Tag Archives: mindfulness

Sweet Weeping

For Keri

Maple branch leaking sap

One hundred yards back, looking towards the clearing,
I see the drops gleaming. Shining all the way down.

It is dry.
My coat rubs electricity out of the air
and sends it snapping out my fingertips.
I am a good and unhappy conduit.

Closer, I hear the tap of liquid on leaves, slow and irregular.
I break a swelling drop across my finger.
I taste wood, dry air, and faint, sweet maple.
I taste my childhood.

Dark branches leak the surging sweetness. Climbing and awake,
in a race of a different pace,
spilling now in the slow tip of craftsmanship.

It is in the jointed places, that life runs out.
In the broken places, life pools. The bark shines,
the wound glistens, calling attention to the bounty that springs from there.

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.

Love and Culture Shock

Love

A funny thing happened on the way to love – I got distracted by desire.

The dominant event in February was presenting at TFT14, about the relationship between technology and culture. This was a lot of fun, a great experience, and the first piece of meaty, external, professional work I’ve engaged in in over a year. I found myself almost manic in how I approached it (thinking about it constantly, up until one or two almost every night of the ten days I had to prepare), and really exhausted afterwards.

The most interesting part was watching myself not only completely loose interest in the domestic life I’ve immersed myself in (the laundry can wait, let’s get takeout tonight), but also becoming irritable and angry when it interfered with the exciting and pleasurable work going on in between my ears. I think part of what makes deliberate thinking so enjoyable is its similarity to the subtle abstraction layer that constantly runs in the background of our experience – the one we use to interpret the world, and in which we actually live most of our lives. Deliberate thinking is an amplified version of interpretation, one in which we have a feeling of control and purpose that replaces our normal vagueness, and makes abstraction feel magical, powerful and awesome.

I had a very hard time loosing myself in play with my kids; I found it exceptionally boring. I had a much lower tolerance for their bickering, for their childishness. I found it very difficult to switch with any ease back and forth between the quiet, intense, turning and touching focus I use to develop a concept and push my thinking in a new direction, and the loud, rollicking, roll-with-it easiness that makes being with little kids pleasant. For the first time, I began to question, are the roles of professional, intellectual work, and a domestic, parenting life, incompatible? I don’t want to believe this is true, but it was certainly true for me this month.

One of the key points I made in my talk, was that information is compressed experience, and this is certainly evident in the gulf between what kids know and what their parents know. We tout education as a means to transcend our more brutal instincts, and there is some truth to this. But a less commonly acknowledged truth is that with our knowledge we often adopt an intolerance for those who don’t know the same things we do. Often this is unconscious, but the consequences are still the same as overt judgement: misunderstanding, separateness, distrust. What I discovered about myself is that much of what irritates me about my kids boils down to them not understanding the world as I do, or more specifically, not complying with my worldview. We’re fighting over perspective, which, framed that way, seems insane, especially when one of the things I most wish to impart on my children is curiosity and acceptance of other perspectives.

Living with my children is like living with people from a different culture. They don’t understand the language very well, they’re illiterate, and seem to have very few customs related to emotional regulation. They don’t like a lot of the food here and frequently refuse to even try it; this behavior is accompanied by bizarre eating habits – like eating with their hands, running around with their food instead of sitting down to eat it, or preferring to eat while sitting on top of another human, usually me. They commonly talk over each other and other people, it seems that their tribe does not speak in a tennis-volley style like we do, but all at once and very loud in an effort to be heard over the other voices. Oddly, this is also a common point of frustration for them, because it is very hard to understand anything, which is exacerbated by their inexperience with the language. They are frequently loving and affectionate, but are prone to aggressive language and violent outbursts, often yelling and hitting each other or us, sometimes resulting in cuts and bruises. They are much more interested in our culture than we are in theirs, and imitate our behaviors regularly, sometimes even calling it to our attention so that they might be praised for it. And yet, with seemingly equal frequency they actively resist the things we ask them to do so that they might become fully acculturated. They are especially resistant to matters of personal hygiene, or having to do anything quickly. Also, they love sugar. They are obsessed with sugar. It must hold a place of sacred importance in their native land, for nothing else could explain the energy they put into thinking about, and acquiring, treats.

I am deeply in love with humans who are foreign to me. And when the gulf is most extreme, I yell at them, so that I might frighten all of our hearts back into their respective dominions. It is just too painful, too overwhelming, to confront what a long journey it is to meet in the middle; the miles on my side alone, appear eternal.

Another thread throughout my presentation was the idea that it’s very difficult to innovate within the context of our native culture because it’s transparent to us – we can’t see the ways in which it influences us because it’s simply become our worldview. What gets claimed, and acclaimed, as innovation is usually closer to tepid iteration. I offer that one way to disrupt this is by intentionally broadening the values and perspectives that we include in the design process of what we create. I have a very different perspective on American business and technology cultures having stepped away from them for a year and spent my time learning how to succeed survive in different culture with different values and different rhythms. I think this is valuable and I’m grateful for it, even though it’s also been painful and scary to give up an identity I’d invested so much in. And yet the reverse seems not to be true. I can see the value I bring as an outsider, surely, but it’s much harder for me to be comfortable with and open to the value of someone who is an outsider to my own experience – even though I want to. There is a weird asymmetry here. I can appreciate a business and technology perspective because I have shared it. And although I once was a child, I remember almost nothing from my young childhood. I don’t have any recollection of the experience I once shared with my own young children, and as a result, I am very quick to discount them. I don’t even mean to, in fact I mean not to, and I still do it, a lot. And if that model holds – if it is our natural inclination to automatically reject what we haven’t experienced, how on earth do we cultivate genuine diversity? Diversity that doesn’t just look different, but sounds different.

Part of what is weird, I mean truly weird, about the human experience is that we can’t imagine with any fidelity anything we haven’t experienced. The best we can do is make up a version of what might happen (or has happened) based on the reconstructed, abstract memory of something that happened to us. This means that we are wrong (in some degree or another) about everything except what is happening right now (which we also get wrong a lot), and yet we go through our lives thinking that we are mostly right, most of the time. We assume the exact opposite of what actually occurs. I can’t understand how it is even possible to do that, yet we do. All. Of. The. Time. It is amazing that anything works at all. And I think part of the reason that it does work, is that shared experience gives us a good enough imitation of someone else’s subjectivity to have it pass as our own. For it to be believable that we are in communion, and in so being, see our precious selves in another.

February’s practice had a lot of spontaneously conditional activities, which made it hard to remember how I planned to handle them, and also made clear what a large gap there is between my intention and my actual behavior. It’s hard to predict when I will get angry, talk to someone, or become tense, and nearly as hard to stay aware and responsive to those situations in accordance with my specified practice activities. The Heart Card helped with this, just having it in my pocket raised my awareness, but a lot got away from me. But despite failing a lot more than I succeeded, or in truth, probably because of that, I managed to learn a couple of things.

It’s not just me! My kids, being young and from another culture, have not yet mastered THE RULES OF HOW TO SPEAK TO EACH OTHER RESPECTFULLY. I knew this about them, but I didn’t realize how much it reinforced my own carelessness, until I made an effort to counter it (and I wonder why all my coaching isn’t having the impact I hope for). What also surprised me was how much other adults do not follow THE RULES OF HOW TO SPEAK TO EACH OTHER RESPECTFULLY. I went into this month’s practice assuming this happened because I blew the transaction with my own inattention, and of course this is partly true. But once I started deliberately offering my eye contact and full attention to the people I engaged with, I was amazed at how few people met me with an equal level of attention.

Many people in casual transactions, like handing me a coffee, or saying have a nice day, would not even look at me at all. Sometimes they would, but with very little emotional presence, as if they had good training in the rules of engagement, but were attentionally absent. It struck me that we all do a lot of hiding in plain sight. I can’t tell which way we’ve chameleoned, in or out, but we certainly seem afraid to be seen. The most pleasurable interactions were the ones in which my attention hooked the other person – they would start of non-committal, but then deepen their engagement based on my continued attention. By the end of the interaction they would be beaming, seeming equal parts delighted and mystified that a stranger wanted to see them. I loved it when this happened. It felt good, really good, to mutually recognize each other’s humanity in this way. We spend a lot of time imagining that love is big – panoramic sunsets, and epic orchestras with soaring string sections – but some of the most satisfying moments of love I experienced were when I did nothing more than witness the presence and simple actions of someone else.

The other important lesson I got was the first time I ran out of good advice. I was really mad at Colin (for what I can’t remember), and followed the directions on The Heart Card, to calm down and think of what I would tell someone else to do. Much to my amazement, I found that I had absolutely no good ideas at all. Really none, and I had not prepared for this particular predicament. I decided the best thing I could do, under the circumstances, was to just speak gently and honestly about why I was upset, which I did. What I said is also lost to memory but Colin’s reaction isn’t. He was gracious and loving. He said okay mom, and gave me a hug. And for him, a sensitive and cerebral kid, this was an off-pattern response. It is amazing how many of those eternal miles you can travel in the company of someone else.

So what did I learn about love? Nothing that I didn’t already know and have to relearn at every turn. Love is so simple as to not be believable. Love is coiled and slumbering all around us, and we are mostly too shy, too self-conscious, too hurt, too fearful to reach in and out at the same time, and gently wake it up.

Refactoring the Identity Machine

The life cycle of cultural experience: novelty > benefit > standardization > bondage > reinvention >

Kevin Kelly has been “trying to listen to what the technology wants, and the technology is suggesting that it wants to be watched”. I have been a big fan of Kelly since I stumbled across his Cool Tools blog years ago. I was working as a product manager, I loved how he thought about products. I love how he thinks about other stuff. This post is a response to Kelly’s article, The Technium (which is quoted throughout). To you sir, I bow deeply.

I’m listening to my humanity, and what my humanity is suggesting is that it wants to be watched.

The Identity Machine
Our inner experiences and outer actions are getting much longer, and more visible half lives through their instantiation as digital artifacts that we copy, push, aggregate and endlessly revise. Digital technology, and social media in particular, are bringing our insides out, capturing our behaviors without context, and creating a fossil record of our impermanence. We are using the world’s largest copy machine, primarily to make copies of ourselves.

Consider this behavior in the context of just a few questions relevant to our time:

  • What does immediate and always-on connection with a population larger and more diverse than anything we’ve ever had access to mean for our human experience?
  • What does the accelerating environmental instability and natural resource reduction – driven by us – mean for our environmental security?
  • Why do we routinely use medical technology to extend our lives, even when the quality of that life is very poor?
  • Why, despite the incredible abundance created by our scientific and financial advancements, and the existence of a high-functioning global distribution system, have we not distributed this abundance to the many, many people who are still struggling with basic needs for their health and safety?

And ask yourself, why has our cultural response to these and similar questions been to create and propagate more versions of ourselves? We actually have a great tool to solve the big questions of our time, but haven’t popularized it to solve questions much bigger than what we like.

Most prosumers still produce and consume in the pattern of the mass market era – we act out the message of the medium, which today mostly involves us copying ourselves on the internet and then staying very busy iterating all those copies. So the copy machine has become a pattern machine, and a pattern machine is an identity machine. We are creating strong patterns, in our private and collective channels, and for me the a really interesting question is, why aren’t we designing technologies to disrupt our patterns instead of continually reinforcing them? Perhaps the best way to prepare for an unpredictable future is with technology that is designed to serve impermanence.

“It’s hard to convince people to take that long-term perspective because the future is so uncertain,” Kelly tells us, and he is right. But one way to frame long-term planning is by designing values instead of objects. You can’t plan for a future based on durable goods and discrete services – their obsolescence begins the moment you name them – but you can plan for the values that serve a caring humanity, serving a sentient planet, and start designing technology that either mutates or eliminates itself in service to those values.

The Trouble with Humans
We can use the technologies of identity proliferation and privacy collapse, not to reinforce our notions of self, and our values around privacy, but to break them. These are two aspects of the same coin. The urge to reach out and share is innately human; it is beautiful. In a networked age, the need for digital identities were a necessary first step to compensate for the lost intimacy of proximity that the web allows us to leave behind. But in doing this, we immediately introduced the uncomfortable experience of profile decay: watching our former selves die, via the asymmetrical change rate of our profile and emerging self. In an effort to alleviate the dissatisfaction of our innately human condition, we quickly learned to amend, revise, and version our profiles to match the myriad contexts and developments of our constantly emerging lives. We’re already experts at doing this with our memories, but our digital memories are more resistant. In service of this Sisyphean task – capturing our complex and ephemeral nature with a tool that makes permanent a fraction of what we are, after it’s already happened – we willingly give more and more information away.

We are using our digital tools in a way that creates an unsatisfying result, but it is so, so close to our human experience, that we mostly haven’t noticed that throwing more information at the problem of impermanence, isn’t working. Creating a better versions of our past selves is not going to make us comfortable with whatever is bothering us right now. Through our digital communication, we are trying to recreate the human experience in a non-physical context, and it’s frustrating the shit out of us, because we exist in a physical context. Digital versions of ourselves offer the tantalizing promise of a cleaner, more sterile, less painful humanity, but this is also a despairing one because such a thing does not exist. Our bodies force the full reality upon us, through our emotions, through our illnesses, and, of course, ultimately through death. In trying so hard to exorcise the the painful, we are also forfeiting joy and beauty, all the fresh and luscious life of a complete and present life. We’re so caught up in using our hyper-consumptive tools to craft a more accurate version of our human experience, that we haven’t noticed they’re failing to serve our humanity. We look around and say, hey, where did all the lovely virgins go? Oh, we sacrificed them.

We reinforce our identity patterns with technology that recommends we consume and act in the same way our past selves did. Sure, we can influence the algorithm, but we don’t, because it’s just too difficult to resist a medium that continuously delivers a recognizable, incomplete (often preferable) version of ourselves back to us, based on who we were.

And it’s not just our identity we’re consuming though the content. The medium is payloaded with the identity of an elite design class that disproportionately values technology and the business models predicated on that technology; people are an afterthought, and we tacitly adopt the same position when we adopt the technology.

Information is compressed experience. Design is a compressed, and directive, value system. When we consume these things we consume the experiences and values of others, but we are not, by and large, asking if the those are the right values and experiences for us, in the lives we want to live. The values of a twenty-something who makes a lot of money designing technology, works with other bright and talented colleagues, and is swaddled in a closed feedback loop and the extended adolescence companies like Google and Facebook provide their employees, might not be a very close match to lives and values of the population that adopts so much of what they make. This is not a judgement of what is “better” – neither one is – but they are different, and this difference is amplifying the identity gap we already experience when use this technology to look at ourselves. So when we consider if technology is helping us achieve what we want in our lives – financial security, a healthy environment, more leisure time, and greater intimacy with our loved ones, come to mind – we should consider if these are also the most immediate and felt concerns of the people who are designing the technology, and setting the cultural standard of use, for the rest of the population.

Orthogonate
We have accelerated the rate at which we replicate ourselves, and it’s become a compounding mechanism to reinforce the same identity patterns we are used to. But it is not so hard to imagine that we might rotate the lens to get a very different view of things. That we might collide the personal Higgs Fields of our identities with enough awareness to shake loose some perspective that is broader than our assumptions about the well-practiced self.

If we run our pattern archive through a technology designed to disrupt, rather than reinforce our behaviors, what will we learn about ourselves? What will we learn about each other? If there were no privacy filters on Facebook, and we had access to the social behavior stream of the third largest, most diverse county in the world, what would we see, and how might this inform our actions in the world? What would happen if we took the amplification power of our pattern machine, and used it to start producing insights about our behaviors, instead of more of the same behavior.

The future doesn’t pull, we spring it. Our patterns pull, in that we fall most easily into the highest volume practice of our past, but the future isn’t a force in its own right. We make it up based on our choices, and our choices are based on awareness. And because technology is increasingly becoming a ubiquitous and near frictionless accomplice to our pattern making, we are loosing our ability to even think about it as a disruptive, awareness-creating force, which is frightening. Because the technology runs all the time, if we follow its lead, we will come to the manifest destiny of singularity – but not because it was a forgone conclusion. It will happen because we forfeited our power, our human perspective as a partner to technology, and blindly followed our own invention into letting the fraction of the life we designed it for, become all of the life we live.

The questions about how we handle digital overload, and how we protect our privacy are valid. It seems strange then, that our primary response has been to design and use more technologies that interrupt us so that we can give away more information. Despite our protests, our actions indicate that we are in a fairly willing collusion with our technology. If we are going to continue on this path, and it’s hard to imagine we won’t, it is time to start asking what do we want to happen as a result? We need to design the human future we want, and then design and use our technology to help us create it. We have ceded so much of our power and perspective, that our primary solution to these problems is how we might make the same tool more efficient at creating a result we don’t fucking like. Instead we might ask: In a future where everything is known about me, how to I want that society to treat me? A perfectly reasonable cultural response to that question, for instance, is to create a society in which we have eliminated shame, and the devastating consequences it brings. Shame is a social disease, it’s only contagious if you spread it, and our poor, our ill, our addicted, and our abused die from it every day.

Scaling Identity to the Collapse Point
“…it’s very common to see these network effects kick in where…the more you have, the more attractive you become…and so you have explosions…We shouldn’t be too envious of that kind of scaling, because it’s a very ephemeral thing, and it’s a very natural thing.” Kelly wrote this about the growth patterns of technology companies, but it’s equally true about our personal identities. The most glaring examples of this are the substance of celebrity media, but as prosumers, we are all engaged in dialing up the wattage of our personal spotlights. When our identities are deeply enmeshed with a system that scales to super nova – as its natural mode of operation – what should we be preparing for in terms of our human experience with our digital selves?

We have made some very useful things, and it is time to take a look at what we’ve done. We have made a magnificent tool to study ourselves, but in order to do so, we must change the technology to encourage reflection, rather than replication. Reflection is not the same as consuming our own performance. What is the design that will allow us to truly turn the technology on ourselves? What is the design that will foster space for the attention to our inner experience, instead of encouraging us to simply document it?

In a world where there will “be more minds and artificial minds everywhere” we are ready to start designing for the collective consciousness, instead of the user experience. Let us design for the human experience, for the sentient experience. It is time to question our complicity in exploiting ourselves back to the market as data-generating commodities, and start designing and demanding technologies that treat us like the gorgeous, interconnected beings we are. It is time to design the cultural reaction we want, in the future we are creating.

February, Love

Wonder Woman and Stuart Smalley mashup.

Ahhh, Love. That ubiquitous force that captures our hearts and imaginations equally. It rivals the body in its graceful bondage of these aspects of our nature. Love is of course notoriously difficult to define, but like so many before me, I will try anyway.

Intention:
Like most of my emotional experiences, love is both felt and thought. These are actually distinct pieces, and can be mutually exclusive, but co-occur so commonly and rapidly it’s hard to tell them apart. More and more, emotions seem to me like matter as we now understand it – something that exists only as the artifact of two other forces interacting with each other.

For me, conceptual love is much more common than felt love, but I hold the physical experience of felt love as the standard which supports and perpetuates my notion of conceptual love. This naturally leads to all kinds of disconnects in how my experience of “love” does (not) match my idea of “love”. Felt love, that chemical bath of peace in which I feel a deeply permeated sense of safety, warmth, joy and equanimity, is one of the truly divine human experiences. In this love is the endless, harmonious tension of patient energy. It is the force that opens hearts and eyes and minds, opens wings, opens clouds and buds and legs. The force that steps forward to receive the beauty that reigns upon us in its most glorious and terrible forms.

Now that love is not the love I feel when get off the phone with my mother, kiss my husband goodbye, or comfort a fussing child at 2 o’clock in the morning. These are loves of utility. Loves of commitment. Loves of the pragmatic functioning inside the monasteries of relationship. And these loves are largely sustained by the idea that I love, regardless of what I happen to be feeling at the moment, which runs the gamut from affection to resentment.

I find myself (again) at the crossroads of the abstract and the embodied, and it is (again) an intersection full of space. The actions in my love relationships (or any relationship for that matter) are meant to be gestures of communion, and offered in homage to felt love. But too often, my words and actions are rote, distracted, and unsuccessful in opening what is already present. Love, gracious as it is, is also discerning and insists on authentic provenance.

It is to that end, to drawing the idea of relationship closer to the experience of relationship, that this month is dedicated. To going into the space between my actions and my feelings and with an intending heart, turning the idea into the ideal, more of the time.

I am increasingly aware, and bothered, by how little eye contact I offer the people I interact with, and I actually consider eye contact to be one of my strengths. I want the mechanics of my daily life – my automatic manners and habits – to be more conscious and more pleasurable. The difference between a well-mannered relationship, and a loving relationship (I suspect) is the addition of respect and presence. Love requires witnessing the other person, and so many of my actions run as a secondary process to my attention. When I say hi to the grocery clerk, I’m already reaching for my wallet. When I thank the bagger, I am looking at my son who is talking over me. When my husband walks in the door, I say hello without bothering to look up from whatever I’m cooking, because I am also trying to detach my three year old from my leg, before I slice open my finger. Or worse, because whatever I’m doing seems more important than a person I love very deeply. What is that about? The people I care about deserve better, and so do I.

I blow so many opportunities every day to fully recognize another person, for just a moment, and I am reaping the the sour fruits of my effort. My smiles in these exchanges are frequently reflexive performances, because I’m usually thinking about the next thing I’m about to do. They’re not insincere, but they’re at about 30% opacity. I want to feel more grateful for the life I have, but I am failing to be grateful inside the one I’m actually living, while I’m living it.

Love, I think, is one of those values that needs to be cultivated indirectly. And I suspect that the cultivation is actually one of simple surrender. Love is me, but it’s not about me.

February Activities:

  • Be nice, instead of just polite. Offer eye contact and conscious presence every time I speak with someone. Smile (a real one, generated by thinking about the person).
  • Do yoga five times a week. Yoga is great for finding and feeling effort without strain. This particular energy – engaged and relaxed at the same time – seems closely related to felt love. Yoga will offer the chance to experiment, to wiggle into and hold the cultivation, in a way that the more ephemeral tasks don’t allow. Learn from my body, love my body.
  • Release physical tension and resistance, every time I notice it. I meet resistance with resistance all the time – cutting a lemon with a dull knife, scrubbing pots, changing diapers, writing, even when I sleep I clenching my jaw. All this subtle tension in my body is giving me a form factor that cues more resistance.
  • Meet conflict with loving intention. When I can’t, or don’t, do that in the moment, deliberately make space for love later, and follow through.
  • Ask my family to help me with this practice. I’ve made up a heart card, and enlisted my children and husband to prompt me to pull it out, whenever they think a situation could use more love. My five year old will be great at this.
  • Acknowledge as many failures as I can, and forgive myself. Awareness is half the battle, maybe more.
  • Do a nightly inventory of what I’ve done well, so I don’t discount my accomplishments.

Expectations:
I expect I will miss a lot more moments of presence than I engage, but I expect I will get better as I practice. I expect that I will physically feel happier and more optimistic by the end of the month – that there will be a bio-chemical basis to this. This is based a little bit on reading I’ve done, and a lot on my desire for it to be true. I expect I will be physically stronger and more relaxed, and that I will be disappointed that the changes aren’t greater. I expect I will be less irritated by the conditions around me. I expect I will have more energy. I expect I will care less about “getting my way”. I expect I will discover all sorts of supporting skills to love (forgiveness and surrender come to mind) that I am not very good at, and when confronted with that, I will probably get confused, sad, or angry. I expect I will get frustrated and discouraged, and that this month’s practice will be much harder than I imagine. I expect my family will be more affectionate, cooperative and happier (danger, Will Robinson).

What do I value?
I value action. I value kindness, compassion and peace. I value strength and grit and willingness. I value the notion that I can craft the skills of surrender. I am deeply committed (attached?) to the idea that I can transform myself into a more accepting person. That I can build up the skill of letting go. I value the light of grace that lives within me, and the chance to honor the great gift of my life.

What do I want?
I want to become the role model I am seeking. I want to be healthy enough, and strong enough, and honest enough, and forgiving enough, to lead an authentic, expressive life that inspires other people to do the same. I want to make the world a more caring, accepting place to live, and to stop feeling so self-conscious about that desire. I want to live, not without, but in freedom from fear. I want to trust in my own value, and I want to teach my kids how to trust in theirs.

Where is the Resistance?
The biggest obstacle will be simple habit and lack of awareness. I also get attached to being angry – I get all caught up in righteousness, which is unhelpful, but feels strangely good. I will really resist doing this on days when my mood is low; it will be hard to find the energy and sincerity. I think I am probably resistant to receiving love. I think that phrasing is a complete indication that I am resistant to receiving love, and in danger of subtly using love as a mechanism for controlling others. (See expectations above.)

What am I willing to do?
I am willing to be gentle with myself.
I am willing to ask for help.
I am willing to remind myself this practice is about me, not about other people.
I am willing to look honestly at my discomfort, and do my best to not sew up that experience with a narrative.

What is Gained and Lost?

Gained

  • Alignment – I hope that by acting with love and from love, I will become more aligned with the Universe. That the good life and good work I desire will become available to me with greater ease. A little more undulation, and a little less thrashing, please.
  • Perspective – I think by engaging sincerely and compassionately with other people, I will see the world from their point of view, a little bit better.
  • Sympathetic Joy – By treating others better, I think I will feel better.

Lost

  • Control – There is a surprising amount of overt and subtle manipulation that happens inside our family structure, mostly between kids and parents, as we bump through the motions of our days. Trying to meet these conflicts with love and honesty will require that I stop putting so much effort into getting the outcome I want by controlling others. In a lot of cases this will probably be better, since so many household skirmishes don’t even merit a serious attention, but it’s still going to be hard. It somehow feels like being ignored, which I really dislike.
  • Explicit Power – This is closely related to control, but is, well, more explicit and direct. There is a huge power imbalance between me and my kids, and I often exploit that to get my way, right away. Sometimes this is totally appropriate to keep them safe, or enforce reasonable rules and boundaries. But other times it’s just because I don’t want to put in the effort required to consider their perspectives and model good conflict resolution which requires, patience, kindness, listening, explaining, soothing, more time, and (sometimes) enforcing consequences.

Gifts, Mother-Fucking Gifts

As I clean out objects from my house, the number of gifts I come in contact with is astounding. Paying attention to my reaction to gifts, as I decide to keep them, or give them away, I’ve begun to realize how complex they are. Lest I sound ungrateful, let me say that I am not. I am fortunate to have incredibly generous family and friends; I truly appreciate the affection, generosity and thoughtfulness with which the gifts we have were given. But gifts are complicated in a way that I think is worth exploring, and is not mutually exclusive to gratitude.

My family is given so much stuff – it’s a big contributor to how much stuff we have. I’ve got perfectly good T-shirts (for example), and I’ve got newer T-shirts, and I’ve got brand new T-shirts, and so does everyone else in my house. And when I get new versions of the same thing, it’s rare for me to immediately swap out an earlier version in order to maintain object-stasis. I just accumulate more and more. What we call consumerism, is actually much closer to collectionism, or the cycle of collectionism and disposalism, which in our house runs at a cycle of about 3:1. Aside from food and cleaning products, very few physical objects in my home actually get consumed. It’s part of what makes it so hard for me to get rid of things – they still seem perfectly good to me.

Gifts are sticky. A gift is more than the object itself, it is imbued with the expectation of our pleasure. And for my part at least, I really want to live up to this expectation. I was taught that a gift should be freely given, without expectation, but in practice I struggle to trust in this aspiration, either as a giver or a receiver. Gifts give form to our hope and fear, and in their embodied separateness keep us safe. We bear objects instead of our hearts, and so can tolerate the occasional shooting of the messenger.

Gifts reflect the intimacy between the giver and the receiver. When a gift captures a genuine knowledge of what the receiver enjoys, it is a truly magical experience. My most pleasurable gift experience was giving a race car driving experience to my husband, who is a NASCAR fan. I knew he was going to love the gift. I enjoyed weeks of anticipation before Christmas. I knew it would be a total surprise. And it was all of those things. He loved it. He never would have guessed. And then six months later, when summer came and he went and did it, he loved the experience. We got to enjoy it all over again. It remains a fond memory for both of us, but for me it’s also tinged with disappointment that I might never have that peak experience again.

And sometimes the intimacy reflected back at us in the exchange of gifts is one we’d rather not spend too much time looking at. We might have to confront that we don’t know the receiver of our gift well enough to be confident that they will like it. We might have to wrestle with the internal what? seriously? in the reception of an unwanted gift, as we do our best to be externally gracious. We might have to admit that we are not trusting enough of ourselves, or the relationship, to share our anxiety about these things. We might have to do this with people we are not “supposed” to have to do this with, like our family members. A failed gift suddenly becomes a failure of knowing, and even when this is small, sometimes because it is small, we turn away from it. We smile, we say thank you, we honor the intention, but we do not honor the reality, and into this gulf intimacy recedes a little further.

Tradition and etiquette combine to turn a beautiful practice into a super-storm of emotional complexity. Our traditions change much more slowly than the reality of our needs. Bridal and baby showers come from an era when the objects bestowed were designed to last a lifetime (or at least a long time), and when the household earning power was a fraction of what it typically is today. We live in an age where availability of things, both in terms of cost and proximity, far outpace our actual need for them. It’s hard to resist the cultural weight of our customs, not to mention the excitement that often accompanies them, and so we focus on the pleasure, setting aside the rest for a later reckoning. I have encountered a surprising number of things in my home that I don’t particularly like, yet I have passively allowed them to become the things that represent me, which is weird.

All objects come with the responsibility of ownership, and in my experience, there is very little acknowledgement about this by either the giver or the receiver. How would gift-giving change if every time we gave someone a gift, they gave us something they already owned? Thank you for this new scarf, I love it! Here is another scarf I already have, please take it. If I keep it, I’ll have to enjoy it half as much, or wash it twice as often.

What might a new etiquette for a culture of abundance look like? Many people refrain from gift-giving already, reducing or eliminating the exchange of gifts. But what if we also stared to encourage gift-giving as an act of redistributing value? Imagine a birthday party invitation that said, If you wish to honor the celebration of Jonah’s life with a gift, please consider donating a toy to Toys for Tots. And then, at the party the birthday kid could be celebrated for the generosity they helped foster. Would it work, or would you just end up with a teary child that didn’t understand why their party was so weird and different, and they didn’t get any presents?

Or what if amazon.com had a “this is a donation” option right next to the “gift” check box, that would allow you to send a gift directly to a charity, and a write donation card to the person on whose behalf you gave? In the card you would explain how much you valued this person, and why you thought they would value helping someone else. It would be a way to acknowledge something beautiful you recognize and appreciate in that person, and honor it through helping someone else.

Or what if at the Christmas tree, along side the bag full of discarded wrapping paper, there was a donation box. When each family member opened a present, the giver could explain why they had chosen the gift. The receiver would listen, thank them, and decide if they wanted to keep or donate the gift, or donate something else they already owned. When choosing an item for donation, the person would talk about why they did not need that item, how it had mattered to them, and why they thought it would be useful to someone else.

These ideas make me squeam a little. They seem plausible, and at the same time, corny, almost cloying in their earnestness. It’s hard to imagine being this thoughtful, this honest, in every exchange. It takes time and attention, bravery and trust. It takes knowledge of oneself, love of others, and the willingness to tolerate the rejection of what’s in your heart.

The Immaculate Deaths of Trees

The grass bends easily in the wind. The great oak stands unmoved. A strong wind can uproot the oak, but no wind, however strong, can uproot the grass that bends flat before it.

-Chin-Ning Chu, Thick Face, Black Heart

Fallen oak tree
I am walking on the estate again. I reach the boundary gate at the river, and turn to look at the water. To my amazement, the stone mansion I have been glimpsing, straining to see from the road a quarter mile down river, is directly in front of me across the bank. It is only now that the leaves have died and fallen away, that I can see what’s been nearer than near, all along. Only now, that they have honored their totality of purpose, and completely released, is the sought object revealed to be already present. It is as if God has sighed tenderly and said, Clear enough, baby? I begin to cry, and I pray that I may die all my deaths with the grace and dignity of a leaf.

I am walking on the estate again. It’s been very windy and very few leaves remain above, but there are many below. It’s cold and bright, and I look at the mansion for a long time. I turn, and walk the other direction. In front of me is a fallen giant. I massive tree has shattered at its base and stretches across the lawn, all the way to the edge of the brook. Its size and its majesty are awe inspiring – and in its death, accessible for the first time. Dying changes the perspective of those who have only ever experienced us as living. Huge swaths of earth are torn up from the impact of the fall. Broken branches rest a foot into the ground.

There is an odd smell in the air. I weave under and around the limbs, touching the bark, marveling at the life of this creature. I decide to bring the boys back here later, so they might see something this rare for themselves – a body that’s been in the sky for hundreds of years, laid now at our feet. I look up at a branch still clutching leaves. It is an oak. They are always among the last to let go, holding their curling, russet leaves well past the first snow. I think about the cheerful, sugary maples, naked for weeks now. They helicopter down their soft seeds in the height of summer. A party. A ticker tape parade. Not like acorns at all, who hold their dense energy easily, stoically, all winter long. I feel a chilly sadness for the oak, for the vulnerability of staunchness.

I am walking on the estate again. The oak has been cleared away, the splintered stump, neatly sawed across the top. Around the edges, the tree rings are clearly marked – a bending topography of time, etched in creams and browns. Towards the middle, the cut surface is ragged and white. I touch the outside rings; the wood is very firm. I touch the inner wood; it is soft and pulpy. I pick up a piece of wood left behind, with the grain clearly showing. It is very hard and heavy. I pick up a pale, ungrained piece. It is light, it crumbles easily between my fingers. This tree died from the inside out. It is how most of us die, but strangely, we rarely think of it that way. We think of it as something that happens to us, rather than something that emerges from within us. There are tiny pine seedlings at the base of the once-here tree. I wonder, do they know the fortune that’s befallen them? Do they feel the light that has always been there, but is newly born to them?

I am walking on the estate again. The oak stump comes into view, a tidy headstone in memorial to itself. Everything about the way trees die and live, is immaculate.

Rainlight, Candlelight

I am walking on the estate again. It is windy and rainy. Everything is saturated. Black bark is blacker. Pale green lichen is brighter. Stones on the path glisten, winking their suddenly lustrous tones into the gray space. Tawny needles below the pines throb on the hillside, slowly casting off the half life of sun light.

It is a dreary, we say. It is dismal. But in the damp, in the grey rainlight, everything is softer and more vivid. It is like looking at the whole world by candlelight. Everything becomes more beautiful, more romantic, more clearly itself, by what’s absent. Beauty shines in the dark, because it is at home there.

The Quantified Five Year Old

Pre-filled behavior chart, predicting the future.
Colin, in an attempt to earn a toy gun, has started drawing out behavior charts. Days with check marks are good days, and days with X’s are bad days. The most charming (disturbing) part about these, is that he fills them all out in advance.

He drew this one this morning. Today started out as a good day, but then got X-ed over to a bad day, after he had a meltdown that Jack was being taken out for a special birthday breakfast. Halloween, is prominently featured as a good day, and his upcoming flu shot, a bad day. I asked him about the row of bad days at the end of the chart and he said, That’s August, when some bad stuff will happen.

So, apparently, at five we have in place the mental process that can anticipate good and bad things happening, and start planning our reactions accordingly. What’s amazing (disturbing) to me, is how much I still do this throughout the course of my own day. I like this, I don’t like that. I agree with this, I don’t agree with that. I’m looking forward to this, but not to that. This is good, this is bad. We do so much of this checking and X-ing that we pre-program our experience before it even occurs. Thank goodness for logic, so we can retroactively clean up and refactor the mess that we created. Time travel ain’t got nothing on our imaginations.

During the rolling tantrum that ran all morning, Brendan and I alternated between offering compassion for Colin’s hurt feelings (hugs and validation), and trying to sooth him with rational explanations (you had a special birthday day last week, now it is Jack’s turn). By drop-off time for school, we were simply relieved to not have to endure his unhappiness anymore, or our failure to alleviate it. He understood all the reasoning, but it seemed to offer no relief at all, and that is distinctly different than my adult experience. It’s pleasant and easy to share in someone else’s happiness (or at least be neutral), especially if I’ve recently had a similar experience myself. I don’t worry about getting my flu shot, because the discomfort is a small price to pay for the security of vaccination. In fact, I worry about not getting it. Sometimes, logic is the only salve I know how to apply. Not so, for Colin.

Watching my kids grow up is like witnessing the super-slow-motion implosion of the human psyche, or as it’s commonly referred to in western psychology, normal cognitive development. With each additional skill of abstraction, they create another surface onto which they can layer experience. But then they need a set of filters for making sense of the abstracted reality, and integrating it back into their model of the world. The more elaborate the model becomes, the deeper their perception of separate self. Fast forward another 30 years, and perhaps they’ll be hitting the break point, where the accumulated model reaches its limits.

Is there a better way? Is it possible to re-infuse these stages of development with some of the beautiful simplicity of the direct experience they’re shedding? Can that be done, without also limiting them? Maybe the truths of growth are always hard won, and painfully released, and it is simply our job as parents to offer safe and loving shelter.

October Bouquet

Bouquet of burdock, grass, berries and yellow flowers
It is unusual, as a mammal, to experience coolness from the inside out, I say to Linda as she takes the needles out.

Afterwards, I go for a walk. The sun is out. The moon is out. The sun is loud and the moon is quiet, but both are bright. It is cool and very crisp. Something small inside me says, yes, as I cross the road towards the old Governor’s estate.

I walk past the small pond, and pause as I come up towards the large garden plot, plowed and planted with a cover crop for winter. The grass off the path ahead is rustling in the piercing sunlight. I stand and watch the organic shimmer. It is beautifully choreographed – the short grasses flicker in staccato quarter-turns, the long grasses bend sideways, low, and back in slow, sweeping bobs. Movement and stillness ripple through the space.

I am about to set off again, when I notice burdock to my left. I have been thinking about burdock, and decide to take a stem, then two, so I can photograph them later. I walk with the dry, shaggy, husk of a bouquet clasped in my hand, a march of ephemeral conquest. I am carrying it like a bright-eyed suitor, and have the same feeling in my heart. I am struck by how silly this must look.

Suddenly I see there are yellow flowers all across the garden. They are in such contrast to the burdock, I immediately want to put them together. To my left, there are several types of branch berries, and what I think are choke cherries. I take some berries and leave the cherries. I add a stalk, then two, of creamy brown, heavily seeded grass. Now it feels like a proper bouquet. Now it is telling a richer story, of death, and life, and the abundance in between. I walk past a beautiful evergreen with red blossoms that hang like little lantern shades around bright red berries. These flowers are lovely, I want to add them, but I think it will clutter the narrative, so I resist.

I walk along the stream, instead of the drive. A break in the grass invites a pause. Cords of thick pond weed bow to the current, which currently appears quite still. I look for fish or turtles in the clear water, but see none. I wonder if the turtles have gone into the mud for the winter. Oh! there are two on the bank, sitting right together. But they are only rocks, that have camouflaged themselves as turtles.

I follow the stream back up to the big pond where it starts in a slip over the dam. I have never seen the pond from this angle. A lone Canada Goose drifts along, oddly separate from the gaggle I hear over the hill. A large bird glides over the water, in a slow downward arc. It flies too elegantly for a goose, it is too slender to be a hawk or a vulture. It is a heron. It’s flying towards me and I hope it will land where I can watch it. It loops back to the other side and settles in a tree, immediately blending into and extending the branch on which it has landed. If I didn’t know where it was, I would only see a thick gray branch disguising itself as a heron. But then the heron shakes its tail, resettles its wings, and gives the tree away.