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.