulate the male characters.

  • Animal represented his lust or hunger. He was an archetypal fratboy, and possibly derives his name from Animal House. He usually bullies Wimp. In one episode where Herman's personalities are assessing a sleazy man (Ken Hudson Campbell in a dual role) dating Louise , Animal sticks up for him (probably because this man looks exactly like him and shares his traits).

  • Wimp represented his anxiety. He was a paranoid hypochondriac. But since he always expected the worst, he was often the best prepared to handle crises when the others could not decide.

  • Genius represented his intellect and logic and because of this he clashes with the naive nature of Angel and stupidity of Animal. At times he could get overworked, as in one episode where his face is blackened by soot and he exclaims "I think I blew a fuse!", after Herman makes a ridiculous decision.
The representation of Herman's head is a metaphor for the internal deliberating aspects of the mind that we almost all experience. We're torn between different decisions and for different reasons. Should I patiently wait for things to fall into place? ...be comfortable with what comes my way, whatever it is? ...seize opportunities? ...skip this whole thing and try something else? It often feels like there are many different aspects to us trying to hammer this all out.

I have a friend who uses a committee metaphor (and she grew up without a TV, so she doesn't even know about Herman's Head). When she is deliberating something and wants me to understand, she might say something like this: "I want to and I don't. There are some committee members who really want to, one who is worried about the timing, one who is afraid of trying something new, two who think I will miss an opportunity, and another who just thinks this is silly and that I will have fun doing whatever, so I might as well do this." I have always felt this way. Sometimes I respond: "I want to, but I also don't want to, and the part of me that doesn't want to is winning." This often lead to a trap that makes it difficult to commit to something.

Jon Haidt refers to the concept of mind as a committee as one of the great ideas, because it has come up many times in people's minds, across culture and history. For example, it shows up in Freud's idea of the id, the ego, and the superego. Also, Platos' chariot allegory from Phaedrus:
Of the nature of the soul, though her true form be ever a theme of large and more than mortal discourse, let me speak briefly, and in a figure. And let the figure be composite -- a pair of winged horses and a charioteer. Now ... the human charioteer drives his in a pair; and one of them is noble and of noble breed, and the other is ignoble and of ignoble breed; and the driving of them of necessity gives a great deal of trouble to him.
In his essay The Plato Chariot Analogy, psychologist and statistician John S. Uebersax, PhD. describes the allegory and talks about how the concept originated even before Plato:

The soul is portrayed as a charioteer (Reason), and two winged steeds: one white ('spiritnedness', the irascible, boldness;) and one black (concupiscence, the appetitive, desire). The goal is to ascend to divine heights -- but the black horse poses problems. The chariot figure itself is just the beginning, however; it leads to a revealing portrayal of the 'ups and downs' of the spiritual or philosophical life.

The myth itself is not Plato's--it was ancient even for him, perhaps coming from Egypt or Mesopotamia--but he adapted and reworked it. It greatly surpasses Freud's mechanistic ego/id/superego model, to the same degree that art and science conjoined exceed science alone.

There's even physiological backing for for the mind as a committee metaphor, as Haidt points out in The Happiness Hypothesis (I keep coming back to this 1 2). The different parts of the brain that serve different functions may account for the differing and often opposing aspects of the personality. The reptilian portion of the brain controls the fight or flight response, the mammalian portion of the brain controls the desire for status seeking, and the neocortex contains higher-level reasoning. These layers already show how there can be differing aspects of the brain, each with its own set of priorities. This 3 layer approach is a great simplification of the truly interconnected brains that we do have. There are multiple different regions of functionality in each layer and many interconnections between each part and across layers. It is no wonder that our brains often feel tugged in different directions with conflicting internal messages and priorities. It is wired that way.

The committee metaphor, in any of it's incarnations, has a lot of support, and can be very useful. I've adopted this metaphor and find that it really works for me, providing several benefits:

First, it makes it easier to see and understand things for myself and likewise it creates a good way to explain indecision to others. I find it effective for emotionally loaded conflicts around decisions. It is a simple way to explain the process in my head and my heart. It let's others know how I'm making my decisions--I'm torn, not making a straightforward choice.

Second, it allows me to Declare Peace on Myself. The thing to remember, I am not any single piece; I am all of the pieces. I am the whole committee. I am the charioteer and the two horses (not just the charioteer). I am Angel, Animal, Wimp, and Genius. To paraphrase Pema Chodron in Comfortable with Uncertainty, chapter 6: any striving to improve, as if by fighting any side of our personality, is "a subtle aggression against who we really are." I see that there is no benefit in fighting any of these parts; that would be fighting myself. It is futile and likely to only make that part stronger. Rather, I can accept it, love it, and possibly train it. All of these acts I can achieve through meditation.

Third, another huge advantage to having a clearer picture of how I operate internally is helps overcome indecision. Some understanding of how my mind works under the face makes it easier for me to grease and tighten the cogs. It also helps me to decipher the deliberation process and avoid the stress of indecision.

I encourage you to explore this metaphor and see if it can also provide these benefits to you. Every time that you have a tough decision to make can now be an excellent opportunity to explore this metaphor and get to know yourself further. Whenever I can be mindful enough to do so, that's what I try to do.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Give Thanks to Yourself

The holidays can be a very stressful time filled with obligations, parties stacked upon parties, holding onto a diet amidst feasting season, etc. If we're not mindful we can easily become overwhelmed in all of this, causing us to miss the holiday spirit of connection and generosity. Sometimes, in the typical ironic fashion, we even feel badly because we are being stressed instead of joyful, leading to more stress. Also ironically, if we do feel joyful and thankful and connected enough, we feel guilty for not doing this all year round. Aaaaahhhhh!

Do your best to avoid this should trap! In the US, this holiday time really kicks off at Thanksgiving, which is a wonderful reminder about all the things for which we are thankful. This year (and every year), take a little extra time to give thanks to yourself.

Here are a few ways to do that:

  1. Make space. Let yourself off the hook with obligations. Do the things that really matter to you. Alice Walker (author of The Color Purple) wrote wonderful advice on this in An Open Letter to Barack Obama. I highly encourage you to read the full letter, and realize that the advice applies to you, too.
    ...you alone are not responsible for bringing the world back to balance. A primary responsibility that you do have, however, is to cultivate happiness in your own life. To make a schedule that permits sufficient time of rest and play.... We are used to seeing [people] ... become juiceless and [white-haired]; we notice their [spouses] and children looking strained and stressed. They soon have smiles so lacking in joy that they remind us of scissors. This is no way to lead. Nor does your family deserve this fate. One way of thinking about all this is: It is so bad now that there is no excuse not to relax. From your happy, relaxed state, you can model real success, which is all that so many people in the world really want.

  2. Say 'no' when you want or do not have the energy. A friend of mine keeps the following advice pinned to a cork board:

    "'No' can be a beautiful word, every bit as beautiful as 'yes'.... Whenever we deny our need to say 'no', our self-respect diminishes.... It is not only our right at certain times to say 'no'; it is our deepest responsibility.... For it is a gift to ourselves when we say 'no' to those old habits that dissipate our energy, 'no' to what robs us of our inner joy, 'no' to what distracts us from our purpose....
    And it is a gift to others to say 'no' when their expectations do not ring true for us, for in doing so we free them to discover more fully the truth of their own path." -John Robbins, Ann Mortifee Search of Balance: Discovering Harmony in a Changing World

  3. Be selfish; it's a virtue. I see two ways to look at this as a virtue. The first was described by Ayn Rand in the Virtue of Selfishness, as described by J.R. (see the linked article): "Since a concern with one's own interests is a character trait that, when translated into action, enables one to achieve and guard one's own well-being, it follows that selfishness is a virtue. One must manifest a serious concern for one's own interests if one is to lead a healthy, purposeful, fulfilling life." The second wa ybuilds on that idea. The greatest gift that you can give to the world is a happy you, a you operating from your best, most joyful, most compassionate place. Cherish and nurture yourself. There's no reason to feel guilty about taking care of your owns needs. Remember that if you take care of yourself first, you will be in a better place to pay it forward to the world.

  4. Write yourself a thank you letter. This is a very specific action that you can do for yourself. You can always turn back to this to remind yourself of all of the things that you are doing right, let the guilt drop and just remind yourself of why you appreciate what you're doing. You don't have to wait for Thanksgiving to do this either. Do it whenever you need a pick-me-up. This acts is similar to the power of writing a list of things that you love about yourself as I did earlier this year.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 03, 2008

My Haiku Floweth Over

"Art of any sort has the ability to put you into the graceful state of flow. When you are in flow, you enjoy what you’re doing. You lose self-consciousness. Your sense of time changes. It disappears completely. It stops dead in frozen, perfect moments. Or it flies." (From William Wittman's Here Is What Happened To Matisse...)

Lately, I have been experiencing this state of flow, and hence enjoyment, from writing haikus. I seem to be able to write these without worrying if they're any good or not, and it's fun. I just love the elegant structure and simplicity of haiku. I have included some that I've written recently.

Here is one that references a bit on Eckhart Tolle's teaching, such as A New Earth, and chapter 107 of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love.
A drop of anger?
Is that my ego creepin'?
Welcome to my heart.
And here is one that I offered to someone very close to me to show my gratitude--no need to wait for Thanksgiving.
Thank you for holding
The mirror of your being
Up for me to learn.
In high school, I had trouble with iambic pentameter and trochaic tetrameter and other rhyming and metered verses. Haikus came easier, they just flow out of me onto the page. The ease of haiku really helps me to open up. Here's one that I wrote about that:
I find that haikus
Are more natural for me
Than writing iambs.
And, just to be a little silly, here's one that I wrote in an IM about a little too much punctuation:
Dear, please pardon me
For the gratuitous use
Of the comma there.
Ah, another one just came to me as I was titling this post. I really enjoy how circular this is.
When I am present,
My Haiku Floweth Over,
Then I am present.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Libido Is In, Lust Is Out

Libido is a powerful creative energy that comes from being able to clear the mind enough to connect through our bodies. It can be a very positive influence for creativity, provide a wellspring for health, foster deep communication with another, and form a rich balancing system between the 4 aspects of Being: mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual. It can enable us to commune with the divine. On the other hand, it can be overdone if not kept in balance.

The Bhagavad Gita describes this: (found on yahoo answers)
While contemplating the objects of the senses a person develops attachment for them, from attachment comes lust and from lust comes anger. From anger comes bewilderment of memory. When memory is bewildered intelligence is lost and when intelligence is lost, one falls down into the material pool. -Bg 2.62-63
This domino effect is what happens when libido is twisted and distorted through attachment and desire. It is counterproductive and does not serve when it becomes lust, a visceral longing.

Controlling Lust

The domino effect described in the above quotation can be very painful to experience, especially when it comes between us and people for whom we care deeply. Lust does not serve, and as with all things that do not serve, it is wise to let it go. Letting it go can happen when one is able to:
  1. Stop the domino effect from happening in the first place.
  2. Recognize the domino effect when it is happening.
  3. Recover from the domino effect and set the dominoes back up.

All three of these are important to be able to reclaim control from all sides. Each is a separate skill that can be developed through training, just as with any muscle.

Stop the domino effect from happening in the first place
In the Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama briefly writes about meditating on the body's circulatory system as a means to control sexual desires. While searching for more information on this, I came across the 32 parts of the body meditation. This meditation focuses in turn on each part of the body, recognizing it neutrally. Dhamma Viro tells us that "... by seeing clearly the repulsiveness inherent in objects (e.g.. skin, hair, flesh) that formerly were seen as desirable, the skillful yogin will develop an attitude of dispassion towards the body. Such an attitude is conducive to neither lust nor disgust, but fosters instead a balanced and mindful equanimity." This has helped many control lust by understanding the body as a system of forms, recognizing it for what it is. This meditation offers many other insights, so time and practice will tell what works.

Note: While some people might be interested in drugs, medications, herbal remedies, etc. These so called anaphrodisiacs do not help cultivate mindfulness, which is what this blog is about and what I am personally interested in. Lust is a condition of the mind and how it relates to the body. Chemicals address the physiochemistry of the mind-body connection, the indirect route. The meditative approach, rather, offers a way to gain control of the energy and be able to channel it into other outlets.

Recognize the domino effect when it is happening
Sometimes, the dominoes start falling before we can stop them. When caught up in an emotional deluge, it is often very difficult to recognize what is happening. This requires a clear, mindful look. This is developed through introspection, meditation, or prayer (which I see as all different names for the same thing). This is hard practice, difficult to master, and requires cultivation. But, this hard work promises much to the cultivator. It is often likened to learning to play an instrument. Because it is so hard, it is unreliable to expect that skill #1 will be enough. As such, begin to notice the dominoes falling. Anger and fear are key markers. Are you angry at a person, perhaps someone you love very deeply? Are you blaming them for not satisfying you when you realize it is not their fault? These are key sign-posts along the way.

Recover from the domino effect and set the dominoes back up
Once the bewilderment of memory and the loss of intelligence has happened, this step is particularly difficult. It requires having previously cultivated compassion and mindfulness, then consciously moving to a position of love rather than anger to crawl out. Then from the anger, there's the need to meditate to address the lust. It is setting the dominoes back up, one at a time. In truth, we are all loving beings who will snap out of this pit and see the truth for what it is. Our beings are looking to free our minds from suffering, and it is often through suffering, in being able to see it as a positive lens of change, that we awaken to the truth.

Libido for the Spiritual?
Due to the strong nature and prevalence of libido, it's empowering nature, and the negativity that it creates between people when it turns into lust, virtually every culture handles this in a different way. Around the world and through history, societies have many differing approaches to and opinions of the role and purpose of libido. Some spiritual paths encourage sexual expression, finding it divine, some are neutral, and some scorn it.

To see how wide the variance is, you can look within the practitioners and followers of any path. As an example, consider Buddhism - chosen because the meditative practice above is a Buddhist one, and because part of this investigation was spawned by my reading Deepak Chopra's novel Buddha. In the book, the Gautama Buddha forsook his wife and sexuality altogether. The monk Gautama forsook his wife to seek the path, and then returned chaste to his wife after having awakened. So, he did not see a role for sexuality in an awakened existence. Additionally in Buddhism, one of the items on the Noble Eightfold Path is Right Action. The Pali Canon says:

And what, monks, is right action? Abstaining from taking life, abstaining from stealing, abstaining from unchastity: This, monks, is called right action.

Magga-vibhanga Sutta
On the other hand, I know of a Zen Buddhist master who purportedly has an active libido and sex life with his partner. So, even within Buddhism, there are differences. This continues throughout other religions.

In Christianity, there is similar variance, quoted here from DelanceyPlace.com's Oct 21, 2008 mailing referencing Susan Squire, I Don't, Bloomsbury, Copyright 2008 by Susan Squire, pp. 90-91, 200-207:
In the book of Genesis, humanity is commanded to "be fruitful and multiply." But this idea is overturned in the Christian New Testament when the Apostle Paul writes that "it is well for a man not to touch a woman," which eventually leads the Catholic church to require its priests to be celibate, a prohibition that is egregiously violated through the centuries. Then enters Martin Luther and his Reformation. ... As their would-be savior, Luther must convince this multitude to trade the 'villainy and wickedness' of celibacy for the God-given glory of marriage. ... His message does not fall on deaf ears. An escalating number of monks and nuns respond by ditching their communally celibate lives for marriage, sometimes to each other, and with little hesitation--as if they'd been waiting for their prince to come all along.

The chastity approach (or the procreation-only approach) seems extreme and unbalanced, and it feels that there is a way to strike a balance and energy the power of libido. Libido has a place to bring health, creativity, and connectedness into life. Though lust takes it too far and leads to suffering. There is value is being able to cultivate, maintain, control, and harness this energy for positive use and wisdom in dissolving lust. Bringing compassion, lovingkindness, and mindfulness into life seems to be the happy way.

Here are some interesting, miscellaneous things that I found during research.

  • For one, it is almost impossible to find any information on "decreasing libido". Society at large views libido as a very desirable thing and offers many suggestions on how to increase it, including meditations to increase it. There are meditations to both increase libido and decrease lust, this seeming paradox was the hole that I dove down for this post. It took me a while of searching before I realized that the word libido is used to describe a positive, healthy energy, indicative of a healthy body and often a stable mind. After a little reflection, I realized that the wording for the more wholesome approach is to "control lust". Lust, as one of the seven deadly sins, is often viewed as a negative feeling, something to be banished or managed. It can be defined as sexual desire.
  • Another interesting fact is that a large portion of marital therapy cases cite the problems as mismatched libido. The frustration of lust often becomes a large problem in relationships, and it is estimated the one third of couples have mismatched libido. Among heterosexual couples, it seems to be pretty evenly distributed whether it is the man or woman with the higher libido.
  • I found one case of a male student who wanted to reduce his lust specifically because he saw arousal as counterproductive to his studies. He wanted to focus single-mindedly on academics and saw the coeds as a distraction.
  • There's a condition called Persistant Sexual Arousal Syndrome which is "A Newly Discovered Pattern of Excessive Female Arousal That Can Continue Unremittingly for Hours, Days, or Weeks."
  • In general, it seems much more common that people are trying to increase their arousal rather than lower it. There is a whole wealth of information on how to do this, from therapy, to meditation, yoga, fitness, removing mental hindrances, decreasing stress, scheduling love-making in an appointment book, etc.

Monday, October 06, 2008

A Sweet Embrace -or- Form Correction with Grandmaster Chen Xiao Wang

Taiji Grandmaster Chen Xiao Wang recently taught a five-day workshop at Seattle's Embrace The Moon school where I practice. [I wrote a bit about a workshop with his nephew Master Chen Bing, referenced in Yang Within Yin, Yin Within Yang....] Grandmaster Chen is the 19th-generation lineage holder of Chen-family Taijiquan. He has spent his entire life developing mastery in taiji (videos: 1 2 3). While many people train and learn the principles of taiji, it is clear that he lives them. He is also a master calligrapher and performs his calligraphy is if it is taiji, and taiji as if it is calligrpahy. He is happy and easy-going. He faces the world with a balance of seriousness and humor, with strength and relaxation. Just watching him have a seat or drink a cup of tea is a lesson in grace. He flows.

I pampered myself by training for the whole workshop, to watch, train from, and interact with the Grandmaster. Taiji is an unfathomly subtle art. Even after a lifetime of training, a trained teacher will still make many possible corrections to the form. Form correction is a wonderful thing. The better one's postural form, the more that qi can flow through the body. For someone as new to it as I am, having the chance to be corrected by Chen Xiao Wang is a real treat.

Receiving form correction by the Grandmaster is a rare treat, though a lifetime of form correction is needed. I need to learn how to correct my own form, so I asked him "how do I know when my form is correct?" He answered (paraphrased): it's the same as knowing that a circle is a circle. At first, you don't know. Then you are trained what a circle is and you copy others. But by copying others, you don't realize that a circle can take slightly different shapes and can vary a little for each person who makes it. Over time, you begin to know the essence of a circle, you can feel it. Then he pulled me up in front of the room and pointed at my shirt which had the letters ODST on it. He asked me if the O was a circle, I nodded (a bit unsurely), then he asked me if the D was a circle, and he laughed a big, hearty laugh. Just as we recognize circles, we will one day all recognize what makes the right form and what does not. With that lesson learned, I continued my practice.

A lot of spiritual teachings tell us that the material world is a fiction of the mind, and to transcend the physical world is to abandon illusion and get closer to really. This was my first time in front of a Grandmaster, so I had the opportunity to ask him profound questions about the nature of qi. The seeming contradiction to me is, if the body is a fiction, why is the form of it so important for qi flow? I asked him about it, shouldn't qi be able to flow regardless of the body? He answered that the body is qi, qi is in the body. The body needs to be in the right position for qi to flow. When he asked me if I understood, I knew that understanding would be a life-long pursuit, and I said so.

My instructor Kim Ivy smiled to me and told me to get my form corrected as much as possible by the Grandmaster. Ever the glutton for form correction, I made it a point to do so and had several opportunities.

On the third day, while practicing the laojia (long form), Grandmaster came to me and corrected my form. As always, I had already felt that I had the posture "correct", and realized how mistaken I was--I always feel like a total goof in this moment. If you know the form, it's the posture right after the third Buddha's Warrior Attendant Pounds the Mortar fajin motion, the first part of White Crane Spreads Wings, feet are shoulder width apart, arms rise up to waist height on the sides, palms facing inward toward the dan tien (the hub of the body, a few inches below the navel). As the Grandmaster began correcting me, he first took me out of my deviations, then brought me back into the right positions. As he corrected my arms, they felt like antennas or solar chargers bringing energy into my body, I felt warmth flowing through my periphery. Then he corrected my dan tien to relax, and as it did, it felt like a battery collecting the energy that I brought inside. When he finished the correction, I felt that I was holding the sun inside of my arms, then the moon (I now understand the name of the dojo) and the stars--the universe. Although, I realize that every step of the form must feel this way to the Grandmaster who can do it all so well, I spent much of the rest of the workshop wanting to only practice that one position.

This experience helps me to recognize the truth in his first second answer. This quote that Kim cites nails it:

"Your body is precious.
It is your vehicle for awakening.
Treat it with care." Buddha (563-483 BC)
During the class, Grandmaster Chen Xiao Wang taught us "Natural is the first principle." Truly a profound statement, I found a whole new meaning to it while holding the entirety of nature within my body. It is euphoric. Reliving this experience in my mind, I am serene. These simple words entered my mind as I went to lunch that day:
The breeze is cool.
The sun is warm.
The qi is flowing.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Self That Serves

A whimsical notion came to me while dining with a close friend. We were talking about the nature of suffering (though it was not in the same terms as used in Buddhism). She has a feeling that during suffering there's another non-suffering version of herself somewhere in the background. During times of happiness, her suffering self* is just outside of the picture, but still there and may come back at any time. I am very happy that she is able to step outside of her deep suffering from personal loss and enjoy her moments. Here it does align with the buddhist idea that we can choose whether or not to suffer, that our minds create our reality.

The following line of thinking came to me:
At any time, every being is split into infinite parallel selves, an infinite number experiencing every conceivable flavor of suffering + one experiencing perfect peace and joy (non-suffering). It is possible to manifest any of these selves at any time, and the more conscious you are, the more skilled you are at choosing which self to manifest. Basically, our body is a shell that needs to have a self overlaid on it. Many selves are fighting to get in, sometimes the suffering selves really want to take over. The peaceful self is patient, strong, and self-confident. It waits until it is called upon and things are quiet. When we are able to quiet ourselves enough, calm down the masses of fearful, angry, desirous, suffering selves, and walk past them to choose for the peaceful, joyful self to come it, it does come in. It's hard to realize that the suffering selves do not serve us, they're so desperate to gain control that they trick us into thinking they're useful, such as the self convincing us of the joy of being resented.

It is a metaphor that fits for and serves me. Feel free to use it if it serves you.

*This is pretty reminiscent of the pain-body idea that Tolle writes and talks about, though I believe that there are some differences. Either way, they are both just metaphors. If either works for you, use that one to your best advantage. Here are a few quick distinctions of my metaphor: it does not talk about having a deep-rooted debt of pain. It also does not imply that the debt can be paid off. Nor that one person's pain-body is stronger than another. Also, all pains are not the same pains, they do not aggregate together.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Journey Into Non-consensus Reality: My Reiki I Experience

I took a Reiki I class back in June and had a very perception-shifting experience that has taken me a little bit of time to grasp what it all means. There are a number of experiences that I had outside of consensus reality (the world as it is seen by the crowd), not all of which I take at face value and not all of which I understand. At this point I definitely believe that there is a type of energy (different systems call it qi, chi, prajna, orgone, ...) existing all around us, often called auras when it is concentrated around living beings. Barbara Ann Brennan's Hands of Light catalogs several scientific studies that corroborate these energy fields. Some of the other experiences may be things that my unconscious mind manifests in order to make sense of the information conveyed by this energy. Either way, reiki is a wonderful way to show compassion to others, to feel what is happening inside my own body and psyche, and to relax into my self. There is a lot left for me to explore and understand. I have been putting time and energy into these explorations ever since. This past weekend, I took the class for reiki 2 attunements, so I have some new tools in my belt. Here's where the journey begins. I am glad that I had the foresight to type my day's experiences immediately after the class. Here's what I wrote on that day with only cosmetic editing. My experience at Reiki I training

Today I took Reiki I (one) training with Eileen Dey founder of the Reiki Training Program. I entered with an open mind, but did not have expectations especially high. It’s a day long class designed to teach me about and train me for this first level of reiki practice. I have been studying qi gong and taiji to prepare myself for energy work, after all the ki, qi, and ji are all the same word and come from the same place. Some very unexpected and extraordinary things happened to me today that made me a believer. They’re in fact so inexplicable from my common understanding of how the world works, that I feel the need to get these written down before I forget anything.

I have only had one reiki experience in the past. A friend whom I met in college once gave me a reiki session remotely from Hawaii. I have always thought of her as being amazingly in tune with the spiritual side of things. For the session, we had arranged the time on the phone, and planned for me to lay on my bed, sending my thoughts out of my body toward her. She channeled the reiki energy into me, and it was a warm and opening experience. I remember feeling connected to the world, balanced like when leaving a spa, and being bathed in a color (I think it was a crisp green-apple yellow-green… though maybe she told me this color herself). Now, a few years later, being more in touch with myself and the energy of the universe, I have decided to try it for myself.

Somehow the other students who had signed up for the class today did not make it, and I ended up have a 1-on-1 session with the instructor—which has its pros and cons, certainly. Two pros being that I get more direct attention and that it does not prime me with the words of others. Not knowing anything about the language or the way that others saw this, I was free to associate things for myself. The class started with Eileen asking me what brought me here, what experience have I had with energy work, massage, acupuncture, etc., then she explained her path to this point in reiki to me, and then transitioned into some theory. The first “hands on” work was just noticing energy flow from our hands in a number of light-hearted experiments against my hands, her hands, a plant of hers, and some cut flowers. I believed that I could feel energy flowing, though I was not sure if I was creating this in my own mind.

After some of this, some theory, some history, we proceeded to the first of two Reiki I attunements, which the Reiki Master passes down to her/his students. An attunement is a way of adjusting the spiritual antenna that we all have to better channel the energy (reiki), and it will stay with the receiver for ever. (“So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.” –Caddyshack)

Eileen prepared the room for this, and called me in when I was ready. The lights were lowered, some relaxing music was playing, and there was a chair in the center of the room. No incense was burning or other smells, except maybe for some faint rose water. I sat in the chair, and following Eileen’s calm voice, I gave myself permission to receive the attunement. It started off as guided meditation, and I kept my eye lids partially open as I usually do when I meditate. I soon noticed someone standing to the front-right side of me, but could only see a vague outline. I thought that Eileen really moved quietly, and then I heard her behind me, and realized that it was not her. I slightly opened my eyes to look and no one was there. So I closed my eyes again, and I chalked it up to just something from my unconscious. As Eileen touched the top of my head (known as the 7th chakra), I twitched a touch and smelled sandalwood, then got a clear image of my ex-fiancée in my mind, and with my next breath, I inhaled to fill up the image. As I exhaled the image faded away. The rest of the attunement went by and felt very warm and nurturing, I noticed some sensations here and there, though I did not realize then that the important connection had already happened for me.

After this, it was time to break for lunch, and over lunch I realized what had happened. In that moment of smelling sandalwood I forgave myself for breaking up with my fiancée (and maybe also forgave her, too—though I think that I have done this already). It was immensely gratifying. When I came back from lunch, I told this to Eileen and she got goosebumps. For the first time when I told her something, she really engaged and shared her opinion. She said that she felt "truth" in this, and she did not say this just to validate me. She said that she noticed something like this during the attunement, and that this made complete sense with what she was feeling. It was a powerful moment of realization for me.

Next, Eileen and her boyfriend R (who’s also a reiki practitioner; abbreviating because I never asked his permission), helped demonstrate to me. Eileen showed me how to perform a sitting reiki treatment with R receiving, then we moved on to R lying on a massage table with Eileen passing energy into him through both touching and non-touching. As she worked on R, they invited me to join, which I did tentatively. While doing so, I could feel energy from R and at times felt a lot of heat in my hands. At some times I felt the air around my hands become very dense, other times cold, and warm. During the warm parts, I began to perspire in my upper body. At one point, my hands were drawn to the space over his forearm, and I felt something jar me back a few inches. I continued to focus on it, and wondered why Eileen also did not focus on his other forearm. It felt so strong to me, but not to her. I found out later than he had actually a minor injury in his right elbow, and I must have been feeling that. It really is noticeable.

Next, R and I channeled reiki to Eileen, and R had his own way of going about it, different from Eileen’s. He was very indirect, focusing his two hands on points around the troubled spot and working to have the energy flow between the spots. As we worked I felt a different kind of energy. At one point it felt cold to me, then switched to warm, and when I commented on it, Eileen said that it had just transitioned from warm to cold for her in the place that my hands were over. There were a number of other coincidences like that, and one point where I felt a bunch of stuff knotted up in the air above her lower back (she was face down). The feeling struck me to do something that I had not seen either of them do, I put my hands together in an inverted prayer position and pointed them into that spot on her back, without touching. I drew my hands apart slowly lengthwise along her spine and she murmured hazily: “you’re stretching me like taffy.” R’s eyes opened wide and he looked at me. “Did you hear that? She felt you pull her aura open.” I was not touching her, and it wasn’t a textbook reiki trick, and still she felt exactly what I did.

Then it was my turn, and R left, so Eileen worked on me alone. I felt many sensations during this. She started at my head and worked down my back on the right side, then down to my right leg. While working on my right leg, I felt her place a hand on my right shoulder (thumb, index and middle fingers) pressing fairly firmly, and thought that she was working back up my body, only to feel both of her hands on my feet. I realized then, that it wasn’t her hand at all. At that moment, I remembered the vision from the attunement and told her about the feeling on my shoulder and the shadowy person. This seemed to really strike a chord with her, because she engaged me in conversation about it. We talked some about this, and about the kind of energy that I was feeling. She asked if it felt like a being of light, but to me it didn’t. It was vague and like a silhouette, dark, a Shadow Being. She said that she could sense something in the air as I spoke about the shadow being, that it felt earthy and vaguely masculine (though she wasn’t convinced on this point), and impish—like an earth sprite. To me, there was a wildness to the hair and a mysterious nature. I was unsure of its motives, I couldn’t tell if it meant to have some fun at my expense or it was going to provide some brutal truth. It seemed a bit like a guide, like an Inuit scout maybe feral, maybe an Indian (South Asian) guru. It was very vague. Very powerful, there’s something to learn here. The feeling soon faded.

Following the session there was a small break, then Eileen prepared the room for my second attunement. As I sat in the chair, the shadow being appeared right away. It showed up in front of me and at the right side again. It approached me, I opened my eyes and didn’t see it, but closed them mostly and felt it again. And Eileen was still across the room. I felt it come close and encircle my head with its arms, then place them on my head. I peeked again, still Eileen was across the room. Shortly after, Eileen started by touching my head in the same place. Throughout the whole time, I felt the being weaving in and out, as part of the experience. Sometimes it was away, other times right there.

Afterward, when Eileen asked me to share how it felt, I told her that the shadow was definitely there, no doubt about that. She knew it, too. She said that it was there helping her the whole time, very noticeable. From her experience, beings sometimes show up for people practicing reiki, and she knows about a few. She urges me to make space for it to come back again, which I certainly intend to do. And I’m very interested into digging into some more reiki in order to understand it’s message.

It is clear to me that there’s a message. I felt that the being was a little playful with me: “what has taken you so long? Why have you waited until now to open up to me?” I also feel that it intends to guide me to something, that it has a purpose for me. If I give it space and let it come in, it has a mission for me.

I am amazed by all of this. I certainly do not feel that this was a primed experience in any way. I cannot think of anything that lead me to believe that something like this was possible. And it feels and seems quite tangible and truthful to me. I hope that in the future when I notice it, I notice it for real and that it’s not just my mind making up something to fit these thoughts, since I am now primed.

I cannot know if it’s truly a being of energy, something beyond the world that we know of, or something that my unconscious mind really knows about me and wants to share. Maybe it is just a personification of my unconscious mind or of some pain that I still have. I cannot know what reiki really is or why it is (and I really don’t care… I think that trying to know it may only get in the way of what there is to learn). I’m a little scared of this shadow being, and a bit hesitant to share these thoughts with others. I realize that it must sound a little like new age mumbo jumbo. Though, to me it feels absolutely real. I’m glad that I’ve taken the time to write it all down; since memories of real situations and memories of thoughts look the same in my mind--I sometimes get confused.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Negotiating with the Imp of the Perverse

In my last post Yang Within Yin, Yin Within Yang, I touched upon how elegance and absurdity are two parts to the same whole. Some pyschological literature recommended to me by Gaelen Billingsley really brought this point home to me, especially along the dimension of fears. These books were marriage and sex therapist David Schnarch's A Passionate Marriage, which deals with building a strong romantic relationship through differentiation, and family therapist Donald Williamson's The Intimacy Paradox, which deals differentiation between children and parents to improve your family relationship and develop personal authority. These books define differentiation as the ability to hold onto yourself and your values, while remaining close to your romantic partner or family. It is being who you are to improve yourself so that you can give your best and loving self whole-heartedly to a relationship (this touches very much on the idea that selfishness is a virtue). Your best, calmest self is the greatest gift that you can give to anyone you love. Williamson defines this paradox clearly:
We want to be emotionally free and self-determined, but simultaneously we want to share our ideas and feelings, beliefs and values, hopes and fears, monies and homes, with significant others in intimate relationships.

These books provide structure and techniques for identifying what holds people back from reaching their goals within the construct of these relationships, so that you can break through.

The Enemy: Fear Itself
Fears tend to be the root cause of most relationship problems. And 2 particular fears really stand out in my experience:
1) Fear of your true self not being accepted by your partner
2) Fear of losing yourself by giving too much to a relationship

Think about these, how much do you hold onto your darkest secrets? Or how much do you "give in" to the other person and maybe resent it or just not feel like you're putting yourself first. Do you feel guilty when you put yourself first? Do you sometimes put yourself first as a kind of triumph? Do you feel relieved when you finally open up a juicy, closely guarded secret and it is accepted, though you feared for it all along? These fears have a way of getting you to put yourself into the exact situations that you were fearing.

Edgar Alan Poe's The Imp of the Perverse (love the title) describes a man who had gotten away with the perfect crime, though he kept fearing and fearing that someday he would be caught and found out. He repeatedly told himself not to tell anyone about committing the crime. Over and over he repeated this to himself. In a moment of weakness, his brain forgot the word "not" and he delivered a full confession condemning himself. His worst fear, that of being found out, was the force that ultimately led him to make the mistake that had him found out.

This reminds me of a software bug that I once experienced. There was an XML parser issue that caused formatted text (bold, italicized, underlined), etc. to be pushed way outside of the context it was in. So the more someone tried to emphasize something, the more likely it was to be stripped away. The bug would transform text like: "Do not deploy the solution under conditions X, Y, and Z. ...." into "Do deploy the solutions under conditions X, Y, and X. ....not" Which was essentially creating the opposite message. The brain does the same thing.

Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis brings up this same idea in a metaphor describing the mind as a rider trying to control an elephant. The rider has a complex objective in mind, but his ordered of not doing something confounds the elephant who keeps hearing the order and just decides to do it. Haidt supports this with the layers of repitilian and mammalian brain eventually overpowering the v1 neocortex (something that I have touched on in previous posts 1 2 3.) Joe Costello calls a very similar concept negative target fixation, which is a real risk for pilots. Having a negative target in mind such as "do not hit the telephone lines" gets the fixation on the telephone lines and leads an inordinate number of pilots to actually hit them.

Essentially, the machinery of fearing things causes people to challenge and fixate on what they most fear, somehow leading these things to come about.

The Remedy?
Instead choose, positive target fixation. Using a mantra such as: "land safely in the lake" is more likely to aid the pilot into steering to safer water landing. The elephant is more likely to get the clear message, and the universe seems to conspire to realize what you are asking of it.

I have kept a mug since childhood bearing my favorite quote by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it.” This quote reminds me to but the thoughts that I want to happen out into the world, just start going toward the positive target. The bold act of doing so will inspire a universal providence to start aligning the stars in favor of this goal.

Keep facing the challenges in the world as opportunities, identify your fears and train yourself to drop these in favor of positively-stated goals, then calmly and confidently act on them.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Yang Within Yin, Yin Within Yang or The Power of Paradox

Niels Bohr said, “How wonderful that we've met with a paradox. Now we have hope of making some progress.” Seeming paradoxes are a presentation of a truth just around the corner, if only you could pivot your point of view in some way. At the place where two beliefs are at odds, there is a seem which can be torn open to view the whole problem inside out, resolving it. Patterns of this occur time and time again. When two conclusions seem at odds within a framework, and both conclusions are convincingly true, there is either a problem with the framework itself or the two conclusions are actually the truth. This calls for a paradigm shift, when the whole framework needs to be altered to support the facts.

It is both absurd and elegant that paradoxes herald truths. This has been borne out in the sciences repeatedly throughout the ages. Though, this is certainly not limited to the sciences. Taken to their greatest extent, elegance and absurdity, seemingly opposites, are the same thing. This seems to obey a non-Euclidian geometry where negative and positive infinity converge.

One example of this lies in the notion that “simple is sophisticated.” It is often the most basic, perfect line or shape that is raised to the penultimate position. In cooking, the chef who can make ingredients shine through in the dish, reigns supreme. Top chefs are adept at allowing flavors to harmonize, rather than be obscured by each other. So much work is put into cooking ingredients so that they taste like separate ingredients, together. High fashion also trends the same way, the designers renowned throughout time make classically elegant pieces with simple cuts, curves, and constructions.

In Japanese, there is a similar concept called wabi-sabi, which claims that perfection is found in imperfection. It is the little mistakes in something that make it perfect. It is the roughly of hand-made paper that makes it special, the subtle unevenness of a hand-sewn line that makes such garments coveted above factory-“perfect” apparel. It is absurd that these things are true; it shows the world's sense of humor--that true wonder is found when space is left for error. All of this holds a simple elegance to be admired.

This taoist principle that seeming opposites such as elegance and absurdity require each other to be whole is exemplified in the taijitu (or yin yang) symbol. This symbol shows a swoosh of black swirling into a swoosh of white, and in the middle of the black is a dab of white and in the middle of the white is a dab of black. This has always held some abstract meaning for me, especially since my childhood days studying the martial art of Tang Soo Do. As I practiced the art, I would stare at and meditate on the South Korean flag hanging in the center of the room. The flag has a modified red and blue yin yang surrounded by symbols for the elements of nature, arranged as opposites across from each other and expressed as 3 bars, some of them divided in the middle, others not divided. And even the pattern of these bars showed a balance. I spent many years sitting in meditation on the floor of the dojos contemplating the symbolism of the South Korean flag.

Recently in my tai chi practice, I had the special fortune of being able to attend a workshop by direct descendent 20th generation Master Chen Bing. Tai chi is in his blood, his lineage. It has permeated him from before his birth and he has remarkable skill. During the workshop, watching him subtley move, I was struck by how clear his intention is in even his move subtle movements. You can witness on his body exactly where his attention is focused and understand the purpose of each movement. Yes, he is an amazing athlete, though tai chi is not particularly a flashy art--though there are some flashy moves. Instead, watching the intention, the balance, the patience, the energy, the flow is truly spectacular. Though English is not his first language, Master Chen is quite adept at imparting profound and sophisticated concepts, aided by his guestures which are embelished by the nuance that he brings to all of his movements. The symbolism of the yin yang, and the meaning of the tao became much more clear to be during his instruction:

"Tai chi is not yang" -- he flexes his body and assumes a fierce look
"Tai chi is not yin" -- his entire body becomes soft and floppy
Then he laughs a little with his body, indicating light-heartedness, and the dojo fills with chuckles and sincere laughter - this man can express humor with any part of his body and his whole body at once. This gets our attention just before he delivers the punchline:
"Tai chi is yang within yin, yin within yang." And what he did here is extraordinary. He moved his entire body with the expressions, assuming a deep and beautiful tai chi posture as he began, he showed tension wrapped in relaxation and he softened as he showed relaxation wrapped in tension, settling into the most expressive posture that I had ever seen. Layers of tension and relaxation wrapped around each other, layer upon layer; it was all visible in his hands, arms shoulders, face, neck, chest, abdomen (dantian), hips, thighs, knees, calves, feet. His whole being taught the lesson, and the entire workshop was moved by the explanation of posture and words.

And we all knew that to this man, tai chi is a metaphor for life. Life is yang within yin, yin within yang. This seeming paradox holds a potent truth.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Mudita vs. Joy of Being Resented?!

A Washington State Lottery billboard near a major Seattle freeway off-ramp urges people to “Experience the Joy of Being Resented.” Is it really so easy to manipulate people's fears and desires? Since the proceeds are really a government revenue, this is essentially a tax--with a slim margin of huge payout--on the greedy and now also on people desiring to make others jealous. What strikes me the most is that eat-your-heart-out sentiment campaign targets the insecurity of others rather than their desire to contribute to a compassionate cause or something appealing to a more humanitarian side of people.

This is similar, though more extreme, than a sales technique mastered by the hare krishnas and peddlers on any Caribbean beach, that manipulates people’s desire to be liked by everyone. The hare krishnas would give a small flower as gift, wide-eyed and kindly, then request a donation when the flower was in the hands of the recipient. Most of the people did not even want the flower, and if you're stay around long enough, you'd see the hare krishnas going to the nearby trash cans to dig out the flowers and recycle them on the next passersby. Even though people did not want the flowers, it still invokes feelings of guilt or reciprocity. The desire to reciprocate is a strong instinct in many, based on the fear of being disliked or the desire to be liked--which are really the same thing. The lottery advertisement is similar, with a 180-degree twist. It exploits the desire to be in a situation so desirable to others that they can afford to be disliked.

This "joy of being resented" reads as a play on some popular concepts about finding a true sense of happiness through the world, in a very zen-like fashion, examples are books entitled "The Joy of Sex" and "The Joy of Cooking" and "The Joy of Gardening." In these, I tend to read joy to mean a state of intense peace or happiness, a positive feeling with no opposite., something that cannot be taken away. This is how I use the word. I think of pleasure more to mean a transient good feeling, something that brings a visceral positive feeling. The Dalai Lama talks about the different types of pleasure, from positive to negative -- there's the satisfaction of a new purpose, the warmth of hearing loving words, to the rush from a cocaine snort, the thrills of sexual excess, or the power kick from clocking someone in the nose. Looking at it this way, it can be seen that pleasures are fleeting, can go away if the purpose no longer holds, if the cocaine wears off, or if the loved words are replaced with scorn. These pleasures are not rooted in a firm and peaceful place, they are a zero sum game that has an opposite. The Art of Happiness spends a lot of time on this subject. And in this book, the Dalai Lama's definition of happiness is similar to my definition of joy. Joy, on the other hand, is the peace from understanding one's place in the universe, the deep-seated inner glow from loving someone without the need to be loved in return, and the stability of knowing who you are. I believe that experiencing this joy through "being resented" is a very difficult if not impossible thing to achieve. It is more likely that it fits the definition of pleasure, which is something that's fleeting and not nearly as satisfying when the resentment wears off, or when one realizes that being resented isn't all that the billboard made it out to be.

An alternative to this "eat your heart out" sentiment is possible. To start with, here's a concept that really had me pondering. A good friend of mine in an open marriage introduced me to a term in the polyamorous community: compersion. It is defined as the opposite of jealousy, the happiness that you feel when you partner finds happiness in another. Maybe compersion is actually the opposite of the eat-your-heart-out sentiment, at least in the terms of having a possessive nature over a "trophy" spouse.

Similar to compersion is the Sanskrit term mudita. Mudita is the empathetic joy experienced by someone else’s joy. Hinduism, Buddhism, and a number of other philosophies consider it one of the most valuable and difficult forms of compassion to cultivate. Keith Ferazzi, author of Never Eat Alone introduced this term to many in one of his terrific Tips of the Week. It seems like an incredible powerful skill to develop, the ability to be in joy (to enjoy) when anyone else is in joy, rather than being jealous of someone else's fortune, or even on the other side, being pleased when someone else is jealous of your fortune, you can experience euphoria just through the joy of someone else. Next time you cry at a wedding, that's mudita in action. If you love that profound bliss, take a snapshot of that feeling within yourself and learn to bring it about. I felt it at my cousin Kimmy's recent wedding to Eric and plan to spend as much time in that state as possible. Wish me luck; I wish you luck. And I wish Kimmy and Eric luck. Good luck!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Zen Master K?

“I have lived with 5 zen masters, all of them cats,” is a declaration by Eckhart Tolle. I believe he’s saying that cats are not stuck in their egos and can live their lives in perfect peace. I live with a cat, and I’m pretty skeptical about him being a zen master, though there is certainly a lot for me to learn from him. His name is Agent K, and he ended up in my life through a circuitous path. He is a hypervocalizing, over-eating, scaredy-cat.

Agent K was born in Seoul, South Korea on July 1, 2002. According to his birth certificate, he has a brother named Agent J. I have no idea about Agent J’s where-abouts; his documentation is my only clue to his existence. I believe their naming is a reference to the movie Men In Black, though I’m not certain. Agent K always wears a tuxedo, and is very handsome, with gorgeous white whiskers. There’s very little that I know about his past. After Seoul, he spent some time in France with a previous guardian, then he ended up in Seattle for a while. His guardians eventually moved to Hong Kong and left him temporarily with a friend for a few months. The temporary stay eventually became permanent as the owners never came back for him nor called. I became engaged to his new caretaker, then we moved in together, and then K became my roommate. When the engagement ended, his caretaker moved to Paris and left him in my charge temporarily, and I have been taking care of him on my own for the past 8 months. I have now been living with him for over a year, so I have the chance to witness him up close. I find his demeanor more neurotic than peaceful.

The chain of ownership, which he may even interpret as abandonment has been tough on him. Perhaps he feels as if he will be abandoned at any turn. I really feel for the little guy, and thus can credit him with having taught be empathy and compassion (lesson 1).

I am certainly not his owner. This statement is not meant to reflect the temporariness of my stewardship, but rather that I can not claim ownership of another Being (lesson 2). K is very much his own being. I am merely his roommate, caretaker, feeder, feather-on-a-string-on-a-stick shaker, potty cleaner, brusher, friend, target of harassment, rubbing post, and family. It is more likely that he owns me, since I do all of the dirty work while he doesn’t contribute a thing to the household. I love the little guy and am happy to do it. This feeling of love for an animal is strange to me because I grew up without pets (except small fish) and I never really liked (nor disliked) animals. I never saw myself as having a pet. Now, I live with a cat and love it (lesson 3).

It is certainly not always easy to love him, though, no matter how handsome he is and how his dashing good looks really add another dimension of charm to the apartment. There’s also the fact that he often cries and moans all night long. This is especially bad after I return from a trip. He can cry incessantly for hours, sounding immensely distraught. This used to aggravate me to no end; there’s nothing that I can do to control it. Yelling at him or trying to punish him is just attention x3, and giving that to him only trains him to act up further. The best thing that I can do is maintain a sense of utter serenity around him (lesson 4) and eventually, after a couple hours, he gives up and sprawls out somewhere.

And through all of this, I love him more and more. And the more that I love him, the more that he mellows (lesson 5). Also, the more time that I spend with him, I often find myself putting his needs over mine. I’m exhausted… so what? When he needs my attention, it does not matter how exhausted I am, I have to give him the attention that he needs. And, tiredness isn’t the only concern, there are many times when I have to cut fun short to feed him or have allergic guests put out because of him (I’m allergic myself), or scare my family out of visiting due to allergies. Despite these set-backs, he is still very much deserving of my love. Brushing him, channeling reiki to him, or otherwise playing with him helps him so much. It also helps me to feel a happier sense of purpose (lesson 6). I continue to take care of him as someone whom he touches and with whom he acquaints. Other people have children to learn these lessons from, I get to start with K.

Agent K might not be a zen master, but he certainly has helped his disciple grow. Here’s a recap of the lessons learned:
1. I can show empathy and compassion.
2. I cannot own another Being.
3. How to love more wholly than before.
4. Patience through great irritation.
5. The power of compassion to sooth even the obnoxious beast.
6. How to choose lovingkindness over convenience.

Thanks, K!

Friday, July 18, 2008

From Carnivorous to Carnivicarious: Why I’m on a Vegetarian Diet

Most of my childhood, I grew up as a meatatarian, a total carnivore. I ate pretty much only meat and bread, and I was completely opposed to vegetables. I was an extremely picky eater, sorry Mom and Dad. My parents would joke that I would not eat anything green, so to poke fun at me they made me an all green meal: lime Jell-O, pistachio pudding, a small salad, milk with green food coloring, etc. I went to bed pretty hungry that night having only consumed the pudding and gelatin. They tried very hard to look out for my best interests, and are wonderful parents. Though, I was stubborn, and over the years, people pretty much came to accept my highly restricted diet—I remember a typical lunch in my late teens was 3 filet mignons and fries. Special orders at burger joints to not have cheese, catsup, lettuce, or tomato on my burgers. I even avoided pasta with sauce due to the tomatoes until my early teens, when I would allow a little thin sauce on it, and I began eating pizza in my mid-teens. Somehow, even with all of that “unhealthy eating” I was able to pack on muscle, have a lot of energy for sports and intellectual pursuits, and still have healthy cholesterol levels and negligible body fat. I kept this up through high school.

I left my small town of Belle Vernon, PA, a rural community about 25 miles south of Pittsburgh and moved to Boston for college. Boston is a city with a lot of culinary diversity. My fraternity house had a favorite local Chinese restaurant that the brothers and I went to a lot. I owe two important things to Hsin Hsin Restaurant – first, how to use chopsticks. My Chinese pledge brother taught me how to use chopsticks, which were pretty necessary to pull the peanuts and meat out of the kung-pao. I had to become quite adept to pick around the vegetables for the “real food.” And secondly, I eventually started to eat some of these vegetables, and they weren’t as gross as I thought. It took a while before I ate veggies outside of Hsin Hsin, but it happened gradually. And I started adding on seafood, too.

Eventually, I’d eat anything. Things that grossed other people out, no problem for me. Sushi, oishii; raw quail egg, delicious; tripe, check; chicken feet, no problem; kale, yum; sea cucumber esophagus, oh yeah! Eventually, I became a foodie, very epicurean. I sought out rare flavors, needed the freshest product from farmer’s markets, went to restaurants without menus and let the chefs go wild. You name it, I’d eat it.

I’d eat anything and everything, and I gained weight, roughly 30-40 pounds over my equilibrium state. A couple events brought this to my attention, and I started following dietary journals to inform my diet, kept off the carbohydrates and heavy fat, and worked out nearly 300 days/year. I lost all of the excess fat and got into the best shape of my life in about 18 months. My intellectual side was always developed, and there I added on my physical side, but something was missing, and I choose to explore my spiritual side.

I read into a lot of philosophy and religion, began meditating more regularly, and signed up for a week-long yoga experience run by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation. They recommended a vegetarian diet for the week, so I gave that a shot. I figured that I could handle it for a week, and I did. I don’t know if it was the yoga, the vegetarian diet or what, but I felt great, was sleeping well (my usual insomnia and narcolepsy didn’t appear—you’d think that they’re opposites and rare together, but they seem to go hand in hand), and bodily functions all went a little easier. After the retreat, I kept up with the yoga and meditation, but added meat back into my diet. Shortly, my life took on some big changes. I landed a dream job in Microsoft’s new Parallel Computing Platform group as it was forming, and I fell in love. The falling in love hit me hard, and I was absorbed in a new lifestyle.

I went overboard for a while, spending a fortune on foods, looking for gastronomical adventures. I was materialistic about what I ate and what I drank with it (mostly vintage Champagnes). I didn’t know at the time what felt wrong, but eventually, as that relationship came to an end, it became clear to me. Keeping the relationship together helped me to balance my emotional side, something that I had largely neglected, and now I had the mental, physical, and emotional aspects being worked on, balanced with the spiritual. My body was tending towards a balance. And in the balance, I began to question everything in myself, especially my “happiness.” Everything that I liked, was it bringing me pleasure at the base level, happiness at a higher level, or joy/peace at a profound level? Joy and Peace are lasting, but pleasure is fleeting and often destructive in the long term and happiness is a zero sum game balanced against sadness. So, I questioned my beliefs at a fundamental level.

Then, in April of this year, I sat between a couple of vegetarians at a dinner party. I’m a pretty social guy, and can usually easily talk about anything, though I favor meaningful discussions over small talk. My first inclination was to ask each of them why they were vegetarian and compare the differences, but I thought that they must get that all the time. I turned the question around and asked myself: “why do I eat meat?” I could only think of a few reasons:
1) The convenience of it,
2) I like the taste of meat,
3) A good way to get protein,
4) It’s a way to honor the animal that died, and
5) Prosciutto.

None of these were convincing, and all but #5 had a simple counter-argument.
1) Doesn’t apply in Seattle, you can eat vegetarian almost anywhere without even thinking about it, and cooking for myself is just easy; it’s much easier to cook vegetarian.
2) I like the taste of vegetables, too, often more than meat.
3) Protein is no concern; it’s easy to get the essential amino acids to keep my body running smoothly.
4) If the animal doesn’t have to die for my food, it doesn’t need to be honored in this way.
5) Nothing really compares to prosciutto… but there’s good fake bacon, and mushrooms and cheeses contain the complexity of the cured meats without being meat.

So, that dinner was the last time that I’ve eaten meat so far. My body just felt like it did not want meat anymore. My body felt the energy from the person sitting across from me and it really resonated; I had to bring that into my life. My brain still wants meat sometimes, so I’ve coined the term “carnivicarious” to cover that. It’s the pleasure that I get through someone else’s enjoyment of meat. But the joy that I get from not eating meat is really wonderful.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Life After Gallium

A very thought-provoking piece called “Reflections: The Death of Gallium” by Robert Silverberg just came across my inbox from a co-worker.

… now comes word that it isn’t just wildlife that can go extinct. The element gallium is in very short supply and the world may well run out of it in just a few years. Indium is threatened too, says Armin Reller, a materials chemist at Germany’s University of Augsburg. He estimates that our planet’s stock of indium will last no more than another decade. All the hafnium will be gone by 2017 also, and another twenty years will see the extinction of zinc. Even copper is an endangered item, since worldwide demand for it is likely to exceed available supplies by the end of the present century.

Yikes! Stripes! Can we replenish endangered elements?! When humankind over-hunted, over-fished, and destroyed crucial world habitats, we began to push species to extinction well before their natural time. Then, a compassionate and wise faction of mankind began educating us and changing our ways. The faction heard the message communicated from the Mother Earth, telling us that we were upsetting the balance. Now, we carefully monitor wildlife, set up conservations, and specify governing policies in order to keep dwindling populations alive and bring them back to flourishing. Now with the death of Gallium, it sounds like animal endangerment was just the trial run for the Earth. As long as we catch animal population decreases soon enough, we can do something about it. But, we didn’t generalize this learning to extend this to the elements of nature. These cannot be replenished outside of advanced element synthesis techniques which are still not fully understood and are prohibitively expensive.

It looks like planet earth is not stocked up for the human flat screen TV fetish, which rapidly depletes the supply of gallium. Are humans and our technology a curse on the world? Are we pushing it too far?

There are several ways that I can see to look it at:

  1. What humans do is just the natural way of the world. I have to question the “before their natural time” assumption that I made above. It smacks of hubris to think that as humans we are responsible for maintaining order and balance in the universe, any more than any other animals. Humans are part of nature. We are animals, related to primates. Is it really “unnatural” what we do? Is there really something to be fixed? Is it in fact part of the world’s overall intelligence that our neocortex is so new and buggy that it appears to behave “unnaturally”?
  2. Maybe extinction just doesn’t matter, even if caused “unnaturally”. The world survived the extinction of the dinosaurs, in which humans had no hand. The world simply tends toward a new equilibrium. Carrying this forward, the world might not need these endangered elements in large supply at all. The world was surviving before the extraction and consumption of Gallium, right? If the world continued to thrive after several extinctions, it might continue to survive after the depletion of elements, too.
  3. Maybe extinction does matter in that it’s a call for the worldwide shifting of human consciousness. What if this is a pattern of extinctions rather than just 2 instances? The root cause to this may lie in the framework of human society and its reliance on the earth’s resources. Humankind might need to take a revolutionary step and alter everything from behavior to the deepest of our core values. This is not just a call for environmentalism, this is the impetus to shift at a more fundamental level of human community. My gut tells me that this is an opportunity for humankind to learn and grow in some way. As examples, maybe the entire population needs to weave respect for the environment into its fabric, maybe technology should be eschewed altogether as a frivolous waste of precious resources, maybe homo sapiens are evolving themselves out of existence, or maybe humankind needs to find another way to live in harmony with the world.

The third point resonates the most with me. In my post Another Lens for the Flying Dutchman, I posited that we can look at a person’s struggles as opportunities for personal growth. Maybe this same thing applies to humankind, and that this pattern of extinctions (if that is what we’re facing) can be the catalyst for the collective humanity to grow. From Plato’s Republic, we have the wise adage that “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

Maybe this is a point of transcendence, as Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth suggests. This can be coupled with learning from evolutionary theory, which lends us to believe that it is part of the intelligence of creation for the world and it’s denizens to adapt to fit a need. For instance, Tolle offers a theory that land-based life began with fish in a body of water that was separated from the ocean. As the climate changed, the lake turned into a pond, then became shallower and shallower year after year. A fish or two began to flop up on land for a period of time, then make it back to the water. Eventually, it was necessary to develop lungs and legs to take to the land. By doing so, by reading the signs, the fish species that evolved were able to survive when the water was gone.

We may be in a struggle so powerful that we’re metaphorically turning coal into diamond, forcing the structure that we know about the world to change and shift. Maybe the guiding intelligence of the universe is orchestrating this as the perfect learning opportunity for the human race. Will we grow with this opportunity, becoming much wiser in the process?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Bringing the World Together (with Technology)

Wow! A coworker sent me an extremely moving video: Where the H*$& is Matt? This really touched me, as sentimental as I am. This video brings tears to my eyes, laughter to my belly, love to my heart, and a smile to my face. The world is such a beautiful place filled with marvelous people. I can watch this video over and over again and keep noticing different little details that make it grow and grow in importance to me.

This reminds me of the It’s a Small World Disney attraction. This has a special place in my heart. As a kid, I remember my mother being so in love with this, and us riding it on it during every trip that we took to visit my grandparents in Orlando. When the attraction was launched in 1964, the world was not nearly as connected as it is today, so I imagine that it was really a treat at the time to see all of the costumes and looks. Despite the over-the-top caricatures, the similarities between people and cultures were still quite noticeable. The similarities vastly outweigh the differences. Though the differences provide charm and diversity, the contrasts helps to showcase all of the wonderful things we have in common, rather than driving a wedge between peoples.

Watching this video over and over is now a favorite way cultivate my compassion for the human race. I feel so connected to the world, to the oneness of creation. Many thanks to Matthew Harding and everything else involved for putting this together and sharing. This is awesome in the true and miraculous sense of the word. Seeing each of the places, the different dances in each culture, the little nuances to everyone’s moves, just high-lights how real and individual people are.

Digression: Tech Connection
People who know me know that I’m slightly anachronistic, especially in the technology that I adopt. I don’t have a CD player in my house – I listen to records. They just have soul to me. I seldom watch TV, and don’t have one in my place. I keep an early-model cell phone, it’s just so convenient to have a phone, but I don’t need all of the fancy features of today’s more advanced phones. And I carry a Moleskine around for planning and notes rather than a PDA. Then, on the other side of the coin, I have a laptop connected to the internet via wireless, I have MP3 players for working out and walking around town, and my work is to make it easy for developers to express themselves on parallel processors. I am not into technology for technology's sake; I'm into it for where it powers creative expression.

One example of such an application is Ableton Live, software for music creation and DJ’ing. My whole life I have been interested in music, but have never had the rhythm or control over an instrument to create it. I think there’s something in my wiring making me incapable of creating music using instruments directly. Now, software enables me to create express myself through music. I can compose on loops, hearing things over and over again, and making little tweaks here and there through drawing on the screen. And any theory that I learn can instantly be translated into the software. Ableton itself being written for multi-core processor support means that I can add more and more instruments and complexity to the software. Thanks Ableton, keep up the good work.

It’s a Small World is great fors its time, but the animatronics are just rough exaggerations. The real world as captured in this video is breath-taking. Technology makes all of this possible. The quality of this video, the medium of the internet, and the elegantly simple sharing of social networking technologies all help give this wings. It strengthens my chosen path working in technology. Seeing this helps realize that I’m not just geeking out on technology, fulfilling my brain's desire to play with computers and algorithms. Instead, it reminds me that I create enabling technologies for people to express themselves. That's how I contribute A Pistachio... to the world.