Saturday, January 31, 2009

Consoling Wisely

"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink." - old idiom (one of the oldest ones in English)
At times we will all see loved ones, both old and new-this-second, struggling in pain. Our compassionate hearts encourage us to open up and help. Sometimes we see the nail in the foot and are convinced that we can pull it out if only they would stop squirming.

"Here it is. Splish splash!" my friend Rei said pantomiming and smiling, "You won't drink it?" Nope, it doesn't work. She's right. So what do you do when you see a loved one struggling with something when the solution seems so obvious? Since I keep learning the answers to that question over and over again, it's time to write them down. This post is really a note to myself, but you may find it useful, too.

1. Open your heart and just listen. Don't encourage the venting, don't discourage it, just hear the person out. Validating the pain won't help, ignoring it is not the loving path. Be there with a compassionate ear and a hug.

2. "When you communicate your views, do so casually and in a nondogmatic manner. Allow the people you speak with to ask questions. Offer only as much information as they are ready to hear." From the Daily Om's Expanding Their Vision

3. Share a story. A related story may communicate that we're all in this together. Just make sure that your telling is to help your loved one, not to stroke your own ego. Practical warning: don't say, "I know what you're going through," even if you do (you don't)--it just seems to tick people off. "I've been there" and "I feel your pain" seem to work better.

4. Consider that your advice might not be wise, honestly. Ever think of that? Don't let doubt murder the helper within you, just be open to the possibility of not being the expert.

5. It's not about you. It's not personal. The other person might not be ready to benefit from your advice (see also #4). People will learn on their own. Don't judge yourself by the helpfulness of your advice, simply lovingly provide it as people are open for it.

6. Trust. Trust that the person will work things out. Amazingly positive seeds are already planted within each of us. That person will learn how to grow what they need from the seeds. Your trust in the other person's ability to tend to their own garden may be just the sunlight, nutrients, and water that they need.

7. If your garden needs tending, tend yours first. If you're traveling with a loved one, place the oxygen mask over your own head before assisting others. If you don't have the energy to help, don't help. Help out of love, not out of duty if you're only going to resent it. That's bad juju.

8. Give it time. Things work out; lessons are learned; people help themselves.

9. There are, of course, emergencies. If you see a person legitimately attempting to physically harm themselves, or if they say it, contact an emergency line immediately.

To all of those whom I do not follow this advice for: I am sorry. I am here for you, and I know that you have everything within you that you already need. Thank you for helping me to learn these lessons. (Also, I don't think of you as a horse.)

To everyone who has every helped me in any way through pain: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Request for comments - blog post hungry
Do you have any other tips that work for you on giving advice?
Do these ring true for you?

Monday, January 26, 2009

Silver Lining on the Dark Cloud of the Recession

"Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass... It's about learning to dance in the rain!" - source unknown (please share if you know)

A huge economic downturn has recently rocked the world. Although, all is not doom and gloom (though headlines like 2009 Will Be Bleak, Very Bleak by Forbes' Roubini may drain your hope). As always, my inclination is toward the positive. I see the crisis state of the world's economy as an early sign of positive shift, a huge opportunity for growth. In Another Lens for the Flying Dutchman I note ways in which a different perspective on an upturned life can be an incredible learning experience and a force for growth. Of course, there are huge downsides, especially in covering health care, people losing homes, etc. But these are explored all over the place. Instead, let's take a compassionate and hopeful look at the recession, exploring some of its positive aspects as we realize what really matters, learn to help and support each other, and open our minds to the possibility of a change to a more beautiful, more honest, and simpler way of life.

I have the benefits of both spiritual perspective and enormous privilege. I recognize this and would like for my thoughts to come across as inpiration rather than naivete, neglect, disrespect, or blindness to the suffering in the world. My heart goes out to all of the people who are suffering, and I hope that these benefits and others do manifest for you. I endeavor to help in the best way that I can.

The Economy Is Artifical, Anyway
First, we can take heart in knowing that a strong economy is not a necessary precondition for life. The economy is an artificial structure created by man that has been conflated beyond use or purpose and actually fuels human suffering in its current manifestation. "The physical needs for food, water, shelter, clothing, and basic comforts could be easily met for all humans on the planet, were it not for the imbalance of resources created by the insane and rapacious need for more, the greed of the ego." (Eckhart Tolle in A New Earth).

Anthropological studies show that it is indeed possible to meet the basic needs of a whole people through simple means. Marshall Sahlins describes hunter gatherers as The Original Affluent Society and cites many sources to support this. Here's an example of a pretty modern hunter-gatherer lifestyle that is easily sustainable by a healthy planet:
A woman gathers on one day enough food to feed her family for three days, and spends the rest of her time resting in camp, doing embroidery, visiting other camps, or entertaining visitors from other camps. For each day at home, kitchen routines, such as cooking, nut cracking, collecting firewood, and fetching water, occupy one to three hours of her time. This rhythm of steady work and steady leisure maintained throughout the year. The hunters tend to work more frequently than the women, but their schedule uneven. It 'not unusual' for a man to hunt avidly for a week and then do no hunting at all for two or three weeks. Since hunting is an unpredictable business and subject to magical control, hunters sometimes experience a run of bad luck and stop hunting for a month or longer. During these periods, visiting, entertaining, and especially dancing are the primary activities of men. (Woodburn, James. 1968. "An introduction to Hadza Ecology", in Lee and I. DeVore (eds.), Man the Hunter. Chicago: Aldine)

While it is not reasonable nor even sensical to eschew helpful technology and return everyone to such a primitive lifestyle, it is possible to provide for the needs of the planet's population, especially if we are able to democratize property in some way, sharing after our individual needs are met. The recession may just be the right impetus that we need.

Some Businesses Flourish in this Time
While times are generally hard, some businesses are actually doing better than ever. In a recent installment (12/4/2008) of KUOW's "The Conversation," host Ross Reynolds asked Who Does Well In Hard Times?. From the program, several types of positive-outlook businesses are doing well, including those that focus on: education and new skills, cost-saving measures, self improvement, business improvements, antiques (as people choose functional items with established value), physical therapy, celebrating life's joys, more cooking at home, and repairs/maintenance of existing items rather than new purchases. These can be simplified into three categories for positive change: sustainability, growth, and stress relief. While not all of the answers are so hopeful, there's enough evidence that people are taking responsibility for their happiness and well-being as a reaction to the recession.

The naturalist Edward Abbey makes a keen observation: "Society is like a stew. If you don't keep it stirred up you get a lot of scum on the top." The economic crisis is certainly stirring society up. The scum are not the people on the top who have lost their ways, but instead the loveless ethic that is a pattern often adopted in the high positions. We've seen some pretty unbalanced activities from CEOs, especially ones benefitting from the bail-out. As these people are caught, they lose public favor and are removed from their perches (hopefully they will grow from this shift). Now is the time for the compassionate ethic to summit. Businesses and business practices that construct and promote growth have the opportunity to flourish. And society is ready to reward them.

This Recession Motivates People to Connect to What Really Matters
Kim Ivy, founder and instructor of Embrace the Moon: Taijiquan and Qigong, also phoned in an answer (at 7 min 25 seconds) to Ross Reynolds. I'm very happy to hear it for a couple reasons: one being that I wish my sifu Kim the best and the other being that I love seeing others turn to complemplation in this time. I took the opportunity to interview Kim (more on the interview coming in a later post) who relayed a very uplifting message:
What I recognize is a very pragmantic and palpable shift in people's intention for themselves during this recession period. There's a lot of fear, but what I see is people really recognizing that [taiji and qi is a way to cultivate themselves. Some people, rather than focusing on the fear and the negative, are seeing ways to cultivate the positive within themselves. They cannot only connect with themselves, but they can connect with a community that has very positive and life-affirming practices.
What I'm really seeing is that this is indicative of a large shift of consciousness. The idea of a larger shift of consciousness has been floating around; it is out there. But now I see it manifesting in people's beings. It is manifesting in their practices. They are looking at life as a path of insight. ... When people come in, they're happy. The path of insight is really the path of joy.
A move toward inner purpose, community, and spiritural growth seems evident, and at the same time people are eschewing greed and materialism, both because there is no room for it, and because it does not matter anymore. Tolle predicted that a cross-roads was near where people would be faced with the stark choice to evolve or die. It seems that many people are choosing to evolve, to transcend suffering.

Decreased Consumption of the Unnecessary
In addition, people will realize that while they no longer have all that they want, many will find they have more than they need. Their senses of egos will diminish as they have plenty to go around after their own needs are met. Materialism may melt away during this time as those who no longer have find out that they don't really need all that much.

In "The Conversation," callers noted that while new purchases were down, repairs were up. Indicating that this shift is already occurring at the practical level. People are valuing what they have and consuming less in general. They are learning the value in what works for them.

Even though the price of gas has decreased dramatically, I find myself and other driving and traveling less, consuming less oil. I spoke with a new retail store owner who carries more recycled goods as she identifies that "fashion is a hugely wasteful industry." Further, people are eating out less or being more controlled when they do eat out. A recently made friend of mine in the ethical food industry monitors restaurant trends a lot. He noted to me that restaurants are carrying more local ingredients, less high-priced exotic ingredients (with large overheads in transportation and other costs), and in general people are eating more sensibly. People are also cooking a lot more, gardening more, and when they do go out, making good use of their leftovers.

Even if these actions are not a sign of personal growth, it is a start and a benefit to our Earth.

Loving-Kindness as Salve
Those it is possible to see these upsides, we cannot fail to see all the suffering during this time, manifesting in the inability to provide basic needs, foreclosures on homes, loss of purpose when a job is taken away, and inability to cover health-care needs. Through this, I have faith in the generous spirits of fellow men and women. At the basic biological level humans are social animals who cannot help but show compassion for its fellow social animals in need. As the masses of suffering increase and remain, those already compassionate will lead the way and awaken more fully, those ready for transformation will deepen in compassion, and those not yet ready will have seeds planted within them. There is a need for a trickle down wealth for survival.

Humanitarian sparks may be kindled and stoked. We will see circles of loving-kindness beginning at the core and grow from family, friends, neighbors, and eventually strangers will share with each other. We will realize the interconnectedness of all beings and things (such as
what may begin with A Pistachio) and our love will grow and teach us to provide for others. We are an enormous village with the capacity to care for one another.

With both newly deepened compassion and time on their hands, those without jobs may find themselves drawn to humanitarian non-profit work. This work may in turn help them find the purposes they seek. In fact, to talk about health care, this recession will at least be one more kick in the pants for the US to get the health care act together as it becomes more vital.

On a whole, I see reason to believe that witnessed suffering will be a huge opportunity for people to practice loving-kindness and learn its inherent joy. And those who themselves are suffering will benefit from each other, giving what they can to their neighbors and receiving what they need in return.

I see this economic downturn as a time of awakening, perhaps bringing us closer to the New Earth that is mentioned in the Bible and by Eckhart Tolle. As these man-made structures collapse, people eschew material excess, return to simpler times, and turn to spiritual fulfillment, a huge portion of the world can fill with flowering people. People help people who need it. There's so much need right now and so much imbalance, that developed compassion and loving-kindness can flourish and naturally inspire others to find a balance in privileges and means. Let's face this storm as our best, most beautiful, bravest selves and dance.

Request for Comments - Be generous, please!
  • How have you seen growth within yourself and others in this recession?
  • Do you disagree with these ideas? Is the suffering much more acute than I realize?
  • Do you have any thoughts and stories to share?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

MPOW #1 - Developing Attention

In my post 100 Shiny Red Stars I announced that I am Introducing the Meditation of the Week:

Over the past year I have included meditation into my life in some form every day - sometimes through taijiquan, qigong, artwork, reiki, yoga, zazen, or simply mindful walking, driving, or breathing. I have been felt amazing developments through it. Going forward, I am starting a series on my blog the Mindfulness Practice Of the Week--MPoW. Each week I will write up a post on a meditation type or focus for myself and my readers to follow throughout the week. The comments are wide open for people to ask questions and share their experiences with the meditation. At the end of each week, I will summarize experiences that were shared with me, then start off each week with a fresh new contemplative focus.

Mindfulness Practice of the Week, Week 1
For this first installment, I've spent a lot of time contemplating what to use, whether it should be a traditional meditation from a spiritual tradition or whether it should be simply putting more attention into an everyday detail. Maybe an artistic endeavor, maybe something completely mundane. In the end, I chose a very foundational meditation, something quite traditional and very straight-forward. If you were to only learn one meditation, this would be it.

I take this "Developing Attention" exercise from the end of Chapter 3 in Happiness by Matthieu Ricard:
Sit quietly in your meditation posture and focus all your attention upon a chosen object. It can be an object in your room, your breath, or your own mind. Inevitably as you do this, your mind will wander. Each time it does, gently bring it back to the object of concentration, like a butterfly that returns again and again to the flower it feeds on. As you persevere, your concentration will become more clear and stable. If you feel sleepy, assume a straighter posture and life your gaze slightly upward to revive your awareness. Conversely, if your mind becomes agitated, relax your posture, direct your gaze slightly downward, and let any inner tension dissolve.
Cultivating attention and mindfulness in this way is a precious tool for all other kinds of meditation.
New to Meditation?
Posture - If you don't yet have "your meditation posture," chose something simple and comfortable to start out. I recommend either sitting cross-legged with a cushion under your butt if this is comfortable, or just sit in a chair with your feet planted squarely on the floor (legs not crossed) - shoes on or off. Either way, keep your spine erect to keep from dozing off and to align your vertebrae. Your eyelids should be gently open, eyes in a soft focus.

Duration - At the beginning calming your mind may be very difficult. You may choose to other spend 5 minutes a day on this at first, working your way up to a duration that is enjoyable and natural. Over time, you will be able to extend this for longer and longer. If you are new, it is unlikely that you will even get into the described meditation in 5 minutes. If this is the case, don't force yourself through discomfort, instead either try to relax into comfort with it, or take a pause and try again later in the day or tomorrow.

When - You may find this easiest to do first thing in the morning when your mind is fresh. It can help clear your mind for the day, and it will not so easily devolve into sleep - which is pretty far from meditation.

Comments Requested - share with me and others!
If you're new to meditation, please let me know how it goes.
If you're experienced at meditation, what works and what doesn't work?
For everyone, please share your experiences with this meditation. If a group of people are doing it and sharing, that will help others ride the wave.

Friday, January 23, 2009

On Perfection

Thank you Brad and Kim for the thoughtful comments to my 100 Shiny Red Stars post, particularly around "practice makes perfect." You pierce a flaw knit into the fabric of my last post.

Let's look at authoring a post as a metaphor for perfection in general. If I ever tried to make this post cover every single aspect in every single way, the ideation process would either be stifled then replaced with something derivative and vapid -or- the post would be worked on ad infinitum (or more likely ad nauseum), paralyzed by the need for perfection. The irony to the latter being that nothing would be released, which is about as imperfect and incomplete as you can be. There needs to be a moment when one knows it is ready for posting. Timing, completeness, novelty, style, and polish are all important factors which must be balanced and can never all be maxed out. Fortunately, I can always darn the holes later, as they're discussed. The whole benefit of the writing is to engage in discussion, and the holes and other perspectives all allow the discussion to come in. If my posts could be perfect, there'd be no room for discussion - BORING! And, ahem, not so perfect.

This shows that the definition of perfection is hard to get a firm hold on. It is an elusive fish that slips through our grasps. We cannot really talk about whether practice does or does not make perfect if we do find common ground on its meaning, otherwise we cannot tell if we're disagreeing or miscommunicating. What many of us so often forget is that we all have different contexts for the words that we choose, and perfection certainly can be looked upon in many ways. For instance, Aristotle has several definitions of perfection that he enumerated in Delta of the Metaphysics: (from Wikipedia)
  1. that which is complete - which contains all the requisite parts
  2. that which is so good that nothing of the kind could be better
  3. that which has attained it's purpose
Even with three definitions, I still feel that they are limiting in at least two ways.
  • First, they lend themselves to the endless striving (so yang), a baggage adopted by many parts of Western culture. This has led to the movement to let go of "perfectionism", seen as a personality flaw.
  • Second, and paradoxically, it tricks you into thinking that there is an end, and attainment of the end purpose would be self-nullifying. As soon as you attain the purpose, you no longer have a purpose, no raison d'etre.
There are other definitions that see perfection as akin to elegance, a certain honesty of nature residing within that can only be achieved in the context of reality. The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi embodies this, and is often translated to mean that "perfection can only be found in imperfection." Renaissance philosophers also explored this concept, evidence of independent creation outside of Eastern traditions. When I spoke with Brad about this, he confided that it resonated with him: "I can see that. I can relate to it even. I've had experiences where I've felt that everything is perfect exactly the way it is, even in it's imperfection."

Regarding the "Practice makes permanent." I don't have such a fluid definition of permanence, and believe that it is neither attainable within oneself nor a virtue. I prefer flexibility (to demonstrate, my beliefs will be flexible if someone wants to pose alternative definitions). Our skills often regress when maintenance subsides and practice diminishes. We have to keep flexing our practice muscles to prevent atrophy. When I studied Tang Soo Do, my master proposed another saying: "Perfect practice makes perfect." I didn't want to touch this idea in the original post. It can be interpreted in fear that wrong practice will mess something up, though I think that this notion is also possible to address and learn from. There are just a lot more knots to untie in it. Rather, I'll start by making a little more sense of "practice makes perfect" and I'll leave the other as exercises for the reader. (wink)

If you combine the concept of wabi-sabi with Aristotle's third definition - perfection is that which has attained its purpose - it helps define practice circularly. When we first begin our practice, it is in one place and has a more specific or scoped purpose. Over time, the purpose itself broadens, deepens, and/or shifts. Practice leads the way to this place, this new target for the practice. We never quite reach the ability to attain the purpose, since the target is also moving, but we have attained future definitions of the purpose. There's a freedom in always reaching perfection in one sense and never reaching perfection in another. It gives practice purpose, and a never-ending one at that.

Note: I love a good paradox like that. We can learn so much. I think this might make a good topic for a mindfulness practice of the week.

Request for Comments - no lonely posts, please!
What does perfection mean to you? What does it create for you?
Care to challenge my definition of permanence and open my eyes?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

100 Shiny Red Stars

There are a lot of changes going on at this time, the United States has a new president (Obamanos! Yes we did!), it is the start of a new calendar year, the lunar year of the ox is about to begin, and for me there are some other changes occurring in my life.

Practice something for 100 days and it's yours for life.
-Chinese aphorism
Kim Ivy, who runs Embrace the Moon: Taijiquan and Qigong school where I train has issued a 100 days of practice challenge to her school on Facebook:
What an incredible day! It was great simply to be alive and experience it. Several of you have been asking about 100 Days of Practice. Each year those who feel called take the leap and choose to practice something intentional for 100 Days. Note to self! It can be whatever you want for however long you want. Some of the ideas are meditation, writing, Tai Chi, Optimism, Service. Some ideas are for 5 minutes or for 30. Keep it loose, keep it disciplined, whatever you think might work for you.

Think about it this week and start January 26th with the New Year of the Ox. Or, if you know and are ready to go, start with our new President and his 100 days tomorrow! (Jan. 21). If 100 Days is not for you but the idea is compelling, try 30 days. Just for fun and to see what happens! I'll be offering support along the way and
invite everyone to add to the discussion board. I love what is being said so far.

May your intention be your manifestation,


Practice Makes Perfect
(see response post On Perfection)
"I grew up with the aphorism, maybe you did, too-- Practice Makes Perfect." (William Wittman) It's worth taking a look at what practice really is. I love how Kim answers What Makes practice, Practice? Really, read the whole thing, it's well worth it.
Intent. Grace. Humility. Consistency. Routine. Perfection. Imperfection. Motivation. Rest from Motive. Conscious Awareness. Doing something different. Doing the same thing over and over. Flow. Feeling good. Fun. Nine-year-old Zamora who has studied with me for four years says practice is “repeating something over and over until you gradually get good at it.” I love that a nine-year-old understands the concept of gradually! So, what does makes practice, Practice? The overwhelming theme that has emerged is this: Intention. Practice is many things, but primarily it is bringing our intention into whatever we are doing.

This practice will help you change gradually into a true expression of yourself, finding knowledge and power within yourself. Kim shares:
I bring to my practice not just repeating something over and over but the act of self-reflection: I practice and I observe. I practice again. I tweak and adjust and tear apart and build up again. I create an opportunity to know myself better. Gradually this habit seeps into the rest of my activities. The result of Practice is that over time, I have a more
engaged relationship with my whole life.

And don't talk yourself out of the practice!

“But I can’t practice on my own." "I will do it wrong." "I will set an incorrect path.” Truly these are the worst things to allow ourselves to believe. ...

When we stifle the practice process by choosing to engage in negative mental activity, we close the door on our growth and all that is available to us. We deny our natural instincts, our intuitive guidance. Gradually over time we become smaller, weaker, fragile, less connected. It is a terrible death because we are still breathing but we are not growing.

Use your intellect to help you enter, maintain, and make time for the practice. Motivate yourself, enlist a buddy to help you stay motivated, whatever works for you.

Tracking Your Progress
While searching for other 100 days of practice around the net, I found a Web site targetting teachers helping young violinists (little kids) develop practices. It has a great product on it, the 100 days of practice chart and certificate. You don't need to be a little kid or a violinist to use this chart. You just need to have the heart of a child and you will grow into the virtuoso of your practice.

Give yourself a red star every day right after you practice, a reward on days 25, 50, and 75, then graduate yourself at 100! Celebrate! I'm going to buy a chart for the course and a bottle of champagne and a present for the finish line. This is going to be a lot of fun.

My Practice: Writing Every Day
Last year I picked up the blog again and have been writing quite a bit, more than you see. There's actually a lot of time spent writing and editing behind the scenes. I have many blog posts in flight at any one time (roughly 40 right now) for which I am collecting quotes, thoughts, ideas, and just working out the flow and timing for delivery. Sometimes a news event pops up that I want to post about right away. Sometimes I get brave enough to turn diary writing of mine into a post. However, I'm not quite as disciplined about writing every day as my aspirations would have me. Time to grow.

William Wittman at writes about the true power of practice. One of William's teachers motivated him, “If you want to become a writer, write. Write a million words and you will be a writer.” Now I'm taking up the challenge, beginning the 100 days of practice to engage in my writing, much of which will be for this blog.

Along with that, I'm starting up a new series for this blog that I hope you will enjoy. This will be a forcing function to post at least once per week.

Introducing the Meditation of the Week
Over the past year I have included meditation into my life in some form every day - sometimes through taijiquan, qigong, artwork, reiki, yoga, zazen, or simply mindful walking, driving, or breathing. I have been felt amazing developments through it. Going forward, I am starting a series on my blog the Mindfulness Practice Of the Week--MPoW. (This will be the only M-PoW-er yourself joke. There. It's done.) Each week I will write up a post on a meditation type or focus for myself and my readers to follow throughout the week. The comments are wide open for people to ask questions and share their experiences with the meditation. At the end of each week, I will summarize experiences that were shared with me, then start off each week with a fresh new contemplative focus.

Join me in the practice and earn your 100 shiny red stars. President Obama, congratulations on day 1 in the white house. This * is for you.

Request for Comments - No Lonely Posts!
What practice are you engaging in for 100 days?
What does practice mean to you?