Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Fall Announcements for Dragon Mountain

Things have been busy at Dragon Mountain, and there will be more announcements coming over the next few months. This blog will be used for announcements etc., while we are moving to a different platform for topic and discussion posts (to be announced soon).

Mental Health Care Advocates of Rhode Island/OASIS

Dragon Mountain runs the Responsive Wellness Program at Mental Health Care Advocates of RI/OASIS. MHCA/OASIS is a peer run community for those with mental illness. Dragon Mountain holds 7 sessions a week of qi gong and meditation, plus an additional once a month pain management guided group meditation. We have been present with this community for almost two years and are excited to see how it is growing.

Fox Point Senior Citizens Center

Dragon Mountain is now offering the Responsive Wellness Program every Weds at 9:30am (right before bingo) at the Fox Point Senior Center. This is a seated program with movement, meditation and information all focused on providing pain management and improving quality of life. Fox Point Senior Center is free of charge, serves lunch (donation requested but not required), has many different fitness programs including one that features the beautiful pool, as well as different activities throughout the week. They are located right in the Boys and Girls Club on Ives (next to the Fox Point Library). This is a wonderful community and we are honored to have been asked to be a part of it.
PS - they could also use a volunteer for a few hours a week to help in the office, contact me via the z-cc.com site.

Online Video, eBook and Paper Programs
We are almost done completing the Compassionate Facilitator Program, Understanding Loss series and the Chan Buddhist Program "The 10 Ox-herding Pictures: Developing & Deepening Buddhist Practice." Both will be available via online video instruction, by eBook, and as paper books. This spring should see the release of online video programs in several of the martial arts taught at Dragon Mountain as well. Check back for release announcements of the stages of these programs.

The "10 Ox-herding Pictures" is our dharma teaching program. It is a guided method to help you:

  • Develop and deepen your understanding and practice of Chan Buddhism
  • Live, act and understand the world through the practice of Chan Buddhism.
  • Learn to use the sutras as part of your practice.
  • Living towards dhyana.
The Compassionate Facilitator's Program is designed for facilitators  who manage groups. It is a secular program that will help you facilitate groups of all kinds. It includes modules such as:
  • Non-verbal communication
  • Methods of compassionate group facilitation
  • Assessment of group practices
  • Implementing change
  • Preventing Facilitator Burnout
  • Understanding and Managing Bias
  • Group Dynamics
  • Sustaining adaptive groups
  • Crisis Intervention
  • Boundaries and adaptive communication
We are also developing a series on grief, bereavement and social support called "Understanding Loss." Topics to be covered include:
  • Abortion
  • Miscarriage
  • Infertility
  • Chronic pain
  • Aging
  • Disability
  • When a parent dies
  • When a partner dies
  • When someone you know dies
  • When a pet dies
  • When an important figure dies
  • Tragedy in the news

Monday, April 14, 2014

The finches have an alternate lifestyle

The whole idea was to have these gorgeous little finches in this gorgeous little cage just hanging above the altar and all just being gorgeous little examples of nature, simplicity, purpose and community. Instead, I have a touch of Peyton Place with a finch that very well might be related to Paula Dean living above the passageway to the living space. It would appear to be only incidentally that the statue of Kwan Yin floats nearby - she either has no interest, or no influence over the melodrama behind bars that occurs on a daily basis in that corner of the world.
What it was supposed to be like
Remember when I was building up to getting the finches? The excitement, the preparation. All of the research into their history and meaning; their purpose and role in teaching about community and life. They would arrive and by nature and genetics be driven to not only pair off, but to live in a cohesive group. They would be individuals, but trumped by group mind when needed. Birds of warning, they are called, because of the depth they can reveal our own social behavior.

The depth I wasn't expecting
Depth is good, depth is great. I have no hair ergo I must be very spiritually deep. The reality is that while shaving one's head may be a symbol of commitment, the reality is more that you are too busy to worry about appearances. How very Buddhists. Things change and now I am growing my hair back in for a reason. It is called doing what is necessary in the moment - how very Buddhist. However, while me and my follicles represent a level of down and dirty practicality in my life - I, like everyone else, want my heroes and examples to somehow be above all of it. I think this is why we do best with dead people as heroes. There is a limit to how much we can learn about their inability to keep their whites white or the fact that they have a think about napkins on a table.  There are endless reminders in the sutras and teaching texts that teachers and leaders of all feathers are very real. It is also always cautioned that death does not undo the ugliness that life makes.

So with my finches, my teachers, my examples of social community - I expected something....higher...loftier...winged flight that left not just the ground but the very mundane of interaction. How silly of me. If they are meant to reveal who we are, then guess whose reflection they will show?

What happened to genetics?
So I have four and they should have paired off, even though they were all male. They are genetically driven to pair off. I had two wicker nests set up, 2 finches per nest - what a deal. Now....I have three finches living an alternate lifestyle in one nest and the little white one (nicknamed 'the ass') is living by himself. One of my "male" finches is laying eggs everywhere but the nest and twice a day they chase the little ass around and he flies and flies as if his life depended on it. Just when I think I should intervene, all is quiet and peaceful; until I catch the little ass out when the others are in nest sitting under their wicker home and pulling the cotton out between the spaces on the bottom.

They are and remain, my greatest and most joyful lesson. As well as the hardest to take for what they do reveal about me. They are teaching me when to leave well enough alone and let people struggle for themselves, and when it is effective to intervene. We have been having a lot of discussions lately about how the last person you want showing up to lend a hand is the person who "has something to give" or is there "to help." The best assistance comes from the one who simply makes themselves available and bends to the need of the moment. In most of what is needed in this world, there is less a need for visions of solutions and perfect worlds and more need of people willing to listen to what would help someone take the next step. Less deciding for others what will make their lives worthwhile and more asking them what they value. This, I am learning from the finches, is how healthy communities are made - not through direction but through collaboration - collaboration that doesn't always imply everyone gets along.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Writing without pictures

I am enroute. Which means I am posting via the blogger app so adding cutesy pictures in is something I haven't quite figured out how to do. Neither, it would seem, have I figured out how to read a Massport schedule and showed up early for my 645 connection to Logan Airport only to discover that there is no such thing on the weekdays. The young woman behind the ticket counter called a cab for me so I could still make my 8am connection. However, the cab was late and I got on the 715 express and have written the whole thing off to adventuring.
When plans go wrong
I am surprisingly unfazed by the potential that all this will make me late to the Oasis program. It is a good example of what I have been learning in GO. While I still need to work on slowing myself down to think things through with all the details; I have become much more adept at the letting go of plans and expectations when they just don't work out. It is a triumph considering that just 6 years ago I would have been a stressed basket case full of blame and anxiety that I would have merrily carried throughout most of the week. One of the things I have learned is that you cannot avoid suffering in life, but you have far greater choice about what it is necessary to suffer with.
Transforming ideas into life
Now that lesson counts as Buddhism 101. The fact that suffering is inevitable. It is easy to learn the words, and even easier to adopt the delusion that having mastered those words and the practice of "letting go" when there is nothing Earth rattling to let go it that you are all set. It can be shocking when something happens that disproves one's perception of one's own development. Misreading a schedule isn't all that Earth rattling; but it easily can be.
Discovering safe harbor
You begin to develop the ability to bear suffering when you begin to discover the ability you have to sit with discomfort and within raw reality without trying to make it anything other than what it really is. Many people feel that meditative practices fail them, or that the Dharma is lacking or the Buddhist faith is not up to real life when they are confronted with suffering they cannot resolve. If one only meditates using breathing exercises, one has only learned how to breathe. Meditation is about discipline, not relaxation of calming. The latter can be a glorious byproduct and you never have to pursue more; but to reach the door where you can begin to peek at what living the dhamma means in life - you must develop the discipline to allow yourself to be challenged in ways that can be most uncomfortable.
But don't do this
By nature, we cannot create our own discomfort. Not even the most masochistic person can create true discomfort and challenge for themselves because the brain always demands context and reward. External teachings are always required to constantly shift and change to avoid the human brain from undermining the process of spiritual and mental development. The longer you practice one specific style of meditation, the less effective and more ego-controlled it becomes.
Which is why my shoulder hurts
In my new 28 day practice, I was all set to launch off into the same process as the one prior only to be corrected by my approach. Instead of being permitted to sit in mindful repose each day, I am challenge to a moving meditation that is requiring me to relearn all the basics about meditative breathing and centering. It is a challenge that is immediately revealing how easily I have fallen into habits that appear on the surface to be one thing - yet are very much not that.
It is a very slow and controlled moving meditation using a sword. My breathing must remain fully engaged and circular, I must mindfully shepherd my Qi within the balance of the movement and even at its slowest stage, I am never permitted to stop moving. All the while this is occurring I must control my thoughts and focus entirely on a section of the Diamond Sutra -

"All that has form is illusive and unreal,
If you see that all form is illusive and unreal
Then you will reveal your true buddha nature."

It has also revealed that I have become complacent and avoidant of certain physical therapy issues and my right shoulder threatens to become a frozen joint.
Ahhhh...the lessons we learn when we become willing.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Not with two hands and a flashlight

This weekend marked the close of the 28 day cycle I was on concerning the question of whether compassion and love were compatible. The best way I can describe what happened is there has been a monumental shift within me and somewhere in the cosmos, a bodhisattva is laughing. So I decided to do another cycle, only this time with a different question - how does virtue live?

If you want to do this along with me you are welcome too. Simply write the question down and put it in an envelope that you clearly label with the date - April 21, 2014 -  on the front and place it where you will see it everyday and often. Then, find 8 physical things and a meditation you want to do everyday. Here is something I have learned - don't set yourself up for failure by declaring that you are going to sit for such and such a time or do this and this number of repetitions of an exercise - make a list of what must be done and then let the reality of the day decide how much you can do. Next, do that every day and turn yourself outward to pay attention to the world as seen through that question, "how does virtue live?" You will be surprised at the education you will receive.

Don't read about virtue or meditate on it, you are the worst person to teach yourself and whatever you come up with in the privacy of your own head - or take in with the heavy filter of confirmation bias - is not going to do you much use. Instead, practice opening up and breathing, mindfully observing life around you and virtue will surprise you in how it speaks of how it has survived and what it needs to live on. It may even, given that for once your yammering about what it is has fallen silent, be able to tell you its story, who it is, what it looks like and more.

Whenever I use the word "you" in a post I mean it in a very global and personal sense. By "you" I mean "me" and I mean all of us. It is funny how much I have been reminded this past week of the adage - never assume you are the teacher. It is a powerful lesson that one needs to learn over and over especially if you are in a position of teaching or leading. We forget that we don't take in anything without delusion, my "right" is seen through my life. No matter how far you get in giving up self and becoming compassionate towards the world there is never a moment where you know what someone needs or what will help or what they should learn; all you know is that you have what you carry and your willingness to carry more and to give freely.  In many ways, some of my most powerful lessons in working within a world of need have come from the game of GO. In GO, if you ever think you are a master and better than others you are on your way to bitter disappointment. Not only will you most likely cause great harm to new players by destroying their joy in the game with your endless lessons and expertise, but in the moment that someone is better than you - part of your identity will be destroyed.

Identity is a curious thing. It plays a great role in how we corrupt and emasculate virtue. We call virtue out by words and think that because we can say them in a logical order that virtue is a living thing. Virtue, this I know, is a state. A very messy and unpleasant state.

Just as an aside, at some point this week or next I will try to tackle the delicate conversation about surgical violence and Buddhism. It has come up, albeit with a tremendous patronizing and irresponsible swipe - grandstanding I think is the term I am looking for. But before I get there I will leave you with one thing to let sink in

- karma isn't about you

Friday, March 14, 2014

Shouting in a Silent Room - Rethinking Meditation and Serious Mental Illness

Shouting in a Silent Room:
Rethinking Meditation and Serious Mental Illness
Cassandra Tribe, Master
Dragon Mountain Ch'an Temple and Zen Community Centre

Patriarch's Vision Vol 1 No 3
International Ch'an Buddhism Institute

Dusty is indolence.
Dust comes in its wake.
With knowledge and vigilance,
Draw the arrow of suffering from yourself.
Buddha Vacana

The use of movement and meditation within group recovery practices for persons with Serious Mental Illness (SMI) is a contentious practice in the United States. Part of the struggle comes from the problems inherent to this community and the other stems from the lack of practical and traditional training in meditation by the facilitators and program designers. A recent year-long initiative introduced a traditional program of Chan meditation and movement to a community centre for those with Serious Mental Illness to examine the viability of movement and meditation in a population identified by Any Mental Illness.  The hope was to gain a better understanding of the problems with meditation and Serious Mental Illness and to suggest what potential resolution could be.

What was discovered was that the majority of the problems associated with using meditation as a complementary or support practice with those with Serious Mental Illness stemmed from the inadequate training of the facilitators and program designers. It was not the result of anyone with a Serious Mental Illness being unable to manage their reaction to meditation. In examining why the training and programs were inadequate, the core problem stemmed from the Westernization of traditional Chan practice to increase its accessibility to Western culture has resulted in a dilution of its ability to be effective by making the current practices and mind-sets of facilitators too rigid to be able to respond to what is happening in the moment.

By further following the hypothesis that the principle of the mass line theory could be applied within this setting to correct the approach of the facilitator and the design of the program, an effective and supportive meditative practice could be developed and used by persons with Serious Mental Illness, as well as Any Mental Illness as it would be rooted in the traditional teachings and practices informed by the community involvement. It was also believed that by using the mass line results as a guiding tool a new program for training facilitators could be implanted to restore flexibility, presence, mindfulness, discipline and compassion to their education.
Where perception of danger lies, rigidity and exclusion thrive.

Two forces are at work in the social welfare system that has prohibited meditation from being effectively introduced as a supporting or complementary therapy for those with Serious Mental Illness and Any Mental Illness. The first is the standard declaration by the U.S. Department of Health that has discouraged the use of meditative practices with mentally ill consumers because of a perceived risk of dissociation, disturbance and inducement of psychosis or delusions. The second comes from the adaptation of the traditional Chan practices to popular alternative culture within the American society that has reduced the focus of the practice to one of self-focus and individualized experience. The lack of contextual study of the sutras, diligence in practice and the promotion of patient practice over a form of rapid achievement have allowed a diluted form of Buddhist practice to be embraced by the alternative culture. The unfortunate effect of going too far in adapting the traditional practice to a culture is that the meaning and effectiveness of the practice, with or without fidelity to the beliefs - has lost its ability to provide for a check for the mental stability, intent and methodology of the practitioners promoting it as a treatment for the reduction of stress and anxiety in those with mental disorders of any degree.

Rather than promote a more independent and freer interpretation of Buddhist practice and belief that leads to greater accessibility and application; the removal of discipline and structure has led to a preponderance of schools and practitioners that are more engaged with individualistic interpretations that cling to a kind of materialism and reject change, adaptability, flexibility and responsiveness as a value in community practice. The duality of sudden enlightenment and revelatory enlightenment of the Chan tradition has made it particularly susceptible to adoption by those who under less kind circumstances would be considered narcissistic seekers of a cult of personality.

Core to the identity of these practitioners is the presentation of meditation as having a specific goal, as well as all experiences and beliefs systems being but only differently voiced versions of the same universal experience. This individualistic and self-centred interpretation of traditional practice has gained a strong foothold in the Western world as it retains the individual as the centre of the essence of all cycles, removes the need for training and supervision, and establishes a role in which authority is not to be questioned or constructively criticized. When this is combined with the recent scientific studies of certain types of meditation that have quantitatively defined a physical effect for the practice - the result is the creation of a false behavioural operand that can only lead to failure, as well as harm when introduced to a marginalized and vulnerable community along with a complete invalidation of the social capital of marginalized communities by refusing them the value of their unique identifiers.

This phenomenon is not unique to the religion of Buddhism.  Unlike its companion trends in Christianity and Islam; the practices of the latter faiths are not being used by.... (read more  download the full journal article and issue here, or visit the ICBI for the latest issue)

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Do you exist if no one can see you?

I am on my third and last 18 hour day of three consecutive 18 hour days bracketed by two 14 hours days.
I am doing fine. Last night, right before the Kung Fu class was supposed to begin, I ran around madly to clean up and vacuum. I vacuumed vigorously for 5 minutes before I noticed the cat was sitting there staring at me.

That struck me as odd. The Mad Kitten hates the vacuum cleaner and takes off like a bat out of hell when ever I vacuum. And here she was, in the same room while I had been vacuuming away for 5 minutes. Perhaps we had turned a corner.

Perhaps I had forgotten to turn on the vacuum cleaner. Turns out, the face of judgment was again her wonder at how I manage to survive in the world and have all the treats. I had been madly vacuuming with a vacuum I forgot to turn on. Three 18 hour days, two 14 hour days - I am doing fine.

I am running such a horrific schedule this week because things are going so well. Except for the fact that all the make up classes and workshops from cancelled nights due to snow have tumbled into this week, plus a new one started. Plus the deadlines for the papers and articles about the work at Oasis have arrived (one down and one to go, will pass on links to the journals in March). Plus the fact that we got a 2013 best of Providence for Martial Arts award and people are starting to want to come - this week -right now. Plus the fact that as the world turns, one of the things I do at Oasis has taken on a life of its own and become a business selling to the public with the profit supporting one of the programs there (wellnessvapors.com). All of this has happened and suddenly rushed into one week - and I am doing fine. I can vacuum with my mind, its a new super power.

The question I posed to the new session of my workshop, Writing Your Self Into Life, was do you exist if no one can see you? But before you answer that, and before they could - we started to talk about the nature of vision. It is said that all animals have eyes that have evolved to help them survive. The King Fisher cannot see reflections on water, the better to spot the fish beneath it needs to survive. Nocturnal animals have better night vision because...well...they are nocturnal. Humans, the great us, the we - are unusual in that we are functionally blind. In fact, our wonder brains are so into eliminating unnecessary stimulus that we not only can't see our own noses, but we don't really know what we look like. Every time we look into the mirror, we are seeing a riot of memory, experience and hope - and rarely our face. The same is true when we look at someone else.

Now think about what this means when we look at another person. Think also what it means to how we see or perceive anything. There has been a lot in the press lately about how lazy our brains our, they jump to conclusions because they don't think paying attention to detail is important. In short, to be present and to see yourself - let alone anyone around you, takes diligence and work. Lots of work. It is not a skill can you acquire and have for life. It must be practiced every second you wish to be present.

But how important is it really to be present? I have talked a little about the necessity of delusion for preserving mental and spiritual health. If we saw the reality of life all the time, we would not survive. We are not so much driven to survive, as driven to imagine. And our vision has conveniently evolved to allow us to see in this way.

But what type of animal lives by imagination?
It is just a puzzle. Just a question.
Do you exist if no one can see you? Can you exist if you cannot even describe yourself?

The first session of the workshop focuses on how we have to have evidence outside of ourselves to prove that we are here, and who we are. Our self lies in our external details. This is also how we communicate with others. How we dress, the cars we drive, the way we walk, the way our houses look - are all mirrors to show us we are they. The people we fall in love with - mirrors to reflect our existence and who we believe we are.

What is beneath? What is there when take the external away?

That is a question that can't be answered, why? Because without our reflections - we would cease to exist.

A wise man once said, "You have so much to do, why waste your time on this?"

Oh yes, the first assignment for the workshop is to write a description of the room that is the waiting room to your soul - using only the details of what is and is not there to describe your soul.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Are compassion and love compatible?

I don't have an answer to that question, but I was recently challenged with it by my teachers. It is something that, as I talk about it, meditate on it and engage in all sorts of Buddhist froufrah about figuring out how -to -not-answer-questions- that -have -no- answer -but- using -the -process- to-gain-a-deeper-understanding-of -what -is-really-involved-in-the-question kind of hobbies Buddhist find funner than say...watching the latest episode of Orange is the New Black... starting some very interesting and thoughtful dialogues around me. I am grateful to have been tasked with this hua tuo, because it is bringing life into focus swiftly.

With a hua tuo, a question is asked that the person seeks not to answer, but to understand its full nature and the fullness of the nature of its parts. Classic examples are "Who is chanting the Buddha's name?" or "Who is dragging this corpse around?" They are not reccomended for novices as they require a degree of insight and then practical training that can be daunting and what will happen is the novice will declare they have an answer and there is nothing more to think about. In a nutshell, good questions lead to a deeper understanding of the transient nature of life and how each of us requires delusion to survive. It is the revelation of the delusion one seeks, knowing that all that can lie underneath is yet more delusions.

So what you do, let me correct that, let me tell you how I am approaching this one. I wrote the question down on a piece of paper and I sealed it in an envelope. There are lots of qualifiers about the question and how things should be defined etc and so forth but none of that gets written down because it isn't important and they aren't true. When we say words like "compassion" or "love" they have no meaning because they have so many possible meanings. To understand the fulllness of the questions you must be able to sit with all the levels and possible definitions of each word. This is something western philosophers run from because without a declared boundary and meaning; theories and bias just don't work. The hua tao is a means of teaching one to reach a space beyond understanding and witout definition because all definitions are just made up to suit the moment, era, and so forth anyway.

I wrote a date on the envelope that is 28 days from the day I sealed it. I propped it in a prominent place where I must always see the envelope and date. For the next 28 days, every day for one hour, I am engaged in performing 14 intensive exercises - including situps and pull ups - its not mystical, its about physical discipline. I am working to correct my diet and drink more water. I follow my exercises by a period of seated meditation in which I watch the finches and mindfully focus on my breathing and...the finches.. As I move throughout my day, I do readings from several sutras and texts.

I never think about the question directly. I don't worry it like a dog does a bone or sit and think it through. If you have been around the meditation world much you know that thinking is the first sign that things are going off track. You can justify anything. Confirmation bias rules and the brain would really really prefer to go onto the next shiny thing so it will skip details. I don't sit down and logically process it, I just keep it in the forfront of my awareness and in doing so, am becoming more aware of so many other things beyond the consideration of myself. I don't have a series of related readings to pursue because confirmation bias means I wouldn't see the whole text anyway. I am just returning to some core sutras, mostly the diamond sutra. I do not know what I will find on the 28th day when I open up that envelope because the other part of it all is that when I wrote down the question, I also write down what I really wish the answer was and what I most fear the answer will be. You do this understanding there is no answer to this question, but you are acknowledging the rules of surety you have written inside you that truly color your perception.

To work a hua tuo is life changing on many levels. Frankly, it is a pain in the ass and annoying. It interferes with plans, casts everything into question and makes you feel like there is just the slightest veil between you and the rest of the world.  It is also the most wonderful and calming thing to do. Even in the depths of the processs, there is this beautiful sensation of peace and placement that is just....amazing. Oh and one other thing, one of the reasons that the practice is reserved for advanced students is there is magic involved - the kind of magic that is noticable and unnerving to people around you but that is a powerful reminder that we know not where we are. Magic that is to be noticed but not given more weight than a passing cloud.

The mad kitten had an absolute nuclear meltdown the other day. Screaming, biting, kicking, attacking me, attacking the fish tank (that she rarely even acknowledges), pushing things over, biting cords. I have never seen anything like it. She would run from thing to thing misbehaving and then run to the food bin and slap it like she normally does when she wants a treat. I turned everything off and just lay down on the floor after putting up with this for 45 minutes and she ran over and curled into me and passed right out.

So I cancelled all my appointments, got a kitty wheat grass salad plant for her and spent almost all weekend with the computers off and righting her world. Not only have the finches arrived and people shifted from fawning over her to barely notcing her in the glare of finch cuteness but I have been so busy I can barely breathe. I haven't played with her in almost two weeks and she finally had it.

You can't always do what you want to do or live the way you ideally want to live, but you can choose to take time out and put back to the rights something that suffered and then work harder to not let that happen again.

Monday, February 17, 2014

How to make a profit and succeed in life

The past week has been one of great contemplation about how to make a profit and what constitutes success, which is amazing because it seems like I didn’t have time to breathe. We had two rounds of snow, I had six emergencies, several surprise deadlines and the little ass was in high gear. A bird person suggested that I get more toys of the foraging type and rotate them around the cage to keep the little sh*t busy. The finch cage now looks like a carnival.

you get the idea

The good news is that not only did he calm down, but the shyer ones started to come out more and forage around on these bizarre little perches covered in festive paper and little bits of string. The cat has taken to sleeping on her back beneath the cage, which is a level of cat language I can’t even guess the meaning of. The thing that worries me is that while shopping for anti-bullying devices for finches, I came across Clyde. Clyde is a sunburst Conure who is “shy, but curious and friendly.” I spent some time with Clyde and briefly fantasized about justifying adding Clyde to the household when I pulled myself up short and asked, “Hell is with this bird thing?”

The fish are business. I run a Zen center and they are calming. I have always loved dogs and cats, cats slightly more although the mad kitten has been giving that preference a run for its money for years. Much as I love dogs, they are very similar to having a child and having both raised a child and had a dog for over 12 years; I think I am done with that. Living with a cat is like living with a little alien. Dogs know you are not a dog. Cats can’t tell the difference and just think you are stupid as all get out. But birds? The bird thing has been growing over the past few years and has hit full on in recent months (witness the finches). Now I look at a bird like Clyde and my first thought is – yes.

I looked up the general meaning of birds and was surprised to find out that the association with freedom and so on is minimal. They are considered to embody the characteristics of the divine and to represent rebirth, re-newed life and hope for the future. Now, my growing bird fetish begins to make sense. They are also supposed to be messengers from what it is that cannot be seen.

Clyde knows
So I am living with a pocket full of futures and trying to live up to it. In the past week, much of my work and discussion has revolved around:
·         Misanthropy
·         Compassion
·         Love
·         Whether or not compassion and love are compatible
·         The importance of meaningful work
·         The misperception of balance in modern life as meaning one does not participate in meaningful work when one has time to devote to it

·         How one defines success
·         How one creates a profit that is compatible with the idea of meaningful work

It is interesting to me to watch two opposites pull at each other in what people are looking for in relationships – they want someone with a passion, but prefer someone who is not passionate about their passion. Somehow, the notion of relaxation has evolved into a state of apathy and passivity. When you consider that activity and mental engagement create healthier states of mind and body; it makes one wonder where the idea of “doing nothing” being rejuvenating came from.

Many of the people who come to me for help in trying to change their lives have habits that only appear at night and on the weekends. It is easy to spot that these are times that in the name of relaxation and balance they engage in intensely passive and boring behaviors. The statement of “boring” is not judgmental; it is based in a certain fact about our brain. If our brain can process 25,000 words (written or spoken) a minute and we read about 300 a minute or speak about 150 words a minute; watching TV or a movie is going to bore the bejeesus out of you without you realizing it. It is why reading is a much more engaging pastime because your brain can be busy taking in words, building full images and making connections to memory, sounds and smell while also applying what you are reading about to other issues. It is also why walking in mostly silence with someone can be more rejuvenating and create a greater feeling of intimacy then hanging out and talking non-stop with them. If you are too focused on the conversation, there is no conversation interesting enough to keep your mind occupied. It is why meditative practices can be so centering, by sitting and opening your mind – you let your brain engage itself as much as possible – which feels better than following you around like my cat follows me and wondering how it is possible I have lasted so long given that I just don’t seem to get it.

All of this plays into the idea of how to make a profit based upon what you decide is success. GK Chesterton pointed out that with the dawn of industrialization; the privileged classes began to determine what success was for all. Everyone needed housing. Yes, they do. But what everyone needs is housing that they have claimed as a home. A bedroom, living room, kitchen and bath do not make a home. The sensation that your home equals what you value and matches where you are on your determined path of success is more important to the psyche than a generic box to provide one with shelter. Chesterton warned about trying to equalize notions of success because it would eventual destroy innovation, integrity, accountability and the drive to take responsibility. You can see why he is one of my favorite authors.

In Buddhism, there is a constant reiteration about getting rid of desire and being content with where you are now. Nowhere does it admonish not to move forward and build for the future, but it cautions against seeking success for the sake of success or comfort’s sake. Without meaningful purpose behind the success, it becomes empty and eventually turns on the person in the form of illness, disorder and addiction. In fact, complacency and apathy is seen as an even bigger evil than the pursuit of desire.

Lao Tzu said that a scholar who cherishes the love of comfort is not fit to be deemed a scholar. Therein lies the definition of profit and success. What is the profit for a scholar? Recognition or knowledge? What is the basis for their success? If they strive to be recognized then they are falling into a love of comfort, if recognition comes from effort to gain knowledge and to share it for benefit of others – that is success. What is benefit to others? This is tricky. What is of benefit to others is what is of service to them and that is determined by the other, not the author. The modern world has reversed that order and tries to “help” people by pre-determining what their problem is and what the help should be. This negates the validity of the person, their life and their goals.

Success is defined by many things. Yes, it does include the ability to pay your bills and not worry about food and shelter but it is more defined by the ability to be fully present in life. Profit is that which success provides that allows one to continue to move forward with success. There is no profit and no success in apathy, complacency or passivity. One moment of that can undo months of passionate effort. That is not to say that you have to be full out in one way all the time, but care must be taken to make sure you are not wasting time when you are nourishing and replenishing your resources. Modern people are great time wasters. 

When you waste time, you waste life.
When you waste life, you live with regret.

When you live with regret, you lose the chance to see the future in such shared symbols as a shy bird with large eyes, or a person who has an idea, or the potential represented by someone who comes into your life who doesn’t immediately fit into a slot to define what your relationship will be.

To live without regret is to know that you were fully engaged and that you tried. Having failed or succeeded, you continue to examine your life to learn how to incorporate the experience and knowledge into something new that will benefit you and others as well, should it be what they are looking for.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Art and Lies - finding out what you really do for a living

This past week has left me, on at least three separate occasions, wondering what it is I actually do for a living and how I came to do it. It’s not as simple as it sounds to answer the question “what do you do?” That has been the age-old mark of the difference between the old country and the new, that Americans leap to wanting to know how you earn your money while Europeans meander around your interests first. This is a stereotype that is slowly fading away and leaving behind a new and much more unpleasant taste.

Why is it difficult to know what you do? If you are a fitness instructor, you instruct people in fitness. If you are a financial investment adviser, you advise on finances. If you are a programmer – well you program; and so on. But these aren't really descriptions of what you really do – they are titles of categories within disciplines. A fitness instructor may work only with people engaged in triathlons or other competitions, a financial investment adviser may focus on retirement funds or start-up capital. These are called the specializations of the general category – within the specializations there are skills. One programmer, who only programs in Java, may excel at creating debugging programs -a skill within a specialization.

The term “generalist” is becoming popular again. Sadly, it is being applied by people willy-nilly to those who are little more than specialists or dilettantes. A generalist is someone who has comprehensive knowledge in several unrelated fields of five or more disciplines along with special skills associated with each and can inter-relate the areas of disciplines and skills through critical problem solving that uses a holistic language of contexts to preserve the integrity of the problem without losing awareness of its broader impact. One of the best ways I have heard them described is that no matter where you plunk a generalist down, they will do well and also find a new way of doing things while realizing how to do something better somewhere else totally not related. The term generalist used to be interchangeable with polymath with the polymath just being the generalist on steroids and often hitting genius level in their inventions across several disciplines.

A specialist is someone who has knowledge related to one to five disciplines that are related and has advanced skills in areas of these disciplines. They can do much within their general field and have critical problem solving skills that relate to within that field. They can only apply their skills to other fields by forcing an understanding of the unrelated problem into familiar terms first.

A dilettante is someone who has broad knowledge of many areas but little applicable skill in any (beyond a beginner to intermediate level). They know a lot about many things but can do little in any and lack the capacity for practical invention or critical problem solving.

The confusion that is happening today is that someone (a specialist) who has experience in one to five related areas,  and the skills within their sub-specialties is being called a Generalist.

Here is a list of commonly accepted generalists/polymaths:

Leonardo da Vinci
Thomas Edison
Nikolai Tesla
Benjamin Franklin
GK Chesterton
Paolo Sarpi
Francis Bacon
Ibn al-Haytham
Ibn Sina
Omar Khayam
Hildegard of Bingen
Trotula of Salerno
Maria Gaetana Agnesi

One of the common attributes of a generalist/polymath is they have a highly developed skill and talent within an art form (painting, writing, music etc.). They also tend to excel and work within physical science, chemical science, sociology, psychology, economics, engineering, manufacturing, philosophy and religion all at once while setting poems they wrote to music so people who can’t keep up (and don’t need to) can dance along with them. The other common attribute of a generalist is all of their knowledge results in the production of something. They are often accused of not finishing things (da Vinci) but that stems from their discovery that the idea leads elsewhere before it can be finished. Leaving something undone because you are gaining the skill to do it is much different than dropping an idea or just not finishing what you have started.

Recently, a friend of mine went to see a lecture by someone who billed themselves as a “generalist” and charged quite a bit of money. It became quickly apparent that this person was an “opportunist.”

Is a generalist better than a specialist? No, the world needs both. The generalist can see how disparate things and influences relate and can allow for this understanding to be fluid so they can spot when they do relate and when they cease to relate. For example, it is the generalist who will see that clouds in the sky and seeds in the ground relate, but only when the clouds bring rain and the seeds are in the right temperature and age to grow. From there they invent harvest times and train schedules to coordinate every aspect of the system of economy. It is the specialist who then discovers what depth the seed must be planted and how much water they need to grow best. Without each other, neither can do much.

The dilettante – is not worth much at all except for one thing common to all dilettantes, they tend to be very good at spotting what is new and claiming expertise in things that don't require any work or study at all (think Life Coach). This is essential for the specialist and generalist as it serves to bring in new ideas from random places. Don't get me wrong, life coaches can be very helpful, they are what would be called a best friend if you weren't paying for the right to talk to them.

GK Chesterton warned that the downfall of the Western culture and economy would come when we began to have more specialists than generalists. ‘Begin with a general education,’ he never actually said, ‘so that some may find their specialty and others may be allowed to continue to go broadly into what makes the world work.’ We are rife with specialists now who take advice from dilettantes.

What happened to the generalist?

That is easy, the generalist was killed off with the advent of the business plan and the social integration of the question, “How are you going to make a living doing that?”

It isn't law and regulation that has choked ingenuity and innovation, but the expectation that you can lay out on a piece of paper a surety for investors based upon something that does not exist. It is the investor that has killed the economy, not the government. If you read most regulations carefully there is ample room to invent and get things going, but without the money from an investor, there is little you can do. The investor’s law is that you must prove a return that will benefit them.

I can – as an experienced writer – prove anything to you.
It doesn't mean it is real.

I can find studies to cite and all sorts of statistics, but none of them are anything but statements of convenience. If I have an idea and am presenting it to a potential investor one way and another investor promises more capital only if it does the exact opposite – I can take the studies and statistics and present a different interpretation of them to suit the new person’s  needs.

This is called lying.

But we have evolved into a culture of lies because we have lost our generalist vision. Our Ben Franklins have gone missing. There is no way that one thing can solve anything, or even be the “key” if you really understand how things work in life. Everything is a bit of the puzzle but nothing comes with guarantees. What does happen is a trend. Things will trend towards one result or the other. But that is not a surety for trends most often are rooted in emotional behavior.

This is where art comes in.

In order to control the direction of our trend we have to convince our emotional selves that there is a predictable outcome. Why? Because if we believe we know what to expect, even if it is horrible, we tend not to panic. Not only do we not panic, we spin a fantasy that makes even the most horrible thing a blessing in disguise. We create images and beliefs surrounding things that we want to be one way (and not another) and use them to bolster our bias to make the world work for us. We paint pictures, make movies, write poems, sing songs that support a context in which everything that happens is understood (even if the context is that nothing can be understood) in order to believe that there is one key that will take all the questions and insecurity away and we won’t have to worry about anything anymore.

Therefore we pursue our heavens, nirvanas, pure lands, aliens, angels and self-awareness with a passion that is usually reserved for someone who is starving pursuing food.

We reject any suggestions that what we believe is the way to go may also mean many other things. If what we cling to can also be something else for another, then it has betrayed us (emotional mind).

So how do we get back to a cultural way of thinking that allows for possibilities and recognizes accountability and impact? Where we ever there?

Perhaps the question more important to begin with is what do you do for a living? Figure out what it is you do now for a living and discover what it means about who you are in life. We have who we believe we are, who we would like to be, who we fear being and we spend tons of time and money examining all of those – but rarely do we closely examine the lives we live for their reflection of who we are in the present.

I have almost named one of the little finches. The white one, who I was so concerned about before, is now referred to as “the little ass.” He is a bully and a jackass to the point of ripping feathers out of the others to keep them away from the one treat stick he prefers. I say that, and then the next minute they are all getting along swimmingly.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

One crow for sorrow

There is a children's rhyme that I didn't know until I met a woman in my writer's group for whom it holds a special draw.

"One crow for sorrow,
Two crows for joy,
Three crows a girl,
Four crows a boy,
Five crows are silver,
Six crows are gold,
Seven crows a secret -
never to be told."

It is human nature to seek to see omens and symbolism in events that while maybe not random, are natural and make much more sense than the stories we try to place on them. But it is also a part of developing human nature to assume that whatever happens in the natural world is all about us. I say "developing" because it is a recognized part of human development to first go through a stage where there is no recognized division between you and anything else (ie. they upset me and then got sick so I am the cause of it); to thinking that you are the focus of the Universe (ie. I didn't know what to do and then an eagle flew overhead and I knew it was the right decision); to the the mature outlook in which all is held in balance (ie. I don't know what the f**k just happened but I better sit down and think things through again).

It is too easy to dismiss things that happen as both being completely random, or to equally dismiss them by assigning them a value that we can interpret. That assumes a godlike ability to know the ways and workings of a Universe that has been around far longer than we have and does quite a few things without taking us into account thankyouverymuch.

Do things happen randomly that mean nothing - yes
Do things happen that have deep meaning and purpose - yes
Do things happen coincidentally that serve to illuminate our situations - yes

Do all of the above mean you can predict or understand what something means? No. All of the above should be a reminder that contemplation of your actions and motivations is the only way to know how to handle life.

We are driven by something called the Pollyanna Principle. It is the inability to face ugly or uncomfortable realities for very long. We prefer to see the sunshiny things in life, and if we can't find puppies and ponies, we will settle for the reverse sunshiny quality of meaning and purpose. To think that bad things can happen just because they can and without a deeper meaning or purpose is almost unbearable to endure. 

This can make understanding karma complicated. Karma implies that there is cause and causation. But it doesn't imply that there is cause and effect, that is the common mistake that people make about karma. Things don't happen as retribution or reward for things done or undone in this life or others, things happen because of what was caused to begin, or not begin, because of what you did or did not do. The difference is that one assumes a judgement that places you squarely back into a self-centered worldview full of ego, and the other assumes that things play out. Some you can kind of tell how they are going to go, and some can take eons to develop - and change course as they go and evolve. To live without causing harm then, is to seek to be the cause of that which causes no harm. If you can then define what this will be, you can go to the head of the class and have a bon bon while the rest of us try to catch up.

I am learning much from the finches. They are not at all what I expected them to be like (ohhhh, surprise). 
I have four, not two, and am still not sure how that happened. I also made a spot decision based upon me that is playing out in very interesting ways. Perhaps, these finches will be the greatest teachers of all in my life. I am humbled by what I have already learned.

You see, 
it was a dark and stormy night (it was), but it was warmer than it had been and a radical cold spell was coming so I decided if I was going to get the finches, that was the day to do it. The bus doesn't even come close to the finch place so I walked the mile and a half in. I figured (silly me), get finches and get cab. I played out the whole scenario in my head while walking.

In the store there were about 40 zebra finches jammed in a cage and then two other cages with 4 finches each (plus a ton of parrots and conures). The finches that were separate were beautiful and very high priced. Since this was my first finch foray (forgive me for that) I decided on the $9.99 ones. I told the little old man who fit under my arm pit that I wanted four (still don't know why) and that one of them had to be one of the white ones. I started to watch him catch the birds (shove arm in cage, grab wildly, curse in Portuguese) and said, "I'll leave and come back so you can do this without me watching." I liked the white one because it was so beautiful and so different. When I came back he handed me a tiny box with holes in it and 4 very pissed off finches.

Called for a cab. Called five companies and was told that they "didn't have anything in that area." Which to me was the whole point of a cab, you drive the cab out to get the fare but who am I to argue? So I stuffed the little box in my book bag and walked the 2 and a half miles home, on a cane, in the increasingly cold weather with my headphones in and chants cranked so I wouldn't hear any feathery little death throws. 
To say that they had bonded by the time I got there is a bit of an understatement. It took them about 15 minutes to overcome the shock and discover what a student refers to as "finch nirvana." The 3 foot flight cage full of swings, perches, ladders, treats, nests and toys.

It took me 20 minutes of watching them to realize I had no right to name them. I can tell two of them apart. One is white, one has a band on his leg. They are all male so they all sing (squawk/talk). The three others have the same coloring. En masse they are referred to as "the finches," "the busy bees," or "the little lunatics." Between the four of them they must have a brain the size of a drop of water but they are remarkably busy, attentive, interactive and communicative. The mad kitten is exhausted. Its like finally getting cat cable. She can't reach them (something it took them about a half hour to figure out) but you can tell she dreams big.

As birds of warning, they are meant to teach you about what it takes to keep relationships and community healthy, and again, already I am humbled by the experience of what they reveal to me. They naturally pair off, they are driven to it. I knew already not to get an odd number because they would bully the lone bird. I didn't expect the difficulties the little white one would face. He is paired, sort of, with one of the others that deigns to sit a few inches away when it is time to sleep but otherwise, the white one is pushed off. I felt so bad I was considering going back and getting two more, another white one and another regular. Until I saw that the white one is very aggressive, bullying and perhaps the most confident of the birds. If they are fighting, I now know its because the little white one is chasing one of the others away from the treat dish he has claimed. When I put an absolutely traumatizing new toy in (a crumpled ball of newspaper) the other three flew around like it was the end of the world and it was the white one that calmed down first to go investigate and return order to the cage.

When they don't respond to something new, I have learned, it does not mean they do not like it. They just are momentarily not into it. They don't like human interaction and don't want you to mess with them, but they like to be included and acknowledged.

They are as jealous of the cat as the cat is of them for attention.

They don't like music, but they do like certain pitches of instrument and voice. They love it when I use the bicycle pump (it has become how I say hello). They are mad for the sound of ripping duct tape.

And the group mind experience, that in and of itself is proving to be a revelation about how we work in groups too.

One thing I have also noticed is how they immediately changed my life. I know longer feel driven to go seek a cafe for some social company when working, I would rather stay at the center because they bring a sense to life it in a way that is very different from the cat and fish. They are also transforming the ritual of meditation and the qi gong and kung fu practices. When they give out their group "wheee!" when I ring the meditation bell, it is a reminder that what is within is not nearly as important as what is in the whole world. They love the qi gong that is done with the iron rings. All in all, they are serving as a prevention to taking oneself too seriously and becoming too involved in internal processes and beliefs that really - have no basis in reality.
I find that since they have arrived, I have begun to lose my sense of past and future and my decision making and leadership abilities have become more clearly defined and easier to implement.

Strange that all of this comes from a small group of birds that only like each other sometimes.
But isn't that a fairly accurate description of how community really is?

I recently read a horrific description of a utopian society in which the health of the community would be known by its constant and consistent upbeat and joyous presentation. It made me laugh and think the author needed some finches to serve as peers to correct some very wrong thinking since the lessons of the sutras seemed not to have made a difference. A utopia doesn't mean there is never any discord,  just that it is always resolved so as to not cause harm.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

2014 Whitecage Finchsled Review – 3 beaks up!

The hotly anticipated arrival of the 2014 Whitecage Finchsled has consumers talking about this latest offering in the market for environmentally responsible, alternative energy vehicles. The 2014 Whitecage Finchsled is a personal transportation device designed for short urban distances. Unlike electric scooters, there is no need to recharge frequently and the minimal waste produced by the Whitecage Finchsled is negligible when compared to other vehicles in its class. There are some definite drawbacks for those looking for a more plug-n-play alternate energy vehicle that won’t require a change to their lifestyle and the Whitecage Finchsled isn’t a perfect fit for all. For those whose life the Finchsled quirks fit – it can be an ideal way to escape the fossil fuel trap.

The styling
The 2014 Whitecage Finchsled is  available in an Arctic Ice White with a smooth coat finish that reduces air drag and increases the overall efficiency of the vehicle without sacrificing any of its curb appeal. Seating is ample with optional luggage ladder and swing style activity seats to keep even the most active child entertained on long trips. The view is 360 and there are few blind spots. The Whitecage engineers went with a narrow bar suspension support that spreads the weight of the vehicle across the entire frame size rather than focusing it on a few select stress points that would require the tradition auto pillar construction. The 2014 Whitecage Finch sled is a 6 door model with the 6th door being an inset access door in the larger hatch. This eliminates the need to have to open up the Whitecage wide in order to get out small items. Everything about the 2014 Whitecage Finchsled is designed to maximize efficiency while preserving comfort and ease of maintenance.

The power
The 2014 is powered by a combination 4TZF propulsion system. This system uses cylinders comprised of one self-contained turbo zebra finch with unbanded legs to allow for maximum thermogenic energy transfer and to prevent high pulse rate clogging common to this valve structure. The 4TZFs can operate similar to the variable valve control found on most fossil fuel powered engines, the onboard computer GM system also enables them to function independently and then to band together as one individual to respond to changes in the environment before you are even aware of them. Each 4TZF requires minimal daily maintenance and the entire engine compartment is designed for easy daily care without having to remove the propulsion unites.

The pluses and the minuses
While the 2014 Whitecage Finchsled is a vast improvement over the failed 2013 Emptycorner model. There are still some key issues with the design that may not make it an ideal form of transportation for most. While powerful and responsive, the 4TZF propulsion system can only lift a combined weight of 5 ounces. Given that the Whitecage frame weighs 20lbs empty, this has caused a significant loss in potential transport range. There is also an issue of sustained power, the cylinders can only provide GM coordination for a limited amount of time before the cylinders are distracted by bathtubs, bells or other shiny roadway hazards. The other issue is that while the 4TZFs require little in fuel and leave an imperceptible carbon footprint, they do prefer a consistent temperature above 72 degrees TZFs chirping away and straining at the perch to race, any home feels light airy and capable of roaring off into the sunset and unpredictable adventure.

The verdict
The 2014 Whitecage Finchsled is the alternate fuel vehicle of choice to have if you are so into alternate means of transportation that you really don’t have to go anywhere. The secret to the 4TZF propulsion system isn’t in how fast or far you can go, it’s that fully running – you won’t want to go anywhere at all. This makes it the most fuel efficient vehicle in its class. Good looking, aerodynamic, charming with a built in stereo sound system that makes you sound like you are in a live concert hall plus environmentally responsible – the 2014 Whitecage Finchsled is the urban alternative vehicle to own.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Diamonds are Daisies

I am still finchless. That will be resolved within a few days but it has been surprisingly difficult to find them. I was just at the point of breaking down and getting parakeets - my private student had cancelled for the evening and I knew I would have time then or a short window on Friday to go to the store. I had just made up my mind that the parakeets would have to do and was getting ready to leave when the doorbell rang. It was a man I know who randomly drops by every few months to give me whatever training equipment he has come across in his travels so I invited him in. He saw the empty flight cage and immediately told me of the only place to go in the area to get finches and it just happens to be about a mile away.

I lit a candle before Kwan Yin after he left and said, "You know so much more than me."

this is not a finch
One of the conversations I am having with a sutra student is about the nature of jewels. Big jewels, rare jewels, shining bright and risk your life to wear them down the street jewels. It came up, as we meander through the sutras and exchange our letters and poems, that I wondered if they had ever wondered why - if Buddhism is so about not becoming attached to things etc, that jewels feature so prominently in the descriptions of the Pure Land.
Not just prominently but they drip from the trees, form the cobble stones on the streets, fill the treasure houses and one Buddha, Maitreya, is attended by a finance minister that whenever he gives advice it has no words because he opens his mouth and floods of jewels fall out. The curious thing that is mentioned in several of the sutras but only in passing, is that when people come to visit the pure land - people like you and me who are lifetimes away from being present in one all the time - people like you and me fall to our knees at the sight of these store houses and weep with grief.
I asked my student why they thought this was, and why jewels were such an important metaphor and symbol in the sutras. They are still working on the possible reasons, so I won't make this post a spoiler, but I will share how far they have come.
The first few rounds were all about how the jewels represent the perfection of the dhamma, of self, of purity, of enlightenment and the answer was - simpler. Find the simpler answer. Jewels may be a metaphor for all those things but that is what is piled on later because they are already present in the story for a reason.
Then they got closer and said, "because they represent value because they are so rare."
And they got this question in response, "Are they really that rare?"
"No, its more how we set up and control their value. But some of them are limited in how many there are so that makes them rare."
"Really? Why are there so few?"
"Because the natural process that makes them takes so long."
"By whose calender are you measuring time?"
"Oh.......oh wow."

This is also not a finch

Fortunately, in my online browsing for finch info I have found videos of them that let me hear how they sound and see how they move. It is really interesting how different types of finches are of no interest to me and some very much are. I love to watch Zebra finches, but hearing a European Society Finch moves me. I loved the look of the Owl Finch but fortunately, the Mad Kitten was in my lap when I played a video of them and heard their song. She was immediately up and running around in a tizzy. Their song would have driven us both crazies.

Owl finches mew like kittens.