Archive | February, 2013

More Microscopes!

28 Feb

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In 1665, the English physicist Robert Hooke looked at a piece of cork through a microscope lens. He noticed some strange shapes which looked like little “prison cells.” Robert Hooke believed that these cells served as containers for the “noble juices” or “fibrous threads” of the once-living cork tree. He published his discovery in a book Micrographia, the first book describing observations made through a microscope. However, for the next 174 years naturalists debated the existence of cells until Theodor Schwann and Matthias Jakob Schleiden collected all of the observations and unified the field in the conclusion that “cells” did indeed exist.

It is not surprising that Hooke’s discovery of cells sparked such a violent reaction from the scientific community. After all, without the use of a microscope, which had just been invented, other people had no way of verifying Hooke’s observations. They called him “crazy” and a “liar” and given that they had no direct experience of looking through a lens and seeing little structures, we can understand their skepticism. And yet, you could give a microscope and a slide to an amateur and he could see right away that there was something there.

As important an invention as the microscope was, the true break through came thousands of years earlier with the invention of the scientific method itself. It is through this simple process that we determine truth. It goes something like this:

1) Ask a question

2) Formulate a hypothesis

3) Conduct an experiment (using the proper tools)

4) Come to a conclusion

5) Verify that conclusion with a community of other scientists

The process is supremely logical, eliminating as much of our bias as possible to get at the truth. I’d like to suggest that the same process can be applied (at least metaphorically) to meditative or contemplative traditions. It is a bold claim, but one that can be easily falsified. My argument goes like this; For thousands of years the great contemplative traditions have echoed the same basic message. “The world that we see is one of suffering. If we quiet ourselves and listen to the present moment, we realize that the world we see is not the only world. Behind everything that exists, there is a fundamental essence and we can experience this essence directly. When we experience this way of being we no longer experience suffering.”

Of course, this is a horrible generalization and it certainly does not include the more conservative interpretations (particularly in the West), but mystics from all traditions seem to echo a similar message (albeit with their own regional flavor). And just as the scientific community doubted the existence of the cell, collectively we have been debating that there is a reality beneath the world of thought/mind. I’d like to suggest that the argument hinges upon nothing more than a lack of microscopes.

The practice of meditation or yoga or any other variation of mindfulness practice which focuses one upon the present moment is a tool through which you must have to verify the claims. Unfortunately, it seems that for most people we must practice for years and years before we ever get a glimpse of what the mystics and monks have been writing about. Without that commitment, one will likely never have that direct experience, and without the direct experience, one will likely never believe that it exists.

So, the world will continue to be skeptical and assume that phrases like “formlessness,” “presence,” “awareness,” “awakening,” “enlightenment,” “essence,” “god,” “being,” etc. are all just lies made up by people who are trying to sell you something. However, the community of practitioners, which stretches across oceans of time and space, seem to have some agreement. In fact many schools of Buddhism focuses on the training and development of students by having masters validate the insights of their students (like a chemistry teacher grading a student’s science project).

So, if you really want to test the hypothesis that there is something deeper than ego/mind at work, then you need the right equipment to make your own observations. Don’t take anything I say at face value. Challenge it. Be skeptical. But if you are not willing to look through the microscope at the little things moving around inside yourself, then are you really in a position to say they don’t exist?

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Radical Acceptance

25 Feb

I just got back from the BOLD Academy in San Francisco and I came away from that experience with a renewed appreciation for the personal change process. I’ve tried to capture that insight below. First of all, what I’m trying to describe is a little nuanced (but infinitely practical) so if it doesn’t make sense, then feel free to blame the messenger. Second, it’s equally likely that you’ll get it and won’t agree with it. That’s fine too. Please let me know what you’re thinking in the comments below. I’d like my ideas to most fully represent the truth and we all have important pieces of it.

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The BOLD house vibrated with energy, but underneath that energy was a community of radical acceptance and support.

I’m ambitious. And if you’re like me then you know that setting and achieving goals is one of the most pleasurable feelings in the world. I love the challenge of pushing myself beyond my limits, failing, and getting up again. And again. And again. This type of grit got me through my tough times and I certainly wouldn’t have succeeded if I didn’t have a compelling purpose pulling me forward. But recently I’ve realized the limitations of this way of thinking. I’ve spent so much time being pulled forward by purpose and trying to overcome obstacles that I’ve failed to notice something else. The world was no longer the same. Change happens so radically today that my dream job may be obsolete by the time I even start a two-year plan to get it. Careers, businesses, and even entire markets are created and destroyed from month to month. So, I began to realize that I needed a new way of doing things. I think the problem is simply that my ego-driven mindset restricts me from making necessary adjustments to an ever-changing reality. I simply don’t know when a danger sign is just self-doubt (and I should push through it) or when it signals that I need to make an actual change in our approach. So, how do you know the difference?

Well, I have a guess. I think the method for knowing the difference is intuitive rather than intellectual. It is something I’m calling radical acceptance and the idea is pretty simple. If you are resisting your own thoughts or feelings then you are not acknowledging reality and the only way to stop compulsive resistance is start accepting – everything. The reason it’s called “radical” acceptance is because it accepts everything…including resistance itself. Confused? I was too. Here is an story of how this shows up.

A friend and I had just finished a yoga class together and a few minutes later I found her crying. She said that during the mindfulness practice, she finally became aware of all of the negative self talk in her head. The voices that told her she wasn’t good enough. The voices that said she needed to try harder. Her practice had opened up new insight, but as she told me this amazing revelation she became increasingly upset. “I just can’t believe how much of my time I’ve wasted,” she said. “These negative voices in my head have been holding me back this whole time. They tell me that I’m not good enough and I can’t believe that I listened to them.” As she embellished how her negative self talk had been such an awful thing and how she needed to get rid of it. I said, “that’s an amazing insight, but be careful that you don’t beat yourself up for beating yourself up.” She paused and smiled.

My point was that your ego will adapt to whatever thing you fear. If you fear being poor then it will make you feel bad for not making enough money. If you fear being selfish then it will make you feel bad for buying designer shoes. If you fear being superficial then it will make you feel bad for skipping yoga class. Resistance will always tell you that you are not centered enough or not being generous enough or not being spiritual enough. Know that it is all just your ego using resistance against you. And just like you cannot fight darkness with darkness, you cannot fight resistance with resistance. And underneath all of the surface level problems you are facing, the real problem is resistance itself.

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You cannot fight darkness with darkness.

So, radical acceptance is deeper than just awareness. My yoga friend was aware of the negative self talk, but she had not yet accepted it. She was using negative self talk to keep herself from using negative self talk. It is silly, but also tragic. We instinctively move towards happy feelings and move away from negative feelings. We rarely stop and accept them as they are. Radical acceptance is such an effective approach because it isn’t about moving towards or away. It isn’t about compulsive action at all. When you accept everything as it is without an agenda then your actions will be aligned. When your actions are aligned things will change organically. It’s a complete paradigm shift.

Unconditional acceptance as a means for change is a radical notion, but one that ultimately frees us to walk confidently through the fog of attachments. It’s a little nuanced, but I think that’s the point. Our ego is fueled by resistance largely because, according to neurologists, the brain’s primary function is to curate reality. It’s primary function is to delete information from your awareness. So, if you practice a form of radical acceptance training (meditation, mindfulness, yoga, etc.) then you can offset your inborn brain/ego/curator/resistance machine that blinds you to what’s really happening. If you don’t, then you’ll be living in black and white (which, since we are radically accepting, isn’t a bad thing…it’s just a thing).

So, be careful with the goal-setting workshops and all of the stories about what you are supposed to want. Start by becoming aware of your thoughts and feeling and start by accepting them. If you don’t want to accept them, then accept that feeling. If that thought makes you feel angry. Accept that feeling. If it makes you feel bored, then accept that feeling. If it makes you hungry, then go make a sandwich. Remember that love must be unconditional or it isn’t love. so if you’re going to really love yourself then you need to accept everything about yourself, every moment. The key point is that even when you don’t want to accept something, you can still accept the feeling of non-acceptance.

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Love is unconditional or it isn’t love.

Again, the ego is fueled by resistance and it will trick you into thinking that you need to DO something to feel love or find peace. Radical acceptance neutralizes this with grace and elegance. You don’t need to do anything to radical accept. It starts the moment you’re ready for it to start and paradoxically, when that happens you’ll find love and peace (and money and whatever else you really needed). The therapist Carl Rogers said it this way, “It seems to me to have value because the curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I change. I believe that I have learned this from my clients as well as within my own experience – that we cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are, until we thoroughly accept what we are. Then change seems to come about almost unnoticed.” (The Carl Rogers Reader, pg. 19)

Radical acceptance as a means for change is about being centered not being pushed or pulled. And we all learned in high school physics that when weight is centered it reduces the object’s moment of inertia making it easier and faster to change direction. If you want to survive the pace of radical change, then you need to center yourself and accept the most current reality. Both in your environment and inside yourself. With complete acceptance of reality you will be free of compulsion. You will be free to act when you need to act. You will be free to rest when you need to rest. Paradoxically, it is only when you radically accept things as they are that you or your organization can respond appropriately to the ever-changing demands of modern life.

In 1906, the South African newspaper Indian Opinion held a competition to define the growing resistance against British rule. Gandhi famously adapted one of the entries – “satyagraha” – to define his vision of social change. We often think about acceptance as a passive act and RADICAL acceptance even more so. But Gandhi never liked the terms “passive resistance” or even “non-violent resistance.” In fact, satyagraha means “insistence on truth.” So, radical acceptance isn’t about change. It is foremost about truth. And yet, magically, it is through accepting truth that we change.   

In Defense of Guilt

22 Feb

If we truly accept who we are, then we accept our full range of emotions. Guilt is an emotion that most of us avoid, but the following excerpt from Susan Cain’s book Quiet suggests that it is an important emotion for developing true empathy.

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The connection between sensitivity and conscience has long been observed. Imagine the following experiment, performed by the developmental psychologist Grazyna Kochanska. A kind woman hands a toy to a toddler, explaining that the child should be very careful because it’s one of the woman’s favorites. The child solemnly nods assent and begins to play with the toy. Soon afterward, it breaks dramatically in two, having been rigged to do so.

The woman looks upset and cries, “Oh my!” Then she waits to see what the child does next.

Some children, it turns out, feel a lot more guilty about their (supposed) transgression than others. They look away, hug themselves, stammer out confessions  hide their faces. And it’s the kids we might call the most sensitive, the most high-reactive, the ones who are likely to be introverts who feel the guiltiest. Being unusually sensitive to all experience, both positive and negative, they seem to feel both the sorrow of the woman whose toy is broken and the anxiety of having done something bad (In case you’re wondering, the woman in the experiments quickly returned to the room with the toy “fixed” and reassurance that the child had done nothing wrong).

In our culture, guilt is a tainted word, but it’s probably one of the building blocks of conscience. The anxiety these highly sensitive toddlers feel upon apparently breaking the toy gives them the motivation to avoid harming someone’s plaything the next time. By age four, according to Kockanska, these same kids are less likely than their peers to cheat or break rules, even when they think they can’t be caught. And by six or seven, they’re more likely to be described by their parents as having high levels of moral traits such as empathy. They also have fewer behavioral problems in general.

“Functional, moderate guilt,” writes Kochanska, “may produce future altruism, personal responsibility, adaptive behavior in school, and harmonious, competent, and pro social relationships with parents, teachers, and friends.” This is especially important set of attributes at a time when a 2010 University of Michigan study shows that college students today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were thirty years ago, with much of the drop having occurred since 2000. (the study’s authors speculate that the decline in empathy is related to the prevalence of social media, reality TV, and “hyper-competitiveness.”)

From: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (pages 140-141)

We tend to resist feeling negative emotions, but resisting reality is  far worse than feeling bad. When we radically accept who we truly are we are able to learn from all of our emotions.

For Fear to be a King

6 Feb

We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
Our statures touch the skies—

The Heroism we recite
Would be a daily thing,
Did not ourselves the Cubits warp
For fear to be a King—

– Emily Dickinson

How Flickr Went from Online Game to Photo-Sharing Giant

5 Feb

The following is an excerpt from the book The Start-up of You by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha.

Flickr is one of the most widely used photo hosting and sharing websites, with an estimated five billion-plus images on its servers. But the company wasn’t started by photography pros. In fact, its founders, Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield (who teamed up with Jason Classon), didn’t even set out to start a photo-sharing service at all.

Their original product, rolled out in 2002, was a multi-player online game called Game Neverending. Most gaming platforms at that time allowed one or at most a few people to play the same game together at the same time. But Caterina and Stewart wanted to create a game that hundreds of people could play at the same time. To this end, the plan was to build something they saw less as a game and more as a “social space designed to facilitate and enable play.” To attract and retain players to this social space, they pumped out social features like groups and instant messaging, including one add-on to the instant messenger application that allowed players to share photographs with one another. As with most features of the game, the photo-sharing add-on was developed very quickly – it only took either weeks from idea to implementation.

When photo sharing was first added to Game Neverending in 2004, it was no big deal – photographs were just another thing players could trade with one another, like the objects they would collect during the course of the game. However, it didn’t take long for the photo-sharing capability to eclipse the game itself in popularity. As this became increasingly apparent to the leadership team, they were faced with a decision: Should they try to expand their new photo-sharing platform while sticking to their long-term plan and continuing to develop Game Neverending, or should they put the game (and its twenty thousand avid users) on hold to devote the majority of their precious resources to photo sharing? They decided to deviate from the original plan and focus exclusively on building the photo application and the photo-sharing community that went along with it. They called it Flickr.

Flickr soon became the photo-sharing service of choice for millions of Internet users. Its social features – tagging and sharing – grew naturally out of the social DNA that defined the original online game, even as they differentiated the service in response to market feedback. In 2005 Yahoo! acquired the company, making it a Web 2.0 poster child. But more than just a Silicon Valley success story, the evolution of Flickr is a case study in smart adapting: its founders were in constant motion early on, tried many things to see what would work, and nimbly shifted their plans based on what they learned.

– Reid Hoffman & Ben Casnocha (The Start-Up of You, Chapter 3, “Plan to Adapt”, pages 52-53)

The Daring Greatly Dude

4 Feb

The following excerpt comes from Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly.

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“As I held the quote in my hand (Roosevelt’s famous speech about daring greatly), I remembered a conversation that I had just had with a guy in his very early twenties. He told me that his parents sent him link to my TED talks and he really liked the idea of Wholeheartedness and daring greatly. When he told me that the talks inspired him to tell the young woman he’s dating for several months that he loved her, I winced and hoped for a happy ending to the story.

No such luck. She told him that she thought he was “awesome” but that she thought they should date other people. When he got back to his apartment after talking to his girlfriend, he told his roommates what had happened. He said, “They were both hunched over their laptops and without looking up one of them was like, ‘What were you thinking, man?'” One of his roommates told him that girls only like guys who are running the other way. He looked at me and said, “I felt pretty stupid at first. For a second I was mad at myself and even a little pissed at you. But then I thought about it and I remembered why I did it. I told my roommates, ‘I was daring greatly, dude.'”

He smiled when he told me, “They stopped typing  looked at me, nodded their heads, and said, ‘Oh. Right on, dude.'”

Daring greatly is not about winning or losing. It’s about courage. In a world where scarcity and shame dominate and feeling afraid has become second nature, vulnerability is subversive. Uncomfortable. It’s even a little dangerous at times. And, without question, putting ourselves out there means there’s a far greater risk of feeling hurt. But as I look back on my own life and what Daring Greatly has meant to me, I can honestly say that nothing is an uncomfortable, dangerous, and hurtful as beleiving that I’m standing on the outside of my life looking in and wondering what it would be like if I had the courage to show up and let myself be see.

So, Mr. Roosevelt…I think you nailed it. There really is “no effort without error and shortcoming” and there really is no triumph without vulnerability. Now when I read that quote, even when I’m feeling kicked around, all I can think is, Right on, dude.”

Brene’ Brown, Daring Greatly, p. 248-249.