Tag Archives: meditation

March, Listening

Line drawing of a face in profile, listening.

I don’t know how to listen to myself, and so I don’t know how to listen to others, so desperate am I to be heard. – A letter to Sophia

The biggest question that came out of my February practice was: if it is our natural inclination to instinctively reject what we haven’t experienced, how on earth do we cultivate genuine diversity? Diversity that doesn’t just look different, but sounds different, because it represents different values. And furthermore, what do we do about the experiences we can’t share? I can’t experience the world as man, or as a person of color, or even as my children do. I can’t experience the world as a frog does, or as the earth does, even when I guess. Perhaps, it requires, horror of horrors, trust, that a perspective we will never share is equally valid to the needs we intimately know.

An emerging pattern in my practice is the value of very simple responses in the face of overwhelmingly complex questions or problems. The power of a present witness, is immense. And so March is dedicated to the very simple, and immensely difficult, value of listening, in hopes that I might learn enough to know just a little bit.

Intention:
Listening, like love, seems like an essential component perspective. And perspective seems essential to appreciating experiences and values different than our own. I may never get to a point where I am able to cross the chasm between myself and another, and in that case, it would be awfully helpful to at least be able to hear each other across the void.

I want to learn to listen in a way that I haven’t been taught. I spend a lot of time in a second, internal, conversation with myself while someone is talking to me, in an effort to figure out what I think about it before they’re even finished. Needless to say, it’s a distraction. So this month’s practice is, in part, an investigation into the relationship between judgement and comprehension. Is it possible to understand what someone has told me, without judging what they mean?

I experience listening as having three general components: Comprehension – this is the most automatic response and includes understanding the literal meaning of words, or recognition of sounds, like a car door shutting. External Interpretation – this is the presumed meaning I layer onto the external event, for example, interpreting someone’s speech as sarcastic and understanding their words to mean the opposite of their literal definition. Or hearing my son start crying when he is playing with his brother and assuming that there was an altercation between them. Sometimes I get this right, and sometimes I don’t. Internal Response – this is the internal series of events that unfold based on what I’m hearing – mental imagery, emotional reaction, and especially mental talk: do I like what I’m hearing, dislike it, agree, disagree, is it causing me to remember, plan, distract myself, want to respond, etc. This is the area in which I most commonly disconnect from the external event, stop listening, and co-opt my attention into my own affairs. It is in this space I primarily want to engage, and practice listening without rejection.

As kids, we’re taught that “listening” means doing what we’re told. You’re not listening to me, and put on your listening ears – are common refrains from parents and teachers that signal: you’re not doing what I want. Listening becomes a euphemism for compliance, and given this, it’s no wonder we’re not very good at it as adults; we have come to equate listening with an infringement of our sovereignty, and a rejection of our sacredness as unique beings. This continuous message also conflates listening with the sense that we’re supposed to do something. It’s hard to just listen and not be compelled into some sort of action – a verbal response, the getting of an object, or entering into an agreement. Often these are perfectly appropriate responses, but often – maybe more often – they are not. With my children especially, there is a tacit, shared expectation between all of us that I have the role of the “fixer”. When children are very young, this is true and appropriate, but the weening required to transition my children off their physical and emotional dependence on me, is surprisingly hard to do – and I see these patterns show up in all relationships. We start from a shared engagement point and begin a dance of repetition, often forgetting that we need not stay bound to our paths of least resistance.

My intention in cultivating listening is to develop the skill of engaged observation. To neither say, with a glance, oh, it is raining, or to chase raindrops all the way down to the lake bed, pointlessly muddying the water. But to watch instead with attention and clarity the distinctions in the pattern, so that I might hear each echo across the surface and know what’s shifting.

March Activities:

  • Meditate every day on Talk Space (internal sound) or Sound Space (external sound). This is formal skill building for the tasks of listening to my internal and external experiences.
  • In conversation, put my attention into listening fully, rather than on inner commentary, preparing a response, or simply wandering off into some other mental process. This will require slowing down, not doing so many things at once, and much more focused attention.
  • Three times a week, listen for 20 minutes or more to non-English language sound. This is similar to the formal meditation task, but designed specifically to practice deep listening in a context that will create less reaction.
  • Pray daily, ask and listen to know my work for the day. Prayer and meditation are increasingly blended experiences for me, and what I experience over and over again through my practice is humility for my smallness, and gratitude for my life. There is great joy in this, and a deep desire to live my life in honorable service to the greater context in which I exist.

Expectations:
I expect this to be really hard, and strangely lonely. I just don’t have a lot of experience listening this way, and I most people I know don’t either. It will also be hard because I so often have multiple people talking to me at the same time – I get overwhelmed and want to control the situation. I expect that I will get better at staying out of stuff I don’t need to get into. I expect my life will be enriched by valuable perspective that I wouldn’t have previously noticed. I expect I will have more insight into my own behavior. I can’t decide if I expect to have more or less insight into other people’s behavior.

What do I value?
I value honoring the expression of other people. I value the chance to show someone I respect their humanity by how I receive their words, regardless of what they say.

What do I want?
I want to be taken seriously. I want to be thought of as someone who is trustworthy.

Where is the Resistance?
I will want to be right. When I perceive that someone doesn’t agree with me, I will be tempted to think that it’s only because they don’t understand what I’m saying, and I will try to explain myself again.

I will have a hard time not agreeing or disagreeing. I consider these somehow to be an indication that I have “heard” what someone said and that my response is a validation of this. Sometimes this can be true, but more likely it only serves to reinforce my own sense of self relative to them.

What am I willing to do?
I am willing to be misunderstood.
I am willing to say less.
I am willing to acknowledge what I don’t know.

What is Gained and Lost?

Gained:

  • Freedom – by keeping my attention on listening, I hope to be freed (a little bit) from a compulsion to act immediately as a result of what I hear.
  • Acceptance – other people are not me, and don’t need to be.
  • Patience – like freedom, I hope through practice to learn how to wait, and gain better discernment about what requires action and what doesn’t.
  • Confidence – words can become a way to ease and divert discomfort. By sitting more with my reactions, I will learn what I value by experiencing my discomfort, or the discomfort of others.

Lost:

  • The sensation of intimacy. By building a sense of “sameness” through my internal experience I create a sense of being like others. In an effort to suspend some of this, I think I will end up discovering the gulfs I paper over with assumption.
  • The sensation of separateness. The abstraction I use to create a sense of intimacy should, theoretically, also be what creates my sense of separateness, but somehow this feels less true. Perhaps because my sense of individuality is so deeply conditioned, it’s harder to shake loose.

Sidebar, Fear and Sadness
Since this exercise is about discovery, it’s worth noting the rather despairing fear that writing this has roiled up. I am suddenly very, very worried that listening to people is going to identify all sorts of differences between us and leave me feeling separate, isolated, unseen and alone. Oddly, the reverse of this – that I should also see the many ways in which I am like other people – does not feel like it will happen. It’s hard for me to imagine how this will work if I don’t create it. There is some really low-level emotional response in me that connects listening to vulnerability. I guess this is good to know, but it feels awful, and discouraging. I sincerely want to appreciate the differences between myself and others. I want to share in the value others bring and that I cannot create myself, and yet it’s hard for me to imagine how I might move from acknowledgement to appreciation. So many people hide their beauty, masterfully, and guessing can end in a mess. It feels like I’m missing some critical, connective piece that allows the transition between these two parts of experience.

January, Clarity

The super-self me project is underway, and January is dedicated to the value of Clarity. I am suddenly feeling very self-conscious about publishing this – but I’m at my deadline, and rather than evaporating while trickling my way to perfection, I’m going to see what happens when I follow my own rules. Nothing wagered, nothing gained, right?

I had a hard time selecting a single word to represent this theme. I’ve been talking about it as “cleansing and purification month,” but what those actions are about is creating physical space and mental clarity. In the end, it all more or less reduces to cultivating clarity in the causes and conditions out of which my reality arises.

Intention:
This was a natural fit for January, when the excess of the holiday season makes it easy to embrace cleaning out and cleaning up. I also liked the idea of having a clean space and a clear mind as my baseline for the undertaking of this project.

The physical environment of my home seems like the most controllable condition that contributes to my experience. I enjoy having uncluttered space. I love needing something and knowing exactly where to find it. I am a little bit compulsive about wanting things cleaned up and put away. Sharing a house with a husband who works from home a lot and three kids under six, results in a space that’s much busier and messier than I would choose to live and work in, all things being equal. I get overwhelmed by how much stuff there is, I accidentally buy things we already have, and I spend more time than I want to maintaining, and thinking about maintaining, the objects in our lives. There isn’t enough pregnant emptiness into which new thoughts and actions can be born, so enslaved am I to bounty we already have.

I want the objects in my environment have a specific purpose in my life. I want to enjoy less, more. To the extent I can, I want to create a crafted, purposeful environment. My house feels like a choking ecosystem. It’s a nice little house, it’s just all clogged up with the detritus of busy, inattentive living.

The most immediate desire I have is to reduce the labor and attention I give to object maintenance. When I was getting paid for my work, and I worked outside of my home, what I had and who took care of it was not something I paid a lot of attention to. George took care of the lawn, a rotating set of Brazilian women cleaned my house. Smiling, Portuguese-speaking apparitions who, I’m ashamed to admit, were as interchangeable to me as they apparently were to their boss. Now that I have chosen to BE RESPONSIBLE FOR MY OWN THINGS, I am feeling the crush of my leveraged lifestyle collapsing back on top of me. When other people cleaned my house and clipped my lawn, I consumed at a rate greater than one person because I outsourced the effort of ownership.

I want to have a serene space in which to live and work, but I still don’t want to spend a lot of my time maintaining it. So this month is about the over-due reckoning of living within my means, but beyond my capacity. I gotta own my shit, and this means removing obstructions that prevent me from placing my awareness at the deepest level available to me. A big part of this month’s activities is about doing this literally, by reducing the things in my home, but I also want a clearer internal baseline. The more I meditate, the less I enjoy drinking. The pleasure is briefer, and the side effects are more obvious. I also think it has a bigger impact on my mood stability, physical comfort, and energy level than I wish were true. So, I as I clean up the distractors around me, it seemed like a good corollary to stop putting chemical distrators in me.

I want to have more meaningful relationships with fewer objects. As I’ve slowly (often begrudgingly) settled into the intimacy of my own life, I’ve realized how much pleasure and wonder there can be in simple tasks. One of my fondest memories from this past summer was sweeping a batch of tiny brown, papery husks that fell all over our deck from blossoming tree. At the time, there was a big orb weaver in residence, and I noticed the same husks caught in its web. The next morning, a small batch of them were scattered below the web; overnight, the spider had meticulously picked out each one and repaired the silk threads. The symmetry of our actions was so beautiful and so moving I started crying (surprise). I felt such camaraderie with that eight-eyed, eight-legged little cleaner. I felt intense gratitude for this quiet offering of validation that, yes, I too was part of the nature of things, and I thought Holy shit, this is what it feels like to really live inside my own life. This is amazing. I want to keep doing this.

January Activities:

  • Abstinence from alcohol.
  • Exercise 3 times a week, 30 minutes or longer.
  • Remove all unused objects from the house.
  • Find a place for all remaining objects.
  • Establish a system for maintaining space and clarity.

Expectations:
Some of my expectations seem really tangible, like spending less time cleaning and less time thinking about cleaning, but some of them are extremely vague, even foofy, like feel happier and lighter. Part of what’s good about trying to identify my expectations is the simple act of seeing how unspecific they are. They’re almost more aspirations, but for the (almost) non-judgemental record, they also include:

  • Be less bothered by the (mostly kid) mess around me, because there will be less of it, fewer conditions for it to arise, and because I will be more ok with it by the end of this month of practice. I expect my perception will shift in a way I can’t quite articulate, but I think it will end up more accepting and relaxed, for having exposed some of my own ridiculousness.
  • If I sincerely, consistently live the behavior, my kids will start to copy it
  • Enjoy the visual and functional aesthetic of less clutter.
  • Become more aware of my consumption patterns: buy less, enjoy it more, and actually consume it. I.e. eat it, wear it, wash it away…
  • I expect it won’t work the way I think it’s going to, and expect I’ll be a little disappointed about this.

I had to really resist the desire to over-work the four questions. I wanted to make sense of them up front, refine them into a more palatable, more likely list. Some of them don’t make a ton of sense relative to this theme, some of them are in conflict, but it feels right to try to grab it as a rough snapshot of where I’m at.

What do I Value?

  • Opportunity – which to me seems inextricably linked to open space. A chance for something new to emerge.
  • Truth – seeing as complete and unobscured of a reality as is possible for me.
  • Trust – being calm and secure that I have done as much as is reasonable to enable seeing clearly.

What do I Want?

  • I don’t feel like I’ve hit my stride yet, and I’m sort of herky-jerking along. I want there to be something more, something different. This might be something new in its own right, or just a new dimension to what already exists. There is a sort of icky-seeming sense of wanting to be “saved” buried in that desire. Ugh.
  • I want more time for my independent adult life, writing, reading, meditating, seeing friends, etc.
  • I want better focus.

Where is the Resistance?

  • I’m not sure I want to be ok with messiness. I have a sense of pride about myself associated with high standards, hard work, and excellent performance. I’m sort of a controlling person, I stink at letting go.
  • Staying perpetually engaged with the mundane is a great way to ensure nothing I care deeply about will go wrong, for it never goes at all.
  • I have a sense of frugality and conservatism that I’m attached to. I don’t like to throw things away because I don’t want to be wasteful. It’s so ironic that that an undertaking to have less would challenge my sense of frugality. It’s because my idealism about being frugal is about to get called onto the carpet, packed up, and donated to a worthy cause.

What’s Gained and Lost?

Gained

  • Time for my personal projects. If I have less to maintain, I will spend less time on maintenance. It is so, so much more expeditious to do housework when the kids aren’t here, and I spend precious solitude on cleaning instead of writing, meditating, connecting, etc.
  • Satisfaction… (red flag!) I struggled to articulate this any further, best guesses included: at having changed my patterns and habits / having accomplished “it” (no idea what it is) / walking into a clean room.
  • Appreciation for what I have – Making intentional choices about the purpose of the objects I keep will allow me to understand the value and use they provide.
  • Humility – Having to confront the amount of stuff I have that I don’t need will help me acknowledge the degree to which I take more than is necessary.
  • Acceptance – doing the work has a way of exposing what’s at the top of the “let it go” stack.

Lost

  • A sense of cultural convention – I live in a middle-class suburb – drinking while socializing, and consumerism are just part of the vernacular.
  • The soothing and time consuming activity of shopping – I use it to kill time and get my kids out of the house on long days together. It feels satisfying to have “done” something like get groceries and gives me a break from the non-stop requests for attention, snacks, help, etc. when we are in the house.
  • Security – I tend to keep stuff out of a “just in case” sense that I will need it later.
  • Ease – I have a family that – loving as it is – is not quite so interested in this exploration of pseudo-asceticism as I am. Giving away their stuff on my behalf might not always go over well.
  • Old values and relationships – I’ll have to say goodbye to the emotional payload in objects I don’t value, or need, anymore. This one is going to be really hard.

Sidebar…

Possible Gotchas

  • I’ll just find different things to distract me. Distractions are internal, I’m just a lot better at noticing the outward manifestations.
  • I’ll spend more time with fewer objects, and get no net gain on free time. (The whole concept of “free time” is silly enough for me to cringe when I write that, but it has a valid colloquial meaning of: activities I’m unwilling to stop doing.)
  • I won’t reduce nearly enough stuff to make a tangible difference.

A Question to Watch For:
How much of the mess is generated by people, rather than the proliferation of objects? As I wrote this piece, the whole thing started to have a wag the dog feeling. It’s possible I’ve got it all backwards – that the people will generate the same amount of physical disorder no matter what, and no matter how much I get rid of it won’t matter.

Super-Self Me

This year I have resolved to become a better human being. It recently occurred to me that every day I have the chance to wake up and live exactly the life I want, and I am sort of blowing it. The fast follow-on to that realization was having to admit that after a year of hanging out with myself, I still don’t really know what I want, beyond a general sense, or how exactly, to discover and accomplish such a thing. This is so embarrassing. The trouble with values is that they’re context dependent. They’re much more dynamic than rules, and although they can be clear, they’re not specific.

What I want more than anything else is to have peace in my heart, and for every action I live into the world to be an offering and reflection of that peace. I am a long, long way from being able to do this with any consistency, if at all. So this year is about honoring the hope I have for my own beauty, and learning what it takes to close the gap between my beloved ideals and the life I actually live.

I have never accomplished anything important to me without working hard at it – why should becoming a kinder, wiser, happier person be any different? I have much respect and affection for the thinking and writing of Alain de Botton, who champions the idea that living a rich human existence takes effort and thoughtful cultivation. There is a pervasive cultural myth that somehow, once we reach adulthood, our psychological, emotional and spiritual developments are complete. That somehow, everything we need to know about being a good parent, child, spouse, friend, and community member are understood and immediately available to us. That somehow, we all know how to accept ourselves and others, not to mention the surprising nature of the universe, and that help with those things is an abnormal failure of some sort – one that is best relegated to the dark cloisters of disdain and weakness, also known as the church or therapy office.

So I am dedicating this year to calling bullshit on that notion, and seeing what happens. I am dedicating each month to living one of my values by setting specific goals and activities in service to manifesting and reflecting on that value. My best guess for how to develop insight into my experience is to answer the following questions:

  • What do you value?
  • What do you want?
  • Where is the resistance?
  • What are your expectations?

Lofty notions and honest guesses are all well and good, but they don’t mean much without action. My plan for each month is to follow this basic structure:

Clarify Intention: (wk. 1) Written reflection on the intention and choice of the value. This step is about articulating what a highly subjective, abstract value like “kindness” means to me. Using intentions will help me stay focused on the value I’m working to cultivate, within the boundaries of the exercises I’ve chosen.

Select Goals and Activities: (wk. 1) Choose 3 – 5 specific activities to engage in the theme. These are designed to create the chosen value in my inner or outer world, in order to develop the kinetic knowledge of experience. They are the quantified objects for my qualified reflection.

Clarify Expectations: Write down what I expect will happen as a result of my practice. Expectations are the qualified stand-in for outcomes, so I have some way to evaluate how what I imagined compares to the reality that occurred. Outcomes are often the tangible thing we select to represent the hope in our hearts. We love them because they’re so clear, and so easy to work towards in a categorical way – they give us a feeling of control that is deeply satisfying. But too often, we fixate on the outcome without being clear about the expectation that created it. Once we achieve it, we are surprised and disappointed that our happiness is not as great or enduring as we imagined it would be. Or, we achieve the outcome, but at the cost of something we valued much more than the result itself. When I do this exercise honestly, sometimes ludicrous stuff ends up on the list; better, I think, to meet that up front, and chat it up along the path.

One of my biggest challenges is accepting my own limitations. As a kid, the notion “you can do anything” was drilled into me. By and large, I still actually believe this, but the deeply enmeshed subtext of that message is “you can do everything, and you should do it to an externally defined (and often changing) standard.” This part is seriously not true, but I harbor all sorts of notions that it is.

Identify Gained and Lost: (wk. 1) Something is always gained and lost but I tend to assume that the only losses will be negatives I want to shed, or I simply focus exclusively on what I expect to be gained. The positive aspects are nicer to focus on, but it’s not representative of the full experience I’ll have. This step is important for being honest with myself, having a way to evaluate how good I am at predicting my pain points, and shedding light on them ahead of time. It’s a critical step for learning how to be accepting and gentle with myself around my most difficult and unpleasant parts, which I believe is fundamental to being that way with others.

Activities: (wks. 2 -3, and throughout) This is the activity-based portion of the practice. It involves doing the work I’ve laid out, and being flexibly disciplined about my commitments. The most important part of this is being accepting and creative in the face of the (inevitable) obstacles that arise, and making a complete effort to fulfill the commitment I’ve set. I.e. do my best, and accept that it won’t be perfect.

Review and Reflection: (wk. 4, and throughout) Since this whole project is about growth and discovery – about investigating if something like this will actually work – actively engaging in the experience is perhaps the most important part. It’s my sincere living practice as a householder. Throughout the experience, I will journal to document and reflect on what happened. Week four is dedicated to exploring my experience in full. What did I learn, and why does it matter?

This work takes a different kind of effort than the kind I’m good at. It is not the effort to accomplish a specific outcome, but rather the effort to work diligently and accept the outcome. It is about living in the space between the intention and the result, and mining the wisdom that lives there. It is accepting the invitation, and stepping into God’s speakeasy, the rough and holy place where you meet your soul.

Themes of Cultivated Practice
January, Clarity
February, Love
March, Listening
April, Self-Compassion
May, Strength
June, Kindness
July, Perspective
August, Acceptance
September, Discipline
October, Community
November, Gratitude

Getting Lost

sign-fail
I travel with out a GPS now, being sans phone. I get lost a lot more than I used to. This is particularly nerve wracking when I’m somewhere I really don’t know at all, like Boulder, CO, where I went in August for the Buddhist Geeks conference (which was awesome).

I spent some time getting lost (or more accurately, disoriented and walking the wrong direction) including late at night when I was tired, and wanting to be in bed, instead of walking around in the dark. I also did some driving, and wasted a lot of energy nervously trying to figure out if I was lost yet, about to get lost, or actually doing fine.

Sometimes I am so clever I outsmart myself, and this a great relief. It occurred to me that I have been acting out a metaphor for my own spiritual path and personal development. Behavior is one of our most direct (if not obvious) forms of communication.

When I travel without a GPS, here are some of the things that happen.

  • Having some guidance, like directions and a map, is helpful. I really don’t know much, and my awareness of how little I know is amplified without a phone to instantly broker information for me.
  • I have to pay more attention to where I am, and where I want to go next. I have to have some active agency in the process, rather than simply executing a set of instructions delivered at just the right moment.
  • When I walk by myself in an unfamiliar environment, I become much more sensitized to who is around me and what that feels like – especially in the dark.
  • When I get lost, I ask someone for help. I connect with another person when I otherwise wouldn’t. People, by and large, are always willing to help me. I make eye contact with them. I smile at them. I thank them.
  • I get a lot more anxious, and make a lot more mistakes. I go the wrong way, and have to turn back. I consult the map and try again, sometimes I still get lost, and I get frustrated. When I finally get on track, and my feet hurt, or I’m late, and I’m grouchy, I accept the reality that I just have to keep going until I get there. I just have to do the work, one step at a time, and I can be foul about it, or not.
  • I have to contend with detours, missing signs, and inaccurate directions. My anticipated reality and my actual reality don’t always match at the choice points.
  • Attentional laxity has very noticeable repercussions.
  • I always make it back to a safe place. Despite all the anxiety and frustration, nothing irrecoverable, or even that bad, has ever actually happened.

This is a good lesson. This is helpful to remember, when I am in the middle of a self-absorbed, hand-wringing, mind-wringing, heart-wringing, exercise about my choices, path and progress, which is an embarrassing amount of the time. Pay attention. Do the work. People will help you. Say thank you.

Dead Frogs Still Say I Love You

IMG_9127
Yesterday, we were drawing with chalk in the driveway and the kids got very excited to show me something.

Mummy, Mummy! Jack takes me by the hand and walks me towards the basketball hoop.
Oh no, it’s a frog. It’s mushed. I ran it over with the car.
Like the bat, Colin says.
Yes, like the bat. I also just backed over a wiffle ball bat, mushing it into a very suitable cricket bat. Apparently the concentration and clarity developed by my meditation practice have not permeated my skill of backing the car out of the garage.
Look! Look! says Jack.
I know, the yellow jackets and the ants are eating it. Two yellow jackets and a collection of ants are feasting on the carcass. I had no idea that yellow jackets were omnivores. Oh. I’m so sad I killed this poor frog. I did not mean to do that. Do you want to say a little prayer with me?
I kneel down. Jack kneels down. Colin kneels down.
Little frog, I’m so sorry I ran you over you and killed you.
I’m sorry we killed you frog, Colin repeats.
Sorry frog, says Jack.
I feel really sad. I love frogs. I think about our frog from the garden. I hope this is not the same frog. It’s too mushed and dried out to tell what kind it was. Its entrails are still moist, but its back feet are leathery and curling up from the blacktop.
But look, do you see what the bugs are doing? They’re eating its body.
Yeah! Jack is full of earnest enthusiasm.
Even though the frog is dead, its body will still help these bugs. They will eat it and have energy to be healthy and strong, and they will take some of the food back to their nests, and feed the other bugs. Isn’t that cool?
Colin looks up at me.
It’s like saying I love you.
Yes. Yes honey, that’s exactly right. It’s just like saying I love you.

Interactive Art

globe-18-Inside-earth-by-Marine-PEYRE-370x339

Photo credit to http://www.coolglobes.org/

After dinner with my friend Daphne the other night, I had some time before my train. I love having open time to let something nice happen. It didn’t take long. In front of the Boston Public Library, I sat and listened to Aisling Peartree who was singing, singing, singing – singing for the pleasure of letting one’s soul vibrate, so it can shimmy on over and touch another’s. She was great. She was just so happy singing. I felt happy too.

I wandered across the street to check out the cool globes that are in Copley Square right now. My favorite one was the Inside Earth globe.

People love to be invited into an open space. People stopped to discuss if, in fact, it was okay to sit in it. They climbed in, had their picture taken, swapped places, leaned between the legs of their sitting lover, popped their kids up to have a turn. They smiled and laughed. They had a relationship with the art. Invitation is, perhaps, the oldest technology around.

I climbed in too, and meditated. It was brief sit, but a great perspective-shifting experience. Inside the globe, sound and vibration changed. It was a little bit like what happens when you’re underwater, and it created the distinct feeling of being acted upon. I went from being part of experience in the world, to having the experience of the world happen to me. The rumble of the truck felt like is was running over me. Sound, especially deep sound, like the the bass of loud music, left me feeling a little bombarded. And just by tucking in and closing my eyes, I immediately became an object of an “other” category: oh, she’s in there…, as if there wasn’t right here, together.

I thought, this is what the earth feels like. We rumble all over it, we drown out it’s sound in favor of our own, and see it as distinctly different than ourselves. I felt deep compassion for our planet, and humility at how much perspective I lack 99.999% of the time. That’s a successful piece of art.

Sound is especially important, because it’s so hard to find any true quiet, once you’re listening. We can close our eyes and still our bodies, but sound is very difficult to control. When I got off the train and it pulled away, it drown out every other auditory signal, and I realized how vulnerable I felt, loosing – even just for a moment – and entire sense. Coming up into the Back Bay concourse, it was a blur of noise – announcements, people talking, fans, echos – and I realized that maybe part of why we are so tense, so subtly fearful, is we’ve lost our ability to consume the natural queues in the world around us. Our instincts are injured – literally deafened – and we feel less connected to our environment as a result.

Thought Space

I like to take notes on my meditations. It helps me clarify my experience, track my path, and fold some of that experience back into my non-sitting time, which is most of my time. Below is a synthases of notes on what I observed in thought space, or “hear in”, from a series of sits this March, only now getting around to posting…

Voices:

These are the “talkiest” thoughts in talk space. They have a distinct voice quality, and sound like actual verbalization that could be spoken or written down. It is the noticeable “flow” of one thought to another that’s going on in talk space.

The “I” self: An often observational voice that speaks for the self from the first person perspective. It says things like “I feel angry.” “I am hungry.” “This tastes good” (implied: I like the way this tastes).
The “You” self: Also a self-aware voice, from the self, to the self, but with a distinctly different language/perspective orientation, of “other” in that it uses a “you” based construct. Strongly associated with negative self talk, it says things like “You are never going to get better.” “What is wrong with you? How come you are doing this?” “What does so and so think about you?” This voice can/does dialog with the “I” self voice. These two voices can sort of swap back and forth, e.g. I might think what is basically the same question in either of these voices: “what do I want / what do you want”.
The “Me” self: This is the current, and imagined future me. The voice that participates in imagined conversations with others, as I imagine I would. It sounds the most like what would come out of my mouth if were to start talking right now. It’s very similar to (maybe the same as) the voice I’m listening to right now as I type these words. It’s the voice of the integrated, present self.

Thought Processes / Secondary Voices:

These are more like types of thinking processes. They have a little bit of a voice sense, in that they seem to have a role/function/output – a sort of functional identity – and a sense of flow, but not any strong association of self.

The analyst: A active voice that’s an observer and synthesizer of thoughts. Replays / examines thoughts and experiences to “make sense” of them, to try to orient them in my mental model of the world. It’s like a clearinghouse voice, that deals with the stuff that gets flagged and doesn’t just pass through low-level processing. Very similar to Piaget’s cognitive development concept of Adaptation. This thought process is the conscious (and observable) process of assimilation and accommodation of cognitive schema. This is the primary process for reaching conclusions about my experience.
The planner / problem solver: An active voice. Does things like makes lists, plans routes for errands, very oriented around maximizing efficiency. Will lay out a plan, consider additional information and readjust the plan. I use this type of thought in my job all the time, to develop a product strategy or design, for example. Also pops up constantly based on visual (or other stimuli) to prompt behavior: e.g. I’ll see a package of diaper wipes on the stairs and think: pick those up and put them away upstairs.
The creator: The voice that comes up with new ideas. Works closely with the analyst and the planner, but is different in that offers a solution. The analyst is about internal synthesis, the planner about external synthesis, and the creator presents thoughts that are external solutions. E.g. I’ll be thinking about my personal practice of mindfulness, how the rest of the world views mindfulness, how I might improve my own ability to become more mindful, churning all of this around and the creator will pop in and say: “you know what would be cool? a little app that randomly texts you notes to stop and take a minute to be mindful, or little affirmations, or meditations to interrupt your non-mindful flow, and remind you to be mindful. that might be cool and helpful.” Except, it’s not so “talky” like that, all of that just sort arrives at once in a big chunk (I think). It works so closely and quickly with the analyst and planner, I can’t say for sure how they break out, except I have a sense of them all being different. They all feel different, and the creator thoughts have a distinct “ah-ha!” quality to them, and are pleasant, exciting thoughts.
Listening synthesizer: Similar to, maybe a sub-type of, the analyst thoughts, but less introspective. It’s a passive thought process that accompanies listening to another person, or my own flow, and analyzes the stream, ponders, and draws conclusions. It’s a secondary thread that seems to start on it’s own and I can become aware of if I’m paying attention. For example, the main thought in my flow was a replay of a conversation I had at breakfast, and the listening synthesizer was doing an analysis of what happened and how that might relate to other things in the world, totally separate from the experience itself. This process might also be responsible for thoughts that seem to come out of no where, if it reaches a conclusion and interrupts the flow.
Commentary: E.g. I’m listening to a lecture – actively taking in the words, applying some mental effort to listening and processing – but at the same time thinking things like, “I agree; I disagree; yes, I’ve heard of that before; oh that’s really interesting, this thing she’s talking about is like this other thing I heard on a podcast….” More overt and less sophisticated than the listening synthesizer. This is one of the most recognizable types of thought that pulls me out of experiencing reality as it occurs.
Cementing replay: a process I go through of a deliberate and focused replaying of thoughts to solidify them (distinct form recall/replay that emerges in the flow). I do this intentionally to help create permanence around new and evolving thoughts, things I want to remember or share, come back to in order to work on them more. I also do this around imagined scenarios, like conversations I wish I had, or how I would like future scenarios to unfold. This latter use is a fantasy of an alternative reality, and pretty distracting from actual reality. The process of cementing feels very similar in both cases (thought development and thought fantasy), which is creepy, since it allows the non-reality to seem (feel) a lot like reality.

Other types of thoughts:

These are thoughts that seem discernible as their own thing, but don’t have so much flow around them. They’re the smaller objects that make up the flow.

Stored thoughts: Things I recall from memory. They are recognizable as pre-existing objects, as opposed to talk flow that seems like it is being created in real time, and new ideas that emerge out of the flow (and then become stored thoughts).
Feeder thoughts: These are barely recognizable, almost more of a sense than thought. I noticed these once while mediating – they’re like a pre-thought to the dominant flow. It’s sort of like when you’re listening to someone talk, and they pause to search for a word, and you begin to anticipate what word they’ll use, and then they do use the same word you were thinking, and you think, “yes, that’s just what I was thinking you would say”. That’s as close as I can describe the experience, but much less conscious than that. Same kind of process, but just this really subtle sense of recognition of the pre-existing fulfillment of conscious thought.
Behavior association: Thoughts strongly associated with implemented (as opposed to planned) functional behavior – take a shower, call the doctor, stop at this red light, etc. Also, can be very low-level, almost instantaneous, reactive thoughts to stimuli. E.g. I see my toddler is winding up to hit me and I consciously think: “I’m about to get hit” and I put my hand up to protect myself without consciously thinking about the action. These are the thoughts that prompt me to participate in the world in some way.
Sensory thoughts: thoughts about external stimuli: sights, sounds, and sensations.
Meta-thoughts: thoughts about thoughts: visual and talk.

Properties of thought:

These a qualities that thoughts can have, in addition to their native type or form. Thoughts have multiple properties.

Feeling tone: pleasant, unpleasant, neutral.
Voice type: active – a dominant, constructed thought flow; passive – also a flow, but more random-seeming filler, like the stuff that’s going on in the background that you sort of tune in and out of – it’s not intentional, it’s just happening; interruptive – thoughts that become suddenly dominant over the flow – either by interrupting the active flow, or shouting from the passive flow to grab attention.
Positional dimension: Thoughts have a quality of position, like strata, in relation to my level of consciousness about them. Very conscious thoughts like the self voices are “high up”. Process thoughts are layered below conscious thoughts, and assumed thoughts and objects come last, at the bottom, or sub-conscious. When I am aware of them as objects in the space of my mind they actually have a feeling of (relative) physical position. Active thoughts hold a higher position than passive thoughts.
Threading: I can have multiple thought streams at once. Sometimes they’re interacting, like a meta-commentary on the dominant flow, or a spin-off thread that continues in parallel, and sometimes they’re just about different stuff, like I’ll be thinking about, or focused on my breathing, but also listening to the talk flow. Threads can occur for active and passive thought streams and around different object dimensions, e.g. sight, sensation, talk. I can only actively pay attention to three at once, if I’m really focused, but it degrades the quality of the experience of each. One or two is more common, and rapid switching is most common. I think there are lots of threads all the time, and always influencing, but it’s hard for me to hold them in active, parallel attention.
Emotion association: Tightly coupled association with an emotion. I might have the thought, “I feel really angry”, and while I can at one level identify that as a feeling, I can not detach from the current feeling of anger. The observation is heavily weighted in the experience, compared to a latter-state recall of being angry. Both, observational thoughts about an emotion state, but one co-occurs with the emotion state and the other doesn’t.
Permanence: a sense of how secure a thought is within my mental schema. Some thoughts I’m very clear on, others are more slippery. For example, the color blue is a really permanent thought – very well established and secure. Something like what I’m writing right now, is much less secure. A number of factors influence security, like level of exposure (I’ve identified “blue” probably millions of times) and theoretical vs. experiential (experiencing a kasina, creates a stronger permanence around kasina thoughts, than if I just knew about kasinas in an academic sense). Weakly-permanent thoughts take up a lot more mental energy than strongly permanent thoughts – thinking about the color blue almost doesn’t register, thinking about thoughts, much hard and more time consuming. There is an interesting inversion of this with image objects. When I focus on them, they get less identifiable, like looking at starlight. This mostly seems to be temporary, they come back, but in general, as I become more aware of distinct objects, they tend to loose some of their presence, some of their power. This is true for emotions and physical sensations too (I can make an itch subside when I’m meditating by focusing on it – did not work for sneezing), and even the visual breakdown that happens with still eyes. But with thoughts, focus and replay seems to strengthen them.

Assumed objects:

These are objects (or maybe forces? processes?) that I have not directly observed, but based on my experience, it seems like they might exist.

Thought control: It’s possible that flow thoughts are random, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. It seems like there is a background function that is directing, or maybe just nudging thoughts. It receives input from senses and conscious thought. I can temporarily create the appearance of control over my thoughts, but it doesn’t last, and I’m not sure it’s actual control. The control I think must exist is more like karma, or unresolved attachments. Not entirely out of my sphere of influence but probably much further away than I’m even capable of fully understanding at this point.
Choice: This is hard to articulate. But the notion that we have choice around our thoughts – separate from control. I.e. we might not control the thought that comes to us, but we have a choice about what to do with it, or how to react to it. It’s really close to, or maybe an amalgamation of, a lot of the other processes, behaviors and emotions. Somehow it seems like it’s own thing. Sometimes I can think my way into choice, I can “flip” an experience by looking at it objectively and selecting (choosing) to focus on the more pleasant part of it. But choice also has a less controlled (but related) aspect that just comes with broader perception and more awareness. Basically, when you’re actually in touch with the world around you, it suddenly becomes easier to perceive it’s beauty, and everything gets nicer. This is the force behind “choice” that’s just sort of happening automatically. I don’t know, maybe this is just free will.
Recall mechanism: the thing that “knows” about the all the thoughts I have stored. Data access and processing. It seems likes it’s influenced by the flow, and senses. It’s the thing that’s inserting stored thoughts to the flow, and re-storing thoughts from the flow, either existing ones that have passed or new ones that got created. I guess that raises an interesting question about if stored thoughts get “put back” or simply dissipate once they leave the flow. They must be some tiny form of energy, what happens to that energy? Putting them back resonates with the notion of imprinting, patterning, and reinforcement, like the mental muscle development that occurs from constantly taking a thought on and off the shelf. But on the other hand we talk all the time about the impermanence of thought, which is the opposite. Huh.
Sub-conscious processing: Really low-level processing like language and visual recognition.

The Handicap of Authority

I have recently been thinking a lot about the state of “don’t know” – directly in my practice, but also throughout my days. I did a great home retreat session with Shinzen Young on this topic, in which I had two opposite experiences around the state of don’t know (which I define as being conscious of not knowing something, either cognitively or somatically). I experienced “don’t know” both as doubt, which was critical, fearful, contracted and emotionally distressing, and as curiosity, which was questioning, excited, open and emotionally pleasurable. Same state, two completely different experiences. It was like watching the minds of a paralyzed neurotic and a creative genius. Same mind.

I also realized, when I noted the pleasure of a breeze on my face, how the action of “knowing” something closes off the possibility for additional experience. We give an experience a label, and identity, and package it up for easier consumption, but this act of simplifying and sense-making creates much bigger wakes of don’t know for everything else that is omitted from our direct experience. We tune into a thin channel of reality so that we are not deafened by the cacophony, but lost are the myriad other tones and voices. Only now, I am starting to hear the echos. Knowing and not knowing are the same then, it seems. They are the inverted form of the other, or maybe, a triggering cycle, back into the other.

So the more we “know” the less direct experience we let into our lives, the less open we become to possibility and alternative explanations and solutions. I see this all the time in business, and much of what makes the Lean movement so appealing is its attempt to align with the reality that is occurring, not the one that has been planned. But much of American business culture is still organized around the planning and hierarchy structures that worked well for the industrial era, and are failing in an age of technology and integration.

Complex, dynamic systems like software, or any modern product manufactured in a globalized economy, do not lend themselves to predictability or control. But our business structures still organize as if they do. Worse, the institutionalized expectations that this is not just possible, but ideal, are still deeply entrenched. The higher up in an organization that you sit, the greater is your responsibility for knowing what is happening, how it is going to turn out, and why. The more pressure there is to know, the greater the tendency resist, often actively thwart, any portion of reality that does not match one’s selected reality. The more committed we become to what we know, the worse our distress when it diverges from the objective reality that occurs. No wonder board room politics are so vicious, and so many start-ups fail. What is a leader to do, when trapped in the handicap of their own authority?

Filtering – knowing – making wise choices and purposeful rejections, are important qualities in a good leader, and essential for running a successful business. Expertise and mastery are essential components for creating value and authority seems like a near enemy. The controlling aspect of authority is preferred over, and sometimes even confused with, skill and knowledge.

Mastery, expertise, knowledge, are qualities that all seem real to me, that I believe are recognizable and valuable. But I’m unclear about their relationship to knowing, and not knowing. Rich, direct experience is very hard – for me, it requires slowing down and concentrating. A lot. There is a tipping point at which the broad-spectrum consumption of reality comes at the expense of day-to-day functioning. Having a well developed skill or body of knowledge requires knowing, but it seems backwards that being exceptional would come from a closed position. Is it the difference between practiced repetition, vs. assumed reality or extrapolated models?

With practice in the physical world, in a task, or in study, the repetition leads to a build-up of knowledge – a residue persists from knowing that has been tested and proven many times over, with multiple variations. The residue of practice is what leads to genuine knowledge, but the indirect or lightly tested knowing of something gets us in to trouble. It has no weight, is has does not carry the fingerprints of a previously vetted reality. Conversely, our patterns of experience lead us to “know what’s going to happen”, all the time, and contribute accordingly. While I suppose karma is a certain kind of expertise, it’s not skill. So what is the difference between patterns in our thoughts and behaviors, and the repetition that leads to wise skill? I think consciousness and intention, but this is very difficult to quantify, currently, which makes it hard to track for ourselves, or champion more broadly, given that quantifiable knowledge is very fashionable, very preferable, in our culture.

Meditating With a Baby On

I have recently started a practice of daily meditation, and sometimes I like to experiment with meditating different ways, either out of curiosity or necessity. Today, Experiment #6: meditating with a baby on. I figured, what’s the worst that can happen? Nothing. And, as an earnest student, I’m really hoping to experience nothing, so that would actually be perfect. But something did happen.

Jonah’s breath was about three or four times faster than mine – that little pant that babies do. So I’m noticing my breath, and his breath, and how they’re different. And then I notice my pulse, or what feels like my pulse, in my body, but then I realize I can’t tell if what I’m feeling is my pulse, or his breathing. They were merged together, we had blended together into the same space, and I couldn’t tell his breath and my heartbeat apart. I had this overwhelming sense of oneness with him. And as he’s breathing, strapped across my chest and belly, I feel the energy in my upper teeth and jaw getting pushed up and down, in the same rhythm. He breaths in, my energy pushes up, he breathes out, it ebbs back down. His breath melted through my flesh, and rolled, sweetly, in and out of my body. It was awesome. It was this gentle entwinement, – two people made out of the same, shared thing, swaying into unity at the boundary lines.

And I’m feeling so happy, my heart is brimming with love, and the experience is so cool, and I’m getting more excited and happy about the whole thing, and as I do, it starts to slip away. And I think, right, right, don’t get attached to the happiness, ahhh! stop trying to live up to the expectation of pleasure you’re starting to create around what’s already happening. And I’m laughing at myself, because I’m trying so hard not to try hard, and I have pretty much no idea how to just exist. And then Jonah farts, and it smells terrible, and that makes the whole thing even funnier, and it strikes me that this exactly what life is all about: the ordinary sublime. It’s four o’clock in the afternoon, I still haven’t taken a shower, I spent two hours in the morning driving to a haircut appointment I never made it to because I got stuck in traffic, I’m meditating in my little ranch house in the suburbs, with a farting baby who is breathing in my teeth, and I am supremely happy and amused by the whole thing. I’m an incredibly ordinary human being having this beautiful spiritual experience, and I think: this is so cool, this is so cool that this is what life is like. Tears come to my eyes and I feel so much happiness and love, and I feel so good that I try to step further into the feeling, and it fades again. And I start giggling because I’m so human, and I already forgot the thing I just did a few seconds ago, but I’m so happy I don’t care. I think it’s adorable. I’m an adorable little human that’s crafted from the profound – everything about my existence is ridiculous and beautiful, and I’m so grateful to have caught, felt, actually lived, a glimpse of it. It was really cool.