August 20, 2016 - Comments Off on On Rabid Monkeys, Yoga and Mindfulness
On Rabid Monkeys, Yoga and Mindfulness
This week it was revealed that research scientists at the University of Pittsburgh have taken the Buddhist school's training your monkey mind concept to a new level by essentially trying to recreate the plot of 28 Days Later.
But in the end, it turned out we were really the monsters. But also the actual monsters were monsters.
By injecting the rabies virus into Cebus monkeys the researchers were able to trace an interaction between our adrenal medulla (located just above our kidneys) and the cerebral cortex. This is important because it's the first evidence that there is a direct connection between our body's reaction to stressful situations (the adrenal medulla secretes hormones like dopamine and epinephrine) and the mind.
As in most things related to science, I just accept they're telling me the truth here. We could be made of Play Doh inside for all I know.
Basically it helps us cope with physical and emotional stress - when someone calls you a "Gross ginger with no soul" for example, it squirts out a little bit of smack into your belly to help you maintain your calm and not fuck up that person's day (which I absolutely will, so don't test me).
There are specific regions of the cerebral cortex that control the adrenal medulla, and this is the first time we're actually able to see what those regions are and how they relate. This matters because if we responded to stressful situations with a purely physical reaction we when a minor stressful situation arose we'd have an animalistic automatic action, kind of like the mini horses here at Ratna Ling do, which is to say, completely lose your shit and try to kick people for no good reason.
As one of the researchers, Dr. Strick put it:
"Because we have a cortex, we have options," said Dr. Strick. "If someone insults you, you don't have to punch them or flee. You might have a more nuanced response and ignore the insult or make a witty comeback. These options are part of what the cerebral cortex provides."
Baby if witty comebacks are a sign of a powerful cortex than I should be something something I don't know this isn't a comeback I've had too much time to think now stop pressuring me here look at these cute fucking bunnies:
What's interesting is these areas that activate are in the primary motor cortex, specifically the parts of the brain responsible for body posture and axial movement.
This is pretty big news for a couple of reasons:
- This may change the professional medical perspective on psychosomatic illnesses - there's now proof our mind can cause very real physical symptoms in the body.
- Training the body can have a verifiable impact on the mind, and vice versa.
From an article on the report by The Science Explorer:
This input to the adrenal medulla may explain why core body exercises are so helpful in modulating responses to stress. Calming practices such as Pilates, yoga, tai chi and even dancing in a small space all require proper skeletal alignment, coordination and flexibility.
Of additional note is these are the same regions of the brain that light up during mindfulness and meditation techniques. These are concepts that may make intuitive sense but this is a breakthrough study in that physical, biological evidence has been provided for the first time.
One can also extrapolate this further. This article in Brainpickings breaks down the work of Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist recognized for his work in the field of trauma. His work is revolutionary in that he takes a holistic approach to treatment, integrating body work and body therapies alongside more traditional or accepted treatments, like CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy).
The body keeps the score: If the memory of trauma is encoded in the viscera, in heartbreaking and gut-wrenching emotions, in autoimmune disorders and skeletal/muscular problems, and if mind/brain/visceral communtherapeutic assumptions.
If stress is interpreted by the mind and passed down to the body, then it stands to reason that developing a clear line of communication between our body and mind would help us cope.
While van der Kolk deals primarily with more extreme levels of trauma and PTSD, this concept applies to all of us. The greatest tragedies in our lives are the ones we experience, even if we've been lucky enough to have a relatively privileged life. Not to mention the impact that another person in our space dealing with a trauma can have on the us, people around them.
There's an interesting concept in Kum Nye yoga that, when we are young, and acts of openness, creativity or vulnerability aren't reciprocated we respond by instinctively "protecting" ourselves. Usually by shrinking away, erecting a wall or withdrawing in order to not experience that feeling of rejection again. Untreated or unaddressed this creates a "blockage" or psycho-physical knot in our mind-body system that can manifest in all sorts of unpleasant and subconscious fashions.
Maybe you go to show your parents a drawing you made, they're busy stressing over a tax issue that has nothing to do with you and brush you off. That one instance, which is really no one's "fault" can lead to a walling off of that creative ability, and can manifest not only in a reluctance to draw or display creative acts but can also create a general negative attitude toward sharing, being open in relationships, social situations etc.
This is a small example of what is potentially a much larger psychic event in your life. Kum Nye yoga in particular attempts to address it by working to relax the body, which then allows these "knotted" or dense areas to release and start flowing again. It becomes harder to explain at this point because it's actually best experienced, but this relaxation can sometimes display itself physically as euphoria, nausea, crying, nodding off. Usually though you just feel pretty good. Kum Nye is not the only way to release these knots but it's an interesting way of thinking that I haven't seen specifically addressed or brought up with in any of the 30+ different yoga teachers/styles I've tried over the past ten years.
And it doesn't really need to be talked about, because just by doing the practice you're establishing that mind-body link. On a purely physical level, with this study we now know that just by working on your core (or probably putting the body through any number of axial movements or postures), whether that's doing planks in Pilates, squatting during Crossfit, or holding side angle pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana, or, Why I Can't Teach Yoga the Names Are Too Goddamn Long) you're developing your mind and altering how it responds to stresses in general.
It's more about having some kind of body discipline, and how you integrate that with your mind that I think is important. I loved training in martial arts for that reason, and it's why I run to the river and back here at Ratna Ling, playing with my impulses and inner nature uphill the entire way back. It's not just a release of endorphins (though that is part of why it feels good afterward for sure) but there's a mental dialogue happening, a negotiation with the self and the mind to push on and keep going that I can then take into my daily life, work and relationships. The mind tells a story about the body, and during physical movement and strenuous positions you have an opportunity to notice the story and reshape it into a form that better suits your life.
So the bottom line is - just move your body through space and sometimes pick up heavy shit. That will make you a better, happier person. For sure. Science says so now.
Personally I find exploring this mind body connection endlessly fascinating, and through Kum Nye practice and study I'm learning more about how the Tibetan Buddhist systems approach and deal with it.
By the by I'm not pro-injecting-rabies-into-monkeys, but in the grand scheme of things learning how our mind functions is probably a more worthwhile endeavor than testing eye shadow. But the rabies virus is apparently very good at displaying neurons and how they connect, so it was the only choice. And it's a strange coincidence that we're learning about our monkey mind (as a metaphor for our out-of-control thought patterns and automatic responses) by viewing an actual monkey mind. With rabies.
Just food for thought!
Till next time, fellow primates.
August 13, 2016 - Comments Off on Catching light from space
Catching light from space
During the Perseid Meteor shower this week (which was incredible out here with almost zero light pollution) I tried taking some photos at night. First time doing it, below are some of the results.
I'm using a Canon Rebel T5 with the kit lens so there are some limitations I'm working with, but it was a fun exercise. I want to figure out a time lapse or "star streak" style one next. Means I need to get this remote control timer working properly, which has been a comedy of errors.
You can get these results with a tripod, DSLR and basic image editing software (I used Adobe Photoshop). The camera just needs to be kept completely still, as you're allowing light to enter the lens for 30 seconds or more. I still don't fully understand the mechanics of how cameras actually work but that doesn't stop me from enjoying the process, and I learn a little bit along the way.
- Processing after the shoot is important. What looks like very little in the preview window can actually have a ton of content, and be brought out if you're using RAW file format. Processing is also difficult and seems to be an art in it's own right. You may notice a lot of artifacts as a result of my processing, I'm going to do some research and figure out how to better approach next time.
- Having a foreground object helps framing immensely, it provides context and anchors what would otherwise be, by nature, sort of incomprehensible to people (and thus boring). The Stupa was a happy accident this time, but in the future I'll be keeping an eye out for good framing reference points.
- The lens also starts to get moisture when it gets cold/foggy, not sure if there's a good solution but at least need to bring a clean cloth with me next time to wipe it down, as after about 1am I couldn't get any more clear shots.
Happy stargazing, nerds!
July 29, 2016 - Comments Off on Chipping Away at the Glacier
Chipping Away at the Glacier
"All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant, Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms."
-Some Bard. That last sentence is my favorite. Going to find ways to use "Quit your mewling" more often.
I've been considering change recently, mostly in terms of my own life. This is because I'm selfish. And if I considered how much you are changing that would be weird and frankly none of my business.
A lot of the work and study we do here deals with heavy-duty self reflection and examination of the mind and all of it's nonsense. Ratna Ling is a very supportive environment for self-work, it's even integrated into our actual jobs via Skillful Means and daily meditation practices during work hours. If all that self-work doesn't have some sort of impact I feel like you're probably not paying attention. I certainly think I'm different than when I was dropped off here for example, and I am happy to say 99% are clearly positive changes.
I'm slowly learning to tolerate cats and that's pretty awful. Otherwise positive.
To be clear change is happening to all of us, constantly. Curiously it's by fighting our ever-changing nature that we tend get into trouble - "I am a Liberal, I'm no good at math, I like football and hate mornings." When you suddenly have to start waking up in the morning or realize you don't actually like football there's this massive drag and battle with the self (and in the case of football potentially your social circle and external factors at large). If we could make the mental switch to "Well I'm a morning person now" then theoretically mornings would become way easier. I'm terrible at this, by the way. I've just come to believe that flipping the switch is possible with hard work and willpower. It's a big, invisible, sticky switch.
Question: If you view life as an experiment, or a performance, how would you want to lead it? Either works, the scientific method allows for a methodical and playful approach. For example, you could try smiling more during your interactions with people for one week and note what happens. Or, if you have a flair for the theatrical, take the performance route and consider yourself the hero in your own personal movie. What does he or she do, if the film were starting right now?
I think both of these would fall under the Path of Transformation, which (and this is where I throw up my "I'm learning" disclaimer so bear with me) works with your experiences and the energies you encounter during daily life. This path exists next to (separate but not necessarily opposing) the so-called Gradual Path - where the approach is based on finding solutions or antidotes to problems that arise in order to create a "worthwhile" existence. As I understand it the Path of Transformation is a more participatory but also more challenging approach to that age old existential question, "What the Fuck Are We Doing and How the Fuck Am I Supposed to Do It?"
Our language isn't terribly well equipped to discuss internal experience - the Tibetans have a gang of words for mind-states, probably because the language arose (or was refined) in conjunction with Buddhist practice which delves deeply into consciousness and states of awareness. So I'll be using the word "energy" here and there, but sometimes as a catch-all for words we don't have. I'll try to elucidate it as much as possible, but my intention is to stay far away from the "woo woo" because I believe there are practical and effective insights to be learned.
So if we take this Path of Transformation approach then every experience in life becomes an opportunity. If you're the hero in that film or the scientist doing the lifelong experimentation, the decision to tip your barista or give $1 to the homeless man outside the the coffee shop are both opportunities for minute internal transformation. What's cool is that without judgement (you may not tip or give money to that man for a good reason), and simply through the act of noticing these things as an opportunity, a decision, you've already taken one step on this path.
But when you're on the path you should look up from your phone, dummy.
This is one example but it could apply to business decisions, how you interact with a romantic partner, or any other daily experience just as easily. Recently I had a fun little episode with jealousy, which, despite my being fully aware of what was happening insofar as it was a mental construct and not real or really consequential in any way, still managed to throw off my mental stability for a disturbing amount of time. In retrospect I like to interpret it as a good sign, that at least now I'm able to recognize just how messed up these thought patterns that I can't always control actually are. Used to be I would just assume my mind knew what it was doing and go along for the ride right off the cliff.
Now, where it gets challenging is when you apply the same approach to internal experiences that you do to some of these external experiences. It's not so easy to just "have a different perspective" on something like sadness or depression. And theoretically that's where a physical practice like Kum Nye (or really any practice that anchors you in the body, approached with proper mindfulness techniques) can help. It's particularly challenging because these mental conditions have an energetic or egoic quality that's difficult to shake because we identify so strongly with them. "I am depressed." "I am upset." "I can't believe people are so stupid."
A cross mind/body discipline such as Kum Nye (don't mean to keep hawking it but I'm doing it every day here so give me a break) helps to create space for those conditions to loosen a bit. I don't think we're purely mental organisms (floating brains), nor are we just electrical impulses attached to walking meat bumping around until we turn into worm food. We're something in between, sort of like consciousness expressing itself via walking meat for some purpose which, clearly for some reason, we're not supposed to quite figure out (or maybe the figuring out is the process/purpose). Our internal events cause actions that take place in the external world, and it reflects back to us in a very real way. This is going down the road of karma a bit, but by beginning to be aware and work on these mental patterns and events we can actually adjust not only our perspective on life but affect the actual shape that our life takes.
I've been working with this practice almost every day for about four months now, and the best way I can think to describe the overall experience is like a glacier. You take something like the 'heart', which starts from a place of:
"What is the heart besides an organ that pumps blood and who gives a shit, shut up hippy" and then you stand with your arms out at your sides for a while and just tell your mind "heart, heart, heart, heart heart heart heartheartheart" and eventually a chunk of ice comes loose.
Now this ice chunk doesn't just disappear, it slams down into the water of emotions, energy, that time someone threw acorns at my head when I was 10 years old - whatever - and causes waves that manifest in my life in various ways. For example sometimes I'll get really sleepy for no good reason during meditation, or I'll have a really terrifying image of a clown pop into my mind's eye, or I'll get nauseous, or suddenly come to in the middle of a jealous episode where I realize I'm acting like an ass.
Seriously, you may see some fucked up things if you meditate enough. I think it's fine though. I dunno.
Slowly over time more and more pieces come off the glacier, the pieces get smaller and before you know it 'heart' starts to make more sense. It's not the kind of thing that could have ever been explained to me, it seems to be something that requires experience and showing up over and over while being nonjudgemental. Now when I hear someone talk about "heart" I don't immediately react from a place of ignorance, confusion or smug confidence in my perspective on reality. I still don't fully "get" it, but by experimenting with the experiences of "heart" I've broadened my experience and now have a more measured reaction.
That's also why this particular path can be considered esoteric or experiential, in that if you just do the practice (holla Nike) - whether it be yoga, meditation, mindfulness, prayer, running, whatever - it will happen, your perspective will change. And like I said earlier, this change is going to happen anyway, but to me it's preferable to direct it in a way of my choosing as opposed to rolling the life dice every time.
A lot of this can be thought of as a combination of creative imagination and useful metaphor, but what's interesting is that the more you allow for that to happen the more the mind adjusts to allow for those possibilities to actually exist. Over time this develops into a very real level of insight, perspective and intuition that has been drastic and clear in my experience. Of course this is difficult to prove because ultimately it's a subjective experience. But there is an objective observation I would point to - lifelong meditators or luminaries like the Dalai Lama, Ram Das, even the new Pope. Is it true they generally seem like pretty happy, grounded people? They're difficult to offend, have a good sense of humor, and life around them seems to have an effortless, yet energetic quality.
Smart human, good point.
In the Joy of Being book the recurring theme Tarthang Tulku uses is inner completeness, or the idea that we are actually already fine but unable to just be, which has us grasping for entertainment, fried food, bad relationships, and so on. While my clunky glacier metaphor doesn't quite match up it works for me as it carries a sense of revealing, or uncovering what is already there underneath the surface. This Path of Transformation is appealing to me because every moment can become an opportunity to change or a challenge if you allow for it, and you can also kind of just turn it off when it becomes too much. Watch some TV, read a book, whatever. And it can also remain entirely secular and be just as effective - if we view events and internal processes like sadness or depression as opportunities for growth at a bare minimum we'll become a more aware, loving person. And I think that's something we could sorely use right now as a species.
July 12, 2016 - Comments Off on Kettlebell Swings and Meditation Cushions
Kettlebell Swings and Meditation Cushions
In my life I've been witness to and participated in the death of traditional martial arts. I took karate classes as a child, punched from the waist and hurt my hand trying in vain to break a piece of wood. I assume this was to prepare for the impending invasion of our small upstate New York town by the Tree-Folk but I'll never know for sure, as the karate school closed for good pretty soon after my parents pulled me out.
Throughout the 80's and 90's the martial arts were mostly doughy white men with mustaches combining the power of raw undeserved machismo with new age flavored nonsense. Basically it was this:
Then mixed martial arts (most notably the UFC along with Pride and others) came along and practicality became the name of the game. Once you could actually test these martial arts in competition that allowed for grappling and striking, several core disciplines survived and thrived. From 1993 on there has been a startling evolution in martial arts, with hundreds of years of tradition being thrown away in favor of the most effective solution.
For sure there's something a little sad about the loss of tradition and spirit of those martial arts, but it's difficult to argue against effectiveness - especially when it comes to a spectacle as black and white as combat sports are. There are plenty of videos on YouTube of Kung Fu masters being strangled by Jiu Jitsu practitioners if one cares to look. Unfortunately the untested qualities of these arts allowed for bullshit artists to creep in, and when the cold reality of a proving ground was introduced we lost some of the spirit and meditative qualities as those traditions were left on the side of the road.
Kind of like this, if Holly Holm were strip mall Karate schools and Miesha Tate were integrated MMA.
It's also not particularly surprising it was a distinctly American/Western entity (UFC) that took that practicality and effectiveness to it's capitalist zenith - having just sold to a media conglomerate for over four billion dollars after holding a landmark 200th event.
Interestingly there's been a corollary evolution in the sphere of pure fitness by itself- with the rise of functional, varied exercises notably championed by the brand Crossfit. Like anything popular Crossfit has taken it's share of lumps for being a "cult" whose acolytes won't stop talking about it - but I've personally found the surge in popularity fascinating to watch. There is a real community among it's members, and a shared sense of purpose and support to complete a physically challenging daily task.
In a country where churches and places of worship are becoming more and more empty, it seems like we're organically finding new places to gather and commune. And testing oneself physically can be a very spiritual practice, whether you're aware of it or not. As someone who's gone through the crucible of several rigorous exercise disciplines over the years I can attest to the fulfillment one can achieve through pushing the physical body to it's limits. There's a state of consciousness reached at peak exhaustion that can become a healthy addiction, and leveraged properly, lead to serious insight.
Kettlebells are really the best.
And this is a very good thing - I believe physical fitness is crucial to a well functioning mind and this country is sorely in need of well functioning minds as we move into the future. These are already tricky times (see: Donald Trump) and sharp, clear heads are going to be absolutely crucial as we deal with seismic social shifts that will only be exacerbated by the exponential technology growth we're currently living through.
Crossfit is thriving as chain gyms like Crunch and Equinox experience decline for many reasons - community is only one of them but it is powerful. I think the same forces of practicality, metrics and effectiveness that choked out the traditional martial arts is also subtly at work here. Admittedly it is less drastic than seeing a Dimmak "master" debunked:
But I think the functional, practical aspects of a Crossfit style workout, combined with the communal & supportive nature of the environment has contributed in no small part to it's current status. Chain gyms on the other hand tend to be solitary experiences, treadmill farms where everyone has headphones in, watching TV.
Now the exercises done in Crossfit gyms aren't new. They certainly haven't invented the squat or Olympic lifting. In fact when I was training at Ronin Athletics we had conditioning classes that were remarkably similar to what Crossfit became before anyone (to my knowledge) had heard of it. What is innovative is that Crossfit made fitness into a new discipline and brand that stands by itself. You can "do" Crossfit. You can "be" a Crossfitter.
I know I will always be involved in a fitness discipline. I don't function optimally without it. I'm pretty convinced that other people don't either. There is too much evidence for the positive effects of exercise on the brain to argue otherwise, as far as I'm concerned.
Now I've also been getting pretty deep into meditation for the past few years. And, as I continue to learn, I've been considering what prevented me from practicing these techniques before as well as reflecting on how I finally did buckle down and begin.
In my opinion, as a discipline and field of study meditation has yet to really find it's footing in the United States - although that is changing. There are interesting intersections of technology too - applications like Headspace have gained in popularity and businesses like MNDFL are receiving good press and doing good work. Headspace even started creating some well-designed meditation pods.
The success of Indian yoga in the west speaks to a little bit of both the community and spiritual hunger here - and despite how you may interpret my previous blog post I do think there's a lot of value in that discipline. Some aspects of meditation and mindfulness are addressed but often not wholly integrated or focused on - and occasionally ignored entirely.
Personal aside: there have been two monumental perspective shifts that happened in my adult life - one was when I began regularly (3+ times per week) training my body and mind in mixed martial arts (and the requisite strength & conditioning training). My aggression and anger decreased dramatically, my mood improved, and I began sleeping better.
The other was when I started doing Kum Nye and regular meditation. I remember specifically getting a very angry phone call from a client's lawyer at Layerframe - lots of cursing and screaming in a Long Island accent came over the line. What was strange was my first reaction was to feel sorry for him, rather than cursing back, being angry or acting out of anger. It wasn't something I was trying to do, it had just happened naturally and was quite a surprise.
So I've been thinking about how to try and blend these two components - Kum Nye already does a great job anchoring the mind in the body for meditation but it does not emphasize physical fitness. This is in part because it (admirably IMO) aims for a broader audience, and airs on the safer side of exercises.
As technology brings human beings closer together, it's also bringing up a host of issues that require some serious conscious thought and action. A community of fit and happy people, flexible of mind, body and spirit is going to be crucial in the immediate future. I think it's worth investing creative energy into, a new Human Development System to help us deal with the pull of smartphones, virtual reality and Pokemon Go.
I think that a new type of fitness discipline - one that truly integrates both body and mind - is not only necessary for modern society but inevitable. By applying the lessons learned from the evolution of physical exercise/fitness and martial arts, I wonder if these principles of practicality, community, and measurable effective results can be applied to an integrative practice. Could the kettle-bell meet the meditation cushion?
One thought is that classes and exercises could be themed around an awareness or mindfulness practice - for example a Balance themed class could incorporate postures influenced by yoga, single-leg deadlifts, and gymnastic exercises, with a guided meditation on finding Balance within thoughts and mental events. Flexibility, Endurance, Energy Stimulation and even Breathing could be suitable topics for discussion, exercise and practice.
An online component could help to foster a community, with participants able to share their experiences in applying awareness techniques during "real life" outside their practice sessions. Quantifying mindfulness and meditation techniques is obviously a little bit of a challenge, but perhaps a standardized questionnaire or something like a "Mind Coach" who interviews you could work as well.
Religion tends to freak people out in the United States but a more secular approach to Buddhist teachings could inform design elements and some of the primer content. That's a little tricky as well, you would have to pay proper respect and be very careful using those teachings - but there is obviously a ton of material and tradition to source from there that I find personally very valuable.
So this is something that came up as I've been rolling some of these ideas around my brain - if you're into it or have thoughts please let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!
June 29, 2016 - Comments Off on The Importance of Showing the ☠@✴# Up
The Importance of Showing the ☠@✴# Up
There's one phrase I heard early on here that seems to hold true pretty consistently - "You're going to get what you put into it." This can seem intimidating, especially here because there are several thousand years of tradition, history and mind-blowingly in depth metaphysical concepts to study and help support. A seemingly simple seven line prayer has an entire book written about it.
There's also not much guidance for rank novices like myself on where one should actually start. I actually ended up quite liking this as it allowed me to find my own comfort level, rhythm for absorption and a baseline to start work. However I did run into some difficulties - it's daunting and my initial response to daunting tasks tended to be "hide and wait it out."
The approach I've been using to deal has been effective for me and so thought it may be worth sharing. It's pretty simple on the surface, like most good maxims - "Show Up." 5am Kum Nye class? Just get out of bed. Once I do, just like that going back into bed is now a defeat larger than the initial challenge. Tired after lunch but have to paint a Stupa? Just pour the paint into a tray. Now it's a task to put the paint back into the bucket so I may as well get started. It's sort of a micro-victory approach, combined with pump faking my own laziness and ego.
For me that's always the hardest part- it's thinking about how nice it is in bed while you're under the covers and should get up, or rationalizing the reasons that you don't really need to go this class and besides everyone else is watching a movie. And really I don't have to do any of it - apart from a little guilt the consequences aren't so great. I'm not in grade school, and no one is going to give a shit that I don't go to class - the only party being affected negatively is me and my personal growth.
When I have some objective distance from the situation (easiest post-showing up by the way) the choice is obvious - just go, idiot. After all why am I here at Ratna Ling? To grind 10 hours a day for a cause I can't be bothered to learn about and make no money in the process? Or am I here to put in my best effort to contribute to myself and an organization that I learn about and believe in? Both at work and in study there are opportunities to develop greatly and find satisfaction if approached with the proper energy.
h/t to Alexandra who sends me wonderful nonsense like this on the daily.
In reality it's a small hump to get over but it is constant and pervasive - and it's something I've dealt with for years before coming out here to Ratna Ling as well. Any activity not mentally labeled as "fun" or "enjoyable" or "easy" can fall victim to this line of reasoning. Studying, exercises I don't like, phone calls I don't want to make - there are micro barriers that I erect in the mind that lead to procrastination or poor effort. That's why the "show up" approach works pretty well - it's a micro effort to overcome a micro barrier. Once you start dialing the phone it's usually fine and in fact tends to be enjoyable in the end.
So if you want to be a person who goes to the gym every morning, don't think about how the hour spent there will be. Unless you're remarkably positive or stupid your mind will begin telling you all kinds of stories about how much it will suck compared to staying here in bed where it's warm. Just get out of bed, get to the gym. Once you're there it's more work to go back home, and so you may as well start to wake up and jump rope.
Another practice I've learned here from Arnaud is to set personal time commitments. So for example, can I go to Kum Nye class every morning for a month? How does that feel? Impossible? How about one week? Try that and see how it feels. If I hate it, at least now I know and I tried. This keeps the ownness on me too, which is a more consistent metric to reference than any sense of responsibility to others (which can vary based on personal preference, respect, etc.).
Now once I do show up, the next hurdle is usually full participation. In my best moments I like to look at my work in this life as an expression of my human potential - that can be hard to find when you're neck deep in an Excel spreadsheet but even there I think it holds true if you're doing it for the right reasons. If that's true than why do I sometimes find it difficult to throw myself into a task, participating with joy and an open mind? And it's even more true for activities outside of work. It seriously boggles my mind as to why someone would show up to a class or event of their own volition and then mope or not take part as fully as they can.
I have noticed there are some common mental patterns I've observed that lead to issues like procrastination and holding back. Oftentimes it's the shitty inner roommate who tells me the project is stupid, or I could be doing something better, or this person or that organization doesn't appreciate it anyway, etc. I'm also starting to recognize that I personally need to improve on the middle portion of projects in particular. I tend to be a strong starter, good at creation and tapping into ideas with others, and I'm pretty good in the clutch ie, deadlines and crunch times. But the middle - routine, maintenance, etc. - I tend to get frustrated and bored with.
I'm working on those issues by - yes, once again - keeping it small. Setting micro deadlines and more importantly taking the time to immediately reflect on a task once it's accomplished has been a big help. Trying to find the sense of joy and accomplishment in the single blue stripe on a wall that I do on week four, as opposed to the initial rush we had in the beginning while talking about the renovation's potential, or scrambling and working late as a team to get the project done in time for a larger deadline.
I recently helped paint and hang these giclees of the Buddha's life story with the wonderful Alexandra at Dharma Publishing.
With something physical and tangible like painting or exercise it's a little easier because my body's energy starts flowing, the heart rate increases, hormones pump and synapses fire. I can tap into that ape-based evolutionary reward system and it makes the task a little easier. But full participation in mental activities - study, office work, art - that's a more difficult challenge to unpack sometimes. Especially working in digital - there's a sharp disconnect between the body and the sense of accomplishment when it comes to tasks like programming or graphic design where it sometimes take an inordinate amount of mental energy to move something ten pixels to the left, and then it doesn't work on a goddamn phone anyway:
Not saying it should feel like a struggle every time, and if you seriously can't find any joy you should absolutely find something else to do. If you hate programming or dry walling or management or whatever - get out. Just quit, life is way too short and you're too important to the human story to be wasting your (and all of our) time being miserable.
But I would suggest first trying to set that time period for a personal commitment to show up, participate fully and then taking the time to reflect. Did you find any pleasure or joy in the task? Then maybe see if you can identify that feeling during the task itself the next time, maybe by breaking it down into smaller and smaller pieces. Can you find pleasure in tapping the keyboard, delight in finding a good color, joy in lifting up a sand bag, happiness in hoisting a pallet over your head?
If you're interested in learning more a lot of these ideas originated via Skillful Means, a book I recommend highly when it comes to motivation and discipline in your work. We're developing some programs here at Dharma Publishing that expand upon that, including an online academy that I hope will launch soon. Look forward to sharing that with you all!
Till next time, nerds. XO
June 19, 2016 - Comments Off on Stream.it or Transparency in Streaming
Stream.it or Transparency in Streaming
Full concept design at the bottom of the post.
As an occasional maker of noise and someone who's worked with Spotify on many occasions, I've spent a good amount of time thinking about how streaming services work, what the models for success (or lack thereof) might be and the challenges for artists and listeners.
It's obviously a difficult problem - our consumption of art has been fundamentally changed by the internet, and there's no going back. That said a lot of artists have issues with the way financial models work. I hope technology will eventually cut out labels and facilitate a more direct-to-artist model but that may be a while.
Random thought for today is below - what if there were an option to see exactly where your money went when you listened to music? There are probably legal issues behind not disclosing this information but I would find it interesting.
It's illustrated here as a service on it's own but it could be integrated into an existing service like Spotify, Google Play, etc. as well. In terms of this prototype you'd be able to unlock unlimited listens if you spent a certain amount (roughly the cost of an album or iTunes purchase ~$9.99). The user could also get bonus stats and maybe special offers, perhaps promoting independent artists - or alternately monetization via the Justin Bieber's of the world 🙂
Either way, transparency is going to be the next big step taken in streaming services, if I had to hazard a guess. This would be a good first step and (I think) interesting / useful for users as well. Ciao!
For further reading:
June 8, 2016 - Comments Off on Artify, or how to spawn an idea like a mind salmon
Artify, or how to spawn an idea like a mind salmon
During guided meditation a couple of days ago the idea for an online art machine came to me. I prefer that term, “came to me” because that’s closest what happened. It was just a new form or manifestation of what’s been true in my life for a long time, that “I” am not really responsible for any of the creative things that could arguably be attributed to "me."
This isn’t treading new ground, but as someone who is very happy with this persona I’ve crafted of Creative Person it bears analysis.
But first, what about MY awesome idea?!
So, what if there was a very simple online interface where you could upload or create a simple piece of “art” - however we want to define that. Maybe a scribble on a piece of paper, maybe a few words of a song you like - whatever. I present, Artify!
You submit this nugget of creativity to the Artify interface and once you do it spits you out a piece of art that someone else has lovingly submitted to Artify from some random place on planet earth. Maybe it connects the two of you, maybe not. I don't know.
Now there’s a good chance this concept was done already, especially given the Golden Rule of the Internet:
If you’ve thought of it, it already exists somewhere (and it’s likely been monetized). A prime example of this phenomenon is someone selling their used socks online for $50 a pair.
But I like the idea of encouraging the creation and distribution of art, it seems like a good use for the emerging collective consciousness that is the internet. Better than more cat videos. Anyway, I have no idea how to build the damn thing but I’ll add it to the ever-expanding pile of ideas that will make no money.
What struck me as unique is the way the idea came about. We were working with the concepts of Restraint and Resistance as impediments to Wholeness of Being - heady concept that if you want to read more about Dharma Publishing conveniently happens to sell a good book on (#marketing!).
During a particular exercise we were doing in relation to that restraint concept my instructor Arnaud mentioned expanding any feelings we had “like a mandala” - which in the context of what we were doing was sort of out of left field. But somehow that one line guided my mind somewhere new, and this online art exchange idea just popped into existence. It was really, really cool.
Was it informed by prior experience? For sure, it was filtered through what I’m bringing to the table as an individual with a past who exists in a specific time filled with cat videos.
But I certainly didn’t put any personal legwork into this idea. I don’t know much about mandalas either, so I wonder how much the word itself factored into it. And I'm not sure knowing really matters, if some network of existing knowledge is being tapped into at any point then you theoretically have access to that information without learning it in “real life” anyway. I still don’t know much about mandalas, the point I'm trying to make is maybe the word itself could have a power and meaning behind it that I don’t need to be aware of.
Having a sudden superpower to generate questionable internet ideas is not particularly exciting to me. What is exciting is learning how to tap into that field where creative ideas come from in a way that doesn’t involve much actual effort beyond relaxing, breathing and sitting. The concept that every breath, sound, feeling is full of creative potential and (hopefully) learning how to get there at will. That's pretty awesome.
It's also nice being reminded that it's important to keep your ego in check while simultaneously being granted access to a wealth of new creative ideas. How to harness all that is probably a lifelong pursuit, but the potential is one of the more interesting possibilities I've come across of late.
The muse, the collective unconscious, inspiration striking etc. I still have no idea how creativity really works.
Does it work like this? I think it works like this.
In the context of writing, creating music, visual design / artwork, martial arts and even business ideas for Layerframe there’s been a different way “in”, and I find the process of discovering that route fascinating and fulfilling. This was a totally new one to me and so felt like sharing. We're still going through training all this week so hoping for more interesting experiences.
So Artify, would you use it? Be honest, I don’t particularly care one way or the other- it’s not my idea anyway. No, by this point it should be obvious- it was brought to me by a demonic hell beast named Gwarlth, covered in filth, bile and maggots who slithered up from a hole in the earth right where I made my animal sacrifice! Till next time friends.
May 25, 2016 - Comments Off on My Cheat Code for Meditation
My Cheat Code for Meditation
Today at 6:00am I started teaching my first Kum Nye class at Ratna Ling. So, I’m writing about it. In the interest of brevity I’m going to describe how I came to understand it. Hopefully I’ll be able to expand on some of the experiences and learnings I’ve had a result in further posts.
“Kum Nye is a system of physical exercises based on traditional Tibetan healing practices.”
-Kum Nye - Tibetan Yoga
The Kum Nye book, you can buy it here.
Now ‘yoga’ is a tricky word here. I tend to associate it first with tight Lululemon pants and teachers who give instructions like they’re speaking to a weak-willed child with sensitive hearing. But it can also be a very powerful physical and spiritual discipline - and one that I’ve actually gotten quite a lot of good from in my life. The issue is that in the West we’ve definitively emphasized the physical, fitness component. We're very good at getting results! However the idea of fitness and control of the body has come to dominate the more spiritual, meditative and traditional aspects of the practice. There’s also the commercialization that comes with anything massively successful like yoga.
There’s not anything necessarily wrong with the Western interpretation of yoga - but that's where the split arises with Kum Nye, because it’s not really like that type of yoga. You won’t get toned abs and triceps if you only do Kum Nye. My flexibility has increased but that’s not the point either. In fact for a while the Kum Nye luminaries resisted calling it yoga at all, I think because of those commercial & fitness connotations. Kum Nye was originally described as a method of relaxing the body for meditative practice, which has been more accurate in my experience.
The definition of the word ‘yoga’ in Sanskrit it means ‘union’. My first instructor Matt described as ‘yoke’ - yoking the mind to the body, like an ox to a cart. In this way, linking the mind with the body, in the body- then the term yoga actually makes good sense as I understand Kum Nye.
A Kum Nye practice session is typically relatively slow movements and postures held for a long time. I would argue it’s closer in nature to Tai Chi in terms of physical dynamism than it is Hatha or Vinyasa yoga. As a rough example- one exercise, called Heart Gold Thread, involves standing with your arms out to both sides at shoulder height and simply holding that position for around ten minutes. Once you’re done, you sit and feel. You might do that and one other exercise in a class, maybe slowly floating your arms overhead then touching the toes to relax - and that may be it. The rest of the time is spent sitting, feeling, and noticing what happens in the body.
What I personally found so wonderful about this practice is it really prepped my physical body for meditation. That was the the light-from-the-sky “aha!” moment for me - previously I never ‘got’ meditation. By the time I got around to trying it the word it was so loaded with preconceived notions and perceptions that I thought there was no way into it. The concept of meditation itself seemed at once boring, intimidating, weak, and far too much work to endure. When I tried I would immediately get fidgety, start thinking about breakfast or lunch or a relationship and at the end of 15 minutes end up hating the entire idea of meditative practice.
But, once I started doing these exercises to stimulate feeling in the body (and if you stand with your arms at shoulder height for 30 minutes and feel nothing please come speak to me) I found it was relatively easy to anchor my mind into those feelings. It’s like I had found a cheat code for meditation - rather than just sitting and trying not to think, I had a thing to do. An activity for the mind to drop into, specifically my body and the feelings these exercises generate.
I’m not going to evangelize the exercises themselves over others, because my understanding of physiology is on the level with a four-year old, but I will evangelize the approach to meditation Kum Nye is able to provide. By giving equal opportunity to sitting and bringing the mind into union with the body as it does physical movement and postures, Kum Nye was able to bridge the gap of yoga from an exercise discipline into a more meditative and spiritual practice.
Alex Grey is a great visionary artist, and adept at representing the subtle body energy system we work with in meditative and Kum Nye practice.
And said meditative, spiritual practice hasn’t brought me any sort of final peace. The questions I face now are arguably more terrifying than before. They have more import, more weight, more heft. And somehow at the same time there’s a lightness to the work here, a playfulness within the serious nature and tradition. Every action in life means a great deal, and the result of every action in life is also a chance to learn and try to do better.
Meditation has opened a lot of doors and happiness, and Kum Nye allowed me to actually start walking down that path - I owe a lot to the practice.
Kum Nye is the reason I came out here to Ratna Ling - and I was introduced to Kum Nye by Matt Breit, who was an instructor out here for several years. So I’ve pushed to become an instructor here, because it’s helped me make monumental progress spiritually and teaching feels like the right, natural next thing to do. Cycles roll and patterns unfold.
I’m still learning as well - there are three books in the series of Kum Nye practice and I’m working through the second one now, Joy of Being. The focus is shifting to mind more, how to use it and work with it as opposed to body. So I’m excited about that! I’m also working through some Power Kum Nye videos, hopefully I can share some of that with you all soon. Let me know if you have any Kum Nye questions and I'll try my best not to butcher them. Ciao for now!
May 4, 2016 - Comments Off on I’m With Stupa
I’m With Stupa
Hi friends! First, a quick update on the woodpecker situation from last time. Couple weeks ago I started noticing brown dust around my sink. I was confused for a few days, because I would clean it up and then it would reappear whenever I came back at night. The amount kept increasing until finally I looked up and realized the color matched the ceiling. Surprise! Carpenter ants, or termites. Either way, prime woodpecker food. AKA the circle of life with a touch of karma biting me directly in the ass. My current plan is to hope both parties find my taste in music a repellant and just leave, because tenting my cabin to spray is a whole thing I don't want to deal with at the moment. Besides, sawdust in your toothpaste is basically the Tom's of Maine brand promise.
A quick search also just turned up that Tom's of Maine is a subsidiary of Colgate-Palmolive. Are not even our ineffective hippy deodorants and chalky flavorless toothpastes safe from corporate takeover?
Recently I've been spending a few hours each day working on several components of Ratna Ling's ever-expanding longevity stupa garden. And by that I mean my lovely Latvian coworker Andi assigns me some piece I can't mess up too badly by being inept with most tools.
Quick explainer from an ignorant person!
As I understand it in Buddhist tradition stupas are sacred monuments and are generally considered places of meditation (and maybe worship, but Buddhists tend to shy away from religion-y words). They have different meanings based on the location and can be dedicated to specific deities or represent different theories. I've heard it described as a sitting Buddha with the base representing the folded legs, the head toward the top with enlightenment representations above that - but I've also seen examples where different elements are represented by the different segments, earth, fire, air, etc. I'm still learning, so if this is woefully inaccurate forgive me and also get off your high horse.
/explainer from ignorant person!
One might put the remains of Buddhist monks and nuns in the base of it, but the stupas we're making use what are called 'empowerments'. These are sacred Tibetan texts printed by DP's friends next door at the Yeshe De Text Preservation Project that don't make the grade to be shipped over to India. When you're printing (I think actually literally) tons of books the machines make some mistakes and you end up with incomplete, misprinted or torn books.
This is a quick video about the World Peace Ceremony in Bodhgaya the Yeshe De folks work for:
Because these texts are sacred, tradition warrants you either burn them or use them for something. Can't throw 'em out. So empowerments are a good way to use them - by placing these incomplete yet still theoretically energetic and powerful books into the base of the stupa it transfers some of that energy into the monument and is also a good recycle/reuse method.
Plus in 200 years after the Trump supporters have wiped out North America someone could find this stupa, bust it open and find some sweet, sweet Buddhist knowledge. Assuming they knew Tibetan and weren't a zombie, or knew someone who knew Tibetan or were a zombie who knew Tibetan.
The process isn't too complex, we use these heavy rubber molds and pour cement into them, and then spend an ungodly amount of time patching and sanding them until the pieces are totally smooth or until Andi runs out of patience after I've managed to make it uneven for the 13th time in a row.
The stupa proving grounds, rubber molds are the white things.
The cement mixing requires sustained focus and repetitive strenuous energy. The first day I didn't wear any protective gear like a macho dumbass and was coughing and itchy for days afterward. I used my bare hands to pull the cement out of the mixer at one point, which even at the time I realized was incredibly stupid and yet somehow, I powered through my internal voice of reason.
It's hot, loud, and heavy work - each cement bag weighs sixty pounds and you could go through 80-90 of those in one day sometimes. I prefer not to count the number of times I ripped, dropped, or spilled a bag while hauling it over the lip of the mixer. Thankfully I usually had two spry younglings to help me haul the buckets out and manage the load. My main task was to make sure the consistency was correct. Too little water in the mixer and it's clumpy and you can't get the nice little pebbles on top, everyone gets bad karma and you lose. Too much water in the mixer and the concrete cracks once it dries, everyone gets worse karma and you still lose.
The patching and sanding is much more meditative and artisanal work. I hesitate to call it craftsmanship because that's something skilled people do, but I think just "ship" would cover it without being overblown. The concrete molds have been used a few times and are by no means perfect, so they come out with a ton of tiny holes, like sacred swiss cheese. You have to patch all those holes with magic patching dust that mixes with water. Add it to the list of things I know how to use but have no idea how they actually work. I just assume it's some kind of magic, like electricity and combustion engines.
Ardex, great for patching not so great for cereal topping.
It's really interesting to work with focus and attention in relation to both activities. The patchwork, sanding and chiseling is more aesthetically gratifying because it's pretty to look at almost immediately, and getting nice smooth surfaces just feels nice. It's all very delicate, precious and careful work. It's detail-oriented to the max, almost maddening in scope and equally fulfilling at the end.
But the cement mixing process feels like... a process. You get to wear crazy rubber gloves, a respirator and do your best backcountry meth-cooker impression, ruin some clothes, sweat a bunch and at the end you get a giant heavy chunk of nicely shaped spiritually charged rock. It's the far more metal of the two experiences.
Pictured: spry young Belgian imported worker.
It's been wonderful to work outside after spending most of the past three decades staring a computer monitor. Seriously when I die I feel like a majority of my life review will be loading screens. Northern California weather is unbelievable too. It just goes from pleasantly cool to pleasantly sunny and back to pleasantly cool again.
We should be finishing these over the next couple of weeks and I'll post some photos once we're all done! Ciao.